Why are so many Germans frustrated and resigned? One cannot spare politicians and the mainstream media the accusation that they are primarily responsible for this. Their inability to communicate with citizens has reached a new all-time low.
Heiner Flassbeck is an economist, as well as publisher and editor of “flassbeck economics international”
Cross-posted from Makroskop
Translated and edited by BRAVE NEW EUROPE
Many Germans are dissatisfied with their society. But it is a diffuse dissatisfaction that rarely manifests itself clearly to the outside world. Some of the dissatisfied join the demonstrations against the Corona policy, others vote for AfD or even admire Donald Trump, although they probably never want to live in a system dominated by either. Most flee into the supposedly apolitical space of their private sphere, leaving democracy to the small group of political professionals whose interest in the needs of the population only increases slightly when elections are just around the corner.
The general political lethargy would not be possible without mass media that defend the powerful at gunpoint as if that were their only destiny. Only when they are accused of exactly that, do they wake up from their lethargy and set their attack dogs on all who dare to demand critical media. The media – both public and private – are best at self-defence. Of course they have always done everything right, of course they have always researched thoroughly, of course it is only the others who, without any knowledge of the facts, chase after every abstruse conspiracy theory.
Almost all Germans have made themselves at home in their niches in our mature and at the same time silent democracy. They only storm the barricades when they believe their niche is under immediate threat. Preserving vested interests at all levels is the top priority. When a few drunken youths break a some windows in down-town Stuttgart, there is a media and political echo as if the revolution had broken out, not to mention a few figures waving a reactionary flag on the Reichstag stairs. The slightest disturbance of public and private peace is considered reprehensible, any thought of fundamental change is considered sacrilege.
The calm before the storm?
All this may seem normal after 70 years of German democratic development that was not interrupted by major catastrophes such as wars or famine. It may be that the momentum of the early years after the Second World War was the exception and the lethargy of the later decades is an inevitable consequence. Where the lack of alternatives has become the political programme de rigueur, one should not be surprised by voters who do not care about anything but their particular interests.
If the challenges facing German politicians were as quiet and private as the attitudes of their citizens, then everything would be fine. But that is not the case. Whether it is a matter of dealing with the corona shock, overcoming the secular weakness of the European economy, the economic liberation of developing countries or combating global climate change, the challenges demand revolutionary answers.
It is precisely this tension between the enormous challenges and the completely vision-free politics that is expressed in the suppressed dissatisfaction of German society. There is not even an attempt by politicians to reduce this tension through a convincing communication strategy and powerful subsequent actions.
Let us take as an example the fight against the economic consequences of the corona shock. The same politicians who have been telling the German people for decades that no public money was available, even for pressing needs, are pulling trillions out of a hat overnight and pretending that this is an absolute matter of course. When I have told my audience at events in recent years that there are easily 200 or even 300 billion a year with which the German state can improve its education system, protect the environment and expand its infrastructure, I have always been amazed and disbelieved under the motto, “He’s just a academic, he can say that, because he doesn’t carry any political responsibility“.
The average informed citizen must now decide which is right: The fiscal policies before corona or the fiscal policies after corona. For this, however, no help is offered by politics, because politicians would then have to admit that they have deceived the their voters for years with their ideology of thrift without alternatives. Every intelligent person notices that there is something wrong, but finds hardly any enlightenment in mainstream media and rightly asks themselves whether politicians and journalists have been taking the mick and take them for fools.
It is no wonder that many people run after charlatans who throw hyperinflation and currency reform into the discussion because they can easily fill the argumentative vacuum created by politics and make money doing so. At this point, the discrepancy between what politicians say and what they do is now so great that even the conservative media are taking up the issue and subliminally also talking about the inevitable great monetary catastrophe.
Now is the time for top politicians in Germany and Europe to step in and explain what is going on. But who should do that? Olaf Scholz or Peter Altmaier? Angela Merkel or Ursula von der Leyen? Christine Lagarde or Paolo Gentiloni? The entire political and economic leadership of the continent is incapable of explaining to the population why what they are doing is far less problematic than it would appear, given the usual conservative prejudices. Over decades they have created a conglomeration of economic incompetence that is hair-raising.
