Saturday, April 30, 2016

Europe: cross a border and your cell phone may ask for your pin

Alternative title: When customer service meets the surveillance state.

After the recent spate of terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, security experts reached into their drawers - desk drawers, to be exact - and pulled out some of their favorite surveillance measures.
At the EU level, the slow introduction of passenger name record (PNR) data retention was quickly adopted, and the K-Landnews just as quickly published indispensable advice on choosing a non-terrorist airplane meal.

Among calls for more CCTV cameras in public places, more police, more this and that, tightening the rules for "anonymous" SIM cards for traditional cell phones and smart phones/tablets was given wide press coverage in Germany.

The news reported all sales of prepaid SIM cards will require government issued ID. Along with the announcement came the usual "big security hole" etc. warnings by the fearful and the disingenuous.

Somehow everybody had already forgotten that the authorities had to explicitly devise an exception to German telecommunications law rules for refugees. Numerous refugees found, to their detriment, that not knowing reporting requirements regarding SIM cards would lead to their card being deactivated by a prepaid service provider.
After the first three months in Germany, refugees will receive a notice asking them to update their address or face shutdown of the card.

So, there definitely is no "major hole" in how Germany regulates unpaid SIM cards.

The ID requirement comes with a more far reaching relaxation of access to provider databases by police and intelligence agencies. These bodies will be allowed to perform "partial name searches" against the databases, in other words wildcard searches. Given that German police announced a high profile arrest after the Brussels attacks, only to find that they had arrested someone with a similar name as the suspect, you can wonder whether wildcard searches are a bad idea or whether they might help innocents.

However, both press reports and panic stricken statements of politicians on the issue of prepaid SIM cards are less comprehensive than one could demand.

For example, the blogster has not seen a single mention of the fact that some providers will make users enter the SIM card's pin after crossing a national border inside Europe.

This may be meant to protect against theft of a phone or SIM card, or it may be a way to authenticate users after crossing  border but, either way, it is something surveillance experts will probably appreciate.

The blogster has not heard of the big telecommunications providers who offer regular subscription plans doing this, though it may be none of their users finds it noteworthy. Or, it might just be accepted practice in Europe, although we would expect tourists to complain about it. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

UN wants media to be more 'constructive' - here's some constructive UN website QA

The other day, the UN urged the media to take a more 'constructive' approach to news. The folks of The Guardians, not the blogster, put constructive in quote.

The quotes say it all, don't they?

The task before us is "we need responsible media that educate, engage and empower people and serve as a counterpoint to power". Educate and engage are easy to get behind, but empower and serve as a counterpoint make for  a challenging newsroom, given that money and power have their own agendas, no matter how constructive the media tries to be.

If you have watched American mainstream news, you do get engagement and empowerment with the various small "award" or "good deeds" segments at the end of the evening news.
You also get lots of news that you would call constructive in the sense of advocating some project, some plan, some company with the relentless optimism of a press release.

Since there is, of course, no such thing as "the media" or "the news" pure and simple, the blogster trusts its* readers to find uplifting and constructive news by themselves.

If you enjoy graphs and charts, check out Our World in Data. The site has a wealth of statistics and context information, it is a joy to browse.

Don't be a stickler for maps with correct political boundaries, though.

Countries in Europe and elsewhere have seen their borders expand or contract over the centuries, and you simply need to be aware that the maps don't take most of these changes into account but seem to be from the mid 1990s.

As to the United Nations data offerings on the internet, well, they could use some quality assurance.

We to this Launch page and clicked some links.

The great news is that the Population division works ( The still good news is that you do get data as Excel spreadsheets here:

Excel? Yes, but let's be constructive. So, Excel is good.

Here is some constructive, if random, QA: 
Page not found 404
Page not found 404
Server not found

Not nice error   
                                   Draw chart
                                   Your selection is too large for a graph. Please reduce it. Your selection has 34629 cells. The maximum is 20000.Your selection is too large for a graph. Please reduce it. Your selection has 34629 cells. The maximum is 20000.

* We are gender neutral around here.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Progress in farming kills more animals

That's not a headline for a Sunday, is it? It is not a headline you'd want to read any day of the week, so the blogster decided to go for it.

There are occasional reports on the death toll of fauna during the main hay making season from May to June. But compared to the sheer numbers of animals killed each year in Germany alone, estimated at half a million deer, rabbits, and ground nesting birds, the amount of coverage is negligible.

There are multiple reasons for this lack of interest. One is the relentless PR of farmer associations portraying the folks who grow your grains, raise your beef roast and get milk to super markets for cheap as stewards of the countryside, as businessmen with a side job as conservationists.

A second major reason for the low profile of these events is that they are not concentrated in one small area at one narrow point in time. They occur over several weeks all over Germany.

If the mowing of meadows was as localized as the killing of dolphins at "the cove" in Japan or as easily captured as the slaughter of a herd of elephants, it would not happen.

A third reason is that farmers don't like to talk about it. But if and when they do, the first thing you find is that they hate killing baby animals, and the second thing you find is that the existing German laws and regulations to minimize these deaths are not worth the paper they are written on.

Yes, environmental law mandates a German farmer to inform the local hunting lease holder of the day and time of mowing. This is to allow the hunter to run his dogs through the meadows and pastures the day prior to the cutting in order to scare off deer moms and calves as well as rabbits and, to a lesser extent, birds.

Enforcement of the law is spotty at best. Some hunting lease holders are absentees going about a big and important life in a big city and do not have a local representative. Others don't care even if informed. Many try their best, but running dogs through hundreds of acres before a busy grass mowing weekend is beyond their resources. On the part of the farmers, the majority tries to comply, but some just go out and do the job, hoping not to shred Bambi this year.

And there are itinerant mowers, contractors, who work their way up the country. Decades ago, contractors were mostly performing grain harvest work because combines had grown into half million dollar machines individual farmers could not afford.

In Germany, with farms still generally much smaller than in the US and other countries, cutting grass for hay and silage has become another field for contractors, as has the lumber industry.

Contractors are more interested in acreage than in finding one or two baby deer or a handful of rabbits. Then there is the weather. Your best plan may still be thwarted by a bit of rain, with ripple effects to the other customers.

Size matters in another way, too. The huge machines are much louder than the old chuck-chuck tractors with a beam cutter. They are also much wider and faster. A modern grass cutter assembly is 30 ft wide or more, as opposed to the old beam of 6ft. Where an old tractor might mow at a leisurely pace of 5 mph, a modern one doing 15 is considered slow. The much higher noise levels cause the critters to stay put, as opposed to lower noise levels that would scare off many.

All of these factors increase the death toll among wild life.

Also, farmers used to run their kids through the meadows a good distance ahead of the tractor. That was great exercise and wildlife protection at the same time.

To be fair, efforts are under way in the industry to reduce the carnage. Some equipment makers are putting thermal imaging devices on the cutters and transmit images to a split screen in the cabin. In theory, this allows the driver to stop and try to scare baby deer out of the way. The problem with this approach is speed and physics. Detection at fairly close range can work if the driver is very focused at all times, but slamming the brakes won't stop nine or ten tons of equipment fast enough.

The latest, and probably most promising way to evacuate wildlife uses drones. They can be flown separately, ahead of time or during the mowing. Flown ahead of time, their relatively low operating noise can scare off animals - it doesn't freeze them in place.

And for the kids, they might again be of some use as drone operators.

Though Germans in general don't have many kids these days. But that's another subject.

[Update 4/25/2016] Harvesting of grains and rape seed is much less dangerous to wildlife but can be hazardous to farmers. Rape seed is a favorite food of wild boars and falls into the hunting season for these animals. One farmer the blogster knows no longer informs the hunters. He explained: The back of my combine is peppered with bullet holes, I'm not suicidal.

[Update 4/25/2016] Fixed typos.

