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"The Young Must Have a Chance"

by Friedhelm Hengsbach Saturday, Aug. 28, 2004 at 1:21 PM

"The whole financial regime between the country, territories and communities is out of order. The communes were sacrificed on the altar of tax reform. Enough money is there.. Lengthening working hours in a time of weak growth and high unemployment is absurd.."


Interview with Social Ethicist Friedhelm Hengsbach

The Jesuit and social ethicist Friedhelm Hengsbach is regarded as a voice of social conscience in the current reform debates. He sees the question of “generational justice” as a diversionary maneuver while the solidarian society is increasingly dismantled.

[This interview originally published in the Bavarian Sonntagsblatt, August 21, 2004 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, Solidarity must rest on a democratic foundation. All income in Germany should contribute to the social state, he says.]

Can we financially support senior citizens?

Hengsbach: Yes, if the economy becomes more productive. We have financing problems because we allow possible assets to lie fallow. A quarter of our present labor potential is unused.

Why isn’t this potential utilized?

Hengsbach: The political-economic and monetary organization breaks down. If a mayor had the necessary funds, he could name enough projects and issue contracts to private businesses. These businesses would then hire workers. The question is how money is distributed.

But the communes are bankrupt.

Hengsbach: Why is this? Because the whole financial regime between the country, the territories and the communities is out of order. The communes were sacrificed on the altar of tax reform. Enough money is there – with the private persons made rich, not with the state made poor.

Why is the state poor?

Hengsbach: The dogma of the radical market is: a poor state is a good efficient state. Thus the governments under Kohl and Schroeder have favored the upper income groups in taxes. This was a wrong decision. Suddenly increasing taxes will not free us from this miserable situation. This would trigger a general outcry. Credits must be made available to the communes so they can accomplish their projects and sign contracts. Then an upward economic spiral will begin.

Where is justice between the generations violated?

Hengsbach: Justice is violated within the same generation – between those who want to work and those forced to overtime, between households without children and households with children, between the wealthy and the poor.

Now we will soon work to age 70 at 42 hours per week. Is that a good idea?

Hengsbach: Lengthening working hours in a time of weak growth and high unemployment is absurd. This will increase unemployment. A future scenario may be imagined when the labor market is totally vacated and demand is extremely strong.

Reforms and reorganization are urged almost everyday. The full coverage mentality cannot continue, it is said. Is the social state ending in your opinion?

Hengsbach: The social state is appreciated by those who know that it benefits them although it costs something. The social state is depreciated by those who do not depend on it. They no longer believe in the socials state and devalue solidarian security systems for private, capital-covered insurance. This discussion is mainly carried out among economic and political elites who can rely on secure profits or civil servants’ salaries. They reckon that it would be cheaper and more profitable for them if they were privately and not legally insured.

Can social risks be individually insured?

Hengsbach: No, at least not for wide sectors of the population. The red-green thread of Agenda 2010 consists in increasingly individualizing social risks under the magic word “reform”. In other words, the cause for the risk case is seen in personal failure. Then people are told they must provide privately for themselves. Basic right claims, the right to work, livelihood and security, are transported into private contractual relations.

What does it mean for a society when every person is an individual risk factor?

Hengsbach: The total marketing or commercialization of society – corresponding to the market radical, liberal economic dogmas that ruled the general public for 25 years. Firstly, trust the self-healing powers of the market because the market is the ideal controlling instrument for society and makes society innovative through competition. Secondly, the downsized state is the best of all possible states. Its central business consists in securing private property and freedom of trade. Thirdly, economic policy should be left to the central bank. Growth and full employment will occur automatically when the central bank focuses on the stability of prices and safeguards the interests of owners of financial assets. What are the consequences? A growing polarization and division of society.

Must solidarity be redefined?

Hengsbach: Yes, so women and men can realize their common life plans. Paid work, private education of children and civil society engagement should be distributed fairly to the two genders. Both genders should also be socially insured. Solidarity must rest on a democratic foundation. All income from everyone who has his or her center of interest in Germany should be liable to social security contributions.

Can the solidarian idea be reintroduced in society? How can children and youths learn solidarity?

Hengsbach: Youths must first experience solidarity at eye level. Presently they do not experience any social solidarity as long as the chance of meaningful work that was self-evident for older persons is not guaranteed for them. When young persons finish their training, they feel more or less that they have no chance.

This work society can renounce on part of its members.

Hengsbach: Industry will not produce full employment any more. We scrap work abilities through non-work. We abandon possibilities that we could claim if we employed people meaningfully and productively in the urgent redevelopment of the cities, in ecological rehabilitation, hospitals and schools.

Do we face even harsher conflicts? In the sixties and seventies, we believed that we would live in a consensus society. Was this the wrong perspective?

Hengsbach: The nostalgic remembrance of the fifties or sixties when there were cooperative rules of conflict does not help us forward. The worldwide economic shocks in the middle of the seventies made the pure market slogans socially acceptable. However their miserable results will force a turn in the foreseeable future.

Not much is left from the consensus at that time.

Hengsbach: The increasing disparity of the distribution of income and assets and the exclusion of considerable parts of the population reveal the traditional class oppositions. In addition there are fluid boundaries between unlimited and limited working conditions, part-time work, contract work, minor employment, mini-jobs and pseudo-independence. These disparities are caused by the hierarchies of power in a capitalist economy. These hierarchies appear at the juncture between the monetary and real-economic cycles and in the abolition of competition on the commodity markets. Despite the teamwork, the grasp of corporate headquarters on workers remains strong. While agreements on goals are stressed, the goals are set by the heads of corporations.

Why isn’t any resistance against this system expressed in the parliament?

Hengsbach: Because politicians cannot build their own position against the economic class in industry. Those who decided over Agenda 2010 (radical cuts in social support) are far removed from the risks of unemployment and income support. The decision-making political and economic class crusades against those affected by the decisions.

Is generational justice a question of distributive justice?

Hengsbach: Yes, distributive justice emphasizes the unequal distribution of the chances of young persons who find no apprenticeship position of their choice after their training. The distribution of initial chances for education and work is unequal and unfair. This is a problem within the same generation since the one who can offer a job is 15 years older than the one seeking a job.

Was the conflict of generations artificially created?

Hengsbach: Yes, the debate around generational justice is an alibi since the justice question occurs within the same generation. The distribution problem exists between men and women, employed persons and the unemployed, higher incomes and those in the low-wage sector. There would be no talk of generational justice if paid labor as the key to social integration were accessible to youth.

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