WASHINGTON — When German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder precipitated early elections in Germany, the decision to seek electoral guidance appeared appealing. Since then, the choices on Sept. 18 have been remarkable mainly for their paucity and obscurity. Unless the parties and their candidates are able to crystallize their options more, Germany will have been deprived of the opportunity to do better.
German policy and its economy have been troubled for some time. So it comes as little surprise that all parties promise to do better. Candidates have declared their opposition to unemployment and their support for growth. But little is said about the measures needed for change to occur.
Taxes are talked about a lot. Discussions include the idea of confiscating income from everyone who earns more than 1 million euro, since the revenue from these 12,500 people would reduce some deficits and offend only a few voters. Other populists would supertax anyone with annual incomes above 60,000 euro. The conservatives just want to raise the consumption tax.
The lack of focus on harsh expenditure reductions (such as sharp declines in public sector salaries) indicates that in 2005 many Germans believe their tax policy to be autonomous from global competition. Also, they either forgot or never heard the Reagan message of the 1980s: “It’s not the government’s money, it’s the taxpayer’s money.”
When it comes to unemployment, many intend to legislate new jobs — a tough road to competitiveness. Several facts appear to be often neglected:
* Much of the unemployment is the price of a successful, bloodless unification between East and West.
* Comparatively high levels of manufacturing employment indicate that displacements in this sector will continue to increase.
* Current problems are temporary in light of German demographic trends. Due to a severely shrinking population, soon the question will be again one of finding sufficient workers.
On occasion, the term “flexibility” is heard, but apparently immediately negated by workplace agreements that guarantee particular types of jobs for years to come. How to systematically cause the implementation of new approaches and innovative solutions is rarely mentioned. After all, tradition is highly prized here. But attention does perk up when mention is made of adjustments undergone by other economies, industries or firms — in an era of membership in the European Union, isolation from others is difficult.
Reliance on government continues to be extraordinarily high. For example, when talking about terrorism, most partners take on a don’t worry attitude: The government has it all under control.
As students weigh job opportunities, civil service structures still beckon very attractively — and this for graduates of business schools! No wonder that many innovative young professionals tend to leave for Britain, Norway or Sweden.
Industry seems to be most attuned to the global realities and willing to speak out forcefully. Where politicians still vacillate about whether to get involved, say in monitoring competition from Central Europe or from China, industry is ready to talk about the pressures encountered abroad, and willing to pose tough questions to representatives of all political parties. When they hint at possible plans for the future, some exasperated entrepreneurs do not hesitate to query why action has not been taken in the past.
Individuals appear to be weary of too many campaign promises, knowing how easily they can be broken later. At the same time, close attention is paid to the actions of political leaders with the almost desperate desire to tell them and their programs apart. Even a few weeks before the election not all is said and done.
To this observer, Germany has been underperforming for many years. This election should not be decided based on glib appeals to base instincts. It is time to help voters distinguish between the short term and the long term.
Candidates need to address the meaningful issues, such as less reliance on government, trust and belief in oneself, willingness to undertake risk and obtain forgiveness for failures, and Germany’s fitness in a world of economic globalization and changing regional aspirations.
A country that has come back from the devastations of World War II to furnish a pope and that maintains a position as undisputed export champion in the economic world, deserves to have a choice based on a vision, direction and confidence as was experienced last under Chancellor Ludwig Erhard some four decades ago.