Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘germany

Follow-up II: The German 2017 election

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In October 2017 I wrote:

We are now two weeks past the last German parliament election, and there is still no certainty about who will rule with whom—however, there is a fair chance that we will be rid of the conservative CDU/CSU and social-democrat SPD coalition.

The current situation is depressing in (at least) two regards:

Firstly, even now, close to five months after the election, the issue has not yet been entirely settled, a renewal of the CDU/CSU and SPD coalition only now being finalized. At this tempo, it would have been faster to hold a re-election and settle the issue properly. Certainly, a re-election would have been a better solution for other reasons (cf. below).

Secondly, the result, this renewal, is the worst case scenario. (Among those with a realistic chance of occurring.) The only positive thing that might come of it is a further weakening of SPD. (Cf. my original post.) Sadly, this situation is partially the consequence of a more natural coalition partner doing the right thing—unlike SPD.

As I have written before, this type of coalition poses a major threat to democracy, grossly violating the trust given to these parties by their voters, and even eliminating the relevance of the voters’ will from the process: Any vote not given to CDU/CSU or SPD is effectively wasted—and any that was given to them only marginally affects who is the stronger party within the government that would have been anyway. At the same time, politicians often complain that too few people vote, sometimes even in an accusatory manner*. Why should people bother voting when their votes have so little effect? When they know that the politicians merely see them as a means to end or, worse, as a mere nuisance? To boot, such extremely long negotiations prior to forming an alliance ignores the will of the voters for an unconscionable amount of time, during which the old government, based on an election long past, continues to rule**.

*Along the lines of the non-voters not doing their civic duty.

**In this specific case, the harm is small, seeing that one constellation of an unholy alliance is replaced by another constellation of the same unholy alliance; however, this would not generally be the case.

Unfortunately, this problem of a Democracy Lost is not in anyway unique to Germany—it is a global phenomenon. It is, however, more tragic in Germany, where the awareness of the dangers rightfully should be larger than elsewhere, seeing both how the Nazi used and abused a democratic process to gain power and how a quarter of the country was stuck in a totalitarian pseudo-democracy for most of the post-war period.

As an excursion, while the current situation proves that the German election system is flawed, it does not necessarily prove the superiority of e.g. the U.S. (republic) or U.K. (parliamentary, first-past-the-pole) systems over an (almost) plain representational parliamentary system. The latter is used with considerably less problems (to-date, knock-on-wood) in e.g. Sweden, due to a small-but-crucial difference: The German system is geared at having a majority government; the Swedish at a plurality government—in rare cases even a (non-plurality) minority. Governing without a parliamentary majority does weaken the rulers, but it has so far worked well (in those case where no majority was reached). Furthermore, a plurality government is more democratic than a forced, unnatural majority of the type currently ruling Germany—it can even be argued that it does better than a majority government, since smaller parties are given more sway and a chance to influence at least some issues through actual voting (as opposed to debating and working on committees). I might even go as far as saying that a weaker government is often a positive in its own right, keeping the politicians (less dis-)honest and preventing too much damage to be caused by those incompetent or too driven by ideological agendas. An exception occurs, obviously, in times of great crises, notably wars, where a strong government can be imperative—but there is no such crisis. (For that matter, a government that does not yet exist, due to lengthy negotiations, is even weaker than a weak government that does exist…)

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Written by michaeleriksson

February 13, 2018 at 12:27 am

Stay away from Clevvermail

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For my business activities, I have tried a few service companies that seemed to offer something that would make my life easier. Mostly, they have not—and in one case, I had a considerable amount of extra effort for absolutely nothing in return. I refer to the mail-service company, or quite possibly scam*, Clevvermail:

*To tell the difference between extreme incompetence and evil intentions can be quite hard, but with the most recent events I do tend towards “scam”. Interestingly, the name is quite apt: While the intention of the “clevver” part is probably to invoke associations of the English “clever”, a word occasionally used in Germany too, especially in advertising, my first association was with Klaas Klever—the German name for that utterly amoral and ruthless, yet often incompetent, business duck John D. Rockerduck. Note the repeated letter doubles (“K”/“K”, “l”/“l”, and “aa”) for Klaas Klever and the deliberate doubling of “v” in Clevvermail. To boot, “Klever” likely originated as a similarly deliberate misspelling of “clever”.

Clevvermail at least claims to offer postal addresses in various cities of the world, including in Germany, with the option to forward the mail to another address—something that would have been perfect for me, with long stays in other cities than my official home, often at varying addresses in these cities: I give out my Clevvermail address to others and still receive the mail wherever I happen to be.

