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"Campaign against the Weak"

by Friedrich Hengsbach Wednesday, Mar. 24, 2010 at 11:53 AM

Social justice, solidarity and sharing opens doors. We have to do some rethinking. The social state does not create the problems that efficient workers are lacking and jobs for many are lacking. Mass unemployment is a social declaration: "We don't need you."


Interview with social ethicist Friedrich Hengsbach on Distribution of Wealth and Job Creation

[This interview published in: Berliner Zeitung, October 25, 2005 is translated from the German on the Internet,

Friedrich Hengsbach (68) is one of Germany’s best known economic and social ethicists. Since 1985, the Jesuit has been a professor at a philosophical-theological academy in Frankfurt. The scholar active for social justice is a member of Attac, the organization of globalization critics.]

Mr. Hengsbach, is the relative importance of the social declining in Germany?

Yes. Those who do not need social protection have waged a campaign against the security systems for decades. This is horrible. Many depend on solidarity help. Let us be honest and not fool ourselves. The social state is obviously endangered. People are alarmed. Many fear for their jobs or are already unemployed; others are sick or needing care. Everyone is constantly reminded social benefits could be cut further. Still there are hopeful signs.

What are the hopeful signs?

The citizens set a clear sign at the last Bundestag election: we do not want any new cuts that would be unreasonable. We do not want any continuation of the wayward and dislocating 2010 reform agenda. The coalition will not be able to ignore this.

What is the alternative?

We have to do some rethinking. Initiatives from the capital- and commodity markets could bring new jobs, not pressure on the unemployed and persons on social security. Social transfer payments enable many citizens to spend money, which helps businesses that want to sell their products. These transfer payments should not only be understood as burdens.

You speak of initiatives or impulses. New fields of growth and employment must be opened up, for example through ambitious ecological reorganization and greater services, first of all highly trained positions in education, health care and culture.

Isn’t the vision of services as a job motor an illusion?

Unlike the past, industry can never and will never achieve full employment. More products are manufactured with less and less employees. The high degree of automation and rationalization make this possible. If we want more employment, this can only happen through additional value creation in personal work.

How can the money necessary for expanding the service sector be raised?

Many private budgets cannot afford money for more services. Mixed forms are possible. For example, the state could financially promote privately-utilized services. That creates new jobs and also helps the state because more revenues flow to the tax authority and the social systems.

Don’t your reflections have the hook that the state needs even more money for co-financing services?

Financing is not the main problem.

What is the main problem?

The disparity of distribution is the main problem. The gross domestic product in Germany increases from year to year; the assets grow. However incomes are unequally distributed. A few have vast wealth while many have little. The same is true for the state. The state has made itself poor and private budgets rich. We need a balance between private and public budgets.

How can there be more distribution justice?

Firstly, the institutions that guarantee a balanced distribution of growth like the unions must be strengthened. Only binding industry-wide wage agreements ensure that this gulf between higher and lower will not be so great.

What is the second step?

We must change course in fiscal- and financial policy. In the past 20 years, higher incomes have been fiscally relieved more strongly than low incomes. This must change. In addition, those firms and investments that create jobs must be promoted more intensely than those that expand the machine assets and destroy jobs.

Some politicians urge higher wages so people will have more money to spend. Is that sound policy?

The growth crisis in Germany strikes the domestic market. Wage increases may productivity increase. With low wage increases, the returns flow to the owners of capital who do not spend money on consumption. As a result, the domestic demand remains sluggish.

Employers do not seem to be adjusting to wage concessions.

This is also a question of the political background music. Posts matter most to party functionaries now rather than contents.

What is missing substantively?

Looking beyond the edge of the saucer is missing, for example a control of the worldwide financial markets and a just distribution of assets. My God, we cannot act as though life could continue as in the past: saving in businesses, with the state and above all with the little people.

Are there chances of increasing employment?

Yes. Vast parts of the population live below their means. There are many needs that wait to be fulfilled: leading an independent life, sovereignly controlling one’s time in successful partnerships and with children and living in harmony with the environment. There are also pressing public functions: developing cities into children-friendly spaces, repairing streets, reconstruction of railroad lines, revitalizing sewage systems…



[This interview on Deutschland Radio Berlin from 9/12/2004 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

Deutschland Radio Berlin: In the German basic law, Article 20 says: “The Federal Republic of Germany is a democratic and social federal state.” We call this a social state. Mr. Hengsbach, you say social state means everyone has the right to a dignified life. But doesn’t every person also have the duty to make demands on himself before making demands on society?