Friday, April 22, 2016

How US law sometimes helps German consumers

The American legal system is legendary everywhere on the planet where people have TVs and books. From Perry Mason to OJ Simpson, from judges in Hollywood Westerns to divorce litigation in Kramer vs. Kramer, from tortured memos of John Yoo to Supreme Court judges, Europeans have seen them or read about them.
Don't fault Europeans for thinking that almost all criminal cases in the US are resolved by jury trial - blame Hollywood and TV for that.

Extradition requests by the US to get its hands on some alleged evildoer are also popular, especially when the expected sentence in the US is measured in multiple decades as opposed to a few years in the respective European country.

Of course, everyone around here has heard of cases like McDonald's piping hot coffee, and more recently, the more curious folks even found out about civil lawsuits in the area of "The US versus Some Money". For the latter, blame John Oliver's HBO show.

What really gets Europeans, though, are the incredible awards for damages handed out by US courts. A million dollars here, a handful of millions there, the figures are mindboggling to EU citizens.

Only weeks ago, an American court awarded plaintiffs of the 9/11 attacks a cool 2 billion dollars in a case they had brought against, of all countries, Iran for its alleged role in the terror plot.

German citizens have taken note of settlements for millions of dollars in cases where US police killed yet another unarmed harmless black guy. The interest of German audiences concerns the human side of such cases but also the money.

Because you simply do not get that kind of damages in Germany. German companies and the German government are absolutely stingy when it comes to compensating individuals for intentional or unintentional wrong. One hundred thousand Euros after many years of court decisions and appeals is still considered an unbelievable jackpot around here.

Seven years innocently in a mental hospital got one person 50 000 Euros, of which the government will deduct a big chunk for, get that, food and board.

Loss of life?

50 K is what Lufthansa subsidiary Germanwings eventually offered each family after the co-pilot smashed almost 150 people to pieces in the French mountains.

That was considered generous. Lawyers for the families soon found a tangible link to the US needed to sue the airline in an American court: Lufthansa pilots do most of their training in the United States.
This quickly got the attention of the firm, and we will see how the case moves forward.

The Volkswagen (VW) emissions cheating case is a newer example. After it emerged that the company had installed cheat software to beat US emissions tests, the scandal spread to Europe and to the company's homeland of Germany.

Incensed German customers demanded financial compensation - which was flat out refused. A few went to court, and were turned back.

With lenient oversight, customers were told, yes, we'll fix the car when we get to it, shouldn't take much more than a year or so.

Had the VW scandal been limited to Europe, this would have been the end of the road for its customers.

However, news of a settlement with US authorities was made public a couple of days ago. While the figure has not been officially confirmed yet, German media are reporting that each affected US customer will get a payout of 5 000 dollars.

It will be next to impossible for VW to justify paying damages to Americans and continue to refuse to do so for its German customers.

These are two high profile cases, and we do not know for certain if other settlements are made quietly under the radar when a German individual or company brings up a credible threat to sue in the US instead of Germany.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Germany loses 22% of large butterfly species since 1989

Hasn't Germany portrayed itself as an environmentally conscious country for several decades?

There were years when plans separation of household waste for recycling were invariably accompanied by noting that Germany had an intricate system of separation in place. Even before Germans implemented trash separation, there were grand pioneers who blazed ahead.

Like one military installation where all trash was separated into three bins - only to be put into the same garbage truck by the waste management company on collection day.*

Germany's Green party not only governed in various coalitions at the state level but was also the junior partner in a federal government at the start of the century.

Yet, the country has lost 22% of its large butterfly species since 1989, according to testimony in a hearing in the federal parliament in January 2016. On top of the species loss, the numbers of butterflies of the remaining species fell by 56%, according to the same testimony.

The country's federal environmental protection agency gave more figures in its first ever annual report of May 2015.

Yes, first ever annual report in 2015. The effort to list the country's threatened and endangered species looked at 11 000 species of plants, animals, and fungi and found 30% were endangered, and 5% were already extinct.
Of 6 057 currently studied species of invertebrates (mainly insects), a stunning 45.6% were classified as threatened, extremely endangered, or extinct.

More figures?

In the twelve years prior to the 2015 report, 34% of bird species breeding in Germany experienced a decline in population. More than 23% of migratory bird species are listed as threatened or endangered.

The biggest problem regarding insect species and populations is not mentioned on the parliament web site: Nobody knows how many insect species live in Germany because no nation wide effort to catalog them has ever been undertaken.
Volunteers and charities are the only ones who do surveys, and these are limited to regional efforts.

The causes for the steep decline in the past 20 or so years read like a list of the usual suspects, such as destruction or fragmentation of habitats, "potentially" neonicotinoid pesticides, more intensive use of land, and so on. It is well known but not much reported that wind turbines kill birds and insects. And the "environmental compensation" wind turbine companies are required by law to make are - pardon us - a joke.
The blogster has seen them. For each turbine in a forest, the builders fence in a patch of forest the size of the turbine footprint and stick a sign on it that tells you it is a protected area. Which no animal larger than a rabbit can access anyway: the mesh fence is some six feet tall.

There have been some positive developments regarding what the blogster calls "prestige" species. For example, stork populations are up, as are the numbers of wild cats, even wolves.

Land use in Germany, as small as it is with 80 million people on a surface smaller than the size of Montana, is still expanding. Out in what they euphemistically call rural parts like where the blogster lives, cities continue to add commercial spaces on prime former farm lands. "Our" county achieved nominal electricity independence a few years ago when the windmills throughout forests and farm land began to "export" power to other counties.
Not far from here, the night time skyline looks like a red lights-only techno music festival installation all year round.

So, it is probably not going to get better soon, but the blogster will continue to rescue hedgehogs and put up a donated "insect hotel" in a couple of weeks.

Since a pair of mockingbirds moved in under the eves of the house, we might even put up a web cam. Maybe.

* We told the story before, based on OMG (Old Mustached German) and several people who witnessed the PR stunt.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Germany's social security retirement system: 50% or recipients under poverty level by 2030?

The retirement system of the first industrialized country in the world that introduced a social security system is under continued stress. In itself, that's not news for Germans because the country has been doing what US conservatives call "entitlement cuts" for at least 25 years.

Twenty five years, and more cuts are to come.

Don't worry if you have never heard of social security retirement benefits cuts, many Germans would also dispute that they have been going on for over 25 years. And didn't the current government add a "mother's retirement benefit (child care bonus)" a couple of years ago at the same time as it made Germans with 45 years of contributions by age 63 eligible for full retirement benefits?

No wonder even Germans are confused.

Let's start at the beginning
This discussion is about people who paid into the government social security retirement system. Workers and salaried employees up to a certain income cap. Employers paid half, workers the other fifty percent. Most entrepreneurs would not pay in, and none of those civil servants who had the coveted status of "Beamte" has ever paid in. Some small groups, like farmers or freelance artists, were given a subsidy by the government, basically meaning the government paid the "employer share".

Someone who reached retirement age (age 65) about 30 years ago would enter his or her golden years with some 60% of the last net income.
No income tax was payable on social security retirement benefits.

Statisticians and economists at the time looked at the country's demographics and said there won't be enough working age people to pay the same benefits in 30 years from now.
Thus, cuts began, small, largely unnoticed. For instance, young government employees in non-Beamte jobs who left government for greener pastures would find that they voluntary supplementary pension plan payouts were capped at the amount accrued at the time, no inflation adjustments would be provided. After six years of contributions, that came out to about 3 Deutschmarks per month, a glorious 1.5 Euros nowadays, hence less than the cost to print a statement.

Initially, cuts for social security retirement recipients were made in fits and starts. Unemployment went up, so older people were enticed into early retirement at full benefits, and the percentage of payout was reduced by a few percentage points for future retirees.
After the reunification of Germany, East German retirement benefits were set at a lower rate than for those in the West, with the as yet unfulfilled promise to equalize payout percentages in the future. While benefits in the former East Germany have risen faster than in the West, they are still not the same - 25 years after East Germany disappeared.