I optimistically opened an account—and have had nothing but costs, waste of time, and annoyances to show for it. The problems ended up being so large that I had only given out the address to several other parties and, to my recollection, not received one single piece of mail at the time I terminated the account again. With the sheer amount of problems, my memory is not good enough to give all details, but an incomplete and/or approximate list includes:

  1. An arbitrary rejection of my credit card in combination with 3D-Secure—and a refusal to even attempt to authorize the same credit card manually. To boot, this refusal was rooted in the claim that “da wir hier schlechte Erfahrung mit der Zahlungsmoral unserer internationalen Kunden gemacht habe” (“because we have had poor experiences with the willingness to pay [literally, “payment moral”] of our international customers”, which borders on an absurdity in light of Clevvermail’s own behavior, lack of morals, and invoicing practices. To boot, I was not an international customer…

    Unfortunately, no other reasonable* means of payment was available, short of money transfer, forcing me to pay each bill manually… (Something which will be highly relevant below.)

    *Notably, the German standard of “Lastschrift” was not supported.

  2. The need to register using a copy of my passport, which is strictly speaking an illegal requirement. Clevvermail’s comment: Die Gesetzgebung hat sich da in Deutschland noch nicht ganz den neuen Möglichkeiten des globalen digitalen Wirtschaftens angepasst. (Roughly, “German legislation has not quite caught up with the opportunities of the global digital economy”—or: We know that it is illegal, but we do not agree with the law and do what suits us best regardless of it.)
  3. A user interface that was cumbersome and regularly malfunctioning.
  4. Highly incompetent and uncooperative service staff, who on repeated occasions ignored my actual questions and/or gave “smart ass” answers that told me what I already knew.
  5. The (illegal) sending of non-solicited advertising emails, including for services that are extremely unlikely to be of interest to the average customer. Why should I want a postal address in Moscow* just because I have one in Germany? Barring other scam companies, there is no real reason for anyone to react positively to such an offer: Either someone already is moving in on Russia or he is not. If he is, he will make corresponding inquiries; if he is not, his plans will not change—and “not” is what will apply to the vast majority of the customers.

    *I cannot guarantee that Moscow was one of the specific cities involved in these advertising emails, but the principle of the example stands with any foreign city.

  6. The failure to send me my bills in a timely manner, or at all—something the more absurd with a company that deals with mail services. Indeed, I repeatedly received threats about account suspension due to unpaid bills before receiving the bills. In the end, my account was outright suspended, with no prior notice, without my having received a bill for the amount due… After Clevvermail refused to remedy this, I finally had enough and terminated my account, effective immediately.

It does not end there, however: This Saturday, more than a year after the termination, I received two spammy looking messages that I only ever opened because they used a specific email address*, that made vague claims about debt collection—and did so in English**. After I contacted Clevvermail, as the sole party I had given this address to, they now claimed (again, in English) that I would own them close to fifty Euro, for a period extending months beyond my termination… To boot, they now claimed that they were never able to close my account, “[s]ince only users can delete their accounts”***—however, according to prior communications, I would only be able to close my account per the web interface once the open bill (at the time I terminated the account) had been paid… Kafkaesque, amoral, and certainly not something a German court will accept.

*I usually give out individual email addresses to individual businesses, implying that I a) can block that one single address (e.g. due to spam) without affecting my other correspondences, b) know who is to blame for any abuse (e.g. through handing said address to a spammer).

**Note that this is a German company, that I live in Germany, that prior correspondence had been in German, … Of course, most Germans are quite poor at English, implying that most of the people receiving such communications would be at a severe disadvantage in terms of replying to, possibly even in terms of understanding, the communications.

***A claim which is almost certainly false: Any even semi-reasonable administration interface would give the appropriate administrators such abilities—and in a pinch there is always the opportunity of direct access to e.g. a database system. (I have spent twenty years in the software field and I have yet to see a system which runs without occasional such interventions.) To boot, even if there were no such technical ability, this simply is not my problem.

I can only unambiguously and emphatically tell you to stay well clear of this rotten-to-the-core “service” provider. For my part, I will presently contact both the police and the corresponding regulatory authority. (Poor customer service is not a crime, but the current fraud is—and so is at least the way the passport situation was handled.)

As an aside, it can safely be assumed that much of Clevvermail’s business is aimed at other parties of dubious morality or legality, including businesses trying to creating the incorrect impression of a local or international presence, front and shell companies, and various people seeking greater anonymity for illegal purposes. (As well as many with perfectly legal reasons and motives, like yours truly.)

