Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘germany

A German’s home is not his castle / a few issues around inspections and meter readings

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One of the great annoyances with living in Germany is the one, two, or more* service companies that invariably demand entry to one’s apartment every year—after having made a one-sided declaration of date and time, and usually with a comparatively short** advance warning. Moreover, this is usually done through simply posting a notice on the door of the building (often on the outside), with the implications that (a) people who are not currently present, including those who live elsewhere*** and those currently on vacation, might not have the ability to react in time, (b) the notice can be removed by another party, including playing children. Of course, this type of announcement could easily be done by a fraudulent entity who just wants access to the apartments.

*I have three myself, and it might have been four or five had not the gas and electricity meters been outside the apartment… These are two to respectively inspect the smoke detectors and the exhaust/chimney for the gas heater, and a third to read the water meter. (An earlier text might have claimed that the chimney inspection took place once every three years. This was an early misunderstanding on my part.)

**I have not paid great attention, but a rough guesstimate would be ten days for a typical notice. I have seen less than a week on at least some occasion.

***For instance, those who try to rent out an apartment and who currently do not have a tenant; for instance, those (like me, in the past) who spend months at an end living elsewhere due to work.

True, missing the date is not the end of the world, because these companies are obliged to provide alternative dates upon request. However, this is usually not handled well. For instance, many notices fail to inform about the right to request a different date, and contact information is usually limited to telephone* only. The chimney-sweep, whose recent notice is the trigger for this text, does have an email address, but fails to mention it. The notice does mention the possibility of requesting an alternate date, but it does so in such a different font size and color (compared to the rest of the text) that I actually did not recognize it before a closer inspection.** Moreover, it speaks of a “rechtzeitig” (roughly, “timely”) contact, which is very vague and in most circumstance would be taken to imply that the contact must take place before the scheduled date (which is not the case and would be unconscionable for the absent). The smoke-detector service, on the other hand, appears to have no interest in actually going through with replacement dates,*** implying that my smoke detectors have not been serviced since before I bought the apartment, because the previous owner apparently also had problems with it. A similar issue is present with some other apartments in my building.

*Which, combined with typical office hours, can be inconvenient for those who work during the day, highly troublesome for those who work during the night, and a severe obstacle for the deaf and mute.

**But, unlike many others, I was already well aware of my right.

***Presumably, either to avoid the extra cost of a second visit or to push the delay to the point that there is a pseudo-justification to request a billable visit. (By regulation, at least a first replacement date must not come with an extra charge to the apartment residents.)

Now, the chimney inspector was open to providing a new date, but this too was fraught with complications. On the one hand, no dates were available before July 12th (still more than a month ahead). My suggestions of the 19th and the 26th, picked to have a greater time flexibility than the 12th, were rejected due to “betriebsferien” (“company holidays”) between July 15th and August 1st… Moreover, the possible hours were restricted independent of date, including a 3 PM upper limit Monday through Thursday and 2 (!) PM on Fridays. Effectively, to get it done after work is not possible without infringing severely on typical working hours—not just leaving an hour or so earlier than the colleagues. While “before work” is a little easier and might work for most local workers (but not for all and not for many commuters), the end effect is that a portion of the regular work day must be sacrificed. (That Saturday and Sunday are out entirely is hardly worth mentioning in Germany.) This continues an idiocy already discussed for delivery services—a failure to adapt to the needs of the service recipients in favor of a strict adherence to “traditional” working hours, even when the result is more work for the service provider. Indeed, here the working* hours are even a sub-set of the normal working hours, making it even harder. As elsewhere, an outdated world-view (or resulting “legacy procedures”) might have survived through the implicit assumption that every apartment comes with a house-wife.

*The word “working” might be misleading, because the individual employees might have other tasks to perform at other times. The end effect on the residents is the same, however.

Even in those cases, however, when everything works as planned, these notifications are problematic through giving intervals of hours,* often in the middle of the day. For instance, the gas-inspection notice gives 9–11 AM, which implies that even someone who works locally might be forced to take half-a-day off from work—and, when working in Cologne, I would have been forced to take so much time off that I likely would have skipped work altogether.

*Which, obviously, do not state how long the individual visit will take. Instead, it is an understandable matter of “we could come at any time during this interval”, with an eye on questions like how long the visits to other apartments, or even apartment houses, take. The long intervals make this issue worse than the similar problem discussed a paragraph earlier.

Looking at possible solutions, at least some of this will likely take care of it self over time, through the spread of new technology*. However, improvements here and now still make sense. For instance, how about requiring a considerably longer interval for notification, e.g. that notices must be published at least one month in advance?** How about a requirement that notifications are also given per e.g. email (to those who have registered in some manner)? How about more reasonable hours and/or days of visit? Or how about my personal pet idea: Have each city (or some other unit) coordinate two*** fix, known-to-all, and non-adjacent days a year, for some sub-area. On these, the residents within the sub-area are required to give access to (legitimate) service providers; on others, they must not be bothered****. Notably, this would bring great benefits even to the service providers, because they could cut the costs for repeat visits and most of their own efforts to coordinate with absent residents—or actually charge for them from day one. This scheme would, obviously, require a considerable first effort of coordination, but later adjustments are likely to be small for a typical year.

*Notably, meters that can be read electronically without entering an apartment. However, like e.g. my own current outside-the-apartment gas and electricity meters, this comes with an increased risk of leak of data to unauthorized third parties.

**Note that anything less than two weeks is inherently problematic due to the larger risk that e.g. a vacation absence prevents the residents from being informed on time. In contrast, a full month would make it a near certainty that the notice is present in time for the residents to react. Moreover, the longer interval makes it easier to arrange for e.g. a work absence.

***Using two, instead of one, allows for a greater flexibility, e.g. to compensate for a strike or to make life easier on service providers with unfortunate day collisions for serviced sub-areas; however, each service provider would be expected to only use one of the two (per apartment and/or sub-area), just like it is one day a year today. Note that reserving two days a year will not increase the effort for the average resident, because the two days are the same for all service providers (but it will allow for far better planning).

****Among these annual (or otherwise recurring) activities: when we move to more ad-hoc matters or something requiring a short-term response, e.g. a burst pipe, a strict adherence will not always be reasonable.

I note that as far as solutions are concerned, it is positive if a portion of the burden is passed from the residents to the service providers, because (a) the current system is constructed to the very one-sided advantage of the latter, (b) not all of these bring an advantage to the residents, notably the borderline idiotic yearly smoke-detector inspections and many chimney inspections and whatnots (also see excursion), (c) the matter of entering someone else’s home should not be trifled with. As to the latter, I would personally very much prefer never to have someone in my apartment that I have not explicitly invited (and I would not invite many to being with); other relevant concerns include the extra cleaning efforts that many, likely in particular the “neat freaks”, will feel necessary to make the apartment sufficiently presentable.

