segunda-feira, 17 de novembro de 2014
The wacky economics of Germany’s parallel universe
German economists roughly fall into two groups: those that have not read Keynes, and those that have not understood Keynes. To describe the economic mainstream in Germany as conservative misses the point. There are some overlaps with the various neoclassical or neoconservative schools in the US and elsewhere. But as compelling as a comparison between the German mainstream and the Tea Party may appear, it does not survive scrutiny. German orthodoxy straddles the centre-left and the centre-right. The only party with some Keynesian leanings are the former communists.
A good example of orthodox dogma was last week’s annual report of the Council of Economic Experts, an official body that advises the government. They did not criticise a lack of investment, excessive current account surpluses or overzealous fiscal rectitude. Instead they criticised the minimum wage and some minor relaxation to the retirement age. In other words: they want the government of Angela Merkel, chancellor, to be even tougher.
The Germans have a name for their unique economic framework: ordoliberalism. Its origins are perfectly legitimate – a response of Germany’s liberal elites to the breakdown of liberal democracy in 1933. It was born out of the observation that unfettered liberal systems are inherently unstable, and require rules and government intervention to sustain themselves. The job of the government was not to correct market failures but to set and enforce rules.
After 1945, ordoliberalism became the dominant economic doctrine of the centre-right. In the 1990s, the Social Democrats started to embrace it, culminating in Gerhard Schröder’s labour and welfare reforms in 2003. Today the government is ordoliberal. The opposition is ordoliberal. The universities teach ordoliberal economics. In the meantime, macroeconomics in Germany and elsewhere are tantamount to parallel universes.
In practice, German macroeconomic exceptionalism did not really matter all that much – until recently, when it started to matter a lot. When you have your own currency and engage with the rest of the world mainly through trade, a wacky ideology is your problem. That changes when you enter a monetary union, which is when policy makers have to work together.
Nobody had paid much attention to this issue. Much of the early theoretical discussion about the eurozone centred on the notion of an optimal currency area: which countries are fit to join a monetary union? What turned out to be far more important is a common understanding that allows people to communicate and act with one another.
For example, German ordoliberals simply refuse to acknowledge the presence of a liquidity trap where the central bank becomes powerless in affecting market interest rates. Ludwig Erhard, Germany’s revered economics minister in the 1950s, once tried to explain the Great Depression in terms of cartels. It was an ordoliberal attempt to bring something into their mental framework for which they have no obvious explanations. Erhard’s successors repeated the mistake in the eurozone crisis, which they see as a story of fiscal indiscipline.
Right now there are three fundamental issues with ordoliberalism that are of wider importance. First, ordoliberals have no coherent policy to deal with depressions – once or twice in a century disasters. Whenever I ask one of them what one should do in a depression, the answer usually includes some reference to “creative destruction”.
Second, ordoliberals lack their own coherent monetary policy framework. They used to be Monetarists. Their position today is mostly inconsistent.
My third criticism is more fundamental. It is far from clear whether ordoliberal dogma translates from a relatively small open economy like Germany to a large closed one like the eurozone. The ordoliberal world view is asymmetric. Current account surpluses are considered more acceptable than deficits. Since the rules are based on national law, ordoliberals do not care about their impact on the rest of the world. When they adopted the euro, the rest of the world suddenly did start to matter.
The ordoliberal doctrine may even have worked well for Germany, though I suspect that the country’s economic success is due mostly to technology, high skills and the presence of some excellent companies, rather than to economic policy. Through its dominance of the euro system, Germany is exporting ordoliberal ideology to the rest of the single currency bloc. It is hard to think of a doctrine that is more ill suited to a monetary union with such diverse legal traditions, political system and economic conditions than this one. And it is equally hard to see Germany ever giving up on this. As a result the economic costs of crisis resolution will be extremely large.