At the same time, several hundred thousand East Germans who had fled to the West were informed that the 1:1 match of time worked in the East and time worked in the West was retroactively cancelled for anyone who had not reached retirement age by reunification.

The changes in the 1992 law affected subsets of the population in a substantial manner  but sweeping changes with the biggest cuts came with laws in 1999, 2002, and 2005.

Keeping the level of payroll taxes stable and reducing the cost to employers was the main political goal. Both conservative and social democrat led governments implemented changes and cuts, with the social democrat/green government in the early 2000s conducting the deepest and most sweeping reforms.

Among the numerous changes reducing personal entitlement points were the reduction and/or elimination of points awarded for times spent in education and for military service, reduction of points through shortening of unemployment benefit times, up to complete elimination of points for recipients of basic means tested benefits.

These changes meant that even an unchanged overall payout percentage level would reduce retirement benefits for affected individuals because the period of time counted towards eligibility was reduced. Did we mention that the formulas for survivor benefits as well as disability benefits have been "adjusted", too?

In addition, the 2005 law introduced a phased increase of retirement age from 65 to 67 years and instituted a penalty for early retirement to the tube of 0.3% per month up to a total of 14.4%.
The country's poorest workers face an additional hurdle in that any recipients of basic means tested HARTZ IV benefits can be forcibly retired after age 62. This is legal because HARTZ IV is a "non contributory scheme" as opposed to social security retirement contributions, and the law says that benefits from a non-contributory scheme are only awarded when other means are exhausted. If the German government forcibly retires a citizen, early retirement penalties still apply.

That's still not all of the possible pain. We have still not discussed the mandated reduction of the overall payout percentage. This job, if you will, is performed by changing the formula used to set the level of benefits over time.
As of 2015, the overall level stands at 48% of last net income, and it is projected to fall to 45% by 2029. The stated intention of political leaders is that the level is not to fall under 43% in 2030.
If you doubt the value of "stated intention", welcome to the club.

The piggy bank
Some social security funds have been used by past German governments for general fund purposes. Getting hard numbers is not very easy, in part because the social security administration fulfills functions in addition to administering retirement benefits. For these extraneous functions, the federal government transfers money out of the general to the carriers. As of now, experts have calculated that the government transfers are about 20 billion Euros per year under what they should be to cover the extraneous functions.

The private retirement scheme that bombed: Riester.
It's a German fashion to name a scheme by the main guy who came up with it. Hartz IV was named after Mr. Hartz, who later became a felon, convicted of corruption. Mr. Riester was the gent who developed the blue pill of the entitlement cuts, wherein the government would give workers a small bonus when they set up a private supplementary retirement plan.

Insurance companies loved it. Their reps reaped commissions, and the return on Riester was abysmal. Low income workers didn't even get as far as handing over cash to insurers because they simply couldn't afford it. Also, there were little known, and now declared illegal, claw back provisions for the bonus.
Anyway, even arch conservative Bavarian prime minister Seehofer declared the scheme a failure in 2016.

The other carrot: company supplementary pensions - "401(k)-ish"
German employers didn't want to appear too greedy either and accepted to set up company pension schemes. The basic version simply means that a company takes some of the wages/salaries/bonus payments and invests it on behalf of an employee. Some companies are nice and offer some degree of matching or 100% premium coverage. The problems?  A claw back or lose all period of five years and no or limited transfer of the account upon job loss or change of employer.

So, carrot 1 is rotten, eaten up by insurance maggots, carrot 2 may work somewhat better - if you manage to hang on to a job for five years or more.

Hey, wait, there is more pain!
German social security retirement benefits are in the process of transitioning to fully taxable income. The system goes from after tax contributions to pre tax, and - with some logic - taxation of received benefits as people retire. Since the threshold of tax free income is notoriously low in Germany, even retirement only marginally above the poverty level will be taxed. Any additional previously taxable income will be added to the social security pension, moving people up to a higher percentage in the tax table.
Health insurance premiums are due on retirement benefits at the rate paid by active workers. That rate was based on a 50/50 worker/employer split until 2015, when a new law froze the employer portion and floated the worker portion in line with insurers' premium adjustments. Since health care premiums simply don't go down, the year 2016 saw a hike for workers and, consequently, for retirees. Premium payments for a mandatory "long term care" insurance have also been offloaded completely on workers (and hence retirees).

As a result, the average social security retirement benefit for a male in West Germany in 2012 was:
1027 Euros if the male retired in the year 2000
898   Euros if the male retired in 2012

Amounts were, unsurprising, lower for women, already under the current poverty level.

In 2011, 15% of women and 10% of men had a retirement income (all sources combined) of less than 750 Euros a month, i.e. under the level of poverty. 20% of couples had less than 1500 a month.

The present media upset
A study projects that almost 50% of German retirees face benefits below the official poverty level in 2030, currently just under 700 Euros, and would then be eligible for "basic old age benefits" to top up their pension.
The study obviously hit a raw nerve. The employer association of the Christian Democrats, chancellor Merkel's party, denounced the numbers as unreliable projections and declared opposition against the government junior party SPD's talk about stabilizing benefits.
Conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine came out swinging with an article entitled "The myth of old age poverty".

The author claims that, by government forecasts, benefits would increase by 41% by 2029. Adjusted for inflation, he claims, benefits would effectively be 15% higher than today.

It took a couple of his readers to point out that a realistic, inflation adjusted increase with his optimistic numbers would be around 4% for someone who is a retiree today. Factoring in the reduction of the overall payout percentage, his calculation unravels.

While demographics are working against the German social security system, with the country's population projected to shrink and a minimum of 400 000 immigrants a year not necessarily arriving to stay, there is another part of the story.

German top income tax was reduced from 53% to 42% during the same period retirement benefits for workers were reduced.
But even at the 42% top rate, few Germans actually pay it, according to this site.

Capital gains tax is a single rate tax, and the rate is 25%. This flat rate is a reduction by more than half versus the old top income rate and about a third compared to the new one. Justified as an incentive to reduce capital gains tax evasion, the results turned out to be miserable: revenue dropped by about one third (almost 4 billion Euros) in the first year after the change.

In 2016, retired civil servants of the privileged "Beamte" group receive a guaranteed minimum pension of about 1600 Euros per month* without ever having paid contributions to a retirement scheme. The average civil servant pension in 2012 was about 2350 Euros.

* Minor variations by state.

[Update 4/18/2016] In the torrent of conservative publications, all of a sudden, one appeared that not only supports what the blogster wrote above, but adds more information. And disappears from the front page as quickly - leaving the space to the strident "we cannot afford better retirement payments" camp. Did the resident TV critic of Frankfurter Allgemeine know what he was doing when he wrote "the changes to the retirement system were creative redistribution", and "government could not reduce wages, so they cut the social benefits side".

Repeal of the wealth tax
The article mentions another tax, which the blogster neglected to bring up. That cut, again during the benefits reduction, affected Germany's wealth tax (a tax on assets, or comprehensive property tax). The tax affected only wealthy Germans and brought in some 4.5 billion Euros when it was last collected in 1996 - which would likely be at least 10 billion a year today.
There were also several measures of tax relief for companies, but the blogster has no good stats for these.

In short, both conservative and social democrat/green governments have massively redistributed wealth from the less fortunate to the rich over the last quarter of a century.
If we take only the known 20 billion in extraneous costs and add estimates of lost revenue from the capital gains tax and the wealth tax, we already arrive at a minimum of 30 billion Euros a year, which is more than the country spends on all of the basic means tested HARTZ IV for over 4 million people, and is also about 10% of annual social security retirement payments (except disability and survivor benefits). 

Squeeze at the bottom: sales tax, electricity tax, renewables subsidy
Hacking away at entitlements, consecutive governments also embarked on increasing tax revenue by increasing non-food sales tax (15% in 1995) to 19%, by introducing a new electricity tax (revenue about 7 billion in 2012) as well as a levy on electrical power to finance subsidies for renewables. The price of electricity for consumers went from about 15 cents/kWh to just under 30 cents in 2015. Almost half of the price is sales tax, renewables subsidy and electricity tax. The levy on electricity was designed in such a way that the biggest users (again, companies) are either fully exempt or pay a laughable rate.
Of course, energy efficiency can bring some savings, but studies have shown over and over hat people at the poverty level cannot invest or exploit sales prices because they simply don't have the needed cash.