Written by michaeleriksson

January 24, 2018 at 1:19 am

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German taxes and Elster III

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In a telling development of what prompted my original post (that I just had wasted several hours trying to use the third-rate Elster products to file my VAT):

I recently received a notification from the “IRS” that because I had exceeded the normal deadline, caused exclusively by their incompetence, they would book me a 35-Euro late fee.

They prevent me from fulfilling the rules they impose to their one-sided advantage, they waste hours of my time, they bring me to the point that I want to throw my notebook at the wall—and I have to pay them…

Of course, the complaint I just filed took another fair bit of time—and forced me to use Elster again…

I can only re-iterate that the situation is utterly inexcusable. Elster, the overall tax system, and the German IRS all need to be completely over-hauled or replaced by something better.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 7, 2018 at 4:40 pm

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German taxes and Elster II

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Yesterday, I was forced* to spend several hours in one of my least favorite ways: Doing my taxes and using Elster, one of the most horrible web interfaces I have ever encountered. It is quite clear that the makers know nothing of good usability and standard UI paradigms, that they are not well versed with writing web applications, and that they have very little common sense. The amateurishness is absurdly, ridiculously large.

*Due to deadlines at years end. Of course, I could have done this earlier and kept New Year’s Eve free for more pleasant things, but my self-discipline during vacations is lousy—and I would still have had to do the same amount of work.

To look at some specific examples of problems (in addition to an overall extremely poorly thought-through and unintuitive interface and problems already discussed in the linked-to post):

  1. There is no good way to add a free-text explanation to a form*—despite this very often being needed. The main way** is to use a separate message form, which then is tautologically not connected to the original form. This message form can contain a text of some 14, 15 thousand (!) characters—more than enough for any reasonable purpose, one would think. Unfortunately, this text has to be entered in a window of a mere three (!) lines, making the use of an external editor a virtual necessity for any non-trivial text.*** Worse: The text must not contain any line-breaks—an entirely arbitrary and indefensible restriction. Consider the absurdity: I can enter a message that is longer than most of my blog posts, but I am not allowed to enter a line-break anywhere in that message… In doubt, this amounts to the German IRS**** shooting it self in the foot: Good luck with the reading… Almost needless to say, there was no mention of this restriction in advance; it only became apparent when I pasted the completed text—which I then had to modify accordingly.

    *To be understood as the virtual equivalent of a paper form—not e.g. a form in the technical sense of HTML.

    **There is some way to add an additional message to at least some forms; however, this option is only displayed at the very end of the submit process and, to my recollection, requires an MS-Word and/or PDF document. It cannot be added during the actual input processes, it requires considerably more effort than a normal text field, and there is no information given in advance that/whether it will be there.

    ***I very strongly encourage the use of external editors anyway, but the choice should be made by the individual—not the IRS.

    ****For the sake of brevity, I will use “IRS” through-out. This, however, is not an official translation, and the corresponding Germany entities are not perfect analogies of the U.S. IRS.

  2. The button, or more accurately looks-like-a-tab-but-leads-to-an-action element, “Prüfen” (“Check”) should reasonably check the form for inputs, consistency, whatnot, and then return the user to editing the form. It does not… Well, it does do the checks, but it then displays one single button, almost irresistibly hard not to click on before reading it, which leads to a “send” action—something that would release the form for the enjoyment of the IRS and likely cause a number of problems for the user, if he was not actually finished*.

    *For obvious reasons, I have not tried this. It is possible that a renewed submit/send would be possible after amendments; it is possible that it would not be. However, even if the former, there will be more effort involved, and chances are that having multiple submits would over-tax the low-competence IRS.

    No, to resume editing, the user has to go into the line of looks-like-a-tab-but-leads-to-an-action elements and click on the element that amounts to “edit”.

  3. In stark contrast, the looks-like-a-tab-but-leads-to-an-action element “Speichern und Formular verlassen” (“Save and leave form”) does not actually do this, instead presenting the user with three different options—one of which leaves the form without saving… One of the other two allows to continue with editing (the option that should have been, but was not, present for “Prüfen”!); while the third actually does what the original element purported to do: Saves the form and leaves it.

    Interestingly, there is no indication whether the element form continuing the edit saves the document or or continues without saving. However, I do note that there is no separate looks-like-a-tab-but-leads-to-an-action element for the obviously needed action of just saving the form and continuing in one step—despite this being one of the most common actions that a user would reasonably take. (Yes, there are dim-wits who spend two hours editing an MS-Word document between each save; no, this is not how a wise computer users works. Saves should be frequent; ergo, they should be easy to do with a single action.)

