Tue, Aug 31, 2004 - Page 9 News List

The Rhineland model showing signs of strain

By Ralf Dahrendorf

Not so long ago, Germans and other continental Europeans pointed to America's "working poor," as well as to the sorry state of public services in Britain, as defects that supposedly reflected the inevitable price Anglo-Saxon countries must pay for their ruthless forms of capitalism. Europeans (Germans in particular), on the other hand, enjoyed the "Rhineland model": a market economy that harnesses economic success to the cause of social justice.

So when Chancellor Gerhard Schroder early in his first term signed the so-called Blair-Schroder paper, which pledged agreement with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on liberalizing reforms, he made certain that it was published in London and played down in Berlin. Similarly, the European Union's Lisbon agenda of economic liberalization was never really taken seriously in Germany, France or most other countries on the continent.

How things have changed in the last five years! Today, few people if any refer to the Rhineland model with such satisfaction.

As things stand now, the German economy lags behind most others in Europe, and almost all European economies trail Britain and the US. Unemployment is high and growing, as German companies move production to low-wage countries in Eastern Europe or Asia. In Germany, "capitalism unmodified" has begun its reign. Profitable companies are closed if their returns fall below international standards. Managers' salaries -- including bonuses for failed or departing directors -- have reached new highs.

If all this leads people to conclude that social justice is being sacrificed to profits, cuts in public expenditure harden that conclusion even more. Social entitlements are being reduced, while individual contributions to cover the cost of health care, pensions, education and basic welfare programs rise -- not just in the Rhineland and neighboring areas, but in other countries that follow a similar model.

One reason is straightforward and increasingly widely understood. The old system of social justice, the welfare state, was based on assumptions which no longer hold true. Some may never have been viable. For example, the Rhineland model used many measures of social policy that had built-in growth trends that were bound to make them unaffordable. This is true for health care.

In addition, demographic changes reduced the number of contributors while increasing the demand for services. Unsurprisingly, high payroll taxes strained the capacity of working people to pay for them, and mounting non-wage labor costs eroded companies' international competitiveness. For a while, borrowing hid the extent of the problem; but today the extent of the burden that the accumulated debt that resulted from this borrowing is placing on future generations -- a grave injustice in its own right -- is clear.

Thus the Rhineland model's once-robust institutions of social justice were bound to be squeezed. But the capitalism that formed the Rhineland model's other component also changed, and here it is not wrong to blame globalization. Companies formed international links in order to remain competitive. Many of these links were with British or American companies, which led to a profound change in business culture. The old notion that large companies are responsible for their employees' welfare from cradle to grave -- providing not only wages and bonuses but also sports facilities, cheap holidays and generous retirement benefits -- fell into disuse. Overseas owners were less than understanding of the German custom of paying a thirteenth monthly salary at Christmas.

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