Mr. Obama Goes to Berlin


Senator Barack Obama will travel to Berlin later this month to demonstrate his popularity abroad and present himself to the world as the post-partisan, post-Washington paralysis candidate. The fact that Germans are receptive to Obama’s candidacy is interesting given the difficulties that German leaders face in speaking honestly about their own country’s challenges.
Bob Herbert reminds us that Barack Obama’s popularity, particularly among young people, can be attributed in part to Obama’s apparent ability to bridge this gap. He quotes Obama:

“The time has come for a president who will be honest about the choices and the challenges we face, who will listen to you and learn from you, even when we disagree, who won’t just tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to know.”

Much of the excitement about Obama, and the recent outcry over his alleged shift to the center, stems from the belief among his supporters that the Illinois Senator offers a level of candor and pragmatism that has been missing from American politics.
I recently returned from Germany, where I participated in a delegation of young political professionals sponsored by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, an affiliate of Germany’s classical liberal Free Democratic Party. A series of meetings with local, state, and federal political and business leaders revealed a striking similarity between the current political climates in the United States and Germany: both countries’ political leaders are struggling to persuade their populations to enact reforms necessary to compete in the 21st century.

The clearest manifestation of this gap in Berlin is the government’s inability to address its looming pension crisis. As in many wealthy countries, Germany’s population is aging and will have to rely on a shrinking population of workers to support expanding group of retirees. Surprisingly, even young people are averse to cutting pensions. A recent Economist report on this issue found that fully 90% of voters supported a recent pension increase and declared

…the problem for Germany may not be pensioner’s democracy but plain old democracy.

Given the extraordinary opposition to reducing benefits, even the present conservative government, which includes the two largest political parties, refuses to touch the issue.
The related issue of immigration also exposes Germany’s struggles to tackle its most pressing challenges. Despite a falling population, Germany has enacted a series of measures in recent years — including language tests — that make it more difficult for foreigners to migrate to Germany and for immigrants already living in the country to become citizens. While the government bas restricted immigration, large German corporations including Siemens and the SMS group, struggle to find qualified workers.
A third issue is Germany’s role in the world and the degree to which it will shoulder the responsibility for maintaining world order and protecting Western interests. While Chancellor Merkel has tried to take steps to move her country in a more activist direction — including increasing the defense budget and reforming the army to emphasize overseas deployments — the public remains skeptical for historical reasons as well as a belief that the government’s money is better spent trying to achieve “social justice.”
It remains to be seen whether Germany, the United States, and other prosperous democracies can produce leaders who can effectively articulate solutions to their nations’ respective challenges. Barack Obama’s op-ed “My Plan for Iraq” in today’s New York Times, offers hope that he could be that kind of leader.
— Ben Katcher


19 comments on “Mr. Obama Goes to Berlin

  1. jon says:

    Thanks for the Koolaid, Ben, but I’m not thirsty. Did you talk to
    any other folks or do any research of your own? FDP is a
    revanchist, minority opinion. At the very least you should
    compare this with the Green Party or SPD
    Germany has a few problems: continuing the reintegration
    project which will continue for at least another decade;
    being an export economy with high wages and a strong
    competition from lower wage, lesser regulated economies.
    The solution is not to gut social security or lower wages, but to
    transform jobs and industries to compete more effectively and
    meet social needs. Germany is not about to disappear from low
    birth rates.
    Germany, and the rest of Europe and Japan, does have to come
    to grips with foreign workers and questions of/obstacles to
    citizenship. The US has found immigrant populations to be
    sources of tremendous entrepreneurial energy; not to tap them
    is wasteful.


  2. Dirk says:

    The writer spends time with an institute affiliated with the FDP, a party behind the CDU/CSU, SPD and Greens in national polls. Basically a libertarian party that has been a junior government partner several years ago and is now on the skids.
    While my own views don’t align with Merkel (CDU) she is never the less widely respected and perfectly capable of honestly about the problems facing Germany. She is the leader of a coalition government with the main left wing party (SPD) and was on a short leash until polls gave her some independence.
    The problems facing Germany are minuscule when compared with the US. The biggest problems that I see are the increased tendency of certain CDU/CSU politicians to want to adopt bat shit crazy US ideas in economics (rail privatization) and security (online spying of personal PCs).


