Michael Burda from Berlin’s Humboldt University has an interesting article in the Royal Economic Society newsletter, which is critical of views that I and others have expressed about the ‘problem with German (macro)economics.’ The key argument Michael Burda wants to make is that there is nothing peculiar or unusual about German economics, and what many of the critics interpret as either economic ignorance or distinctiveness is actually self-interest. To quote from his final paragraph: “It is not ordoliberal religion, but a mixture of national self-interest and healthy mistrust informed by experience that guides German economic policy today.”
Often trying to decide whether policies are the result of self-interest or particular ideas is difficult because both explanations fit the facts. What we really need are examples of German economic policy which follow self-interest but not dominant ideas, or vice versa. Now some might suggest ‘bailing out’ Greece and other periphery countries was a clear example, where the idea of European solidarity triumphed over self-interest. Unfortunately that will not work: the fact that Greece in particular did not default in 2010 and had only limited default in 2012 was in part to protect the interest of other EU banks. You could plausibly argue that Greece has suffered precisely because of German and other EU countries' self-interest.
In fact in many ways Germany has done rather well out of the EZ crisis. Henning Meyer points us to a study which suggests that, as a result of the crisis and Germany’s ‘safe haven’ status, the German government has saved more than E100 billion from 2010 to 2015 in debt interest. As Henning notes, this has helped Germany ‘set an example’ on deficits without having to do anything too painful. That is slightly more than its total loss if Greece completely defaults. It has also not done badly as a result of the profits the ECB has made on its lending.
Perhaps the largest benefit Germany has received from the Eurozone has been as a result of undercutting its fellow members around ten years ago. Everyone knows about the ‘excess inflation’ in the periphery during those years, but the story of insufficient wage inflation in Germany at the same time is not often told. This policy - which if it had occurred via exchange rates rather than domestic inflation would be called beggar my neighbour - may well have been accidental, but it is a key reason why Germany is the only Eurozone economy that has not suffered since 2010. Indeed, one interesting explanation of the general lack of interest in using fiscal policy for demand management in Germany is that for some time the country has been part of a fixed exchange rate system in which, with its particular wage bargaining system, it can fairly easily boost demand by changing domestic inflation.
What about the pressure from Germany on the ECB: first not to undertake the OMT programme in September 2012 which ended the non-Greek crisis, and then not to undertake QE? That is generally put down to extreme fears of inflation and fiscal dominance of monetary policy in Germany. Unfortunately it is also been in Germany’s self-interest. For example, if the ECB had been able to keep to its 2% inflation target, the earlier undercutting of its neighbours would have had to result in a subsequent period of German inflation above 2%. However Germany may well avoid this outcome as a result of Eurozone deflation, so that countries outside Germany will bear the cost of correcting the German competitiveness problem.
That self-interest is key to German policy gets important support from 2009 when alongside other counties Germany enacted a form of countercyclical Keynesian policy. Here we have a clear case where self-interest appeared to win out over a prevalent distrust of countercyclical fiscal policy.
In some senses I’m attracted to Michael Burda’s hypothesis. I once believed that the “problem with German macroeconomic policy is not that it is acting in the national interest, or otherwise, but that it is based on a discredited and harmful set of ideas”. But in my recent discussion on why these discredited ideas persisted, while I threw doubt on some popular accounts, I still failed to come up with a convincing story. There may also be an element of false optimism in focusing on belief in poor economic ideas rather than self-interest, if you also think (hope?) that these beliefs can be more easily changed.
For much the same reason I also think it is futile to try and convince Germany that it should embark on fiscal expansion ‘for the sake of the rest of the Eurozone’, partly because it contradicts self-interest, but also because Eurozone deflation means that we need fiscal expansion not just in Germany, but the whole of the Eurozone, so that ECB interest rates can be lifted above their lower bound. The problem over the last few years has not just been austerity in Germany, but austerity in the Eurozone as a whole.
So perhaps it is all just self-interest. But if that means there is nothing unusual about German economics, it does not let German economists off the hook. Germany was central to creating the second Eurozone recession through its insistence on fiscal austerity everywhere, together with unhelpful pressure on the ECB. Germany was also central in imposing harmful debt levels and austerity on Greece. Mainstream economics tells us this, but few German economists have been prepared to say so in public. German Keynesians who are involved in the policy debate that I have talked to tell me the prevailing climate is definitely anti-Keynesian. It is not the job of German academics to stay quiet about what mainstream macroeconomics tells us just because doing so suits the national interest.