Friedhelm Hengsbach: Yes. Firstly, every person does this. Every person is bound in immediate life contexts. The longing for independence, one’s own life, plans and projects is very widespread. I do not have to persuade any person that he is a self, a person who has an end in himself as Kant formulated. On the other hand, there are risks that do not arise through personal conduct or personal failure. I call them social risks. Whether one is unemployed in the new Germany or in critical regions in West Germany does not depend in the first place on one’s training or willingness to work. There are trained people and there are people who want to work and have no job. There is also the gender-risk. That women earn considerably less than men, spend their lives in typically women’s vocations or are saddled with private child-rearing is socially-conditioned, not a risk that can be charged to the individual woman. We live in a mainly patriarchal society and capitalist economy. There is a labor risk, a gender risk and an environmental risk. There are social risks that I may not charge to the responsibility of individuals.

Deutschland Radio Berlin: Nevertheless the individual can still do something. Doesn’t social state mean that everyone who says “I need help. I am in distress through no fault of my own, I am now unemployed: is given the answer “O.K. you get it here” – or one says “First you must show us you really tried everything to help yourself and that you really are needy.”

Hengsbach: The Hartz commission insisted unemployment is an individual problem and a placement problem. However I cannot simply persuade people in East Germany that there are no structural causes.

Deutschland Radio Berlin: But no one does that.

Hengsbach: That is done under hand. In West Germany, unemployment was explained as personal failure. The people don’t want to go to work. It was common to say this for twenty years. The slogan gradually became customary at the cabinet level, the German chancellor’s famous saying “lazy bastards” or “there is no right to laziness.” Still this is not a structural analysis.

Deutschland Radio Berlin: There is no right to laziness. I’d like to cite the prime minister of Mecklenberg-Vorpommern, Harald Ringstorff, who complained to us the asparagus- and strawberry-harvests cannot be harvested with German workers despite a 20-percent unemployment. Poles must be brought in for this.

Hengsbach: What’s the point of playing off Poles against Germans?

Deutschland Radio Berlin: No, the question is why German unemployed are not willing to accept seasonal work in the canning factory for six months.

Hengsbach: Does it make sense to force engineers and teachers into a job for which they are not trained and secondly is really a stop-gap?

Deutschland Radio Berlin: There aren’t only engineers and teachers who are unemployed.

Hengsbach: What training is needed in Germany? Knowledge workers are vital we often here. All unemployed persons are not knowledge workers. In the East, the unemployed are better trained on average than the unemployed in the West. Even in the East, I cannot understand pressing trained people in a downward spiral of de-training. In the West, this has been common for a long time. One cannot say only the social write-offs are unemployed. Engineers send hundreds of resumes and get rejections. Obviously all the unemployed are not engineers. Still we have a knowledge society or society that imagines it is a knowledge society. This society assumes the future of work is personal work, that we need teachers, instructors, physiotherapists, therapists and doctors. There is no sense securing jobs at the lower end and then repressing the Poles.

Deutschland Radio Berlin: Unemployment benefits and unemployment assistance are paid from contributions of other people. Isn’t it anti-social when a skilled engineer says: “No, I will not spend six months in the factory to gain my money.” When I demand something from society, must I not be ready to do something for society?

Hengsbach: The question is whether society has possibilities and utilizes these possibilities. The political and social chances of increasing value creation are not used. Germany is a high-wage country not because the demands of unions are so high but because the productivity raises the competitiveness of the G3erman economy so high wages can be paid. These high wages are obviously also an incentive for being educated, trained and gaining qualifications corresponding to one’s gifts and interests. Many unemployed youths do not have the chance of developing their talents and finding an apprenticeship or job that reflects their interests. Jobs are lacking; that is the problem. Jobs are lacking in areas where vital needs are not satisfied and public functions are not fulfilled. Teachers are lacking, classes are too large and 50,000 jobs are lacking in the hospitals.

Deutschland Radio Berlin: But you have not answered the question why is it defamatory for a skilled engineer to work six months in a cannery.

