Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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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.

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Written by michaeleriksson

November 21, 2017 at 1:45 am

German taxes and Elster

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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

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And yet another apartment…

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(See two previous articles for background information: [1], [2].)

Just a few weeks ago, I was set on remaining in my Cologne apartment until the end of November (and my current project).

As of this Tuesday, I find myself living in a new one…

To give an overview of the events leading up to this situation:

On the 29th of August, I came home from work to see that someone had very obviously been in my apartment. Notable traces included a bathroom floor that now contained a very dirty towel that had previously been much cleaner and on a shelf, a wire-hanger that had previously been on the door handle, and a key that had previously been in the bathroom door.

As my landlady explained, there was a problem with water dripping into the apartment below mine and an emergency inspection by building management had been needed. She failed to explain why there were things on the floor…

Unfortunately, this inspection had brought no real result and several other inspections (and misdiagnoses…) and attempts to correct the issue followed, until the 29th of September, a full month after the initial event and probably the sixth(!) visit, when a final fix should have taken place, based on the worst-case scenario assumption of a broken pipe beneath my bathroom floor.

But no: Apparently, the problems were so severe that the entire following week would be needed—and until the conclusion of these repairs, for a full week, I was not allowed to use the shower*…

*Fortunately, the landlady was also the next door neighbor and I could use her shower: With a greater distance, I would more-or-less have been forced to move to a hotel.

The works started as scheduled on the following Monday, but consisted of nothing* more than tearing out the old shower, without any repairs of any kind.

*In my apartment: Some parts of the overall repairs were to take place in the apartment below. I do not know whether these did take place.

Tuesday was a public holiday and no work took place—as was to be expected. However, Wednesday brought two negative revelations: Firstly, no work had taken place on this day either (as verified by the landlady and the building management), for reasons unknown. Secondly, someone had been in my apartment again, accessed areas that had been unambiguously declared as out-of-bounds to the plumbers (and whatnot), and turned every single radiator in the apartment to the max—I was met with a tropical temperature after work. After various discussions, the landlady found the explanation: One of the neighbors had had a radiator problem and another crew of repairmen had been sent to fix it—and building management had given them the wrong set of keys/the wrong apartment number…*

*Which does not explain why the radiators were still all on max. Generally, however, I found that German handymen are extremely poor at restoring order after themselves, as well as considering the interests of others—even when these others are the ones paying the bill.

On Thursday, I came home to the next negative surprise: While the work had resumed, it mainly consisted of the removal of the toilet bowl! Now I could neither shower nor use the toilet… This despite both me and my landlady having been given explicit assurances that the only restriction would be “no showering”—the toilet was to remain fully functional through-out.

Repeated phone-calls and discussions led us to a re-newed assurances that the toilet would be restored on Friday. It was, but in a very sloppy manner: The flushing mechanism was not only severely weakened in its flow, but the automatic re-fill of the tank did not work properly. A typical tour consisted of my hitting the flushing lever repeatedly until the tank started to re-fill—not flush, just re-fill! After some wait, I could then actually flush. However, since the flush was weakened, I often needed to repeat this cycle several times…

Worse, Friday (or was it Thursday?) also contained the unpleasant diagnosis that the estimated date of completion had increased radically again—at least end of October, possibly mid-November, according to the landlady. At this point, she offered* a pre-mature termination of the contract and sent me some alternatives from an agent. Fortunately, everything came together in the search and I had the keys to the new apartment on Monday evening, moving the most necessary things before work on Tuesday morning and taking up residence on Tuesday evening. On the down-side, the new apartment is considerably smaller and worse equipped (if more modernly), despite only a marginal price difference—and there is no comparison to the view… (Obviously, this was a deliberate prioritization of speed on my behalf. I could have chosen to spend more time searching, but I wanted a quick end to the bathroom situation.)

*If she had not, I would quite possibly have terminated the contract anyway—or at a minimum shortened the rent: While this situation was not her fault, she was still in breach of contract.

However, as of last Friday (13th, hmm…) there was still no progress whatsoever in the bathroom* when compared to the preceding Friday (when the work should have been finished according to one prognosis), and precious little compared to the Friday before that (when the work should have been finished according to an earlier prognosis).

*As I noted when bringing over a few more bags to the new apartment.

