Is booming Germany caught in an ant trap?
Worker-ant countries like Germany are said to be caught in a proverbial trap where they can thrive only if indebted nations buy what they produce. But is that true?
Last week, the Berlin government announced the best results since the wall fell in ’89. From the first quarter to the second one the republic’s GDP rose 2.2%. At that rate – about 9% a year if it continues – Germany is running neck and neck with China. Compared to France and the US, Germany is flying nearly 4 times as fast. Greece meanwhile is backing up. Its economy shrank 1.5% last quarter.
The Teuton tribes are an aggressive lot. The Usipetes, Tenchteri, Batavi, Cherusci, Chatti, Vandals, Goths, Franks, Alans, Suebians – all jostled each other for centuries. They must have gotten a taste for competition. And when Rome wheezed her last gasps they fell on her like French tax collectors on a widow’s estate. The Vandals pushed all the way across Gaul and Iberia, crossed to North Africa, and from their new base in Carthage, continued to tickle the old Empire until it rolled over on them.
Everybody has his elbows out. But competition takes many forms. Better to build Audis and Mercedes than Tigers and Messerschmitts. Better to race for market share than for the Champs Élysée. Whatever form it takes, competition isn’t likely to stop. Happily, most of the time, it is a boon to everyone – even to the losers. That’s why Germany’s current success is only a threat to the economists and commentarists who’ve been giving her advice. The rest of us hold our breath and hope for more.
It was only a month ago that Martin Wolf led a “great debate” on how governments should react to the financial crisis. Of all the ideas to come out of financial crisis of ’07, Wolf proposed one of the most remarkable. He illustrated it with the fable of the ant and the grasshopper. He saw two types of economies. There were those that produced and those that consumed. The trouble, according to Wolf, was that the two didn’t compete at all. Instead, they lived in a kind of symbiotic parasitism. The grasshoppers lived off the labors of the ants. Not only did the grasshoppers make the things that the ants used, the ants took the grasshoppers’ money and lent it back to them, so they could buy more. The grasshoppers were ruining themselves. But the ants were making a mistake too. They were building up capital, but what could they do with it? There was no point in expanding output capacity; arguably, they already produced too much. And what could they buy? The grasshoppers had nothing to sell.
That was not the worst of it. When the grasshoppers had spent too much, said Wolf, both bugs were trapped. If the grasshoppers in Spain and Greece were forced to spend less, the ants in Düsseldorf were condemned to sell less. Their economies were doomed to go down together, like galley slaves chained to a sinking ship.
In any case, it looked like the sort of thing the fixers could fix. Germany is all make. Greece is all take. The system was out of whack. Trade flows must balance out to zero, so Wolf et al concluded that the problem could be corrected on either side. Germany could stop working so hard and exporting so much stuff it didn’t want. Or, Greece could stop spending so much money it didn’t have. Since any slowdown in spending threatens the “recovery,” it would be better for Germans to do more spending themselves. They should raise wages and encourage their own people to buy more Audis…more ouzo…and more pointy shoes with curled up toes. This was no time for austerity.
They misunderstood the problem. Imagine two men marooned on an island. They barely survive. One works hard, hunting, gathering, and planting. The other dances on the beach like Zorba, depending on the kindness of his companion for his daily rations. The problem is not the lack of balance. The problem is the slacker. You could redress the balance between them by getting the productive one to slack off too. But then, they’d both starve.
The euro was seen as part of the problem, too. It was either too low for Germany or too high for Greece, said analysts. In the good old days, Greece could have pulled a fast one, devaluing its currency to make its citizens poorer, and their labor and exports cheaper. But now, there is no cheap and easy solution.
Which set us to a-wondering about how the world possibly got to where it is. For the hundred years from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the beginning of WWII, Europe was rarely happier, more prosperous…or more at peace. Yet during that time, money was even more inflexible than the euro. Governments did not commit premeditated murder of their own currencies. Instead, the value of paper money was protected by gold. People competed by working harder, saving more, and figuring out how to produce more with less – just as the Germans are doing now.
This week, the Merkel team followed up. “The lady’s not for turning,” Ms. Merkel might have said, taking a line from Margaret Thatcher’s 1980 Brighton speech. With the pressure off its budget, the commentators thought the Germans might be tempted to ease up on their austerity program. Instead, the German government will continue to pursue cuts to military and social spending, she said. Success will not distract Germany from its austerity program. Whether failure will send it off the rails is a question to be answered later.
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