Angela Merkel Tried to Govern Like an AI but Couldn’t
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been known to apologize publicly from time to time, both for what she considers her own mistakes and for government decisions that she feels are justified but that can make voters unhappy. Wednesday’s Merkel apology was special, though, because it came with an abrupt reversal of a decision Merkel had engineered in one of her trademark all-nighters as recently as the wee hours of Tuesday.
In that marathon video session, the outgoing chancellor pressured the leaders of the German states to agree to the strictest lockdown for next week’s Easter holidays that Germany has had since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Not just the “non-essential” stores would be closed from Thursday through the following Monday, but also supermarkets and other shops selling food, which have remained open throughout the pandemic’s deadliest periods. Merkel brought all her political weight and negotiating skill to bear, effectively threatening the state heads with an even tougher alternative — a curfew, another draconian measure Germany has never tried before.
Yet even members of Merkel’s own party in parliament rebelled on Tuesday after the Easter lockdown was announced; one of them wondered — to loud applause — if those who devised the measure ever went food shopping. Merkel does do that, so the criticism wasn’t quite fair, but for most people that doesn’t matter. My wife and I were already steeling ourselves for anaconda-like supermarket lines next Wednesday. Now we can breathe a sigh of relief.
Merkel’s stated approach to the pandemic is to follow the science. I’ve written before that if we were governed by an artificial intelligence whose sole objective would be to minimize the number of deaths, the lockdowns probably would be even tougher than the ones we’ve actually experienced. The AI probably would have imposed a tougher lockdown now, given the most recent data. Since March 13, new cases have notably increased, a trend one could ascribe to stepped-up testing (for example, children now have to be tested every week to attend school) — but a pretty sharp pick-up in the number of Covid patients occupying intensive care beds would give the lie to that theory. Though the number of Covid deaths appears to have dropped in the last few weeks, the Robert Koch institute, the national authority on contagious diseases, has warned that these statistics are likely to be revised upward: Germany still doesn’t have a real-time death-reporting system. New varieties of the SARS-CoV-2 appear to have stifled the positive effect of Germany’s faltering vaccination campaign.
So Merkel the scientist and believer in science, doing her best AI imitation, pushed for harsher restrictions. After more than 15 years in power, she knows what levers to pull, and she got the result she wanted. She couldn’t hold on, though, because democracies are not (yet?) run by AI; they are ultimately run by voters. And the German voters, who have long supported tough restrictions if they helped to keep the health care system running and deaths to a minimum, have finally had enough. A recent YouGov poll showed that although 30% of them would support tougher restrictions, 28% would keep them at the current level and 22% would relax them. An ARD-DeutschlandTrend poll this month even showed that a majority favored relaxing the lockdown.
Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc cannot afford to swim against the tide now, not even in the name of science.
While Merkel remains personally popular, with a 64% job approval rating, she is not running in the September election. The conservative bloc has been bleeding support fast because of scandals involving party officials and sweet medical supplies deals. One of the CDU’s big hopes, Health Minister Jens Spahn, Germany’s most popular politician as recently as last December, has dropped sharply in polls because vaccination has been going much slower than promised: At the current rate, 70% of Germany’s population can only get their shots by the middle of next year. Last week, it transpired that Burda, the publishing conglomerate whose Berlin office is headed by Spahn’s husband Daniel Funke, has sold face masks to the health ministry in a direct deal that didn’t involve a tender procedure (both Burda and the ministry deny wrongdoing).
To make things even tougher for the CDU/CSU, it doesn’t have a strong candidate to succeed Merkel. The current CDU leader Armin Laschet is far less popular than CSU head Markus Soeder, the leader of Bavaria, but the latter is known as a proponent of the harshest possible lockdown measures — a position from which it’s not easy to retreat since that’s how Soeder earned his surprisingly high poll backing last year in the first place. Meanwhile, the country’s second most popular politician after Merkel is Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, the chancellor candidate of the Social Democratic Party, the conservatives’ reluctant coalition party; he has been whipping up support by playing the moderate on Covid restrictions. The Greens, meanwhile, have been surging in the polls, and there’s a real chance that they might team up with the Social Democrats and the far-left Linke party to keep the CDU out of power.
In this increasingly desperate situation, Merkel’s Easter lockdown even included a firm recommendation to churches that they should hold only online services over the holidays; that struck at the heart of the conservatives’ Christian support base. It almost felt as though Merkel, more interested in her legacy than in her party’s political future, was unwilling to risk more infections and more deaths just to keep the CDU/CSU afloat. Wednesday’s about-face showed she would remain a politician, albeit a visibly reluctant one, at least for now. Her apology and her retreat should give her party some room for maneuver and a little time to align itself with public opinion.
As for that vision of government by AI, a workable model of the German algorithm would need to weight the prospect of a harsher pandemic against the poll data. Figuring out the right weights would be the billion-euro task.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team based in Berlin. He was previously Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He recently authored a Russian translation of George Orwell's "1984."
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