Thus, it becomes clear that retirees faced tax hikes on basic necessities at the same time their entitlements were lowered.

While the whole world knows that U.S. wages have remained flat for decades, Germany proudly points to increases, even though they have been small. The fact that additional taxes, levies and social security cuts/premium hikes have canceled them out is not part of the official success story of Germany's current budget surplus.

The country's civil servants know their numbers, so it comes as no surprise that their minimum pension appears to reflect a figure that covers real rent and living expenses for someone without college education rather well.

It is also a smart power move to keep the core civil servants happy while the poorer folks get fleeced. A bit like continuing to pay the military in the U.S. when the government is shut down.

Where do they go from here?
As the deep cuts affect more Germans, expect many more stories like the one told in the surprisingly frank article. Having worked and paid into the system all her adult life, one TV talk show panelist is now on full disability under the poverty level. The current official phrasing is "one of a number of individual cases".
If the blogster is not mistaken, the redistribution from poor to rich may slow down a little but won't stop because playing the young against the old has worked too well for several decades.

[Update 4/20/2016]
This PDF file shows the nominal income tax compared to the average effective rates Germans paid in 2015.  The effective average paid by earners eligible for the top rate of 42% is between 27% and 29%, much less scary than the lamented high income tax burden conservatives love to quote.

Increases in worker retirement payouts will return an additional 720 million Euros next year to the government as income taxes paid on benefits by the workers.

[Update 4/21/2016] Under the headline "A third of the federal budget goes into retirement funding", Frankfurter Allgemeine continues the "we cannot afford it narrative".  They fail to mention that a large part of this money compensates the insurance carriers for extraneous functions. The article gives a couple of data points regarding our "Beamte" civil servants, stating that starting in 1999 they "contribute to some extent" to their pensions by getting smaller raises than others. The money thus saved goes into a fund. As of 2016, that fund has some 835 million Euros, which is, let's be frank, peanuts. After 15 years of build up, it is not much bigger than the additional tax revenues from regular retirees projected for a single year. Not contributing to retirement 25 years after "regular" benefits began to be slashed, is an achievement.
It seems no coincidence elected officials in Germany are given the same status as "Beamte". A higher take home pay (no payroll taxes) than workers outside of government, lower retirement ages in many sectors, a guaranteed minimum starting pension more than 50% higher than the average regular retiree represent a pretty good deal.

[Update 4/24/2016] Another news cycle in the debate sees the government defend the "Riester" scheme with the choice words "people will get their money back", the equivalent of putting your money under a mattress, except that the mattress is stored at an insurance company and you pay storage fees for the privilege. There is talk about legislating coverage for individual self employed people, but the "enterprise wing" of the social democrats is warning against a policy that focuses on lower earners and wants measures to "bring the better earning middle class" back to the party as it hovers around the national 20% mark - as opposed to the conservative CDU/CSU with at least 35% of voters nationally.

Notably absent from the latest trial balloon is raising the payroll tax cap - which is much lower than in the US, where it has been criticized as being too low. Not a word on making the protected civil servants contribute to pensions either. The total cost of pensions for this group was around 40 billion Euros in 2012, or about 10% of the country's total spending on retirement benefits.

Conservatives and "free market liberals" once again demand raising the retirement age from 67 to at least 70. They fail, of course, to note that this would punish workers in physically demanding and dangerous industries who, even today, hardly make it to the official retirement age of 65 and see benefits cut by 0.3% per month for each month they retire before 65.

[Update 4/25/2016]  We have some more figures on the phasing in of taxing all social security retirement benefits in exchange for exempting future social security contributions from payroll tax. Of Germany's 20 approximately million retirees, some 3.9 million are liable for income tax in 2016. That figure increases to around 4.4 million in 2017, and everyone who retires this year will see 72% of benefits be liable for taxes if he or she exceeds the general basic income tax free amount of 8450 Euros a year.
Yes, gradually moving from post tax to pre tax contributions has raised complaints about double taxation because of the math involved in the shift, but courts have decided there is nothing people can do about it - basically admitting the damage is small enough to ask citizens to just suck it up.

[Update 5/3/2016]  For a solid two weeks, German conservative newspapers tried their best to ignore even the most egregious flaws of the supplementary Riester insurance, and none of them called for making "Beamte" civil servants pay retirement and health insurance contributions like other workers. This changed on Sunday, 1 May. Whether it has something to to with May Day being international labor day remains anyone's guess. For the first time, the Sunday edition of Frankfurter Allgemeine called for changes to Riester, including what amounts to a penalty for very poor retirees. Retirees who need the German equivalent of SSI currently see all of accrued Riester benefits, meager as they are, deducted from their SSI. That same article also explicitly called for making Beamte contribute to their retirement benefits.
At the same time, coming from a conservative background, the article blames the Social Democrats and conservative outlier Seehofer of Bavaria for making the current debate a conflict between the old and the young of the country. This is a misplaced accusation because the last 30 years have seen that very blame game played, ultimately with success, by conservatives and "free market liberals" (FDP).
As it stands, nobody in the  main media has pointed out that the tax breaks to the wealthy the blgster summarized above would easily cover any proclaimed "shortfall" in government revenue.

[Update 6/21/2016] Inheritance tax breaks for company owners have a long tradition in Germany as one of the cornerstones of the conservative parties CDU/CSU. So, when the country's constitutional court ruled in late 2014 that the different treatment of company owners versus everybody else violated constitutional equality provisions, some hoped to see a less distorted inheritance tax system. The deadline mandated by the court was June 2016, and negotiations within the coalition government exhausted the timeframe. Only on 20 June was a compromise reached, and the parties announced the change of the law would bring in an additional 235 million Euros in inheritance tax each year. That's not much compared to the total revenue of 4.305 billion in 2012.  Of this, 48.7% were paid on inheritances worth less than 500 000 Euros, 51.3% on estates worth more than 500 000 Euros.

It was, in fact, easy to pass on a company worth millions without paying a single cent in inheritance tax. Companies with fewer than 20 permanent employees were exempt from proving the basic requirement for tax exemption: keeping the same number of employees for seven years. While the new law lowers this number of employees to 5, multiple complex formulae are applied, and companies worth up to 26 million continue to get tax discounts.

The new law also changes the way a company's revenue value is calculated for the purpose of inheritance tax, cutting it to just over half of the current valuation.
There is also a new provision that allows some heirs to postpone paying inheritance tax for 10 years without incurring interest.

The blogster is willing to be the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin that refuse to go away on this: the effective additional revenue from the changed rules for transferring companies to heirs will be substantially less than 235 million next year.

* Gender neutral.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

They call it "The Hospice" - the office building of the former grandees of Deutsche Bank

The blogster came to "The Hospice" via a detour, and we will take you along the same route because there is both correlation and causation there. It is not a coincidence either that the route to The Hospice led through the reader comments section of an article in German zeitonline.

You should call it The Yellow Prick Road, said the K-Landnews TheEditor in an unusually soft tone of voice. It's the appropriate thing to do when you talk about people at the end of life.

The original article described how managers get fired in 21st century Germany. The title says Companies treat managers like criminals.

No comment, mumbled TheEditor, as if it* knew where we were headed. The Zeit article is just one of many exposes on the harsh, punishing realities at work in the fourth largest economy of the world. Over the years of living in Germany, the blogster has heard and read that life has become colder, more self centered, often ruthless. Personal descriptions came from members of the rural communities we call home, workers, small employers.
In the media, the big complainers are those who have much more power, and that's what the Zeit article, among others, illustrates.

There, a lawyer specializing in employment law recounts a long list of methods companies use to get rid of undesired managers.

