Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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Good riddance, CEBIT!

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It appears that the once world-leading German computer fair CEBIT has been canceled: Good riddance! Let other trade fairs follow suit!

While I do not rule out that there are some special cases of fairs that make sense or some minor purposes of a fair that cannot be better solved through other means, fairs are largely pointless—mostly just diverting money to the fair industry and to the local city and its tourist businesses. For others, including regular tourists and “legitimate” business travelers, the effects are mostly negative. This especially through the great troubles of finding hotel rooms during fairs, and the often quite considerable price hikes* that take place on the rooms that can be found. (Note the similarity to the advertising industry, both in purpose and in that it brings more benefit to it self than to its customers—and is usually outright negative for everyone else.)

*During the largest fairs, I have seen prices more than doubled on some occasions.

Going as a consumer* is, judging by my own experiences, fairly pointless: The things that might be interesting to see are what everyone else wants to see, implying that there are queues and crowds. The actual information presented is typically minimal and/or extremely commercial. Information about e.g. products and services are much easier to find on the Internet or through qualified publications in today’s** world. The main benefit might well be the opportunity to get some freebies, e.g. a few magazines—but compared to the ticket price this will rarely be worth the trouble. (And most visitors will also have to factor in travel and hotel costs, etc.) Indeed, I have twice received complimentary tickets to specifically the CEBIT and still chosen not to go, considering the other costs involved and the time wasted too large to make it worth the effort…

*If allowed, as with CEBIT: Some fairs are “business only”, which I consider far more sensible, both through creating a greater focus and through reducing the damage to third parties.

**Note that the situation here and elsewhere might have been very different just a few decades ago.

The situation is very similar for those businesses who are there as passive visitors. They might in addition have the option to “check out the competition”, but since they will only see what the competition wants seen, the value is low. There are some networking opportunities, but these face the same popularity issues—especially, as these visitors are likely to be less important players, who bring comparatively little value to the popular targets… Such networking would be better handled by visiting a few conferences, where the participants are better filtered and more time for such purposes is available. Alternatively, a contact service* that matches up businesses with sufficient compatibility in mutual value is likely to create greater benefit.

*I am, admittedly, uncertain to what degree such exist and do a good job; however, I have seen the idea broached repeatedly over the years. If in doubt, creating such businesses and foregoing fairs would be an improvement.

For active participants (i.e. those who have own stalls and whatnots), the situation is a bit better, but mostly a fair amounts to a publicity opportunity or a “to see and be seen”*. Here we again have the popularity problem—the likes of Apple will garner great interest, while almost no-one will pay attention to an obscure ten-man company. At the same time, Apple does not need to go to trade fairs to get publicity… For that matter, running a product demonstration or a speech over the Internet is not hard, while e.g. putting up a sales brochure is utterly trivial.

*Likely with heavy emphasis on the second part. Indeed, my employer during the dot-com crash deliberately went to computer fairs, including the CEBIT, for the purpose of showing that the company still existed…

At the end of the day, the press and the executives might like fairs, but the benefits compared to the alternatives remain dubious for everyone except the fair organizers, the hotels, etc. For most others, the fairs are an outright negative. For instance, I could have saved many hundred Euros and at least several hours of accumulated hotel searches had it not been for the flooding of the Cologne* hotel-market that takes place again and again. Or consider the additional pressure on the (already strained) transports to and from Cologne. Or consider that a very large and central piece of real estate is occupied by the fair area, where there could have been apartment houses for hundreds, likely even thousands, of people, easing the pressure on the over-heated apartment market.

*Cologne is one of the leading fair cities in Germany, and I have spent a part of my freelance career working there. (But the CEBIT, to avoid misunderstandings, took place in Hanover.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

November 29, 2018 at 12:38 am

Follow-up: Abuse of political power in Germany

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As a follow-up to an older text on Maaßen’s “resignation”:

Recent news is that the firing-by-promotion that was originally claimed has been replaced by an outright firing, the new job disappearing due to further Leftist criticism.

Specifically, his resignation speech appears to have been too much for them to swallow—never mind freedom of speech and whatnot.

I have read this speech (in German), and cannot agree with their reaction. Yes, I can see how some might see themselves slighted; no, it does not go beyond a reasonable expression of personal opinion, and is mostly cloaked in “diplomat speak”. It is certainly far more diplomatic than some of the statements directed against Maaßen… I lack the detail knowledge to judge the truthfulness/correctness of some claims (that require inside knowledge or even are a matter of interpretation or perspective); however, the general trend well matches my own view of German society. I also note that this is one of those cases where similar attacks would have been highly likely even if Maaßen was entirely truthful throughout—there are some claims that the Left does not tolerate even when they are both truthful and factually correct.

A core claim:

Am folgenden Tag und an den darauffolgenden Tagen stand nicht das Tötungsdelikt im politischen und medialen Interesse, sondern rechtsextremistische “Hetzjagden gegen Ausländer”. Diese “Hetzjagden” hatten nach Erkenntnissen der lokalen Polizei, der Staatsanwaltschaft, der Lokalpresse, des Ministerpräsidenten des Landes und meiner Mitarbeiter nicht stattgefunden. Sie waren frei erfunden.

Ich habe bereits viel an deutscher Medienmanipulation und russischer Desinformation erlebt. Dass aber Politiker und Medien “Hetzjagden” frei erfinden oder zumindest ungeprüft diese Falschinformation verbreiten, war für mich eine neue Qualität von Falschberichterstattung in Deutschland.

Gist in English:

After a murder (by a foreigner), the attention of politicians and media was not directed towards the murder, but towards alleged extreme-Right Hetzjagden* of foreigners. However, according to the local police, the DA, local press, the state president, and Maaßen’s own co-workers, these Hetzjagden had not taken place.** In his interpretation, politicians and media had either invented the alleged Hetzjagden or (re-)distributed misinformation without fact checking.

*I am unable to find a reasonable translation into English. Indeed, even the meaning in German is open to interpretation based on context. The literal meaning is a type of hunt (persistence hunt?), and could at an extreme be taken to involve e.g. foreigners being chased through the streets. A more metaphorical interpretation could include e.g. the type of negative political and media attention directed towards Maaßen, himself. Some overlap with a (metaphorical) witch-hunt could be present; however, that would be “Hexenjagd” in German.

**Note that much of the original criticism against Maaßen was based on his denial of these Hetzjagden. If his claims here are truthful, he was drawing on (mostly) independent sources that he had legitimate reason to consider both well informed and credible. This as opposed to just making a claim based on superficial knowledge from TV or prior prejudice.

Generally, German media, main stream politics, etc., does not seem to be aware of how much unreasonable Leftism there is. SPD (second largest party and member of the current coalition government) is to the Left of the U.S. Democrats; Die Linke, a direct descendant of GDR’s ruling communist party, is represented in parliament; and Die Grüne, a Left-dominated “green” party, also sits in parliament, and is at least partially* Left of the Democrats. In total, the Left-of-the-Democrat forces make up roughly forty percent of parliament… Despite this, the Left is ever again complaining about Rechtsruck** this and Rechtsruck that, trying to cause an anti-Right panic—despite concerns about undue and long-standing far Left influence being much more justified. (Not limited to parliament, but also including e.g. long traditions of “Autonomous” organizations, the Antifa, and other sources of hatred, violence, and the-end-justifies-the-means actions; and a strong dominance of media, with Die Linke and the Leftist part of Die Grüne being considerably stronger than even in the general population.)

*For natural reasons, it is heterogeneous when it comes to non-environmental issues and a blanket classification going beyond “Left-dominated” would be unfair.

