In Which I Admire Millions of Tiny German Lawsuits And Annihilate Several Canards About the Law

The U.S. is famous in Germany for its 'runaway' juries which hand down zillion-dollar lawsuits against poor defenseless companies. Yet, as I told my dumbfounded students, Germany is a far more litigious society than the USA. In fact, according to a book-length 1998 study, Germany is the most lawsuit-happy country on earth:

Country Cases per 1,000 Population

• Germany 123.2
• Sweden 111.2
• Israel 96.8
• Austria 95.9
• U.S.A. 74.5
• UK/England & Wales 64.4
• Denmark 62.5
• Hungary 52.4
• Portugal 40.7
• France 40.3

My German students were dumbfounded by this fact. Most of them got their image of the world from the mainstream press. And, as usual, German journalists tended to obsess over the real or imagined failings of other countries, while remaining ignorant of what was going on in their backyard.

But aside from the good clean fun of this tu quoque response, it's interesting to think about why Germany is so litigious. I think there are 4 main reasons:

  • Legal insurance (Rechtschutzversicherung). Millions of Germans have legal insurance policies that pay for lawyers both to file claims and defend against them. This insurance is affordable because litigation costs in Germany are low. Legal insurance is actually an excellent idea, every country in the world could benefit from widespread legal insurance. What it means in Germany, though, is that if you have a policy, you don't have to think twice about filing a lawsuit. Granted, the lawyer is not supposed to file if you don't have a claim, but many do anyway. Legal insurance also provides a lifeline for many small-time lawyers — they can patch together a decent livelihood by having a constant docket of 40-50 small time cases going on at any time. None of these cases will generate a huge verdict, but a steady stream of small payments is enough.
  • Lawsuits are a fact of life. Nobody really takes them seriously. If your landlord hikes your rent, you use your legal-insurance lawyer to fight it. The landlord uses their legal-insurance lawyer to defend. After all, if you don't sue, you'll certainly have to pay the extra 10% in rent. If you do sue, you might end up with a discount. The landlord would probably do the same thing in your position, and knows this.
  • Close neighbors make bad blood. Germany is a small country packed with people. Everything you do in public is going to have some effect on your neighbors. If a potted plant falls off your city balcony, it's going to hit someone or something below. If your cat likes to relieve themselves on your neighbor's lawn, they're going to notice. And might just take lethal action. Your barbecue smoke is going to trigger someone's asthma 5 houses down. The list goes on and on. Every German state has a long, complex "neighbor law" (here's the one (g) for my state), and many lawyers do nothing else. And once again, these petty squabbles are going to end up in court because it's so easy to go to court because of legal insurance. 

And finally, no lawsuit is too tiny. As Wagner once said, a German is someone who will always do something for its own sake. Which means Germans will file a suit over anything. Why, here's a story (g) from the excellent criminal-defense blog lawblog. Two retirees went fishing for deposit bottles in Munich, a favorite pastime of poor Germans, or just ones who need some way to fill their days in the fresh air.*

They approached a large man-sized glass-recycling container, whipped out their grabbers, and started fishing around inside the container. Recycling containers are supposed to be reserved for bottles which don't have a deposit on them, like wine bottles. But many people don't care or don't know how to tell a deposit from a non-deposit bottle, and just toss everything in.

Sure enough, our two hunters found 15 deposit bottles with a total value of € 1.44. Two other Germans, who were certainly feeling very German that day, called the police and reported the bottle-fishers for theft. Wait, what? Two people minding their own business, helping recycle glass, augmenting their puny incomes, harming nobody, and their fellow Germans report them to the cops? Welcome to Deutschland, my friends.

Now German prosecutors are obliged to investigate every credible accusation of crime that comes to their attention, the famous "Principle of Legality"**. This they did. The first thing they had to determine was what the value of the theft was. Technically, this was a theft — once you throw a glass bottle into a recycling bin, it becomes the property of the recycling company. So you might think that the amount of the theft was the deposit value of the bottles. But no! It turns out that the recycling company does not separate out deposit bottles from other ones. Scandalous, I know. So all the bottles just get melted down. The prosecutor asked the recycling firm how much value the bottles would have as recycling material, and the firm said: basically, it's too small to even put a number on.

At this time, the prosecutor chose to halt the proceedings (einstellen) based on the idea that there was no public interest in prosecuting the offenders. The writer at lawblog thinks this was the wrong reason to stop the prosecution — he thinks a better theory is to deny the people had any attempt to commit theft, because they had no intent to take possession of the bottles — their ultimate goal was simply to transfer them to a different owner. 

Be that as it may, the main thing to notice here is that several different government employees spent hours of their time and used considerable resources to investigate an accusation of a crime which, at the very most, involved the lordly sum of € 1.44. It's probably only a slight exaggeration to say that the German state spent 1000 times more money investigating the theft than it was actually worth in the first place.

Now, am I going to snigger about this? Of course I am, and so are you. But at the same time, I'm not going to go too far. The most important thing to keep in mind about high numbers of lawsuits is that they are an important sign of social health. In the vast majority of societies, lawsuits are prohibitively expensive and courts are woefully underfunded and corrupt, so nobody trusts them. Germans and Americans trust courts to usually resolve legal disputes in a fair and equitable manner, otherwise they wouldn't seek them out so often. They're right to do so; both the USA and Germany have exceptionally fair and efficient legal systems, despite their imperfections. A fair, professional, and generally non-corrupt legal system is one of humanity's most important achievements, full stop. Most countries don't yet have one. If you happen to live in a country which does, take a moment and thank your lucky stars. 

* You'd be surprised how many Germans decide they just don't fancy showing up to work anymore and having someone boss them around and tell them to do things. So they develop something hard to pin down, such as a bad back or burnout stress, hire a good employment lawyer, and presto! They're still technically employed in a certain sense, but they don't actually have to, you know, do anything. Everybody wins: their former employers are free of someone who wasn't really contributing, the employee has all the free time he wants, and most importantly, the government doesn't have to formally add this person to the unemployment rolls. Northern European welfare states are notorious worldwide for using a million different tricks to lower their official unemployment rate, and this is just one.