Undesirables get stripped of a team, get banished to a remote corner of the building, lose their company car. If and when they get fired after refusing to take the hint to resign, the laid off managers are given a few minutes in the office to collect personal stuff under the watchful eye of a security guard, and then they are escorted off the premises.

Wait, that's new around here?

It's how companies have done it in the US for a long time.

Nothing to write home about, but then there were the reader comments. They corroborated a shift to more corrosive work environments, and one of them had the link to The Hospice.

The Hospice is the nickname of a small, non-descript office building in the shadows of the bank highrises in Frankfurt, Germany. The Hospice is where almost all of the former CEOs of Deutsche Bank have their offices after retiring or after having been ousted from the bank's top floor.

It is there that people like Rolf Breuer end up after decades of a career which led them to the very top of one of the world's most powerful banks. In other companies, equivalent offices exist, nicknamed with equivalent cruelty or irony, like elephant cemetery, or burial chamber.

Some of the residents of The Hospice decided to talk to the Zeit reporters, most of them beginning the interview with "This talk never happened".

The old men, all are men, tell about the fierce power struggles, about the need to "use truth and lies in a strategic manner", about "the satisfaction to see some else get hammered", about "savvy tactics".

Some openly admit how they would abstain or even vote in favor of a decision despite being fundamentally opposed to a proposed change or measure. They would form ever shifting alliances to get more power, to maintain their status, to shift blame onto someone else.

One put it this way: When the board of Deutsche Bank was making a decision that affected the future of the bank, no board member would think of the bank's future. You would think of your own future, your own power.

The article is one of a handful or so the blogster would recommend reading, both for the deep insights into the workings and trappings of power at the very top of companies and for the quality of the journalistic writing. So, get a German friend to read it for you.

The blogster found it almost incredible to read how these old men go to their tiny, prison cell size offices every morning to face empty schedules and void, but then remembered old dogs and old horses from the years on the farm.

Each and everyone worth many millions of Euros, the old bankers cling to the past. Only rarely does one get out and leave the decades of frenemies behind.

Why don't they go enjoy themselves, sail around the world, do charity work, help the homeless?

Well, that's one reason why you will never be one of them, smiled TheEditor.

* We are gender neutral.
[Update] A couple of small grammar edits. Note: the German term used is Sterbehaus, a place were people go to die.  "The hospice" is as close as we could translate.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Germany: Wise air travel meal choices and stuff not to buy online

From our There is no Mass Surveillance series.

When the blogster asked a nice former civil servant who had worked in the German Bundestag, the federal parliament, if he thought there was mass surveillance in Germany, he didn't blink: "Of course, everybody does it".

Posing the identical question to OMG (Old Mustached German), familiar to regular readers, resulted in the same answer, decorated with a gratuitous swear word for emphasis.

The blogster doesn't want to contradict the experts and decided to call it differently: massive targeted surveillance. Same thing but sounds nicer, don't you agree?

The most interesting data collection efforts by the German authorities are not always the ones you can readily read about in the old and new media.

The fact that the German government just this week decided to make the sale of anonymous SIM cards illegal and require ID when you buy any prepaid card is news, granted.

No matter whether you book a flight online or at a travel agent, your data are going to collected even more extensively than before.

A pet project of "conservatives" for many years, it took the more recent terror attacks in Europe, and the prospect of 500 million Euros a year for running the scheme, to get comprehensive collection of air travel passenger data (PNR) passed. For each passenger, up to 60 data points per flight, will be collected and made available to all EU member states. Even your meal preferences are going to be saved for five years with more relevant personal data.

The blogster recommends to go with the standard chicken or beef meals and to avoid vegetarian. The latter can be interpreted as religious affiliation or as animal rights activism, both of which are deeply suspect to the authorities.

Gluten-free, on the other hand, should be great, too, because it is the clearest food based statement of health consciousness, and thus reduces your chance of being flagged as a potential suicide bomber to naught. Gluten-free shouts out to the world: I want to live. Remember that the 911 highjackers binged on fast food and crap before going boooom? 

Legal items you still may not want to buy over the internet in Germany include the following.

Hydrogen peroxide
It is legal but H2O2 gets its own entry because it illustrates the extent of government control over citizens like few other things, with the exception of the broadcasting fee.
The blogster misses this dirt cheap harmless cleaning and washing aid more than any non curse words can describe.
But since higher concentration H2O2 can be used with Acetone to make explosives, the Germans clamped down.
You can still by a liter/quart of low percentage peroxide but for moon prices.

Any other useful chemicals
Chief among them are acids and solvents. Generally being hazardous, limiting sales and trying to make sure buyers know safety and handling restrictions is actually a good idea. Unfortunately, German authorities seem to believe that the simple act of buying them over the internet means you may be up to no good. If you do, for example, work that involves a lot of degreasing, find a brick and mortar shop to buy supplies. They are required to ask the same questions as online shops but showing your face makes you less of a threat. Unless you have a big beard. In that case, find another hobby.

If you are middle aged or older, you appear less of a threat but you have another problem: may chemicals you may know as openly on sale from decades ago have undergone reclassification, which always means becoming subject to more restrictions.

For all the blogster knows, Borax, that cheap powder against irritable bowel syndrome in dogs and other pets, may now be on an index because it is a neutron absorber. The friendly pharmacist might get nervous and think you are trying to build a mini nuclear power plant in your back yard.

Brewing equipment and stills
Home brewing is legal in Germany up to an annual quantity of 200 liters (around 50 gallons). Many DIY stores and gardening centers offer basic equipment, such as glass fermentation and storage jars.
Buying these basics online is probably safe. At least, we have not heard of issues.

Distilling equipment is another matter!
You can freely buy a 0.5 liter (about 2 cups) still, and German customs will generally leave you alone. If you buy a still with a capacity greater than 0.5 liter, you will get a visit by German customs. That's because any German seller of stills above that limit has to provide customs with the buyer's contact details.

According to a German friend, some inveterate home distillers have worked around the system. Organic Chemistry textbooks published in Germany after WWII included a large section on home brewing and home distilling. Recent textbooks no longer have this practical content, but German students continue to be interested in the subject. Most chemistry students know how make their own still, including a separator for methyl alcohol, out of an electric canning pot.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The disingenuous German defense of a comedian against Erdogan

The amount of ink and electricity expended by German media on the comedian who allegedly insulted Turkish President Erdogan may be enough to print all of Gaza's newspapers for a year and cover most its power needs.

The K-Landnews calls Mr. B. a comedian, not a satirist. Germany has some satirists, and we cannot find a good reason to classify Mr. B. as such.Mr. B., as we call him for short out of laziness, offers the style and content of what we would have called a court jester in the old days, or as the licensed fool.

In the politically astute world of German public broadcasting, a few late night time slices have been earmarked for comedy/satire, one of which is occupied by Mr. B. on the second nation wide channel ZDF. This is where he broadcast a "denigrating poem" a couple of weeks ago relating to Erdogan.
As described by Der Spiegel, Böhmermann sparked headlines around the world after his satire show "Neo Magazin Royal" broadcast a poem mocking Erdogan in the most below-the-belt manner possible last Thursday. In the poem, aired by Mainz-based public broadcaster ZDF, Erdogan is mocked for being a "professional idiot, cowardly and uptight" and is disparaged as having had sex with animals.

What hardly anybody explained was how the episode came about and how it was set up. The episode followed on the heels of another comedy show by one of the rival ARD broadcasters (extra3), which had included a funny song about Erdogan. That song became very popular on social media and was eventually given Turkish subtitles. It mocked Erdogan without pulling a transgression.
The ZDF Mr. B. show was thus really nothing but sloppy seconds, and - naturally - had to top the fun song. The makers of the ZDF show (B. is the anchor but has writers and support staff) knew the German limits on "free speech" very well, because they prefaced the denigrating poem with a statement that explained, no, denigrating speech is illegal under German law. So, this following kind of speech would be illegal. Then B. proceeded to present the poem.

