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Economics & Psychology

Who Owns Germany?

 by Patrick Schreiner

That the distribution of wealth in Germany is extremely unequal is hardly a new insight. In spite of this, there has so far not been any sustained attempt to canvass and summarize the topic of wealth distribution in its entirety. Jens Berger, author of several books and editor of the Nachdenkseiten, has now attempted this task. Anyone wishing to join the discussion about issues of distribution, and anyone who thinks they can simply ignore the problem, should read Berger’s book Wem gehört Deutschland? (‘Who Owns Germany?’).

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‘One-Euro-Shop’ (Detail from photo by D. Schaefer; Source: Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons S.A. 3.0 Unported License)

Questions of distribution, especially in relation to wealth, have recently regained some prominence in politics and the media. This may be due to the activities of the Occupy and Blockupy movements as well as, in Germany, of the Bündnis Umfairteilen and political demands for redistribution and a different taxation policy that were issued by the Social Democrats (SPD), the Left Party (Die Linke) and the Green Party ahead of the last general elections in 2013. In the past few months, Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been receiving a lot of attention, especially in the United States, and has also raised public interest in questions of distribution.

Even mainstream media such as Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) and Spiegel Online have found it impossible not to devote more space to the topic – if only to reassure their readers that some increases in inequality of wealth distribution are quite alright and should be no cause for alarm; or to suggest that strategies other than redistribution are needed to tackle the root cause of inequality. Thus, Hans-Werner Sinn, President of the ifo Institute for Economic Research, announced his – apparently serious – ‘solution’ on the pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (the Sunday edition of FAZ): the problem of inequality, Sinn suggested, could simply be made to disappear if the rich were encouraged to have more children than the poor!

It is against this backdrop that the publication of Berger’s book appears not only timely, but also as nudging public debate in the right direction. For Berger, the issue of distribution is not a biological problem – that is, not a problem of differential reproductive rates  – but one that has been brought about by political means and, correspondingly, can only be tackled politically. As evidence, he offers a comprehensive survey of all the major aspects of wealth distribution – from statistical data concerning inequality and efforts to privatize old-age pension sytems to the dubious notion of Volksaktien (‘people’s shares’) and the various actors in global financial markets. (Given that statistical data concerning wealth in Germany is difficult to come by, and often unreliable – which, presumably, is itself a political choice – Berger is forced to derive various numerical indicators himself.)

In addition, Berger’s book displays a keen eye for detail. Thus, he argues that, while the effects of continuously compounded interest on wealth distribution need to be taken seriously, it would be misguided, as some critics tend to do, to regard interest as the sole, or even the main, evil of capitalism. Another aspect that Berger discusses in detail is the growing number of pseudo-self-employed workers. As his analysis shows, the gradual casualization of work cuts across the demarcation between employees on the one hand and the self-employed and entrepreneurs on the other hand.

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Three Maybach luxury cars (Photo by Brendel; used under Creative Commons S.A. 3.0 Unported License; Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In his discussion of the latter two examples, and elsewhere throughout the book, Berger adopts a calm and judicious style of argument – which is also indicative of the general tenor of ‘Who Owns Germany?’ This lends credibility to those passages where he ‘names and shames’ those who perpetrate, and profiteer from, increases in wealth inequality. Thus, he points to the dubious role of large media conglomerates in perpetuating neoliberal thinking and to the failure and complicity of the Social Democrats in efforts to ‘reform’ pension systems and measures to erode unemployment benefits. And he makes clear – often by way of concrete examples – that ownership and wealth go hand in hand with political power. Such unequal distribution of power, in turn, entrenches political inertia with respect to questions of distribution – since, after all, those with significant political influence use their power to protect their privileges.

Perhaps, then, this is the most disturbing insight of Berger’s book: a gradualist policy seems woefully inadequate for stopping, or even reversing, the trend towards greater inequality. This is borne out by the massive resistance of neoliberal media, lobby groups and reactionary politicians against even the most minimal increases in, say, statutory pensions or against the introduction of a (low) minimum wage – let alone the creation of a fairer taxation system.

Berger’s ‘Who Owns Germany?’ presents a readable, compellingly argued, and wide-ranging account of the extent to which wealth inequality has risen – in Germany and world-wide –  and of the disastrous economic and social consequences this has wrought. In developing his argument, Berger draws on figures, data, and facts which – although in principle accessible elsewhere (with considerable effort, it should be noted) – have so far not been systematically surveyed, linked up and explicated. This is an important and timely book, not least at a time when the standard reaction to the looming crisis of inequality seems to consist in accelerating the flow of wealth from the bottom to the top.

Jens Berger: Wem gehört Deutschland? Die wahren Machthaber und das Märchen vom Volksvermögen
Westend Verlag, Frankfurt 2014.
ISBN: 978-3-86489-053-6
Softcover, 256 pages, EUR 17.99

Patrick Schreiner is a writer, journalist, and trade unionist based in Hanover. He is the editor of Annotazioni.de, where a German version of this review was first published.

Translation: The Berlin Review of Books (c) 2014 (English version).

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