As if the pandemic hadn’t already caused enough horror, others are following suit. The vocabulary of fear ranges from war in Europe, rearmament and national debt to the energy crisis, wage-price spirals and inflation. All of this sounds like an echo from the first half of the 20th century. There is talk of the need to save and that society will be expected to do something that has not existed for a long time: loss of prosperity.
Prosperity was the greatest promise of the post-war republic in the West. When Ludwig Erhard invented his legendary slogan for the economic miracle in 1957, he was sitting in Bonn, hardworking, well-fed and smoking a cigar, as Economics Minister. “Prosperity for all,” he proclaimed, and seemed to embody that promise himself.
Peace, the Marshall Plan and recovery programs have brought tremendous blessings. Despite the multi-billion dollar restructuring of the former GDR, the Federal Republic became one of the richest industrial nations and one of the best welfare states in the world.
Is prosperity over for everyone? Does the big braking start now? Should everyone turn down the heating, put on sweaters, curb consumption? Such fears shake people, the obvious is threatened: warm apartments, vacations, cheap food. Problems are in the house, without question, even if they are not distributed equally on all floors.
Ludwig Erhard’s motto could be read as a democratic replica of the famous refrain from Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. “Only those who live in prosperity live comfortably!” it said in 1928, a biting criticism of those for whom three pennies meant nothing. “Peanuts” was what a banker later called it.
Even in the current crisis there are people, and there will always be people, for whom three or 300 euros are peanuts, and others for whom every cent counts. It is all the more important that politicians look at those who count cents.
The central task for overcoming the crisis is dealing intelligently with fear. It’s there and it’s entitled. But panicky reactions exacerbate economic crises all the more. Hardly anything is more damaging to the economy than jerky action. Collective fears also like to herald the hour of the populists. In Germany, fortunately, they are more likely to incite each other than the population against democracy.
But there are already reports that right-wing extremists are mobilizing for a “winter of anger”. It makes little sense, as Annalena Baerbock recently did, to warn against “popular uprisings” because of energy costs. In the meantime, the Foreign Minister has rowed back and described her statement as exaggerated.
It is constructive when Chancellor Olaf Scholz now announces that the coalition will help the citizens beyond the relief packages of 30 billion euros, including through a housing benefit reform and the planned citizen benefit, which is to replace the Hartz IV rates from January.
Realism, rationality and maximum responsible information are needed now. Educating about affective reactions is also part of prevention, emotionally, politically and economically. The motto of the crisis could be: a little less prosperity for a while, more taxes for the rich and a lot more courage and common sense for everyone.