While I seem to have mostly bad luck with my various apartments (most of which has not yet featured in my writings), I cannot complain about them being boring…

Excursion on the overall situation in the old building: According to my landlady, those apartment owners* who were pushing for timely renovations formed a minority. This includes the plumbing and the elevators, which are apparently running with dispensations and only with repeated stop-gap repairs that would have been unnecessary had a proper renovation taking place—or, in the case of the middle one, not running at all. (Which explains why I always ended up traveling in the left or right elevator, never the middle.) It could also be the explanation for why the idiotic semi-electronic/semi-mechanical key system has been kept. As I gather from building management, a large part of the building (including my floor) has always been apartments, contrary to my assumptions in [1]. This makes the aged look of the bathroom easy to understand, but the unfortunate layout (notably, the too small shower area) harder. Of course, this also implies that the plumbing has not been significantly touched in roughly 45 years—making the current problems an accident waiting to happen.

*In the German system, much of an apartment building is owned collectively by the Eigentümergemeinschaft (“Owners association”). Because the individual apartment owner does not necessarily own whatever causes him a headache, he cannot unilaterally make changes, even repairs, to it. In addition, there is the obvious questions of coordination and cost-effectiveness of related repairs, e.g. when the overall plumbing is involved. (Some of this common property is obvious, e.g. elevators—unless owned by some other entity. Other is less so and can vary from building to building, e.g. in that the windows of a given apartment can belong to the Eigentümergemeinschaft, the individual apartment owner, or be divided based on an outside/inside parts criterion.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 15, 2017 at 11:16 pm

The German 2017 election

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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 most likely resolution appears to be a CDU/CSU, FDP (liberal, libertarian), and “the green party” coalition. This would be a clear improvement, but the presence of the Greens would make the situation sub-optimal: The environment is important, but large parts of this party is simply highly irrational—astrologists, not astronomers. To boot, large parts of their agenda is as incompatible with the potential partners as SPD’s was. On the plus side, the Greens did not even break 9 % and would be a decidedly junior partner, and they share my and FDP’s distaste for e.g. privacy violations, Bundestrojaner, and the like: Together they and FDP might restrain CDU/CSU in this regard.

*Note that Germany has a multi-party system with a fairly proportional representation by votes (unlike e.g. a first-past-the-post system). After the latest election, there are a total of six parties that made the 5 % cut-off.

**A quirk of German politics is that these parties are not nationally present, with CSU appearing only in Bavaria and CDU everywhere but Bavaria. For the purposes of national politics, they are often informally treated as one entity.

***This coalition being unfortunate in two regards. Firstly, objectively and neutrally, 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. As I noted after the previous election, if such coalitions are tolerated, we might just as well do away with the unnecessary formality of voting. Secondly, subjectively and personally, I dislike the politics of SPD (more than e.g. those of CDU).

It can be interesting to look back at the last few elections, seeing that they have seen some notable developments:

2009: Leading up to the election, another CDU/CSU and SPD coalition was in charge. SPD took a severe hit, CDU/CSU a minor hit, and the smaller parties benefited correspondingly. While CDU/CSU and SPD had been roughly on par last time around, CDU/CSU was now considerably larger and formed a (much more natural) coalition with FDP, which reached a record 14.6 % of the vote.

2013: CDU/CSU gained considerably and looked set for a continued coalition with FDP—except that FDP took a severe hit… So severe, in fact, that it narrowly missed the 5 % cut-off and was left out of parliament. Roughly 10 % or two thirds of the vote gone, from record high to record low, in four years. This was particularly unfortunate*, since CDU/CSU and FDP would have remained in majority, had the cut-off been just a sliver lower.

*However, at the time, I reacted with misplaced Schadenfreude: FDP had been fishing for tactical votes from CDU/CSU supporters, something I strongly disapprove of. Yes, it served them right; however, a very unfortunate political situation arose (cf. above).

2017: This time both CDU/CSU and SPD took severe hits (the former more so in absolute terms, but proportionally the loss was roughly a fifth each), but the remaining two parties (the Greens and leftist extremist/populist Die Linke) only saw marginal gains*. The reason was a resurgence of FDP, which not only made the cut-off but was back above 10 % (historically a good level)—and the massive rise of AfD**, gaining 8 % (for a total of 12.6 %) and its first entry.

*In terms of votes. In terms of seats, they obviously lost ground.

**I am loath to categorize AfD for several reasons, including that it is a very young party with an undeveloped own identity and that it can be hard to tell the difference between its own actual position and the often distorted portrait painted by the other parties and media. It does, however, indisputably have aspects of nationalism, migration skepticism, and a general dissatisfaction with the political establishment. Add in a degree of populism and it might be fair to say that it fills a similar niche as Trump in the U.S. (On these three points, I strongly agree with the last, disagree with the first, and agree or disagree with the second, depending on exactly what we discuss. Cf. a footnote below. In most other areas, I am likely in disagreement; a pro-equality and anti-feminist stance being an obvious exception.)

