What happens when politicians make themselves irrelevant?
Germany may be on the verge of finding out.
"Business and society have emancipated themselves from the political class," a class whose performance has been "really inadequate" of late, says Meinhard Miegel, a close observer of the political and business scene here.
Many aspects of the situation are uniquely German. But many of the questions surfacing here are relevant in the United States and elsewhere.
* How can politics be made to work better?
* How can public discussion be fostered in an era when interest groups seem to reduce every issue to a series of conflicting sound bites?
* How can decisionmaking be more, well, decisive?
In a much-discussed speech last month, Roman Herzog, Germany's president, warned of a "feeling of paralysis across the land" and called for a more confident vision of the future. He said, "We don't have a problem identifying problems. We have a problem doing something about them."
Constrained by the Constitution from direct involvement in politics, Mr. Herzog did not name names in his lament. But the speech was widely seen as a critique of the political establishment in general.
One hope for political renewal lies in the new generation of politicians and business people that are reaching across the political spectrum to learn from each other.
This ideological cross-pollination comes at a time of apparent political stasis: The agenda for tax and social service reform is stuck in a logjam. Germany's No. 1 problem, unemployment, has eased somewhat but remains near a post-World War II record high.
Finance Minister Theo Waigel recently announced that tax receipts for the year will be 18 billion deutsche marks ($11 billion) short of projections, because of high joblessness. To close the gap, the government has recently considered selling assets and practicing some bookkeeping sleight of hand: revaluing its gold reserves.
The skepticism of Professor Miegel, who teaches at the Institute for Business and Society, as to whether the current political establishment is up to the job is widely shared.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government recently received negative reviews from 62 percent of respondents to a poll by the public television network ZDF, its poorest rating in four years. After nearly 15 years in control, Mr. Kohl's coalition shows signs of running out of energy and ideas.
It's not just that he's been chancellor longer than anyone else in postwar German history. As Miegel points out: "He's been head of his party for over half its existence." With Kohl's announcement last month that he would run for reelection in 1998, the succession question has disappeared, but not the sense of weariness. Polls suggest that more voters expect a fifth term for Kohl than desire one.
However fixed things seem at the top of the political structure, activity churns at lower levels. An example is a three-day parliamentary internship program sponsored by the Wirtschaftjunioren Deutschland, an association of young business people. Nearly 90 WJD members took part, each assigned to a member of the Bundestag to find out what the life of a legislator is like.
The WJD interns interviewed were impressed with how long and hard the members work. But if there was one refrain among the interns, it was disappointment with the decisionmaking processes they observed.
Uwe Hannig, chairman of the WJD, said of the Bundestag members he group met, "They're motivated, industrious, committed. Nobody who has spent time with them would say they are lazy. But it was disappointing to see how little comes of all the hard work.
"I had hoped that once we got behind closed doors, there would be substantive discussion of the issues, and then a clear decision. But there wasn't. In the business world, you just couldn't go on like that."
Beate Knops, who works at her parents' trucking firm in Gppingen in southern Germany, gathered similar impressions from her internship. "They start at 7 a.m. and go into the evening. But with what result?" she asks.
Kristin Heyne, a Green Party member of the Bundestag who took part in the WJD program, says, "I've welcomed these opportunities, because there's been nothing in my own professional life that has been like this."
The internships also gave her an opportunity to sound out her ideas on business people. "A lot of businesses have good ideas on things like waste management, for instance," she says.
Ms. Heyne concurs with the WJD critique of the political decisionmaking process. She laments that so much of what passes for political discourse "is an exchange of blows rather than real conversation."
As Miegel tells it, German politicians would have it easier if life for German citizens was less comfortable.
"Most people have it very good here," he says. That makes it harder for politicians to introduce the reforms widely seen as necessary to maintain German economic competitiveness.
But still, he says, "These fat and happy people are readier for reform than their politicians."
Ms. Knops agrees with Meigel's assessment: "When we have to make changes, we should all close up ranks and accept the cuts [in social benefits]. Anything else is just egotism.
"But," she says, "we aren't yet at the threshold of pain, where the willingness to accept change comes."