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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Basic Income Interview With Götz Werner

The is an interview with German millionaire Götz Werner on a universal basic income. It was published by 'Die Tageszeitung' or 'Taz' in 2006. I've only just seen the English translation (which is much more recent). It is well worth reading.

Image of Gotz Werner

Introduction

"Götz Werner is the founder of major drugstore chain (1700 stores) and one of the most influential advocates of basic income in Germany. Here he is interviewed by Jens König and Hannes Koch in Die Tageszeitung ('Taz') in November 2006. This has been translated into English by Florian Piesche and posted to 21st Century Digital Boy blog in 2009, reposted to Living Income For Everyone (LIFE) website [and reposted again, here on OUR SYSTEM].

"Guaranteed income is a hot topic in Germany. This is a surprising interview because of Werner's visionary view of the current job system and his radical retorts to the usual arguments about lazy shirkers. It may also be surprising because there is the idea that those who will be most against a guaranteed income will be people in the top income classes. However, Werner is not only a super advocate for guaranteed income, he is also one of the top 500 richest people in Germany." LIFE website 2009.

The Interview

[Note: 'Hartz IV' refers to Germany's unemployment benefit, as most outside Germany aren't familiar with the term I have replaced it (after the first instance) with 'benefit' or 'unemployment benefit' as appropriate throughout.]

Taz: Mr. Werner, Germany has just been surprised by the realisation that there is an entirely new species on its social outskirts, 'The lower class', supposedly entirely lazy and antisocial. Many believe that if they continue receiving Hartz IV [Germany's unemployment benefit] they'll never get their asses in gear. True or false?

Götz Werner: False. But man will think ill of man - not of himself of course, just the others. Elevating oneself above others is by principle an inhuman act. From the lower class it's a small step to sub-humans.

Taz: Who is to blame for this new scandal of poverty? The people concerned? The welfare state? The benefit?

Götz Werner: Let's put it like this: we've got more of an upper class problem than a lower class problem in Germany. The upper class is unable to think of society as a whole. It doesn't use its intellectual and financial capability to benefit the whole.

Taz: Conservatives and social democrats demand harsher punishment for those unwilling to work.

Götz Werner: If I don't give space and freedom to a man, if I'm trying to harass and hassle them, then I'm being unjust. This was one of the goals of the French Revolution, 'Equality!' That means, meeting eye to eye, at the same level, allowing others to have the same strengths and weaknesses as myself.

Taz: People argue that many unemployed demand the benefit for themselves and their children as though it were a salary.

Götz Werner: We're living in a society of total external supply. Modern man does not manufacture for himself, he purchases. Everyone participating in this society is dependent on a steady income. Everyone needs a share. It might be very modest, but without it things don't work. I'm calling this the 'socio-osmotic principle': unless you add some sugar to the water, you can't extract the sugar from the beet.

Taz: Participation as a human right?

Götz Werner: It's a basic requirement for a dignified life. The first article of the constitution says, 'Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.'

Taz: SPD [the German social democratic party] fraction leader Peter Struck says that maybe the image of man the coalition had when introducing the unemployment benefit "may be too positive".

Götz Werner: Struck is either being cynical or ridiculing the unemployed.

Taz: The conservative fraction leader Volker Kauder claims the government needs to demand more from the people. For example, he says, "One could expect me to wait tables in the evening if I were unemployed."

Götz Werner: Yes, yes, people have to obey, have to do what the authorities, what the job office clerk demands of them. My God, the things politicians say! This sounds less like democracy and more like aristocracy. If I was a politician, my take would be, 'Sorry. I imagined the Hartz IV unemployment benefit differently. The reform was a mistake. Let's take a U-turn. The benefit causes nothing but human misery.'

Taz: You have once said "The benefit is a public prison regime. It takes rights and freedom. The benefit tortures people and destroys their creativity."

Götz Werner: This is still true. Is this what we imagined our free society to be? Authorities snooping on how the unemployed live? The benefit goes against the fundamental idea, 'Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.' The benefit socially segregates people. It needs to be abolished.

Taz: Whatever creates jobs is social, or so politicians say. No matter how it is paid. No matter if it fits the person. No matter if there even is enough work.

Götz Werner: Politicians still believe in the myth of full employment. They're quite intoxicated by it. But full employment is a lie.

Taz: Does not everything depend on paid work nonetheless: welfare, identity, self respect, the feeling of being a part of something?

Götz Werner: No! This obsessed view of work is making us sick.

Taz: Do we not become sick when we lose our work?

Götz Werner: Contradiction! We do not have a problem with unemployment.

Taz: Excuse me?

