What Was Elon Musk Smoking When He Chose Germany?

Hear, hear! Armin Laschet, boss of Germany’s center-right Christian Democrats and candidate for chancellor, just hit bull’s-eye with his ad hoc analysis of what ails Germany. Spontaneously naming this affliction “bureaucratic ping-pong,” he illustrated it with a nondescript intersection on the eastern outskirts of Berlin.

Some 25 years ago, it appears, the local mandarins decided to install a traffic light to make the crossing safer. Then the ping-pong paddles came out. 

First, it seems, the folks in the municipal administration got into a tiff with the guys at the water utility about who was to drain what, given that the area was environmentally protected. Then regulations changed and the light needed new specs. Next, the public-transport people discovered that the signal would mess up schedules at nearby stops. And so it went until last fall, when somebody had an epiphany and placed a provisional traffic signal at the corner, in anticipation of the permanent iteration. That should arrive any decade now.

Bureaucracy isn’t unique to Germany, of course, but these time spans appear to be par for the course in Europe’s largest economy. At about the time the traffic light was conceived, for example, Berlin also began planning its new airport. After several delays, it opened — wait for it — last fall. 

So it goes, wherever you look. All administrations since the 1990s have promised to “digitize” the country. This is now bearing fruit. Over a year into the pandemic, Germany’s health agencies have recently begun switching from fax to the Internet in reporting new cases.

Time is relative, as Laschet pointed out dolefully this week as he presented his party’s election platform, and that’s a problem for an open economy that trades in global markets. “During the time we were playing bureaucratic ping-pong,” he lamented, “Amazon, Google and Tesla became tech giants.” 

Laschet could also have cited artificial intelligence, where the U.S. and China have sped ahead and Germany trails far behind. Or Germany’s ballyhooed energy transition, which is stuck in part because bureaucratic nimbyism keeps blocking pylons and power lines that would carry electricity from the windy coast to the industrial hinterland. Or the red tape that slows construction in German cities, causing rents to soar. Or almost any other aspect of German society.

But Laschet’s choice of benchmarks is telling, for Germans are peculiarly conflicted about this fast-moving and unbureaucratic U.S. trio of Amazon.com Inc., Google (owned by Alphabet Inc.) and Tesla Inc.

At one level, they love shopping on the first, searching on the second and driving in the third. They’re also green with envy, because the only German tech company in the big leagues is SAP SE, which makes comparatively boring enterprise software and, founded in 1972, is getting long in the tooth. 

At another level — and especially on the political left — Germans frown at what they see as rapacious Yankee cowboy capitalists. They suspect Amazon of undermining German labor standards, Google of violating Germans’ vaunted data privacy, and the whole lot of them of paying too little tax. Hence their German reflex: Let’s send the bureaucrats to give them a good talking to.

Germans are having particular conniptions of late about Tesla, which provokes them in every way imaginable. It specializes in sexy cars that are also electric and thus climate-friendly. Germany specializes in cars that increasingly look like mutton dressed as lamb and — despite the marketing you may have seen — still mainly guzzle gas and diesel. 

Even more embarrassing, Tesla is run by Elon Musk, a risk-loving and impatient Anglo-Saxon who also smokes dope in podcasts, hosts comedy shows, drills through bedrock, launches rockets into space and is preparing to colonize Mars. Musk is as close to the opposite of the archetypically risk-averse, wooden, paper-pushing German executive as you can be. He’s Germany’s perfect foil.

Musk, as it happens, has chosen a sandy forest near Berlin to build a Tesla factory. As you’d expect, there are some Germans who find that interesting: The site will create thousands of good jobs and it checks every box Germans claim to love: It’s green, digital, and cutting-edge.

But nobody seems to have told Musk about the ping-pong. The environmentalists who should love his electric cars hate his factory because it uses lots of water and might endanger wildlife. Germany’s largest labor union, IG Metall, is fighting him tooth and nail because he doesn’t want to sign its dotted lines. The factory’s opening has already been delayed, and Musk must be wondering what he was smoking when he chose this location.

So Laschet deserves kudos for making bureaucracy an issue in the campaign leading up to September’s federal election. His party has been in power so long, it obviously shares some blame for the ping-pong he decries. But the truth is that the German obsession with rules and regulations, paperwork and red tape, is mainly the result of leftist policies, often well meant.

Like his main rivals, the Greens, Laschet wants to defeat both the pandemic and global warming. But unlike the Greens and other left parties, he’s also spotted the need to simplify German governance. That’s what it’ll take to unfetter the energy and innovation necessary to achieve these goals and keep Germany prosperous. When Laschet promises to take the ping-pong paddles away from bureaucrats, he’s onto something, and deserves support.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He's the author of "Hannibal and Me."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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