Daily Rant: The Horrible Problems of German Universities

Dr. James Thompson, who runs a fine blog on cognitive ability and psychological measurement, sent a questionnaire out to various professors asking them to comment on the teaching environment at their universities. He got this response from the (psuedonymous) Prof. Dr. Schweinsteiger, from an unnamed German university. I haven't seen all of the problems he describes, but that is probably because I'm teaching law, which is a world of its own. Anyway, here is Schweini's rant, almost in full:

Even though in Germany education policy is determined by the federal state, Leberwurst University is a fairly typical German university, and its educational policies and standards are similar to most of the many other German universities that I know.

Before I go into the horrors of Leberwurst education standards, first a bit of background, so the reader knows “where I’m coming from”. In my admittedly layman’s view (I am not an expert on education), the central aim of education is that students acquire certain skills and or knowledge which they did not possess before. In order to achieve this goal, two things need to happen. First, students go to an institution (for instance, a university) where they engage in intensive interactions with qualified experts who will teach them the required new skills and knowledge. Also, in order to facilitate the learning process, the students also do home assignments etc., supervised by the teacher. Secondly, in order to ensure that the students actually have acquired the desired skills and knowledge after the educational experience, the students are tested, for instance by taking verbal or written exams, doing home assignments, writing essays, etc. These tests enable the institution to establish the degree to which the student has become skilled and knowledgeable, usually with the help of a ‘grading system’ that quantifies the level of expertise that the student has reached. Testing students serves the purposes of quality control, both at the student level (universities, and presumably, the students themselves, want to know how competent a particular student has become) and at the university level (universities want to know how effective they are at educating students).

You may perhaps be yawning already, but trite as this all may sound, the German higher education policy does not share these assumptions at all. Generally, the aim is not to change students into more competent and knowledgeable people, but rather to give as many members of the population as possible a certified university education. The difference between educating people and giving people a certificate of education is comparable to the difference between a country increasing its GDP on the one hand, and simply printing more money on the other. This rather odd goal is motivated by the noble political ideology of Chancengleichheit (“equal opportunity”), which is also why our students have to pay nothing at all (as in: zero Euros) for the privilege of receiving a university education. At the end of this essay I will explain why and how the German education policy nevertheless manages to severely obstruct equal opportunity.

In Leberwurst University, the simple education strategy outlined above completely and utterly fails, for the following reasons.

First, it is forbidden for teachers to require their students to be present. I do not mean “mentally present” here; I mean, “physically present at the location where the education actually takes place”, e.g., a classroom or a lecture hall. It is forbidden to record the absence or presence of the students, and it is most certainly forbidden to use presence or absence of students as a criterion for grading, or for deciding who ‘passes’ or ‘fails’. This is not only the policy of the management of Leberwurst University (although it is) but it is also official federal state policy. We even got an official letter from the Federal Ministry of Education that told us that we are not allowed to require students’ presence, as this would violate educational law in that it would restrict the students’ Studierfreiheit (“freedom of study”) and even more serious, it would violate constitutional law because it would restrict the students’Handlungsfreiheit (“freedom of action”). So if we as teachers require students to be educated at a certain location, we are illegally restricting them in their personal freedom. The consequences of this policy are disastrous. First of all, a very large percentage of students actually hardly ever show up in their seminars. Usually they drop by once or twice to get a bit of a taste of what’s going on, and that’s about it. For large lectures this is not much of a problem, because if students really believe they can pass the exam without the lectures, that’s their problem (more on this later). But for small and intensive seminars, where texts are discussed, techniques demonstrated, exercises explained and discussed, etc. etc., it is simply not possible to engage in meaningful educational interactions if the majority of the participants in this interaction is physically not present. Also, the few students that do show up occasionally are usually different ones every week, so it is not possible to build on material that has been covered before, forcing the teachers to make little stand-alone sessions without any cumulative coherence whatsoever. Another interesting consequence is that students sometimes enlist in two or three simultaneous courses, reasoning that if they don’t need to be present, they might just as well be absent at three courses at the same time. Finally, student evaluations of teachers become irrelevant and even absurd, if the students filling in forms about what they thought of the quality of the teaching have never even showed up at the actual teaching.

