Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Poverty and Secret Police

The municipal bureaucracies of both Berlin and New York are receiving makeovers for the New Year. On Monday Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a new $150 million initiative to fight poverty that will focus two-thirds of its funds on brainstorming incentive-based programs to increase financial literacy, while cutting out programs over time that appear ineffective. With an assumption that built-in feedback-loops will allow for continual self-improvement, this entrepreneurial approach sounds like it has learned something from the Silicon Valley 80-20 mentality: throw a product out when it is 80% finished and work on the last 20% when the problems become apparent. (Witness eBay or Gmail.)

Of course, the question of whether success and failure are as easily and quickly measured in the social sector as they are in the economic sector might throw a wrench in the works, but on the other hand, it might not. Bloomberg is employing hard-core managers and capitalists to design this program and presumably they will bring their knowledge of how to measure success in diverse environments with them.

This kind of capitalistic improvisation would most likely never fly in well-planned and relatively big-government Germany, perhaps partially because the welfare system in place is less likely to let citizens fall through the cracks into abject poverty and give rise to its own need for creative solutions. Yet there are recent signs that the Berlin government is performing an official version of looking in the mirror and asking itself, “Do I look too fat?” Following a recent study that compared Berlin to other cities in Germany and found its bureaucracy comparatively bloated and unnecessary, there have been rumors that up to a third of public servants could fall under the knife. Mayor Klaus Wowereit has begun the hack job by eliminating, among other appointments, the storied position of Culture Senator and folding it into his own office.

To explain to those confused New Yorkers who know from Hilary what “carpet-bagging” means but don’t understand what a Culture Senator is: someone in this position is an official government cheerleader for the arts, a representative different artistic community members can approach as well as somehow who has a certain say in how funds are used. The Culture Senator also enjoys the privilege of attending the big art-world debuts, monument dedications, and so on, such that when Wowereit took over the post, one Berliner Zeitung columnist seriously lamented “Thomas Flierl [the previous senator] barely made it to all the museum openings; how will the Mayor ever find time?”

Perhaps more interesting than worries that a figurehead won’t be present to anoint cultural offerings with a sprinkle of civic approval are the new accusations against employees of the Stasi-Documentation-Office [Stasi-Unterlagenbeh├Ârde] that handles the mountains of paperwork left behind by the demise of the East German Ministerium f├╝r Staatssicherheit. It has recently come to light that more than fifty employees of the Stasi Documentation Office [BStU for short] used to work for the Stasi itself, as a consequence of one official accusing them of hindering the work of the office. These workers, however, cannot legally be fired from a position for which they might be essentially inappropriate; they can only be shuffled around within the massive Stasi-paperwork-sorting bureaucracy, a bureaucracy with apparently very close ties to the past. For example, former GDR government employees heard to be making snide remarks about civil rights activists cannot be released, but must rather be assigned a different task. Here is a bureaucracy that sounds in desperate need of a trim.

Perhaps, though, in his dual role as Mayor and Culture Senator, Wowereit can take a stand against historical revisionism of the sort expressed by Almuth Nehring-Venus, member of the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) the successor party to the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) which ruled East Germany until 1990. Recently Nehring-Venus explained in a speech at an exhibition opening that, “Stalin admittedly wanted to model Germany after his own image..[but]…the Soviet Union long [strove for] a united Berlin and Germany.” This discussion caused political opponents to call for her resignation, which seems sensible, since she clearly needs time off to open a history book and read about the Soviet Berlin blockade and airlift as well as the Soviet-constructed Berlin Wall. (For more on historical revisionism see post Nov. 27).

Nehring-Venus gave this speech in her capacity as the City Representative for Culture, Economy and Urban Development of Pankow, one of Berlin’s districts. While one Stalin apologist doesn’t imply the whole lot of public servants are rotten, it does make one more sympathetic to the prospect that Berlin’s bureaucracy be trimmed a bit. That is, tax dollars are going to Nehring-Venus with trust that her perspective and capabilities bring added value to the city’s cultural landscape. That seems pretty dubious.

In conclusion, the two metropolises, one on the Hudson and one on the Spree, are now seeking decidedly different bureaucratic strategies. While in New York, Bloomberg has identified failures in the social system and responded by creating more municipal offices and jobs, in Berlin it may be high time for the opposite to be done: in response to failures of the social system, Wowereit has begun to identify where it is time to cut back and eliminate offices. He could go further, removing particularly those offices where individuals are paid to assess culture rather than exclusively perform objectively beneficial work.

Image of Bloomberg courtesy Office of the Mayor.

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