  4. Yet another unexpectedly behaving looks-like-a-tab-but-leads-to-an-action element is “Versenden” (“Send”; however, I am not certain that I got the exact German name): This does not send the form; it leads to a check-your-data page with a real send button on it.

    By all means, the step of checking the data is quite sensible. But: Why is the element not called the equivalent of “Check your data and send”? (Contrast this with the previous item, which uses that type of longer name and then fails to perform that action… All in all, the approach to naming elements looks like a game of “pin the donkey” gone wrong.)

  5. The page is so misdesigned* that an important navigation bar on the left only becomes completely visible at 50 (!) % zoom, while being undetectable at 100 % zoom and workable to some approximation at 80 %.

    *Individual experiences could possibly vary based on the browser used. I used TorBrowser 7.0.10, which is an anonymity-hardened version of Mozilla Firefox 52.5.0—a recent long-term-release version of the second most popular browser on the planet: If a web page does not work with a browser like that, something is horribly wrong with the implementation and/or quality assurance of the page.

Believe it or not: This years version, following a re-vamp, was a major improvement over last year’s—despite still being an absolute horror.

To boot, there are a number of problems not (necessarily) related directly to Elster, but to the original conceptions of the old paper forms, the incompetence of the IRS, and/or the overly complicated German tax system. For instance, the main form (“Mantelbogen”) for the tax declaration, needed by everyone, contains a number of pages that apply to only small minorities, e.g. those who have cared for an invalid in their respective homes. In contrast, the “N” form, which is used by all regular employees (i.e. likely an outright majority; definitely a majority among those pre-retirement) is a separate form. Now, I have no objections to the latter, seeing that not everyone* uses the “N” form; however, why not do the same to considerably rarer special cases? Note that while those who do not fall into these special cases can (and should!) simply forego filling these sections out, they still have to read through them in order to verify that nothing has been missed. For instance, the forms require the addition of a number of data items that the IRS already knows (or should know, if they did their job properly), e.g. the total salary paid, the tax-on-salary paid, the amount of unemployment insurance paid, … Requesting this information again not only puts an unnecessary burden on the tax payer, it also introduces a considerable risk of even more unnecessary errors. For instance, even among the forms themselves, there are redundancies (and additional risks of unnecessary errors). In my case, I have to enter information about various VAT amounts in both the VAT declaration and the EÜR (which calculates the taxable earnings); afterwards, I have to copy the taxable earnings from form EÜR into form S by hand. This is not only a potential source of errors, it also implies that I cannot complete the almost independent forms in any order I chose, possibly even get the comparatively short form S out of the way immediately after the year’s end and turn my attentions to the more complex EÜR when I have a bit of vacation.

The whole system is a complete disaster, and I re-iterate what I wrote in the linked-to post: If the tax system and the available tools are so complex/unsuitable/whatnot as they are, then the government should be obligated to pay for “Steuerberater” for all tax payers.

*This includes me for the year 2016 (and 2017). Those self-employed need the “S” form (and the “EÜR” form; and the form for VAT, whatever it is called). Those who, like me in 2015, switch from regular to self-employment during the year need to fill out forms for both cases: N, S, EÜR, the form for VAT—and, naturally, all applicable common forms like the “Mantelbogen” and “Vorsorgeaufwand”.

As a funny/tragic aside:
There appears to have been a modification in how numbers are handled compared to my description in the linked-to post. Back then, I complained that an entry like “123” into a field requiring decimal places was not considered the same as “123,00”, instead resulting in an error message. This time I had the absurd problem that input like “123.45” (copied from a calculator that, naturally, uses a decimal point; whereas German forms use a decimal comma) were automatically turned into “123.45,00”—and then followed by a new error message that no points where allowed. What the hell?!? Firstly, adding the “,00” outright is sub-optimal; it would be better to keep the original value and note that “123,00” is mathematically equivalent to “123”. Secondly, checks for errors should be made before* doing any modifications; if not, there is no telling what the end result is. Thirdly, any modification should be done in a sound manner and the values “123,45” and “123.45,00” simply are not sound—assuming the German system, it would have to either be “12.345” respectively “12.345,00” or a pre-modification rejection. To boot, although more of a nice-to-have, there should be some setting where the user can determine his preference for the semantic of “.” and “,”. This would certainly have saved me a number of edits (and another possible source of errors) of values I rightfully should have been able to copy-and-paste. However, I would not necessarily recommend that the software be changed to allow the use of “thousand separators”—counting them as an error is a potential annoyance; however, it also allows an additional consistency check to prevent the dangerous misinterpretations of “international” numbers.**

*Depending on the exact circumstance, it can be very wise to check afterwards too; however, the “before” check is more critical, because it corresponds to what the user has actually entered. He needs to be given feedback to his own errors and any error remaining to be caught during the “after” check would be the result of errors made by the program.