** Some German lawyers, or wanna-be lawyers, believe a lot of adorably misguided things about the principle of legality. If you begin talking about the American legal system, they will get up on their hind legs and begin intoning something like this: "Well, you see, in America most criminal cases are resolved by plea-bargains, where the defendant admits a crime — quite possibly not the one he actually committed — in return for a lighter sentence. This shows the irresponsible, frivolous gamesmanship of the system, where the objective truth of what happened can be bargained away as if justice were nothing more than a poker game. Here in Germany (string music starts swelling in the background), we believe in the principle of legality, which means the prosecutor must investigate all crimes and must prosecute based on the objective facts of what the defendant actually did."

It's at this point that I usually interject to point out that this speech is, not to put too fine a point on it, a crock of shit. First, German prosecutors are absolutely not obliged to bring every case to prosecution. As with all German legal principles, the principle of legality has a pragmatic loophole so big you could fit Saturn through it. A prosecutor is always permitted to "suspend" (einstellen) a prosecution if it is deemed a petty offence (§ 153, Criminal Procedure Code). Suspend is yet another German euphemism, it means the case is dropped. Although there may be a tiny theoretical chance of it being re-started, this basically never happens.

There are many other sections of the Code that permit the prosecution to suspend the investigation or to not bring charges on a variety of different grounds, the most frequently used being the prosecution's belief that bringing charges is "not in the public interest" for some reason. As you might guess, there are hundreds of stories of prosecutors suspending prosecution of high-powered or well-connected people for vague reasons. In fact, there's a whole book (g) ("Prosecution Unwanted!") about this, although it's not very convincing overall.

Also, if you believe plea bargains don't exist in Germany, I've got a bridge in Moscow I'd like to sell you. Even before plea bargains were legally allowed in Germany, it was common knowledge that prosecutors used their huge discretion to plea-bargain all the time. Like American prosecutors, German prosecutors are hopelessly understaffed, and the entire justice system would collapse if cases couldn't be resolved informally.

The practice became so notorious that eventually the federal legislature decided to stop pretending and legalize it. In 2009, it passed a law which, for the first time, legally recognized plea-bargaining in Germany. The law was full of procedural safeguards meant to ensure that the defendants' rights were respected and the principle of legality was not undermined. Would the law pass constitutional muster? The German Federal Constitutional Court held that it did, in 2013:

The Notary, Our Noble Master

Gardeavue

Watched this classic again last night. Lino Ventura plays a detective who subjects a wealthy local lawyer — suspect in the rape and murder of two young girls — to an hours-long interrogation in police headquarters. Lino Ventura intensely watchable as always with his Easter Island head and ludicrously gigantic hands. And Michel Serrault is perfectly cast as the clever, oleaginous yet despairing suspect. Romy Schneider, as his wife, is just plain Romy. She never really becomes anyone else no matter what role she plays, but you won't hear me complaining.

I first saw this movie years ago, before I was even a lawyer, in the U.S. Part of a Romy Schneider film festival. As I watched it again, a few memories of my earlier reaction to the movie came back. First of all, I remember being surprised when the detective tells the suspect that he can call a lawyer, but the lawyer is not entitled to meet him. "Whoa," I thought back then, "that's totally unconstitutional!" Which it would have been, in America.

The second cultural misunderstanding comes from the fact that everyone keeps mentioning that the suspect, Jérôme Martinaud, is a "notary". As an American, I said: "Who cares?" Yet this fact is mentioned several times, and the script calls attention to when and whether characters refer to the suspect as Master (Maître, the official designation for French lawyers and some other professionals). 

In fact, at the time I saw the movie, I was a notary, even though I didn't even have a college degree. In the U.S., the only function of a "notary public" is to put a stamp on official sworn documents. You just ask someone if the document is accurate, get them to sign it, and stamp it. Anyone over 18 who doesn't have a serious criminal record can be a notary. Anyone. You just fill out a form, pay a small fee, and bingo! you're in.

The situation is vastly different in Continental Europe, where notaries must be lawyers. Not only that, they benefit from an ancient privilege system that (1) requires dozens of different kinds of documents to be notarized, and (2) limits the overall number of notaries. This grants most notaries a regional monopoly, reducing competition and driving up costs. The Economist describes the cultural divide:

Notaries are important gatekeepers in many economies, in particular when it comes to establishing property rights—the bedrock of markets. At best, notaries are facilitators who, for instance, verify the identity of the signatories of contracts and the veracity of their statements. At worst, they are overpaid bureaucrats who delay the passage of simple transactions and bloat their cost.

By contrast, notaries are unknown in many common-law countries, such as Britain and its former empire, which take a more freewheeling approach to contracts. America is the odd country out: although its legal system is based on common law, it boasts 4.8m notaries, many part-time. Yet these exist mainly to satisfy America’s maddening appetite for stamps and seals, and have little in common with their highly qualified European namesakes. “They are butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers,” scoffs a European notary.

Both traditions have their drawbacks. In Europe notaries’ highly regulated work has made them the most prosperous of lawyers. Tax returns suggest that Italian notaries are paid better than any other professionals (though perhaps they are most honest about their earnings). A report in 2004 found that notaries made up 22 of Slovenia’s 100 highest earners. French ones are the most privileged of all, says Gisela Shaw, an expert on the profession. They can compete with solicitors to provide legal services. They may sell their practice when they retire.

A website on French property law notes:

With about 5,000 offices, 7,500 notaires and 40,000 assistants, the notarial profession has representation all over France and has an effective monopoly. The Notaire is the public official responsible for receiving all the "actes" and contracts to which the parties wish to confer the seal of authenticity, to assure their date, to hold them in trust and to deliver authentic copies of them.

