Regular readers of this blog are well aware that I am a Francophile and an Anglophile. What I am not is a Germanophile, or as I would put it (because I’m not a nice man) a Krautophile. The amazing thing is that it is not because of the Nazis. But I’ll come back to that issue. The problem for me is that culturally the Germans have an attitude—an attitude that I am familiar with because of individuals I have known.
No one walks around thinking that they are morally superior because they are really good at math. They might be obnoxious in many other ways but not in that way. But when it comes to things like diet or credit rating, many people really do think in terms of morality. I know from my own experience of being thin throughout my life that there was nothing I was doing that make me thin. Similarly, most people with stellar credit ratings have never been tested: they have had easy, affluent lives and have never been forced to make a decision about which of too many bills to pay.
But it is worse than this. Many people develop a kind of addiction to feeling morally superior. These are the kinds of people who will pass up a drink in order to feel superior to those who don’t. I don’t especially have a problem with these people. Everyone has mechanisms for feeling special. But the mere fact that they are acting as they do to feed this feeling of moral superiority means that they are not, in fact, morally superior. It’s like people who think religion is a game where they behave in order to get into heaven. What kind of lame-ass God wouldn’t see through that?
This is the impression that I’ve always had of Germany. As a culture, it seems to act as though it is better than everyone else. And this has really been on display since 2008. To a large extent, Germany is the European Union. It is over 20% of the whole economy. And it hasn’t been hit that hard by the recession. Yet it’s attitude toward the other countries in the EU (especially in the south) has been like a cross parent toward a naughty child. If only the other countries would behave like them, everything would be fine. Of course, that isn’t true. And as Paul Krugman likes to say, “Economics is not a morality play.”
Germany stands as the naturally skinny broccoli-loving girl looking down her nose at the pudgy girl with her unfortunate genetics and attraction to fatty foods. But as usual, it’s even worse than that. Because in the case of Germany, its smug attitude toward the other EU countries is harming those countries. It would be like the skinny girl, instead of eating a slice of pizza force fed it to the pudgy girl.
Paul Krugman posted a number of articles the last couple of days on this subject. It all started when the US Treasury Department released a report that showed that Germany’s trade surplus was hurting the global economy. I haven’t read the report, but Krugman produced a graph that showed that since the financial crisis, Spain’s account balance has gone from -10% to about +1%. That’s what we would expect. But during the same time, Germany’s account balance has been constant at about 6%. This is very simple: the way to recovery is not for everyone to have a positive account balance because that can’t happen. Germany is a rich country; they should be importing more. But instead, they are pointing a finger at the poorer countries and complaining they aren’t more like Germany.
In another article, Krugman notes that the European Commission (EC) estimates of structural unemployment in Spain are way wrong and this is forcing the country to do more austerity than even it thinks is reasonable. So the EC was going to change the way it was calculating this rate, but Germany stepped in and blocked it! It’s almost unbelievable.
That brings us back to the Nazis. I think that the German people were largely victims of the Nazis. But you can see how a culture that thinks itself morally superior to everyone else might breed a political movement like the Nazis. Regardless, that attitude is now not only hurting Europe, it is hurting the whole world. Germany has nothing to feel superior about.
For the record, the United States is very much like Germany in this regard. I could definitely see fascism taking root here the same way it did in Germany in the 1930s. And we as a people have a tendency to think of ourselves as better than other people. We aren’t the biggest economy for historical reasons. We are the biggest economy because we are “exceptional”! And look, I’m very fond of many of our eccentricities. But every country has its own style and things that make it special. Being simply better than other countries in an absolute sense is not one of them. I am not a fan of hubris and this is something that both Germans and Americans have in abundance.