Götz Werner: The problem is of a cultural nature. For the first time in over 5,000 years of human history, we live with a surplus. But we cannot handle this new reality. We are unable to have everyone profit from and share in it.

Taz: Tell that to an unemployed person who wants nothing more than a decent job.

Götz Werner: The unemployed exist only because we use the concept of unemployment. Most of the unemployed have work, it's not like they sit on the couch and watch TV all day. They are busy in their family, in other social work, in sports clubs. They are doing valuable work. Someone who cares for their children is much more valuable to society than someone twisting caps on bottles in the factory.

Taz: Aren't you speaking over the heads of people who suffer from having lost their work and thus their inner foothold?

Götz Werner: These people are suffering because they are not being respected and accepted. Because they are being stigmatised by society, because they are supposedly useless. Work is only what creates a value. If a woman is raising three children, people ask her, 'Are you working or are you at home?'

Taz: Minister of Work Franz Müntefering likes to quote the Bible and August Bebel, 'Those who do not work shall not eat.'

Götz Werner: Müntefering is a few hundred years behind the times. He still lives in a society of self sufficiency, where everyone was working against the want of things. Back then it was true: those who did not tend to their crops were themselves to blame when they had nothing to eat. Nowadays, we live in a society of external supply. I cannot work just for myself. Whenever I work, I work for someone else. I need an income to take part in society.

Taz: And here you show up and say, 'It is good when people don't have to work?'

Götz Werner: I'm saying, 'We don't need a right to work, at least not to instructed, social security contributing salary work. It's no longer up to date. We need a right to income. To an unconditional basic income.'

Taz: You want to give 1,500 euros to every person. Just like that. Month by month. From birth to death.

Götz Werner: Yes. We need to give money to every person. A citizen income. The basic income needs to be enough to live modestly, but in dignity. It needs to be more than a minimum for existence - a minimum for culture.

Taz: The government defines the benefit baseline as a socio-cultural existential minimum. This amounts to 345 euros.

Götz Werner: In Karlsruhe, where I'm from, you can't live on that. Or anywhere else in Germany. Maybe in Zimbabwe.

Taz: And your cultural minimum is 1,500 euros?

Götz Werner: No. I brought the 1,500 euros number up in an interview as a future vision. Introducing the basic income would be a step-by-step process. We could start at 800 to 1,000 euros for everyone.

Taz: The same for everyone?

Götz Werner: The amount could be based on an age curve. Children could start off at a lower amount.

Taz: But the rule is: no service in return, no obligation?

Götz Werner: That's it. A basic income without obligation. Just to acknowledge that everyone is appreciated as a part of society.

Taz: The favourite question of sceptics is, 'Who is going to pay for it?'

Götz Werner: That's a generic question used to kill a point before even discussing it.

Taz: Your basic income could cost a third of Germany's total economic power. Almost a trillion euros a year.

Götz Werner: The CDU [Germany's main conservative party] friendly Konrad Adenauer Foundation has just had calculations made for such a model: the 'Solidarity Citizen Income' - a basic income of 800 euros a month, as Thuringia's [one of Germany's 16 federal states] President Dieter Althaus is proposing, would cost about 600 billion euros a year - less than the country is spending on all current social services.

Taz: The question still remains: where would the money come from?

Götz Werner: From taxes.

Taz: Aha. Even more taxes.

Götz Werner: No. I propose a very simple solution: abolish all taxes except for VAT. It's the only tax that makes sense and is fair.

Taz: How high should it be?

Götz Werner: Much higher than now. Maybe 50 percent.

Taz: You'll need to explain that.

Götz Werner: The purpose of the economy is to create an income for people by producing consumer goods. Unlike in the past we no longer live in an economy of lack. We're producing a surplus of goods. This is why consumption should be the only basis of tax. Not those who serve should pay tax, but those who make use of others' services. Hence, abolish all taxes - except VAT.

Taz: And you think this is fair? Why would you want to take income and profit taxes off the rich?

Götz Werner: Because the rich also use their incomes for consumption - and thus would also pay the high VAT. Or they invest their income, which in turn causes more consumption. Eventually you will end up with consumption, and thus the ideal base for taxation.

Taz: Everyone pays taxes according to their capability - you'd entirely abolish that concept.

Götz Werner: Why? VAT could be structured socially. A very high tax rate for luxury goods, a very low one for daily commodities. With a base income and a consumption tax, Germany would become an investor's paradise, a work magnet that creates a lot of jobs.

Taz: The second most favourite question of sceptics is, 'Why should man act against his nature and not just live in laziness when he has enough money to live?'

