Germany Also Having Big Problems Building Infrastructure


Der Spiegel had an interesting article recently called “Angry Germans: Big Projects Face Growing Resistance.” The article (linked version is English) talks about how it is increasingly difficult to get infrastructure projects built in Germany.

Wherever ambitious construction ventures loom on the horizon in Germany — from the cities to the countryside, from the coastlines in the north to the Black Forest in the south — opponents are taking to the streets…. As the public’s enthusiasm for constant innovation has lessened, so has the appeal of these sorts of projects, and, as a result, they now inevitably come accompanied by picketers. Germany’s graying society, it seems, is so cozy and settled that it resists anything threatening to upset the status quo. In the process, it has lost sight of the bigger picture.

There are a lot of key points in this article that immediately raised parallels to the United States, where infrastructure projects are also under increasing siege. In fact, some of this reminded me of elements of the Tea Party movement. The protestors are uninterested in compromise. They are devoted, full time activists who are unrelentingly opposed to the projects in question:

[Hartmut] Binner’s form of protest has a radical undercurrent: Well-informed, confrontational and devoid of respect for authority, he is typical of the new grassroots activism spreading across Germany.


Binner’s entire life revolves around the campaign. He monitors the routes of departing and landing planes. He plays his self-designed noise simulator on market squares. He kicks off his court appearances by singing the Bavarian national anthem. “If you want to be heard as a member of the public, you need to push the envelope,” he shrugs.

These days, he sees grassroots protests, activism and political responsibility from a different perspective. “The typical protesters are gray-haired, know-it-alls and very networked,” [Freiburg Mayor Dieter Salomon] says. “But they’re not remotely interested in consensus-building, political processes and pluralism.”

Grassroots groups have become so livid, intransigent and single-minded that even the most respected politician in the country, Angela Merkel, is feeling their sting. In early May, hundreds of furious residents had gathered in central Ingolstadt to protest against the construction of a power line from Bad Lauchstädt in Sachsen-Anhalt to Meitingen in Bavaria.

This certainly reminds me of the no-compromises view of the Tea Party. Also, a number of early American Tea Party activists were unemployed, and thus able to basically be full time activists. Even the singing of national anthem has echoes of the Tea Party and their tricorn hats. I don’t want to claim there’s a philosophical or other link between the Tea Partiers and Germany, however.

Not everything lines up with the Tea Party, however. In Germany it seems to be disproportionately retirees who are the most engaged and militant:

Germany’s graying society, it seems, is so cozy and settled that it resists anything threatening to upset the status quo. In the process, it has lost sight of the bigger picture.

Many of the protestors are pensioners with no vested interest in Germany’s future. “It’s striking that the leader of the protests against the Munich runway is a 75-year-old and not someone in the middle of his working life,” [Munich Airport CEO Michael Kerkloh] points out.

Salomon’s nemesis is Gerlinde Schrempp, a determined and argumentative 67-year-old retired teacher with attitude to spare. She’s the leader of the Freiburg Lebenswert movement, which translates roughly to “make Freiburg worth living in. The movement just got elected on to the district council and is first and foremost opposed to any new building in the city.

There’s a stereotype out there of the average Republican voter as an old white guy. But the average Tea Party activist I’ve seen tends to be working age. I look at this one a bit differently. We need to see these types of controversies against the substrate of an aging population. Aging populations are not noted for dynamism, and older people’s self-interest is better served by starving investment for the future in order to save money and avoid uncomfortable change in the present. As a country whose population is projected to decline into the future thanks to this demographic inversion, we are seeing in Germany what’s likely a preview of coming attractions elsewhere around the world.

Indeed, I’m reminded of what one analyst friend of mine in Indiana has said about the property tax caps there. He sees the push to cap property taxes as driven by an aging population in a stagnant state. Old people generally aren’t earning a lot of taxable income nor are they buying huge amounts of stuff, so they are disproportionately less affected by income and sales tax hikes, whereas they often own homes and are hit hard by property taxes. Thus property tax caps serve as another income transfer mechanism from young to old, holding revenue constant. They are in part an artifact of an aging society. Disinvestment in infrastructure can be seen in the same light.