Now some may argue: why not just do a tough exam at the end of the course, and then the students who weren’t there will simply fail. Fail they will, but there are three reasons why this strategy does not work. First, a large majority of courses do not require a grade. For instance, in the BA program I teach, students will have to complete 25 courses (i.e., seminars, lectures etc.). Of these 25 courses, only four require a grade. The other courses require instead something called aktive Teilnahme (AT), “active participation” which is a very Orwellian name because it neither involves activity nor participation. To get AT, the students have to do something at least vaguely related to the content of the course, usually give a short talk about one of the articles they read, or hand in a summary or protocol. But the thing is: we are not allowed to judge (grade) the quality of the work that is handed in; we are only allowed to assess whether they have done it. The important legal criterion here is whether they have “put in some effort” (which the students can always claim to have done, and we can never disprove it). So if their requirements for AT in Wurstology 101 are “hand in an essay about the contemporary pricing policy of German wurst” and the student hands in a text saying only “I never eat wurst because I’m a vegetarian, so I have no idea”, they have formally complied with the request. And then there is literally nothing the teacher can do to stop this student from getting the AT certificate. Even if the student has otherwise never even been present at the course at all, doesn’t even know the name of the teacher, and everyone knows that the student’s knowledge of Wurstology is absolutely zero.

Second, even for those courses where grading is still allowed, you just can’t get away with failing 95 out of a 100 students. The management will sternly tell you that either your standards are too high, or you are a bad teacher, or both. And if you then tell the management: “no, but they just don’t show up when I teach”, the common reply by the management is “well, then your courses are apparently not attractive and student-friendly enough”. Also, failing students often results in legal procedures initiated by the students (which they very often win) and in any case in having more students to deal with in the next semester, because at Leberwurst, students can repeat courses indefinitely, as often as they like. So there are many strong incentives for teachers to give up their academic standards and just pass everyone at some point in time. The management’s pressure to pass students is to a large degree caused by pressure from the federal state government to lower the quota of students who fail to get a degree, so failing 95% of the students, no matter how justified, will lead to all kinds of (usually financial) negative consequences for the university and the faculty.

Which brings us to the next point: grade inflation. The German grade system is numerical with 1 meaning “excellent”, 2 “good”, 3 “satisfactory” and 4 “sufficient”. But giving someone a 2 or worse often results in either suicidal or legal behavior by the students, so the actual realistic margins are between 1 and 2. Even then, students getting a 1.7 often angrily demand an explanation why they didn’t get a 1.0. So when some funding organization once asked us to give them the list of the 5% best students on the basis of grades, we could not comply, because if a massive majority has an average of 1.0, the best 5% are simply not definable. So we were then asked to “intuitively” identify the best 5% of our students, which we can do, of course, but it obviously defeats the purpose of using a grading system. Even more absurd is the grading system of PhD theses. In our neighboring country The Netherlands for instance, the qualification “Cum Laude” is rather rare and indicates an exceptional performance of the PhD candidate. In Germany, the same qualification “Cum Laude” actually means: “dear candidate, please take your thesis and please discretely take the back exit and never show yourself at this university again, because we are extremely disappointed in your thesis”. We now have “Magna Cum Laude” and the highest, “Summa Cum Laude” for the acceptable and the good thesis respectively. At least, that was the case 15 years ago. Now the Summa is becoming the new norm, and it is seen as an “affront” to give someone anything lower than Summa. Interestingly, many German applicants who only have the default “Cum Laude” are undeservedly seen as geniuses in other countries, where this inflation has not taken place.

It is also not allowed at Leberwurst to require students to have successfully completed course A before one can follow some course B. So we cannot require any foreknowledge for any of our courses, except for the first year in which a few elementary courses have to be completed. This makes it very hard, if not impossible, to go deeper into complicated topics, because there are always some students lacking the necessary background, slowing the entire educational process down to a near-halt.

Generally, the students are very powerful at Leberwurst, and most of them are interesting in doing as little as possible while still getting their certificate as fast as possible. Professors are perceived as authoritarian relics from the past whose only elitist goal is to prevent students from getting the degree they deserve as a birthright. Students are fundamentally against any form of testing for which they can fail, and often have the political power to get to a large degree what they want, because the German educators are very reluctant to compare students and judge them qualitatively. The very idea that there are better students and worse students is strongly discouraged in our current educational ideology.

