Sunday, May 29, 2016

A man, a bicycle and a dog on US Interstate 5

The blogster did not take the decision to write this post lightly, because there may well be a small chance that European tourists take to US freeways en masse because, well, because they can.  It is a little known fact that non-motorized vehicles are actually legal on many American freeways.

To alleviate any future feelings of guilt and to avoid getting arrested because you misread the map, here is our advice to Europeans: don't do it. 

What you should do, though, is pick up hitchhikers along the freeway - unless, of course, you just passed big warning signs that tell you to not pick up hitchhikers because the nearest human settlement is a big prison.

A large billboard by the freeway in Roseburg, Oregon, said that Umpqua College thanked the community for its support.

Acknowledging the grief of the community after the media circus moved on.

The next billboard advertised "Weed Exit <number>".


The town receded as the slopes moved closer to the freeway. At each exit, more passenger cars and SUVs got off. Soon, the vehicle mix was back to "cross country", trucks and weighed down cars working their way up Grants Pass in light drizzle.

Is that a guy with a bicycle and a dog?

Pull over, ask if he wants a ride.

The man, in his forties or so, dressed in a combination of dark green and black, the uniform of the homeless and those we do not want to see, was struggling with the weight of the bicycle trailer, but his dog was obviously happy to see people. The big yellow dog overtook his person and arrived first. 

We managed to get the bicycle, the trailer, the dog and the lanky man called Tom into the back. And his 711 Big Gulp, too.

The introductions were quick and without much ceremony. He was on his way from Seattle, Washington, to Quarzsite, Arizona.

Quarzsite, the place with one gas station and a bunch of trailers?

That's where I live.

Did you have plans if nobody picked you up?

I was going to set up camp in a couple of hours.

Ashland, Oregon, was the requisite it stop before the long climb up into the desert of Northern California.

As he held two dollars in his hand to pay for the gas station coffee, we asked: Do you have money?

This is all I have.

The coffee is on us.

Thank you.

Four hours or so later, we were descending into the Central Valley after snow and ice near Mount Shasta. The man had eventually decided where he wanted to be dropped of: the Flying T truck stop just south of Redding. Having walked a grateful dog together, we parted ways.

Over here in the out of the way hills of Europe, hitchhikers generally don't do distances like that. A thousand miles would take you straight to North Africa: German summer: dodging deer and picking up drunks at 4 AM on Saturdays.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Deutsche Postbank legal grounds for not speaking English & bad reporting

Is this English language website of Deutsche Postbank a fake because the bank allegedly does not do business outside of Germany, according to its Twitter account?

@_MissLux as we are not doing business outside of Germany, our corporate language is German. Thanks for your comprehension. [to]

Deutsche Postbank, or Postbank for short, got itself caught up in a minor Twitter flub when this English tweet: 

Been waiting for over 2 weeks for a new card and pin AGAIN. Time to just change bank and be done. Worst service EVER

got this response:

, thanks for getting in touch with us. Please ask your question in German, so we can answer it. [br]

to be followed by "we are not doing business outside of Germany, our corporate language is German. Thanks for your comprehension. [to]".

The dust up by itself isn't all that remarkable. Things happen. 

What is remarkable, to the blogster, are two points: the fact that Postbank doubled up on its mistake, and the sympathetic reporting it got for this by straight laced Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ).

FAZ reports that an employee of Postbank eventually spoke to Joe Miller on the phone and explained what happened to the card.

FAZ accepted a statement by a Postbank spokesperson that such inquiries "could only be answered in German for legal reasons" at face value.

Did the employee speak English? Or does Mr. Miller speak German well enough to converse on the phone? After all, his initial tweet suggests he is an existing customer, which means there should be a way he can handle is German bank statements.

Postbank does do business outside of Germany, a lot, in fact. Or maybe the blogster mistakenly believes a 2.5 billion pound portfolio is the UK is a lot?

As to the alleged legal requirement, that's wrong, too. In the unlikely case that a short twitter response in English should end up in a German court, the court could require a translation of the statements in question.

Factually incorrect reporting on a Twitter spat is the issue, not the spat itself.

But maybe the sad reporting is caused by all experienced editors enjoying a nation wide holiday, leaving underpaid interns in charge?

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Germany's new integration law does "assist and assert" (aka. carrot & shtick)

Germany's newest legislative achievement is on its way to become the much announced "integration law", designed to make it easier for asylum seekers to get jobs and to show some "toughness", too. The combination is labeled as "assist and assert", a favorite phrase since the heydays of social security cuts in the early 2000s, or, as the K-Landnews TheEditor calls it "carrot & shtick".

