Germany’s future? Look at its cars

A well-done description of the current – September 2021 – situation in Germany. By the economist. Using the German automobile industry as a window into the wider challenges to the German economy and to German society.

It’s bottom-line question is whether the German people are capable of responding to the challenges of today and the near future.

Careful, cautious, averse to major change

Oliver Nachtwey – Professor of Sociology at the University of Basel in Switzerland – and a sharp-eyed observer of German politics wrote this guest essay in the New York Times the day after the September 26, 2021 federal elections in Germany:

“It could have been a fresh start. In the face of a number of pressing challenges, rising inequality, run-down infrastructure and spiraling climate change among them, the election was a chance for the country to chart a better, more equal course for the 21st century. Instead, Germany is stuck. Ms. Merkel may be leaving. Yet the Germany she cultivated — careful, cautious, averse to major change — will carry on as before.

The campaign gave us early clues. Typically, candidates for the highest political office seek to distance themselves as much as possible from incumbents, to demonstrate the superiority of their vision for the country. But in Germany, the main candidates vied to imitate Ms. Merkel’s centrist political style. It delivered four successive electoral victories, after all.”

Focused more on action

“A few years ago she explained in an interview that she simply never believed that ‘a person can touch other people so much with words that they change their minds.’

Accordingly, she has always focused more on actions than words. She almost never gives interviews to foreign news outlets, and those she gives the German media are rarely exciting. She has never supplied the tabloids with even a hint of scandal.”

That’s Serge Schmemann, the decades-long journalist for the New York Times, about Angela Merkel in an article on September 26, 2021, election day in Germany, when Merkel, after sixteen years in office, is not on the ballot.

American Optimism

Mark Shields is a long-time political journalist. He has had a nationally-sydicated column for decades, and is well known from his weekly analysis with David Brooks – a New York Times columnist – on the PBS NewsHour. Listen to minutes 7:28 to 9:25.

Caucus discipline

Members of the German Parliament are expected to vote with their party caucus. The term is Fraktionsdisziplin or caucus discipline. 

Casting their individual votes in a unified way is the result of an internal process: party conventions define the political plattform; policy positions are worked out in detail; the parliamentary members are issued their guidelines for voting.

For in the end a party’s power and influence in the Bundestag is based on its ability think and act as a unified body.

Fraktionsdisziplin, however, does not mean Fraktionszwang – caucus coercion. On certain legislation Members of the Parliament can deviate from the party line. 

They have what the Germans call the Prinzip des freien Mandats – principle of independent mandate, which on matters of conscience is greater than maintaining caucus discipline.

See the Christian Democrats in the Bundestag.


Automobiles: The Hummer H2 is perhaps the best example of unapologetic disregard for efficiency. This vehicle weighs around 6,400 pounds and travels about 10 miles on one gallon of gas. They sell for $40-$50,000, although sales have declined sharply since 2005.

Americans tend to value large, powerful cars despite their inefficient use of gasoline. For example, the Ford Mustang was first sold in 1964 and is currently in its fifth generation. The newest Mustang’s 5.0 liter V8 gets a boost of eight horsepower from 412 hp (307 kW; 418 PS) to 420 hp (313 kW; 426 PS), and the V6 remains rated at 305 hp (227 kW; 309 PS) and 280 lb·ft (380 N·m). Although fuel efficiency was formerly ignored in favor of power, the Mustang was redesigned to be more efficient and now gets around 30 miles per gallon.

Energy use: According to World Bank statistics Americans use an average of 7,069 kg of oil per capita in 2011. This is more than double of most European nations and about four times China’s per capita oil use.

Car size: Although Western Europeans actually own more cars per capita than Americans, American cars tend to be much larger. Americans also tend to live in suburban areas that are quite a distance away from their workplace, so they spend an average of an hour or more commuting to and from work every day.

The average width of American roads allows for much larger trucks and passenger cars. Taxi cabs also tend to be far larger in the United States than in Europe or Asia, even though they carry the same number of passengers (1-3) at a time.

Increased fuel economy standards: In response to growing concerns about pollution and global warming, President Obama in April 2012 finalized standards which mandate an average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon for the 2025 model year. These tough standards aim to force car manufacturers to create more efficient gasoline-based vehicles as well as electric and hybrid cars. Fuel efficient vehicles such as the Toyota Prius are gaining in popularity as highly inefficient vehicles. Sales increased sharply in 2004 and Toyota has sold more than 120,000 Prius vehicles each year since 2007.

Car pooling: Another growing trend in many cities which aims to decrease pollution and fossil fuel use is car pooling: people riding together to and from work in order to save money and decrease the number of cars on the road. Most Americans still travel a fairly long distance to work each day, usually alone in their car. Local governments have sought to encourage people to share cars by introducing „High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV)“ lanes that are only open to vehicles with more than three passengers.

Citizens have created solutions such as „slugging,“ a common practice in Washington, D.C. where drivers pick up impromptu riders to meet the HOV requirements of high-volume interstates. Some commuters also form car pooling groups that rent vans and leave from specified locations at the same time every morning. The riders split the cost of the van and driver.

Biking: In some cities in America bike trails have been constructed from popular suburbs into downtown office locations. These trails encourage commuters to ride bikes to and from work and often involve bridges or tunnels that allow for an easy commute. This practice is still fairly uncommon among American workers, but as traffic continues to get worse and gas prices rise, more commuters may consider this option.

