I am writing this week’s column in Los Angeles, among Californians who worry about the future of their home country. Trumpists on one side and Pronouns Matter-evangelists on the other.
To cheer everyone up, I mentioned our own very German problems. They were incredulous. To them, Germans are at the forefront of innovation, when in truth we are at the forefront of administration.
I once asked an elderly lady who had lived in Germany half her life how she could still tell she was Dutch. “Authorities”, she answered, “and how they treat you. In the Netherlands, you see eye to eye. Here, they make clear who is in charge and who is the supplicant.”
It’s quite telling that a civil servant in German is Staatsdiener, servant of the state. We are state-centric, not citizen-centric.
The latest addition to the collection of red tape is the new local property tax. Our constitutional court ruled that the property values which tax offices relied on were antiquated, dating as they did way back to 1964 in the former West Germany and to 1935 in the former East Germany.
Bureaucrats then spent more than two years making arrangements on how to reassess the property values, and creating new forms so homeowners and tenants could help. When I read the first account by a journalist who had failed to properly fill out the new forms, I thought, “Idiot, I’ll do it in no time”.
That was a month ago. I still haven’t.
My mother passed ownership of the flat she lives in to me a few years ago. It is in an apartment building. Pretty straightforward. But the German saying is: “Warum einfach, wenn’s auch kompliziert geht?” “Why make things easy if you can complicate them, too?”
A few days after receiving a letter from my local tax office informing me about the deadline and sending half a dozen sheets printed on both sides, filled with a confusing amount of information about the flat – district, tithing, ground value etc – I logged into Elster. Elster is an acronym for electronic tax returns. It also means magpie, which in Germany, too, is known to be thieving. Fiscal authorities do have a sense of humour, it seems.
They do not have a sense for intuitive digital workflows. And so pretty soon, I was stuck. I called the property tax help hotline. After an hour (I timed it) I surrendered unconditionally and went for Elster’s digital help section instead.
It had the following example of how to find the right data: “You own a 130m² flat in a community of property owners. The total surface area is 1,500m². Your co-ownership share comprises a garage parking space and 333/10,000m². As plot surface, fill in 50m². On partial page 5 sub-partial page 2 line 10 it is sufficient to name the number of parking spaces belonging to the flat. On partial page 5 sub-partial page 2 line 13 enter 1 and as total living space in m² 130.”
While some of you can make complete sense of that, I felt catapulted into third-grade maths problems (A hunter shoots 15 goats in three days. What’s his blood alcohol level?).
I called a neighbour to ask for advice. Same flat size, same house etc. A fortnight later, he sent an email: “Astonishing. Even as a lawyer I have difficulty aligning the land register with the data they ask for. I expect a majority of citizens will fail this task.”
What failed first though, was Elster. There are around 36 million private and business properties in Germany. Diligent citizens tried to get the property tax off their plate before the holidays and took the fiscal authorities by surprise: the servers collapsed. In official wording: “Due to the enormous interest there are limitations of accessibility”.
Which is proof of the second very German problem: digital infrastructure. Or rather the lack thereof. We’ve seen it during the refugee crisis, Covid and in everyday life: Germany is a fax republic.
The biggest scandal, however, is that all the data citizens have to gather meticulously to fill out the tax forms is data that has long been available to state authorities. In fact, they were the ones to issue the data in the first place – but weren’t allowed to exchange it because of data protection. It also hasn’t been digitised. And this is where millions of taxpayers come in as cheap labour to do exactly that.
It’s no surprise that – given Germany’s federal structure – every Bundesland has individual property tax rules. And what is even less surprising: citizens only have four months to file the data. While fiscal authorities can then take another two years to figure out exactly how much more people will have to pay.