Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Political economy of the West - updated

I always tried to avoid being boring and repetitive (however the resulting decline of posts can only help in the latter, but unfortunately enhances the former) but one of my permanent assumptions mentioned on this blog is that contrary to the popular - and evidently self-interest driven - portrayal of Eastern politicians their are not different from their Western peers. A very few of these people is the proverbial knight of public interest as opposed to the individual or group interest and unshakable champion of meaningful reforms delivering better results for everyone in the long term. It is quite instructive to take a look at Germany.

Germany is obviously a Western country, where the social democrats were ousted from power last September and their place as junior partner in a coalition besides the christian democrats was taken over by the liberals. For many - among them fro the respective parties - it was the realization of a dream coalition, much awaited for 11 years, since Helmut Kohl lost an election in 1998. Some commentators embedded the events into a grand narrative of overall decline of the left, predicting a loss of power for Great Britain's Labour for this May (once a certainty, now not so sure) and imagined an EU almost without leftist governments. Others (and the same commentators as well) pointed out that the electoral result of the liberals, an all time high, almost 15% is a sign of a strong desire for profound change in Germany. Especially, as the party run on a program with a very market-friendly agenda: tax cuts (self-financing ones, of course through stronger economic activity), health care reform, deregulation were the key points, but at the same time they emphasized a modified approach to the social systems, a more friendly one, in order to erase their stigm being the party of "social coldness" (soziale Kaelte). As the conservatives were always perceived as a market oriented party many awaited rapid changes.

The result: something completely different. After their first 100 and a few days in power the coalition seems to be nothing else then the scene of endless brickering, conflicts, their party leaders - except the chancellor, Angela Merkel - attacking each other at every opportunity despite the efforts to bring peace. Moreover, it turned out that the key proposal of the liberals are not so welcome by their partners as they expected. In some cases on practical grounds: with a huge debt burden taken during the most severe phase of the crisis the conservatives are reluctant to pledge themselves to the requested tax cuts s they are not convinced of the myth of self-financing tax-cuts. In other cases the difference is one of principles: the smaller - Bavarian - conservative party opposes vehemently the idea of the introduction of a single lump-sum fee for health insurance for everyone, independent of their income etc. (The liberals idea is to compensate the obvious social disadvantages - people with lower income paying higher fees in proportion of heir income than people with higher income and/or more property - through the tax or the social system. It is not only contrary to their proposals regarding a simpler tax system, but probably would be mor expensive than the present system of direct state contributions to the individual helth insurance institutes as compensation of their losses. According to some estimates of the Ministry of Finance it would cost about 17 billion euro yearly, while the present system required "only" 8-9 billions last year.) The Bavarians announced that it is for them an issue of life and death, they can't accept any from of a lump sum fee.

Although these are not the only contested issues (for example a huge debate on the so-called Hartz IV system, a social assistance system for long term unemployed broke out recently) maybe even so much is enough to illustrate the depth of the problems. The first reaction was - beyond the inevitable surprise - some commentaries on Merkel, whose sympathy for ideas of social democratic origin was underestimated by her liberal partners - followed the conclusion. However, it was rather a reflection of the popular mood of the Germans, who rapidly withdrew their support from the liberals (they lost a half of their voters during this period) not only because of the above mentioned problems, but because they soon became suspicious of clientelist politics. (In a package of tax cuts they pressed for lower VAT for hotels and restaurants but it was soon revealed that the respective business has no intention to pass it to the costumers - i.e. lower its prices - and informations surfaced on huge donations to the party from hotel owners.) Their reaction was somehow confused: raising the pressure on their partners regarding tax cuts - irrespective of the situation of the budget - and health reform. (The story is very similar to the story of the Hungarian liberals from 2006, the series of similarities extends even to the continuous reference to the sanctity of the coalition agreement - a text with sufficiently opaque and vague formulations in this regard.) Even after opinion pollsters shared the results of their surveys with the public: no one really expected them to deliver the exact promises they made, especially not the tax cuts, thought not too much credible by everyone - rather changes in the relationship of the sate and its citizens, a field where they didn't even had at the end a single idea.

What can be the conclusion of this familiar story? (Familiar from Hungary, a coalition rapdily loosing the support of the population - according to the last poll more than three fifth of Germans considers this coalition an alliance of parties that do not fit to each other - and politicians misreading the signs sent to them from the public and struggling to keep power in a key province in the country at the elections in May.) Not the too easy prediction of inevitable failure of the government, rather the necessary caution for every politician. First, ideas popular in opinion poll can easily turn out to be unpopular when not only the bright side, but the trade offs has to be faced. Secondly, it is dangerous to be carried away by someone's own zeal and think that the people are enthusiastic about the same points of their program as they themselves. Thirdly, despite the dire situation of the left, these societies didn't make a u-turn and embraced the anglo-saxon type of free-market capitalism. They are rather not only divided in this sense, but clearly looking for solutions to preserve as much from the welfare state as can be. Not very insightful conclusions, but as in ECE politicians instinctively or consciously accepting them are portrayed as villains, maybe not is not completely useless to point them out.

It was a long time ago I posted something and it seems the topic was almost the same as this post. However, this one was written in a bit different genre. Not too much difference, but some justification. ;)

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