**Many years ago, I entered something like “16.45” in my online banking, intending to transfer a small amount to pay a bill—and this was automatically turned into either “16.450,00” or “1.645,00”… Fortunately, I caught this change before the final submit. A no-periods-allowed check would have been quite welcome here (as would a does-the-value-make-sense check: “16.45” does not make sense as an input in the German system; just like “16,45” does not make sense in the U.S. system.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 1, 2018 at 10:58 pm

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German businesses appear to blame their customers for conflicts over poor service…

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I was actually about to deliberately scale my writing back a bit again, when I encountered a German article article that more or less demanded an answer. This article, dealing with the tone used in contacts between customers and customer service effectively puts the world on its head, making vague references to a study and quoting various “experts”.

Claims made (or passed on) include:

  • “Umgangston zwischen Kunden und Service wird rauer”—the tone between customers and service is getting harsher.

    If the tone is getting harsher, it is normally not the fault of the customers. On the contrary, the problem is the businesses* with their lower willingness not just to provide a reasonable customer service—but to actually fulfill their part of the contracts. In as far as the attitude of the customers have changed, it is for the better! They are no longer willing to put up with the disgraceful, customer despising, often even outright fraudulent behavior of German companies. If the customer attitude of old, which often amounted to unquestioningly accept any excuse or refusal made, is changing, well, that is positive—extremely positive! More than that: I positively urge my fellow customers to deliberately take a stand against the current situation and complain more.

    *I find myself lacking a good English word that is both sufficiently inclusive and sufficiently exclusive. I settle for “business” for the purposes of this article, but stress that this need not the ideal choice of words in all cases. Think “the party the customer pays to provide a good or service”.

  • “Oft haben auch Kunden falsche Vorstellungen.”—the customers often have faulty expectations.

    Speaking for myself, I have expectations like my contract partners actually fulfilling their part of contractual agreements. From what I have seen, this is the case with most other people too.

    On the other hand, the businesses often have unrealistic and unfair expectations that they do their darnedest to push through—sometimes to the point that a contract appears to be seen as a one-sided obligation for the customer to pay, with the other half of the contract being left to good luck and (metaphorically) the will of God.

  • “Zwar betreibe auch er großen Aufwand, um Personal zu schulen. Dennoch würden die Mitarbeiter in einigen Fällen derart übel beschimpft, dass die Gespräche abgebrochen werden müssten.”—Despite major attempts to train the staff (in e.g. de-escalation techniques), the staff is sometimes verbally attacked to the point that the call has to be terminated. (Quoting an individual call center.)

    There are people who go off over nothing and there are people who take a bad day out on the wrong person—however, they are the exception (at least when we speak of such excesses). If something like this happens on a regular basis, the call center and the business has to take a step back and ask “why?”—and if they do, they will almost certainly find that the problem lies with them, that there simply has come a point where the customer is no longer willing to take the situation unfairly imposed on him.

    For that matter, that the staff has been trained is not necessarily an indication that they have the intended capabilities. Indeed, in my general experience, by no means restricted to customer service, the amount of formal training is usually less important than intelligence and insight. That staff is rude, even without any type of provocation from the customer, is by no means rare either…

  • That the customer expectation “the customer is king” is (implied rightfully) a thing of the past. (The original formulations are sub-optimal and mix direct statement and quote in an unfortunate manner.)

    This is an outright disgrace: If this mentality has ever applied in Germany, it was decades ago. The corresponding German saying was “Servicewüste Deutschland” (“service desert Germany”) even when I moved here twenty years ago—and this matches the normal expectation found in Germany both then and today. (Notably, expectation through experience—not through approval or an agreement that this is reasonable!)

    We do not have a problem with spoiled customers with unreasonable demands—we have a problem with businesses that often fail to fulfill even their most basic duties.

    The addition “In der Regel muss er an die Hand genommen werden.” (“As rule, [the customer] needs to be led by the hand.”) is an inexcusably presumption, but, unfortunately, well illustrates the lack of respect, often outright contempt, that businesses show for customers and the rights of the customers. This is made the worse by the usually very low competence level in first-level support—if such people presume to try to lead a customer with a high I.Q., solid education, superior understanding of the law, whatnot, by the hand, they should not be surprised if he grows annoyed.

