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2015 - The Year of the Final Crisis

"We are victims of an ideology of perpetual economic growth. This growth mania now collides with reality. Ideologies usually seem very normal. For a long time people believed they could pay ransom for their sins with letters of indulgence. Sicknesses, ruined families, auto accidents and thunderstorms promote growth without raising prosperity.."

Interview with Meinhard Miegel

[This interview published on June 3, 2009 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  link to www.faz.net.
Growth does not increase prosperity. We must reduce the level of our real economic output. Otherwise the next crisis threatens. Whole states totter, not only banks and corporations.]

Everyone speaks of crisis except you.

The term crisis is negatively charged. I see much that is positive in the present development. Behind us lies a phase in which many acted like drug addicts. Now we have the change of coming out of the swamp.

What was the drug?

Growth at any price has been the drug. Since genuine solid growth did not occur, huge mountains of foam arose. Now the bubbles burst and the mountain collapses. But be not afraid; this will not drive us to the poorhouse. We will only be brought to the level that corresponds to our real economic output.

When did this addiction begin?

The addiction began a long time ago. But it was truly frightening at the end of the 1970s. Stock market prices were evidence of this. For decades, they were very tranquil. Then they began to be feverish and ultimately became crazy. What happened in the last ten years had nothing to do with solid economics.

Now enormous tax money is building the next mountain of foam. What drives this is not normal any more. We should see ourselves as society, perhaps even as humanity. We have to take responsibility. The provision- and waste disposal capacities of the earth are not enough to allow the desired living standard of an exploding world population. We are victims of an ideology of perpetual economic growth possibilities.

You sound like Franz Alt in the 1980s.

Who am I to judge that? I have resisted stimulating growth. At that time and today growth was magnified all across the political spectrum. This growth mania now collides with reality.

But everyone sees recovery and green sprouts.

But what is the price of recovery? Only the big countries have prospects for credits, guarantees, lifesaving umbrellas and seven trillion dollars of tax money. However these funds are not really at hand. In the first crisis of this decade, businesses became shaky. In this crisis, businesses and banks are on the brink. In the next crisis that is now prepared, businesses, banks and states will totter. Only the dear God can open up lifesaving umbrellas.

Those who develop these concepts seem very normal.

Ideologies usually seem very normal. For a long time, people believed they could pay ransom for their sins. The poor farmer's wife gave coins to bring her deceased husband back from purgatory through a letter of indulgence. That was an ideology. All the actors operated very normally.

How would you describe ideology?

"Without growth, everything is nothing" - that can be read in a recent policy paper of the CDU (German centrist party). The whole weal and woe of society should depend on something no one can guarantee. Nothing functions without growth: paid work, social security, balanced public budgets and even democracy. Nothing functions without growth. What a reckless and foolhardy concept!

Is the crisis a salutary shock for you?

The crisis is an overdue letdown. Behind us lies a phase of intoxication. What is urgently needed is a grip. Some businesses, banks and states cannot turn out all right. They must come to a standstill in the huge debt mountains they have repressed for years. The artificial form of the money supply exceeds all powers of imagination. In the past thirty years, the global money supply soared forty-fold while the quantity of goods only increased four-fold. Where will the gigantic money surplus lead?

Many see a justice problem in the crisis. A few had several years of very good earnings and now must bear all the debts.

That is also a problem although the connections are often severely conflated. Property owners who resisted tax burdens have lost. A problem exists here.

For you, the growth of the last decades has a different quality than the growth in the first decades of the German republic.

Yes, prosperity has hardly increased. Sicknesses, ruined families, auto accidents and thunderstorms promote growth without raising prosperity. That kind of growth has dominated for some time. Everywhere there are repairs: more sick persons, children needing support and so forth. What is called greater prosperity today is increasingly only the attempt to remove debts that would not have even occurred with a more solid growth.

Would you say money does not make people happy?

Money makes people happy to a certain point. Persons who suffer want are clearly happier when that is diminished or even overcome. However it is a misconception to assume more and more money always makes people happier. The material needs of people are finite and can be satisfied. Then there are respect, power and the like. Life becomes increasingly difficult. In the 1960s, Ludwig Erhard recognized this when he declared increased material prosperity should no longer be in the limelight.

The Greens have preached this since time immemorial.

There are also growth fetishists among them.