Excursion on chimney-sweeps:
The problems are increased by regulations relating to chimney-sweeps, who are responsible for some tasks in a semi-governmental role—including at least some inspections. Among the many problems is that there is one “official” chimney-sweep who has the right to perform the semi-governmental tasks in a given area: I am allowed to hire another chimney-sweep to perform various tasks—but not all tasks. Because the official chimney-sweep still needs to involved, there is a strong incentive to just stick with him through-out. To boot, it can be disputed whether the exact checks* involved in my case really should be done by a chimney-sweep at all, or not rather the gas company or a service specialist for gas-heaters.

*Strictly speaking, it appears to be more of an emissions check than a chimney check, with the chimney only playing in as far as a blocked chimney would lead to dangerously large emissions in the apartment.

I read up a fair bit my first year in the apartment, but have forgotten most of what I read by know. However, there were several web sites and/or forums dedicated to problems around the flawed system. One recurring issue (that I do remember) was skepticism towards the reasonability of inspection intervals in at least some contexts, and some inspections that were outright nonsensical, e.g. that chimneys that were not even used still needed* a yearly inspection.

*In the eyes of the local chimney-sweep. That his interpretation was even formally/legally/bureaucratically correct (let alone practical), was not always a given.

Excursion on other means to calculate costs:
The use of meters to measure consumption of e.g. heating* is laudable from a fairness perspective and might or might not give incentives to consume less energy. However, it is not the only approach possible. For instance, in Sweden, heating costs are typically included in the rent in a blanket manner, and this appears to work well. The heating costs per apartment might be higher** in Sweden, but this is offset** by the costs for reading meters. Similarly, the overall environmental impact might be greater***, but this is partially offset by e.g. the environmental impact of meter readers traveling in cars.

*One of the more common German meter-types is the per-radiator meter that attempts to track the amount of central heating used by individual apartments, to allow a corresponding division of the overall costs.

**The degree varies depending on what is measured and on details unknown to me. If only the cost for the service company is included, it is likely only a partial offset; if the lost time and extra effort for otherwise working residents are included, at least these are likely see approximately a full offset; and if we look at the overall societal cost, it is almost certainly more than an offset.

***After adjusting for the effects of a colder climate, or it would be a near given.

Excursion on use of “layers” in texts:
A very common practice in e.g. notices, advertisements, prospects, web pages, …, is to give different types of information a different “look”. This is presumably with the intention of putting information in “layers” to be read independently. In my personal experience, this works very poorly, because people (like I above) tend only see one layer at a time, which implies that the information put into a different layer through e.g. a radically different (foreground?) color runs a risk of being overlooked entirely, especially when having a poor contrast. Such layers might sometimes be helpful when the reader is aware of them in advance, e.g. when comparing the descriptions of many products that have the same layering. More often, it is likely better to not try such tricks and to rely on a simple text flow, intended to be read as a single layer. This text, in turn, might then contain changes in (background?) colors to high-light a different purpose without causing a layer division. If in doubt, just put the different layers on different pages. (Disclaimer: This excursion is unusually “spur of the moment” and might be unusually open to revisions of opinion.)


Written by michaeleriksson

June 6, 2019 at 4:19 am

A survey by the German IRS

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Earlier today, I was notified of and participated in a German “IRS” survey by my local Bundesland* (NRW).

*Roughly the German equivalent of a U.S. state.

This survey, it self, displayed many problems and is unlikely to be of much help with improvements. If in doubt, it was more suited to detect angles of attack through public-relations work than through actual improvements… It does, however, reinforce my opinion of the low competence level of the German civil service. Consider, in a likely highly incomplete discussion:

  1. It required use of unnecessary technologies*:

    *I tend to surf with minimalistic settings and turn functionality on-and-off as it is actually needed. This includes defaults of images off, because most images on most websites make surfing less pleasant and the time to load a page longer; JavaScript off, because JavaScript is a major security risk and (also) makes most websites less pleasant; and cookies reduced or turned off to avoid privacy invasions, unethical tracking, and similar. And, yes, both JavaScript and images are also often abused for unethical tracking and similar.

    I needed to turn on images to get past a CAPTCHA, but the actual survey did not need images (and there is no reason why it should have). The CAPTCHA, a simple addition of numbers, could equally have been done in text, if need be verbosely (e.g. “What is five plus three?” instead of “5 + 3 = ?”). The risk of an automatic access is low; and, if it did occur anyway, it might be a more useful information than the survey provided. (For instance, if someone were to submit the same answers repeatedly through automatism, it is clear that someone feels very strongly. Ditto, if a denial-of-service attack takes place.)

    Early information implied that it might (!) be impossible to submit the survey without JavaScript, so I duly turned JavaScript on. The survey, however, contained no functionality, beyond mere nice-to-haves*, that could not have been done without JavaScript.

    *For instance, some minor changes of questions (depending on prior answers) without switching pages.

    Early information also spoke of cookies, but was vague on their use/necessity (including combining claims like we-use-cookies and here-is-how-you-disable-cookies). I left my settings unchanged (accept sites’ own cookies; deny third-party cookies) and got through without problems, but there was no part of the survey that could not have been implemented with e.g. URLs instead of cookies. The cookies that I found in my browser, after submitting the survey, were few and trivial.*

    *I cannot speak as to their exact role, because they contain no plain-text, but the low amount of information of the four cookies makes this clear. This with one exception, a “PHPSESSID”, which implies that PHP was used (another sign of great lack of judgment) and that my session was tracked by this ID.

    I strongly suspect that both the CAPTCHA and the use of JavaScript would have caused great problems for those relying on e.g. screen-readers. So much for accessibility…

    Better would have been to have no image dependencies whatsoever, to use no cookies at all, and to leave JavaScript entirely optional.

  2. The survey, by its own bullet list, presumes to automatically collect data that is of no relevance to the survey and most* of which the makers have no legitimate reason to know, including:**

    *Three-through-five from below are potential exceptions. The rest have no legitimate bearing on anything, and might even serve to worsen future work, through the temptation to write browser or device specific code, assume a certain screen size, or similar. Good web-design tries to be agnostic of such information. On the other hand, such information is popular among e.g. profile builders and trackers…

    **Texts in square brackets are my approximate translations, where needed; the rest is the original text.

    • Website von der der Besucher kam [website from where the user came]
    • Browser
    • Provider
    • Betriebssystem [operating system]
    • Gerätetyp [type of device]
    • Gerätemarke [brand of device]
    • Gerätemodell [model of device]
    • Bildschirmauflösung [screen resolution]
    • Standort (Land/Region/Stadt), von dem aus teilgenommen wurde [location (state/region/city), from where participation took place]
    • Dauer des Aufenthalts auf der Webseite [time spent on the page]
    • Anzahl der durchgeführten Aktionen [number of actions performed]
    • Zeitpunkt und Seite im Fragebogen, zu dem / auf der die Befragung ggf. verlassen/abgebrochen wurde [Time and page in the survey, at / on which time the survey was left/interrupted]
    • installierte Browser-Plugins [installed browser-plugins]
    • Browsersprache [browser language]

    I note that some of these items are vague or hard to interpret. For instance, “Provider” is probably intended to be the ISP, but it might be something else. For instance, “Browser” could be anything from the mere name of the browser (e.g. “Firefox”) to the full user agent.

