Boiling Frogs

Götz Werner on our mistake in thinking

August 6th, 2012  |  Published in Beyond the crisis

Do you know Götz Werner? In case you don’t, Werner is a very famous entrepreneur in Germany. He founded the drugstore chain  dm-drogerie markt, which he led for 35 years. He is also a influent advocate of the unconditional basic income, and most of all a brillant and heterodox thinker.

The following excerpt of an interview on the german TV will give you a glimpse:

Our mistake in thinking is that income is the payment of work. In fact, the reverse is true: the income is the prerequisite of work. Because we have an income, we can work. That, has changed the whole view in my company when we realized that the people working for us needed an income to be able to afford to work for us.


In my whole life, there has always been someone who invested in me, and gave me the prerequisites. There has always been someone who put trust in me and said: “Mr. Werner, show us what you can do”. Exactly the same way the basic income says: “We grant you so that you can live humbly but with dignity, and now you can show us what you can do”. This is actually a request to you!

Further, a pretty brillant example:

Maybe I can clarify with shop owner’s way of thinking. If you come to my shop and take a tube of toothpaste from a shelf, then you go to the checkout and think you pay for this toothpaste. This is a mistake. Actually, the toothpaste you take has already been paid for. Otherwise, it could not be on the shelf! What you are paying for is enabling us to buy the next one. Payment is never backwards-oriented. It is always forward-oriented.

The rest is very enlightening as well (and people’s faces in the audience is priceless) :

So what Götz Werner tells us? A few remarks:

First, the analogy with the payement is pretty relevant here. As my readers may know, all of our monetary system is based on debt, and the expectation of future earnings (ie. growth). When a bank makes a loan to a company, it creates the money it lends, with the expectation that the money will help the company to grow, and pay back the debt with interest. Then the bank delete the money it created in the first place.

So, if we accept the reasoning for banks and corporations, why not for “normal people”? This makes perfect sense with Werner’ views: if we give money to people through a basic income, there are some chances that people will do something useful for themselves – if not for society as a whole.

Werner also tells us an important part of the story of Humanity: there is always someone before us and someone who help us to achieve even our best successes. So, maybe we should all be a little bit more modest and recognize to our fellow citizens the right for being reimbursed for everything they give us…

I also like how Philippe Van Parjis (another basic income advocate) puts this:

Take for example my salary, or much higher salaries. But not just the salaries, also the quality of the job or the standard of living you have.

If I compare the amount of energy I spend on my job with the drudgery and the hard work some other people have to do, then you realise that what I already get is not just a free lunch but a huge, huge magnificent feast; a huge expensive party that I absorb, incorporated in my wage.

The American Nobel laureate in economics, Herbert Simon, wrote that to be optimistic we deserve 10% of our standard of living. And the rest is a free gift, something for which we have done nothing.

And so the question is not why you should give someone a free lunch, it is just the question: how should we share in a more fair way than what we now receive, for which we haven’t done anything?

Answer here.

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