The Notaire is under the authority of the Minister of Justice (Ministère de la Justice) and is appointed by decree. The Notaire's office (Etude) depends geographically on the area in which he lives.

So the status Jérôme enjoys result from the fact that he is a member of perhaps the most privileged group in French society: lawyers who have gained a coveted notary position. One of Jérôme's first lines of defense is that people are always starting rumors about him because they envy his wealth and social status, which explains why people are circulating unfounded rumors about his involvement in the murders.

It doesn't happen often, but there you have it: an instance in which comparative-law knowledge deepens your understanding of art!

Melania Wasn’t “Sad”, She was Slavic

During Donald Trump's inauguration, his Slovene wife Melania looked sober and serious most of the time. This has led Americans to believe she was sad, depressed, horrified, anguished, perhaps even trapped in an abusive relationship.

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What these slightly fatuous Americans don't understand is that the European conception of personal dignity and institutional respect demands that public figures taking part in official ceremonies look serious at all times. In Europe, there is no penalty for looking stiff, even scowling, during official ceremonies; that's expected. There can be a significant penalty for a smile, or for any sign of levity. So everyone plays it safe and refrains from all except fleeting smiles.

Let me make my point with pictures of Supreme Courts. First, the American:

US Supreme Court

By my count, we have a whopping six smiles: the entire back row (Sotomayor, Breyer, Alito, Kagan) and two in the front (Roberts and Kennedy). Justice Scalia, the balding Italian man sitting next to the black guy, is wearing a sort of half-smile. Justice Thomas, the black guy, is wearing an angry scowl, his resting face, which seems out of place in this photograph, but would be perfectly normal in Europe.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on the far right, seems to be cringing in terror. In fact, she seems to be looking at the same thing which has attracted Justice Thomas' attention. Maybe this photo was taken just seconds after the naked knife-wielding maniac broke into the photo studio screaming about CIA mind control: so far, only Thomas and Ginsburg notice him. Fortunately, he was tased by security before he could reach the Legal Minds.

Anyhoo, where was I? Oh right, facial expressions. Since Melania is Slovene, here's the Slovenian Supreme Constitutional Court:

Slovene

The first thing you notice about this official picture from the Court's website is how shitty it is. It's only 71 KB in size, and 60% of that is the surroundings. The picture is so crappy that if you zoom in to try to see whether any of the Justices are smiling, their faces devolve into pixelblurs. You get the definite impression that the Justices probably thought the entire idea of having their picture taken is a ridiculous waste of time, and tried to make it as unrevealing as possible. Nevertheless, I think we can still safely say: no open-mouthed smiles, possibly a mild expression of amusement on the woman in the center's face. That's all.

Bundesverfassungsgericht-senat_2

Here's the Second Senate of the German Federal Constitutional Court. Two open-mouthed smiles, the rest tight-lipped neutral expressions. Here's the First Senate:

Bvg_senat_1_2010

One open-mouthed grin. I can't even find a decent group photo of the French Court de Cassation (which has 85 members divided into a bunch of different groups), but the individual photos of the group leaders here (f) feature no open-mouthed smiles I can find.

And just to round things out, the European Court of Justice:

RTEmagicC_European-Court-of-Justice-Members-2013.jpg

A few smiles, a few scowls, but mostly neutral, purposeful expressions.

And in this particular respect, Slavs seem to be even more serious and scowly than Western Europeans. Here's the Polish Constitutional Tribunal:

Members-of-Polands-Supreme-Court

Being a Slav, as they say, is serious business.

So Melania wasn't "sad", you chirpy, fleering American flibbertygibberts. She was just showing respect by adopting a serious Slavic scowl.

Germans Ignore Dying Man in Bank Despite Law Telling them to Help

Inore

The police in Essen reported (g) on a case in which an 82-year-old man collapsed to the floor of a branch bank in Essen, Germany in early October. At least four people were seen on security cam footage simply walking over his body without offering help or calling an ambulance. The man was eventually taken to a hospital, where he later died. The police are now investigating these persons for failure to render assistance, which is a crime under German law. Section 323c of the Penal Code:

Whosoever does not render assistance during accidents or a common danger or emergency although it is necessary and can be expected of him under the circumstances, particularly if it is possible without substantial danger to himself and without violation of other important duties shall be liable to imprisonment not exceeding one year or a fine.

In common-law countries such as the United States, the law imposes no duty to rescue strangers. As long as you didn't cause the emergency and the bear no special duty to the victim (as a guest or relative, etc.), the law will not punish you for ignoring him. There are a number of justifications for this doctrine, both theoretical (you can't be held responsible for injuries you didn't cause), and moral (the state should trust its citizens to do the right thing uncoerced).

This is one of the most obvious differences between common-law systems and civil-law systems such as the ones in most European countries. When I was teaching, many of my German students professed to find the common-law doctrine shocking or cold-hearted. It's not hard to detect the attitude behind this: the still, small voice in every German's head which whispers: "Despite the recent unpleasantness, Germany is a more decent, moral, caring and sensitive society than all others in the world, except maybe Sweden, but at any rate definitely more caring and 'social' than the selfish, dog-eat-dog United States."

Am deutschen Wesen…*

The students assumed that the existence of a law requiring help made Germany a more caring place, and that it affected Germans' behavior toward one another. This is another typical German attitude — the notion that once a law has been passed to address a problem, the problem no longer exists.

Alas, I had to shatter their precious smugness idealism.

Studies show that 'duty to rescue' laws have no effect on whether people rescue their fellow humans in need. In the United States, where the law says you don't have to try to rescue people, a huge majority does exactly that, often risking their own lives:

As Table 3 reflects, there are approximately 1003 non-risky rescues (cell 2) and 263 risky rescues (cell 4) per year in the United States. Thus, verifiable rescues outnumber non-rescues by almost 800:1. If one loosens the standard for rescue only slightly, to encompass instances of rescue that were reported in a newspaper but did not pass initial screening by the Carnegie Hero Trust Commission, the ratio increases to approximately 1400:1.

