Saturday, October 18, 2014

Germans and the bailouts... Michael Lewis/Antonin Scalia edition

In his How to Write A Sentence, Stanley Fish rightly spends a few pages lauding and analyzing Antonin Scalia's beautiful sentence:

Interior decorating is a rock-hard science compared to psychology practiced by amateurs.
I was reminded of it because a friend sent me the link to Michael Lewis's ""It's the Economy, Dummkopf"", published by Vanity Fair. The abstract reads:

With Greece and Ireland in economic shreds, while Portugal, Spain, and perhaps even Italy head south, only one nation can save Europe from financial Armageddon: a highly reluctant Germany. The ironies—like the fact that bankers from Düsseldorf were the ultimate patsies in Wall Street's con game—pile up quickly as Michael Lewis investigates German attitudes toward money, excrement, and the country's Nazi past, all of which help explain its peculiar new status.
I normally like Michael Lewis's writings, from Liar's Poker to The Big Short. This one, however, is a very long amalgamation of stereotypes, with almost no insight mixed in -- starting with the entirely non-novel idea that German potty-training (too early) is somehow related to the countries sinister ways (always lurking behind the corner) to the allegedly ordered and disciplined approach to anything. It's basically pop psychology (Germans are hung up about shit, and hence do the most awful things, from the Holocaust to buying subprime debt) combined with what every newpaper-reading halfwit already knows about the European debt crisis (only the Germans thought EMU was serious, and that rules meant something; the Greeks and everyone else who borrowed more than they now want to pay only did what was natural). Page after page, from the description of German finance ministry officials to the Autobahn, Goering's Air Ministry, and the Reeperbahn, Germans are portrayed as goosestepping automatons animated by the busy executive's version of From Dr Caligari to Hitler. & nbsp;

You can debate if you want to devote 17 pages to predictable nonsene, writing or reading. I don't think Lewis is wrong about the notion that there is something like national character. He just gets it wrong, or at least 90% of it, after his multi-day fact-finding mission to Germany. What gets me the most is how smoothly Lewis skips over the disorderly, get-it-done, anarchic side of my countrymen - with all its good and bad sides. Try to have your flight cancelled in Frankfurt, and make it to the counter... in the UK, they would queue. In Germany, you will have one big melee, people getting their elbows out, fighting to get onto the next plane. It's a kind of can-do-anarchy, disorderly, results-oriented, each man for himself, and not very rule-bound. & nbsp; & nbsp;It isn't always pretty, but it's ... very different from Michael Lewis's image, which seems to come straight out of a 1950s Hollywood war movie. & nbsp;Tax officials in local offices (whose name and a number appears on your tax notification) can make decisions on fining you, or taking that fine off. Every year in my classes, when I ask questions that require people to think outside the box, the German students do much better than many other nationalities -- the school system emphasizes the exact opposite of rote learning, from an early age. In days of old, the German army, despite being an instrument of a deeply anti-democratic state, used ""empowerment"" before the term was invented, pushing independent, important decision-making down to the level of sergeants and privates (which made for very high efficiency, as analysed in Martin van Creveld's wonderful Fighting Power). And several German classmates of mine are I-bankers... and doing pretty well as far as I can tell.

What does all of this mean for the EU debt crisis? To be honest, I think national character has very little to do with it. Germans behaved much like the Greeks in the interwar period, borrowing right, left, and center, building public swimming pools with the proceeds of bond issues, and then defaulted on ... those (stupid) Americans. Much of this is eloquently described in what is still the best book about the Weimar economy & nbsp;-- Harold James's & nbsp;The German Slump: Politics and Economics 1924-1936. & nbsp;No need for potty-training fairy tales here. & nbsp;Back then, in the late 20s, American financier J.P. Morgan Jnr. lost faith in German borrowers, in the way that Germans are now updating their beliefs about Greeks. His comment? & nbsp;""...Germans are a second-rate people"".

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