Social-Democratic parties across much of Western Europe are in secular decline, as economies and societies keep changing beyond anything the movement’s 19th-century founders or 20th-century evangelists could have imagined. Some of these parties seem to be accepting their irrelevance almost placidly, as though they had reached “acceptance” in the five-stage Kübler-Ross grief cycle. Others are still stuck in the other four stages, cycling between denial, anger, bargaining and depression. Among these is Germany’s SPD.
At a party gathering in Berlin, its hapless leader, Andrea Nahles (pictured), announced a series of “new” goals. They include: a higher minimum wage, more unemployment benefits with fewer conditions, and higher pensions for those with low incomes. One target audience may have been the SPD’s remaining supporters. That would be about 15 percent of the population, according to polls (or, as John McCain used to quip, paid staff and blood relatives). But the primary audience seems to be one person: Gerhard Schröder, former chancellor and SPD boss. It was his market-friendly reform of the welfare state that has split the Social Democrats to this day. Now, at long last, Nahles & co. are giving their comrade the finger.
They are aware that none of their goals will become policy, at least not through their own doing. For now, the SPD is stuck in an unhappy coalition with the Christian Democrats, and bound to a contract. It could break that contract and coalition, but that could lead to snap elections, out of which the party would emerge even weaker than it already is. So the goals are really meant as signals to the base to dream of a day when the SPD once again governs as senior partner. But that day, as Nahles knows, will never come.
What’s sad is that the SPD, like its sister parties across the continent, refuses to take its own crisis as an opportunity to do fresh thinking. That would include researching the potential effects of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). I’ve argued that we don’t understand the UBI yet, and therefore need to study it and keep an open mind (which is not the same as already endorsing it).
One place that claimed to be studying it was Finland, until it stopped the experiment last year. It has now reported mixed results from that two-year trial: the income (€560 a month, tax-free) had positive effects on the health of the recipients, but did not accelerate their return to the labor market. That study was flawed, however. For a start, it was not designed to mimic a “universal” income, because the 2,000 recipients were not picked randomly from the population but from the ranks of the already-unemployed. And, of course, it was aborted prematurely. Please, to all wonks out there, try harder next time.
Picking at Greta Thunberg
Germany’s Social Democrats may be clueless and boring, but their rivals, the Christian Democrats, are just as good at putting their feet in their mouths. Take for example Paul Ziemiak, the CDU’s secretary general (basically, top manager but not boss). Unfathomably, he decided to pick on Greta Thunberg (pictured). She is a 16-year-old Swedish school girl with Asperger’s who has become the public face of her generation’s fight against climate change – a sort of Jeanne d’Arc tilting at the negligent adults who are forfeiting our planet without a struggle.
Greta had dared criticize Germany’s recently announced and much-ballyhooed “coal exit.” (My own criticism was no less scathing.) So Ziemiak took to Twitter and complained that “poor Greta” was peddling “pure ideology,” without the requisite attention to all the details that policy wonks like him have memorized on Wikipedia. Lads, this ain’t the way to get in with future voters.
Frau Prof. Dr. Dr. Müller
Germans are tut-tutting again about somebody who pompously goes around being addressed as Dr. so-and-so but may have plagiarized to get that title. This time it is Franziska Giffey, the family minister. She joins a long and growing line of German politicians who have been accused of copying without giving due credit, usually many years ago, before suspect passages were so easy to google.
Most infamously, there was Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a Franconian aristocrat who had to step down as defense minister in 2011 (but now seems to live more happily between Greenwich, CT, and Silicon Valley). Most ironically, there was Annette Schavan, who stepped down in 2013 as education minister.
But expats in Germany don’t waste time splitting hairs over whether so-and-so plagiarized this-or-that. We are much more amused by this phenomenon of the title cult as such. In Anglo-Saxon countries, you get a PhD if you want to do something with it, like research or teach. In German-speaking countries, you get it to have “Herr Dr.” or “Frau Dr.” written on your business card, on your place card at dinner parties, and to have it said through the intercom when they’re paging you in the airport.
And yet everyone knows that these doctorates were in many cases gained with texts duller than dishwater, and in quite a few cases not even penned by the title seeker. There is a cottage industry of ghostwriters in Germany – people and agencies who, for a fee, write you something suitably pompous to become a Doktor. The going rate is apparently €60-100 per page.
And finally, another update about us. As you read in my Daily Briefing last Wednesday, our mother company has decided to shut us down for lack of a “sustainable business model.” Since then, you, our readers, have deluged us – on Twitter and by email – with your appreciation and support and good wishes. For that we, the team at Handelsblatt Today, want to thank you. We will keep writing for you until February 28. On that day, our website will be frozen. But we will say a proper goodbye first. Out we may go, but – as one of you said to me – we go out with honor.
Handelsblatt Today Editor-in-Chief