The federal government website is full of praise, highlighting the effort to get as many refugees into paid employment through a mix of relaxing rules and lifting age limits. The upper age limit of 21 years for starting vocational training will be lifted, and young people who take up a vocational program will automatically be granted residence for the duration of the program, generally three years. They didn't before? That sucks, mumbled TheEditor.

If a company does not offer a permanent job after successful completion of the program, the refugee has six months to find one. Dropping out of a program will mean losing the residence permit. 

In addition to easier access to temporary work and to suspending the existing EU/national priority rule, which requires employers to offer jobs first to qualified nationals/EU citizens, the government plans to create 100 000 "low remuneration" jobs. The less charitable term for these is "one Euro jobs",  short for work for 1 Euro an hour, and the integration law version foresees new arrivals working as cleaners in refugee shelters, assisting with meal distribution and in similar menial settings.

Permanent residency, previously granted after three years in the country, is changed to "on application only" with a higher German language certificate required.

A conservative pet demand, mandating a place of residence, is implemented in the new law. Individual states can prescribe place of residence or exclude an area. For example, the authorities will be able to say "you need to live in A town" or "you can live anywhere except A town".

The fear of ghettos prescription, yeah, fumed TheEditor. As historically famous users of the ghetto model, it is surprising they think that a majority non German district is a ghetto, don't you agree? The same politicians who share vacation photos showing them grinning in the middle of China Town USA make a law to prohibit "ethnic hotspots" in their own backyard.

Dropping out of a mandatory language course without legitimate reason will also be penalized by the new law. The fact that there are not enough courses because of a teacher shortage may alleviate bureaucratic overreach in this area.

Overall, the law could have been much worse, for instance, conservatives demanded that the language skills certification for permanent residency was the college entry German exam.

TheEditor was in favor of the college entry skills level.

It would make most of PEGIDA and large native segments of the Christian Democratic and Christian Social Union parties ineligible for permanent residence in Germany. In theory, it* mused.

* TheEditor is gender neutral. What's good for an ape, it good for me, it said.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

German study claiming up to 40 000 Christians attacked in refugee shelters was bunk

In early May, a study made headlines in Germany claiming that up to 40 000 Christians had been attacked in the country's refugee shelters made headlines in Germany and internationally.

At the press conference, a Syrian said he was shocked to encounter Islamist fundamentalists, the very people he had sought to escape, in shelters. An Iranian reported provocations, harassment and death threats in a shelter in the state of Brandenburg.
About half of those polled complained about harassment by security guards.

Released by charity Open Doors and supported by, among others, the Aktion für verfolgte Christen und Notleidende, the figure was soon cited on social media as proof of pervasive anti-Christian violence by refugees.

Distrust of the media fueled the debate further: "the media" and "the politicians" allegedly suppressed reports, or - if they did report - presented cases as "individual" or "rare", or so the accusations went.

The blogster read several of the articles at the time and wondered about the small sample size of 231, of whom 204 reported that had been attacked by other refugees for religious reasons. Of the 231, 199 were converts. There was also a strong implication of interpreters in shelters being largely Muslim and thus biased against Christians.

The figure of 40 000 was obviously nothing but extrapolation, and without independent evidence, the blogster would not write about the subject.

There have been brawls, fights, and all sorts of altercations in refugee shelters, but setting up a narrative of Christians versus Muslims requires high standards of proof.

Or, in the words of a senior German police officer: Put 1000 native Germans into a facility designed to house 300, and will get a lot of fights.

The Sunday paper F.A.S. of the folks who make the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine fact checked the study and reported today: Serious doubts about persecution of Christians in refugee shelters.

The paper talked to Open Doors, who claimed they could provide details of 500 cases of religiously motivated hate crimes in shelters run by one of the German churches. A week after the claim, Open Doors failed to document a single case.

Charity Arbeiterwohlfahrt investigated an alleged "particularly egregious" case of violence said to have occurred in one of its shelters and found that aggressive action was initiated by the Syrian convert who claimed to have been the victim. A priest working with the man stated that religion was, in his opinion, not the cause of the conflict.

A shelter operator investigating another case found that the allegations "were completely made up".

The newspaper also quotes an internal memo of the German association of protestant churches that says the churches are facing the same situation as the government: forces within the church that are hostile to Islam try to impose their agenda.

