German Social Democracy

In a post for the Direct Diplomacy blog that I’m involved in, I recently wrote about German perceptions of Canada as a likeminded, social-democratic middle power in the context of the CETA back-and-forth.

While that perception of Canada has only recently caught up again with some version of political reality since the Liberals election win last year, the image seems to persist.

Yet, when I walk through Berlin I see much more evidence of a living social-democracy than I see in Vancouver.

The “social market economy” has been German dogma since some time in the 1960s. Yes, a market economy, but participation and supervision by the state (as representing the people, i.e. the social) where it is necessary or beneficial to correct some of the distortions brought about by market forces.

Historical Roots

For Germany, this social market economy has its roots in the German Empire. It is a happy coincidence that grade 9 is the time when history class covers the late 19th century as E and I have had some discussions about what she is learning. I still think that the fact that Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, “invented” unemployment insurance, is one of the great all time historical puzzles. Nevertheless, this invention over 125 years ago lives on in Germany not just in labour policies and laws, but also in the recognition that the state as the representative of the social should intervene in some policy areas.

Contemporary Examples

Once again, riding public transit proves to be the origin of some of my observations.

Start with transit passes. In Vancouver, there are two: concession and full fare. Eligibility for concession fares is restricted to children, students, and pensioners.

Here in Berlin, we ride on an “ecology pass” which is a transferable monthly pass for adults that also allows to “take along” an additional adult and kids in the evening and on the weekends.

The kids are on student tickets, but for Ingm that means a “sibling ticket” which is discounted even further.

These discounts also apply to the unemployed and welfare recipients.

On the buses, there are frequent ads for various institutions that intervene in markets.

Real Estate, Social Services and Support for Entrepreneurs

As I’ve written about before, the booming real estate market in Berlin has been a big topic. One of the solutions, has been more public housing. That is not requirements for private developments to include social housing, no, publicly-owned housing as the way to try to expand offerings in the rental market quickly. There really is no, even conservative, counter-argument to publicly-owned housing corporations.

Social services are quite visible throughout the city as well. Job centres, offers for assistance from the state, care facilities appear everywhere as ads. This is in part due to the relatively positive economic situation for Berlin that seems to drive the many job offer ads around town.

Even entrepreneurs, these mythical beasts that in their creativity and independence exist as a counter-point to state intervention (or do they?), are supported by public programs.

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