**Roughly, “pull/move/scooch to the Right”—a vague and (intended to be) ominous slogan used by the Left whenever they fear that non-Leftist opinions are spoken too freely, that some people who “should” vote Left are suddenly not, or similar. Notably, it is not followed by arguments, being used instead of arguments.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 5, 2018 at 8:56 pm

Tax declaration for 2017/More on Elster etc.

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My second go at the tax declaration was more successful than the first. A few, likely incomplete, remarks, however:

  1. As far as I can tell (without making a detailed check) all the old problems remain (cf. e.g. [1], [2]). This includes the inability to edit multiple forms in parallel and the arbitrary number-format issues, both of which were big annoyances. The latter includes complications like that copying “11,30” into the one field leads to an error message that decimal positions are forbidden, while copying “34” into another brings the error message that two decimal positions are mandatory (even though an exact number was intended—not a rounded “34,25”). Never mind that all other tools I use follow the convention of a decimal point while Elster strictly uses the German convention of a decimal comma
  2. The handling of VAT (not Elster specific) is an unnecessary cause of complications and not very logical: Despite* VAT merely being collected by businesses on behalf of the IRS**, it counts as income when collected and as cost when either paid out the IRS or paid to other business (based on their bills). This introduces several pointless fields and the need to copy*** data from the one form to the other, where the net result should be 0.**** Really, this should not be income and cost—but positive and negative cash flow: There is no* change, even temporary, in terms of overall net assets and the “accounting balance” —only temporary fluctuations in the bank balance.

    *Looking at practical intent and logic: The formal system might be different, which would explain the illogical procedure.

    **I refer to the German Finanzämter and the general system by “IRS” for convenience and understandability. The correspondence to the U.S. entity is not perfect, however.

    ***It remains the case that data input or calculated in one form cannot be automatically synchronized with other forms referencing the same values, introducing manual steps and potential errors. This is especially absurd, seeing that these values do not really benefit the other forms—a good system would require the IRS to input the values (preferably automatically) based on the forms.

    ****At least once the yearly VAT declaration has lead to a correcting payment over the monthly pre-declarations and pre-payments.

  3. My VAT calculations were partially foiled by some older submitted forms no longer being readable—for no discernible reason.
  4. Various copy actions were made the harder through Elster somehow (likely not deliberately) disallowing the copying of calculated values from the forms. Whereas it is normally not a problem to copy any piece of text from an HTML page, this was simply not possible here. (I did not investigate in detail why this was so, but a brief look at the HTML code makes me suspect that the values were somehow displayed through CSS instead of normal text.)
  5. I tried to save* the EÜR-form with dummy values of “TODO” for some fields where I did not have the values at hand,** wanting to complete the rest and come back to these fields later. This with the particular point that I had now identified all the fields that I needed, allowing me to target these specific fields later—without having to go through the entire document again, costing me additional effort and introducing the risk of missing a field the second time around. Alas, not only were these fields marked as containing errors, but it was impossible to save the form without correcting these errors. (Note: Not send the form, which would have been OK—merely save the form.) Imagine if a code editor refused to save code that did not compile, a text editor text with spelling errors, or a spread-sheet fields with invalid formulae.

    *Thinking back, I am a little uncertain whether I tried to save, just move to the next page of the form, or both. Whichever applies does not alter the idiocy, however.

    **Including some of the aforementioned VAT fields.

    As a workaround, I filled these fields with absurdly large values that would have caused correspondingly absurd totals to appear, (a) giving me a chance to see what fields were picked, (b) making it obvious if a field had been missed. Still, this is suboptimal and introduces a further moment of risk.

    Needless to say, the nifty feature of being able to mark (e.g. through a check-box) what fields are relevant-but-still-incomplete is not present.

  6. Many of the forms could be made a lot easier by adding a few central switches that suppress irrelevant parts (“married yes/no” e.g.—someone not married has no possible use for half the “Mantelbogen”; with some reservations for when circumstances change during the year).
  7. The form to send a free-text message to the IRS is particularly idiotic (also see previous discussions for other problems): A reasonable form would have one page, with three fields, viz. identification number, subject, and body. The actual form has several pages, including requests for information like address, company address, data about a spouse, …
  8. Some of the problems (including the previous item?) could be explainable by a conceptual flaw: Instead of Elster being connected directly to the IRS (just like my online banking is connected directly to my bank), it is a “service” provided by another governmental organization that merely sends the data to the IRS in a manner similar to offline tools by third-parties. Without this conceptual flaw, a number of simplifications, e.g. with regard to data input and changes of address, would be possible.
  9. Elster is excruciatingly slow. For instance, to close the one form, open another, copy a value, close the second form, open the first form, and paste the value, takes ages. (And remember that it is not possible to have two forms open in parallel.) Even switching from the one page of the same form to the next, an operation that should be almost immediate, causes a very noticeable delay. (I never timed these operations, but on some occasions it might have been as much as ten seconds.) All in all, I spent several times longer waiting for Elster than I did actually interacting with it.
  10. The German tax system makes a great use of “Freibeträge”, amounts that the tax payer can deduct without e.g. providing receipts. In some cases, e.g. for relocation costs, this can be an advantage when the overall costs are small enough. In others, it is more or less fraud. Notably, there is a blanket amount that any employee can deduct for “Werbungskosten”*, which is painted as a great service towards the people—as if this was a tax break. In reality, it is nothing but an invalidation of all deductions smaller than this blanket amount: The overall amount of money needed by the government is not magically reduced, implying that the same money is collected through a higher overall tax rate. The blanket amount then merely means that “if you have Werbungskosten below this amount, you cannot deduct any Werbungskosten”, very similar to the deductible of an insurance policy. A further complication is that many with somewhat higher actual costs will not bother to state these costs—finding all** the receipts and making all the checks needed to claim, say, an additional 50 Euro will be more effort than is worth the trouble. To boot, this system is unfair in as far as even those with considerably lower Werbungskosten can use the full amount, causing a flow of money from*** those with higher Werbungskosten to those with lower…

    *I am uncertain what a good English translation could be. The general meaning is costs related to work and that only arose through work. Examples include e.g. special clothing (mostly blue collar) and professional literature (mostly white collar).

    **Note that it is not enough to find the receipts for those 50 Euro—the entire amount, blanket + 50 Euro, needs to be covered.

    ***Measured against the baseline of a sound deduction system. Compared to a system where Werbungskosten are not deductible at all, however, the flow still benefits the people with higher Werbungskosten.

    The true reason for this blanket amount is likely that the IRS wants to avoid additional work on its own end, notably checks of receipts* and the like.

    *However, the last few years, receipts have grown less important and are no longer collected by the IRS by default. Obviously, the tax payers still need to keep the receipts in case of e.g. an audit.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 2, 2018 at 8:27 pm

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Abuse of political power in Germany

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A recent German debate around Hans-Georg Maaßen and his forced resignation* from the office of president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (colloquially, “Verfassungsschutz”) well illustrate the problems with the societal attitude towards the Left** and “Right”** in Germany:

*Technically, it appears to be a promotion; however, there is no doubt about what actually took place.

**Caution: While the Left is an at least semi-coherent group, the “Right” is not. Notably, the “extreme Right” often has little in common with the “Right” in general, being defined (by the Left) solely through e.g. attitudes to nationalism and immigration, even in cases where it has more in common with the Left than the (non-extreme) “Right”. This problem is largely ignored below, because the sub-topics relate strongly to the Leftist view of the “Right”.

After large-scale, allegedly immigrant hostile and violent,* protests in Chemnitz, Maaßen made claims amounting to his having no decisive information about hunts (“Hetzjagden”) of foreigners during the protests, and he expressed doubts about the authenticity of a video circulating the Internet—quite correctly pointing to recurring problems with exaggerations and distortions around alleged “Right-wing” violence. He might or might not have been wrong about the events and the video,** but even should his estimate have been wrong, he could still have been truthful, e.g. in that no such decisive information was known to him or that he had genuine doubts about the authenticity of the video, awaiting a deeper investigation. (Note that the situation was chaotic and information given in e.g. media has been contradictory and confused.)