The broadcast did not make waves before the ZDF leadership pulled the episode from its web site (April 1). Initial public outrage was focused on the action of ZDF and the statement by its chief that the episode "fell short of the broadcaster's quality standards".

Some in the media and a large segment of the public cried censorship.

Which it was. And not for the first time.

ZDF reversed the decision and put the episode back up. **

At this point in time, the lines of discourse in Germany were still very much as expected. Conservatives mostly called the episode childish, and even Chancellor Merkel, reacting to the first wave of Turkish criticism, called it "intentionally hurtful", as reported on April 4.

As Turkey called for prosecution of B. for insulting the president, Germans began a debate about what section of the penal code this might fall under. The obvious choice was section 103, which classifies "insulting a foreign head of state" as a felony punishable by up to several years in prison.

An old journalist then pointed out the history of this section: it had been tailor made to protect the then Shah of Iran. The Shah was not liked by many Germans and by Iranians who had fled his regime in the 1960s and 70s. The German state, however, and most of the conservatives were rather fond of the torturing monarch and added the specific clause to the penal code.

Official Germany went "oops" and changed over to the generic "insult" section 185.

Debate about the comedy episode, fueled by the wobbling of ZDF, Ms. Merkel's reaction and Erdogan filing a complaint with German prosecutors, then shifted to highlight  the obvious problems stemming from the handling or mishandling of the refugee crisis, especially the deal of the EU with Turkey to take back refugees for several billion euros in cash.

As the debate raged on, German media took note of the fact that even the most minor criticism of Erdogan gets you a prosecution in Turkey.

Suddenly, even German outlets less than enthusiastic or outright critical of B.'s stunt went into "we cannot be like Turkey" mode. Others pointed out the repeated satires of Ms. Merkel in some more or less harsh Nazi/World War II setting, in uniform etc., for example, by Greek publications during the height of the Greek debt crisis.

And thus, German media from liberal to conservative rallied around the "we are better than Turkey" and "tit for tat".

Satire in Germany has come under successful attack in the recent past, not to mention the latter part of the 20th century. For example, in 2012, when magazine Titanic published a title with then Pope Benedict in a white robe stained by a yellow spot in the area of the private parts addressed by Mr. B., too, German courts declared that cover and the back of the magazine issue to be "damaging to the personality rights" of the Pope.

The K-Landnews has posted on German comedy/satire before and claims that TV series South Park could not have originated in Germany: they would have been sued out of existence at the time.

Smart observers have also asked the crucial question: If Mr. B.'s poem had been directed at a German politician, what would have happened?

Insults of German politicians on Facebook are routinely brought to court under different provisions of the penal code, from insult to hate speech.

Germany's highest court declared only in 2015 that speech insulting police as a group, specifically F*CK Cops on a t-shirt, was legal because it was not directed at a specific, identifiable member of the group.

A journalist in Greece was convicted of insulting Ms. Merkel in 2012 and sentenced to a fine of 25 000 Euros.

After it transpired last night that Mr. B. was put under police protection, any remaining possibility of an indictment for insulting Erdogan has evaporated.

If an "insult" can be a felony in your country, don't complain that the provision is exploited.

In the overall context of the squabble, the relative lack of attention to events in Turkey on the part of most German media outlets strikes the blogster as much more important and damaging.
Proven support of Islamist radicals in Syria and Iraq was hardly mentioned until recently. For a long time, the plight of the Kurdish people was presented mostly as "terrorist" PKK versus the legitimate state for a long time.

[Update 5/18/2016] A superior court in the German city of Hamburg handed down a ban on parts of the "poem", following to a large extent the complaint by Mr. Erdogan. As Die Welt reports, Mr. B. would now be unable to quote some 95% of the "poem". The court stated that Mr. Erdogan had to tolerate even harsh criticism but that abusive slander or degrading statements crossed the line.

This decision is very much in line with "generic" German on German cases.

Mr. B. can appeal the decision.

The final outcome, though, remains uncertain because of the case's political dimension.

[Update] Fixed the usual suspects: typos, grammar.
[Update 4/14/2016] Correction: It is on YouTube, not the ZDF web site. That's still being debated.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Verschenken deutsche Rundfunkanstalten beitragsfinanzierte Sendungen im Ausland?

Der Rundfunkstaatsvertrag und sein Zwilling, der Beitragsstaatsvetrag, gelten nur im Inland.

Sagte ein Intendant, den wir hier nicht zitieren wollen.

Wenn man sich nun im Internet umschaut, findet man früher oder später einige Internetradios, darunter unseren Lieblingssender TuneIn.

Und wenn man dort ins Suchfeld deutsche öffentlich rechtliche Anstaltskürzel eingibt, findet man fast alle!

Die Gretchenfrage: bekommen die deutschen Anstalten dafür Geld, oder geben sie unsere beitragsfinanzierten Sendungen kostenlos an Auslandsfirmen ab, die kommerzielle Dienste anbieten?

Eine Anstalt wurde von uns zu diesem Thema und speziell zu TuneIn befragt. Die Antwort?
Siehe ganz oben.

Auf deutsch: geht Beitragszahler nichts an, weil es im Ausland passiert.

Nun sind diese deutschen Sender auf TuneIn kostenlos, also sollte man den deutschen Anstalten keine Vorwürfe machen, sie bereichern sich ja nicht daran?

Man kann allerdings bei TuneIn folgendes tun: There is a one-time pay version, “TuneIn Radio Pro” (USD $9.99), which allows you to record anything heard through the TuneIn service to play back at any time. Recordings made by TuneIn Radio Pro are stored on the device and cannot be played on other devices.

Deutsch: Für einen einmaligen Preis von UDS $9,99 kann man jede Sendung aufzeichnen und beliebig oft auf einem Gerät wiederholen.

Die Frage: geht bei ÖRR-Sendungen davon etwas an die deutschen Anstalten? Wir wissen es nicht, aber die "Antwort" ganz oben gibt weing Anlass zum Optimismus.

Nun gibt es, wieder als Beispiel TuneIn, auch komplette Premium-Angebote, etwa auch für die Deutsche Bundesliga (zumindest laut Wikipedia).

Wie sieht es mit Nutzungsentgelten aus? Hat die GEMA etwas dazu zu sagen?

Hier das Angebot des WDR Hörfunks vom 11. April 2016

Wetten Sie mit uns: Verschenken die deutsche ÖRR beitragsfinanzierte Sendungen an kommerzielle Anbieter im Ausland?

Fragen Sie doch mal Ihre Anstalt. 

[Updated 4/12/2016] Gema-Frage.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Overtime - the threat that undermines Germany's NATO commitment

The trigger happy German wanna be warriors who looked at American GIs with envy even though they couldn't recognize a US combat veteran when she stood right in front of them with patches on both upper sleeves are suffering under another threat.

We are not talking about PTSD, a problem the modern German military has experienced when ground troops saw combat, especially in Afghanistan. Yes, young Germans are learning the lesson that every time you kill somebody, a piece of your own soul dies, too.

The current threat is called overtime.

Apparently, the German military runs on a 41 hour workweek and overtime hours are offset by time off as ordered by the respective commander. Germany's ombudsman for the military is unhappy with the new rules and calls for changes, for example, a yearly overtime account, so soldiers can take larger blocks of time off and not be stuck in the middle of nowhere for a few hours of downtime, or extra pay.

In the long tradition of making the greatest possible impression on the public, the gentleman gave an interview to the Sunday tabloid version of BILD Zeitung.

He raises the specter of Germany being unable to fulfill its NATO commitments because of the overtime threat. The BILD article and others in the same vein say that a German unit can only participate in a four week NATO exercise in Norway for 12 days because the troops would otherwise accumulate too many overtime hours. "The NATO partners do not understand that", claims the article.

Well, in the world of the blogster, there is a simple solution to not understanding: explain.

"Ve do four one hours", or something like it will do the trick.

Or is "understand" meant to say "they find this stupid"?

