On Basic Income: Interview with Götz Werner
Surprise! German Millionaire is super advocate for basic income

die tageszeitung - 2009

"This obsessed view of work is making us sick....
We don't need a right to work...
We need a right to income.
To an unconditional basic income ." [Grundeinkommen ]

Update: video interview with Götz Werner (english subtitles) (2012)
Götz Werner’s Latest Tenacious Endeavor (article 2012)

Götz Werner, founder of major drugstore chain (1700 stores), is one of the most influential advocates of basic income in Germany and has been the head of Cross-Department Group for Entrepreneurial Studies at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Interviewed by Jens König and Hannes Koch, published in 'taz' ("die tageszeitung). Translated to by Florian Piesche at 21st Century Digital Boy. Original German text on taz website.

Guaranteed income is a hot topic in Germany. Hopefully more of these discussions will be translated. This is a surprising interview because of Werner's visionary view of the current job system and his radical retorts to the usual arguments about lazy shirkers. It may also be surprising because there is the idea that those who will be most against a guaranteed income will be people in the top income classes. However, Werner is not only a super advocate for guaranteed income, he is also one of the top 500 richest people in Germany.

Note: Hartz IV referrs to Germany's current unemployment benefit system.

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taz: Mr. Werner, Germany has just been surprised by the realisation that there is an entirely new species on its social outskirts: the lower class, supposedly entirely lazy and antisocial. Many believe that if they continue receiving Hartz IV (the current variant of unemployment benefits in Germany -translator.) they'll never get their asses in gear. True or false?

Götz Werner: False. But man will think ill of man - not of himself of course, just the others. Elevating oneself above others is by principle an inhuman act. From the lower class it's a small step to subhumans.

taz: Who is to blame for this new scandal of poverty? The people concerned? The welfare state? Hartz IV?

GW: Let's put it like this: we've got more of an upper class problem than a lower class problem in Germany. The upper class is unable to think of society as a whole. It doesn't use its intellectual and financial capability to benefit the whole.

taz: Conservatives and social democrats demand harsher punishment for those unwilling to work.

GW: If I don't give space and freedom to a man, if I'm trying to harass and hassle them, then I'm being unjust. This was one of the goals of the French Revolution: equality! That means: meeting eye to eye, at the same level. Allowing others to have the same strengths and weaknesses as myself.

taz: People argue that many unemployed demand Hartz IV for themselves and their children as though it were a salary.

GW: We're living in a society of total external supply. Modern man does not manufacture for himself, he purchases. Everyone participating in this society is dependent on a steady income. Everyone needs a share. It might be very modest, but without it things don't work. I'm calling this the socio-osmotic principle: unless you add some sugar to the water, you can't extract the sugar from the beet.

taz: Participation as a human right?

GW: It's a basic requirement for a dignified life. The first article of the constitution says: Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority. (see article on Canadian Constitution and guaranteed income.)

taz: SPD (the German social democratic party -translator) fraction leader Peter Struck says that maybe the image of man the coalition had when introducing Hartz IV "may be too positive".

GW: Struck is either being cynical or ridiculing the unemployed.

taz: The conservative fraction leader Volker Kauder claims the government needs to demand more from the people. For example, he says, one could expect him to wait tables in the evening if he were unemployed.

GW: Yes, yes, people have to obey, have to do what the authorities, what the job office clerk demands of them. My God, the things politicians say! This sounds less like democracy and more like aristocracy. If I was a politician, my take would be: Sorry. I imagined Hartz IV differently. The reform was a mistake. Let's take a U-turn. Hartz IV causes nothing but human misery.

taz: You have once said "Hartz IV is a public prison regime. It takes rights and freedom. Hartz IV tortures people and destroys their creativity."

GW: This is still true. Is this what we imagined our free society to be? Authorities snooping on how the unemployed live? Hartz IV goes against the fundamental idea: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Hartz IV socially segregates people. It needs to be abolished.

taz: Whatever creates jobs is social, or so politicians say. No matter how it is paid. No matter if it fits the person. No matter if there even is enough work.

GW: Politicians still believe in the myth of full employment. They're quite intoxicated by it. But full employment is a lie.

taz: Does not everything depend on paid work nonetheless: welfare, identity, self respect, the feeling of being a part of something?

GW: No! This obsessed view of work is making us sick.

taz: Do we not become sick when we lose our work?

GW: Contradiction! We do not have a problem with unemployment.

taz: Excuse me?

GW: The problem is of a cultural nature. For the first time in over 5,000 years of human history, we live with a surplus. But we cannot handle this new reality. We are unable to have everyone profit from and share in it.

taz: Tell that to an unemployed person who wants nothing more than a decent job.

GW: The unemployed exist only because we use the concept of unemployment.   Most of the unemployed have work, it's not like they sit on the couch and watch TV all day. They are busy in their family, in other social work, in sports clubs. They are doing valuable work. Someone who cares for their children is much more valuable to society than someone twisting caps on bottles in the factory.

taz: Aren't you speaking over the heads of people who suffer from having lost their work and thus their inner foothold?

GW: These people are suffering because they are not being respected and accepted. Because they are being stigmatised by society, because they are supposedly useless. Work is only what creates a value. If a woman is raising three children, people ask her: are you working or are you at home?

taz: Minister of Work Franz Müntefering likes to quote the Bible and August Bebel: Those who do not work shall not eat.

GW: Müntefering is a few hundred years behind the times. He still lives in a society of self sufficiency, where everyone was working against the want of things. Back then it was true: those who did not tend to their crops were themselves to blame when they had nothing to eat. Nowadays, we live in a society of external supply. I cannot work just for myself. Whenever I work, I work for someone else. I need an income to take part in society.

taz: And here you show up and say: it is good when people don't have to work?

GW: I'm saying: we don't need a right to work, at least not to instructed, social security contributing salary work. It's no longer up to date. We need a right to income. To an unconditional basic income.

taz: You want to give 1,500 euros to every person. Just like that. Month by month. From birth to death.

GW: Yes. We need to give money to every person. A citizen income. The basic income needs to be enough to live modestly, but in dignity. It needs to be more than a minimum for existence - a minimum for culture.

taz: The government defines the Hartz IV baseline as a socio-cultural existential minimum. This amounts to 345 euros.

GW: In Karlsruhe, where I'm from, you can't live on that. Or anywhere else in Germany. Maybe in Zimbabwe.

taz: And your cultural minimum is 1,500 euros?

GW: No. I brought the 1,500 euros number up in an interview as a future vision. Introducing the basic income would be a step-by-step process. We could start at 800 to 1,000 euros for everyone.

taz: The same for everyone?

GW: The amount could be based on an age curve. Children could start off at a lower amount.

taz: But the rule is: no service in return, no obligation?

GW: That's it. A basic income without obligation. Just to acknowledge that everyone is appreciated as a part of society.

taz: The favourite question of sceptics is: who is going to pay for it?

GW: That's a generic question used to kill a point before even discussing it.

taz: Your basic income could cost a third of Germany's total economic power. Almost a trillion euros a year.

GW: The CDU-friendly (Germany's major conservative party -translator.) Konrad Adenauer foundation has just had calculations made for such a model. The "solidary citizen income", a basic income of 800 euros a month as Thuringia's (one of Germany's 16 federal states - translator.) minister president Dieter Althaus (CDU) is proposing, would cost about 600 billion euros a year - less than the country is spending on all current social services.

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