The Art of Diplomacy

In March 2014 Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea. Not only did he upset the Ukraine, but also Germany, the E.U. and the U.S.A. Ever since this action the conflict became part of a public discussion: sanctions against Russia and the consequences of another cold war are being discussed overtly. International diplomacy needs to find a peaceful solution to this conflict now. 

Minsk II, the treaty in which the conflicted parties agreed upon a truce, is the core of a peaceful solution. But the treaty has been very fragile from the start. There is a lack of trust and so international policy continues with a lot of effort to finally find a way to make the agreement work. The U.S.A., the E.U. and primarily Germany are trying to support conversations with Russia. 

The U.S.A. and E.U. seem to agree on further strategies before cameras. But behind closed doors they differ. A closer look on this issue reveals the different understanding of Germany and the U.S.A. concerning conflict resolutions. 

According to Germany the USA is no longer willing to continue on the german diplomatic course, because they no longer believe talks with Putin to be promising. Possible arms shipments have been considered. From a german point of view there is no other option than continuing the dialogue with Putin – a strategy that rather looks unassertive to the U.S.A, who  prefer a change of pace. 

This is where a difference in perceiving time comes into play: Germany is accepting to extend the conflict as long as there is a “clean” and thought-out solution to the process of dialogues. Germany is accepting a longer “wait” if that is the price. But this takes to long according to americans. Only talking, is unnecessarily prolonging the conflict, from an american point of view, which the U.S.A. disfavours. 

Rules of Mediation

The first rule is that the conflict resolution process is not the equivalent of a court case. The goal is not to judge either of the conflict parties, but to jointly find a solution to the problem.

Goodwill. It is expected of all parties involved that they act in good faith and are willing to compromise. The mediator should do no more than guide the discussion and help the conflict parties to recognize common ground. The conflict parties are asked to find a solution together. Only when that cannot be achieved, is the moderator expected to make concrete suggestions.

The mediator. Germans expect the moderator to be neutral, to listen patiently to both sides of the conflict, and to support the resolution process in a way which does not damage either party. Neither blame nor guilt should be attributed to either of the conflict parties. Instead, the mediator focuses on reconstructing events and describing the problem.

Heiner Geissler, a former high-ranking member of the Christian Democratic Party, is the most prominent of German mediator. Geißler has been brought in numerous times since 1997 to help resolve conflicts between companies and unions. He was in the national spotlight over the last few years in his attempt to help resolve a major political conflict in the state of Baden-Württemberg concerning a the reconstruction of the Stuttgart main train station.

“Always room for improvement”

The political barometer of the German television station ZDF regularly gauges the country’s political sentiments. As a part of this, the country’s top ten politicians are shown with their approval ratings. The scale ranges from -5 to 5.

In July 2014, the political barometer was titled “After the World Championship: Angela Merkel sees highest approval ratings.” This clearly meant that amongst the persons polled, Angela Merkel, with a score of 2.8 took first place amongst the most important politicians.

2.8 out of a possible best of 5.0 points demonstrates how deflationary grades are given in Germany, even when one is quite satisfied with the overall performance.

As the Germans like to say: “Es gibt immer Luft nach oben” – “There is always room for improvement”.

Up to the Minute

Frequency: The rate at which something occurs or is repeated over a particular period of time or in a given sample; the fact of being frequent or happening often; Middle English frequence, originally meaning a gathering of people; from Latin frequentia ‘crowded, frequent’.

Americans like not only to know where they stand as individuals at the workplace and as companies in the marketplace. They want to know where things stand in many national areas of interest such as sports, politics, business. They expect up-to-the-minute information, especially in the form of statistics.

In sports, news anchors and statisticians closely monitor team standings, individual statistics: leagues, cities, teams within a particular geographical area, a player’s individual performance, wins, losses, and historical records are under scrutiny. Viewers and fans use statistics in order to anticipate team and individual player performance. This precise monitoring of statistics allows fans to converse with others about the sport, as well as to bet (gamble) on sports.

In politics, polls, surveys and election results are constantly recorded and analyzed in order to predict voter sentiment. Depending on the election, or on the type of political information sought, polls are gathered from hour-by-hour, within days apart or annually. In the majority of U.S. presidential elections over the past 40 years, election monitoring in eastern states are critical to forecasting election results across the country.

In business, stock movements are so closely monitored that most Americans with smartphones have a stocks app. The World Market Watch app allows users to be kept up to date on all world stock markets with real time quotes.

In business news, major outlets report how business reacts to political events. During the announcement of Elizabeth Warren’s win against Scott Brown for the Massachusetts Senate seat in the November 2012 elections the value of stocks on Wall Street decreased as she ran on a platform to greater scrutinize and regulate the financial sector. In August 2011 when Standard and Poor stripped the U.S. of its AAA top credit rating that the country has held for 70 years, stock values immediately fell.

There are currently 239,893,600 Internet users as of June 2010, which is 77.3 percent of the population. The US Census Bureau for 2011 reported that out of 311,591,917 people living in the United States, 232,000,000 Americans are equipped with a mobile communication device, an incredible two-thirds of the population.

Based on circulation the five largest newspapers in the United States are USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post. These newspapers publish daily reports of global, national, state and local level events at least daily. The New York Times has Afternoon Updates in their Top News, Opinion, U.S. and Business sections. Online versions offer up to the minute reporting.

In 2012, 81% of Americans in ages between 12-24, 68% between 25-34, 55% between 55-64 and 23% 65+ have a personal profile page on a social networking website. Out of this group, 22% of Americans, roughly over 68 million people check their social networking pages multiple times per day.