The various incarnations of the bad news for German national security include other statements you can only sell to life long civilians, such as this one. When troops are out on a training area, their workday ends at 16:30. That's the end of the training day - because of a danger of overtime.

The technical term for that, my friends, is called bullshit.

When the training or the mission demands it, even German soldiers will be up and about as long as needed.

As much as it may pain those among you who work in, say, Amazon warehouse or any other job governed by intricate computerized time management, life in the military isn't like that. There's a lot of downtime in many branches and specialties.

But let's not dwell on this aspect. You might feel a lot less secure.

The take home point of the ombudsman's complaint is simple, and you, dear reader, can become an instant credible military spokesperson if you follow this secret guideline.

Describe anything you don't like as a threat to combat readiness and obligations towards our allies.

If you want to explore this as a career, how about some practice? Go stand in front of a mirror and describe how one flat tire threatens to defeat NATO.

One  more thing:
If winning the next war depends on you being able to do a few more overtime hours, maybe you misunderstand your job.

Investors Gone Wild - German annual shareholder meetings

We call shareholders investors instead of using more loaded or outright negative words, such as gambler. We talk of sharehholder value when dividends are increased and wages kept flat.  And every now and then, a news story makes the rounds telling us how a fortune's worth of old shares in a famous company discovered in the attic of a grandfather or a hermit lift surprised heirs out of poverty.

Every year, those stock holders who are direct owners of shares congregate in places small and large and are made to feel that they have a say in the direction of companies, in the election of board members.

Scheming and backstabbing among company leaders often come to a head in the run up to the annual meeting, but the public very rarely gets the kind of insight delivered by an article in "middle of the road conservative" German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ).

It began with an argument between two shareholders at this year's Daimler annual meeting in Berlin. Daimler is one of Germany's most prestigious companies, maker of Mercedes Benz cars, buses and trucks, owner of the iconic US brand Freightliner, and more.

Police were called to the event of about 5500 shareholders after one proud Daimler stockholder repeatedly took to the buffet and packed hot dogs to take home with him. Another shareholder, obviously well aware that the hot dogs also came out of her part ownership in Daimler, confronted the man, who proceeded to insult the lady, leading to the call to police.

This incident must have prompted the editors of well behaved FAZ to list a few other food related incidents at shareholder meetings.

According to the article, Deutsche Bank had to order more food because they ran out by 11 AM, despite of what they and other planners had considered a generous amount of refreshments.

A retailer used the meet up to kill two birds with one stone: they pulled lots of unsold Easter merchandise from their warehouse and have it away to shareholders, warehouses free for new stock and shareholders happy.

To the blogster, these and other stories of investors being childish and greedy pose a question. Does this display of ignorance and self centered behavior influence how a company's leaders see their world, how they conduct business?

Or is the majority of top executives in large publicly traded companies a generically self centered lot anyway? Much seems to indicate the latter, for example, the latest news that the executives of automaker VW, including disgraced ex Chief Winterkorn, insist on getting their bonus payments despite the fallout from the emissions scandal?

Friday, April 8, 2016

German courts overturned almost 50% of sanctions against basic benefits recipients

Germany's infamous "assist and assert" bureaucracy has done it again.

Last year, German courts overturned just under 50% of sanctions (benefit cuts) levied against residents who receive bare bones basic means tested HARTZ IV benefits.

Out of 51 000 administrative appeals, more than one third - almost 19 000 - were fully or partially reversed by the jobcenter administration.

The simple fact that courts not known for leniency invalidate government decisions in half of all cases brought before them should give any competent lawyers in the jobcenter bureaucracy pause.

But it doesn't.

The same is true for administrative appeals. If over a third are untenable, something is wrong.

Again, it doesn't seem to matter. These figures do not even include all those instances in which the system works and still leaves people go hungry for between a day and a week because of slow initial claims processing or slow updating.

Neither does the number of appeals filed reflect the actual number of wrong decisions correctly. The blogster has knows some benefits recipients and found people tend to be reluctant to appeal even obvious mistakes out of fear of future retaliation. Almost everybody seems to know someone who complained and later had to wait just a little longer for the processing of a follow-up claim.

The latest sanctions statistics we found cover the first six months of 2015, according to this article, they totaled just over 1 million. The fairly constant rate of sanctions is around 3% per year.
Three quarters of benefit cuts were due to recipients not complying with appointments, ten percent were justified with recipients not fully complying with their "integration agreement", which is a "contract" that lists measures designed to help claimants "integrate" into the regular workforce and includes such nasties as having to accept a 1 Euro/hour job, or attending yet another resume writing class.

Benefits cuts start at 10%, then ratchet up to 30%, and - in rare cases - benefits can be withdrawn altogether (just over 7 000 in the period reported in the 2015 article).

Young people under 25 are the hardest hit. For this group, the very first violation triggers a cut, period. Although everybody, including employer organizations, acknowledges that harsh sanctions can lead to homelessness, bad eating habits/malnutrition and mental health problems, representatives of the employers still defended "constructive pressure" on the long term unemployed.

For those readers who buy into the "German benefits are generous and cushy" argument routinely touted by self styled conservatives, this short article in Der Spiegel reports that HARTZ IV recipients in 2016 receive effectively lower benefits than when the system was first introduced in 2005. Between 2005 and 2015, benefits rose by 15.7% while food prices rose by 24.4%.

Mistreatment of claimants is not limited to those who are demonstrably poor - the standard for HARTZ IV. Even people who paid into unemployment insurance for years have to be braced for serious abuse, as we detailed in this earlier post Arrogant and Lazy.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The money shot - Panama Papers: a bragging Sueddeutsche & a bit too much Putin

It took only half a day until the K-Landnews TheEditor, lounging on the basement sofa next to the imaginary lava lamp, wearing a pair of thrift store used 1 Euro jeans and mismatching socks, could claim victory: It 'll blow over soon. TheEditor pointed to a short interview in Frankfurter Allgemeine with the chief of the German tax professionals union.

Panama has been known as a tax haven, a place where you can establish shell companies to hide money.

True, the leak known as Panama Papers is yuge, with millions of emails and tons of other data totaling some 2.6 terra bytes, according to Sueddeutsche Zeitung, also known as the lucky bastards contacted by a whistleblower and now scrambling to fix their overloaded web site.

When the story broke big time yesterday, we could still bring up their Panama Papers site and were struck by the lengthy praise of themselves and their partners in investigation. The folks who did the site design are obvious fans of Citizen Four, the Snowden documentary. The chat scrolling text is so Citizen Four, but classier, not bare bones green letters on a black terminal screen.

Listing the names of their German public broadcasting partners, their Austrian ones, showing how big the data trove was compared to other leakers, doing a 400 journalists over one year blurb looked, well, like bragging.

All the credits at the beginning of a movie. Most of the international partner sites did not feel the need to bore readers to death with an exhaustive list of contributing agencies and companies. You know, like, newspapers. Fusion did a lovely intro.

So, how did the reporting go?

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has a neat web site with a player, and they really want your email to keep you up to date. Not nice.

Right now, NPR news is leading with Putin's inner circle, and this turns out to be the focus of most Western European papers. Those who do more nuanced reporting are far and few between. French Le Monde didn't run a Putin photo, which is cool, and neither did RT.COM, but that was expected.

German Der Spiegel and the British Telegraph were much more mainline, both featuring Putin photos despite the disclaimer that Putin's name was not found. Die Welt goes with the cello player who manages Putin's money. Given that there have been many detailed reports about shady finances of people close to Putin, the focus on the man would appear to be either unthinking or very focused. For serious Russia watchers, corruption since the fall of the Soviet Union has been an unending source of work.

Tabloid The Sun goes with a picture of Assad and Putin. German tabloid BILD reporters are all over Putin, too.

Many of the others in the rogues' gallery of shell company holders are the corrupt leaders we pretty much expect to see.

Did German papers, starting with Sueddeutsche, report on any shell companies set up by Germans?