  3. The design was highly sub-optimal, including use of non-standard checkboxes that made it hard to tell when a checkbox was actually checked.*

    *The rendition (and behavior) of checkboxes and other control elements is best left to the browser. If it is not, for whatever (most likely ill-advised) reason, a check should result in a check-mark or, on the outside, a cross of some type. Here the checkbox was merely colored differently… What bad idea such manipulations are, is shown by a recent visit to another website (which, I do not remember), where radio-buttons had been re-designed to look like checkboxes—leading to my trying to leave several of the pseudo-checkboxes checked at the same time (which checkboxes allow), and just seeing my check mark move from box to box (because radio-buttons do not allow simultaneous checks).

    Another annoying issue was text fields that (a) had a limit of 250 or 300 characters of input, (b) were considerable larger than this limit. This made it very hard to judge by eye how many characters were left. A counter was not present, despite being a near standard by now (a JavaScript nice-to-have that was not implemented). Moreover: When the limit was reached, the field just swallowed any further characters with no type of error message (another unimplemented JavaScript nice-to-have). Moreover, a so narrow limit is problematic, because if a user does have something to say, this few characters are often insufficient, especially if he wants to provide context, argumentation, or another high-value answer (as opposed to e.g. a mere “You suck!”). (As a comparison, I ran the draft version of this single paragraph through a word count. It contains roughly 900 characters…)

  4. A number of questions inquired about the latest this-or-that. This is negative on at least two counts:

    Firstly, experiences with the latest this-or-that are not necessarily representative, remarkable, or what the user would like to mention. For instance, my latest tax filing has (to date—knock on wood) been comparatively painless. The one before that was a horror, including an absurd delay in processing by the IRS, the charging of interest due to the late end of processing (which was largely caused by the IRS, it self…), and a late fee based on the incorrect claim that I had not filed in a timely manner.* The result included the need for several letters to the IRS, a (hopefully temporary) loss of money, and a considerable insecurity, seeing that I still have not received a conclusive answer—after roughly half a year… Because only the latest counts in the survey, all of this will fly under the radar.

    *Specifically, ignoring that I had a dispensation to file late.

    Similarly, what does it matter how the latest contact with the IRS was? What about a typical contact or the worst contact?

    Secondly, the survey period overlaps strongly with the normal period for tax filings, implying that the latest for some will concern what they did in 2018 for the year of 2017, while for others it will concern what they did in 2019 for the year of 2018.

  5. At least some of the questions only allowed a very rough guesstimate. For instance, how would I know in May how much effort I spent on filing my taxes in December? How this time was divided on parts like filling in forms, sorting through invoices, and researching how data should be correctly aggregated and entered?
  6. Generally, the questions were vague and too abstract, e.g. in that the user was allowed to enter how (dis)satisfied he was with some things through a rating scale*—but not why. It would be better to find a smaller sample group and to study their grievances more in detail. Of course, this applies to a great many other surveys: Making a survey takes comparatively little work, making a good survey (which this was not) takes a lot more work, and actually finding out something worthwhile (which surveys rarely do) through other means can be quite a lot of work. But, hey, we did a survey—now we have proof that we are doing something!

    *Another complication with such ratings is that people tend to rate on the kind side relative their true opinions. Adjusting the scale by subtracting one step from each vote of average or better will usually improve the estimate. (In some cases, notably ratings on merchant platforms, the inflation can be so bad that a five-out-five is positively expected for an average performance, which would normally be given a three-out-five; while a mere four-out-five is reserved for problem cases. Cf. e.g. a money.com article on reviews.)

  7. At the same time, the set of questions was highly limited and bound to give an incomplete view. For instance, there was no question about VAT filings, which are a PITA to the many free-lancers (of which I am one). For instance, there was no question on deadlines. For instance, there was no question on whether information from the IRS was correct (e.g. in response to an inquiry).
  8. An interesting constellation is a set of mutually dependent* questions on how much time was needed for tax filings, how much the filings cost (e.g. through use of a Steuerberater**), and whether a Steuerberater was used. Because there were no sign of causal connections and context, these questions could be abused to divert criticism: “Yes, there were many who complained that it took too long, but few of those used a Steuerberater, so they have only themselves to blame!” resp. “Yes, there were many who complained about the cost, but they all used a Steuerberater. They should drop the Steuerberater and do the job themselves, and save all that money!” Good questions would have probed the “why”, e.g. whether someone who would like to file himself sees himself forced to use a Steuerberater for reasons of time or complexity, or whether someone who would like to use a Steuerberater does not due to the cost.

    *Behind the scenes, not necessarily in the survey.

    **Roughly, tax consultant.

The worst thing, however, is how both the notification about the survey and the survey it self, utterly inexcusably, had the audacity to ask for participation to make the services even (“noch”) better. This adds insult to injury, because the quality of service is very poor, the unnecessary (!) efforts needed by the tax payers are considerable, etc. This includes problems like the low usability of Elster*, a low competence level and poor attitude among the civil servants, and a tax system that is a horror. (Cf. a number of earlier texts, e.g. [1].) Indeed, this audacity alone should rightfully lead to a summary firing of the responsible party.

*The main tool for filing taxes and doing various other works.

A similar user-despising attitude was displayed by the sub-domain used for the survey: ich-mache-mit. An English translation that preserves the subtext is tricky, but consider an “I participate”, lowered in register*, with implications of enthusiasm**, and being an advertising phrase. Indeed, outside of advertising, this phrase is most likely to be spoken by children who want to join in a game or similar. In advertising, it usually has very cheesy and unrealistic implications of “I, too, am one of the cool/righteous/whatnot!”, used to manipulate*** the most stupid sections of society to “want” to participate in something.

*If not for the recent twitter campaign, I might have tried a translation of “me too” to catch the register. In contrast, “ich nehme teil”, would be roughly the same register as “I participate”.

**I am little tempted by the vision of Katniss’ and her “I volunteer!”, but that scene is contextually inappropriate.

***Or at least try to manipulate. Whether it actually works even on the stupid, I leave unstated.

Excursion on improvements:
On the upside, it appears that Elster is going through changes that allow a greater amount of automatic import of data from the IRS, which will reduce redundancies and efforts. The lack of this obvious functionality has annoyed me for years—but better late than never…

Excursion on surveys:
The low value of surveys might be cause for a future text of its own. In a nutshell, however: They force the opinions of the survey-taker through a narrow filter that gives a highly simplistic view of his opinions, be it through leaving important aspects out, forcing a single choice instead of a multiple, requiring making a choice where he has no strong opinion,* loss of context, … Bigger picture issues including survey makers often (and often incorrectly) assuming that they are smarter than the survey takers, deliberate attempts to fix a certain result through leading questions, a greater wish to get machine-readable data than valuable data, and similar.

*In all fairness, the survey above usually contained a “no answer” option. This is highly unusual, however. (An example of such forced questions is “Do you prefer (a) politician A, (b) politician B, (c) politician C”, where many of the survey takers might not care, not have a fixed opinion, think very negatively of all three, or similar. The effect of forcing a choice is highly misleading data.)