Interestingly, despite the major changes of 2013, the results of 2017 match those of 2009 very well, apart from the addition of AfD. (And, indeed, without AfD, the Greens would not be needed for CDU/CSU and FDP to re-form their coalition.) Scale off roughly 1/8th of the 2009 results and that is approximately the 2017 result. CDU/CSU has a little more; FDP a little less; the others match very well—as does the sum of the CDU/CSU and FDP percentages.

A twist here is that AfD allegedly has gained disproportionally many voters from CDU/CSU, while CDU/CSU remains the least affected compared to 2009. (This paradoxical situation is likely explained by other voter movements to the benefit of CDU/CSU, especially, I suspect, from FDP.)

Looking at the long term developments, 2009 saw an all-time low for SPD and a lowest-since-1949 for CDU/CSU—something repeated exactly in 2017. The historical constellation of two major parties with several minor parties is, just like in Sweden, disappearing. To some degree, cf. above, this could be explained by the ruling parties being punished: They actually have to do something, often something unpopular, and with a risk of screwing up; the other parties can just sit back, complain, and promise that “with us, everything would have been/will be better”. However, other explanations include voter estrangement and dissatisfaction with the attitudes and policies of the older parties, as well as more success for parties that focus strongly on specific areas where individual voters have similar priorities (the Greens, AfD, and Die Linke fall strongly into this category). SPD, specifically, is likely hurt by Die Linke* “stealing” more and more voters with opinions on the far Left or that are vulnerable to Leftist populism, especially in the area of the old GDR, where SPD often finds it self the smaller of the two…

*This starting with the entry of PDS (the reincarnated SED) in the 1990s and increased by the defection of a part of SPD to PDS to form Die Linke at some point before the 2009 election.

As for my personal take, I am not a fan of any political party (cf. earlier writings), but I would tend to consider a CDU/CSU and FDP coalition the best alternative. While none of them match me ideologically, FDP is likely the closest to a match, with CDU/CSU second. The Greens and Die Linke have no place in any government, hardly to be considered politically sane. SPD is politically sane, but remains a Leftist party (admittedly less so than in the past), with many ideas that I cannot get on board with, at least some of which are likely to be detrimental to Germany’s long-term prospects. AfD as a first time entry, is unlikely to be a good choice for a coalition partner (see also above and below).

The entry of AfD is tricky to judge, especially with the problems of understanding its ideology correctly. However, it has at least two benefits as a signal to the older parties: Firstly, that they cannot ignore, trivialize, or misrepresent migration* issues like they have done in the past. Secondly, that they have to step up their game in looking to the people, not themselves, in general. Until more is known, I am cautiously positive. (I would certainly see the continued presence of Die Linke as a greater reason to be concerned.)

*Migration is another tricky issue, including what levels and what type of migration should be allowed, including applying different perspectives. For instance, from an ideological perspective, I would favor free migration, seeing borders, citizenships, passports, more as an artificial obstacles than anything else; however, from a pragmatical perspective, I would want to consider properly the effects of such migration—including the negative ones that the politicians of the older parties often want to ignore. Similarly, we must consider the possibility of different resolutions for immigrants from different countries, with different backgrounds (notably in terms of education), or with different attitudes. Here is the important point: Irrespective of whether we are for or against migration, migration policy is something that must be discussable and discussed in a free manner, just like e.g. tax levels. The too common attitude of “either you agree with me or you are a racist/xenophobe/Nazi/whatnot” is inexcusable, doing no-one a favour.

(I draw on the German Wikipedia pages for the respective elections for data: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bundestagswahl_2017, https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bundestagswahl_2013, https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bundestagswahl_2009.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 8, 2017 at 8:40 pm

Follow-up: Some problems for German consumers illustrated by Beyerdynamic and DHL

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Unfortunately, Beyerdynamic compounds its customer hostile behaviour through spam:

Today, I received a rudely* formulated spam message trying to force-feed me additional products.

*Presuming to address me by first name and using the informal “du”, which by German standards is an absolute no-no and a gross breach of protocoll in business (and most private) settings, before a mutual agreement on this point has been reached. It is far worse than e.g. calling a first-time customer “dude” in the U.S.—more on the level of calling the President “dude”.

This would have been an inexcusable abuse of my trust and data, even had the relationship been a good one. This alone would have been enough for me to terminate any further relationships with Beyerdynamic, even without the previous events.