On the bright side, those who concocted the study most certainly know a priest willing to absolve them of the sin that is their violation of Matt 19:18, Proverbs 25:18, etc.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Council of Foreigners: elections for "foreigners only" in Germany

In Germany, elections take place on a regular basis that international readers know nothing about. These elections are rarely reported in the German media, so most natives don't know much either.

The local press will generally run a 100 word notice after the ballots have been counted, listing the names of the winners and citing a few warm words about the importance of migrants and democracy by the big city mayor or the county superintendent.

We are talking of elections to the Auslaenderbeirat, an advisory council legal foreign residents get to elect every five or so years to make their voices heard in the country's political system.

Born in the well meaning early 1970s as a result of concerns that the increasing number of immigrants was not represented anywhere, the councils are known in some locations as "integration councils". EU citizens get to vote in regular local elections as well as Auslaenderbeirat elections, all others get to vote for the Auslaenderbeirat, or whatever the local name is. The councils have a strictly advisory capacity, and it is up to the mayors/superintendents to actually listen.

Since the councils are a local county or city affair, their official presence varies widely. The council website for the million residents city of Munich, for example, is a German language only site, with a tiny English brochure tucked away at the bottom of the homepage.

Other cities provide at least several flyers about the requirements of daily life in Germany in multiple languages, including Turkish and sometimes Arabic in addition to English and French.

As in all elections, controversies do occur, and that's when the media tend to pay attention. The most common criticism of councils has been the alleged presence of "extremist" candidates on the ballot. Conservative native critics love to point at these as an example of the country's institutions being under threat.

The blogster has no particularly interesting opinion on the benefits of councils but finds the ballot papers a wee bit inappropriate.

As far as we have been able to determine, the ballots come in German only.

Not only in German but in administrative German, which can be as different from everyday German as Klingon is from English.

This is snarky, of course, because some places in the much maligned United States undertake the great effort to have ballots and ballot initiatives translated into Korean, Vietnamese or Spanish for US citizens.

But beyond the snark there is real disenfranchisement. Foreigners in Germany need to be residents for three or six months, depending on the locality, to be eligible to vote in the council elections. 

Even with a few weeks of "integration course" German classes, the instructions are beyond what can be reasonably expected from new residents.

While Germans generally like immigrants, despite the vocal folks of PEGIDA and others, official Germany seems to have a knack for coming up with something well intended that, at the same time, says "you are not one of us".

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

More German parents sue their kids' schools for better grades

Periodically, the German media run articles that report an increase in the number of parents who sue schools in court to get better grades for their offspring. This article from 2012 is one of many.

While we do not have comprehensive statistics, the single legal office in Hamburg quoted in the above article said that they handle at least 100 cases per year. The city and state of Hamburg has fewer than two million residents in this country of just over 80, so the number of legal cases against schools will be many thousand a year.

The issues before courts are varied, from bullying to injuries to grades.

What fascinates the blogster is the effort to up a students grade via a court decision and the fact that some states see more of these cases than others.

Der Spiegel ran a story on 16 May about the southern state of Bavaria. The piece includes one eye catching right at the start. In the past twenty years, the legal defense office of the Bavarian teachers' association has seen the number of lawyers providing assistance to teachers go from three to 17.  Their busiest month is May, the month that marks the beginning of the finals for the school year.

Taken together, these two facts clearly show Bavarian parents are putting up a fight for their children.

The school system in Germany is a state function, and states tend to closely guard their power over the education of their children. For this reason, the German K through 12 (or 13) system is markedly different between states.  While they all started out with a similar three tiered system of "basic school" to K8, "middle school" to K10, and "highschool" to K12, politicians have added or subtracted years, and a number of states set up an integrated system of "comprehensive schools".

Conservatives have often fought comprehensive schools with a degree of viciousness normally reserved to spats between religions, and, as a result, states with a long tradition of conservative governments since the end of World War II have the lowest number of comprehensive schools. The number of students attending a comprehensive school in Bavaria is at around 1% as opposed, for example, to the state of Brandenburg in the former East Germany with a rate of about 50%.

The three tier system has had one other characteristic, the one that explains almost all of the big differences in court cases for better grades.

That characteristic was selection.

At the end of the fourth grade, teachers would decide which students could move on to the "highschool" track, which was the only track that ended with a degree allowing students to then continue on to college/university.

Stripping teachers of this power was one of the big political fights in the German education system. Given that the states decide, the fight was fought in every single state.

As a result, most states nowadays let parents choose which of the three tracks of the three tiered system they want their kids to take. In some of these states, teachers can issue non-binding recommendations, in others, teachers are out of the loop altogether.