Written by michaeleriksson

May 4, 2019 at 12:47 am

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Germany and its problematic constitution / expropriation

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Apparently, the German party FDP is suggesting a removal of an expropriation rule (Artikel 15) from the German constitution. (Thumbs up!)

Curiosity caused me to read Artikel 15 and the closely connected Artikel 14*.

*Whether this too is in the cross-hairs of FDP was unclear, but the answer has no impact on my text.

Here I found two formulations that illustrate why I am skeptical to the German constitution. (Even apart from skepticism towards expropriation, in general.)

14 (2):

Eigentum verpflichtet. Sein Gebrauch soll zugleich dem Wohle der Allgemeinheit dienen.

Translation: Property obliges*. Its use should also serve the common good.**

*I am a little at loss for a good translation, but “obliges”, in a “Noblesse oblige” sense, is at least close.

**To some approximation. Other translations are possible in detail, but the big picture should be correct. (For instance, my off-the-top-of-my-head translation was “Its use should simultaneously serve the good of the public.”, with the current version arising during revision.)

This is utterly unrealistic,* seeing that it is contrary to how most property is actually used by most people. Actually applying this idea would have absurd consequences and/or severely alter human behavior. To boot, it would not necessarily do society much good in most cases.

*Using an even remotely literal interpretation. There is no guarantee that courts would do so (and I have not looked into precedence). Further, the original intent might have been more to state a principle of how society should work than to introduce actual regulation. (I would oppose such a principle equally strongly.)

Consider e.g. the problems caused with items like private computers, ovens, pencils, … Should we be obliged to e.g. bake for the poor in order to be allowed an oven? It would even call the possession of e.g. a house into question—unless the owner hosts meetings of a city committee in the house, or otherwise provides a public benefit. (I suspect, in contrast, that e.g. a farm would be of little issue, because the produce from the farm serves to feed people and, therefore, the common good. Then again, subsistence farming might be an issue…)

Worse, the claim is not even that property should serve the common good—it is the use of property. (Leaving some ambiguity whether, less likely, any individual use is intended, or, more likely, the sum of all use.)

It is disputable whether claims like these belong in a constitution at all. The “property obliges” part is particularly odd, because it amounts to less of a law and more of an ethical or philosophical opinion.

All-in-all, the text reads as if it is either intended to serve as a pseudo-justification* for expropriation or to satisfy Communist ideas contrary to conventional interpretations of property, e.g. in that “you may own a tractor—but only if you allow your neighbor to use it”. (But I have not researched the background.)

*Which is not to rule out that expropriation might have legitimate justifications in some rare cases. This, however, is not such a justification.

A saner clause might have focused on forbidding use that is actively harmful to the community, but even that could prove to be too far-going.

14 (3) (applying equally to 15)

[…] Die Entschädigung ist unter gerechter Abwägung der Interessen der Allgemeinheit und der Beteiligten zu bestimmen. […]

Translation:* […] The compensation [for the expropriation] is to be determined through a fair weighing of the interests of the public and the concerned party [i.e. the victim of the expropriation]. […]

*Again, with reservation for details.

Here, a clause putting the right to expropriate (per se) under the restriction of a weighing of interests would have been sensible, but no such restriction takes place. On the contrary, expropriation remains possible almost* at the drop of a hat. As for the compensation, a literal interpretation (with reservations like above) amounts to how the public benefit from paying as little as possible compares to the victim’s benefit of receiving as much as possible. This including eventual decisions like “we are short on money—let’s just give him a trifle” and “the value of the property is a drop in the ocean compared to our budget—let’s give him ten times the value”.

*There are restrictions, but they are limited in practical scope. (The expropriation must be rooted in law, not e.g. an arbitrary civil-servant decision. Cases under 14 are possible on a vague “common good”/“Wohle der Allgemeinheit” basis; cases under 15 are limited to the purpose of “socialization”/“Vergesellschaftung”, which opens a wide range of possibilities (and it is arguably the worst kind of expropriation).

A saner clause might have implied that expropriation (!) is only possible after a fair weighing of interest, and that compensation must amount to a minimum of the objective value as determined by a qualified and neutral third party or fairly cover all direct and indirect damages caused by the loss of property, the loss of use of the property, and whatever else might apply. (Note that I deliberately do no restrict this to the pre-expropriation owner: Others might be hit too, e.g. through a previously allowed use now being banned. For instance, assume that a farmer allowed city folk to pick-nick on his grounds, but that the sovkhoz does not.) On the upside, the constitution guarantees the right to take the issue of compensation to court; however, not the issue of expropriation.

These formulations are the odder with an eye at the preceding Nazi phase and what was already known about events in the Soviet Union and its satellites. For instance, a “fair” weighing of the interests of a Jew resp. a capitalist in Nazi-Germany resp. Soviet Russia might have led to disproportionately little recompense being paid—possibly, none at all.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 27, 2019 at 6:41 pm

German justice and prejudice against the written word

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On the good-news side, German law enforcement is actually looking into Koch Media (cf. [1], [2]), and I was called in to make a statement earlier this week.

On the bad-news side, this experience gave a second (cf. below) example of severe flaws in the testimonial process, pointing to the benefits of written statements.

Consider that:

  1. I was called to appear in person, despite having already given what I consider sufficient written information—which I would, obviously, have been easily able to amend in writing, had the need appeared.

    Going by what the interviewing police officer said, I suspect that he had problems comprehending the references to blog entries in English (in my German complaint) and/or was thrown off by the more general discussion of industry-wide issues in these blog entries. Had he asked me for a more concise German text, I would have provided one gladly.

    With a written statement sent by post, we would all have had less effort.

  2. This cost me: A fifteen minute train-ride + time waiting for the train + time getting from my apartment to the first station + time getting from the last station to the police + a security buffer, for a total of at least three quarters of an hour in one direction. Another twenty or twenty-five minutes waiting for my turn (past the time of the appointment, not including the planned buffer), because another interview took far longer than planned. Another half-hour to an hour* for the actual statement, including introductions, re-iteration of what I had already written, re-stating things that the police officer seemed to miss, and his hunt-and-peck typing. Another twenty-something minutes back to my apartment.**

    *I failed to look at my watch, but it was fairly lengthy.

    **I did not need a security buffer and also caught a speedier train (RE instead of S-Bahn, for the Germans).

    In my case, this is a chunk out of my day (if, admittedly, a lot of it could be used for reading); for many others, it requires taking time off from work—for a commuter, possibly the entire day.* In the latter case, questions like lost income appear. While lost income is allegedly re-imbursed, someone (i.e. the tax-payers) still has to pay for it. Then there is productivity loss for the employer (not re-imbursed), travel costs (re-imbursed), and whatnot.

    *The situation is very similar to my recent writings on deliveries and delivery times.

    To boot, the interview phase took time away from the police officer, which might have been spent with other tasks or (when factoring in similar cases Germany-wide) have led to less personnel and office costs for the police and, thereby, the tax payers.

