Thursday, June 17, 2010

What is German economic culture?

This interesting post by American economist Tyler Cowen, who I believe now lives in Berlin, delves into some differences in the economic principles embedded in the minds of Germans and German policy makers in contrast to their American counterparts (and Australian I would suggest). He believes there are a number of consistent views held by German policy makers which put Germany in the running for the ‘best country award’:

1. It is the long run which matters and we should be obsessed with the long run consequences of our choices.
2. Economic growth comes from high productivity, most of all in quality manufacturing.
3. Borrowing to finance consumption is a nicht-nicht. Savings is all-important.
4. If we need to make a big change, we'll all grit our teeth and do it. For instance Germany has done a good deal, on the real side, to restore its export competitiveness in the last ten years, not to mention unification and postwar recovery.
5. These strictures should be enforced by rigorous rules, to limit temptation, because indeed you will find cases where it appears to make sense to break the rules.
6. Values matter, as do norms of cooperation.
7. Don't obsess over the creation of too many low-wage jobs, because in the longer run it will be bad for your cultural capital. If need be, pay people to be unemployed, but hold high human capital. In the longer run, try to educate them up to higher productivity and thus employment.
8. Be obsessed with self-improvement, most of all at the personal level.

Regular readers may note that I hold many of these views. Last week I noted that minimum wage laws may not be great in the short run for job creation, but in the long run the may be - showing my belief in points 1 and 7. Also, I have raised the long term focus of German capital gains tax rules on property, which are charged at the highest tax rate unless the property is held for more than ten years.

Point 2, that economic growth comes from high productivity, is another point I have tried to make during discussions of population growth, the productivity of housing investment, and the overstated benefits of the mining boom.

I also agree that values and social norms matter (point 6), as I have suggested when discussing work and leisure, and cycling culture.

In my experience however, German rules and laws can appear overly intrusive for the uninitiated (point 5). But for one to aspire to these principles, rules do need to be made to ensure that individuals’ short term gratification of does not override the long term prospects of the country as a whole. If you believe people are perfectly rational and fully informed, your inner libertarian may have a problem with this – who is to say that I cannot rationally make decisions about the future for myself and why would the government be any better at it than me?

Clearly I believe the points observed by Cowen are key factors to the long run prosperity of any country. But I would appreciate any insights into whether this is truly representative of the German policy machine, and what the application of the principles means for people on a day to day basis


  1. on the other hand germany has got itself into a position where it is punished for good behaviour

  2. Germany is also one of the oldest European cultures, so let's face it, it's got a lot of experience. On the other hand, it's stolen a lot, and the clock hasn't yet struck twelve on that. Really that's about all anyone has to say about it, except that once you find the right track, stay on it. Further, I'm constantly bamboozled about the way some economists can be so long-winded about such easy exercises, and it makes one wonder "as far as explanations are concerned,why don't economists economise?".