Approximately 100 Americans lose their lives every year as a result of attempting to rescue someone else. Thus, even in the absence of a duty to rescue, deaths among rescuers outnumber deaths attributable to non-rescue by approximately 60:1 every year. Stated differently, there are six times as many rescuer deaths every year as there are deaths attributable to non-rescue in the past ten years combined.

Finally, injury is common among rescuers. Aggregate figures are unavailable, since most of the data sources did not separately track injury, but in those that did and as detailed below, a substantial percentage of risky-rescuers and a significant number of non-risky rescuers were injured – sometimes quite severely.

This isn't to say that Germans are more cold-hearted than Americans. Why, just five days ago, a staff member on a German Rhine cruise ship jumped into the cold water to rescue a woman who had fallen off a bridge into the Rhine (g).

The point is first, that law on the books, as usual, has little to do with what happens in the real world. Second, that laws drafted by tiny commissions staffed by elites (such as law professors) and then passed word-for-word by the national legislature do not necessarily reflect "the values of our civilization".

Points worth remembering!

*For German speaking readers, this short German phrase conjures up a universe of associations. For my non-German-Powered™ readers, here's a brief explanation. The words come from a paraphrase of a line in a 19th-century poem by the nationalist poet Emanuel Geibel: “Am deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen”. This roughly translates to "German values shall cure the world." I.e. shorthand for a particularly pompous notion of German national superiority.

This wasn't Geibel's original meaning. His original poem "Germany's Vocation" (from which the phrase is adapted), was meant as a rallying cry to the various small German-speaking principalities to unify themselves into a single German state. This unified state would then synthesize the best customs and political ideals of all the individual duchies and statelets into a new political organization capable of protecting German interests and encouraging healthy and moderate customs among the German people.

Ever since the phrase was misused by Kaisers and dictators, poor Geibel's been associated with German nationalism. This is the same fate as the phrase "Deutschland über alles" (Germany above all). It was originally a rallying-cry for German unification — i.e., let's stop putting the needs of our small local community first and unite to put the needs of the German-speaking peoples as a whole first, by unifying into a single, strong country.

So much misunderstanding of Germany comes from the fact that people don't know that modern Germany only emerged from a dizzying patchwork of small states into a national entity in 1871. And that this process took decades, was extremely controversial, and that the people in favor of unification were among the most progressive and liberal forces in society.

America: Politically Correct, and Politically Free

FT_16.10.15_Freedom-of-Expression

Pew research looks at the level of support for free speech across the globe and finds that it's highest (according to their measure) in the U.S.:

Enshrined in the Bill of Rights, free expression is a bedrock American principle, and Americans tend to express stronger support for free expression than many others around the world. A 38-nation Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2015 found that Americans were among the most supportive of free speech, freedom of the press and the right to use the internet without government censorship.

Moreover, Americans are much more tolerant of offensive speech than people in other nations. For instance, 77% in the U.S. support the right of others to make statements that are offensive to their own religious beliefs, the highest percentage among the nations in the study. Fully 67% think people should be allowed to make public statements that are offensive to minority groups, again the highest percentage in the poll. And the U.S. was one of only three nations where at least half endorse the right to sexually explicit speech. Americans don’t necessarily like offensive speech more than others, but they are much less inclined to outlaw it.

To get a summary measure of support for free expression around the world, we built an index based on five survey questions about free speech and three about free media. Using this measure, Americans emerge as the biggest supporters of free expression among the 38 nations studied. And unlike so many other issues in the U.S., wide open, free-ranging public debate has an appeal across party lines. There are relatively few differences between Democrats, Republicans and independents when it comes to free expression.

However, there are some important generational differences on this issue. For instance, 40% of U.S. Millennials think the government should be able to prevent people from making statements that are offensive to minority groups, compared with 27% of those in Generation X, 24% of Baby Boomers, and just 12% of Silent Generation Americans. Nonwhite respondents (38%) are also more likely to hold this view than whites (23%).

Apart from debates over whether offensive language should be legal, most Americans believe people are just too easily offended nowadays. In a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, 59% agreed with the statement “Too many people are easily offended these days over the language that others use,” while only 39% said “people need to be more careful about the language they use to avoid offending people with different backgrounds.”

Yet another stereotype of American society down the drain. Germans consider America to be the homeland of political correctness, the dastardly censorship of controversial views which is spreading like a virus into German society. This impression, like so many others, is created by selective German news coverage. Most Germans still unthinkingly rely on the mainstream media to decide what it's important to know about the United States.

Which they do, according to their own narrow, nearly-identical criteria, determined by the tastes and preferences of educated urban haute-bourgeois Germans. And they have decided, for reasons which would be interesting to know, that Americans are afflicted by the worst case of political correctness on the globe. Journos pounce on every story showing the excesses of politically-correct scolding in the United States. 

Yet what Pew shows us is that Americans likely have the highest tolerance for offensive speech of anyone in the world.

The problem here is one of definition. Political correctness as a tendency of private persons in civil society to denounce someone's remarks, or Halloween costume, or state flag as offensive. There is a lot of that sort of thing in the United States. And there is certainly some chilling effect on college campuses, which are full of people whose job is essentially to have opinions.

Yet in another way, America is much more free than all other nations on earth. The Constitution and American culture prevent the government from punishing offensive speech to a greater degree than anywhere else. In America, the government cannot pre-emptively stop a newspaper from printing offensive speech, or stolen secret documents. Publications generally cannot be seized after they're printed. Ordinary citizens may advocate violence, deny the Holocaust, use ethnic slurs, and espouse racism without fear of government intervention. (As long as these are words alone — you can still be punished for actions such as workplace discrimination or bias-motivated hate crimes). You can neither be punished by the government nor sued for money by a private citizen for an insult, not matter how vicious or crude it is. You can protest at the funeral of a soldier with signs which insult "fags" and say "Thank God for Dead Soldiers".

