Paul Krugman has a good op-ed tonight on how Germany has fared versus the US in the global financial crisis. Recall that there was much hectoring of Germany early on, for its failure to enact stimulus programs. German readers were puzzled, since Germany has a lot of social safety nets that serve as automatic counter-cyclical programs. As an aside I visited a few cities in Germany on the Rhine and Danube in June (unfortunately in heavy book writing mode, and so did not get to see as much as I would have liked) and it was remarkable how there were no evident signs of the downturn: no shuttered retail stores, no signs of deterioration in public services, stores and restaurants looked reasonably busy (although I had no idea of what norms there might be).
Krugman holds Germany up as an example of the merits of employment oriented policies (which had been the norm in America prior to the shift to “markets know best” posture (and more aggressive anti-union policies) inaugurated by Reagan:
Consider, for a moment, a tale of two countries. Both have suffered a severe recession and lost jobs as a result — but not on the same scale. In Country A, employment has fallen more than 5 percent, and the unemployment rate has more than doubled. In Country B, employment has fallen only half a percent, and unemployment is only slightly higher than it was before the crisis.
Don’t you think Country A might have something to learn from Country B?
This story isn’t hypothetical. Country A is the United States, where stocks are up, G.D.P. is rising, but the terrible employment situation just keeps getting worse. Country B is Germany, which took a hit to its G.D.P. when world trade collapsed, but has been remarkably successful at avoiding mass job losses. Germany’s jobs miracle hasn’t received much attention in this country — but it’s real, it’s striking, and it raises serious questions about whether the U.S. government is doing the right things to fight unemployment….
Germany came into the Great Recession with strong employment protection legislation. This has been supplemented with a “short-time work scheme,” which provides subsidies to employers who reduce workers’ hours rather than laying them off. These measures didn’t prevent a nasty recession, but Germany got through the recession with remarkably few job losses.
Should America be trying anything along these lines? In a recent interview, Lawrence Summers, the Obama administration’s highest-ranking economist, was dismissive: “It may be desirable to have a given amount of work shared among more people. But that’s not as desirable as expanding the total amount of work.” True. But we are not, in fact, expanding the total amount of work — and Congress doesn’t seem willing to spend enough on stimulus to change that unfortunate fact. So shouldn’t we be considering other measures, if only as a stopgap?
Now, the usual objection to European-style employment policies is that they’re bad for long-run growth — that protecting jobs and encouraging work-sharing makes companies in expanding sectors less likely to hire and reduces the incentives for workers to move to more productive occupations. And in normal times there’s something to be said for American-style “free to lose” labor markets, in which employers can fire workers at will but also face few barriers to new hiring.
Yves here. Krugman does Germany an injustice by failing to contest US prejudices about European (particularly German) labor practices. If German labor practices are so terrible, then how was Germany an export powerhouse, able to punch above its weight versus Japan and China, while the US, with our supposedly great advantage of more flexible (and therefore cheaper) labor, has run chronic and large current account deficits? And why is Germany a hotbed of successful entrepreneurial companies, its famed Mittelstand? If Germany was such a terrible place to do business, wouldn’t they have hollowed out manufacturing just as the US has done? Might it be that there are unrecognized pluses of not being able to fire workers at will, that the company and the employees recognize that they are in the same boat, and the company has more reason to invest in its employees (ignore the US nonsense “employees are our asset,” another line from the corporate Ministry of Truth).
A different example. A US colleague was sent to Paris to turn around a medical database business (spanning 11 timezones). She succeeded. Now American managers don’t know how to turn around businesses without firing people, which was not an option for her. I submit that no one is willing to consider that the vaunted US labor market flexibility has produced lower skilled managers, one who resort to the simple expedient of expanding or contracting the workforce (which is actually pretty disruptive and results in the loss of skills and know-how) rather than learning how to manage a business with more foresight and in a more organic fashion because the business is defined to a large degree around its employees.