What comes after this ideology? What comes after money?

Unfortunately our society does not have much to offer here! If one asks what makes a person more satisfied a car or the ability to speak a foreign language, most say a foreign language. This is also true in the comparison: big apartment or ability to play an instrument. The instrument makes one more content. But because of our ideology, these abilities give far less social respect than big apartments or giant cars. That is the crux of the matter. People have a natural need for respect and acknowledgment. If this can be gained more through material things, they will strive after then and start a vicious circle.

Could this change through the crisis?

That would be very nice. But I am not very confident when I see the nearly hysterical reactions to the economic decline. What is really so terrible if the economic volume in Germany falls back to the level of 2005? Those were not really times of abject poverty. No, our society is so geared for growth that modest backward steps are felt to be catastrophe. I am afraid many are not fit for crises any more.

And yet nearly all-responsible parties want to continue as fast as possible as in the past.

They do not want to abandon the dominant ideology, which is hard since they preached growth for decades. The non-appearance of growth would be terrible. I return to the seller of indulgences. One day he will tell the poor farmer woman, keep your money. Whether you buy my letter or not makes no difference for your deceased husband. Much more character is required.

Could this be the hour of culture?

Absolutely. We are now a completely monetarized society focused on growth. Everything else is subordinate to that. This has almost assumed manic features. For example, the minister of families declares a sustainable family policy strengthens economic growth and increases the urgently necessary profits. The significance of sports is judged according to its contribution to the gross domestic product. Education and art could be judged similarly. Time and again it is said: What do they contribute to increase our material prosperity? This is like the Middle Ages. At that time everything served theology. Now all things serve growth.

Are there countries where this ideology is less pronounced?

There are differences in degree. Even the socialist camp was obsessed with growth. Capitalism and socialism are hardly distinguished in their central promise of happiness and salvation: the creation of riches of material surplus. The tragedy of socialism was that it failed miserably in fulfilling this promise. Capitalism was far more successful but now also strikes its limits.

How can life continue?

The veal on the plates becomes smaller. Perhaps we do not enjoy it so much any more. Most can forego many things without even noticing. Then a fashion season or cell phone generation arises.

How will you bring your message of the end of growth ideology to people?

Reality gets hold of people. Reality interrupts people and life cannot go on as in the past.

Does fear trigger rethinking?

Uncertainty is key, not fear. Knowing about life in the past is one thing. But how should life continue? That is something else. All partners have essentially only one answer to this question: through growth. That is not enough. So much lack of imagination and ideas is alarming.

Unemployment figures are now rising for the first time.

Unfortunately, we have still not learned how to guarantee a satisfactory jobs situation under conditions of economic standstill or economic shriveling. How should life continue? Do we need two percent growth to maintain jobs during the next hundred years? Then seven times the current gross domestic product will be necessary in the not-too-distant future. These are crazy ideas and cannot be the basis of a sustainable policy.

Can you give an example for your envisioned change in lifestyle?

Our cities are examples. They are geared for production, consumption and transportation. All this is important but is not nearly enough. A city first of all must be a living space, a space in which people feel good, develop and communicate with one another. A city must offer public spaces where people spend their time. Everyone raves about northern Italian cities. Once we had something like that. One-way streets and shopping malls replaced it.

Whoever cannot buy anything and does not work is also excluded from the community.

That is the terrible reality. The quality of a society is measured by its ability to distinguish between individual esteem and economic status. One should not depend on the other. In earlier times, people were more advanced. Churches and cathedrals, once great luxuries, stood open to everyone, princes and beggars. Today there is constant weighing and measuring and woe to the one found too light. In sports, this has its strangest heyday: a hundredth of a second too slow and the game is over.

Then there is the problem of doping.

The whole society is doped. Society has long lost its inner balance, the balance between inner and outer wealth. Many cannot make heads or tails of inner wealth, that wealth first makes a person into a person. Rabbits and cows do not have this.

We hardly understand this.

People have no religions striving to maintain the balance of inner and outer wealth.

Do you find eager listeners?

Absolutely. Politics is by no means hard of hearing. Politics usually moves very slowly. That worries me. The time left for changing ways of thinking is short.

What do you mean?

The next challenge will be to survive in a few years. Some think something like the final crash will occur around the year 2015. Whether final or not, we should be prepared for truly radical far-reaching changes.


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