In light of those previous events, its beyond anything and everything that is even remotely conscionable and acceptable.

Unfortunately, this is another recurring problem: Many businesses imagine that as soon as they have sold any product, received any inquiry, or (often) even have just gotten their hands on an email address, they have the right to do anything they want with it.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 2, 2017 at 12:21 pm

Some problems for German consumers illustrated by Beyerdynamic and DHL

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One of the greatest problems in Germany (I suspect, in many other countries too) is the refusal of many businesses to honor their contractual obligations in a reasonable manner in a B2C setting. Depressingly often, a contract, an order, whatnot, is seen as a one-sided obligation for the customer to pay, while performance of the service, delivery of the ordered goods, …, are mere nice-to-haves. Quite often, the customer has to spend so much time seeking rectification of even obvious, indisputable errors, that the working costs* exceed the monetary costs for the product at hand or the value-added that the product/service was supposed to give. Deliveries are a particular problem, with third-party businesses performing the actual delivery, without every having a contractual connection to the actual customer. This results not only in extremely poor performance, but also in restrictions in customer recourse, and that customers have to live with whatever terms were agreed between the delivery service and original business.

*In the case below, e.g., the total time investment in ordering, paying, researching the fate of the package, writing complaints, …, is almost certainly more than an hour (this post not counted). This alone is more than half of the price of the product, compared to my working and billing the same amount of time. The form mentioned below could have pushed it up sufficiently to outweigh the entire price. To this must be added the repeated aggravation of my mood. I would have been better off had I never bought this particular product at all.

Below I will discuss a particularly absurd case that has taken several weeks to come to a (highly unsatisfactory, semi-) resolution.

Before I do so, I would like to make the following very strong recommendations (in Germany, the international mileage may vary):

  1. Stay away from Beyerdynamic.
  2. If at all possible, stay away from DHL (but beware that this is rarely an option left to the costumer).
  3. Unless you have a specific agreement with a well-known neighbor, make it very, very clear that delivery to neighbors is ruled out. If you do have such an agreement, make this equally clear. Something like “!!!Nur Eigenhändig!!!” prefixed to the name or address might work.
  4. Conversely, never accept a package for someone else when you do not have an agreement, let alone do not know the recipient personally.
  5. Never, ever pay before delivery—not even when you have reason to believe that the business is not one of the many outright fraudulent web shops.
  6. Consider whether it is not less hassle to just buy things in stores to begin with, even at the risk of higher prices and a smaller selection of products.

Details:

My secondary apartment (for reasons of work, I keep several households) has the advantage that the property manager has offices in the building it self, and when I have received packages when not at home (i.e. on every single occasion), it has been left with the property manager. Coming home from work, I can simply collect it, without having to search for absent neighbors, going to the post office, or wherever my package ended up.

Due to my living situation, I wanted to buy a second pair of head-phones* from Beyerdynamic, and being wary of the problems with Internet orders I (just like the last time) ordered directly from the manufacturer. Considering that this was known entity, I reluctantly agreed to pay in advance**.

*I will not mention the model, because I do not want to make even an indirect recommendation of any Beyerdynamic product.

**While I do not recall the exact set of payment options offered, a typical scenario is that advance payment is the only realistic option. Payment per invoice is very rare and/or reserved for well-known customers. The old German “Lastschriftverfahren” has virtually disappeared online. Credit cards are hardly usable, because most shops demand use of 3D-Secure (or an equivalent technology) and this, in my experience so far, results in two minutes of work and then an obscure error message. Paypal is notorious for its arbitrariness and is arguably a riskier payment method than advance payment…

I suffixed (! cf. above) my address with a statement that delivery to the property manager (NOT e.g. “neighbor of your choice”) was acceptable, even though considering this unnecessary: Deliveries had so far always been left there anyway.

The DHL delivery presumably took place nine days after my order (specifically: 2017-06-09).

To my dismay, it was NOT delivered to the property manager, but to some “Höbel” in the 18th Stock. I live in the 24th Stock, I have no idea whatsoever who this “Höbel” is, and with not even a first name added, this was not a satisfactory identification. To boot, it should have been self-evident that the delivery to a random neighbor instead of the alternative explicitly specified in the address was not acceptable.

It comes worse: According to the name signs, THERE IS NO HÖBEL IN THE 18TH STOCK! (Nor could I find a “Höbel” at all in the door-bell listing at the entry, but with the great number of entries, one might have existed.)