    With a written statement sent by post, these costs and time loss would have been considerably smaller.*

    *Yes, there might be cases where a personal appearance is beneficial, e.g. because the police cannot predict the questions in advance or because the interviewed party is unable to produce a coherent text. No, this is not one of these cases: no new information appeared in the statement and any questions that might have been relevant could have easily been identified in advance. Further, the officer in question was himself a quite weak writer; and even in a case where questions were more likely to arise, a thought-through written statement would have allowed better preparations and a more productive interview at a later date.

  3. Not only did no new information appear in the statement, but I would also have been at a disadvantage if such had been needed: As is clear from the situation (cf. [1]) my memory cannot reasonably be relied on for early events, relevant information for describing the misleading information and the product at hand has been researched and put in writing (and my memory will be weaker than that writing), and if additional information was needed, I would be better of at home—with access to the Internet and the product (a DVD box, with plenty of writing on it).

    While my case is a little atypical in this regard, it will be quite usual for others to benefit from more time to think, the ability to check this-or-that in their records or on the Internet, the opportunity to order their thoughts in a more structured manner, whatnot.

    With a written statement sent by post, my input would have been more accurate and more helpful.

  4. The resulting statement, purporting to be my words, was written on the level of a high-school drop-out. This, then, is the text that will eventually be presented to (the German equivalent of) the DA’s office,* with a corresponding low credibility and lack of clarity/precision. To paraphrase an example from memory** into English: “I bought the DVDs in some store. I don’t remember where. This was a few years ago. I don’t remember when either.”***

    *In my understanding, the officer was not himself to be involved with any investigation, but merely taking a statement on behalf of the DA. He gave the verbal (possibly, incomplete) impression that taking statements in various cases was his job.

    **I was not given a copy, which is it self bad—a copy should have been handed out as a matter of course, to make sure that the signer knows what he has signed, that he has the ability to check for things accidentally left out, even at a later date, etc. (With several papers to sign, I also did not notice until too late that I had not received one.) Of course, with a written statement sent by post, I would automatically have had a copy.

    ***In contrast, something by me might have read: “Due to the length of time passed, my memory of the details is vague; however, the purchase took place in a physical store several years ago, likely 2015. If so, it was likely in [a certain store].”

    Now, my German is not perfect and a text by me might well have contained language errors. I would not have a problem with signing my name to them, however, because they are my errors. Here I have to put my name to words that absolutely would not have been written or stated by me, and that make me seem like a border-line retard—and with that I have a major problem. I was, in fact, one step away from simply refusing my signature (but decided to send in a written statement in parallel instead). To boot, there was at least one language error in the officer’s text too (an incorrect sentence break).

    With a written statement sent by post, the DA would have received a more intelligent text and would have been better able to judge me, my intentions, and my preparation.*

    *What should matter is the law and whether is has been violated, but, in real life, the persons involved will often matter too. Ditto, and with some right, whether someone just complains to the police, makes a vague statement about not remembering, and then slinks away—or whether someone makes informed and articulated statements, has a clear intent, and stands by his words.

  5. While this statement did not distort more than language, distortions of actual content, intentions, whatnot, do occur.

    In my case, it has been 50–50: The first (and so far only other) time that I gave a statement, some fifteen years ago,* non-trivial such distortions took place, both through “Chinese Whispers” and through a (natural) restriction to that which had actually been discussed. Here too, the discussion was led by the officer in a question/answer format, and he skipped over parts of what I had already submitted in writing**. (And here too, the well-short-of-Goethe formulations were the police officer’s—-not my own.) The situation was made worse by the officer insisting that he read the statement to me, and that I (the much stronger reader…) just sign it unread—I did not comply, seeing that this would have made my signature a complete travesty.

    *I am, unfortunately, a little vague on the details by now.

    **Note that this comes with a considerable risk that relevant input will never be given consideration, e.g. because someone makes a decision not to investigate further based just on the “official” statement, does not pay attention to the totality of the file during investigations, or similar.

    In the “Koch Media” case, I tried to steer against things being left out, drawing on my previous experience, but I strongly suspect that further distortions would have taken place without this effort. (Notably, I had to emphasize that I had given Koch Media an opportunity to react, and had received no such reaction, and that my previous texts explained why e.g. an accidental error on behalf of Koch Media was highly implausible.) To boot, I could only do this to the degree that I actually remembered things, which could have been a severe obstacle in a case with more events or details involved.

    With a written statement sent by post, the full events, my reasoning, whatnot, would not be in danger of distortion.

  6. The statement was also deficient in principle from another point of view: It was written as if it had simply taken down a spoken monologue, including use of quotation marks. In reality, it reflects what the officer found worth mentioning from a dialog driven by his questions. The DA is likely aware of such practices, but it is a potential source of confusion and simply unethical.

    A side-effect of this is that there is no excuse for using the language of a high-school drop-out: Because we do not have a monologue that is taken down verbatim, why should e.g. a sentence structure be used that emulates the spoken language? (But I stress that I would not have formulated myself in that manner even when speaking, as opposed to writing. People tend to speak differently than they write, but they do not automatically turn into high-school drop-outs. Indeed, if he had stated upfront what he wanted to know, I would have been able to dictate something better off the top of my head, be it stylistically or with an eye on e.g. structure).

    With a written statement sent by post, there could be no such confusion.

  7. The previous item at least points to the risk of leading questions providing an incorrect or technically-correct-but-misleading statement. While I do not claim that this happened here, such problems do occur, be it out of incompetence, prejudice, the wish to see a “politically” convenient result, or similar.

    With a written statement sent by post, this risk is reduced.

Unfortunately, the German justice system seems to have an obsession with oral statements and whatnots, even when the written word would have been superior, including for the increased ability to form a strong and thought-through argument. I can e.g. recall reading a blog post by a “Schöffe”*, who lamented that his judge had denied him access (!) to the files of a case that he was to co-judge—because the spoken word was all that mattered in court. Under such circumstances, it will be very hard for a Schöffe to do his job properly—and I have great fears as to the quality of the judge’s work too, with such an anti-intellectual attitude.

*A type of lay-judge, elected for five years, who has an equal vote with the (professional) judges in at least some trials. (Where e.g. the U.S. has a judge and a jury with different roles, Germany often has a small group of judges, some lay- some professional, simultaneously filling both roles.)

Excursion on historians and the like:
An unfortunate side-effect of this type of amateurish statement taking is that future historians who dig into the material can get an extremely wrong idea, with regard to what took place during such sessions, the education/language level of the population, and how people expressed themselves in general.* With people of individual historical interest, future biographers might be led severely astray.

*I am uncertain whether documents of this type are publicly available (now or after some time)—but a few hundred years from now, current rules are unlikely to matter in the first place.

Excursion on other problems this week:
I was originally invited* for an earlier date. Being ill, I sent an email to decline due to personal reasons, giving an indication of when I would be available. I received an automatic notification of receipt, and heard nothing more in the matter until the second invitation—accompanied by a note threatening me with a forced appearance, should I not appear voluntarily.**

*I am uncertain whether the English “subpoena” applies in this case. However, it does go beyond a regular, ignorable, invitation.

**Note that while I could see a cause for this in the case of a regular witness or the accused/suspect in a matter (when unexcused!), it seems absurd when applied to the complaining party. Here a better remedy would be to abstain from further proceedings due to non-cooperation.