Not so in Bavaria. There, the "recommendation" is binding, and more and more parents go to court to overturn a negative one because the whole future of their children depends on the decision of one teacher when the child is about 10 years old.

Teachers don't always make the right call, and some are more aware of this than others. The blogster read a story of a Bavarian teacher who, sure of his expertise, had barred a student from taking the track to college.

That student later moved to a different state, attended evening school, went to college, and ended up as reporter for one of the two or three most respected German papers.

Once kids get to the finals before college, some parents go to court, too, because the grade point average - once again - can make the difference between the career of choice or not.

Increasing competitiveness in this previously strictly ordered society indicates that there will be more lawsuits about GPAs in the future.

[Update 3/20/2017] It is school choice season in Germany, and the headlines are not getting less alarming. Die Welt, for example, runs with "the bitter fight for the perfect school", which the blogsters initially thought meant fierce fighting about the best education system. No, it is about getting your own kids into the preferred school.

Lawyers are busy, and the blogster learned something new about the lottery which is part of most school's admission process these days.

The lottery draw can be performed by the school principal in his or her office without anybody present.

Even if you assume, as German courts have done, that all civil servants around here are models of honesty and integrity, this sounds like a bad idea. No wonder parents complain about the lack of transparency in admissions.

And, of course, not all German school chiefs are as pure as the courts see them. According to the article, education experts are well aware that some educators "ensure that the child of the mayor or other desirable students" get into the school of their choice.

Add to this that there are plenty of religiously affiliated schools which pick students of their denomination even if they live further away than other applicants, and some parental complaints appear more rational.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The German stimulus package that dares not speak its name

If a country has a budget surplus and decides to spend pretty much all of it on a single project or a package of projects for a single purpose, it is often called a "stimulus package".

Of course, there are those who would disagree, reserving the term stimulus for a more or less dire economic situation. Since nobody describes the German economy as being in dire straits, this restricted use of the term "stimulus" would not apply. But if that same government pursues strict savings or austerity measures in other ares than those affected by the influx of cash, the blogster is willing to call the package a stimulus.

The stimulus package that dares not speak its name is the refugee spending of  just under 94 billion euros between now and 2020 announced by the German federal government just days ago.

Housing, health care, language courses and various other "integration" measures plus the "collateral pet projects", such as more police and more personnel for other government agencies, are the focal points of the spending effort.

To give you an idea of the size of the package in relation to overall government spending, the 94 billion are just under 3 times the annual defense budget of the country, or just under one third of the whole federal budget for a single year.

It is for a good purpose, obviously.

But it also comes on the heels of a damaging six months investigation into the costs of the refugee crisis published a week ago by Zeit Online. The question asked by the reporters was simple: how much do refugees cost the cities and counties?

In Germany, the land of bureaucratic detail and exactitude, nobody has exact figures on what is being spent for the refugees.
Of the one third of all German counties that even bothered to provide figures, some cite costs as low as 132 euros per refugee per month while the high is 1666 euros per person each month.

The state of Bavaria, the most vocal when it comes to criticizing the federal government's refugee policies, came out with a point blank: we do not collect any statistical data on refugee spending.

Imagine such a response from a less fortunate country, say Greece. Every single German politician would be furious, the media would rage.

At the same time, austerity for needy Germans is not over. The long term unemployed on the basic means tested Hartz IV scheme are seeing their meager benefits "adjusted", for instance, single parents will see support for a child changed from a monthly basis to the actual number of days the child is in their custody. Older beneficiaries are facing more job agency powers to force them into involuntary retirement by age 63, which means a lifelong reduction of their government retirement benefits because 63 is "early retirement", penalized with a 0.3% monthly pension reduction.

The German economy has been growing more than expected in the past year, thanks in part due to...spending on refugees. Strong consumer spending and low interest rates are given as the other major drivers.

[Update 6/5/2016] An interview with an academic researcher in Zeit Online makes the point: more people equals more consumption, more demand, more work. He is also, as the blogster has repeatedly stated, highly critical of the political "ghetto" rhetoric, and points at the highly beneficial results of ethnic networking.

[Update 12/21/2016]  In various reports in the past days, such as this one, we finally get some hard numbers. Between December 2015 and November 2016, some 34 000 refugees found work in Germany. But some 50 000 jobs for Germans were created as a result of the refugee crisis.

[Update 12/30/2016] It's official: in today's press, for example Spiegel online, German economists are quoted as calling the 0.3% increase in economic activity due to the refugee influx a "stimulus package".

