Tuesday, April 19, 2005

New Pope's Homeland Could Teach GOP a Thing or Two About Christian Values


I'm not sure I have an opinion on the selection of Joseph Ratzinger as the new pope. But I do have an opinion about the pope's homeland, Germany.

Germany is not a perfect nation by any means. And it has a horrific past. But I think in the overall balance of things, Germany is a more Christian nation than the U.S. is today. This, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Germans (like most Europeans) are secular, and don't attend church.

How can this possibly be, you might be asking? Well, first of all, I should explain what I mean by "Christian."

A big part of the problem I've always had with the Christian religion is not the teachings of Christ (most of which I wholeheartedly agree with). It's "Christians" themselves.

At least here in the U.S., Christianity has been twisted, perverted and distorted by Bible-thumping fundamentalists (who ironically seem to be completely ignorant of the Bible's contents).

I've never understood why the Republicans, of all people, have long been identified as the party somehow closest to Christian values and morals. I'm not sure what Bible these people are referring to. A great deal of what animates them seems to consist of issues that aren't even mentioned in the Scriptures.

Abortion, for one thing. "Christians" will rant and rave all day about this topic---which is odd, because abortion is not mentioned once in the Bible.

What's equally strange is that when I read the Bible (particularly the words of Christ himself), I find myself in total agreement---and I'm a diehard progressive.

I agree with the Bible verse, Mark 10:21. This is a verse that describes what happens when a wealthy man approaches Christ and asks him what he must do to "inherit eternal life."

Christ responds, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven."

Note that Christ does not say that one must sell one's possessions and give to the poor in order to simply be a "good Christian." Instead, he says we must do this if we want to go to heaven, period.

This is one of those Bible verses you'll never, ever hear Republicans mention. Instead, Republicans are always busy digging deep into the Old Testament (which, incidentally, Christ said his own words replaced) and finding obscure verses to support their views on issues like homosexuality. Never mind the fact that the Old Testament is FULL of bizarre stories and teachings that I'm not sure that anyone today really fathoms. I mean, how about the verse that says that a man who has damaged testicles may not enter a temple to worship?

Christ spent a lot of his ministry speaking harshly of the wealthy. In fact, he only has kind words for two groups of people: children and the poor.

Which brings me back to my original topic. Germany is a country that has policies that send shivers down the spine (or lack thereof) of Republicans. For one thing, Germany has an extensive social welfare system and a huge array of programs to help poor and lower-income people that would simply be inconceivable in the U.S. As a result, the sort of wretched, bottom-of-the-barrel poverty that is widespread in the U.S. is simply unheard of in Germany (and, indeed, most European nations).

One in every five children in America lives in poverty. The comparable figure for Germany is less than one-tenth the U.S. rate. Given Christ's views on the poor and children, I'd suspect that if Jesus returned today, he would look more favorably on Germany than the U.S.

Surprisingly, for a nation that has the third-largest economy in the world, Germany doesn't get a lot of detailed coverage in the U.S. media. Most Americans are pretty ignorant about what goes on there. What's more, the U.S. media's coverage of German affairs tends to be highly distorted and often flat-out wrong.

The vast majority of U.S. media coverage about Germany these days seems to consist of gloom-and-doom stories that talk endlessly about Germany's economic woes. (Inevitably, these same stories always go on to say that Germany is working to abolish its generous social welfare programs and is embracing the U.S. model of rough-and-tumble capitalism).

The U.S. media's coverage of Germany is in fact highly flawed. Take, for example, Germany's economic problems. It's simply not true to say that Germany is in some sort of economic crisis. Germany does have a jobless rate higher than that of the U.S. But the fact is, this has little to do with any fundamental problems with the nation's economic system.

The fact is, Germany historically had an extremely low jobless rate for over half a century after World War II. It was only when reunification arrived that the nation's unemployment rate soared. When Germany reunited, the wealthy West went into the much poorer East Germany and shuttered thousands of inefficient state-owned businesses, which caused millions to lose their jobs.

For over a decade, Germany has been spending hundreds of billions of dollars modernizing the East and working to bring it up to the level of the West. It's been a painful, drawn-out process. But the U.S. media is simply not telling the truth when it repeatedly insists that Germany's current woes stem from some sort of fundamental structural flaws in its economic system (and that the nation must embrace the U.S. model).