As I arrived, almost the first thing out of the officer’s mouth, narrowly pre-empting my bringing the topic up, was to explain the need for this note with the claim that I had not appeared the previous time, and that I had presented no excuse for not appearing. As I pointed out my email and the notification of receipt, he claimed to have no knowledge of it.*

*I am far from certain that he was both telling the truth and innocent of own errors, e.g. of having accidentally deleted the email unread; however, it is possible that someone else is to blame, seeing that the only email address presented in the invitation was to a police-internal “mail center”, which might have failed in its promise to forward the email immediately.

Interestingly, in this email, I had made a point of mentioning my prior experiences and the drawbacks of answering questions without research time and whatnot (cf. above), and suggested a written statement based on any questions the police might have. If I had received a sensible answer to this email, all parties would have had less effort, the costs would have been smaller, and the DA would have received a more useful text…

Excursion on cross-examinations:
The above is not necessarily an argument against cross-examinations in court, notably through the difference that they allow the defense the opportunity to probe for weaknesses and contradictions in a testimony, while the above deals with an early input, at a time when the defense does not even yet exist. (However, even in court, I consider it wise for text to be the main form of input, because an oral testimony can easily and accidentally leave too much out, be too poorly reasoned, and similar.)

Written by michaeleriksson

April 14, 2019 at 3:51 pm

Some problems with the German pension, health-insurance, etc. systems

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In Germany, a few leading politicians are currently (and again) suggesting that the self-employed* be forced to pay into regulated pension schemes, even when they feel that they are better off with other solutions—after already having been forced into extensive** health-insurance, some years back. Moreover, suggestions that private alternatives for various insurances be scrapped and everyone forced to participate in the public*** schemes are often recurring.

*“Selbständige”. Note that there might be differences in exact definition and treatment compared to e.g. the U.S. situation.

**The current German regulations require a, in my eyes, too extensive health-insurance. Cf. excursion.

***The “gesetzlich” (“legal”) this-and-that; as opposed to the “privat” (“private”) this-and-that. For instance, health-insurance is divided into two branches, where one is “gesetzlich” and everyone pays a fix proportion of income for a fix coverage, and the other “privat” with an income-independent fee and a more negotiable coverage.

This is highly misguided on at least two counts (some of which apply to other groups too):

  1. There are other means to provide than these official schemes. For instance, someone rich enough will not need a pension; for instance, someone who invests his money wisely might have a better return on investment than through a pension scheme;* for instance, a home-owner with modest requirements, a reasonable bank account, and the willingness to moon-light past retirement, might get by without a pension.

    *This especially in a system like the German, where money is not necessarily paid for one’s own pension, instead paying for the pensions of older generations; and where one’s own received pension will later depend on what future generations are paying at the time. Moreover, for those who have debts to pay, e.g. a mortgage, it is quite likely that paying off the debt would be a better use of the money than building a pension fund, seeing that the interest (or its rough equivalent) on assets is usually lower than on debt—often considerably so.

  2. For many, the money taken for these schemes is one of largest reasons why the schemes are needed… For instance, a typical reasoning around health-insurance is that it allows those hit by medical costs to pay those costs, because the insurance company (or the government) is there to cover the brunt. But: If someone had saved all the money paid in insurance fees (or extra taxes), chances are that additional money would not have been needed in the first place. In Germany, health-insurance for a “gesetzlich” insured mid-* to high-earner might be around 10,000* Euro a year—and with most years seeing less or significantly less actual health-insurance claims, there would have been plenty of time to build a buffer for the odd years when costs explode. A healthy ten years leaves a cool hundred grand for that major surgery and there is plenty of time to build reserves for less healthy “golden years”. I would go as far as to say that the German system misses the point of insurance, which is to replace the risk of a large damage (e.g. through robbery) with the certainty of a small damage (e.g. a monthly or yearly fee)—instead, all damages, large and small, are paid by the insurance, which implies unreasonably large fees, additional waste, and (on average) a pointless and wasteful transfer of money from the patient to the insurer to the patient to the hospital (or whatnot), where it would be much more sensible to just move money from the patient to the hospital…

    *There is a cap on the applicability of the (high) percentage fee at earnings of possibly 60,000 Euro/year (which is a good income, but not extraordinarily so, in today’s Germany). In a rough estimate, 18 % might be a typical percentage (including “Pflegeversicherung”), with 0.18 * 60,000 = 10,800. Beware that I have not researched the exact current numbers (and that the percentage will vary depending on circumstances). As a note to naive German readers: No, your employer only pays half of this on paper—in real life, you pay the employer half too, mostly through a lower salary, but also through e.g. higher prices.

    Similar issues are fairly common, e.g. in that the “Riesterrente”* has to be financed somehow. This financing amounts to taking money from everyone through taxes and giving said money to those who invest their money according to certain rules. It would be better and fairer to lower (or not raise, depending on the situation) taxes to begin with, and to let people handle their money as they see fit—including to make sure that they have prepared well enough that they do not need the additional Riesterrente. This especially since the biggest gainers through the Riesterrente are likely the providers of pension schemes, who see a massive artificial in-flow of customers. And, oh, what was the original motivation behind the Riesterrente? To cover the deficits of the regular pension system—implying that, had the politicians not already dropped the ball there, the Riesterrente would have been unnecessary…

    *A program by which certain voluntary pension-schemes payments are subsidized by the government, in order to make people spend their money like the government wants it to.

A potential third count would be the way this forced prioritization and/or time-wise redistribution of money can provide obstacles to small businesses that might have earned well in the long run—but are prevented from reaching this long run due to a short-term lack of money partially caused by these schemes. This either in that the owner is forced to give up the business prematurely after a temporary setback or in that an expansion of the business has to be foregone (also see excursion). Similar arguments can apply more generally, e.g. in that a regular employee is forced to take on debt due to unforeseen circumstances, and that this debt would have been unnecessary without pension fees (and where, as above, the pension funds bring less returns than not having debt).

An advantage of e.g. a mandatory pension scheme is that everyone would be guaranteed a certain minimum pension, and thereby be less likely to require other social aid later in life. For instance, a successful entrepreneur might assume that he has no need for a pension scheme, see his business go broke in his sixties, and not have sufficient late-life income to cover his own needs—he would now turn to the government for “ALG II”* (or some other type of governmental) support. However, (a) chances are that he will not have this problem; (b) the actual pension payments for the current generations appear to be fairly bleak, making a bet on a pension potentially riskier;** (c) considering that he will likely have contributed well-above average to government income through taxes (and possibly the well-being of others through providing employment), I would not see it as unfair if he did receive e.g. ALG II. (Note that this line of reasoning need not hold when we look at long-term low earners. I do not, at this time, rule out that a mandatory system might make sense for them.)

*Literally, roughly, “unemployment benefits II”. In practice, this is a means for those with too little income (and who do not receive “regular” unemployment payments) to cover the difference between actual income and a government-stipulated tolerable minimum income. It is not restricted to those actually unemployed (but I do not rule out that some other scheme might apply).