But there’s another part of this that shines a light on yet another group of opponents, namely the intelligentsia.

The term “Wutbürger” (“enraged citizen”) was coined during the Stuttgart 21 fiasco to describe people like Hartmut Binner, and much has been written about them since. They often aren’t the “common man.” According to the Göttingen Institute for Democracy Studies, they tend to be highly educated people with steady incomes and white collar jobs. And while protests movements of the past were often steered by sociologists, today their leaders are more likely to stem from the technical professions, the researchers found.

When we look at opposition to infrastructure in the United States, at least certain types of infrastructure, we see a similar profile of people (though not necessarily technical) behind it. It’s the leftist intelligentsia that oppose the Keystone Pipeline, suburban highway projects, fracking, and many other types of things, often with a militant unwillingness to compromise similar to the Tea Party.

As with Germany, this opposition is enabled by environmental reviews and public participation laws that, while they serve important public purposes, make it easy to delay projects for years through repeated objections and scorched earth litigation. Traditionally environmental lawsuits were associated with the left, but conservatives have started saying, why not us too? Hence litigation against San Francisco’s regional plan. The Hollywood densification plan was recently overturned by lawsuits, and lawsuits have plagued California’s proposed high speed rail line as well.

Whatever the project, it’s sure that somebody on the left and/or the right hates it, and thus will do everything in their power to kill it, which probably means years of delays and untold millions in increased costs.

Also as with the United States, German governments have shot themselves in the foot with a series of financial debacles:

Political and bureaucratic bodies are partly to blame for their own diminished authority. Every major venture seems to entail spiraling costs. Berlin’s new airport was supposed to cost €1.7 billion, a price tag that has shot up to well over €5 billion. Meanwhile, the €187 million earmarked for the Elbphilharmonie concert hall under construction in Hamburg is expected to exceed €865 million by the time the project is completed. Albig is well aware how bad this looks. “People see us as financially incompetent,” he says.

Until politicians can convince the public they have a handle on this, the taxpayer will remain rightly skeptical of many major megaprojects. This is doubly true since it’s very clear, as has been documented by folks like Oxford professor Bent Flyvbjerg, that in many of these cases the politicians were simply lying all along about the real costs.

I’m not sure what all the takeaways are, but there are clearly many forces operating on a global basis to inhibit the development of infrastructure in the West.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile, where this piece originally appeared.

"MittlererSchlossgartenKundgebung 2010-10-01" by Mussklprozz - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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this connection is only in your mind

You see the German version of NIMBY and BANANA protesters and that reminds you of -- the Tea Party? The Taxed Enough Already people who protest taxation, over-regulation and mass immigration? Is there some Tea Party faction I've never heard of that protests airports, power lines, suburbia and electric power generation?

is it even in his mind?

I have made many criticisms of Mr. Renn, but to imply that he actually believes what he writes is, I think, a bit harsh. The "connections" made in the article are so strained that it is hard to imagine how they could be believed by anyone capable of writing an article consisting of statements that give even the appearance of connection--much less an article that exhibits a certain level of rhetorical cunning. If Mr. Renn's statements escape immediate disbelief, on obvious factual grounds, it is only because Mr. Renn distracts the reader with mealy-mouthed partial concessions to the fact that the motives of the proponents of megadevelopment are sometimes less than pure, and with his final disingenuous profession of ignorance as to what might be the "takeaway" from the fact of chronic opposition to the megaprojects. Easily distracted readers will allow Mr. Renn's implausible primary statements to slip by unchallenged--along with his omission of other obvious considerations, such as the risks of gambling a region's future on monolithically planned development that is highly subject to human error and all but impossible to correct in mid-course.