*I have not investigated the details, cf. excursion, and neither support nor reject these claims, except as far as I advice others to be similarly cautious in the light of tendentious news reporting. I note, however, that the protests were a direction reaction to a murder involving immigrant and/or asylum-seeker suspects.

**I have not investigated this either.

Nevertheless, this has led the Leftist parties of the German Parliament to (successfully) demand his resignation. This confirms the ever-present problem of the Verfassungsschutz being seen as a tool mainly to restrict freedom of opinion on the “Right”. Consider e.g. that the parliamentary party AfD has repeatedly been the target of unfounded claims of “Verfassungsfeindlichkeit” (“hostility towards the constitution”) by Leftist parties—while a direct continuation of the ruling East-German Communist party, SED*, also sits in parliament, and is met with no such claims. Or, among the extra-parliamentary and more extreme parties, consider how there have been repeated attempts to have the Right-wing NPD banned outright, while the Left-wing MLPD*, openly calling for revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat, is tolerated. There is an extreme and intolerable double-standard, where the Left has to commit acts and express opinions several degrees worse, before the same treatment is awarded. Indeed, it is obvious that very large parts of the Left (in Germany, in Sweden, in the U.S., …) sees its own opinions as the sole acceptable norm, with any non-Left opinion almost ipso facto being evil, extremist, or otherwise worthy of condemnation.

*To avoid misunderstandings: I am not saying that these parties should be banned—just that it is an anti-democratic hypocrisy to tolerate them while calling for the ban of lesser evils in another camp.

Excursion on news reporting, etc.:
Maaßen is quite correct in that there is a major problem with distortions through press and media (as well as, obviously, Leftist propagandists). This includes the same double-standard as discussed above, conflation of fellow travelers,* and even reporting that puts the true events on their head, e.g. in that a longer article discusses violence around an “extreme Right” demonstration and only at the very end briefly mentions that the demonstration had been peaceful until Leftist counter-demonstrators attacked it… The likes of Antifa are certainly a far greater problem and far more deplorable than the people they attack. (I have already made similar points in [1].)

*E.g in that a demonstration or protest somehow involving immigration is considered “extreme Right” in a blanket manner, without looking at the motivations of the group as a whole or, more importantly, as individual members. I point particularly to the Pegida phenomenon, which collected a wide variety of people with very different motivations. I recall in particular a brief discussion with a colleague a few years back: He positively bragged about how he was fulfilling his civic duties by being a counter-demonstrator—and followed this up with a condemnation of the Burka, where he had to draw the line… Many of his “enemies” had opinions no worse than that—as he would have known, had he bother to find out. Indeed, many on the Left consider it a firing offense when a Muslim does not want shake hands with a member of the opposite sex…

As a side-effect of these distortions, the truth of events is very hard to find, which is why I have not even tried in this case. (As it does not matter what happened, when it comes to evaluating Maaßen’s fate. Chances are that he would have been condemned either which way, because he did not do his “duty” of using the Verfassungsschutz to put down the “Right” and the “Right” only. Cf. parts of [1].)

Excursion on Maaßen:
My own opinion on Maaßen in general is divided, seeing that he has been a source of controversy before, including for a decidedly negative NSA-style attitude to surveillance; however, most of the controversy, going by memory, has been Leftist condemnation of his failure to be sufficiently compliant with Leftist ideas about who is good and who is evil. Of course, what he has or has not done, said, whatnot, in the past does not alter the fact that the recent events were rooted in politics and ideology—not in Maaßen’s actual suitability for the job.

Excursion on Verfassungsschutz and Verfassungsfeindlichkeit:
In a bigger picture, I find the Verfassungsschutz and the concept of Verfassungsfeindlichkeit troubling. While much of this amounts to legitimate activities, e.g. tracking terrorists and potential sources of political violence, the setting is disputable, and e.g. a “Federal Office for the Prevention of Terrorism and Political Violence” (or similar) would have been better. By focusing on the constitution, there are implicit limits on the “correct opinion” that are not tolerable in a Rechtsstaat, because of inherent defects. For instance, the German constitution prescribes, non-negotiably, non-revocably, that Germany is to be a “sozialer Bundesstaat”, effectively a social/well-fare (federated) state, which is a thoroughly anti-democratic restriction. (But I stress that merely having the “wrong” opinion in this regard will not bring the Verfassungsschutz into action.)

Of course, the German constitution arose in a manner that makes it a snapshot of political opinion shortly after the demise of the Nazis, which is not a good basis for a document that potentially will last for hundreds of years—and it was not intend to be more than a temporary solution. (Unfortunately, after roughly seventy years and the re-unification of Germany, there is precious little chance that a more suitable constitution will arise.)

Excursion on Marx et co:
The mentioned double-standard is highlighted by where the controversy originated: Chemnitz (aka Karl-Marx-Stadt) still has more than a few traces of the old East-Germany, including a giant head of Karl Marx at the edge of the central park. Similarly, Wuppertal (my current residence) has a major street named after Friedrich Engels.* A test for Verfassungsfeindlichkeit could have ended badly for both (had they been active today), and especially the Karl-Marx head is in bad taste, because it is not there as an independent honoring of Marx, but as a remnant of the old East-German propaganda and symbolism.

*Engels, coincidentally was born and spent a fair bit of his life in and around Barmen, the specific part of Wuppertal where I live. Generally, Wuppertal has been the source of quite a few prominent Leftists, including Johannes Rau (whose career included a term as German President).

Excursion on the coalition government:
I have repeatedly written on the democracy problems caused by having an unholy alliance form a coalition government (e.g. [2]). The events above are a potential illustration: Many of the demands for Maaßen’s resignation came from the junior and Leftist partner (SPD). Had it not been a member of this unholy alliance, the senior partner (CDU/CSU; e.g. in a more natural coalition with FDP) is more likely to have kept him on: Do we get rid of that one guy or do we risk the coalition failing?

Written by michaeleriksson

September 19, 2018 at 12:56 am

More on the German IRS

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And my problems with the German IRS and the inexcusable Elster tool continue:

  1. I have written about technical and other issues forcing me to make repeated unnecessary visits to Elster to file my preliminary VAT ([1])—unnecessary, because I am on a sabbatical and have a preliminary blanket 0 for the rest of the year. The idiocies of Elster and the IRS have already extended the one visit that should have been necessary to four, as discussed in [1]. Come early August, I tried again, found that my Steuernummer and whatnot now were available for automatic use, and opted to minimize the additional effort by pre-declaring my VAT in two quarterly forms—stating 0 for the third and the fourth quarter. Alas, a few days ago, I received a note from the IRS claiming that my submission for the third* quarter had been rejected on the grounds that I was not eligible to file quarterly… In other words, these nitwits actually consider it reasonable that I should use even more of my spare time to file individual 0s for every individual month of the year… All in all, I would be better off just terminating my status as a freelancer. (Of course, if do, they will probably shove yet another Steuernummer down my throat—and another one after that, when I terminate my sabbatical and start working again… Cf. [2].)

    *I have as yet no word on the fourth quarter, but the outcome seems predictable…

  2. End of May, I explicitly contacted the IRS about a stay on my tax filings for 2017, due to the urgent need to handle other IRS related matters, including entirely unwarranted additional fees imposed upon me for errors that the IRS had committed. (Some of them are covered in earlier posts, but I will likely write a larger one later on.)

    This is normally no problem whatsoever, for the simple reason that it is good for the IRS when tax declarations are delayed: They can divide their own work more evenly over the year without being bogged down around the deadlines and they have the interest advantage (because most German filers see a tax return).

