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The German Example

Germany has been a frequent cudgel in recent fights over the American economy. When Germany has grown faster than the United States, stimulus skeptics like to point across the Atlantic Ocean and say that austerity works. When it has grown more slowly, people who think the American stimulus made a big difference — including me — return the favor.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel
John MacDougall | AFP | Getty Images
German Chancellor Angela Merkel

But the full story is more interesting than any caricature. In the last decade, Germany has succeeded in some important ways that the United States has not. The lessons aren’t simply liberal or conservative. They are both.

With our economy weakening once again — and with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germanyvisiting the White House this week — now seems to be a good time to take a closer look.

The brief story is that, despite its reputation for austerity, Germany has been far more willing than the United States to use the power of government to help its economy. Yet it has also been more ruthless about cutting wasteful parts of government.

The results are intriguing. After performing worse than the American economy for years, the German economy has grown faster since the middle of last decade. (It did better than our economy before the crisis and has endured the crisis about equally.) Just as important, most Germans have fared much better than most Americans, because the bounty of their growth has not been concentrated among a small slice of the affluent.

Inflation-adjusted average hourly pay has risen almost 30 percent since 1985 in Germany, the kind of gains American workers have not enjoyed since the ’50s and ’60s. In this country, hourly pay has risen a scant 6 percent since 1985.

Germany also managed to avoid a housing bubble, unlike the United States, Britain, Ireland, Spain and other countries. German children have stronger math and science skills than ours. Its medium-term budget deficit is smaller. Its unemployment rate is like a mirror image of ours: 6.1 percent, well below where it was when the financial crisis began in 2007. Our rate has risen to 9.1 percent.

I’m not saying that the United States should want to become Germany. Americans remain considerably richer. We have the innovative companies — Wal-Mart, Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter — that make other countries swoon. We remain the world’simmigration Mecca.

Yet for all the strengths of the United States, almost nobody claims that the economy is in especially good shape. It so happens that our current out-of-town guests could teach us a few things.

The first lesson is that it’s really possible to make government more efficient. Like much of Western Europe, Germany long had a unemployment benefits system that discouraged work. Butalmost a decade ago, it began to make some changes.

It cut many benefits, in both duration and level, and it reduced the incentives to retire early. It also began trying to move the long-term unemployed into the labor force.

Specifically, the government took a fresh look at people who had not worked in years to determine who could and couldn’t work. The able and healthy were matched with potential employers. If they took a low-paying job, which was often the case, they would still receive a small portion of their benefits for a time. If they refused to work, their benefits were reduced anyway.

“The incentives to take up work were strengthened,” says Felix Hüfner of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, “and also the sanctions were strengthened.” Sure enough, the reforms have nudged more people back into the labor force — and work tends to beget more work, as people develop skills and have more money to spend.

In the United States, short-term jobless benefits are not generous enough to be a major problem. But the Social Security disability program, which is one reason nearly 20 percent of working-age American men are not working, would benefit from some German-like reforms. So would those public sector pensions that encourage people to retire at 55 or 60.

Beyond the job market, Germany has also made a big effort to improve its education system. Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University economist, notes that Germany’s performance on the main international math, reading and science tests have become such a matter of national concern that the name of the tests — Pisa — is now a household word. “In the U.S.,” he says, “Pisa is still a bell tower in Italy.”

Dave Bradley Photography | Getty Images

The math scores of German students have risen significantly since 2000, extending their existing lead over American students. Germany’s national average is now higher than the average in Massachusetts, this country’s top-performing state. And there is obviously a connection between strong technical skills and a strong manufacturing sector.

But the German story is not merely about making government more efficient. It’s also about understanding the unique role that government must play in a market economy.

That role starts with serious regulation. American regulators stood idle as the housing bubble inflated. German banks often required a down payment of 40 percent.

Unlike what happened here, German laws and regulators have also prevented the decimation of their labor unions. The clout of German unions, at individual companies and in the political system, is one reason the middle class there has fared decently in recent decades. In fact, middle-class pay has risen at roughly the same rate as top incomes.

The top 1 percent of German households earns about 11 percent of all income, virtually unchanged relative to 1970, according torecent estimates. In the United States, the top 1 percent makes more than 20 percent of all income, up from 9 percent in 1970. That’s right: only 40 years ago, Germany was more unequal than this country.

Finally, there are taxes. Germany does not have a smaller budget deficit because it spends less. Germany, you’ll recall, is the original welfare state. It has a smaller deficit because it is more willing to match the benefits it wants with the needed taxes. The current deficit-reduction plan includes about 60 percent spending cuts and 40 percent tax increases, Mr. Hüfner says. It’s like trying to lose weight by both eating less and exercising more.

As I suggested before, the American economy’s strengths may still be greater than the German economy’s. But Germany sure does seem more serious about dealing with its weaknesses.

And us? Well, lobbyists for the mortgage bankers and the N.A.A.C.P. have recently started pushing for less stringent standards for down payments. Wall Street is trying to water down other financial regulation, too.

Some Democrats say Social Security and Medicare must remain unchanged. Most Republicans refuse to consider returning tax rates even to their 1990s levels. Republican leaders also want to make deep cuts in the sort of antipoverty programs that have helped Germany withstand the recession even in the absence of big new stimulus legislation.

There is no getting around the fact that financial crises wreak terrible damage. It’s too late for us to prevent that damage, and it will take a long time to recover fully. It is not too late to learn from our mistakes.

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