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"We Have an Upper Class Problem"

by Gotz Werner Wednesday, May. 23, 2007 at 9:17 AM

The unconditional basic income is a revolutionary idea but can only be realized in an evolutionary way.. We have long been in a foreign-provision economy. No one can provide for himself.. The state should offer people a basic income so they can live a modest humane life.


Interview with Gotz W. Werner

[This interview published in: Die Welt, April 25, 2007 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, Gotz W. Werner is head of the German drug store chain dm.]


You urge a basic income for everybody. The state should pay every German citizen 800 euro a month and 1500 euro in the long run.

Gotz W. Werner:

Every citizen could participate in society on the basis of a basic income. For example, people who cannot afford theater or a movie are denied participation in social life. An unconditional basic income would guarantee everyone a life in dignity and freedom.


800 euro for every citizen is a tidy little sum. You speak of a de-bureaucratization dividend but de-bureaucratization could hardly finance this sum.


Whoever claims the basic income cannot be financed still calculates with a slide rule in 2007. The whole process of work and income must be considered. Everyone today already has an income. These incomes could be shared with a new consciousness. The unparalleled abundance of goods and services generated today benefits us.


How can every citizen receive 800 euro? Aren’t there many people who do not want to work?


That has always been a problem and will be a problem in the future. Whoever doesn’t want to work suffers under a social handicap. We must be concerned about these people. But this is a cultural problem, not a theme for economists. We must ask ourselves: how can we socialize people who aren’t able to socialize themselves? Much more needs to be invested. Many people without paid work today want to work. We stigmatize and exclude them with Hartz IV. [Translator’s note: Hartz IV drastically reduced welfare benefits by combining unemployment benefits and income support and imposed draconian time limits.]


Do we suffer in Germany under a deficient social climber will? Do we have a “lower class problem,” as Kurt Beck says?


The opposite is the case. We have an upper class problem. With their intellectual and material abilities, our upper class cannot balance out society.


What do you mean “balance out”?


I understand “balance out” as the capacity of the upper class to take important key positions in our society, to ensure a proper distribution of our prosperity and form framing conditions so a biographical development is possible for all citizens.


You say many people are obsessively fixated on work. Work makes many people ill. You are a successful entrepreneur and do not only work 35 hours a week.


No, I never did. I fulfill tasks; I do not work hours. The problem is that many people are completely fixated on the old concept of work. They don’t realize we need an income to participate in society. Income is central, not work. As a result, more people engage in work all their life without identifying with that work. That is a great tragedy.


You call the German system “antiquated.” What do you mean?


Our framing social conditions are not adjusted to the changed realities. For a long time, we have lived in an international division of labor society, not in a domestic economy. However the economic- and social systems are still organized as in the past. If we do not do justice to the new situation, we will not be able to organize the completely changed reality.


The economy grows and the number of jobless falls. You reject this analysis that these successes rest on reforms of the Schroeder government. Why is this?


This is only a brief phase. The base of unemployment is becoming greater.


You describe life with unemployment benefits II as “open imprisonment.”


We rob Hartz IV recipients of their human rights. They cannot participate in society and are called names by the political machine. That is undignified and disgraceful.


Franz Muntefering [SPD leader] says: “Whoever doesn’t work should not eat.”


Mr. Muntefering still thinks in the old categories of the self-provision economy. But we have long been in a foreign-provision economy. No one can provide for himself. We can only live when others provide for us. Therefore we must ask: how do we create conditions that promote more initiative? The more people take initiatives for others, the better society will be.


Does the state care too much for its citizens?


The problem is the state acts too much like a businessman. It is a school- and hospital firm and an enterprise for social welfare. The state should offer people a basic income so they can live a modest humane life. In this way, all people could participate in society. The basic income represents a booster since all persons would want to earn more than the basic income.


Do you call the model of full employment an illusion or a lie? Why?


As long as our idea of work is fixated on paid work obliged to social security, it is an illusion. Thus full employment will be impossible because this work concept is too limited. We must realize that every person active for others is working. A Hartz IV recipient engaged in an association or caring for his sick mother is working. We have enough work though machines are taking over more and more work in production.


You envision a new business culture and criticize the many planes of hierarchy. What do you mean?


We must always ask how the most initiative can develop. Our prosperity depends on these framing conditions. The most initiative unfolds when we organize our state and our businesses in a cooperative, not in a hierarchical way. Then people will find room and see meaning in their work… Taxes must be shifted from the pole of labor to the pole of consumption. Labor could be finally relieved. Then work could be financed and space created for initiatives.


Can your proposals be realized by a nation state?


The concept could be easily converted in self-contained legal areas. The basic income would be a constitutional right. Since an international tax competition has long existed, this system would spread all over the world in no time.


If the political will existed for your model of a basic income, how quickly could it be realized? How would you organize the transition?


The unconditional basic income is a revolutionary idea that can only be realized in an evolutionary way. This must extend over a long time period, perhaps 15 or 20 years. The sales tax would increase while the income tax would be reduced in a countermove. This would invigorate the economy enormously. The cake would become larger and larger.

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