A good illustration of the mentality of the German student at Leberwurst is the following anecdote. A teacher was very annoyed by the fact that her students didn’t read the texts they were supposed to read. So she said: OK, you know what? Go home, read the text, and we’ll discuss the text next week. Instead of feeling ashamed about not having read the text, the students immediately went to the Dean to complain that the teacher was not fulfilling her legally required 9 hours of teaching per week.

The consequences of this type of educational environment are catastrophic. Leberwurst University is getting a very bad name in German industry (as are German universities generally), the students that leave Leberwurst with a certificate have hardly learned anything, and have acquired a very bad working mentality in the process.

Another thing that we can learn from this German educational “experiment” is that education is a contract between teacher and student. If one of these parties does not fulfill their side of the bargain, no education is taking place. Even the best teacher in the world cannot teach students anything if do not show up and invest some effort. Not only is this student-teacher dynamic very detrimental for the students’ acquisition of knowledge and skills, another not unimportant effect is that it really kills any residual didactical motivation in the teachers. And staying motivated is hard enough already for German professors with their legally minimal teaching load of nine hours per week.

As a final remark, the German educational policy seems to be a classic example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. If everyone can get high grades and a certificate without any form of talent and/or hard work, a smart person from a poor socio-economic background cannot distinguish her or himself from a not-so-smart person from a rich family. So by giving everybody effectively the same high grade or qualification, the end result is that the person from a poor background is deprived of the possibility to let his or her qualifications compensate for the cultural disadvantage. In the end, employers who need to select the best people cannot do so on the basis of grades, and will be tempted to look at less relevant aspects such as accent, manners or clothing style, in other words: indicators of social class.


Bleg: German News Coverage of Failures of German Justice

I am working on an op-ed piece and perhaps an article about journalistic coverage of the German criminal justice system which I hope to publish on paper, in German, in some German newspaper.

The subject is going to be what I perceive to be the imbalance in German-language coverage of the American criminal justice system versus the German criminal justice system. That is, German-language newspapers are full of coverage (of widely varying quality, much of it error-filled) about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, American death row inmate X or Z, but rarely cover problems in the German criminal justice system. Before asserting this, I want to try to make sure it's true!

So what I am looking for is articles in the German-language press by Germans which deal with potential justice problems in courts in German-speaking countries including:

(1) wrongful convictions;

(2) racial, ethnic, or religious disparities in conviction rates or sentencing;

(3) allegations of racial or ethnic or religious bias among German prosecutors and professional or lay judges;

(4) interviews with prisoners currently serving prison sentences in Germany who claim that they are completely innocent of the crimes of which they were convicted; and/or

(5) detailed examinations of systemic problems in German criminal justice or prisons, things such as underfunding, outdated regulations, disproportionate penalties, or the use of unreliable evidence.

I'm interested, in particular, in well-researched studies or in-depth reportings, not just stories like 'this lefty activist claims he was convicted only because the judge was a right-winger and we lefty activist journalists of course totally believe him and feel no need to research the allegations any further!!' There's a lot of that about in Germany, and it's generally justly ignored.

Also I'm not super-interested in stories about the RAF, which I consider to be an irrelevant side issue. I'm interested in well-considered stories about why random anonymous criminal Achmet got 4 years in prison for the exact same crime that random anonymous criminal Detlef got 2 years for.

Thanks in advance for any links in comments.


Germans and Registration

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Conor Friedersdorf notes the German privacy paradox:

Any inquiry into privacy in Germany would be incomplete without a look at the West German census of 1987 and the huge backlash against data collection it provoked. Opponents of the census challenged the very right of the West German state to know so much about what went on inside its borders, and argued that the census rules would permit personal information to be shared too widely among state agencies. A nationwide boycott movement went mainstream, a bitter debate about its propriety divided West Germans, and the Green Party made opposition a core issue. Even today, asking Germans about the subject, I noticed several repeating the same talking point: that a pre-WWII census in the Netherlands permitted Nazis to more easily round up Jews and other condemned classes when they invaded. This was intended to illustrate that even information collected with good intentions can be unexpectedly abused.

What a lot of foreigners in Berlin couldn't understand, and that confuses me too, is why the 1987 census, as well as Google Street View, caused such a fuss in the country, yet there seems to me no controversy about a longstanding requirement for everyone to register their address with authorities* when they move to a new city or apartment. Germans don't seem to be bothered by that policy, which would provoke widespread controversy even in some less privacy-conscious nations.

