Previous month:
January 2012
Next month:
March 2012

Let's Abolish the Verfassungschutz

So, the latest embarrassment for the German domestic spy agency, officially called the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz/BfV), is the revelation that it has been spying on at least 1/3 of the federal parliamentary delegation of Germany's Left Party (Die Linke).

The Left Party was, at one point, the electoral successor to the SED, the offical East Germany party. Of course, with each passing year after reunification, that label is less and less accurate. The Left Party is now an established part of the political landscape. It got 12 percent of the vote (g) in the 2009 federal elections, more than the much better-known Green party, and currently has 76 members of the lower house of the German parliament, the Bundestag. Many of its members are disillusioned former members of the center-left Social Democratic Party. Its political program is left-wing democratic socialism, and it is strident in its critique of the growing gap between rich and poor in Germany and many aspects of German foreign and economic policy.

Yet this party, which enjoys the regular support of about 1 out of 10 Germans and appears routinely in talk shows broadcast on national television, is apparently a danger to the constitutional order. The BfV, which recently earned headlines for failing to stop a neo-Nazi terrorist gang's 10-year killing spree, had to recently admit that it was spying on 1/3 of the Left Party's federal parliamentary delegation. Yes, you heard it right: members of Parliament, elected by the public in free, fair, and open elections, are being spied on by the government itself. The rest of the world finds this pretty odd. Underneath a headline 'Cold War Tactics Against Germany's Left Under Scrutiny', Reuters recently described the controversy:

It had long been an open secret that the government kept close tabs on some of the more hardline Left MPs, but the revelation that no fewer than 27 elected lawmakers from the party - including parliamentary leader Gysi, a deputy speaker of parliament and other moderates - were being watched has led to widespread criticism and scrutiny of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution's (BvF) work.

The news compared unfavorably with the failure of the BvF and other agencies to combat right-wing violence - in particular a 10-year anti-immigrant murder spree by a small neo-Nazi cell that police stumbled across last November in Zwickau in east Germany.

Centre-right and centre-left lawmakers are now questioning the priorities of the security services and asking whether leftist MPs like Gysi pose such a threat to public order that federal agents should be assigned keep watch on them full-time.

The revelations have created a rare wave of solidarity for a party that in the west is ignored or reviled as extremist.

Now, the BfV claims that it has only been monitoring the public statements of the Left party MPs. But even supposing we believe them -- and there doesn't seem to be any way to independently verify this claim -- what is the point of that? After all, Germany is fairly crawling with people who are rather skilled at listening to and writing down what politicians say in public. They are called 'journalists'.

The original justification for the BfV was reasonable: after the Beer Hall Putsch, Adolf Hitler used largely legal means (propaganda, effective organization, elections) to undermine and then overthrow the German constitutional order. It couldn't be ruled out that the next threat to German liberty could also arise from what seemed like 'ordinary' politics. By the time you realize that party or politician actually doesn't give a fig about democracy, it might be too late to stop him. The BfV was considered a part of Germany's post-war ideology of 'militant democracy' -- democracy that had its own built-in immune system to protect it from threats within.

Now, over the years, the BfV has suffered many hits to its representation -- many senior members were former Nazis in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and one of the former heads of the agency, Hubert Schrübbers, was forced to resign in 1972 after his dubious history as a prosecutor during National Socialism came to light -- enforcing Nazi laws, he sent Jews and leftists to concentration camps from which many never returned. Yes, you read that right -- during the 1950s and 1960s, the organization responsible for protecting Germany's democratic constitution was home to dozens, if not hundreds, of former Nazis. It should come as no surprise, then that the agency has been repeatedly accused of bias against left-wing groups and either intentionally or negligently failing to effectively monitor right-wing dangers.

But let's leave that to one side for now. Even assuming the BfV were run perfectly, I think it's simply outlived its usefulness. A couple of reasons:

  1. There is no powerful conspiracy afoot to destroy German democracy now, and there won't be in the foreseable future.
  2. Even if there were, contemporary German political culture is more than strong enough to resist it. There is just no possible way to imagine a 'threat from within' prevailing in Germany. Journalists would report on it, and the various government institutions for dealing with such threats (prosecutors, police, conventional intelligence agencies) are quite capable of responding. Plenty of other countries get along without a BfV.
  3. In a modern liberal democracy, there is no justification for a government routinely monitoring the political and religious choices of its citizens through domestic spying. The function of the BfV is essentially illiberal. Perhaps this was necessary during a volatile transitional period, such as immediately after World War II, but that period is long over.
  4. The state should punish citizens for what they do, not what they think. It's regrettable that there are neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists in Germany, but their mere existence threatens nobody. If they translate their ideology into actual criminal acts (violence, extortion, intimidation), then they should be severely punished. But spying on them and targeting them merely for having unwholesome views simply makes them into martyrs for freedom of expression.
  5. The BfV has funneled millions of euros in bribes and payoffs to the very groups it is spying on, which they then used to print right-wing propaganda and perhaps do even nastier things. How is that a sensible use of taxpayer money?
  6. The agency is a solution looking for a problem. By far the best evidence that the BfV has outlasted its usefulness is provided by the agency itself. Its report (English summary here as pdf) consists mostly of reporting controversial things some politician said, often from existing public press reports. If there are truly no more pressing dangers to German democracy than openly elected members of a political party (Die Linke or the NPD) or an odd quasi-religion (Scientology), then there are no pressing dangers to German democracy, period.
  7. The focus of the BfV is all wrong. The mission of the BfV requires it to focus on political extremism as a source of danger. But as in most all modern societies, the numbers of genuine political extremists in Germany are tiny, and the vast majority of them limit their activity to writing long screeds in the Internet or asking rambling questions at local council meetings.
  8. The evidence shows that larger, more mainstream organizations pose much more danger to the average German citizen. How about, say, the Catholic Church? Members of that organization were responsible for raping thousands of children over a period of decades. One single priest just pled guilty to a mind-breaking 280 counts (g) of abuse. A thought experiment: what if the BfV had spent just half the time it spends monitoring the handful of Scientologists in Germany instead working to uncover abusive priests? How many crimes and tragedies and broken lives could have been averted? Oh, and it might be worth mentioning that the Catholic Church is (1) itself not a democracy, (2) practices various forms of discrimination, and (3) routinely attempts to influence German politics. (My point is not to single out the Catholic Church, but to argue that focusing so muich attention on dangers from political extremism and fringe religions is misguided and wastes scarce resources.)
  9. Finally, as this article shows, the BfV is probably as likely to harm Germany's reputation abroad as help it. Of course, only a tiny handful of non-Germans knows the BfV exists, but still, for every one of them who says 'Oh, I'm glad the Germans are trying to make sure their country doesn't get hijacked by lunatics again' there is (at least) one who says: 'Why exactly is Germany spying on its own citizens? Are the problems there that bad?' and another one who says: 'How come all this expensive domestic spying didn't uncover the neo-Nazi terror gang? Why couldn't the BfV prevent, or find all the people responsible for, the worst terror attack in post-war German history, the extreme-right 1980 Oktoberfest bombing'?

Now, just to make a few points clear. I'm anticipating a lot of comments that point to this or that outrageous claim or questionable practice from the NPD, Die Linke, or some Scientology spox. ('Lots of Die Linke say they're Communists!' 'Scientology brainwashes people with pseudo-science!'). But that's beside the point. The main purpose of the BfV is (or at least is supposed to be) to counter threats to the 'free democratic order' (g) of Germany. Merely having communist sympathies or taking money from people seeking spiritual enlightenment doesn't threaten the very foundations of society. Exposing crank religions or outing unsavory political extremists is a job for the press, not government spies.

Also, I'm not saying that extremist political violence is not a problem or that there are no domestic dangers to German security. Threats exist -- but there are also agencies and institutions whose purpose is to deal with these threats. Most advanced countries preserve order without an agency like the BfV, and I think it's time Germany joined their ranks.


The Stove Premium

Free Exchange thinks German women should work harder outside the home:

Another interesting aspect of the German economy, and one of its major weaknesses, is often overlooked (though not by Matthew Yglesias)—low participation of (married) women and mothers in the (paid) labour force. There are two economic reasons for this shortfall: taxes and child care.

Germany raises almost 65% of revenues (including social security contributions) through taxes on labour, according to the report, compared to 52% in other OECD countries. The OECD suggests that high taxes on labour might even hinder immigration among highly skilled workers. Henrik Kleven, Camille Landais and Emmanuel Saez recently confirmed this dynamic, in different contexts, in two very interesting papers.

On top of high tax rates, married couples are taxed jointly. In essence, this means that the secondary earner, which is more often than not the wife, faces higher tax rates and has no (additional) personal tax allowance. What’s more, a non-working spouse is covered by the other’s public health insurance in Germany, providing a further disincentive to full-time employment. With the centre-right CDU party in government, however, it is politically very difficult to remove or at least lower these disincentives.

Regarding children, Germany is not stingy. It spends more than the OECD average on policies supporting children, according to a 2009 study. But most of it is spent on direct financial support to parents, and not on child care to enable parents to work full-time. Generous support also hasn’t prevented Germany from having an embarrassingly high child poverty rate (which is nonetheless much lower than America's).