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Insiders finally speak out: German oversight of intelligence agencies is a farce

If you believe the proclamations of successive German government ministers and the leaders of the major parties, you might think that the German parliament exercises useful oversight over the country's intelligence services, the biggest and most influential of which are BND (external) and BfV (federal domestic).

There is indeed a standing intelligence oversight commission made up of members of parties represented in the Berlin federal parliament. The commission does publish unclassified reports on its work, and it makes sure the public knows there is much more oversight work being done that is - unfortunately - classified.

Despite all the supposedly great democratic oversight, literally not a year goes by without scandal in one of the agencies. Some of the most egregious ones by the BND included full-on Hoover style spying on German politicians well into the 1960s, spying on journalists, covering up (some claim facilitating) Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980s, as well Snowden's "in bed with the NSA" issue. The domestic agency has been similarly plagued by an inability to get a handle on neo-Nazi murders and, more recently, by initiating a treason probe for, gasp, a document classified as "Confidential". Of course, the kind of individual at the helm of German intelligence agencies has been almost stereotypical since their inception, with the first BND chief Gehlen an unapologetic torturer and Nazi, the later chiefs much blander, but somehow lacking empathy.

While there was a short period after the Snowden revelations that brought out some issues and talk of reform, this window was closed by the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris and bolted shut by the Brussels terror attacks.

Nevertheless, "IC and Friends" continue to claim that the agencies are under greater scrutiny and things can only get better.

With all the scandals debated in the media over the decades, no member of the parliamentary oversight commission spoke up about the nature and extent of their oversight.
The best you got from former committee members was a hint or two, generic calls for better processes and legal improvements.

But a former member and ex judge of the country's highest court spoke at a recent conference and talked shop, according to this article.

First and foremost, he said, it is a myth that the committee looks at the actual activities of the agencies. We look at the oversight exercised by the administration.

In addition, "60% - 70%" of the totality of material the BND has is completely out of reach of the committee because the material relates to foreign intelligence agencies, an automatic exclusion.

Further, the BND is only required to report "particularly significant events", which, at the end of the day, gives the agents free choice over what they submit.

Another former official, a federal data protection commissioner, pointed out that "huge areas without any oversight exist". Neither a parliamentary commission that oversees the use of clandestine measures against German citizens (the so-called G-10 commission) nor the intelligence oversight commission have any powers over "operations affecting foreign countries only".

Two constitutional lawyers stated that the BND acted in a largely "legally unregulated space" regarding foreign collection, and that there were no data retention or deletion time limits for this. No one outside the agency knows how long data collected "outside" of Germany are stored, it could be "forever".
They stated that the agency's construct of "the space theory", described in our post In space, no one can hear you laugh - German physics, had effectively put the agency out of the reach of any constitutional constraints.

The shorthand description of the BND as "Germany's foreign intelligence service" is so frequently - and incorrectly - stated as the BND being active only in foreign countries. The law governing the service, however, reads differently. Section 1 of the law states the agency collects information "about foreign countries" and explicitly allows it to collect data "within the geographic area in which the law applies" with some limitations.
So, as long as intelligence is "about foreign countries", the BND feels it can collect this type of intelligence in Germany, too.

The BND is active in Germany, as the current parliamentary investigative committee NSAUA has shown. It collects data from foreign traffic that transits Germany, for example by hooking in to the world's largest internet data hub in Frankfurt, it interviews refugees and has recruited informants among refugees as well as ensured some people were given refugee status as a reward for cooperation.

Days ago, media reports informed the public that consulting firm Roland Berger had been hired to probe the SIGINT division of the BND and recommend changes. This approach has been heavily criticized because the government repeatedly refused to make information available to the parliamentary investigative committee NSAUA citing security concerns. Observers are upset that a private outside firm now gets to see these and more data and processes.
Contracting this consultant shop can be seen as more confirmation that parliamentary oversight is a farce because the reports state the work by Berger is to be finished by fall and that the consultants underwent a security clearance. The latter is a time consuming process, meaning it must have started at the beginning of 2016, with some more lead time before that to award the contract. If this is not a "particularly significant event", what is?

Regarding any proposed reforms, it is noteworthy that finance minister Schaeuble's view that "politics should not be over eager" in its over sight may well have carried the day with the nomination of one of Mr. Schaeuble's assistant secretaries as the new head of the BND.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

German summer: dodging deer and picking up drunks at 4 AM on Saturdays

Technically, of course, a northern hemisphere May is not summer, but the locals in our German hills are natural optimists and have long since decided to call any sustained period of non-freezing night time temperatures summer.