  3. Mr.Murder says:

    Germany is buying up American manufacturing here, of the local factories most are funded by Germany or Japan.
    Not bad for a place that had its air base dating back to the WW2 era closed when CHeney implemented the first phase of BRAC under GHWB.


  4. Matt says:

    OK, I am on board with those explanations of neoliberalism in economics. I’d definitely agree that it describes the dominant mindset of American elites; also it constitutes much of what is taught in economics departments in universities across the country. But is neoliberalism in international relations an argument for neoliberalism in economics? Do they have this sort of relationship?
    Other questions include: What flavor of economic neoliberalism do Obama’s economic advisors espouse as compared to McCain’s? What are the alternatives? Do presidents need economic advisors? If so, where should they come from?


  5. .... says:

    i neglected to share a quote from george soros today in regards to fannie mae and freddie mac… if he is correct in his word/opinion on this, it sounds quite ominous..
    >>”This is a very serious financial crisis and it is the most serious financial crisis of our lifetime,” Soros said. “It is inevitable that it is affecting the real economy. It is an idle dream to think that you could have this kind of crisis without the real economy being affected,” he added.<<


  6. ... says:

    JohnH and Dan Kervick, thanks for your comments… very informative..


  7. JohnH says:

    I agree with Dan’s description of neoliberalism, as it was applied historically in the West.
    If you understand how it was applied in Latin America and other developing countries, the term “savage capitalism” is not over the top at all. Just ask anybody outside the economic elite in those countries, and you’ll get an earful.
    The Washington Consensus, implemented by the IMF, forced governments to sell their crown jewels to Wall Street at bargain basement prices. Natural monopolies, such as water companies, were sold to multi-national corporations who exploited them as a monopoly would–no additional service to growing communities accompanied by constant price increases. Prices quickly exceeded the purchasing power of the poor, majorities in many of these countries. In some places the agreements with the multi-nationals forbid people any recourse, such as collecting “free” rainwater themselves. (Talk about savage!) It fueled a tremendous backlash in Bolivia, Venezuela, and Argentina, to name but a few. And it totally discredited the Washington consensus, which offered a cookie cutter solution to all problems–sell everything to Wall Street and let free trade devastate local industries.
    Bush has tried mightily to implement savage capitalism here, ending regulation wherever he could. Enron was a shining example of deregulated electricity markets, and California paid the price.
    Bush fought mightily to privatize Social Security, which has proven to be a failure in most countries where it has been tried (Chile, Britain, etc.)
    The problem is that “investment managers” end up stealing people’s retirement savings by charging enormous “management fees.”
    The word neoliberalism is often used, because it does not carry a lot of emotional baggage (at least in the US). Here it’s still a safe way to describe policies designed to benefit the wealthy and devastate the poor and the middle classes.


  8. Dan Kervick says:

    I personally use “neoliberalism” somewhat vaguely to refer to the turn in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s back toward classical liberalism and market fundamentalism in economic policy. I associate it primarily with people like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman, but also in a slightly milder form with Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council, who eschewed much of the the Democratic Party’s New Deal and Great Society heritage, and embraced deregulation, market fundamentalism and a generally pro-corporate political orientation. In foreign policy I associate it the Washington consensus, the free market “restructuring” of economically dependent countries, economic imperialism and the globalist privatization and expropriation of the wealth of other countries. In short, it is just full-throated, relatively unrestrained capitalism.
    It appears to me that neoliberalism is by far the dominant ideology among the governing elites of the United States, from both parties, and also in almost all of the think tanks, foundations and major NGOs that are seemingly dedicated to the total penetration of the US economic, cultural and political system into every corner of the globe.


  9. Matt says:

    Seems a little over the top from here JohnH… Do you think there is a difference between the neoliberalism economists talk about and the neoliberalism people in international relations talk about? Or are they just two heads on the same beast? Where does neoconservatism come in?


  10. JohnH says:

    In economics neoliberalism is often understood to be savage capitalism. To get an idea of savage capitalism, read my earlier post.


  11. Matt says:

    Oh I see, “Neoliberalism in international relations” is your website. Very terse, sir.
    So basically it’s the prisoner’s dilemma dynamic… Puts value in trust and cooperation, the evil “i” word (idealism), etc… Anyway, seems sort of unrelated to neoconservatism, no? Or I guess maybe because they’re both variants of idealism and therefore not realistic? Geez, I wonder why we have ideals anyway…


  12. Matt says:

    Care to elaborate?