The immediate tu quoque riposte most Germans would think of: 'If Americans are so privacy-conscious that they would reject a registration law or government ID card, why is it they allow private companies such as Facebook, Google Street View, credit-rating agencies, etc. so much power over their lives?' Another thing that shocks Europeans is that there are no protections for your reputation if you become involved with the criminal justice system. Suspects are identified by name and address as soon as they're booked. In fact, as the New York Times recently noted, there are websites whose sole purpose is to collect mugshots (like the one above), publish them online, and charge victims hundreds of dollars to remove them later. Even if all charges against you are later dropped, the fact that you were once arrested can remain public knowledge to anyone, anywhere for the rest of your life. This could never happen to an ordinary citizen in Germany.

But on to the German privacy paradox. Why are Germans so nonchalant about informing the authorities where they live? A few hypotheses:

  1. Path-dependency. It's been going on for all of living memory, so nobody thinks to question it. The U.S. census is similar -- the Constitution has required one every 10 years for all of American history, so everyone except a tiny radical fringe just accepts it.
  2. Neighborhood. Almost all European countries have a similar policy, so Germany would stand out if it didn't keep these records.
  3. Staatsvertrauen. Germans have a high level of trust in their civil servants and public officials, so they simply don't envision that these data will be abused. They are much more concerned about private companies collecting information on them, which explains the controversy when some German local governments considered giving private firms access (g) to registry data. The odd thing, though, is that during the Nazi era and in East Germany the citizen residence registries (as well as the 1933 census) were abused (for instance, registry data was one of the sources for the 'Jew registry' (g) that enabled the Nazis to track down almost all Jewish citizens), but somehow that hasn't tainted residence registries in the German historical consciousness.
  4. Citizens benefit. Germany showers its citizens with cash and benefits. Parents get money for having children, the state subsidizes mortages, there's a meagre but still substantial permanent welfare scheme, etc. Although these benefits are now done mostly by bank transfer, the government still wants your address, since some of the benefits are calculated based on, e.g., how large your apartment is or what the living expenses in your area are.
  5. City planning. Germany is one of the global leaders in urban planning, and many of its cities are some of the best-planned in the world. Having a good base of information about what sort of people live where helps in this.

Those are a few reasons I can think of off the top of my head, but none of these explains why Germans would accept mandatory registration but fear a census. That, I think, is just a partially irrational distinction based on the fact that registration has always been a fact of life, but the census has not. 


The Miseducation of Annette Schavan

Yet another plagiarism scandal is rocking -- well, not really rocking, more like poking -- Germany. This time, with exquisite irony, the victim is the Education Minister of the entire country, Dr. Annette Schavan. She got her doctorate in education in 1980 from the University of Düsseldorf. Someone got a copy of her dissertation, which dealt with the development of a personal conscience, and began looking for unacknowledged quotations and uncited paraphrase of others' ideas. The results can be found on the blog Schavanplag (g), which contains a detailed listing of all the problematic pages.

The Faculty Council of the liberal arts college of the University of Düsseldorf, after lengthy review, voted 12 to 3 to withdraw her doctoral dissertation on grounds of evidence of sustained, intentional plagiarism. They held (g) that Schavan's dissertation contained (my translation): 'more than isolated instances of word-for-word copies of other texts without acknowledgement' and found that '[t]he frequency and the construction of these word-for-word copies, along with the failure to cite relevant literature in footnotes or in the bibliography have convinced the Faculty Council, after reviewing the entire work, that the doctoral candidate systematically and intentionally, throughout the entire dissertation, presented ideas as her own that were, in fact, not.'

Not precisely the sort of thing you want to read about your country's own education minister. But the withdrawing of her Ph.D. is just the beginning: the program she completed in 1980 led directly to a Ph.D without any intervening steps, so once the university withdraws it, she will have no official, earned academic title at all past high school. The final nail in the coffin is her remarks about Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the last conservative politician to have lost his job last year over plagiarizing his doctoral dissertation. Back then, she announced (g) that as someone who had a Ph.D herself and met with many doctoral candidates, she was 'ashamed, and not just privately' about Guttenberg's conduct. Schavan has pledged to challenge the Faculty Council's decision in court, and to stay in office. But Angela Merkel has professed her 'full confidence' in Schavan, which means she's probably doomed.* One German newspaper calculated (g) that any politician who earns Merkel's 'full confidence' has, on average, 18.75 days left in office.