On the 17th, having given this “Höbel” plenty of time to present himself or at least leave a note (he did not…), I sent a complaint to Beyerdynamic, detailing the situation and demanding an immediate remedy, seeing that the situation had arisen through errors by its contract partner.

Despite my full explanation of the situation, the reply was a request that I should fill out and sign a form. There are a number of problems with this:

  1. It causes even more effort for the costumer without adding any value to the process. There was no valid extra information, and even a signature would be worthless, seeing that on the off-chance that someone was lying, he would not hesitate to sign that lie: After all, no-one could realistically prove that he was lying.

    In my case, this effort is quite severe: My printer is in my other apartment and going there just for a one-off print would cost me hours; alternatively, cause a delay until I was in Wuppertal for other reasons. Using the printers at work for such purposes is shady even for employees, for me, as an external contractor, the more so. There is no* copy shop in the immediate vicinity, and finding and using one would cost me a minimum of half-an-hour, quite possibly more—too which the actual printing costs must be added.

    *Actually, there is one, but it is a complete joke. For instance, they regularly fail in printing even PDF correctly, e.g. through mishandling margins or the German umlauts—unacceptable in a business communication. The print quality (in the ink on paper sense) is abysmal and the one staff member I have interacted with on my few visits lacks even basic computer skills and takes minutes to print even a one-page letter.

    Most likely, this form was something that Beyerdynamic needed vs. DHL—and that is simply not the costumer’s problem. Basically, “DHL will not voluntarily do their duty towards us, so we will just refuse to do our duty towards the customer” / “…put the whole burden on the customer instead”, which is of course a grossly unethical and customer hostile attitude.

  2. I have proof of payment. In this situation it is the duty of Beyerdynamic to prove delivery. Not only had delivery (if at all…) not taken place in a manner that could be considered reasonable and a fulfillment of contractual obligation, but there was a more than fair chance that the package was stolen (or otherwise lost/damaged)—either by this “Höbel” (possibly giving a false name) or by the deliverer, faking delivery to this unknown entity. I note that Beyerdynamic did not even bother to give signed confirmation of the alleged delivery to “Höbel”…* Failing a complete disappearance, there was always the possibility that the package would only turn up many weeks later**.

    *While that has so far been the normal next step in my experience, the value is admittedly limited. I recall some ten years ago, when DHL swore that someone IN MY APARTMENT had accepted delivery and “proved” this through an unreadable signature. A week or so later, I received a note from a near-by mattress shop, “reminding” me to collect said package. I very much doubt that the shop keeper had broken into my apartment, signed for the package, and then left with it…

    **I once had a neighbor accept a package in my name, move (!!!) without notifying me, and leave the package in her old apartment, resulting in me only receiving the package more than a month later, when the new tenant moved in…

    In as far as the package was not stolen (etc.), e.g. because “Höbel” had accepted it and gone on vacation or because DHL had made a mistake with the name or stock number, it would equally be the duty of Beyerdynamic to rectify, say by calling DHL and causing an investigation into whoever had actually received it.

  3. Since it is perfectly clear that DHL had not, even by its own claims, made a proper delivery, the question of a form is absurd: The delivery (allegedly) went to an unknown third party, who was not an immediate neighbor, against any reasonable interpretation of my instructions, and with information provided to me that was too faulty and/or incomplete to identify this neighbor…
  4. There is a fair chance (layman’s perspective) that requesting a reclamation on paper and/or with signature would be disallowed by the courts when the original contract was entered without such actions. There have been cases where requests for written termination have been disallowed for such reasons. Even if this did not generalize legally, the same type of reasoning would definitely leave the request unethical: The burden of rectification (termination, whatnot) must not be disproportionally higher than the burden of initiation.

    Of course, there are strong reasons to believe that at least some businesses deliberately puts obstacles in the way of the customers, so that they do not terminate contracts (on time or at all), do not file complaints, do not pursue their rights, …, for the simple reason that the hassle to achieve something is larger than the expected gain or that they just do not have the time.