...[I]ncreased efforts to provide easier access to affordable child care have prompted some conservative politicians to demand what the press has termed a “cooker premium”: to pay mothers (or fathers) a compensation if they are not using public child care, but would rather stay at home. This premium, which works as a disincentive or an implicit tax on labour, is scheduled to come into force in 2013 as well (though within the governing coalition there is still plenty of argument the rule).

Hmm, I'd call it the 'stove premium', but that may be an Americanism. To be fair, Free Exchange limits itself to 'economic' reasons for German womens' relatively low labor participation rate. But let's not forget cultural factors: plenty of German women believe that it's a good thing to spend lots of time with their children, and are willing to sacrifice career advancement and extra earnings to do that. What if they're right?


Now is the Time on Sprockets When We Experience Communicative Socialisation

The very German-looking Philip Oltermann (the glasses!) asks whether Germans just don't get social media because they, er, don't get communication in general:

When news magazine Focus announced this week that Germans were finally cottoning on to Twitter – the site reaching a record 3.5 million users – it was met with the digital equivalent of a shrug. One blogger suggested that Germans just don't know how to deal with social media:

"What they fundamentally do not see and get is the obvious, namely that Social Media is about communication. Communication/conversation is a dark hole in German culture. For Germans, talking first and foremost means conveying information. Conversation as a bonding agent in any form of interpersonal encounter is literally a non-starter in Germany. (If you've ever been to an awkward German office party where people have no problem with facing one another without saying a word for, oooh half an hour, you'll know what I mean.)"

Most Germans will recognise at least a grain of truth in that. Even back in the late 19th century, the sociologist Friedrich Tönnies wrote in despair about the German inability to get its head around the concept of an open and interactive Gesellschaft or society – tight-knit, closed-off Gemeinschaften or communities was apparently all they could do. Few young Germans still keep up the Stammtisch tradition, though small talk can still be a struggle. I recently attended a German conference in which the last item on the programme was billed as Kommunikatives Beisammensein, "communicative socialisation". Or, as people might call it in Britain, "going to the pub".

The rest of the article tries to add some caveats to the stereotype, in my view not very convincingly. Germans are just plain much more reticent and cautious about sharing information than Anglo-Saxons. Again, as with all national traits, this is a matter of averages and bell curves. The chart below, which I stole from some website, shows light orange as the standard normal distribution of 'communicativeness' (or 'chattiness') among Anglo-Saxons on the right, and among Germans on the left, in darker orange.

Graph-2-02
No, really, this is exactly what the chart shows! This is Science, people! In any event, if makes my point: although you can always find some German who's chattier than an American, the modal German is much more taciturn than the modal American. I think the Brits would fit just about in the middle, but I'm no expert there.


Quote of the Day: Kierkegaard on Shooting Himself

“I have just now come from a party where I was its life and soul; witticisms streamed from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me, but I went away - yes, the dash should be as long as the radius of the earth’s orbit ————————— and wanted to shoot myself.”

— Soren Kierkegaard (Journal Entry for March, 1836).

Via This isn't Happiness, of course.


Germany: Senseless Regulations, Bloated Bureaucracy?

Greece's absurd regulatory state has gotten a lot of attention lately, including my favorite example of a Greek internet start-up that had to wait 10 months to begin operating because of rules which included requiring the company to submit stool samples from its board members.

But if Greece is a 10 of 10 on the scale of pointless regulations, Germany is at least a 4, I'd say. Jack Ewing of the New York Times kicks the tires of Germany hyperefficiency:

Torsten Emmel may have looked like an innocent florist, a gentle guy with a shaved head and an apron, clipping the stems of fresh freesia. In fact, he was on the verge of breaking the law.

Mr. Emmel’s crime: Setting a placard on the sidewalk outside his shop advertising that he would stay open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. It was, after all, Mother’s Day. But a city inspector noticed the sign and warned Mr. Emmel that it was illegal to stay open so long on a Sunday. Close earlier or be fined, the inspector said.

It was a lesson in how, despite its vaunted industrial sector, the German economy suffers from some of the same overregulation and sclerosis usually associated with much more troubled European countries.

...

Alongside the export juggernaut, though, is another, creakier economy that operates well below its potential and holds back not only Germany but the rest of Europe, some economists say.

This economy is overregulated, intended to insulate insiders from competition and deeply resistant to change. Though Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, often harangues countries like Spain, Italy and Greece to become more competitive, the German economy features some of the same flaws that they do, including protected professions and zoning laws that favor existing businesses over new ones.

“Germany has what I would call a dual economy,” said Andreas Wörgötter, a senior economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris.

“On one side, we have this very dynamic, innovative, competitive and refreshingly unsubsidized export sector,” he said. “On the other side, there is a much less glamorous services sector which depends on barriers to entry, subsidies and not developing and reaching out for new activities.”

...