Götz Werner: I ask the sceptics, 'Would you stop working?' They respond, 'Not me. I enjoy my work.' They only assume of others that they would be lazy.

Taz: Maybe you're just talking to the wrong people.

Götz Werner: No. Most people just have two different ideas of man - one of themselves and one of the others. In the first, spiritual image man is a creature of reason and freedom. In the other, materialist image man is more like an animal, a creature of determined impulse and reaction. This idea is mirrored in the phrase, 'Trust is good, control is better.'

Taz: And you believe that everyone in your brave new basic income world will work by their own will?

Götz Werner: With an unconditional basic income, we're allowing everyone the space to do the work they consider necessary and sensible. We will work because we're seeing a purpose in it, not because we're being forced to. Is it not a truly free society in which everyone can abstain? In which everyone is free to say 'No' to undignified circumstances? Free from existential worries, the people will unfold their talents.

Taz: That sounds a bit like Paradise.

Götz Werner: You don't believe me. But it wouldn't be quite so easy to live on the basic income.

Taz: Why not?

Götz Werner: There are no more excuses. All of the victim roles we've gotten so comfortable in no longer work. You cannot claim you're doing the job just because you need the money, you're only staying with your husband because you're dependent on his income...

Taz: What would we gain from the basic income?

Götz Werner: Dignity and safety - and power. We could tell an employer that we no longer want to work for them because they're polluting the environment or because they're treating their employees badly. You can't imagine how such a basic income would unleash the abilities of our society.

Taz: But won't there be people who won't want to work?

Götz Werner: They exist today, but they're still getting money from the government - they just have to deal with repressions from social service authorities. The people who don't want to work today won't want to work in the future.

Taz: If you ask a Hauptschule [vocational oriented branch of German secondary school] student about what they want to be after school, many respond, 'Dude, I wanna be on the benefit!' What happens to these young people who now receive a basic income?

Götz Werner: I can't tell you. We will have to find out. But society needs to treat young people in a way that makes their start into life more attractive.

Taz: And attractive means giving them their cash and leaving them alone?

Götz Werner: No. They need to find a purpose to their lives and set goals for themselves.

Taz: Young people saying they want to go on the benefit is also influenced by their parents' indifference.

Götz Werner: Do you see the problem with your question? They only say this because their parents are on the benefit. Would the benefit not exist, they would have a different goal in life. Were there a basic income, they would see that their parents can choose freely how to spend their lives. Young people choose their own ideals. It's not like the benefit is the Matterhorn they want to climb.

Taz: Who does the work nobody wants to do in your world? Who goes door to door and cleans the doormats?

Götz Werner: Maybe unpleasant jobs will have to be paid better. But fundamentally that's how it works today already. As an example: if you want your newspaper to be delivered at 5am, there are three options. First, you make the work attractive enough so that others will do it. Second, you have machines do the work. Third, you do the work yourself. There's a fundamental difference with the basic income in that work will be done voluntarily. The main factor is no longer the income, but the meaning of the work. This would massively improve economic efficiency.

Taz: You're a dreamer.

Götz Werner: If you don't have dreams you can't design your life. If you build a house before dreaming about it first it's going to turn out pretty mediocre.

Taz: You're one to talk. You own over 1,700 drugstores, earning a yearly 3.7 billion Euros. You are one of the richest 500 Germans.

Götz Werner: That's incorrect. Of course, just like other entrepreneurs, I wanted just more and more in the past. Now my main goal is maximising the purpose.

Taz: You see the world with different eyes?

Götz Werner: I've read the classics. Goethe, Schiller. I understood that my own success is not important. I want to help others to success. It's not about business, it's about people. I try to take people as they would like to be.

Taz: "Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come", you say.

Götz Werner: Says Victor Hugo. I'm just quoting him.

Taz: Has the time come for your idea?

Götz Werner: At least it's finally being discussed. Up until two years ago it was a matter for experts. When I hold seminars today, it is to full halls.

Taz: What has changed?

Götz Werner: The old political slogans have nothing to do with the world that people live in anymore. In spite of temporary success stories, unemployment is on the rise and the unrestrained growth is damaging our resources. Even if Angela Merkel [the current head of German government] was to shout 'Full employment is possible!' every morning, nobody would believe her.

Taz: Even within political parties, all the way from the far left to the right, the unconditional basic income is gathering a following. Why is that?

Götz Werner: Because it's both the most radical form of socialism and the most radical form of capitalism. I received a note from a listener at one of my talks saying 'Your basic income model has united my socialist heart with my neoliberal mind.'

Die Tageszeitung
Liveable Income For Life

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