I naturally refused and insisted on delivery without the need for additional efforts on my part, threatening to rescind the purchase. This just led to a renewed request for the above-mentioned form, spouting nonsense about how DHL would otherwise assume that delivery had taken place*. Firstly, again, what happens between DHL and Beyerdynamic is not my problem: Beyerdynamic chose a partner to do a severely sub-par job and has to live with the consequences; I have no contractual obligations to DHL; and DHL’s position does not remove Beyerdynamic’s obligation to fulfill the contract resp. provide proof of contract fulfillment. Secondly, DHL has no legal ground to assume that delivery to me had taken place: Delivery was not to my hands, even by their own claims. Delivery did not take place according to my instructions, even by their own claims. Delivery did not take place (if at all…), to an entity identifiable through DHL’s own claims. All this even assuming that delivery to an (identifiable…) neighbor is considered delivery in the first place, which might be what the T & C’s of DHL says, but which is obviously idiotic, seeing that I do not have a contract with DHL and have never agreed to those T & C’s—DHL might not need to prove to Beyerdynamic that the next step of the delivery has taken place, but Beyerdynamic sure as hell has to prove it to me! Thirdly, considering the circumstances, the obvious procedure would have been for Beyerdynamic to re-ship and file a claim against DHL, and for DHL to file a claim against/recover the original package from “Höbel”.

*This remains the only motivation ever given, everything else was on the level of “we need”, with no references to anything that could have implied, even on a disputable basis, a duty on my behalf, e.g. a reference to some unethical clause in their own T & C’s.

After several iterations, I escalated the issue, knowing that many of these problems result from low-level employees who are deeply stupid, naive in matters of business/law/whatnot, and/or just follow protocol for some standard situations (being unable to handle anything not in their, literal or metaphorical, script). People higher in the hierarchy tend to be much more able and cooperative. At this juncture, I also rescinded the purchase and demanded my money back (and compensation, personnel consequences, and an email address to the appropriate contact at DHL, for a parallel complaint).

Alas, this was not the case with Beyerdynamic: The answering email expressed all sorts of regrets, but eventually just re-requested the same form… Other issues were ignored (including something as simple and cheap as the email address). The request for the form was at this juncture utterly inexcusable, because this amounted to an intention of keeping my money until I proved that Beyerdynamic had not fulfilled its duties, which is an absolute absurdity.

Shortly thereafter, two weeks (!) after the original “delivery”, the head-phones did turn up, left outside my door for anyone to steal…

I reported this to Beyerdynamic together with my intention to let the purchase stand (returning the package would have thrown good time after bad), and restated my other demands. All these items were just ignored in favour of a congratulatory message… This is the more absurd, as I had just showed a considerable amount of honesty and cooperation, despite Beyerdynamic’s previous behavior: I could easily just have kept the package, sent the form, and had both the head-phones and my money back. Obviously, honesty does not pay…

As an excursion on the unethical and customer hostile blanket approach of many delivery services, DHL above all, of leaving packages with neighbors:

Firstly, for this to be at all acceptable, the list of neighbors must be limited to those who actually know each other in person and the neighbor must be uniquely identifiable. Under no circumstances can it be acceptable to leave a package with someone 6 floors away in a 26 floor building, neighbors in other buildings, or random shops in other buildings. (All of which I have encountered.) Under no circumstances can a mere “Höbel” be acceptable, nor an incorrect claim of stock and/or name. Under no circumstances can it be acceptable to just put notifications on the house door instead of in the mail box of the recipient*.

*This was not the case above, but has been a common problem in the past. In at least one house, the DHL deliverer appeared to just give the packages to a near-by kiosk, without bothering to check whether the recipient was at home, and then slap on a notice for each package on the outside of the house door, where anyone could have removed them. The record might have been as much as five individual notifications at the same time. Of course, the kiosk never checked any IDs, possession of the notice was always enough…

Further, even when a neighbor is acceptable, it is very often not in the interest of the recipient (or the neighbor—just the delivery service):

  1. Collecting a package from a neighbor is often more work and/or requires more attempts than if the package was just left at a package shop/post office, for the simple reason that people spend different parts of the day at home, due to differences in working hours, evening and weekend activities, etc. In extreme cases (cf. above) a move or a prolonged holiday can cause an enormous delay.
  2. This causes a problem when a package is damaged and the neighbor makes a different judgment call than the actual recipient would have done.
  3. There can be instances where the recipient would prefer the neighbor to not know about the package (respectively, who sent the package or what can be speculated about its contents). Note that this is not restricted to contents of a nature normally sent “discretely”. Other reasons can include having an, in some setting/by some standard, embarrassing hobby; the package being intended as a gift for the same neighbor’s birthday; not wanting to rub a better economic standing in someone’s face; …
  4. Not all neighbors are friends, not all neighbors are honest, and there is no guarantee that a given neighbor will ever actually hand out the package.
  5. Delays in eventual delivery can threaten periods of reclamation and the like. Notably, Germany has blanket fourteen-day return right on all online orders. It can be safely assumed that many businesses will refuse to honor that counting from the delivery to the recipient proper, alternatively require proof that the delivery took place at a later date; instead they will just count from the delivery to the neighbor.