Whenever people ask me to compare Germans and Americans, I first order them to fill me with booze. Once that's done, then I pontificate as follows: 'The average middle-class American is driven about 90% by a desire for more money, and most of these people will come right out and tell you that. A similarly-situated German will be motivated 40% by money, 20% by job security, and 40% by the desire for officially-bestowed, external signs of high social status -- especially involving education or heredity. However, they will only admit the desire for job security, and will half-heartedly deny or rationalize the other motivations'. Perhaps the ultimate status symbol is the doctoral title which, under German law, can be made an official part of your name. The sacred two letters accompany you through life, surrounding you with a diffuse aura of scholarly dignity and good breeding.

Which is often spurious, of course. The social cachet of a doctoral title (which may also entitle you to higher salaries than your co-workers) drives thousands of ambitious young Germans to seek a title. A minority of these students are genuinely intellectually talented and interested in the advancement of human knowledge for its own sake. A majority, in my experience, just wants to find some way, any way, to bolt those two little letters to the front of their name for status/signalling reasons. They may well turn to dubious 'consulting agencies' which work with shady professors (g). One step above this are people who actually write a doctoral dissertation, but do so 'outside' the university system. In the German system only one professor supervises the actual dissertation-writing process, so if you find one who's relatively lax, you don't have to work up much of a sweat to get the title.

From my inbox:

I couldn’t help reading the story on Schavan today and just thinking “reap what you sow, Germany Bildungssystem”. Years of benign neglect to plagiarism, the discouraging of originality, the lack of substantive peer rigor at the higher academic levels and deference to professors who frequently supervise topics they can’t even evaluate the originality of have just resulted in what for Germans must seem like the End of All that is Good and True. Guttenberg was a case of a ‘friendly’ degree offered to someone obviously on his way to a higher political future than the academy, and I think there is a lot of tolerance for that here (and Schadenfreude when it blows up), but Schavan just struck a crippling blow to the whole concept of there being academic merit in this whole absurd title-chasing complex. If the Ministrix of Education loses her degree, that’s as bad as the Surgeon General being found to have obtained his medical degree at the Sweetrose Nursing Academy or the Minister of Consumer Affairs having marketed Vorwerk vacuum cleaners to math club students.

That about sums it up. Schavan is clearly doomed, and her case throws light on a very weak system. The problem is that all the superficial, crappy doctoral dissertations debase the currency. I haven't thought this through, but I envision something like a 2-tier process: you can either work with one professor to write a short, workmanlike survey of a particular area in 18 months-2 years (which doesn't need to be published), or you can opt for a 'real' doctoral dissertation, which must be more substantial, and which will take 3-4 years, and be supervised by a commission of three professors. In fact, this latter option could then replace the 'Habilitation', another German academic institution which may well have outlived its usefulness. I suppose this reform would end up with the German system looking much more like the American system. But comparing the number of plagiarism and/or fake-doctor scandals each system generates, switching to something more like the US system might be just what the doctor ordered (sorry about that!).

Continue reading "The Miseducation of Annette Schavan" »


Keynes as Leftist Radical

DiA looks at something that's interested me about contemporary European politics. Although the center of gravity of European politics is in general far to the left of the USA's, so that Obama would be considered a mainstream European conservative, there is one exception: fiscal austerity. The notion that the government should engage in deficit spending to increase demand during recessions, which is mainstream center-left Keynesianism in the U.S., is now considered so radical in Europe that only far-left parties endorse it:

The idea that cutting the government's budget deficit is a prerequisite for economic growth is dominant in northern European politics, not just on the right, but on all but the farthest reaches of the left too. ...[C]entre-left parties in Germany and the Netherlands believe it's imperative to slash their countries' budget deficits in the face of the worsening European recession.

Take Germany. As Wolfgang Münchau writes in the Financial Times, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) "keeps criticising Angela Merkel’s policies on the eurozone, but ends up supporting whatever policies she drags before the Bundestag."