    Standard procedure is to simply request a stay under the assumption that no answer means consent—and while rejection likely can happen, I have personally never heard of it. In this specific case, I would not even consider the matter negotiable: I had to take action to compensate for errors by the IRS; ergo, the IRS has only it self to blame. (And, no, I did not receive a rejection notice.)

    Nevertheless, I recently received another letter complaining that I had not yet filed for 2017, setting me a deadline for 2018.09.24—six (!) days before the end of the stay…

    This is so unbelievably pointless and idiotic that I am starting to doubt whether incompetence is enough to explain the behavior of the IRS…

  3. My complaint concerning the main points behind the previous item is as yet unanswered, close to three months afterwards…

    Considering the quite obvious situation behind these complaints, which should allow the matter to be decided in five minutes by an intelligent reader (barring the need for checks and verifications that under no circumstances should take more than a few days of waiting time), and considering that communications in the other direction regularly come with very short deadlines*, my enthusiasm over this delay is limited.

    *I have not kept statistics, but, going by feel, I would say that most deadlines set by a government agency towards me have been fourteen days after some reference event—and often an event taking place before I actually receive the corresponding message.

    The only message I have as yet received in return appeared* to merely state that my complaint had arrived and been sent back to the local IRS office, rather than being treated by the recipient, the Oberfinanzdirektion**. This too was highly annoying, because I had explicit chosen the Oberfinanzdirektion as a suitable escalation—high enough to avoid the worst incompetence and partiality of the lower levels of the governmental hierarchies, but not so high as to seem like overkill. By sending the matter back to the local IRS, they still expose me to the exact problems I wanted to avoid, and I consider it highly likely that I would*** be forced to escalate the matter again, making the this action a waste of everyone’s time and energy.

    *Unfortunately, I cannot find it on short notice to verify the details, and there was no reason for me to pay attention to said details at the time.

    **A mid-level supervisory agency within the overall IRS system.

    ***At this juncture, and in the light of the additional issues discussed in the first two items, I will escalate pre-emptively.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 26, 2018 at 8:25 am

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German regulations sabotaging markets

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Yesterday, I was skimming through a few of my older texts and stumbled upon the claim:

This too is likely a result of the flawed German model: The only reason that realtors do not have money effortlessly pouring in, is that the potential profits have lured too many people into this business…

(In the context of complaining about realtors, their cost, their service level, and the proportion of realtors to real estate in Germany.)

If there are, in some sense, too many realtors, should that not drive down the prices and increase the service level? Should not the more competitive (better, cheaper, more efficient, …) realtors drive the less competitive off the market?

Unfortunately, the aforementioned flawed German model strikes again (see the link for more details): Because realtors provide a service to the seller* for which the buyer pays, the whole price argument goes down the drain. The seller hires the realtor in the knowledge that he will not need to pay him, and therefore does not** care about the actual price, implying that a realtor who lowers his prices will lose in income per object without being handed more objects. At the same time, there is a regulatory upper limit on the percentage*** of the object price that the realtor may charge. In combination, this leads to almost all realtors charging the regulatory limit on almost all objects…

*Until fairly recently, this situation applied both to rented and sold objects, which strongly contributed to the historical development of the situation. Today, landlords have to pay for themselves, and I restrict the text to speak of “seller” (and so on). It is to be hoped that this change will at least partially remedy the problem—but it is unlikely to truly do so unless the seller–buyer situation is also changed.

**With some reservations for objects that are hard to get rid of and where the realtor’s fees might be the last straw for a prospective buyer. That objects are hard to move is the exception in today’s Germany, however, and the realtor’s fee is usually too small (as a proportion of the overall price and costs) to be a major psychological deterrent. (Note that there are a number of other costs than the actual price and the realtor’s fees, including a purchase tax, various administrative fees, bank fees and interest when a loan is needed, fees to the building manager (for an apartment), and possibly a few others—and that is not even counting the costs for the actual move, needed repairs, and whatnots.)

***An interesting twist is that since fees are percentage based, realtors are paid the more, the easier their job is: In an hotter seller’s market, unloading an object is correspondingly easier; in a hotter seller’s market, the price (and thereby the realtor fee) is correspondingly higher.

However, this also means that there is little incentive for realtors to try to compete through better service: If they try to do more for the sellers (let alone buyers…), they have extra costs that cannot be put on the bill; and such a “more” would be bad business. (Obviously, someone who has a better turnaround might be able to sell more objects, but with the over-establishment present, there is no guarantee that such would be found. The seller might be happier with a faster sale, but most will not need to sell another object for the next two decades, leaving word-of-mouth the main benefit to the realtor—then again, since the seller need not even understand that his sale was unusually fast, there might be no word-of-mouth either.)

The problems are worsened by the minimal qualifications needed to become a realtor, allowing more-or-less anyone to move onto the market at will, increasing the risk of over-establishment. This also contributes to keeping the competence levels down, because those with a brain will usually have sufficiently good prospects elsewhere that they do not consider becoming realtors, while many who are worse off believe it to be an easy way to get wealthy. (Which it, except for over-establishment, would have been, at least in the major cities.) This is not only immediately bad for both buyer and seller, but can also have an indirect effect through poor “strategic” decision: For instance, if better service does lead to a sufficiently higher turnaround (cf. above) that the increase in costs is considerably outweighed, a less competent realtor is less likely to realize this.

To this we have to factor in the various problems discussed in the linked earlier text and in an even older, and it is clear that the law has very severely reduced the ability of market mechanisms to improve the abysmal situation— we are left where we were.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few other areas in Germany that suffer from very similar problems.

Consider e.g. taxicabs*: What happens when someone starts a new cab company (be it larger scale or as a one-man operation) or when an existing company adds a few new cabs? Do the prices drop? No—but the line of cabs at the train station or airport that waits for their turn grows longer… In effect, the prices remain the same, the service level remains** the same, and each cabby or cab company just ends up with a smaller piece of the pie. This to the point that I am often*** asked point blank whether I would like to arrange for this specific cab/cabby to pick me up again after work—business must truly be booming… (The extremely negative reactions to Uber and similar services, and the attempts to ban them by court, are understandable, seeing that they drain the market further. However, these reactions are also a great shame, because they do/would introduce a positive competition, and the bans kill that. To boot, Uber shows that regular cab companies, and/or the regulators, might do well to reconsider business models…) When someone calls for a cab, it is pretty much the same, except that there is now a virtual line of cabs…

*The fare conditions are prescribed by the respective city (or some similar entity).

**In this specific setting. In other settings, e.g. how soon a cab can be sent to pick someone up, there might be a positive effect; however, it is unlikely to be very large considering the overall situation.

***On those rare occasions that I do take a cab. Mostly I get by on foot or with public transportation.

Or consider the “Buchpreisbindung”*: Bookstores cannot compete by price, implying not only that books remain unnecessarily expensive, but also that e.g. a “lower price for lower service” or a “better opening hours for a higher price” strategy cannot even be attempted. A family bookstore that might have better margins, absent the need to pay employees, cannot compensate for a smaller set of available books by dropping prices, neither can it drop prices in the “off season”** to get by until business picks up again. Online retailers cannot compete with a lower price based on lower costs. The single low-volume bookstore in Hicktown cannot raise its prices in order to survive; the one-of-many in central Metropolis cannot lower them for a bigger share of the customers. Customers do not have the ability to travel a little further for a better price and a bulk-buy. Etc. In contrast, a large bookstore chain can buy the books at a greater discount from the publishers and pocket the difference. Predictably, the big chains and publishers are great fans of the Buchpreisbindung—they get most of the extra money from the customers and their smaller/newer/paradigm-changing competitors are hindered.

