By Bill Black, the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One and an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Cross posted from New Economic Perspectives
It is good to be Angela Merkel. Growth in Germany goes sharply negative in the last quarter of 2012 and press reports emphasize how sound the German economy is because it is a net exporter. This article analyses how the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times presented the news about Germany’s economy. I show that the presentation reveals more about the pathologies of our major media than about the pathologies of Germany and the Eurozone.
The Wall Street Journal article about Germany has one glancing reference to austerity, in the tenth paragraph. The journalists used a power shovel to bury the lead.
Germany’s contraction suggests euro-zone GDP declined for a third straight quarter at the end of last year, and failed to expand for a fifth straight period as fiscal-austerity programs and rising unemployment likely spurred additional output declines in Spain and Italy. A report Tuesday from the European Union’s statistics office showed a euro-zone trade surplus of €11 billion ($14.7 billion) in November, which should limit the expected decline in GDP.
We have a grudging admission that the story in Europe is austerity, which has thrown most of the continent back into a second recession. The article mushes causality by implying that unemployment is a separate cause of the recession unrelated to austerity. The reality is that austerity drives reduced demand, which reduces output, which reduces growth (and can turn it negative), which reduces employment, which increases inequality, emigration, and budget deficits.
Berlin’s insistence on inflicting austerity on the Eurozone has produced five quarters of no growth or negative Eurozone growth. Spain, Italy, and Greece have Great Depression levels of unemployment – and unemployment is rising.
The WSJ journalists tried to impart a positive spin on the catastrophic effects of austerity by talking about the Eurozone trade surplus. The surplus is larger than expected, so the actual decline in Eurozone GDP may be less than the “expected decline in GDP” due to austerity. Yes, Berlin knew that inflicting austerity would throw the Eurozone into recession when Berlin insisted that the Eurozone embrace austerity. (Be cautious about whether the Eurozone’s actual loss of GDP will be less than projected. Germany’s preliminary estimate is that its GDP fall in the last quarter of 2012 was far greater than expected, and the German economy is the largest Eurozone economy.)
Why German Austerians are Praying That Obama does Not Inflict Austerity
But there are broader problems that the WSJ journalists (implicitly) report, but do not explain.
The downturn should be short-lived, analysts said. Key export markets such as the U.S. and China are starting to pick up, while improved sentiment surrounding Europe’s three-year-old debt crisis is expected to spur a recovery in the euro zone this year.
Again, note the positive spin. The journalists do not claim that German exports will surge in 2013 primarily through increased sales to Eurozone customers due to austerity producing a strong recovery in the Eurozone. Germany’s leading trade partners are the Eurozone nations, but the journalists report accurately that Germany’s hopes for recovery rest on “the U.S. and China” because both nations have demonstrated continuous growth through stimulus. Germany hopes that the U.S. and Chinese economies will act like tow trucks and pull Germany out of an incipient recession. Germany’s only realistic hope for avoiding a recession (two consecutive quarters of negative growth) rests with the two Nations that most famously used stimulus to respond to the Great Recession. Stronger growth in the U.S. and China leads to increased demand for German exports. The great irony is that German austerians are praying fervently that the U.S. not adopt austerity.
Note also that the hope for Eurozone recovery does not come from austerity, but from “improved sentiment.” Austerity has harmed consumer sentiment. The great improvement is that the ECB (finally) jawboned the financial markets into believing that it would prevent the bond vigilantes from taking down any Eurozone member. It was the dramatic expansion of ECB governmental intervention in the bond markets, in order to preserve the ability of Eurozone nations to borrow and spend that caused the large fall in sovereign debt yields. The ECB’s quasi-guarantee massively expanded the ECB’s potential liabilities. It was the ECB’s anti-austerity policies that improved “sentiment.”
Germany’s export-based strategy cannot work for the world. We cannot all be net exporters. Indeed, the more that Germany exports the harder it is for other nations to export their way out of recession. The journalists also fail to note the tremendous loss that the German export strategy imposes on German workers. Unemployment is low, but German workers’ wages have been reduced materially in real terms as productivity has grown. The result is very large corporate profits and ever higher inequality.
The New York Times’ article about the Germany’s negative economic growth mentions austerity several times, but its analytics are often incoherent.
Throughout the European debt crisis Germany has managed to float above the bad news, enjoying record employment, rock-bottom borrowing costs and export-led growth that kept chugging in spite of the cloud hanging over the euro zone. But Germany’s European partners are also among its biggest customers, leaving it vulnerable to the Continent-wide slowdown made worse by the very austerity policies championed by Chancellor Angela Merkel.
This paragraph ignores the effect of austerity on German workers. The NYT journalist informs the reader that Berlin’s insistence on inflicting austerity on the Eurozone has “made worse” “the Continent-wide slowdown,” which has had the ironic effect of harming Germany. The human cost of the gratuitous recession that Berlin is inflicting on Europeans is hidden by the journalist’s framing of the crisis as a mere “slowdown” and describing it as a “cloud.” Europe’s second recession, the Merkel recession, was made in Berlin. The NYT journalist reverses the facts in these three paragraphs.