Hengsbach: It is not defamatory but a scrapping of high qualifications. If you let an engineer turn cans in a cannery for a year, then you cannot use him any more where he was earlier trained at a university for four years. That is a waste, the greatest squandering of qualification.

Deutschland Radio Berlin: Would you not agree that the social state produces a certain passivity and social state careers where they can establish themselves? There are whole families that have not escaped income support for generations.

Hengsbach: I consider this reproach as a typical criticism of middle class circles that seemingly never fell into a situation of homelessness, income support or long-lasting unemployment. There is obviously misuse in the social state. However the social state is not the cause of mass unemployment. The social state does not cause the problems that efficient workers are lacking on one side and jobs are lacking for many who seek work and are capable of work on the other side. Why are communes now offering one-euro jobs for example – naturally only for a short time? This only shows they have public functions that must be carried out. Employment problems and financing problems cannot be solved through pressure on the unemployed. Suction must start from public and private investments to the demand for goods, above all things on the domestic market. This demand for goods relieves the labor market. The social problem is secondary.

Deutschland Radio Berlin: Acceptance of the social state has faded at least in some circles. The social state is based on solidarity. How would you convince the strong that we need this social state for everyone?

Hengsbach: Firstly, no person is immune from falling into risky situations and being exposed to social risks which he cannot bear individually. That is true for sickness, unemployment, old-age poverty and the poverty of single mothers.

Deutschland Radio Berlin: Aren’t these selfishness reasons?

Hengsbach: The social risk now increasingly spreads to the middle class. On the other hand, there are people who will never depend on the social state. Here I would ask: Do you live in a society in the scope of the German basic law? Do you want to live together in this society or do you expect – as is common in other states – which the rich must secure themselves through private police, electronic security measures or walls? Do those with the same language, the same culture and more or less the same achievements or a common economic function understand themselves in a social association? Many would agree with you. Many would say they want that. Then I must ask what price are you ready to pay for that? Is the social state a cost-factor or a production-factor? Businesses need workers who are motivated; they need workers who are qualified and live in a positive state as to their health and physical state. Thus the entrepreneur, the capitalist one could say, depends o9n a quality of life of his employees. Both an individual interest and a common interest justify the social state.

Deutschland Radio Berlin: Hardly anyone in German would dispute that. However the relation between achievers and benefit recipients has shifted and many calculate we cannot afford this kind of social state that you describe in an idealistic way. Don’t all these people know how to handle money?

Hengsbach: The cause of the crisis is not the social state; the social state makes the crisis obvious: that we live below our means, not that we live above our means. We spend a great amount for social security instead of spending the same money or much less for productive work. Productive work is paid by wage contracts and raises everyone’s living standard.

Deutschland Radio Berlin: What do you mean by social security? Where would you take money away and where would you invest money?

Hengsbach: Social risks change. The current social state crisis is a benefit crisis, not only a financing crisis. There are social risks not covered in solidarity.

Deutschland Radio Berlin: Wait a minute! You said we are spending too much for social security. That is the first time I heard that from you. You are usually known as the last defender of the social state model. Where concretely are we spending too much money?

Hengsbach: For maintaining the living standard without people having a chance at making a productive contribution to that living standard. Mass unemployment is a social declaration: “We don’t need you. We don’t need your qualification or your efficiency.” The whole society cannot afford unemployment.

Deutschland Radio Berlin: Is it right to abolish unemployment assistance?

Hengsbach: No, it is right to get rid of unemployment. Unemployment is not removed by increasing pressure on the unemployed at the bottom of the labor market.

Deutschland Radio Berlin: Perhaps Mr. Rogowski, head of the German industry association, is right; employers should first create jobs and not finance social security. He says employers could alight from the split financing of social security and then create the many jobs that could ensure the living standard.

Hengsbach: If he conjures up four million – actually seven million – competitive jobs tomorrow, then the social security contributions will naturally fall drastically. But that will not happen. Society is not able, Mr. Rogowski is not able, and a whole employer association is not able to create these jobs – in the shortest time – despite all the promises of Mr. Kohl, Mr. Schroeder, Mr. Clement or Hartz. Something is not right. Either the promise is a lie which I cannot accept or the measures taken are not able to produce growth and employment. That is true. Hartz is a dubious program that basically only exerts pressure on the victims of the crisis and makes them culprits. This is dubious because no new additional jobs are created and no more growth arises.

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