Incidentally, there is more than meets the eye with Germany's jobless rate. For a start, being jobless in Germany isn't quite a disaster that it can be in the U.S. Germany, for example, has generous social welfare programs that make it possible to live relatively comfortably, even if one is jobless.

American economists and Republicans are always touting the U.S. economic system's "superiority" by pointing out that we have a low jobless rate. I find it interesting, though, that these pundits never mention that the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world, with over 2 million people behind bars. That's a vastly higher incarceration rate than Germany, by the way.

Germany is a country that gets endless grief from U.S. conservative pundits and economic commentators. The latter constantly deride Germany's "bloated and excessive" welfare and social programs. They also condemn the German economic system as being "shackled" by all kinds of supposedly unnecessary red tape and regulation.

Publications like "The Wall Street Journal" constantly criticize Germany as a sinking economic power whose only salvation is, of course, a hefty dose of American-style brutal dog-eat-dog capitalism. One recent editorial in the "Journal" confidently (and arrogantly) predicted that the latter will indeed eventually occur and that Germany's guaranteed 6-week paid vacations for all workers will be the sort of thing that German school children "read about in history books one day."

Frankly, I don't see any of this happening myself. The fact is, Germans (and Europeans in general) long ago took a good, hard look at the American economic model and rejected it. The whole idea that Germany is ready to embrace American style capitalism is a fantasy. And it certainly doesn't take into account the German people themselves who have shown (like other Europeans) that they won't hesitate to take to the streets and rally in massive protests to defend their hard-won rights.

But I think a more fundamental question is this: does Germany really need to change its system at all? And for that matter, is Germany really the economic basket case that is portrayed in the U.S. media?

The answer is: absolutely not. It's time to take a look at just how powerful the German economy is today.

For a start, Germany is the world's largest exporter. That's right: Germany exports more than even China does. In fact, Germany has been the world's top exporter for most of the past five decades.

It's remarkable that Germany, with less than one-third America's population, is able to out-export the U.S. But even this doesn't tell the full story. The fact is, Germany's exports by and large consist of highly-sophisticated, capital-intensive products, ranging from machine tools to advanced chemicals to automobiles. By contrast, America's export numbers these days are heavily padded by the simple raw commodities that comprise much of our exports: items like timber, agriculture products and iron ore. Ominously for America, the latter are the sort of exports that Third World nations have long been known for.

Nor is Germany particularly under threat from the rise of China (unlike the U.S., which is currently in the midst of a panic attack over China's growing flood of exports). The fact is, Germany, along with Japan, has long specialized in the sort of sophisticated, capital-intensive products that have enormous entry barriers to would-be competitors. In short, despite its rapid rise, China is a long, long ways away from producing anything on the level of, say, a Porsche sports car.

For all the talk about China's rise to prominence, the fact remains that that nation is still heavily dependent on advanced manufacturing powerhouses like Germany to supply it with the building blocks of industrialization, (like factory production equipment and machine tools). Despite the fact that it floods the U.S. with exports, China actually runs an overall trade deficit these days.

Despite Germany's economic sophistication, many American commentors are always rambling on about how the U.S. is supposedly the world's "most competitive" nation. This makes me wonder what they could possibly mean by the word "competitive." The U.S. has the largest trade deficits of any nation in history. It seems to me that we're having a tough time making products that other nations wish to buy these days. So I really wonder how anyone could call us "competitive" at all.

Besides its export prowess, Germany shines in other ways as well these days. The nation has one of the world's strongest currencies in the Euro. And Germany is one of the largest capital exporters in the world (hardly the sign of a "weak" economy). Last but not least, the Germans are among the most highly paid workers in the world, (trailing only Switzerland).

Germany is also a vastly more egalitarian society than the U.S. The enormous (and growing) divide between rich and poor that plagues the U.S. simply doesn't exist in Germany. And Germany also gives a much higher percentage of its GNP to poor countries than the stingy U.S. does.

Let me see: an egalitarian nation that takes care of its poor people. A nation with generous social welfare programs. A nation that gives generously to poor countries. A nation that takes a leading role in world environmental issues and long ago abolished capital punishment.

Somehow, I get the feeling that if Christ returned today, he would look more favorably upon Germany than the U.S., a country that ignores its poor, lies to its people, embraces the death penalty, and celebrates gluttony and greed.

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