*The obligation for book publishers to set a fix price for every book and the simultaneous obligation for bookstores to sell at exactly that price. I note that the book industry in most other countries, and e.g. the DVD and CD industries in Germany, work without the equivalent of a Buchpreisbindung.

**I am frankly uncertain what this would be for a bookstore; however, there are definitely seasonal variations, including around Christmas and the “back to school” rush in the autumn.

The situation is made the more annoying by the, often idiotic, attempts to justify the Buchpreisbindung, including that it would benefit the smaller stores*. Other arguments point to advantages for first-time authors or small publishers—but how are they helped? The Buchpreisbindung only mandates a fix selling price for any given book, it does not prescribe the amount—and no price is of any help unless a sale takes place! A smaller publisher could try to compete by setting a lower price than comparable books from the competition, but if the book then becomes a hit, a lot of the potential winnings would be lost, because the price cannot trivially** be raised back to the competitions’ level. Vice versa, if the price is originally set too high for the book to sell, lowering it to make the book more attractive is not trivial. Similarly, the first-time author could try to sell himself cheaply, but it is not a given that any publisher would cooperate (preferring other authors who are established and give them a greater profit margin), and he otherwise faces problems similar to the publisher’s. Of course, if (!) and to the degree that these justifications do hold, they are not necessarily doing the world a favor, seeing that they would often artificially keep inefficient businesses afloat at the cost of someone else…

*This seems highly unlikely both due to reasoning like the above, the overall reduction of the market caused by higher prices, and the fact that smaller stores de facto are being wiped out by the larger chains. (The larger chains can compete with more books, a big cafe, name recognition, an advertising budget, special events, better trained staff, … The mom-and-pop store? Precious little…) In as far as the argument holds, e.g. in that the many smaller store with higher costs would be supported, it does not hold by altering the relative ability to compete—but through forcing an artificial subsidy from the unwilling customers.

**Strictly speaking, it can raise or lower the price relative the bookstores, but since their willingness to pay is limited by what they can charge the readers (i.e. the fix price) and since a price change towards the bookstore has no effect on the readers’ willingness to buy, this is not that much of a help. Apart from that, it might (I lack detail knowledge) even be that the publisher would be forced to put out an entire new edition to change the price—and even if that is not necessary, there would be the problem of communicating the price change everywhere. (And what about a price lowering that went beyond what the bookstores originally paid for their current stock…) For price reductions, there is always remaindering (cf. below), but that could lessen future chances (especially for the author) and might not give much flexibility, seeing that remaindered books are usually sold in competition with other remaindered books, which necessitates a very major price cut to be competitive in the new setting.

An interesting twist is the extensive remaindering of books that have sold too poorly, which proves how flawed the system is: After some time period, books can be released from the Buchpreisbindung, and then take ridiculous hits in price, e.g. going from 25 to 5 Euro in one day, instead of gradually drifting downwards over time.

Oh, and yes, if the Buchpreisbindung worked as advertised, would there not be an abundance of new or low-selling “high literature” authors to be found in a bookstore? One might thinks so, but they are a very small minority. In fact, about half a modern German bookstore has no books at all, in favour of Cafes, reading areas, calendars, school supplies, …—and much of the rest is mass- or publisher produced, ghostwritten, whatnot. The cooking and travel sections alone might take up a quarter of the actual book part of a bookstore. Possibly half the books are translated from other languages (or imported without translation), and here the Buchpreisbindung has very little effect on the authors. Etc.

Other government induced market failures and injustices abound in Germany, as with e.g. the construction industry and “Kurzarbeit”: During the summer, the construction industry booms and charges high prices; during the winter, the temperature and weather conditions lead to a scale-back. However, instead of the industry now trying to find more work through a lowering of prices, or the individual construction worker by a temporary switch to another field, what happens? The construction companies go to the government, point to the lack of orders, and request a “Kurzarbeit” classification, allowing them to reduce hours and wages, with the government covering most of the wage reduction towards the construction workers. In effect, the construction industry can both eat its cake and have it too, at the cost of the tax payers and customers.

Pharmacies might be a strong candidate for this discussion (and were the first non-realtor example that occurred to me): Despite a massive over-establishment, pharmacies remain unduly pricey and lacking in service quality (see excursion)—implying a similar market paradox. However, I am uncertain whether the reasons are similar or, as it were, another disease manifests with similar symptoms. The strong regulations on the profession might be a partial reason, as might a partial or indirect price-regulation and price-insensitivity*. It might also be something relating to a poor ability of customers to compare prices, restrictions on the size of the individual pharmacy group** preventing economies of scale, and an undue trust placed in pharmacies by the naive.

*A significant part of the business is, obviously, prescription drugs. These are largely paid for by insurance companies, implying that (a) the individual customer is significantly less price sensitive than he ideally should be, (b) prices are geared at what the insurance companies are willing to pay, with any cent left off the maximum price being a cent lost. (There might or might not be additional regulations or central agreements controlling what the insurance companies pay.)

**In my recollection, a maximum of four (!) individual pharmacies; however, I could be wrong.

Excursion on pharmacies and service:
The problems include poor opening hours and deliberate attempts to fool customers into buying homeopathic* quackery products, the most expensive product that they have in a given product group** (without mention of alternatives), and/or something that the local drugstore or supermarket sells for a fraction of the price. Several of my talks with pharmacy staff*** have had more in common with a sales pitch than with medical advise. The one time I really would have needed advice, after some nit-wit physician actually prescribed (!) a homeopathic product, not one word of warning was given: No “are you aware that this product is useless”, no “are you sure that you want this”, no “you might want to get a second opinion”, … (I only discovered the issue when I had arrived home, leaving me understandably furious.)

*While this is for all intents and purposes fraud, it is unfortunately still legal in Germany, due to a long tradition and a strong lobby. (Or to be more specific: Either the pharmacy worker is so medicinally incompetent that she (it is almost always a woman) should be banned from the profession, or she is engaging in deliberate fraud by trying to sell an over-priced product that she knows does not work.) This is the worse, because it does not end at a fraud against the individual customer, it also helps perpetuate and legitimize homeopathy as a whole, thereby committing fraud against society.

**I recall once buying adhesive bandages and, of the dozens of variations present in the store, immediately being led to one with silver (as an anti-bacterial or whatnot) in it that cost twice or thrice the regular price—even by pharmacy standards. The regular ones were in turn twice or thrice as expensive as in the drugstore… Not only have I used the regular kind, without any type of problem, my whole life, but I usually only use up a small portion of the individual bandages before the claimed expiry—making the multi-markup silver ones a ridiculous waste of money. (For me… For the pharmacy, it is a high-markup, low-cost item.)

***Note that the people at the counter are not necessarily pharmacists proper (which requires formal qualifications comparable to those of a physician in Germany), they can also be various helpers. However, even these helpers underlie strict regulations and are much better qualified (at least, on paper) than what is needed for non-pharmacy counters.

Sadly, pharmacies like to claim that their good costumer service and medical advice would be highly valuable (thereby providing a pseudo-justification for the high prices and the qualifications needed). I have never found this to be the case: Yes, they do try to explain to me how to take Tylenol every time I buy a package—but why?!? I can read… (There are extensive instructions in the box*.) I have also actually used them before… If in doubt, to paraphrase a furious physician on “Scrubs”, having just been called down for a consult by a new intern: “It’s regular strength Tylenol. You grab a fistful, throw it down her throat, and whatever sticks is the right dose.” In all likelihood, the reason for the wish to explain Tylenol is not that there is any actual benefit in doing so—but because they want to create the faulty impression that they do provide additional value compared to e.g. a drugstore (which, unfortunately, is not allowed to sell even Tylenol).

