[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Thomas Geoghegan has written a book that captures the focus of the progressive movement: how does the Middle Class survive the predatory capitalism practiced in the United States and the United Kingdom? His answer is the German version of capitalism, where the interests of the workers are just as important as the voice of the capitalists.
He begins by pointing out all the ways people live better in the European Union. They don’t have to worry about the Big Five: retirement, health care, education, transportation and childcare. The government sees to all of these. Since it buys in bulk, it gets great prices, and people don’t have to spend their time worrying about any of those things. Just think how great your life would be if you didn’t have to think about where you send your kids to school, or health insurance, or how long your commute is. And think how much better off you would be in this miserable economy if you didn’t have to worry about the losses in your 401(k) plan (if you had one), and how you would pay for health care if you have to pay COBRA on the paltry unemployment benefits you get if you got fired.
But there is more. In Europe, cities are livable. There are parks, beautiful buildings, wonderful museums, ancient churches, free or cheap concerts, festivals, open-air markets, functional subways, buses and trains, and street-cleaners. Geoghegan references the lovely public spaces with his comment on the banks of violets he saw in Zurich. There is café life, which is a gracious way to live, indeed. In Paris, the cafés are filled with people of all ages, sitting out at all times of the year drinking coffee and talking to each other, not immersed in private thoughts in front of a laptop or staring blankly at the third football game of a Sunday.
They can live this way because they aren’t working themselves to death. They get real vacations, tons of days off which create lots of three and four day weekends, and their daily work hours typically aren’t as long as ours. Geoghegan casts himself as the archetypical US lawyer, working up to the moment he leaves on one of his trips to Berlin, and complaining because no one is around when he gets in; it’s Friday afternoon, and they are gone for the day.
How do they live so well, and we don’t? We are the ones with the great average Gross National Product per capita. It’s simple. They pay taxes, so they don’t have to pay for health insurance or retirement. They live in cities, so they don’t have to drive. They get great public education, so they don’t dump tens of thousands of dollars into private grade schools, high schools and colleges to give their kids a head start. The government provides childcare, so both parents can work or not as they see fit. With all that off their backs, they have time to live.
How can they afford this? Geoghegan explains that it is because they understand something we have lost, if we ever knew it: when people understand and participate in government, they can vote themselves a better deal:
It’s especially important in a social democracy that high school grads, as opposed to college grads, keep reading. For in this new global economy, high school grads, in Germany and elsewhere, still have one big competitive advantage over college grads: there are more of them.
If they can just read the papers and go out and vote, they can vote themselves a better deal—even if their skills are worth less.
P. 203. Geoghegan is most impressed by the German model because it teaches high school grads to participate in workers councils and unions, not just as recipients of top down instructions, but as active participants. In larger companies, the workers have a say in the day-to-day operation of the business through works councils with real power:
“Can a works council set the time when people go to work?” Yes. “What about when people leave?” Yes. (I remember a reporter who was on a works council: “We try to make sure they get home early enough to get to the theater.”) “What else can it do?” If there have to be pink slips, it can say who does or does not get one. It can set vacations. It can even set wages, but only if the wages are higher than the union sets.
P. 114. Workers are also members of unions that bargain for wages at the regional level. In companies with more than 2.000 employees, the board of directors has an equal number of outside directors and workers, a system called co-determination. With all this participation, workers have a direct stake in the business, and a real reason to pay attention to government and business. That means that everyone has a reason to continue their educations into their adult lives. It explains European TV: there are many talking head shows, and the discussions are rational. Newspapers are doing fine, at least compared to ours, and books sales are holding up. Geoghegan notices that you see people reading everywhere, books and thick newspapers, and in the homes of the people he visits he sees lots of books.
Geoghegan is worried about the future of the German model. For some time, the number of people covered by the system of unions, works councils and board participation has been falling. Like any system favorable to workers, if people don’t work to enforce it, the capitalists will destroy it. He sees hope in the younger generation who are joining unions in larger numbers.
And he believes that the German government is trying to push this model into other countries in the European Union. It should be an easy push, since Germany is a powerhouse exporter. It is tied with China with about $1.2 trillion in exports. Add France and the EU is far ahead of China. Furthermore, the EU exports home-grown high-end machines, not fake derivatives or consumer goods designed elsewhere. And German and French workers live the good life, unlike the sweatshop lives of the workers of China and the ever-harsher work lives of Americans.
The German model is a vision of a capitalism that works for everyone.