God-hates-fags

In almost all other countries on earth, any one of these actions or statements could expose you to criminal prosecution by the government or an order to compensate victims with money damages in civil court. Not in the U.S. And, as the Pew survey shows, the majority of Americans approve of this state of affairs. Even millennials, the most PC group of them all, are not clamoring for restrictions on free speech.

So in the United States, if you say something quite rude and non-PC, you may be castigated on Twitter and denounced by your audience.

If you say the same thing in many other countries, you could be hit with a government-imposed fine or civil damages verdict. Perhaps even a prison sentence.

The amount of politically-correct scolding in a country has no relation to the level of genuine freedom of expression. After all, politically-correct scolding is freedom of expression. The U.S. is a hotbed both of political correctness and of free speech.

After Hillary Wins

For those of you interested in the current election, Kevin Drum maps out what will happen after Clinton wins in November, which is now all but a certainty:

  • The Republican Party will completely disown and repudiate Donald Trump….

  • With few other choices around, Paul Ryan becomes the undisputed leader of the Republican Party.

  • After the election Republicans will do their usual "autopsy," and it will say the usual thing: Demographic trends are working against them, and they have to reach out to non-white, non-male voters if they don't want to fade slowly into irrelevance. In the last 25 years, they've won two presidential elections by the barest hair's breadth and lost the other five—and this is only going to get worse in the future.

  • Hillary Clinton will remain the pragmatic dealmaker she is. And despite the current bucketloads of anti-Hillary red meat that Republicans are tossing around right now, most of them trust her to deal honestly when it comes to political bargains.

This means that the next four years depend entirely on Paul Ryan. So what will he do? I maintain that this is a very open, very interesting question.

I've gotten some pushback lately for a couple of posts where I've gone soft on Ryan. But here's the thing: when it comes to Ryan's budget policies, I have nothing but contempt for him. Here's a typical post of mine from a few years ago, and there are plenty more just like it. But it's foolish to insist that simply because someone disagrees with my politics they're either stupid or irredeemably evil. Ryan is neither.

So what will Ryan do? One possibility, of course, is that he'll take the simplest route: endless obstruction, just like 2009. Republicans may be a divided party, but one thing they all agree on is that they hate Hillary Clinton and they want to prevent her from doing anything.

But there's another possibility. Ryan is not a racial fearmonger. He's always been open to immigration reform. He's consistently shown genuine disgust for Donald Trump. He's been open to making low-key deals in the past. He's smart enough to know precisely the depth of the demographic hole Republicans are in. And despite being conservative himself, he may well realize that the GOP simply can't stay in thrall to the tea party caucus forever if it wants to survive….

It's also possible that he wants to run for president in 2020, and if that's the case he'll do better if he has some real accomplishments to show over the next four years. Running on a platform of scorched-earth obstruction might get the tea partiers excited, but that's not enough to win the presidency.

So maybe Ryan decides that now is the time to try to reform the Republican Party. Once he wins the speakership again, he makes clear to the tea partiers that they're finished as power brokers: he's going to pass bills even if it means depending on Democratic support to do it. He reaches out to women and minorities. He passes immigration reform. He makes sure that budgets get passed and we don't default on the national debt. He works behind the scenes with Hillary Clinton in standard horsetrading mode: she gets some things she wants, but only in return for some things conservatives want.

This could go a long way toward making him the next president of the United States. If he plays his cards right, Clinton might suffer with her base for selling them out on some of the deals she makes. Ryan will get the tea partiers under control and have some accomplishments to run on. He'll soften the nonwhite disgust with the party enough to pick up some minority votes. Maybe the economy helps him out by going soft in 2019. And he's already got good looks, youth, and an agreeable speaking style going for him.

So which Paul Ryan will we get in 2017? The movement conservative who breathes fire and insists that Hillary Clinton will never get one red cent for any of her satanic priorities? Or a conservative but realistic leader who's willing to make deals as a way of bringing the Republican Party back from the brink of destruction that Donald Trump has led them to?

The one thing Drum leaves out is that if Ryan takes the pragmatic approach, the Republican party could split into the Chamber of Commerce and Trump/Tea Party factions. The odds against this are still very heavy, since everyone knows that splinter parties quickly fade into irrelevance in America's two-party, first-past-the-post system.

But if each splinter party believes it has a genuine chance of winning (i.e., taking over a 'reconstituted' Republic Party after the civil war), they might just do it. And if that happens, all bets are off. There would surely be a push to change the American political system to make it more friendly to smaller parties.

However, this would be considered a radical change. Further, the American constitutional system would have to be changed to create a genuine Parliamentary system, and there's zero support for that. But the US system could easily be made more flexible right now, as 2004 candidate Howard Dean explained in a recent New York Times editorial:

It’s as easy as 1-2-3. Voters have the option to rank the candidates from first to last, and any candidate with a majority of first choices wins, just as in any other election. But if no candidate has a majority, you hold an “instant runoff” tally in order to compare the top two candidates head to head. Candidates in last place are eliminated, and their backers’ votes are counted for their next choice. When it’s down to two, the winner earns a majority of the vote.

…. Ranked-choice voting represents the latter — and better — approach. Voters can support their favorites while still voting effectively against their least favorite. Having more competition encourages better dialogue on issues. Civility is substantially improved. Needing to reach out to more voters leads candidates to reduce personal attacks and govern more inclusively.

Some critics suggest it’s a crutch for independents and minor parties because they can compete without being spoilers and may earn invitations to more debates. Others suggest it’s a trick to make it harder for third parties to win. But the reality is that everyone would need to accept the challenge of being responsive to more voters. That’s a challenge that many major party backers like me are eager to embrace.

This would enable a kind of strategic voting in American elections. It would also foster a sort of coalition-building process during the election, as candidates who can't get a majority of first-place votes reach out to other parties for second-place votes. Whether this would genuinely improve civility remains to be seen. I actually think it might, and would support it.