The next argumentative tightrope act is already in place due to today’s silence. In 2022, the return to the debt brake will be sold as having no alternative, not only because it is written in the constitution, but because “sound economic management is only possible without state debt”. The Federal Minister of Finance has already committed himself accordingly. One has to look at the statements of CDU chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer in the German state television station ZDF summer interview on this topic last Sunday (in German – from minute 16) to understand what lies ahead for German democracy. The obvious inability of politics to communicate with citizens, which almost always stems from a complete helplessness in the matter, is approaching a new high point. After 2021, politicians will try by all means to keep throw on the debt brake, without having the slightest idea under which circumstances this is possible and under which it isn’c (see this piece).
On all topics: obvious questions – no answers from politicians
Or take German corona policy itself. You don’t have to be a virologist or epidemiologist to see that the infection situation today is quite different from what it was in April. Although there has been a renewed increase in the number of infections, the circumstances are quite different than back then. At least they should point out the increase in the number of tests. At the moment there is much more testing than in spring, so that only the relation of the number of tests to the positive results is meaningful. This number has decreased significantly in Germany and obviously remains low. In addition, in order to assess the risks posed by the pandemic, one must compare the mere infection figures with the numbers of those who become seriously ill or die. This is completely undisputed and was also the central argument for the lock-down in March.
But even though the number of people who are seriously ill and the number of deaths in relation to those infected is now dramatically far below the figures from spring, politicians are hardly addressing this issue explicitly, but obviously believe that they have to scare the population with a second wave to make it easier to enforce compliance with the rules. In addition, most of the media continue to report the absolute infection figures with incredible obtrusiveness every day, even though their significance is obviously extremely low in a European context. This is particularly clear in the case of France. There the infection figures are currently almost as high as at the peak in April, at around 5,000 per day, but the number of deaths attributed to Corona is fairly stable at just over ten people per day, compared with almost one thousand at the peak in mid-April (a good and freely accessible source for international figures is the Financial Times).
You can evaluate this as you like. One should also leave it to the virologists to find out the causes and discuss them publicly. But this does not change the fact that a policy that, on an issue so important to the population, conceals such objectively existing improvements in the situation instead of clearly highlighting them, is simply implausible. One should not be surprised if many “normal” citizens simply stop listening to politicians and turn to other sources of information. If these sources of information are then denounced by politicians and the mass media with simple formulas like claiming these are all conspiracy theorists, the damage is irreparable.
Take climate change, for example. German politics gives the public the impression that it takes the issue seriously and acts accordingly. However, there is no initiative by the German government that aims to reduce the international dependence on fossil fuels. But if there is no global action, there is no action at all. Even if a country reduces its dependency on coal, oil and gas, this only leads to a decrease in the price of fossil fuels, which in turn leads to increased consumption elsewhere in the world (a book by me on this topic is being published these days, which I will present here next week). The decisive signal for a global reduction would be a rising oil price in relation to the average increase of income in the world (a rising real oil price). But this has not been the case for years. The real oil price today is lower than before the oil price explosions of the 1970s. Anyone who does not make this an issue and calls for the cooperation of oil producers in this matter is simply not to be taken seriously.
In addition, the structural change that is inevitably linked to the climate issue can only be politically implemented if massive relief is offered to lower incomes. But this is a taboo in Germany. As long as the Merkel’s Christian Democrats are in power, there will be no redistribution of wealth in what it considers to be the “wrong direction”, which means that effective environmental and climate policy is impossible from the outset. A coalition of the Christian Democrats and Greens with negotiable positions on this central issue is the biggest illusion of all.
None of this is new. But it is getting worse every day and a change is not in sight. Far and wide there is no leading German politic in who can be trusted to speak openly and honestly to the population. Far and wide there is no sign of a thaw in a frozen media landscape. The diffuse dissatisfaction of the masses of the population will increase and they will seek ever new and – in the eyes of the vested interests – even more absurd ways to bring about change. No one can foresee how this will end. That it will end badly, however, is the most likely variant.