*Drugs are usually sold pre-packaged in Germany, unlike the apparent (going by TV) U.S. system of each purchase being individually dispensed into small bottles by the pharmacy worker. (Incidentally giving another reason why the case for considerable qualification might be overstated. Most of what happens at and around the counter requires no skills more demanding than at many non-pharmacy counters—staff the counters with non-specialists and keep the specialists for tasks requiring specialist skills.)

Sure, when it comes to more dangerous or unusual medicines and e.g. the elderly, some advice might be beneficial, but is there any guarantee that what is said in the pharmacy is even remembered later? (Especially, with the elderly…) Is there any guarantee that the information given is actually correct, when we leave the area of Tylenol? I would certainly trust the written instructions by the manufacturer over the memory of a pharmacy worker. (Especially, with more dangerous or unusual medicines…)

And, no, I do not* want a pharmacy worker to give me something other than what the physician prescribed. Even if we assume that the pharmacy worker knows the drug side better than the physician (unlikely, when not an actual pharmacist; and not a given even for a pharmacist, especially when the physician is a specialist), the reverse will apply to the patient and his problem. This the more so, the more dangerous the problem and/or drug is.

*Apart from apparent errors and quackery (cf. above), and even here I would not just take the pharmacy workers word for it—I would check back with the physician. (And, obviously, apart from the special case of giving me the same drug with a different brand name.)

Finally, asking pharmacy workers for help, e.g. in lieu of going to a physician, is idiotic, because that just gives them an excuse to try to pawn off their homeopathic quackery or uselessly expensive products—see above.

Excursion on realtors vs. pharmacy workers:
In one case, I complain about too lax entry regulation; in the other, about too strict entry regulation. This is not a contradiction. Most notably, for realtors I speak of the entry criteria for a (possibly one-man) business, while for pharmacy workers I discuss the entry criteria for manning the counter in an existing business (run by someone with much higher qualifications, which I do not necessarily question). I would also consider a job as a realtor (even in employment) more demanding in terms of intelligence than as a counter clerk (even in a pharmacy). Further, there is nothing unusual with one “too much” and one “too little” being changed in opposite directions toward a “just right”—I do not, for instance, suggest that a realtor must have a topic-specific bachelor and two Staatsexamina*. (However, as a counter-point, most changes tend to have both positive and negative effects, and I do not rule out that there would be some negative effects accompanying the positive in both cases—but I do assume that the positive would be larger.)

*German official tests that must be passed by e.g. lawyers, physicians, and teachers before they are fully entitled to practice. Exactly what qualifications are reasonable I leave open, but something like an IHK (“chamber of commerce”) test to prove a reasonable knowledge of relevant law and regulation, accounting, construction, whatnot would be a possibility.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 4, 2018 at 3:18 am

Some thoughts on a recent German controversies around athletes and freedom of action

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An incident around German/Turkish soccer star Mesut Özil* and Turkish President Erdoğan has caused immense controversy in Germany—and, in doing so, it illustrates some of the problems I have written about in the past, including the poor behavior of sports organizations and their disgraceful treatment of athletes (cf. e.g. [1], [2]); intolerance against unpopular opinion, especially by the press (cf. e.g. [3], [4], [5]); undue accusations of racism (cf. e.g. [6]); and at least an attempt at “who cries the loudest wins” ([7]). A triple hit (sports organizations, intolerance, racism) is provided by [8].

*Most information and all quotes are taken from this (German) Wikipedia page; some information stems from memory of the previous reporting or general knowledge.

Özil was born in Germany and is a German citizen; however, he is of Turkish descent, has a strong Turkish connection, and has had* a Turkish citizenship. He has on repeated occasions met with Erdoğan, the controversial Turkish President, without notable objections. However, a renewed meeting, including several other players with a similar background, in Mai 2018 lead to strong protests**:

*Having a dual citizenship as a German is usually not allowed. The two main exceptions are citizens of other EU states (which Turkey is not) and those still underage (which Özil no longer is). The latter must, unless otherwise exempt, make a choice which citizenship to keep when they do become of age.

**I am uncertain what the cause of this difference in reaction was. It might have been a symptom of the increasing Leftist and media intolerance, a change in perception of Erdoğan, a greater publicity due to the ongoing Turkish election campaign or the soon following World Cup, or that some aspects of the latest meeting were different.

Diesmal wurde Özil, ebenso wie Gündoğan, nach der Veröffentlichung von Fotos der Begegnung und dem Austausch mit dem türkischen Präsidenten teilweise scharf kritisiert. Die Trikotübergabe wurde als “geschmacklose Wahlkampfhilfe für Erdoğan” verstanden, beiden Nationalspielern warf man mangelndes “politisches Bewusstsein” vor. Die Aktion wurde als “Gegenteil von gelungener Integration” bezeichnet. Der Deutsche Fußball-Bund erklärte durch seinen Präsidenten Reinhard Grindel, man stünde “für Werte, die von Herrn Erdoğan nicht hinreichend beachtet werden.” Deshalb sei es nicht gut, dass sich Nationalspieler für dessen “Wahlkampfmanöver missbrauchen lassen. Der Integrationsarbeit des DFB haben unsere beiden Spieler mit dieser Aktion sicher nicht geholfen.”

Translation:

This time, Özil, just like Gündoğan [one of the other players] was partially sharply criticized after the publication of photos of the meeting and the exchange* with the Turkish President. [The handing over of one or more (sports uniform) shirts] was understood as “tasteless election campaigning for Erdoğan”, both national-team players were accused of a lacking “political consciousness”. The act was referred to as “the opposite of successful integration”. The German Soccer Association explained through its President Reinhard Grindel that it stood “for values, not sufficiently respected [considered?] by Mr. Erdoğan.” Because of this, it would not be good that national-team players allowed themselves to be abused for “his election tactics. The integration work of the DFB [the football association] has certainly not been helped by this act.”

*From context, likely the exchange of gifts. However, other interpretations are possible, including the interaction between them.

(Note that some typographical changes have been made to the original for technical reasons. The disputable placement of full-stops with regard to quotes present in the original has been preserved in both the original and the translation. Beware of the risk that the mixture of original quotes with text by Wikipedia editors can at some point have led to distortions compared to the full original quotes. Similar claims apply to other quotes below. )

There are quite a few problems with this*, most notably that Özil and Gündoğan should not lose their right to freedom of opinion** and action just because they happen to play for the national-team (or because they might be persons of public interest, idols of some teenagers, or similar). Such restrictions, barring exceptional cases***, are highly dubious when required by the press and inexcusable when by an organization like the DFB.****

*And note that this description (and my discussion of it) is just a sample: If this had been the totality, I might have been more forgiving. However, it is a sample highly compatible with what I have seen continually in other sources regarding Özil and/or the original events. (Unsurprisingly, there has been a lot of other discussions, including reactions-on-reactions, including by German and Turkish politicians, journalist, and athletes.)

**To boot, Özil denies that there was a political motivation or an act of political support involved (see also below). Whether this is true, I do not know; however, his claims are not obviously implausible. This would make the reactions against him even more inappropriate, be it because of being the more unfair or for being premature and having failed to discuss the matter appropriately in private before criticizing. (Which would have been reasonably possible for both members of the press and, above all, the DFB.)

***I am far from certain that such cases exist that do not at least touch upon the area of the illegal (e.g. explicitly calling for violence against Turkish dissidents). However, they might exist, and at least some of the above would be justifiable in another setting, e.g. the Pope chastising a member of Catholic clergy for appearing to support satanists.