A Fine Article About Justice in Texas

I’ve been hard on many German journalists who report on the USA. Sometimes tough love, sometimes tough hate! The cardinal sin of German reporters is not getting facts straight and not correcting mistakes even after I or someone else points them out.

The venial sin – by no means limited to coverage of the USA – is telling us what they think about everything they report. I know you have a lot of profoundly civilized feelings about guns or prisons or the death penalty or racism, Maximilian or Felicitas, but they don't interest me. I neither know nor care very much who you are. Tell us what you saw and heard, not what you think about it, and certainly not what you think we should think about it.

That’s why it’s a pleasure to recommend this fine in-depth piece (g) by Andreas Ross about a ‘drug court’ in Dallas, Texas. The point is to single out those criminals whose basic problem is drug addiction, and to divert them into an alternative program designed to keep them straight and out of jail. It’s still pretty strict – participants have to pass constant random drug tests and can be summarily thrown in jail if they mess up – but it’s been effective. And keeps people out of Texas prisons, which have a deservedly awful reputation. The author drills down into the subject, lets people speak for themselves, and stays in the background, where you always find the best reporters.

Well done!

The US Model for Accepting Refugees: Selective & Secure

The current German model of refugee resettlement is to permit hundreds of thousands of unknown people into the country with, in 75% of the cases, no verified information about their background. The selection process is the following: Germany lets in whoever was physically able to travel, rich enough to pay smugglers, and early enough to make it into Germany before the countries around it closed their borders.

Everyone else — most likely including hundreds of thousands of people now headed for the fences and checkpoints of Southeastern Europe — is out of luck.

There is another way — I'm tempted to say the grown-up way. Here is an official US government document (pdf) explaining how the United States selects refugees for resettlement:

According to UNHCR’s latest statistics, there are approximately 10.5 million refugees in the world. The vast majority of these refugees will receive support in the country to which they fled until they can voluntarily and safely return to their home country. A small number of refugees will be allowed to become citizens in the country to which they fled, and an even smaller number — primarily those who are at the highest risk — will be resettled in a third country. While UNHCR reports that less than 1 percent of all refugees are eventually resettled in third countries, the United States welcomes more than half of these refugees, more than all other resettlement countries combined.

When UNHCR — or, rarely, a U.S. Embassy or a specially trained nongovernmental organization — refers a refugee applicant to the United States for resettlement, the case is first received and processed by an Overseas Processing Entity (OPE). The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) works with international and nongovernmental organizations to run eight regional OPEs around the world. Under PRM’s guidance, the OPEs process eligible refugee applications for resettlement in the United States.

Some refugees can start the application process with the OPE without a referral from UNHCR or other entity. This includes close relatives of refugees already resettled in the United States and refugees who belong to specific groups set forth in statute or identified by the Department of State as being eligible for direct access to the program.

The OPEs collect biographic and other information from the applicants for security screening. The security screening ensures that terrorists and/or criminals do not enter the United States through the refugee program. Officers from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) review all the information that the OPE has collected and also have a face-to-face interview with each refugee applicant before deciding whether to approve him or her for resettlement in the United States.

When a USCIS officer approves a refugee for admission, the next step is a medical screening to identify medical needs and to ensure that people with a contagious disease, such as tuberculosis, do not enter the United States. Finally, the OPE requests a “sponsorship assurance” from a U.S.-based resettlement agency that is experienced in providing assistance to newly arrived refugees. All refugees are offered a brief U.S. cultural orientation course prior to departure for the United States. The total processing time varies depending on an applicant’s location and other circumstances, but the average time from the initial UNHCR referral to arrival as a refugee in the United States is generally from eight months to one year.

So, people are interviewed near where they are, their needs are evaluated, priority is given to the most vulnerable, and they are carefully screened to ensure the safety of US citizens.

It may not be the perfect model for refugee resettlement, but it's certainly much more controlled, rational, and secure than what Germany is doing now.

German Prisons ‘Astonish’ American Visitors

A delegation of Americans just visited several German prisons this year and came back impressed:

Earlier this summer, we led a delegation of people concerned about the United States criminal justice system to visit some prisons in Germany and observe their conditions. What we saw was astonishing.

The men serving time wore their own clothes, not prison uniforms. When entering their cells, they slipped out of their sneakers and into slippers. They lived one person per cell. Each cell was bright with natural light, decorated with personalized items such as wall hangings, plants, family photos and colorful linens brought from home. Each cell also had its own bathroom separate from the sleeping area and a phone to call home with. The men had access to communal kitchens, with the utensils a regular kitchen would have, where they could cook fresh food purchased with wages earned in vocational programs.

But for all the signs of progress, truly transformative change in the United States will require us to fundamentally rethink values. How do we move from a system whose core value is retribution to one that prioritizes accountability and rehabilitation? In Germany we saw a potential model: a system that is premised on the protection of human dignity and the idea that the aim of incarceration is to prepare prisoners to lead socially responsible lives, free of crime, upon release.

The process of training and hiring corrections officers is more demanding in Germany. Whereas the American corrections leaders in our delegation described labor shortages and training regimes of just a few months, in the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, less than 10 percent of those who applied to be corrections officers from 2011 to 2015 were accepted to the two-year training program. This seems to produce results: In one prison we visited, there were no recorded assaults between inmates or on staff members from 2013 to 2014.

In Germany, we found that respect for human dignity provides palpable guidance to those who run its prisons. Through court-imposed rules, staff training and a shared mission, dignity is more than legal abstraction.

The question to ask is whether we can learn something from a country that has learned from its own terrible legacy — the Holocaust — with an impressive commitment to promoting human dignity, especially for those in prison. This principle resonates, though still too dimly at the moment, with bedrock American values.

At conferences the question often comes up whether the dedication to 'inviolable' human dignity that starts the German constitution has real meaning. The prison example shows it does, in my opinion. Nevertheless, many English and American lawyers claim that human dignity is not a meaningful legal value. Justice Thomas, a black conservative justice who voted against gay marriage, explained:

Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which this Nation was built.

The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.