So far, no. The next several days will show what they have or don't have.

Contrast this reporting with the near absence of traction the HuffPost/TheAge report on bribes in the oil industry got in the German media.

Despite the odd reporting, the unknown whistleblower deserves a big thank you for reminding us how much slush money is out there. Big data is not easy to handle, so, yes, thanks to the journalists for their effort.

The union chief mentioned above estimates that Germany loses about 50 billion Euros each year due to tax evasion. For comparison, this is about twice the amount Germany spends on basic means tested HARTZ IV to keep over four million citizens alive.

If you want to hide money, US shell companies are a much better deal - but only as long as you don't upset the status quo.

[Update 4/5/2016] Sueddeutsche Zeitung mentions that "a whistleblower" sold data of Mossack Fonseca to German authorities and says that several German banks, among government/state banks were fined as a result. It also says: The journalists compiled lists of important politicians, international criminals, and well-known professional athletes, among others. The digital processing made it possible to then search the leak for the names on these lists.
The public has not seen the lists. There was further processing, such as linking people for whom no hit was found, like Putin, with others (friends of his). This process is open to abuse, and readers are not informed of avenues that yielded negative results. For example, did one or more of "Putin's friends" have strong connections to oligarchs?

The number of Russians mentioned in the press so far is surprisingly small given that sanctions are in place against the country and given the generally widespread corruption.

Craig Murray also points out that, once again, all shell companies mentioned in a BBC documentary on the leak fall under British jurisdiction in the British Virgin Islands.

All in all, the biggest leak of all times looks more like a dumpster fire, catching predominantly known sleeze bags. Where is "the smart money"?

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Making immigrants pledge to uphold European values makes no sense

We wrote about a 2015 plan by German conservatives to make immigrants take a pledge of allegiance to German values. As reported on 1 April by TheGuardian and others, Belgium want to make immigrants pledge to uphold European values.

For suggested German values, see the earlier post. Belgium opting for European values makes perfect sense to a cynic: there don't seem to be Belgian values, or they are doing some extra PR for Brussels as the capital of Europe.

One prominent aspect of all the value clamoring is that immigrants won't discriminate against homosexuals.

The blogster picked this aspect because it demonstrates two things:
1) Natives can still discriminate
After all, churches in most European countries still don't recognize them as full human beings, and most states don't give them the same rights as hetero couples.
2) Gays/lesbians are being exploited
It is certainly progress that gays and lesbians went from being natural born felons less than a generation ago to a better status. But being paraded as a European value by the very societies that threw you into prison a few decades ago and did not pardon those convicted of the felony of being gay/lesbian, isn't that a bit bigot?

So, what are European values? Should we focus on the "values we want so see" or - if they diverge from daily life - on the reality of everyday Europe?

Luckily for us, there is a European Values (EV) Study website. Which brings us to European Value #1: data may be free but you have to register, state a purpose and jump through hoops anyway.

The fundamental question is what countries does Europe include? The EV went from "core Western Europe" in 1981 to include Turkey and Russia to the Ural mountains in later versions.

This kicks a few "European values" to the curb, doesn't it? If we simply follow the main study areas of the EV, we get cool and disturbing results in some areas.

Take the area Life, subcategory Happiness: People in Turkey are happier than Germans, at least according to this chart.

So, if Germans make Turkish immigrants sign on to German values, does it mean the Turkish newcomers sign away some happiness with life?

Under Society, there is an Intolerance chart with attitudes to neighbors, which show that the four most despised groups of neighbors in the North, West, and South countries are drug users, drinkers, criminals, and gypsies. Gypsies are not among the top four despised groups in the East, Former Soviet Union, and Turkey categories.

Should xenophobes be happy then that European values are fine with discriminating against gypsies?

What do we make of the demanded support for democracy, where Turkey (the standard boogeyman country for many) has more citizens who believe "democracy is good" than many Eastern European countries?

Work hard is another good European value anybody should pledge to, right? Only, which version of work ethics, the Turkish (highest work ethos) or the German (lower) or the UK/Nordics (lowest)?

Belgians and Turks agree on this one, too: Parents should do their best for their children, even at the expense of their own well-being. Germans as a whole are less inclined to subscribe to this, but "conservatives" love it.

We could go on and on, but won't. The point is that there are some serious issues, a pledge to uphold European values is useless and creates yet another "us versus them" fault line.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Thank God for Catholic hate preachers

And thank the Lord for making it so that atheists are more likely to be psychopaths. Oh, and for making believers less clever.

In the blogster's opinion, only a psychopath would set up the world in this manner. But more on that later, let's talk Catholic hate preachers first.

The honorable Bishop of Fulda, Germany, gave an Easter speech in which he claimed that people without Christian faith are a great security risk to the world around them. German atheists, hiding under the banner of humanism, took offense, only quoting the actual speech after voicing "sharp criticism" of it.

The Bishop's speech says "people without Easter live under this brutal maxim: Whatever you have not achieved before you die is lost forever; whatever you have chased but not reached by the hour of your demise will remain forever out of reach".

The German Humanist Society (the atheists) calls this hate speech towards atheists and ignores the  inclusionary effect of "people without Easter". 

Are atheists the only people without Easter? Of course not, but what about non-Christians who might be "with Easter". Where might one find such people? The blogster performed a field experiment and visited bars over the Easter weekend, minus Good Friday, because many bars don't bother to open since it is illegal to play music on that day, and few people will show up at a place that does not drown out the most intimate and the most inane conversations with loud music.

The experiment was inconclusive. The blogster did not hear a single whispered "he is with Easter, you know" or a thigh slapping roaring "ha, she's with Easter".

External signs, such as Easter egg decorations on people's front door, need to be met with distrust, too. Just as many friends of the blogster adhere to other faiths and, at the same time, "are with Christmas", you can never be sure what the decoration says about the decorators faith.

But a security risk, that's risible. The security risk supposedly posed by those "without Easter" pales in comparison to the Christian Easter tradition: aren't almost all hand grenades shaped like Easter eggs?

The only way the blogster managed to wrap its* tiny atheist mind around the Bishop's speech was by accepting the study mentioned at the beginning.

Believers are not that bright, Bishop or no bishop. It is good to have Catholic hate preachers around to keep atheists on their toes.

The blogster feels sad that it had to make such an awful statement.

Don't credit the blogster with empathy or any moral feelings over this, it is merely one of those callous, calculated things us anti-social security threats will say while we are busy chasing something that will remain forever out of reach when we die.

[Update 4/8/2016] German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, a descendant of refugees, added another bit to the Christian discussion when he said: A firmly anchored Christian, for example, will be less afraid of "too many foreigners", Muslim migrants, than someone who hat no firm ethical footing.
[Our translation of Ein fest verankerter Christ beispielsweise werde weniger Angst vor "Überfremdung" durch Muslime haben, "als jemand der keine ethische Verankerung hat".]
We couldn't ask the minister, but he can not have meant non-Christians and/or atheists. Surely, no experienced politician and public servant would cast aside the German value of tolerance of other world views.

[Update 4/10/2016] So, German Zeit Online runs a Sunday article originally published in Christ & Welt (Christ and the World) on the honorable Bishop's Easter speech. On the Zeit main page (aka index page), the article is presented "Bishop Algermissen - A Catholic Hate Preacher", once you click the link, though, it becomes more as you would expect from the name of the original publication. As a "he said, she said" piece, the article is largely forgettable, except for two parts. The first one of these clarifies that the spoken word as delivered to the congregation was even harsher than the draft, with a nice reference to the Brussels terror attacks.
The second one reminds us that even many Catholics don't really believe in the resurrection. God will eventually decide.

Should the bishop apologize to the non-Christians? The blogster thinks "better not, although he could go to confession right afterwards". So, maybe a quote from a Snap Judgement podcast out of Oakland, California, by Zahra of #goodmuslimsbadmuslims captures the dilemma best: "Religion is like a fart - it smells slightly different to everybody".

* Gender neutral!