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Letter from Berlin: The Scary Season

BERLIN—This time of year is known in the journalism business as The Silly Season. According to the truisms of this hoary myth, nothing happens in summer except for the occasional curious incident of the dog in the night.

Just the other week, the local Berlin cultural listings magazine, Zitty, having almost nothing to list since most venues shut down between mid-July and mid-August, wracked its birdbrains and came up with a cover story headlined: “Are Men Beautiful?: The Answer to an Eternal Question.” There was a cute guy on the cover, looking very come hither in a super casual gray T-shirt, standing in a garden. Inside the magazine, the cover photographer had taken a bunch of pictures of other guys who weren’t so cute, and the “text” consisted of a brief interview about the photographer’s opinions of beautiful men. The sum of his wisdom didn’t go beyond the old cliché about beauty being in the eye of the beholder. You wanted to say, yeah, but what about the beholders? How do you know they’d recognize beauty if it poked them in the eye? In short, a desperate nothing story.

The local tabloid, a rag called B.Z., specializes in this sort of thing. You can practically see the guys—it’s always guys—sitting around the editorial table, saying, “Gee, Monday morning just around the corner. What can we come up with to scare the bejeezus out of the readers?” If they don’t have a handy gory murder or a sports star doping scandal, then, since it’s summer and people swim, there’ll be a war-sized headline Monday dawn announcing that a crocodile or a deadly virus has turned up in a Berlin swimming pool, or that some local tyrant is considering a price increase for swimming pool passes. (Only the last might have a shred of truth to it.)

In reality, very little silly happens during The Silly Season. Everything that happens during the rest of the year happens during the summer, except maybe there are one or two less political photo-op press conferences because the politicos are all out at the beach. And although the tabloids come up with bogus scare stories, there is something genuinely scary to take note of going on around here. In fact, it’s scary enough to think that this might be The Scary Season.

The main scary thing that’s going on in Germany these days is the shredding of the social welfare net in a social democratic country. What’s more, it’s being done by a social democratic government. This scary legislative program is tastefully concealed under the name “Reform Package.” Now, it’s true that the legislative machinery has been grinding away on this scheme for the last three or four years—during which Germany has been in virtual recession—but it’s just reached a tipping point where it’s hitting the folks down at your local watering hole, and you’re hearing about it.

The package consists of longer working hours, higher user fees for everything from health care to bus passes to swimming pools, lower welfare rates, shorter holidays, reduced unemployment periods, and proposals for something called “Labour flexibility,” which is code for making it easier for bosses to fire workers.

It’s the last one that’s the most recent of the scare tactics. Although the Social Democratic-Green Party coalition federal government vows it would never do such a thing, the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU), who are running 20 points ahead in the polls, are hinting at easy firing being an agenda item whenever the next post-election rolls around and they find themselves in power.

“It’s better to be temporarily unemployed than permanently on the dole,” said the CDU’s deputy parliamentary leader, Friedrich Merz, last weekend. “If we prove that less protection leads to more employment, then one day we can get rid of special protection against dismissal altogether.”

Of course, all the scary proposals are seldom supported by evidence, such as, in this instance, proof that there’s a relationship between dismissal rules and employment. Switzerland has a very “flexible” dismissal law; the Netherlands has one of the strictest laws against unwarranted dismissal in the world. Both countries boast exceptionally low jobless rates. German unemployment is running at close to double-digits. As the critics point out, the issue isn’t whether you have strict or lax rules, the issue is whether you have jobs.

The profit pressure is similar on other fronts. The week before last, workers at Daimler-Chrysler’s Mercedes factories in Germany submitted to longer working hours after the carmaker threatened to move 6,000 jobs out of southern Germany. The deal, which will reduce Daimler’s costs by 500 million Euros, came on the heels of similar pacts at Siemens manufacturing and Thomas Cook Travel. In France, the legislated 35-hour week is under pressure. Same scare tactic. Bosch, an automotive parts manufacturer, became the first big company in France to extend work hours with no raise in pay, allegedly to prevent jobs from moving to cheaper labour markets like the Czech Republic.

Again, though the move puts money in the company coffers, it doesn’t make economic sense. As an economist at Goldman Sachs in Paris pointed out, “Even if we worked 60-hour weeks, we wouldn’t be competitive with the Czech Republic. Working another hour per week doesn’t change our relative position.” The same economist, however, praised “flexibility” in the labour market.

None of this is new. And the stories, Silly Season or Sylvester (that’s the German term for New Year’s), are repetitive. But there are two things missing in the drooling coverage of all this, whether business press or tabloids or more thoughtful publications (the latter category still tenuously exists in Germany).

Although the details are reported to death, there’s almost no discussion of the most obvious feature of the dismantlement of the welfare state: Is it a good thing? Is it good for workers to have more or fewer holidays? More or less job security protection? And all the rest, right on down to out-of-work friends of mine now busily filling out 16-page forms as the new reduced unemployment benefits scheme kicks in the first of January. They’re also measuring the square-metres of their apartments, because the welfare department won’t pay the rent on dwellings over 50-square metres, even if they’ve been living there for years.

Instead of anything resembling a moral discussion, the lowered standard of living is being presented as simple necessity. “There’s no money,” cry the haggard politicians. Rights and wrongs? Forget it.

To make matters worse, the welfare state shredding program is being carried out by social democratic governments, the very people who invented the welfare state. Their battlecry? “The other guys would take away your benefits even faster.” True, Mr. Merz is a scary guy, but for social democrats to take the lead in the dirty work is both a moral and political disaster. For many of my friends, there’s no one to vote for. The Social Democrats are not distinguishable from the conservatives, the Greens believe in the same free markets as do other minor liberal capitalist parties, and the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), successors to the old East German communist party, is struggling to meet the 5 per cent hurdle needed for national parliamentary representation.

A little bit of Silly Season would be a welcome relief these days. Instead, we’re in the middle of Scary Season, and it looks like it’s going to run for quite a while.

Berlin, Aug. 5, 2004

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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