    (I suspect that this would not hold up in court, but going to court over the values typically involved would be next to impossible in Germany. Lawyers would not touch the case. The court would try to steer it away, e.g. through arbitration and a compromise. The effort, even with a lawyer, for the costumer would outweigh the value of the goods. And then there is the risk of losing… The lack of a “small claims court”, or a corresponding mechanism, is likely a strong contributor to the extreme attitudes of many businesses.)

In this situation, a delivery to the neighbors should, by law, only be allowed after an explicit opt-in by the recipient. Not an absent opt-out, not an opt-in by the sender, not some T & C claim by the delivery service, not whatever-saves-time-for-the-delivery-man: Only pure, explicit recipient opt-in.

Of course, much of this would be academic if delivery services had the common sense to deliver when most people were home rather than at work…

Written by michaeleriksson

July 1, 2017 at 5:18 pm

Horrible customer experiences in Germany: Postbank

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Over the years, I have encountered a disturbing number of truly depressing behaviors from various German companies, both privately and in my professional and business life, be it stemming from incompetence, from blatant disregard for the customer’s rights, or from an inability to understand that both parties have to keep up their end of the bargain. I intend to discuss some of them over time, starting with the events around the business account I until very recently held with the Postbank (a banking subsidiary of Deutsche Post, the German “Post Office”). I recommend all readers to without exception have no dealings whatsoever with this grossly incompetent and customer hostile institution.

In an incomplete account:

  1. The account was supposed to come with a credit card, barring a vague disclaimer about credit worthiness. This disclaimer is fairly standard in Germany and something someone in good standing should be able to ignore—and I* earned well, had a bit of money put aside, and had never failed to pay a correct and undisputed bill. Still, I was refused a credit card, with the claim that these were not available to businesses* younger than, in my recollection, two years—something not mentioned with one word in advance.

    *Note that I work in a legal form that does not require the explicit founding of a company, implying that my credit worthiness as a business entity is (or at least should be) the same as my credit worthiness as a private person. This also makes the time limit applied harder to defend.

    No alternatives were presented (e.g. a debit or pre-paid card or a deposit).

    My request, about a year later, to look at the amount* of money in the account instead of the age of my business went without a reaction.

    *I will not discuss details of that kind here, for reasons of privacy. However, it was considerably more than I could realistically spend with the types of limits that apply to most German credit cards—and it had a history of rapid growth over the year that had passed.

    As a result, I was forced to use my private* credit card for e.g. booking and paying hotels, resulting in an unfortunate mixing of private and business funds/transactions, probably formally violating the terms of use for my private account, and removing many of the benefits with having a business account. Certainly, had I been told in advance about the business-age limit, I would absolutely not have opened my business account with the Postbank.

    *This credit card, as well as my private bank account, are with another bank.

  2. The account was supposed to come with a fully functioning Internet banking (and is anything else even conceivable in the years 2015 and 2016?!?). This did not turn out to be the case: In order to take actions within the online banking, including executing money transfers, I needed mTans*. In a first step, this required entry of a cell-phone number, to which a text message would be sent as verification, after which everything would work. However, despite several attempts on several days and despite a fully functioning cell phone**, I never received this text message.

    *I.e. Tans sent to a mobile phone. Frankly, the technical problems aside, it is very weak of a bank to force some specific technology on the users in that manner. What if someone does not have a cell phone?

    **Including the ability to receive text messages, something I verified carefully through copy-and-pasting the phone number from the online-banking page to an SMS-sending tool.

    My requests that the Postbank fix the problem went unheeded. Alternative means to activate mTans or do online banking were not provided.

    With this, the remaining benefits of a business account were gone and, again, I would certainly never have opened the account, had I expected such problems.

  3. As time went by, money accumulated on my business account from bills paid by my customers while my private account grew thinner and thinner, seeing that I had to pay all my costs, private and business, from my private account.

    I now wanted to transfer money to my private account and used one of the provided (paper) forms for an inconvenient and fee requiring* transfer. This transfer was never executed and I never received any notification as to the the “that” and “why”.

    *Whereas transfers through online banking, had they been possible, were free of charge.

  4. A little later, I finally bought a suitable apartment (cf. earlier posts) and needed to pay the seller. This time I went directly to the bank/post office, bringing a number of documents, including identification papers, with me, so that this could be done directly in the office, with no possibility of a hick-up. At the same time I wanted to transfer the lion’s part of the remainder to my private account.