Germany could add about 10 percent to growth over the next decade if it removed barriers to competition and other inefficiencies, according to the O.E.C.D. Surprisingly, the untapped potential in Germany was almost as high as that in Italy and higher than that in Spain, according to the O.E.C.D., an indication that the German domestic economy is not as superior to its southern neighbors as is often assumed.

Ewing then goes on to undermine his point by noting that Germany has ended dozens of labor and opening-hours restrictions in recent years. (Note Ewing's basic assumption that getting rid of regulations is always a good thing.) Meanwhile, over at Slate, Bjorn Lomborg has a go at German solar energy subsidies:

Germany once prided itself on being the “photovoltaic world champion”, doling out generous subsidies—totaling more than $130 billion, according to research from Germany’s Ruhr University—to citizens to invest in solar energy. But now the German government is vowing to cut the subsidies sooner than planned and to phase out support over the next five years. What went wrong?

Subsidizing green technology is affordable only if it is done in tiny, tokenistic amounts. Using the government’s generous subsidies, Germans installed 7.5 gigawatts of photovoltaic capacity last year, more than double what the government had deemed “acceptable.” It is estimated that this increase alone will lead to a $260 hike in the average consumer’s annual power bill.

According to Der Spiegel, even members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s staff are now describing the policy as a massive money pit. Philipp Rösler, Germany’s minister of economics and technology, has called the spiraling solar subsidies a “threat to the economy.”

 


Democracy or Poverty

Wolfgang Münchau is not only mincing words, he's invoking the ultimate show-stopper, Kant:

When Wolfgang Schäuble proposed that Greece should postpone its elections as a condition for further help, I knew that the game would soon be up. We are at the point where success is no longer compatible with democracy. The German finance minister wants to prevent a “wrong” democratic choice. Similar to this is the suggestion to let the elections go ahead, but to have a grand coalition irrespective of the outcome. The eurozone wants to impose its choice of government on Greece – the eurozone’s first colony.

...These demands fail Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative” – Germany does not will them to be universally adopted. Nor could they be adopted in Germany – they would be unconstitutional. Only recently the German constitutional court ruled that parliament’s sovereignty was absolute, that parliament must not permanently transfer sovereignty to outside institutions and that one parliament must never constrain the freedoms of its successor. The proposals violate the principles of Germany’s own constitution. In short, they are unethical.


Greek 'Rescue' Plan: DOA

Felix Salmon's verdict on the latest Greek 'rescue' package is that it's pretty well useless:

The problem, of course, is that all the [outside financial] observers and “segregated accounts” in the world can’t turn Greece’s economy around when it’s burdened with an overvalued currency and has no ability to implement any kind of stimulus. Quite the opposite: in order to get this deal done, Greece had to find yet another €325 million in “structural expenditure reductions”, and promise a huge amount of front-loaded austerity to boot.

The effect of all this fiscal tightening? Magic growth! A huge amount of heavy lifting, in terms of making the numbers work, is done by the debt sustainability analysis, and specifically the assumptions it makes. Greece is five years into a gruesome recession with the worst effects of austerity yet to hit. But somehow the Eurozone expects that Greece will bounce back to zero real GDP growth in 2013, and positive real GDP growth from 2014 onwards...

Note that the downside, here, still looks astonishingly optimistic: where’s all this economic growth meant to be coming from, in a country suffering from massive wage deflation? And under this pretty upbeat downside scenario, Greece gets nowhere near the required 120% debt-to-GDP level by 2020: instead, it only gets to 159%. And to make things worse for the Eurozone, the report explicitly says that under the terms of this deal, “any new debt will be junior to all existing debt” — in other words, there’s no way at all that Greece is going to be able to borrow on the private markets for the foreseeable future, so long as this plan is in place.

As in all bankruptcies, the person providing new money gets to call the shots. And it’s pretty clear that the Troika is going to have to continue providing new money long through 2020 and beyond. Under the optimistic scenario, Greece’s financing need doesn’t drop below 7% of GDP through 2020. Under the more pessimistic scenario, it’s 8.8%. And here’s the kicker: all of that money is being lent to Greece at very low interest rates of just 210bp over the risk-free rate. Much higher, and Greece’s debt dynamics get even worse. But of course even with well-below-market interest rates, Greece is still never going to pay that money back.

...Oh, and in case you forgot, this whole plan is also contingent on a bunch of things which are outside the Troika’s control, including a successful bond exchange....More to the point, the plan assumes that Greece’s politicians will stick to what they’ve agreed, and start selling off huge chunks of their country’s patrimony while at the same time imposing enormous budget cuts. Needless to say, there is no indication that Greece’s politicians are willing or able to do this, nor that Greece’s population will put up with such a thing. It could easily all fall apart within months; the chances of it gliding to success and a 120% debt-to-GDP ratio in 2020 have got to be de minimis.