What is most infuriating is the SPD’s sheer inability to explain in a clear way why the chancellor is wrong. The reason for this inability is that the party has bought into the same panoply of false crisis narratives. It bought into the lie about fiscal profligacy as the cause of the crisis, and the need for austerity to solve it... Whenever the Social Democrats get infected by the need to feel responsible, they end up with the wrong policies. The SPD supported financial deregulation in the late 1990s. The SPD supported fiscal austerity. It supported a constitutional debt brake. If you add it all up, the SPD supports economic policies that have ultimately given rise to the imbalances that have driven the eurozone apart.

This is very similar to the situation in the Netherlands, where the centre-left Labour party has just joined the governing coalition and embraced the doctrine of austerity and deficit-cutting with gusto. During the electoral campaign, Labour nodded imperceptibly towards a Keynesian take on the euro-zone crisis, protesting the EU-mandated deficit limit of 3% of GDP as a senselessly rigid measure that would "cut the economy to pieces". But they then signed on to a governing accord that immediately slashes the deficit by nearly 2% of GDP through tax hikes and budget cuts. Since the new cabinet took office last month, Labour ministers and MPs have been referring constantly to the party's tradition of sober fiscal rectitude going back to the 1940s, to allay any suspicion that they might be softies or pinkos; they ridicule calls for stimulus, and hammer on the moral-hazard dangers of official writedowns or haircuts on Greek debt, lest the Greeks abandon promised reforms and other European debtor nations clamour for the same deal. Labour's acquiescence to austerity policies has held even as the Dutch economy shrank a startling 1.1% in the third quarter. The party confines its leftist impulses mainly to spreading the domestic pain of austerity in a more egalitarian fashion, through progressive taxation and redistribution measures; on euro-zone policies, they've eliminated any daylight between themselves and the centre-right Liberals.

That solidarity bodes well for the stability of the current government and its ability to carry out dramatic reforms. But if you're looking for anyone in the Netherlands' political spectrum who takes a real anti-austerity line, you have to look all the way to the far-left Socialists (as in Germany, where as Mr Münchau writes, the only intellectual opposition to Ms Merkel's economic views comes from "the post-communist left"). Interestingly, it's not that there is no support for neo-Keynesian views among Dutch economists. In fact, many of the senior economists at Dutch banks, and of the academic economists who appear as pundits on Dutch TV, agree that the austerity policies are overly harsh, irrelevant to the crisis, or actively pernicious. Yet this point of view completely fails to penetrate the governing consensus.

The 'governing consensus' strikes again! In a mysterious process, certain ideas rapidly become de rigueur for educated elites, and dissent is not so much quelled as ignored.


In the Year 10000, It's all Up for Grabs Again

Over the weekend I visited friends in Cologne and decided to bike back. I took a leisurely tour through the Zonser Grind, a nature reserve in the form of a fat peninsula into the Rhine. It looks like this from the air:

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It's even nicer up close: the landscape is made up of a broad pebble beach on the wide, slow-moving Rhine, then come grass-covered dunes and rows of poplars and stump willows (Kopfweiden) in which owls, crows, and orioles flit about. It's pretty hard to reach, not only because it's a peninsula but also because the base of the peninsula is taken up mostly by factories, both working and apparently abandoned. You have to endure a lot of industrial grimness before you enter nature. The result is that, even during fine weather like yesterday's, you'll easily be able to find a meadow all to yourself.

Looking for more information about it, I quickly came across the official government portal for nature reserves in Northern Rhine-Westphalia,which lists the legal details (g) concerning the status of the reserve. From this page, we learn that the "digitalized area" of the reserve is 392.4 hectares, while the "official area" is 328.59. We also learn that the designation as a nature reserve will expire in the year 9999.

So visit the Zonser Grind while you can, since you've only got 2,882,405 days before someone obliterates it with an orgasmatron factory.


A Trip to the German Welfare Office

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A friend of mine is between jobs now, so I thought I'd accompany him to the welfare office as he applies for benefits. The office in Düsseldorf is called the Jobcenter (in English, of course), which is supposed to show you it's all about getting people back to work, not subsidizing layabouts.