Don't just take our word for it, read something by the gentlemen Sapir and Whorf, and be dazzled.

The blogster has added two more data points to its* definition of a 50+ North summer: dodging deer and picking up drunk Germans at 4 AM on Saturday mornings.

4 AM on Saturday mornings, give or take an hour, is the only time when the two phenomena occur at the same time. The deer are out for some fresh veggies and some socializing, and the drunks are out after some fresh booze and some socializing.

The darkness of northern nights is retreating noticeably, but in mid-May it is still pitch dark. The deer and the drunks are both hard to see, though deer are much easier to spot if they turn their rear to you.

The grass on the shoulders of the narrow country roads has grown substantially in the past month, it is now high enough to hide last year's baby dear or anything smaller.

Masking holes and cross ditches, the leafy greens make it difficult for humans to have sure footing, so the drunks tend to be out on the asphalt where vehicles live.

The 4 AM drunks are generally solitary youngsters. Groups do appear once in a while, but they have so far declined the offer of a ride, apparently enjoying the social staggering and alcohol sustained bonding on the road towards one of the tiny bar-less towns in our hills.

They take up a lot more space on the road, so coming to a stop and offering a ride is both nice and a safety measure.

The solitary walkers have never turned down a ride.

To their credit, they have been well behaved drunks, some more talkative than others, of course, but also exhibiting a surprising command of English at blood alcohol levels that induce zigzagging.

The young men have similar stories, telling of a night out in town after the work week, of staying beyond the time the bar owner locks the doors, of getting separated from their friends and eventually setting out on foot to walk the five or ten kilometers to their hallow.

Enjoy your summer.

* We are gender neutral at the K-Landnews. Love it or hate it, you may want to try it out. If it is hard, close your eyes and think of Sapir-Whorf.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

How German social security carriers ignored a couple of statistics questions

It has been two years since the blogster asked several of the German agencies that are the equivalent of the Social Security Administration for information on how the German version of social security disability claims are adjudicated as well as details on the number and types of appeals filed by claimants.

All press offices ignored the inquiry, so the blogster goes with what's known.

Back in 2014, three events that stirred the blogster's curiosity occurred at almost the same time. The first was a very short article in the local newspaper accusing health insurance providers of opaque practices regrading rehabilitation measures. The other two were cases of disability claims equivalent to American SSD claims.
What was interesting in both cases was that the claims were denied "based on available records". At the same time, both claimants assured the blogster that their respective specialist doctors were unhappy with the carrier and assisted in the appeals process.
The eventual outcome was that both were put on full disability.

When both claimants said "oh, they put you on six hours, so they don't have to pay, that happens all the time", some reading seemed indicated.

As with earlier research on the German basic means tested Hartz IV (similar to SSI but without the disability requirements; more a combination of food stamps (SNAP) plus other benefits like Section 8 housing), it turns out that the legal basis for social security disability was changed in the early 2000s when numerous cuts were made.

At issue is what is called Substantial Gainful Activity in the American system. Where the SSA has a base amount of money earned ($ 1130 in 2016 for a non-blind person) with some allowance for higher earnings and exclusions for lower ones (e.g. not eligible as a substitute bus driver because it does not indicate the person was unable to work more), German disability uses a daily work hours scheme based on the potential hours of work a claimant is supposed to be able to perform: less than 3 hours (full disability), between 3 and 6 (50% disability), six or more (0%, ineligible). 

After the substantial rules changes, the number of new SSD recipients in Germany went down by about one third (280 000 in 1996, 180 000 in 2011). 

The process documents and statistics requested in 2014 would allow the blogster to definitively confirm or exclude that internal directives or "performance targets" at one or more insurance carriers were a second major factor in denying claims.

If you work at one of Germany's social security insurance carriers and want to help, send us an email.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

How to explain the "shrinking German middle class" fact: blame poor immigrants

Measuring income and wealth is complex within a country and even more complex between countries, and there are all kinds of numbers to quote and interpret. So, the blogster, like pretty much everybody else, relies primarily on the media for news.

Over the years, this reliance has become increasingly tenuous, as it* became much more critical, as source information became available on the web, and as reader comments sections offered more than the expected partisan support.

This week, the blogster found a nice fuzzing report in middle of the road conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (in German only) under the headline "Poor migrants cause middle class contraction".