To make a complete analysis of the many problems present in German “service” is beyond the scope of both this post and the amount of time I can reasonably spend, but to give a few points of the top of my head:

  1. First-level customer support that is often highly incompetent, unable to understand basic reasoning, and/or limit their efforts* to finding the first piece of boilerplate text that is even remotely a fit (and usually not even remotely helpful).

    *Such problems often ultimately rest with the employer, who is unwilling to make sufficient allocation of time and resource to resolve the problems it has it self caused. Even members of customer support who would, in principle, be willing and capable to help are often unable to do so due to e.g. time constraints.

  2. A constant abuse of the customers email addresses for spam purposes, while deliberately trying to prevent the customers from using email in the other direction. (Notably through the use of unethical “no-reply” addresses or by forcing the customers to forego email in favour of user hostile web forms—often even a refusal to answer emails sent to official email addresses.) In extreme cases, even postal contacts are made near impossible.
  3. Forcing the customers to pay for for a prolonged time in a telephone queue before reaching support—often being forced to listen to second-rate music* during the wait.

    *It used to be the case that one could at least put the phone aside and wait for a human voice, while doing something unrelated. Unfortunately, many hot-lines now interrupt the music again and again for an automated message along the lines of “you are still in the queue”, effectively forcing the customer to focus on the telephone, lest he misses the point where a real, living human starts to talk.

  4. A refusal to honor legal rights without escalation. In particular, it appears that many members of support are given instructions that serve mostly to get customers who either do not know their rights or grow to tired of the effort to just go away. (“Abwimmelversuche”, with variations, is a wonderful German word for such behaviors that lack a good English translation.)
  5. Contracts and “terms and conditions” that are written extremely one-sidedly to exclusive favour the business and to turn the contract into an obligation for the customer to pay, come hell or high-water, and to regulate the obligations of the customer towards the business—while making all kinds of exceptions and excuses to allow the businesses to shirk their duties. (This is of course quite the opposite of what should be the case: Payment must be contingent on the other party fulfilling its duties, and should (almost) be the entirety of the customers duties. The contract should regulate the duties of the provider to earn that payment!)
  6. The presumption by businesses to unilaterally decide what compensation (if any!) the customer should receive—even when they are clearly in breach of contract. This compensation is typically not even remotely comparable to the efforts, costs, and/or negative side-effects the customer has incurred, often being nothing more than a five-euro voucher for the next purchase*. In some cases, notably delays and Deutsche Bahn**, the system is rigged against the customer in so disastrous a manner that a frequent traveler can rack up hundreds or thousands of Euro in damages and get nothing in return. Most delays give the customer no means of recourse whatsoever; most of the remaining require substantial additional efforts and give a fraction of the ticket price back.

    *Notably, something that does not actually cost the business anything. Five euro might reduce the gain from said purchase, but rarely so much as to make it a loss for the business. To boot, many will not use the voucher (not being willing to do further business, having lost the voucher, having no reason to buy anything before the voucher expires, …) in the first place.

    **“German Railways”, which is run with such incompetence and/or even deliberate neglect of consumer rights that its offerings to large parts have to be considered fraudulent. It (metaphorically) sells and receives payment for horses knowing in advance that half the time it will only deliver mules.

  7. The hiring of third-party service providers that screw things up—for which the original business refuses to take any responsibility or to help with any recourse. A prime example is delivery services like DHL; however, the number of such service providers can be large and varied, often even including call centers… (That then often just parrot a script and have very little actual ability and discretion.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 26, 2017 at 12:57 am

Follow-up: The German 2017 election

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Six or seven weeks ago, I wrote “We are now two weeks past the last German parliament election, and there is still no certainty about who will rule with whom”.

This is now more true than it was back then, because the coalition talks between CDU/CSU, FDP, and the Greens have failed. There is great insecurity, and even the option of a new election is on the table.

To some degree, this is bad; to some, it gives me great hope, because of the motivation given by FDP leader Christian Lindner for why he terminated the talks. What I wrote in a footnote about the preceding CDU/CSU and SPD coalition was “[…]it had two parties in bed with each other that simply do not belong together. This type of coalition amounts to a breach of the voters trust and is by its nature not very democratic.”—and Lindner, highly unusually for a politician, appears to have an at least similar take on the ethics of coalition building.

To give some quotes from his speech (translations somewhat approximate due to idiom):

Nach Wochen liegt aber heute unverändert ein Papier mit zahllosen Widersprüchen, offenen Fragen und Zielkonflikten vor. Und dort, wo es Übereinkünfte gibt, sind diese Übereinkünfte erkauft mit viel Geld der Bürger oder mit Formelkompromissen.