Often, the purpose of such writing is to introduce talking points for use by claques of paid writers who serve the same interests as does Mr. Renn. At opportune occasions, in answer to issues of the moment, these writers can make such statements as "Aaron Renn, the noted expert on urban development, points out in The Urbanophile that opposition to regional planning is characteristic of aging right-wingers defending their peculiar financial interests." This statement now has, in the eyes of its readers, the authority conferred by citing a Published Source. Academic hacks have played this game for generations, and political hacks for centuries.

more cognitive dissonance

I missed one a little while ago. In his brief but wide-ranging exercise in newspeak, Mr. Renn also dragged in property taxes. On his account, advocacy of property tax reform is an attribute of those superannuated, self-interested obstructionists who use environmental regulations and public-participation laws to suppress the selfless efforts of developers, real-estate speculators, politicians, and other members of the moral elite--efforts that members of the elite undertake for years on end in each case, at great expense, with no thought of profit for themselves.

Some of the little people, however, see it in another light. (I don't know about Germany, but in the U.S., most of these are not elderly. Empty nesters tend to minimize their properties. The big lots are generally for people with families.) As they see it, property taxes are what they pay to subsidize development schemes that will inevitably drive them out of their own homes. Property taxes go to pay for new infrastructure for the exclusive use of the customers of the developers, and to pay for services that these newcomers will use at higher rates than do the original inhabitants. (It looks like these services come under the heading of what Mr. Renn calls "infrastructure".)

But the newcomers, in higher-density housing, will pay no property taxes, or will pay them at lower per-capita rates. Businesses drawn in by the promise of special treatment get benefits that existing businesses in the area don't get. So the developers get subsidies, their customers get lower prices, the politicians get bribes, the unions get contracts, the consultants and media hacks get fees and grants, and the people who paid the property taxes get....

cognitive dissonance

Extending the term "infrastructure" to cover regional plans and densification seems misleading. It's sort of like the tactic of extending the term "law enforcement"--which, in its conventional sense, is considered a good thing by responsible people--to cover, and thus legitimize, absolutely anything the police might do. Yes, regional plans, densification, etc., involve physical structures, but they involve a great deal more. They tend to involve large transfers of income and (hoped-for) economic potential to failing core cities, at the expense of other regions.

Casting the issue as purely one of costs is also misleading--even when one allows that the opposition to uncontrolled cost overruns is legitimate. This tactic ignores the existence, much less the legitimacy, of of the many serious questions about the competence of the politicians and "experts" who ask us to finance these large-scale plans, and about the effectiveness of the plans themselves for achieving the goals claimed for the plans.

As for the claim that older people in the U.S. are more likely to oppose "infrastructure": are they really likely to oppose infrastructure like highways and airports, or is it just politically and financially motivated demographic adjustment that they oppose? This claim reminds me of something Schopenhauer wrote: "The man who sees two or three generations is like someone who sits in a conjurer’s booth at a fair and sees the tricks two or three times. They are meant to be seen only once."

But that's by the by. The attempt to cast the issue as one of age versus youth is also misleading. It conceals the real issue, which is core cities versus the rest of the country. The core cities are demographically younger than the rest of the country. (This is in large part because they have more to offer twenty-somethings and won't-grow-ups than they have to offer non-dependent, non-wealthy working adults, especially adults with children.) I doubt very much that the older population of the core cities is notably opposed to urban infrastructure development. The chattering classes in the core cites are uniformly opposed to money spent on roads, but that cuts across age groups, and the same classes generally favor large-scale regional planning that uses state and federal funds to benefit core cities. They don't make many objections to cost overruns either. (Neither do consultants, construction unions, and others who get their percentage of the overruns.)

I'll also mention that old people outside the cities are more likely to be concerned about the grandkids than are old people in the cities. They're also at least as likely to be motivated by concerns about that grandkids as they are to be motivated by concerns about property taxes.

As for the "opposition . . . enabled by environmental reviews and public participation laws that . . . make it easy to delay projects for years through repeated objections and scorched earth litigation": megaprojects for infrastructure and regional planning tend to have entrenched, big-money interests behind them, and they are just as persistent, and just as unscrupulous, as the most extreme Wutbürgern--and they're a lot more influential. It is their influence that environmental reviews and public participation laws are intended to counteract. But this influence is ignored in the article.

That's a longish list of oversights, and it makes one think...