**Note that this holds even for private pension-schemes: What if the scheme goes bankrupt or does not earn sufficient returns? (A governmental guarantee, similar to bank guarantees, might help, but would put the governments money at a larger risk than with the above entrepreneur.)

In reality, the true reason for the demands for making these schemes mandatory is likely (a)* giving lesser earners a leg up resp. giving the official schemes money that they do not deserve in order to allow them to give lesser earners said leg up, (b) preventing the “social injustice” of some people being better off than others. The same applies to health-insurance, where even now the “privat” insured have a portion of their payments diverted to the “gesetzlich” insured—with no recompense of any kind.

*Over a fairly large portion of the German political spectrum.

**Significant portions of the Left, which truly is (old) Left in Germany. (The Social-Democrats are the second largest party; a Communist or formerly Communist party is represented in parliament.)

Excursion on the scope of health-insurance:
In Germany, the scope of health-insurance is quite large, covering most of the medical bills and (physician ordered) medicines that apply, with usually only small deductibles. The result is astronomical fees, incentives for patients to “see the doctor” too often, and a medical industry that charges overly high prices and often recommends pointless procedures. A much better system would insure the big things*, of which most people will have none in their life-times, and only very few more than one or two. The rest would be up to the individual to cover (such cover could, obviously, be partially through a voluntary additional insurance). In return, he would see a considerably lower monthly fee, in part because he would have a lower coverage, in part because the overall costs in the system would drop.

*Exactly where to draw the line is a question that I leave open for now. I originally gave a few examples, including “major surgery”, but chances are that even a major surgery would be within what most people could pay with money to spare, if they had their insurance fees back (and did not waste them in advance), and that they might then be better off not having a single instance of major surgery covered. One possibility would be to simply have a very high deductible that applies either to the individual year or the individual problem (which can stretch over more than one year)—everything above covered; everything below not covered. The deductible would likely be dependent on personal choice, but might have a typical range from a few thousand to a few tens of thousand. A variable deductible would have the advantage of covering cases like a young family with marginal buffers—the family can reduce the risk of a debilitating blow by paying more per month, for a lower deductible, and continually go for a lower payment/higher deductible as the buffers grow. Alternatively, a fix deductible could be set by a public and mandatory scheme, while additional coverage could be purchased from private sources for a similar effect.

As an aside, this is where ObamaCare clearly went wrong, even objections concerning ethics and implementation aside: It did nothing to solve the true problem of U.S. health care, namely absurdly high prices. Worse, by putting more people into insurance schemes, the problem of high prices is worsened…

Excursion on financing:
Many seem to miss the simple truth that money is not an infinite resource—and that any additional benefits has to be paid for somehow. For instance, a “free” health-care system is not truly free. On the contrary, behavioral changes are likely to make it more expensive than a non-“free” one. The money has to come from somewhere, e.g. taxes, implying that the citizens still bear the full costs. On the outside, there is some redistribution of cost (e.g. from the unhealthy to healthy), but the costs do not disappear.

Excursion on business expansion:
Expanding a small business beyond the one-man stage is unduly hard in many countries, including Germany. Above, I mentioned the need to pay e.g. health-insurance for one-self as a component—but that is just a small part of it. The major problem is the disproportionate cost and risk involved with getting employees—even a single one. For instance, take a one-man business with a revenue of a 10,000 Euro/month. Hire someone for a nominal salary of 5,000 Euro/month, and what is left of the old net is not another 5,000 (to cover other costs and the employer’s own living expenses): As a German rule of thumb, various additional fees increase the price-tag by thirty percent, leaving roughly 3.5 thousand. This without counting existing costs and additional costs not related to the government, e.g. additional office space, training, legal advice in preparation, the potential need to create a GmbH*, and what else might apply. And: This before various taxes, insurance fees, and whatnots that might apply for the business and/or the owner.** In other words, the owner will earn next to nothing (instead of the presumable 5,000 – expenses) until the new employee is up-and-running—in a low-margin business, he might even take a loss.

*A type of limited-liability corporation suitable for small businesses, which might be a good idea with the additional risk that the new employee brings. Of course, then stricter regulations on e.g. accounting apply, the taxation rules change even further to the disadvantage of the business owner, etc.

**In all fairness, taxes might initially be lower than before due to the extra cost, but, obviously, nowhere near enough to offset said cost.

But: Getting a new employee to the point of adding serious revenue can take several months (depending on competence, type of business, businesses climate, …)—and doing so might cut into the employer’s own revenue generation (or force him to work additional hours).* Worse: It might turn out that the employee is not up to the job and needs to be replaced. Then is the question: How soon can he be removed? The legal minimum might be four (?) weeks**, which then amounts to another month down the drain—and chances are that he will not earn anything significant for the company during that month anyway.*** If he is fired, he might choose to go to court, which brings additional risks, costs, and personal effort to the employer.**** Or, possibly, he chooses to leave, leaving the employer with a few wasted months and the need to start over…

*For instance, in my line of business (IT consulting and on-site software development for customers), I would need to convince one customer or other that this particular employee is worthy of being hired-out to them—a process that involves searches and application processes quite similar to a regular job search. This would not only bring me unbillable work for myself, but could leave the employee with nothing billable to do for weeks on end. The last few years, demand has exceeded supply, but customers often have specific requirements, and will strongly prefer e.g. someone with ten years of relevant experience over the newly graduated who has still to complete his first project. (And just to hire someone both highly competent and more experienced is easier said than done, because these tend to want more money, already be in employment, or run their own businesses.)

**IIRC, for a small business and a newish employee. For larger businesses or longer periods of employment, the delay might be considerably larger.

***For instance, in my case, putting him in a customer project for that month would be next to impossible (and arguably negligent towards the customer). Of course, he might already be in a project, but then the proof of his unsuitability is likely to coincide with a rejection from the customer, which would terminate that project…

****In all fairness, the strong German restrictions on termination of employment are largely suspended for such small businesses. However, this can be a real concern when additional growth has taken place, together with many other regulatory obstacles.

Now, consider a world with everything else as it was—just with considerably less taxation, health-insurance fees, unemployment fees, … Run through the same scenario with a monthly own income of even just 3,000, instead of the “next to nothing”. Now our entrepreneur can lead a good life, possibly even increase his personal buffers, and if the employment attempt flops, he is back where he started. If things with the first employee seem to turn out well, he can add a second that much faster. Etc. In today’s Germany or, worse, if even stricter rules for e.g. pensions are instituted? Well, then it is the question of how large buffers are present and how much risk the wannabe employer is willing to take.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 6, 2019 at 7:05 pm

Democracy failure in Germany

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Shortly after a recent democracy failure in Sweden, following a German precedent, Germany is trying to pull ahead again:

Apparently, the Bundesland (“state”) of Brandenburg has pushed through a highly ill-advised law that parties must present alternating* male and female candidates on their election lists ([1]).

*As I read the source. It is possible, but less likely, that a 50–50 overall was intended.