“Within the region, Germany has served as a crucial counterweight to the struggling economies of Southern Europe, and helped to stabilize the euro zone as a whole.
The country’s economic might has also given Ms. Merkel an especially strong say in euro zone policy. Her clout and insistence on fiscal austerity in return for German financial support has often irked other leaders, but it has made her popular at home. She is an overwhelming favorite to win a third term in nationwide voting in September.
“Most of the decline can be blamed on weakness in the rest of Europe,” said Martin Lueck, an economist at UBS in Frankfurt. “Voters will not blame it on Ms. Merkel.”
The first paragraph takes Merkel’s propaganda and makes it a statement of “facts” that are so unassailable that they require neither reasoning nor citation. The actual facts are, as the article admitted in the first paragraph, that Berlin demanded the policies that took the “struggling economies of Southern Europe” and threw them into Great Depression levels of unemployment that are causing their university graduates to emigrate in droves. Berlin did not “stabilize the euro zone as a whole” – it threw it into recession. In so doing, it did not help ordinary Germans. German growth would have been far more robust but for their own austerity. It is no coincidence that German growth went sharply negative as soon as it balanced its budget. The NYT author, of course, spins this as another positive :
And the German government achieved a budget surplus for the first time since 2007, without having to impose the kind of austerity that has choked growth in France, Britain or Italy.
Note the journalist’s incoherence. She concedes that it was Berlin’s “insistence” that forced the nations of the Eurozone to inflict austerity on their people and economies and she concedes that it was austerity that “choked growth” in the Eurozone and forced it into a recession. Only paragraphs before, however, she claimed as fact this pearl of Prussian propaganda: “Within the region, Germany has served as a crucial counterweight to the struggling economies of Southern Europe, and helped to stabilize the euro zone as a whole.” I have heard IMF economists call austerity policies that are certain to cause recessions “stabiliz[ation]” but I expect unintended self-parody from that source. To be clear, Berlin’s insistence on austerity is not a “counter-weight” to the periphery’s problems – it is the backbreaking weight Berlin has forced on the necks of Europeans that has brought misery to tens of millions of Europeans for no positive purpose. A recession does not “stabilize” an economy.
Merkel’s austerity policies were once unpopular among many Germans, but the sad paradox is that the euro, whose proponents claimed it would lead to “ever closer union,” is now the single greatest threat to European unity. As the peoples of the European periphery have been pushed into far more strident ideological and ethnic divisions by austerity and depression-level unemployment they have often directed their ire at Berlin. The dominant German meme spread by Merkel’s party is that the virtuous Germans have selflessly bailed out the profligate South and received scorn in return. Only Prussian discipline can save southern Europeans from themselves. Merkel’s popularity has surged as this meme of the slothful peripheral ingrates engaged in Berlin-bashing has become dominant in Germany. The NYT article captures the political implications of this meme nicely in predicting the likely German reaction to Germany’s sharply negative “growth” in the last quarter of 2012.
“Most of the decline [in GDP] can be blamed on weakness in the rest of Europe,” said Martin Lueck, an economist at UBS in Frankfurt. “Voters will not blame it on Ms. Merkel.”
Lueck is probably correct about the voters. The obvious point, except to Germans and the NYT journalist, is that it was Berlin’s insistence on “bleeding the patient” (austerity) that caused much of the “weakness in the rest of Europe.” German voters will not blame Prime Minister Merkel for imposing self-destructive austerity on the Eurozone. They will not blame her for causing millions of people to be unemployed. They will not blame her for making one of the standard things an Irish, Italian, or Greek university student does upon graduation is to emigrate.
Only German voters can hold Merkel accountable unless the sovereign nations that are EU members rise and take back control of the EU and the ECB from the European hyper-power – Germany. It took a decade for the full scale of the Latin American rage against the “Washington Consensus” to be felt in the form of electing a dozen national leaders dedicated to ending that failed neo-liberal regime (austerity was its first principle). If the Berlin Consensus continues to be inflicted on the periphery the results are likely to be similar. Indeed, a delegation of Latin American heads of state recently sought to convince the extremely conservative leaders of Spain and Portugal to learn from the failure of austerity in Latin America. Ecuador’s President Correa is an economist who wrote his doctoral thesis in part on the failures of austerity. In his discussions with his Spanish and Portuguese counterparts he was able to combine his academic expertise with his real world knowledge gained from having to respond to the crises inflicted by austerity. In the early years of the Washington Consensus, many conservative and moderate Latin American leaders eagerly endorsed the Washington Consensus and austerity. Most of the European periphery is still at that stage, but politicians of the periphery who endorse the Berlin Consensus are increasingly unpopular with their people. The Berlin Consensus will ultimately lead to the election of leaders in the periphery who run on platforms that promise to end the disastrous policies that emerge from failed neo-liberal dogmas such as austerity.