The article starts out fine: More rich, more poor, fewer in-betweens: since reunification, the percentage of middle class residents has dropped from 60 to 54%. What immigration has to do with it."

The piece is based on a study of Deutsches Institut fuer Wirtschaftsforschung (DIW), which is considered somewhat progressive or centrist, depending on your preconceived world view. The study in question deals with the US and Germany, and the article explains differences and similarities of income and wealth distribution. You can find the English version of the press release with the basics here.

How does the economics expert of Frankfurter Allgemeine come to the conclusion that "demographics and immigration are an important factor in shrinking the middle class"? He claims the "under class of the US grew because of strong immigration from Latin America; blacks continue to be over represented in the under class".

The study says that migration "partly" (page 7 of the study) explains the shrinking proportion of the US middle class.

We could argue forever whether the choice of "important factor" is so starkly different from "partly" that it raises a red flag. What should be undisputed, though, is that "partly" (teilweise) does not convey the same emotional weight as "important" (wichtig).

Remember, this was about the US. What does the newspaper man say about Germany? After all, he should put facts behind the headline.

He says "Immigration was also a factor in Germany" [Our translation of "In Deutschland war die Immigration ebenfalls ein Faktor."]

That's not much.

Next, he quotes the study's statement (p. 7), and generally accepted fact, that immigrants tend to have below average incomes for some time after arrival.

The article then goes to quote an "employer friendly" think tank that points out a period of a lull in the decrease of the German middle class and adds the usual blurb about  how higher qualifications are need in today's economy.
He finishes off by quoting the study regarding an increase in the number of young people (ages 19 to 29) who are loosing out.

You might be forgiven to believe the newspaper's claim that the influx of poor migrants into Germany is an important aspect in the decline of the German middle class.

Unless you look at the study and read what it says about absolute numbers:
1) Since 1991, the US population "grew by about one quarter" (25%), "primarily through immigration". So, in absolute terms, the number of middle class residents increased despite the smaller overall share of the population.
2) Germany's population saw small growth, and the share of immigration was lower than in the US, which means the German middle class not only saw a relative decline but and absolute decline of around 2.5 million adults (study, page 7).

How big was the drop?
6 percentage points between 1991 and 2013 for both countries (US from 56 to 50, Germany from 60 to 54), study page 6.
Which, in absolute terms, means Germany failed compared to the US.

So, the econs of Frankfurter Allgemeine took readers for a ride. And they added a short blurb based on the same misleading slant as an OpEd on Saturday.

Sadly, not one of the commenting readers read the study.

* Yes, we are gender neutral and proud of it.

[Update 5/7/2016]
To help understand why the German decline in absolute numbers is serious, here are the population figures.
Population of Germany in 1991: 80.27 million; in 2014:  81.2 million
US population in 1991: 252.98 million; in 2014: 317.68 million

[Update 5/9/2016]
Some more context for Germany:
According to the Federal Civics Education website, wage increases were canceled out by inflation within the 20 year period 1992 to 2012, with real wages down by 1.6 percent.
Real GDP (indexed to 2010 = 100, exactly as for the foregoing wages overview) went from 81.8 to 103.8 in the period 1992 to 2012. That's a real increase of about 25 percent.

This makes it hard to blame "under qualified" immigrants for the shrinking middle class, or for anything for that matter.

As to education, immigrants during the period were generally not "under qualified" but often had better qualifications than Germans, as this study by Bertelsmann (not known as antagonistic towards companies and entrepreneurs) of 2013 showed. The numbers were actually pretty staggering, with 43% of immigrants having a vocational master craftsmen ("Meister"), specialist technician or college degree versus 26% of natives.

During the first big immigration wave of the 1960s/1970s, "guest workers" were generally less qualified than Germans, but the middle class grew.

The 2015 influx of refugees again has fewer better educated folks, but it happened after the period prior to 2015 which shows the German middle class shrank.

[Update 5/11/2016] Headline style, changed "fix" to "explain"

[Update 5/13/2016] The blogster lucked out because it* didn't quote median income figures because the subject was not absolute numbers so much as proportions. So, an error in their calculation by the folks of DIW doesn't change the overall analysis. The econ editor at Frankfurter Allgemeine, though, had a field day with them, despite the fact that the overall drop in the percentage of middle class residents remained almost the same (from "almost 6%" to "over 5%).
Interestingly, the average (mean) income for individual Germans is given at around 31 600 Euros for 2014, whereas the corrected DIW study pegs the "median income" at 53 500 Euros in 2014. To make sense, this latter figure must be a household median income.
Sadly, the professional economics reporter at Frankfurter Allgemeine took the errors at face value (while the blogster did check the figures for the mean income).