This is negative and anti-democratic for at least two reasons:

Firstly, it is an illicit form of discrimination based on sex, which does not consider factors like appropriateness for the position, number of willing and suitable candidates available, how many supporters a party has of each sex, etc. I note in particular the complication that more men than women appear to have the interest/ambition and dedication to pursue a political career. The result on the state parliament is that the quality of the elected will take a hit through the smaller pool from which half the candidates come.* The effect on men is that many who would have made strong** members will be left out; the effect on women that many too weak will be forced in by necessity. The effect on parties is that they cannot pick the candidates they consider suitable, worthy, or attractive-to-voters freely, and those male-dominated will be particularly poorly off. Indeed, a party that is sufficiently dominated by women*** might see similar troubles.

*Even discounting a likely difference in ability distributions.

**Relatively speaking and using the word somewhat loosely: These are politicians, and the proportion of great thinkers will likely be on the low side either which way.

***The Swedish Feminist party “Fi” might be a candidate.

Secondly, this demonstrates a complete failure to understand and respect how a representative democracy works: The elected are not intended to be chosen to reflect the demographics of the people—they are intended to be chosen by the people, in order to best represent the interests of the people. Not only is this law a violation of the principles involved, but it also leaves the people worse off—if the people wants more women elected, it should vote for more women. Similarly, if it prefers to vote for men, people of a certain age or a certain background, whatnot, it is up to the people to do so. Limiting the people’s right to chose through such mechanisms is anti-democratic.* Further, the consequences of such “demography thinking” can easily be seen to be absurd: If sex is a valid quota criterion, then why not age, educational background, profession, country of origin, sexual orientation …? What about the demographics of the party?** How can we justify excluding those below (e.g.) eighteen, if demography is an important criterion? Etc.

*It could be argued that the list systems used in e.g. Germany and Sweden are themselves problematic for similar reasons, and it might be a good idea to move to another system entirely.

**Many parties (especially in multi-party systems) have a heavy tilt in several demographic directions and often see themselves as representing a particular group of people—how is that compatible with being forced to find candidates that reflect a different demographic?

If “demography thinking” is to be considered at all, a completely different system is needed, e.g. one based on random choice instead of election. Consider e.g. a pool of candidates consisting of the entirety of the population, or a portion of the population satisfying certain criteria*, and a computer picking out the “elected” based purely on chance from this pool.

*Notable possibilities are “is above eighteen” and “is a citizen”, but criteria that include e.g. a certain level of demonstrated accomplishment are conceivable. Great care must be taken, however, seeing that such criteria could easily lead to skew (“must be an Aryan”, “must not belong to the bourgeoisie”, “must be dedicated to diversity”). Indeed, even something as innocuous as “must be willing” could be problematic. On the other hand, having no additional criteria would lead to parliaments even less qualified and more easily manipulated than today’s.

Looking more in detail at the source, there are several disturbing claims made:

Personen, die sich weder dem männlichen noch dem weiblichen Geschlecht zuordnen, können frei entscheiden, ob sie für die Männer- oder die Frauenliste kandidieren.

Translation: Persons, who do not identify as male or female, can chose freely whether to candidate for the men’s or women’s list.*

*This in reference to internal lists, prescribed by the law, that are used as a basis for the final list of candidates presented to the voters.

This allows manipulation by dishonest candidates, e.g. in that a man claims to identify as a woman in order to be let in with less competition, or that some group (e.g. members of a Feminist faction) claim to identify as members of the “opposite” sex to skew the list away from 50–50 proportions.

(Quoting or paraphrasing the chair of the Leftist extremist “Die Linke”, Katja Kipping.)

Mindestens jeder zweite Platz bei der Listenaufstellung für die Bundestagswahl müsse von einer Frau besetzt werden

Translation: At least every second position on the lists for the (federal) parliament election must belong to a woman.

This demonstrates the typical hypocrisy and poorly hidden agenda: If more that every second position belongs to a woman (and by implication less belongs to a man) this is apparently not a problem at all.

(Quoting Ulle Schauws of the usually Left-leaning and often, without hyperbole, out-of-touch-with-reality Green Party.)

Das neue Gesetz sei “ein erster Schritt, um gleiche Zugangschancen für Frauen in der Politik herzustellen”.

Translation: The new law is “a first step towards equal opportunity for women in politics”.

Women already bloody well have equal opportunity in politics—by law. Furthermore, they have had so for a long time. Indeed, since more than half the voters are women, it would have been no problem for underrepresented women to turn things around, had they been blocked internally in some parties: Just vote for another party or found a new party. If too much of the female vote goes missing, any such recalcitrant party would be forced to adapt. The truth is that we have a long history of fewer qualified women being sufficiently interested and dedicated—if you want more women in politics, Frau Schauw, change that!

(Quoting Katerina Barley, member of the social-democrat SPD and current (federal) minister of justice.)

“Unser Ziel muss eine Reform des Wahlrechts* sein, die eine gerechte Beteiligung beider Geschlechter im Parlament unterstützt”

*Here and elsewhere, I translate with “election law”. It is possible that some other phrasing, e.g. “election legislation”, would be more accurate.

Translation: “Our goal must be a reform of the election law that supports a fair participation of both sexes in parliament”

The same as above applies, with an additional pointer to previous comments on representative democracy.

(Quoting Franziska Giffey, also a member of the social-democrat SPD and the current (federal) family minister.)

Auch [sie] plädierte dafür, […] Frauen verstärkt anzusprechen und für politische Beteiligung zu gewinnen. “Das Wahlrecht kann dabei ein wichtiger Hebel sein”

Translation: [She], too, pleaded* […]** that women be more strongly addressed and won for political participation. “Election law can be an important lever for this purpose”

*The English word might be stronger than its German cognate (“plädierte”).

**The deleted portion has only a marginal effect on meaning, but is hard to translate in context and consists of unnecessary political verbiage.

Unlike the preceding, Frau Giffey appears to have an eye on the ball—lack of female participation. However, this type of law is not suited to achieve an increase, and I doubt that there is any other law that would be suited. There can be a positive effect through women realizing that they would get a leg up compared to men,* should they participate, which might actually move some of them to do so. However, this comes as a cost to everyone else (cf. above) and I would view it as an abuse of law-making. If official measures are at all needed and/or justifiable,** better such would simply encourage women to participate, e.g. through pointing to how non-participation increases the risk of, in some sense, “too few” women being elected.

*Or on the outside, through some women who used to (incorrectly) believe that they were disadvantaged now (and now incorrectly) believing in a fair playing field.

**Which I doubt: It is not the government’s decision what people do with their lives.

Notably, no-one who disagreed was quoted, no man was quoted, and no-one not on the Left was quoted, which raises the suspicion of partiality and poor journalism on behalf of the source. It does, however, note that two parties (CDU, AfD) voted against the law and consider it unconstitutional.

Oh, and by the way: The German Chancellor (highest elected politician) for the past thirteen years has been Angela Merkel—a woman. The current cabinet appears to contain 9 men and 7 women (including the Chancellor), according to Wikipedia on Merkel IV. Those poor powerless women…

Written by michaeleriksson

February 1, 2019 at 8:14 pm

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.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 29, 2018 at 12:38 am