One American law professor even cautioned readers concerning the 'danger' of human dignity:

The word dignity eludes narrow definition, or for that matter, any generally agreed upon definition. The Court itself has not provided a clear definition of dignity. One scholar, William A. Parent, declares, “[D]ignity is to possess the right not to be arbitrarily and therefore unjustly disparaged as a person.” In another article on “the Jurisprudence of Dignity,” Leslie Meltzer Henry writes that there is no single definition, but that dignity includes various conceptions including institutional status, equality, liberty, individual integrity, and collective virtue. She concludes, “dignity’s conceptions and functions are dynamic and context-driven.”

If dignity is defined so elastically, then conservatives judges might invoke it to strike down not only gun-control laws, but also other progressive legislation. Libertarian groups invoked the “sweet-mystery-of-life” my [sic] language in Casey to argue that the Obamacare healthcare mandate unconstitutionally violated the dignity and autonomy of Americans by forcing them to buy health insurance. In the future, cigarette smokers might argue that anti-smoking bans violate their ability to create an individual identity. And conservative Christian wedding photographers could claim that anti-discrimination laws compelling them to photograph gay weddings violate their dignity and ability to define themselves as conservative Christians. What courts would do when confronted with the clashing dignitary rights of the religious wedding photographer and the gay couple, or the hunter and the victim of gun violence, is anyone’s guess, because dignity is such an abstract concept that its boundaries are difficult to discern.

I find the different attitude toward 'dignity' pretty interesting and have written about it in a few contexts, but I'll spare you the boring details. It's the kind of issue that, to do it justice, requires you to lay down a bunch of ground rules, collect historical examples, and carefully delimit your claims with a bunch of caveats. In other words, to write like a boring academic. If that doesn't deter you, head on over to my academia.edu page. But don't say I didn't warn you. 

Socialists Against Open Borders

Bernie Sanders is the U.S. Senator from Vermont, and a self-declared 'democratic socialist'. Until very recently, that label was about as successful in US politics as 'unrepentant pederast'. But now Sanders is running for the Democratic presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton. Although he has almost no chance of winning it, he is attracting huge crowds and plenty of attention, and is clearly forcing Clinton to the left. Sanders is easily the most left-wing serious candidate for a Presidential nomination in at least 15, if not 50 years. He would certainly be my choice for President.

And he's strongly against open borders:

Ezra Klein

You said being a democratic socialist means a more international view. I think if you take global poverty that seriously, it leads you to conclusions that in the US are considered out of political bounds. Things like sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders. About sharply increasing …

Bernie Sanders

Open borders? No, that's a Koch brothers proposal.

Ezra Klein

Really?

Bernie Sanders

Of course. That's a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States. …

Ezra Klein

It would make a lot of global poor richer, wouldn't it?

Bernie Sanders

It would make everybody in America poorer —you're doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don't think there's any country in the world that believes in that. If you believe in a nation state or in a country called the United States or UK or Denmark or any other country, you have an obligation in my view to do everything we can to help poor people. What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don't believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country, I think we have to do everything we can to create millions of jobs.

You know what youth unemployment is in the United States of America today? If you're a white high school graduate, it's 33 percent, Hispanic 36 percent, African American 51 percent. You think we should open the borders and bring in a lot of low-wage workers, or do you think maybe we should try to get jobs for those kids?

I think from a moral responsibility we've got to work with the rest of the industrialized world to address the problems of international poverty, but you don't do that by making people in this country even poorer.

Ezra Klein

Then what are the responsibilities that we have? Someone who is poor by US standards is quite well off by, say, Malaysian standards, so if the calculation goes so easily to the benefit of the person in the US, how do we think about that responsibility?

We have a nation-state structure. I agree on that. But philosophically, the question is how do you weight it? How do you think about what the foreign aid budget should be? How do you think about poverty abroad?

Bernie Sanders

I do weigh it. As a United States senator in Vermont, my first obligation is to make certain kids in my state and kids all over this country have the ability to go to college, which is why I am supporting tuition-free public colleges and universities. I believe we should create millions of jobs rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and ask the wealthiest people in this country to start paying their fair share of taxes. I believe we should raise the minimum wage to at least 15 bucks an hour so people in this county are not living in poverty. I think we end the disgrace of some 20 percent of our kids living in poverty in America. Now, how do you do that?

What you do is understand there's been a huge redistribution of wealth in the last 30 years from the middle class to the top tenth of 1 percent. The other thing that you understand globally is a horrendous imbalance in terms of wealth in the world. As I mentioned earlier, the top 1 percent will own more than the bottom 99 percent in a year or so. That's absurd. That takes you to programs like the IMF and so forth and so on.

But I think what we need to be doing as a global economy is making sure that people in poor countries have decent-paying jobs, have education, have health care, have nutrition for their people. That is a moral responsibility, but you don't do that, as some would suggest, by lowering the standard of American workers, which has already gone down very significantly.

You Cannot Film the Police in Germany

The German press is fascinated and disturbed by videos of American police using excessive force, like the one above.

Why do these videos exist? Because in the United States, it is every citizens' constitutional right to film the police doing their job unless they are interfering with police work:

Taking photographs and video of things that are plainly visible in public spaces is a constitutional right — and that includes the outside of federal buildings, as well as transportation facilities, and police and other government officials carrying out their duties.

Police often tell people to stop filming, but those cops don't know the law. Unless the videos are obscene, you can post those videos to the Internet with full constitutional protection, and that's exactly what people do. They are then played over and over on German websites.

Can you film cops arresting people in Germany and then post that video straight to the Internet? The short answer is: absolutely not. The somewhat longer answer is: Sure, you can do it, but you could well be sued for tens of thousands of Euro, and have to wait for a court decision about whether the public interest in publishing the video was stronger than the privacy rights of the people displayed.

The crucial background to know about this issue is that German law gives people powerful protections over the use of their own image and voice and the protection of their privacy — legal protections which most Germans appreciate, and which don't exist to anywhere near the same extent in the US. The question then becomes whether police officers doing their jobs in public enjoy these same protections. Many German courts have held that they do.  