****In as far as we speak of opinions, rather than sanctions or threats of sanctions, it could be argued that Grindel and/or the DFB equally has a right to speak his/its opinion. However, quite generally and including the press, there is a difference between an expression of opinion like (hypothetically) “I consider Erdoğan an idiot; ergo, Özil is an idiot for supporting him” and (what practically amounts to) “I consider Erdoğan an idiot; ergo, Özil has no right to support him”. Further, it can be disputed whether an organization like the DFB is even allowed to have an opinion in areas not relating to sport and its immediate business—and the implicit condemnation of Erdoğan is certainly not acceptable. Indeed, it amounts to the same sin that Özil is hypocritically accused of committing—with the critical difference that it actually is a sin when the DFB does it. Grindel, in turn, has the right to have his private opinion, but he must not presume to speak with the authority of the DFB if expressing this private opinion. To boot, people in positions like Grindel, unlike national-team players, are among the very few where I could contemplate an argument that they should hold back their private opinions, due to (a) the risk that these opinions are given undue weight by others, (b) the risk that others mistake private opinions of the individual for the opinions of the organization he leads or is a spokesman for—again making the accusations against Özil hypocritical.

More in detail, I note:

  1. The word “tasteless” (“geschmacklose”) is not compatible with a neutral discussion; “inappropriate” is an example of a neutral alternative.

    Whether this choice of word was merely careless, an unconscious sign of aversion, or deliberate rhetoric, I leave unstated; however, in a worst case, it could imply that such acts would have been allowed, had someone more “acceptable” than Erdoğan been involved—a thoroughly undemocratic attitude. (But not one that would shock me in light of my experiences with various Leftist groups. The same can apply elsewhere without explicit mention.)

  2. Even “inappropriate”, however, would have expressed a democratically dubious attitude, severely restricting the freedom of Özil on political issues.
  3. Athletes cannot be expected to be deep thinkers, intellectuals, whatnot to a higher degree than the average person. A lack of e.g. “political consciousness” (“politisches Bewusstsein”) cannot be a legitimate point of criticism unless the same is extended to the very many others who have the same deficit. To boot, this phrase is sufficiently vague that it is unclear what is meant, making the criticism harder yet to justify.* Worse, looking at the overall scope of the debate (not just the quoted Wikipedia passage), the most likely interpretation is a euphemistic way of saying “everyone who reads the paper knows that Erdoğan is evil; Özil obviously does not read the paper”.

    *In all fairness, this might have been different in the original context.

  4. The two claims about “integration” are misplaced, very hard to defend, and likely contributed to the character of Özil’s responses (discussed below). I note that integration can validly be a matter of behavior in society (and similar), possibly* even, to some degree, the adoption of certain value norms; however, it must not be extended to requiring adherence to whatever opinion corridor (cf. [5]) is currently popular. Further, the purpose of the DFB is not integration work; Özil has no duty to help them with whatever integration work they engage in; and it is not obvious to me how Özil might have done damage**. Indeed, it can even be disputed whether Özil, himself, has any reason to currently be well-integrated into Germany: He is a player for Arsenal; the Brits might have the more legitimate reason to require his conformance.

    *To me, it is more important to show (or not show) a certain behavior than to share the value norm behind that behavior. If nothing else, value norms change over time, even in a single country, regularly within a single generation, and it is important that value norms can be discussed and criticized. Also see e.g. [5]. Requiring a more than minimal value-norm conformance would deny immigrants rights of opinion that “old” citizens have.

    **If he did not, why would the DFB mention the topic? On the other hand, I could see how the behavior of the DFB and/or media might have damaged “integration”, e.g. through unnecessarily alienating some Turks or through lending them the impression that they are second-class (current or prospective) citizens.

    In addition, while it is true that many Turks remain poorly integrated even after the first generation, it is noteworthy that Özil is born in Germany, has lived most of his life in Germany, and went to school in Germany. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, even his father was two years old (the mother is not mentioned), when he came to Germany, making Özil a virtual third-generation immigrant. To, in this situation, lead with the assumption of poor integration is highly dubious, possibly genuinely indicative of prejudice; and it would be more reasonable to look e.g. at the personal character of Özil first and at “integration” only when this is insufficient. (By analogy, I do not reject, detest, deplore, and condemn the German “Karneval” because of any problems with my integration, but because of my and its respective character—as do quite a few natives.)

  5. To presume to criticize players or politicians (especially foreign* ones) for having or aiding “values” is not the job of the DFB, unless these are immediately relevant to its purpose. For instance, if a politician made statements favoring an increase of taxation for such organizations, a reduction of physical education in schools, or an outright ban of a sport or parts of that sport**, then that is a matter that the organization could legitimately speak on. Even here, however, a factual approach and factual arguments should be assumed: To say “If this tax increase is implemented, we will be forced to considerable reductions in our activities, including youth sports.” is quite OK; to say “X is a sports-hating idiot!” is not.

    *While being from another country, culture, religion, or time cannot e.g. make an unjust act just, it can change how the actor should reasonably be treated and viewed, because the degree to which he has been acting in good or bad faith, in conformance with his upbringing and societal norms, whatnot, can change correspondingly. It can also sometimes reveal a presumed-to-be-unjust act as just, e.g. because the circumstances are that different or because the presumed victim considered the act just; and it can easily reveal a presumed-to-be-illegal act as legal, because the laws in different countries and at different times can vary considerably.

    **For instance, Sweden long had a ban on professional boxing.

    The press should obviously have more lee-way (if in doubt, to protect the freedom of the press). However, I do note my suggestions for a new press ethics, and my strong belief that the press should report facts and leave the formation of opinion to the readers—not shove its own opinion down their throats. The more so, seeing how often this would amount to the blind presuming to lead the seeing.

  6. The use of “abuse” is doubly unfortunate, because it paints Özil et co. as patsies and Erdoğan as maliciously plotting in a manner that is both speculative and rude.

A point where some criticism might have been valid is concerning the disposition of shirts, e.g. depending on what team (national?, club?, other?) they belonged to, whether they were private property or team property, whether they were “official” shirts or shirts bought privately from a fan shop (merely using the same look as the official shirts), etc. However, if this criticism has been raised at all, it has not been one of the major points and it has no major effect on the above analysis. (For which reason I have not bothered to find out the details about the shirts.)

If I had been in Özil’s shoes, I would have been deeply angered over this criticism and I would not have hesitated to stand-up for my position. Gratifyingly*, Özil did exactly that. Less gratifyingly, he did so by resorting to counter-accusations of racism.

*Indeed, in [8] I call for exactly this willingness to take a stand.

Özil erklärte am 22. Juli 2018 auf dem Kurznachrichtendienst Twitter auf Englisch: “Ich bin in Deutschland aufgewachsen, aber meine Familie ist stark in der Türkei verwurzelt. Ich habe zwei Herzen, ein deutsches und ein türkisches. In meiner Kindheit hat mir meine Mutter beigebracht, immer respektvoll zu sein und nie zu vergessen, wo ich herkomme – an diese Werte denke ich bis heute”. Für ihn sei es bei dem Treffen weder um Politik noch um Wahlen gegangen. Ferner warf Özil einigen Medien vor, sein Foto mit Präsident Erdoğan als rechte Propaganda zu benutzen, um ihre politische Sache voranzutreiben. Weiterhin erklärte er, “nicht mehr für Deutschland auf internationaler Ebene spielen” zu wollen, solange er “dieses Gefühl von Rassismus und Respektlosigkeit verspüre”. Er forderte DFB-Präsident Grindel zum Rücktritt auf, weil Grindel unfähig sei.

Translation:

On July 22nd, 2018, Özil declared on the [short-message service*] Twitter, in English**: “I have grown up in Germany, but my family is strongly rooted in Turkey. I have two hearts, a German and a Turkish. In my childhood, my mother taught me to always be respectful and to never forget from where I come—values that I think of even today”. For him, the meeting was neither a matter of politics, nor of elections. Further, Özil accused some media [services/sources/…] of using his photo with President Erdoğan as Rightist propaganda, to further their political causes. Further, he declared, wanting “no longer to play internationally for Germany”, as long as he “sensed this feeling of racism and lack of respect”. He urged DFB-President Grindel to resign, because Grindel was incompetent.