* Sitll gender neutral and proud of it.

[Update 5/27/2016] Sorry, being slightly dyslexic is not always fun, so, fixed two pesky errors ("you" --> "young", "over" --> "overall")

Monday, May 2, 2016

The convention of Alternative for Germany (AfD) - a program of German conservatives of yore

The "populist right", or "far right", or <add your own value judgement here> party AfD held its national convention in the southern German city of Stuttgart. The big item on the agenda was the adoption of a national program, a compendium of policies and plans for the upcoming German national elections in 2017 and beyond. 

The event brought lots of predictable images, as well as some surprises. There were demonstrations against the convention with the requisite brawls and police overreach. On the surprise side, the names and home addresses of convention participants were published on a left wing website, and everybody is wondering if there was a leak or a hack.

And there was the big wrap-up in the media.

That wrap-up focused on the AfD's "anti-Islam" platform and "individual freedom ends where it contradicts a supposedly German majority".

Indeed, as reported, the AfD does not consider Islam to be "part of Germany", it does not want Islam to be given the same privileged legal status Christian religions enjoy, it wants to ban the burqa, and it wants no minarets on mosques (Draft program, pp. 38).

The Zeit Online commentary casting the AfD as the party of "limits of individual freedom" quotes the program (unrestricted freedom of religion and conscience) but emphasizes the party leader's statement "Unser aller Identität ist vorrangig kulturell determiniert und kann nicht dem freien Spiel der Kräfte ausgesetzt werden." [Our translation: our identity is determined primarily by culture and can not be left to the free interplay of forces.] The commentator sees this latter statement as evidence that the AfD is against change and yearns for a lost golden age.

The problem with this comment is that the AfD leader's statement is not different from the conservative Christian Democrats/Christian Social Union. They proclaim the existence of a "guiding culture" ("Leitkultur", Synopsis of CDU vs. SPD programs, p. 3), and there is ample mention of guiding and framing society*.

The overriding problem with the AfD's program is that it simply contains statements made by mostly conservative politicians over the past several decades. Look at what established conservatives have said about Islam in Germany: there are so many statements that Islam does not belong to Germany, you can see where the AfD's roots are.

The ever so harsh no minarets on mosques is merely an emotional appeal, its outrage justified by pointing out that nobody wants to ban bell towers on Christian churches.
Go the United States, and you will find plenty of mosques without minarets as well as plenty of Christian churches without the romantic bell and clock tower.

How can you fault the AfD for insisting that the German language is central to German identity when you made a law that mandates foreigners to learn German and pass an exam before you allow a German citizen to bring his or her third world spouse into the country?

The AfD program also contains environmental protection statements that are virtually identical to the established parties' views. The nasty proposal to scrap tough energy requirements in building codes has been put forward by CDU/CSU/FDP politicians, so?

The program is 78 pages long. Picking two or three is not a very comprehensive approach to reporting if you insist - as do all mainstream media and the established parties - that the AfD is a threat to be reckoned with.

Again, there are points in that program that have been made before and that call for more democratic participation: for example, Swiss style referendums and changing the system of making candidate lists as described in The List - 2014 German voting roundup part II.
Or fixing the leftovers of the feudal "caste" system in 21st century German society.

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung focuses on the possibility to seek an exit from the EU in a short pieces stating that AfD is back in the 19th Century. No mention of the UK having a referendum on that very same question in June.
The author of that commentary obviously has no historic memory at all. Or maybe he knows that the true goal of the AfD is to revoke the voting rights of women despite having female party leader?

If you do want to be afraid of AfD, what you should be worried about is that the overwhelming content of the program is straight up 1970s/1980s West German conservative thinking.

In the future, the AfD's program writers may very well go the way of the established parties: make the program so smooth that your opponents have a hard time to nail down your true convictions, thus giving you the opportunity to accuse them of distorting your true and good intentions.

* For example: Es ist Aufgabe der Politik, dafür die richtigen Rahmenbedingungen zu setzen. (Synopsis of CDU vs. SPD programs, p. 4)

[Update 5/3/2016] The "yes, but" conservatives of the Christian Democrats/Christian Social Union (CDU) are waking up. For example, as in "yes, some CDU politicians said in the past that Islam did not belong to Germany, but we fundamentally accept freedom of religion".

[Update] Typos. Added "No mention of the UK..."