Marvin Oppong, a journalist for the 'torial' (g) blog in Germany who wanted to film his own questioning by police decided to look into the matter in detail. He interviewed several lawyers nad journalists. Here's a summary of what he learned:

  • Can you take pictures of the police? German courts are all over the place on this issue. Some say this is basically allowed in public spaces. It also depends on where. Inside buildings such as train stations you may be prohibited from doing so because of station rules. According to other decisions, the police can also request that you delete the photos or promise not to distribute them in any way or they will sue civilly. 
  • Can you video record your own encounters with the police? Yes, unless it interferes with their work. However, you may face civil or criminal liability if you distribute the results in any way without the officers' consent, since they have a right to control the distribution of their own image. Recording their voices is only permissible in a 'completely open and public' situation. If that is not the case, then simply recording their voices is actually a crime bringing up to three years' imprisonment. You read that right: if the situation is not deemed public (whatever that means), merely recording someone's spoken words is itself a crime. If the policeman knows you are recording his voice and doesn't object, that may be a defense. 
  • Can you publish photos and videos of a police encounter on the Internet? No: German courts have held that publishing videos of a police officer's conduct on the internet creates a 'pillorying' effect that violates the police officer's right to the protection of his personality (Persönlichkeitsrecht in German). This is so even though you are filming the officer doing his or her job in public. You may be able to publish general photos of public events, but a photo that clearly focuses in on one officer will violate that officer's right to control over the distribution of their own image. Which means you will need the officer's permission to publish it.
  • Can police ask you to identify yourself if they see you filming them? Basically, yes. They can also bring you to the police station for questioning if you don't have any personal ID with you.
  • Are the rules different for journalists? Possibly. If they are filming an incident of public importance, they may be able to claim that their right to do their job outweighs the officers' rights.

So, to sum up: if you are a private citizen and see German police officers engaging in questionable conduct in public and post a video of that in the Internet — as Americans do hundreds of times every day — you will enter a legal minefield of contradictory court precedents. You will probably expose yourself to tens of thousands of euros in damages as well as possible criminal prosecution. Your only hope is if a court, in your specific case, finds that the public interest served by your publishing the video outweighed all of the restrictions German law places on taping and photographing people. Even police officers doing their job in public.

‘Other People’s Indians’ and Germany’s Minority-Filled Prisons

In one of his essays from the 1976 book Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision, Czeslaw Milosz reminisces about the 19th-century American novelist Thomas Mayne Reid. Reid wrote Western novels which became popular after they were translated into Russian, and is probably still more famous in Eastern Europe than in the USA. Milosz noted a curious fact: Reid's novels contained matter-of-fact scenes in which European Americans slaughtered and multilated American Indians and vice-versa — but when it came to the fate of Montezuma at the hands of the perfidious Papist conquistadores, Mayne penned a gushing tribute to the nobility of the hapless Aztecs. Milosz notes in an aside: 'as often happens, Reid loved Indians, but only “their” Indians.'

'Other peoples' Indians': The tendency to attribute poor integration of minorities in other countries exclusively to the majority's racism, but the poor integration of minorities in your country to deficiencies among the minorities. And the OPI effect is alive and well. Let's take an example. Here's a graph of the percentage of foreigners (adapted from statista) among the prison populations in a variety of European countries:

Untitled

Switzerland tops the list with a whopping 74.2%. Yes, you read that right: 74.2% of the people in Swiss prisons are not Swiss. Germany is nowhere near as skewed; only 27.9% of its prisoners are foreigners. But keep in mind that German only counts foreign nationals in its prisons. If you are of Turkish or Moroccan ancestry but have a German passport, you are not included.

If you define an ethnic minority in Germany the way most legal systems do — someone whose external appearance is different from the native population and who has been the victim of discrimination by the majority native population — then the number of ethnic minorities in German prisons, I am sure, would be at least 50%. There are no reliable statistics I have yet seen to prove this, because Germany doesn't keep them (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil). But I've visited many German criminal courts, talked to cops, prosecutors and defense lawyers, and been to German prisons. Everybody recognizes the vast over-representation of ethnic minorities in German prisons as an everyday fact of life that only the most reality-resistant Green Party ideologue would ever contest. I am happy to be corrected on this, but nobody has so far succeeded.*

So, Germany's prisons are filled with a disproportionate number of ethnic minorities, just as America's prisons are. Now is where things get interesting. Why is that the case? Here is the explanation you will find in the average German newspaper:

  • Blacks and certain other minorities are over-represented in American prisons. It is inconceivable that this could be the product of higher rates of violent crime among American blacks. The reason for this over-representation must be discrimination in the American justice system. [Illogical but frequent further conclusion:] Therefore, America is an irredeemably racist society.
  • Ethnic minorities are over-represented in German prisons. Since there is no racial discrimination within the German criminal justice system, which is staffed by honorable professionals, these conviction rates reflect reality: minorities commit crimes that get you in prison more frequently than ethnic Germans commit them. This is because minorities tragically fail to adapt properly to German society, despite the noble efforts we Germans make to help them. [Illogical but frequent further conclusion:] The fact of their crime rates must be concealed and obfuscated as much as possible, since it could feed into right-wing stereotypes of 'criminal' immigrants.

I could find dozens of examples to back up these narratives, but since we all know that, I'll just skip it. I will point to an interesting counter-example, though, from Focus of all places: in an article about German prisons, the author notes (g) quotes an expert and a study showing that German judges gave noticeably longer sentences for the same crime when the offender had a Turkish name rather than a German one. But that's still the exception.

* To add an unnecessary caveat, the mere fact that minorities are over-represented in prisons does not mean that the average ethnic minority has criminal tendencies. In a blessedly low-crime society such as Germany, the fact that crime rates are higher among minority communities is consistent with the vast majority of those minorities being law-abiding citizens.