Annals of the Great Recession III.

Years ago, back before the world economic slowdown, Germany overhauled its economy to make it more competitive and flexible. This overhaul built on earlier German strengths: an excellent educational system, a commitment to quality production, and a cultural predisposition to sound finances. The successful reforms put Germany in a strong position to first weather the initial storm and then exploit the inflationary policies pursued by other countries.

Not everyone pursued similar policies. Many European countries opted for social protection over economic growth. Their labor and management systems are encrusted with regulatory barnacles that slow growth and hinder employment; they run high levels of debt that become increasingly difficult to support with stagnant economies; and they are broadly change-averse. In the worst case, the Greeks spent years living off grants and loans from the European Community while cooking their books to disguise the fact that the money was being consumed rather than invested. The demographic crisis of an aging population across much of Europe bodes ill for the survival of the welfare states. Reforms to increase innovation, productivity and competitiveness are essential for the long-term future.

With the onset of economic crisis in 2009, the Germans seized upon the crisis as a device to force other countries to make fundamental reforms to improve the long-term position of the whole group.[1] Germany rejected expansionary policies at home while leading the imposition of severe conditions upon Greece in exchange for further aid. Behind the disreputable Greeks stood the more reputable Spaniards, Italians, and Frenchmen. Many countries didn’t want anyone saying that they resembled the Greeks, so they went along with the German policies.

However, even under pressure most countries have not made the kinds of reforms to entitlements, labor market regulations, and budgeting needed to create dynamic economies. Europe continues to limp along behind the United States in recovering from the “Great Recession.” Indeed, the danger that Europe will slide into a deflationary-spiral is very real.

From a dispassionately economic perspective, the best solution appears to be a combination of monetary stimulus by the ECB, higher public spending by Germany and other creditor countries, deficit-reduction in the debtor countries, and a wide application of the reforms that the Germans have been pushing.        The rival policy to that of Germany has been inflation by the European Central Bank (ECB) and higher spending by the creditor countries in order to ease conditions in the debtor countries. The hard times have led to the rise of “anti-austerity” parties, like the Syriza party in Greece and the Podemos party in Spain. Commentators can’t prove it, but they suggest that the growth of anti-European parties like the French Front National and the British United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and of anti-immigrant feeling are all tied to “austerity.” Until recently, Germany managed to fend off calls for inflation.

The German strategy is founded on a misconception. The Germans have assumed that other countries could alter their politics and culture to become German-like. Most countries are not like the Germans and do not want to pay the costs of becoming more German-like. They have aging populations that are set in their ways. They have lived for decades with public discourse that disparages entrepreneurs and American-style capitalism. The costs of transition will be paid by entrenched interests and will benefit chiefly their descendants.[2]

Will the Greeks be forced out of the European Community? Or will the Germans?

[1] Marcus Walker, “Analysis: Double Blow to Germany’s Leadership,” WSJ, 26 January 2015.

[2] As Groucho Marx once asked, “What’s the future ever done for me?” The United States faces something of the same dilemma. See: “College costs: the old eat the young.”

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