(

After weeks we still have a document* with countless contradictions, open issues, and conflicting targets. And where there is consent, the consent is bought with large amounts of tax payers’** money or [formulaic compromise]***.

*Referring to the preliminary agreement, common statement, whatnot, which would have been the result of the negotiations and the base for the coalition.

**More literally, “citizen”.

**I am not aware of an English equivalent, and to boot this is one of the rare occasions where I learned a new German word. Wikipedia gives an explanation amounting to “we pretend to have reached a compromise, while actually leaving the issue open for the time being”.

)

Es hat sich gezeigt, dass die vier Gesprächspartner keine gemeinsame Vorstellung von der Modernisierung unseres Landes und vor allen Dingen keine gemeinsame Vertrauensbasis entwickeln konnten. Eine Vertrauensbasis und eine gemeinsam geteilte Idee, sie wären aber die Voraussetzung für stabiles Regieren.

(

It turned out that the four parties [to the negotiations] could not develop a common understanding for the modernization of our country and, above all, a mutual trust base. However, a trust base and a common understanding* would be necessary for a stable government.

*“Idee” is normally translated with the cognate “idea”; however, the use here appears to be more abstract and “understanding” matches the previous formulation better.

)

Unser Einsatz für die Freiheit des Einzelnen in einer dynamischen Gesellschaft, die auf sich vertraut, die war nicht hinreichend repräsentiert in diesem Papier.

(Our efforts for the freedom of the individual in a dynamic society, which trusts [has confidence in?] it self, were not sufficiently represented in this document.)

Wir sind für die Trendwenden gewählt worden, aber sie waren nicht erreichbar, [list of sub-topics]

(

We were elected for course* changes, but these were not reachable, [list of sub-topics]

*Literal meaning closer to the English cognate “trend”.

)

Den Geist des Sondierungspapiers können und wollen wir nicht verantworten, viele der diskutierten Maßnahmen halten wir sogar für schädlich. Wir wären gezwungen, unsere Grundsätze aufzugeben und all das wofür wir Jahre gearbeitet haben. Wir werden unsere Wählerinnen und Wähler nicht im Stich lassen, indem wir eine Politik mittragen, von der wir im Kern nicht überzeugt sind. Es ist besser, nicht zu regieren, als falsch zu regieren.

(

The soul of the document we cannot and will not be responsible for [stand by?], many of the discussed measure we even consider harmful. We would be forced to relinquish our principles and all that for which we have worked for years. We will not abandon our voters, by signing off on a policy*, of which we are not truly** convinced. It is better not to rule, than to rule erroneously***.

*“Set of policies”, “political direction”, or something similar, might catch the intention better.

**Literally, “in the core”, which could conceivably and alternatively refer to the core of the policy, or possibly even FDP.

***“Falsely” or “wrongly” might be better translations when understood correctly; however, these words could introduce unintended connotations, e.g. two-facedness or moral wrongness. These would make sense it context, but do not match the normal intent of the German formulation.

)

Respekt, Herr Lindner! I would like to see a lot more of this attitude among modern politicians.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 21, 2017 at 1:45 am

German taxes and Elster

with 2 comments

Germany, like so many other countries, is plagued by bureaucracy, incompetent civil servants, and a general governmental attitude that the rights and interests of the citizens do not matter.

The area of taxes is particularly egregious—even apart from issues like the undue proportion of income paid in taxes*.

*When I spend a day at work, the government often earns more than I do, when all factors are considered. The nominal marginal income taxes tops out at less than 50 %, but then there are various other complications, like the VAT that applies when I actually use my money (privately), or the VAT that my clients have to pay on top of my bills (on the business side). (However, on the business side it is tricky to say exactly what the effect is in what direction. If the client earns well enough, he can deduct all of the VAT of my bills and go scotch free—but then again, since my bills could drive his prices up, the overall VAT amount might still increase. If the client earns poorly, he might not have enough own VAT to offset mine and needs to pay the difference out of his own pocket… That I alone will have a major impact is of course unlikely—but then I am not alone. There are other contractors, service providers, and whatnots that also have to charge VAT on behalf of the government, and the marginal effect of my working an extra day could, in a worst case scenario, be that the client has to hand over another 19 % to the government on top of what it gives me.) The situation is similar for very many regular employees, because there are various “social” fees that the employer has to pay on top of the salary—and, again, when the employee uses his money, he must pay VAT.

Problems include severe competence issues, an extreme lack of transparency*, an “IRS” that sets its own rules without always paying attention to the law (preferring to wait until a judge strikes a rule down—and even then the precedence set for other cases is often ignored…), and what might be the most complicated tax system in the world. In fact, the tax system is so complicated that I have long felt that any tax payer should have the right to hire a “Steuerberater” (“tax advisor”) at the cost of the government**. (Given that they refuse to simplify the system, which would be the by far preferable alternative.)

