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A Wake-Up Call for Germany

What should tell the Germans once and for all that they are collectively moving in slow motion?

September 17, 2002

What should tell the Germans once and for all that they are collectively moving in slow motion?

Americans have lamented for some time that Europeans are too dedicated to a comfortable lifestyle — and one that is ultimately not sustainable, given the rising competitive pressures from all around the world.

Many European countries, slowly but surely, have grudgingly accepted that message — and begun to tighten their profligate ways.

Some countries, however, have emerged as true hold-outs on the frontlines of change. No country may be more given to resisting changes in its splendid social policies and benefit regimes than Germany.

That is quite a departure from the model of the period of the German economic miracle in the 1950s and 1960s. Back then, Germans understood all too well that they could only consume such benefits that, as a society, they had earned — say, from a superior performance in global export markets.

Well, the Germans are still quite good in the export game. But the times are long gone when they were quite dominant in an amazing number of industries.

Less success ought to imply a reduction in the level of benefits a society enjoys. And that is where the Germans have been very obstinate indeed.

True, despite repeated talk of Germany needing to mend its ways, the country is still in quite decent shape. Unfortunately, though, this particular argument is used — and abused — by those who resist any changes in Germany’s benefit regimes.

As long as we don’t have to declare bankruptcy, these voices seem to believe, why should we change the way we operate as a society?

That train of thought, of course, is dangerously close to that held in big favor in Japan. There, too, many politicians keep pretending that it’s still the glorious times — when Japan used to rule the commercial seas.

The global economy is a harsh task master. It allows certain nations — mainly highly industrialized countries — to obscure their diminishing competitiveness for quite some time.

But before long, they will be presented with the bill — a diminished quality of life as a result of years and years of desperately trying to avoid changes.

Now, while the Japanese example ought to be quite instructive — and in fact alarming — to Germans, it isn’t.

The rest of the world may increasingly discuss the ominous parallels between Germany and Japan. But all the Germans will muster is an incredulous laughter.

Being as much as a full decade further down the road than the Germans, the Japanese — who used to l-o-l (laugh out loud) about such arguments presented to them about their national horizons — in the meantime have learned to be more doubtful about their destiny, perhaps even too much so.

Conceiving of the Germans as a bunch of relentless — and eternal — optimists, though, flies somewhat in the face of decades, if not centuries, of experience pointing in the opposite direction.

So the question is a legitimate one: With the Japanese so far away — and seemingly so irrelevant to the Germans’ own experience — is there anything that should make them rethink their dated ways?

Fortunately, there is such a thing. Watching the Austrian TV evening news recently, I chanced upon a report from their Berlin correspondent.

Asked by the anchorwoman what apparently ailed Germany — which is the growth laggard in the EU — their man in Berlin has this to say: “The Germans are too concerned all the time about being in consensus. They lack the courage to dissent from each other. Without dissent, however, you never get any problems solved.”

What was astounding about this remark was that it came from an Austrian. That represents a real wake-up call for Germany. After all, for decades there was a pan-European consensus about one country in Europe that was truly soft on itself. That country had a fascinating practice of talking and talking, never making up its mind.

Worse, in lieu of political decisions, that country simply decided not to ruffle any feathers by divvying up all the spoils from the public trough equitably between the two main political parties.

This logic even extended to that country’s major companies. If, say, the Social Democrats were in power, one of their friends would be the CEO. No surprise there. The surprise lay in the selection of the number two man. He was always an associate of the opposition party.

And if the parties’ hold over political power changed, those jobs between CEO and deputy etc. would just rotate. The result was an ultimate exercise in mutual back-scratching — and inaction.

Thus, when Austrians — who know Germany very well — start complaining about Germans’ too strong penchant for consensus, the entire nation should take it as a major wake-up call to mend its ways — and become more willing to confront each other. If even the Austrians do it by now, can Germany afford not to do the same?