German documentaries had led me to expect a crowded, loud, chaotic maelstrom of frustrated citizens and exasperated bureaucrats, something like Wiseman's Welfare. No soap: the Job Center is housed in a massive, clean, modern building, with freshly-renovated endless white corridors and comfortable blue fabric seats. I was expecting some urban social flair in the form of quaint posters about child abuse, alcoholism, and workplace safety, but the walls were nearly clean. The employees were quite friendly by German standards. You're issued a small paper ticket with a number on it. A Sachbearbeiter (SB) (specialist) comes and announces the next number, crossing it off a laminated display of 0-100. This seemed rather labor-intensive -- what about those infamous red 'Now Serving' signs you expect in every government office? The clients, as they're called, didn't look particularly down-and-out; they would fit in at any middle-class shopping center. About half of them seemed to be foreign, half looked German. They didn't look angry or despairing, just mildly bored. The wait to sign up for 'new customers', as they were called was about 30 minutes.

My friend got the standard package of benefits: a housing subsidy sufficient to keep you in a small apartment (you get to choose which one, as long as it's not too big), a couple of hundred euros as a (very modest) base benefit, and €5 for every job application you send out -- the expectation is that you should send out at least 10 per month. If you want something extra -- a new suit, vacation -- you have to fill out a special form asking for it. You also sign what's called an 'integration contract' in which you promise to try to find work and they promise to help you. You can just waltz right in there and they sign you up -- only later do they check to see whether you really need benefits. After you sign up for the bennies, you're then transferred to another SB who sizes up your potential on the job market and asks what sort of work you'd be willing to take. Depending on your needs, you might be sent on to other SB's who will sign you up for health insurance or co-ordinate schools.

A few caveats: (1) this was an office in Düsseldorf, one of the most prosperous places in Germany; (2) German unemployment is low right now; and (3) lots of 'ordinary' people (students, musicians between gigs, political party leaders) get some form of benefit temporarily throughout their lives. In all, the procedure was professional and the atmosphere much the same as you might expect at any German government office (and noticeably cleaner and quieter than most American government offices). I left thinking that although I'd rather not have to sign up for welfare in Germany, there are certainly worse fates.


Heidelberg Debate on 'Morality and Criminal Justice'

Here, as promised are the videos of the talk I gave with Robert Blecker in Heidelberg on 4 May 2012. The introduction is by Franz-Julius Morche, one of the organizers of the conference, and the moderation is by Dr. Markus Englerth. Many thanks to both of them, to Robert Blecker, and to the audience, who asked some good questions.


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.”

 


Merkel Sure Can Pick 'Em

'StateFunctionary'ByE.Kordish1930

So, a few years ago, there's an election for the largely ceremonial post of Federal President of Germany. The post is supposed to go to a thoughtful, semi-intellectual type who will give probing transpartisan speeches about the Way We Live Now. The National Assembly, the body that picks the President, had a chance to elect Gesine Schwan, much-published political science professor, the first female head of a major German university, and a certifiable MILF to boot.

Instead, upon the Merkel's urging, the conservative party prevails, and picks some drab center-right functionary. He leaves office after just two years. Why? After making a Kinsley gaffe, the press went after him pretty hard. He promptly clutched his pearls and collapsed onto the fainting couch, then quit his job -- the first federal President ever to do this -- because of his hurt feelings.

So in 2010, there's a new chance to pick a Federal President. Again, there's an interesting choice: Joachim Gauck, a ballsy Protestant pastor from East Germany who played a big part in the downfall of that regime and who helped structure German reunification. He's a colorful, intriguing character who embodies one of the most attractive traditions in German culture (worldly, socially-engaged Protestantism) and was deeply involved with the most extraordinary chapter in recent German history. The Social Democrats suggest to the Merkel that both parties could get behind Gauck.

The Merkel nixes the proposal, and instead of Gauck, puts forward yet another drab center-right functionary. And now that guy's in trouble for a dismally banal two-bit politician grift: accepting low-interest loans and free vacations from wealthy cronies. Then -- in an act of almost-unimaginable stupidity -- he actually leaves a 4-minute long threatening voicemail with the editor of Germany's largest newspaper trying to get them to postpone or kill the story. Whatever capacity drab functionary no. 2 had to inspire respect or reflection or whatever Presidents are supposed to do just went pfft.

Memo to Merkel: Internationally, Germany has a boringness problem, and your unerring instinct for picking colorless apparatchiks is not helping. If the current President goes, let the freakin' opposition pick a President for a change. Please.