*Communications often include merely a decision and/or a result description, without in anyway explaining e.g. why a certain deduction was not approved—worse, whether it was approved is typically not clear without careful comparison of input and output. Requests for clarifications have, in my admittedly limited experiences so far, typically either gone unanswered or resulted in what amounts to a repetition of the claim without the requested explanation of the why.

**Merely hiring one, at ones own cost, is of course a right—but for most people this will simply not pay: Most of the additional tax return (if any) and the time saved will be eaten up by the Steuerberater’s fees. In other words, the tax payer is, in most cases, little or no better off than before, while some amount of money has moved from the government to the Steuerberater. To boot, some of even this effect is neutralized by the fact that Steuerberater pay taxes too…

The possibly worst thing, however, is Elster: Tax payers are no longer allowed to use paper forms, instead being reliant on either an utterly, utterly inexcusable web-interface* or various less-than-impressive applications. (Not to be confused with a situation where good applications have been provided!) Said applications are not available “natively” for Linux, effectively forcing the user to also have a Windows license—even when he does not use Windows for anything else. And, no, Wine has not proved a viable work-around to me**, even if some people have reported success. Of course, very few of the applications are free-of-charge, causing yet another cost. All this provided that he already has a computer—while the opposite might be very rare today, it is not something that can actually be assumed with certainty. As a result, Elster often brings more work, cost, and frustration than the paper forms did, leaving the tax payers worse off than before, while the government reaps all the benefits through a more automated processing on its end.

*Likely the worst I have ever worked with in the 23 years I have been on the Internet. The usability is horrible in virtually every regard, including intuitiveness and consistency, it relies on technologies (notably “DOM storage”) which are highly problematic from a security and anonymity point of view, and parts of it must simply be deemed broken. For instance, if the initial capabilities check complains that JavaScript is turned off, it is not sufficient to just activate JavaScript and reload the page—no, the user has to activate JavaScript and go back to the start page in order to try again. Today, not even this helped: The web interface complained again and again and again that JavaScript was turned off, despite it most definitely being turned on. Or take how some amount fields require inputs like “123,45” (note that Germany has a decimal comma) and others “123” (even when the actual amount is not “round”)—and insist on this format even when no information changes: Not only is “123,45” not automatically turned into “123”, but the same applies to “123,00”! Vice versa, if “123” is entered in a field expecting a comma, this is not amended to “123,00” (why would I type those redundant places myself?!?). No, this is considered another input error. Or consider the download functionality for sent and received messages: Half the time it downloads, half the time it does not—and there is no error message when it fails…

**For instance, I gave it a try with the “official” software provided by the government it self, after today’s problems. I got it up and running, tried to familiarize myself with the interface (second rate, at best), moved over some information, and tried to give my monthly VAT forecast (“Umsatzsteuervoranmeldung”). The program promptly crashed, and nothing I could obviously do, including trying to start the program again and using the virtual re-boot, got anything other than an error message. (Which is not to rule out that someone more familiar with Wine would have been able to fix it, nor that I would have, had I been willing to put in enough time.) Easily an hour, likely more, wasted and nothing gained—on top of the time I had already wasted with the web-interface…

This is an absolutely and utterly inexcusable way to treat the tax payers—especially since it’s their money that has been wasted providing these highly sub par solutions. Effectively, tax payers are mandated by law to perform certain actions electronically—but the government provides no reasonable manner in which many of them (including Linux users) are able to do so… Consider a law forbidding automobiles: This will be next to no problem for those who live and work within the same major city, it will be tolerable to many commuters, and it will be an utter disaster for those who are used to riding twenty miles from their country house to their city office every morning and the same distance back every evening—now they can ride a bike for several hours a day or move somewhere else…

A particularly infuriating aspect is that most or all of what needs to be input could be input simply through using a text file in a suitable format*, possibly with some small program to do consistency and format checking. While this would be of little interest to the average citizen, it would make life so much easier for people like me, and it would imply that there is automatically and at very little cost a way to perform these tasks on any platform, using any OS. But, no, instead it is bloated, user-unfriendly or outright user-hostile GUIs. Hell, even PDF forms would work better!

*Even something as simple as a long lines of rows, each consisting of “field name: value to be input” would cover all or almost all needs. (And imagine how much easier it would be to re-use data from the one month/quarter/year to the next.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 9, 2017 at 12:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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