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John Riceburg: Five reforms to bring Germany out of the Middle Ages

Ask American expats like me what we like about Germany, and most of us won't have to think for long. But having settled in, one starts to notice things that can seem downright medieval.

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Photo by Heribert Pohl (Flickr CC)

John Riceburg is currently lying on a beach somewhere in crisis-ridden Southern Europe. Before he left, he sent us this letter…

Ask any member of the American expat community what we like about Germany, and most of us won’t have to think for long: Health care, public transport and science education all seem to work (give or take).

But having settled in, one starts to notice things that seem downright medieval. Here’s my list of Germany’s top five legal anachronisms. In the tradition of Mark Twain’s suggestions for improving The Awful German Language, I’d like to think of this as some more friendly American advice.

1. Stop giving tax money to the church

Every modern country is based on the separation of church and state, right? Well, the German state collects a Kirchensteuer (a church tax) from every member of the the Katholische or the Evangelische Kirchen. They take an amount equivalent to 8-9 percent of your income tax right out of your paycheck. Theoretically this is all voluntary, but many people are signed up at birth. If you want to get out of this racket, you might be forced to pay up to €60! In this way, the Catholics get €5.2 billion a year and the protestants €4.6 billion (2012 statistics).

It’s no problem if the churches need cash (“God is all-powerful, he just can’t handle money!” – George Carlin), but they should have to collect it themselves!

2. Drop the multi-tiered school system

Most of Germany’s universities are mostly free (which is great). But to go to university, you need the Abitur or an equivalent. Students are sorted into different kinds of schools when they’re only 10, 11 or 12 years old. Only those that get selected for the vaunted Gymnasium have a real chance to go to college – all others have at best a rocky road to higher education. Now this might have made sense when the Gymnasium taught the children of the landed gentry Ancient Greek and Latin. But now it means that Germany’s school system shows a particularly high correlation between social status and education level in comparison to other OECD countries (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). In other words, poor kids are less likely to get a decent schooling.

Send all kids to schools with the same quality!

3. Give people citizenship

My friend at university had been born in Germany. Her parents had been born in Germany. Her grandparents had come here from Turkey in the 1950s. She spoke some Turkish, but German was her mother tongue, and she had never lived outside the German borders. So her passport? Turkish. At the same time, Russians who have no connection to Germany except for some distant ancestors who lived in Germany centuries ago can get a German passport relatively easily. This Blut und Boden concept of citizenship has to go! Now the Große Koalition has plans to give people born in Germany the option of double citizenship. But why not just introduce the tried-and-true American system? Anyone born here is a citizen. Period.

So just give people who live here citizenship. And don’t even get me started about the need to just let the refugees stay!

4. Introduce bilingual education

The banker’s toddler has to go to a Kita with a Chinese immersion program. And Berlin has a score of Europaschulen offering classes in German in combination with another European language. This is a great thing: not only does everyone benefit from learning multiple languages, scientific research shows that kids who speak one language at home and start school in a different language have long term disadvantages. So why is bilingual education mostly restricted to the elite? Kids who speak Turkish, Arabic or other languages in their families need a chance to learn that language at school alongside German. Anything else means they will be way behind their German-speaking peers.

Let every child learn in their language and German!

5. Again, stop giving tax money to the church

Now the €10 billion the two churches get from the “church tax” every year is surely enough, right? Well… Back in 1803, Napoleon expropriated certain church properties on this side of the Rhine. Cities and states paid compensation: a city might agree to give the local bishop six cows each year. This wasn’t intended to go on forever, but it has been 211 years and counting. All these payments add up: The state gave the churches €480 million in 2012 with no sign of stopping. This is tax money, paid by everyone in Germany regardless of their religious beliefs, to finance the luxurious salaries and houses of bishops and other religious functionaries.

Have the church pay for itself! Then all those Berlin churches, which are mostly empty anyway could finally be turned into dance clubs.

Now I’ll be gone for the next few weeks. Any chance of getting this done by early September?

P.S. What reforms do you think Germany needs? Let me know in the comments.