*A somewhat literal translation of “Kurznachrichtendienst”. I am not aware of a corresponding English word, nor do I consider it likely that an English text would have used one: This type of largely unnecessary attempts at overly abstracted classifications and pseudo-explanations is a specialty of Germany. To boot, the word is very unfortunate, because incorrect assumptions of word division could lead to great misunderstandings: “Nachrichtendienst” is roughly “intelligence agency” (but here the appearance of this character sequence is just a coincidence).

**I have translated the German text back into English, and could possibly deviate from the original in detail. This sub-optimal procedure was partly used because the mixture of Wikipedia text and original quote might make it hard to identify the exactly corresponding statements; partly because I very deliberately have blocked Internet access to sites like Twitter, Facebook, etc. to avoid unethical tracking of my activities. For a text of this length, under these circumstances, it is faster to simply translate, probably (!) even when counting this explanation.

His justification* makes great sense, especially when combined with another source (some weeks ago), where I believe I read a statement that it was less a matter of meeting Erdoğan (as a person) than a matter of meeting the Turkish President (as a symbol or as the holder of the office). Consider, in the same line, if he had been of U.S. descent instead of Turkish: Would it be remarkable if he took the opportunity to meet with the current U.S. President or cherished an acquaintance with him going beyond a single meet-and-greet? He might or might not have had a preference for Trump or Hillary—but most people in his shoes would likely have taken either.** This even when there are other people who have an extremely low opinion of one of them (as with me and Hillary).

*But I remain at my position that he had done nothing that required a justification, this being merely an issue of averting unjustified criticism.

**In all fairness, I belong to those who might have turned down both.

I am highly skeptical towards the racism angle, however, in light of the strong left-lean of Germany media, what I have read on the Özil-controversy to date, and the common abuse of the accusation of racism for purposes like discrediting opponents. An anti-Erdoğan sentiment is a far more likely explanation for these reactions, and he would have been far better off having combined his justification of the meeting with a few choice word on freedom of opinion and the need to respect the choices of others—as would society: In this case, he would have helped point the way towards a more reasoned and tolerant debate climate; as is, he worsened it through too weakly supported accusations. (In his defense, he is a soccer player—not an intellectual. The situation might also have been different, had he e.g. spoken only of the DFB or Grindel, where he could very well have had insider knowledge of importance.)

I am not certain that Grindel must resign, but a retraction and an apology would be the minimum: His actions in this issue have done more harm than good, he has proven to be a part of the intolerance problem of modern society, and he has further proven himself to be a part of the problem with athletes’ rights vs. their organizations. I can also understand how Özil, personally hit by his behavior, would see his resignation as necessary. I might even, in his shoes, have demanded a resignation to emphasize the strength of my protests and to try to make clear that the Left and the PC crowd are not the only sources of dissatisfaction and that it is dangerous to just fold for their loud cries (cf. [7]). (Whether he is incompetent, as claimed by Özil, I cannot judge beyond what is implied through his actions in this issue.)

Finally, the DFB has in turn rejected any accusation of racism in a very blanket manner and said e.g. “Die Abrechnung von Mesut Özil schießt aber über jedes nachvollziehbare Maß hinaus und lässt keinerlei Selbstkritik erkennen.” (“However, the reckoning* by Mesut Özil shots over any understandable measure [sic!**] and reveals no sign of self-criticism*** whatsoever.”)

*This, in approximately the sense used in “there will be a reckoning”, is a reasonable translation of both the literal and metaphoric senses of “Abrechnung”. However, the English version likely comes across as more drastic than the German.

**The weird mixed metaphor is present in the original and is idiomatically freakish even in German. Something like “Özils Antworten gehen zu weit und mangeln an Selbstkritik” (“Özil’s answers go to far and lack in self-criticism”), would have been a far better formulation.

***“self-perspective” or similar might be closer in intended meaning.

While I agree that the accusations of racism are over-blown, Özil’s general negative reaction is justified. I see no obvious reason to fault him for too little self-criticism (there has been no* proof that he has done anything wrong!); while the reaction by the DFB hints that it lacks in the corresponding quality. Further, I must make the depressing observation that many an athlete has been accused of e.g. racism on similarly flimsy grounds—and, in those cases, it has typically ended either with the athlete being forced to offer an “apology” or the athlete being sanctioned. This up to and including a refusal to participate in global championships! (And despite it being highly, highly dubious to exclude even a genuine racist from competition based on opinion. If nothing else, absent even the slightest shred of sympathy for the rights of the offending athlete, even the most fanatical anti-racist must recognize that the absence of competitors devalues the event and the accomplishment of the eventual winner.) A similar case is present in [8], although involving a trainer rather than an athlete.

*Barring something that has gone past me during a more than two-months controversy that I have only followed casually. If so, it is not mentioned in Wikipedia either.

Excursion on my opinions of Erdoğan:
In light of my experiences with the PC crowd, I stress that I do not defend (or accuse) Erdoğan. The above deals with societal issues based on an example that happens to tangentially involve him—no more, no less. From what I have seen so far, Erdoğan is problematic, possibly highly problematic, in terms of e.g. his approach to topics like democracy and human rights, and chances are that Turkey would be better off without him. On the other hand, my knowledge of the overall Turkish situation is shallow, and I would not condemn him wholesale before having done considerably more research, especially as his position and actions might have been exaggerated or misrepresented in German media (which would by no means be a unique event). To boot, it is not a given that he is the “greater evil”: Looking e.g. at the rise of ISIS in the power vacuum left by the Saddam Hussein (an indisputable dictator with countless lives on his hands, and whose demise I whole-heartedly welcomed), keeping Hussein might have been the lesser evil…

Excursion on hate speech:
It might be interesting to compare the above with my recent discussions of hate speech, both with regard to how hate-speech accusers often proceeded and how my interpretation was more forgiving in those cases.

While I do say that there have been a number of statements made that have been e.g. wrong, rude, or propagandistic, I do not: Accuse any of the parties of hate speech; call for legal bans on anything said or done;* claim that others must censor them for the good of society; or call for anyone to self-censor**. This is very much unlike a typical hate-speech accuser.

*But note that specifically the collectors of the examples did not necessarily imply such demands.

**With the single exception that the DFB and its representatives should stay out of certain issues—and this exception for reasons that do not relate to whether the statements are right or wrong, or worthy of condemnation in and by themselves; rather that it would be, in some sense, an abuse of its role to enter these issues with any opinion. Cf. an excursion in [8].

Also note that when I see an interpretation as merely probable above, I try to take the trouble to actually speak of a “probable” (or similar) interpretation—I have an awareness that my interpretation could be faulty. (But I do not rule out that I, on occasion, have been or will be unintentionally careless in this regard.) In contrast, hate-speech accusers tend to jump to the worst possible interpretation and take it as the only possible interpretation.

When we now look at how “forgiving” my interpretations are, there are three underlying differences: Firstly, above I argue a “lesser crime” than the collectors did—the question is not one of “hate speech: yes or no?”, but of whether the speech can be considered fair and correct. Secondly, I have more context available than in most of their examples, making the room for ambiguity and misinterpretation smaller (and some other issues, notably a preceding Hebrew–English translation, are irrelevant, which also reduces the risk of misinterpretation). Thirdly, their examples should be seen in light of their own obvious hostility, including risks like cherry-picking, removal of exculpating context, or even malicious distortion.* (While I am not infallible, I at least try to be neutral.)

*Notably, if they had had more incriminating information to provide (e.g. a damning situational context or surrounding statements that would have made a more negative interpretation likelier), it is reasonable to assume that they would have included it. Because they did not, the likelihood of more negative interpretations is reduced.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 27, 2018 at 1:00 pm