  13. Tahoe Editor says:

    Neoliberalism in international relations


  14. Matt says:

    This “neo-liberalism” word has been popping up EVERYWHERE lately. In Mr. Murder’s case above, he seems to imply that it’s the counterpart of neo-conservatism. However, I always thought it was just a word that appeared in Economics textbooks, disconnected from any particular political movement…I thought of it as a sort of scholarly consensus that had caught on in most western democracies, irrespective of party affiliation. Does anyone care to discuss this? Does neo-liberalism bear any unique relationship to neo-conservative politics? Also, didn’t the neo-conservative project originate in the Democratic party? I thought that’s what New America Foundation All-Star Michael Lind argued…


  15. Dan Kervick says:

    90% of Germans support a certain policy, and yet the writer sympathizes with the idea that it is the other measly 10% who are in possession of true political wisdom, and democracy itself must fall under suspicion of incompetence for giving the reigning 90% a determining voice. Spoken like a true think tank elitist.
    “Social justice” in scare quotes. Nice one there, Mr. Katcher.
    Katcher is shocked that “even young people” support the German social contract. But perhaps German young people haven’t yet thoroughly absorbed the imperious global ideology of Selfish Prickism promoted by the Economist and the American neoliberal elite.
    It could also be that many Europeans, with a somewhat longer historical memory, and a more mature and canny attitude about the tendencies of the captains of capitalism and their sophomoric intellectual lackeys to manufacture economic balderdash, aren’t quite so convinced of the necessity of the “reforms” Katcher apparently supports.
    Why is it that neoliberals constantly preach the need for the western middle class to work more, demand less and accept lower wages, but will never support policies, like a maximum wage law, that would recoup some of the extravagant gobs of economic cream that are skimmed off the top of the free enterprise economy, every day, by a tiny minority? Maybe it has something to do with who ultimately pays their salaries.
    Merkel and Sarkozy can go to hell. Perhaps Obama will manage to use his upcoming turn on the global stage to reach for the mantle of global leadership with an inspiring global communal or social message, one that goes beyond the championing of empty acquisitive individualism and human indignity so beloved by the global neoliberal movement.


  16. Mr.Murder says:

    Honest politican? Oxmorons abound, to the point of Schadenfreude.
    Just give me a realistic politician. Not a neocon, and not a neolib.


  17. Tahoe Editor says:

    I second that, Zathras.
    “The fact that Germans are receptive to Obama’s candidacy is interesting given the difficulties that German leaders face in speaking honestly about their own country’s challenges.”
    Speaking honestly? Herbert uses Obama’s words to mock him. Herbert’s whole column was about Obama’s “two-step”, zigging and zagging “with the kind of reckless abandon that’s guaranteed to cause disillusion, if not whiplash.”
    “He seems to believe that his shifts and twists and clever panders — as opposed to bold, principled leadership on important matters — will entice large numbers of independent and conservative voters to climb off the fence and run into his yard.”

    David Brooks’ reaction to Obama leaving the Pepsi Center to accept his nomination at Invesco Field: “What, was Mount Sinai booked?” The same could be said of his Branderburg reach.
    (Personally I think it’s a move to avoid any unforeseen dustup with the Pepsi Center half full of Clinton delegates.)


  18. Zathras says:

    I’m reasonably sure that the German word for “non sequiter” is the same one we use. It appears the author had no good hook for a post on German politics and nothing in particular to say about Barack Obama, so he just mashed the two subjects together.


  19. JohnH says:

    The challenge: “persuade their populations to enact reforms necessary to compete in the 21st century.” Katcher is speaking code words for getting people in the West to accept Chinese wages and benefits. (I propose that people in Congress, think tanks, the media, and in think tanks set a good example by being the first to voluntarily accept Chinese wages.)
    Once people throughout the industrialized world are compensated at Chinese levels, there will be no pension, social security, or defense problems–because Western income and sales tax bases will disappear along with most government revenue. As an added benefit immigration issues will also disappear, because no one will want to come here to work for Chinese wages. They could probably do just as well at home.
    Welcome to Grover Norquist’s paradise!


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