    What happens? The clerk hands me several forms and asks me to complete them—apparently unable to do anything of what I had expected. Well, if filling in forms was the only thing available, I could have saved myself the walk and the almost half-hour (!) long wait in the queue, and just done this at home with the forms I already had.

    I filled in the forms, double-checked them, had the clerk double-check them (comparing against the known amounts and papers with printed versions of the relevant account numbers). This while explicitly mentioning the earlier unexecuted transfer and having emphasized how important it was that nothing went wrong. The clerk had no objections whatsoever to the form contents and claimed that the money would be transferred in no more than three* days.

    *Considerably slower than with online banking. (But in all fairness, I likely would not have been able to transfer so large a sum in one sitting per online banking anyway. The transfers to my private account are different, because I could easily just have made a monthly transfer for a smaller amount.)

    I waited four (!) days and still found no trace of a transfer.

  5. Come the next banking day, I went to another office, further away from my living quarters, where I expected a more bank- and less post-centric support from the external presentation, in order to terminate my account, ensure that the apartment seller received his money, and that every last cent of the remainder were transferred to my private account.

    Despite the exterior giving a “banky” impression, including having signs advertising various bank services, this office turned out to know nothing about banking, being virtually dedicated to postal matters. Not only that, the clerk I talked to this time was extremely rude and aggressive, from the first word on, apparently considering me an idiot for coming to them for a bank matter—never mind their own signs… In the end I was sent to a central office several kilometers away, where I eventual managed to find someone who was a dedicated bank employee.

  6. This visit took half-an eternity, with time spent waiting for service, with explanations, research of what had happened to the earlier transfers, the filling out and signing of form after form, …

    As it turns out, the first transfer had been rejected due to deviations in the signature. That might have been acceptable (I certainly do not want others transferring my money) had I been informed—but I was not. (As an aside, pen-and-paper signatures are an idiocy, being far to easy to forge, and suffering from considerable variations when written by the same person on different occasions. However, that is not a problem with the Postbank but with the overall system.)

    The other two had been filtered out because the scanner had been uncertain about the amounts. This sound more like an excuse than a reason, but is not entirely implausible, with standard German and Swedish digits being somewhat different. However, what followed later is under no circumstances acceptable: Firstly, such ambiguity should have been easily handled by a human reader (remember that the original clerk had verified the correctness and, by implication, readability)—and they had explicitly mentioned the amounts involved during the phone call, without prompting, which proves that they had no problems reading the numbers. Secondly, again they had failed to notify me.

    For the money transfer to the apartment seller, the situation was now urgent, and the clerk recommended an “express transfer”—for which I would have to pay another 15 Euro. This despite the only reason the express transfer was needed was the incompetence of the Postbank… Having no other choice, not wanting to risk the seller backing out, I consented, but clearly stated that I would demand these 15 Euros back. As promised, the money was transferred the same day.

    However, the money transfer for the remainder was not executed at all. This despite there being no room for error, the forms having been filled out by the clerk this time, and again without my receiving any type of notification as to the “that” and the “why”.

    Instead, the amount from the second of my earlier transfers to the private account suddenly turned up a few days after this visit. In combination, this is an obvious, obviously deliberate, and gross violation of my expressed will.

    To boot, despite my account being unambiguously terminated, with the additional unambiguous demand that any remainders of my money be transferred to my private account, this remainder has still not been transferred—almost two weeks after the visit. (And despite the clerk’s claim that money from an account termination should be available within roughly one week, even when not otherwise transferred.)

    As a result, the Postbank is currently sitting on a significant amount of money that they have no right whatsoever to sit on, while I find myself short the same amount of money.

    I have no idea whether they intend to return it, let alone when—but I do know that I will file criminal charges, contact the German Bank Inspection (Bafin) with a detailed complaint, and instruct a lawyer to take steps to retrieve my money against any and all further obstructions by the Postbank.

As an excursion, I originally picked the Postbank for my business account due to the, so it was presented, large net of bank offices, virtually every post office also being a bank office. In reality, as I have come to understand over the last few weeks, most of the post offices are useless when it comes to banking matters—even when their signs claim otherwise. In reality, the number of offices to take seriously is quite limited and the service network is far weaker, not stronger, than that of the main competitors (e.g. Commerzbank, Deutsche Bank, and, locally, various Sparkassen). Mostly, everything that can be done is to fill out a form that is then mailed to a more central office.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 17, 2016 at 7:52 pm