Commentary Magazine


The German Example

Chris Caldwell provides one of the most important pieces of economic analysis since the financial meltdown more than two years ago. The focus is on Germany, but it tells us much about Obama and his mindset.

As for Germany, Caldwell explains they told the Obami and the Keynesians to buzz off:

“You won’t find a lot of Keynesians here,” explained one German economic policymaker in Berlin in September. That will not be news to anyone who has spoken to his counterparts in Washington. In their view, Germany is a skulker, a rotten citizen of the global economy, the macroeconomic equivalent of a juvenile delinquent, or worse. It is a smart aleck in the emergency ward that is the global economy. It is a flouter of the prescriptions of the new Doctor New Deal who sits in the White House.

And, wouldn’t you know it, Germany was right:

Germany’s growth in this year’s second quarter was 2.2 percent on a quarter-to-quarter basis. That means it is growing at almost 9 percent a year. Its unemployment rate has fallen to 7.5 percent, below what it was at the start of the global financial crisis—indeed, the lowest in 18 years. The second-biggest Western economy appears to be handling this deep recession much more effectively than the biggest—and emerging from it much earlier.

It seems the Germans’ skepticism of Keynesian alchemy — technically the “multiplier effect” (a dollar spent by the government magically transforms to more than a dollar in economic activity) — was correct. According to the Germans, the famed multiplier is actually a divider:

“Our research says the multiplier is more like .60,” says the German official. If he is correct, then a stimulus plan can actually deaden an economy rather than stimulate it. If he is correct, you might have been as well off to have taken the stimulus money and thrown it away.

Caldwell is straightforward — Germany already does a lot of “stimulating” and embodies many aspects of the social-welfare state. But his argument — and Germany’s — is compelling: anti-Obamanomics is superior to Obamanomics.

So what does this tell us about Obama? For starters, he operates in an intellectual cocoon. Remember, he told us that “all” economists believed in his Keynesian stimulus plan. Well, as he was spinning us, a body of research was building that Keynesianism is, to put it mildly, bunk:

The Harvard economist Alberto Alesina and his colleague Silvia Ardagna published an influential paper last fall in which they surveyed all the major fiscal adjustments in OECD countries between 1970 and 2007 and showed that tax cuts are more likely to increase growth than spending hikes. One of their most controversial findings—which comes from the work of two other Italian economists—is that cutting deficits can be expansionary, particularly if it is done through “large, decisive” government spending cuts, as it was in Ireland and Denmark in the 1980s. More generally, Alesina has argued that “monomaniacal” Keynesians have focused unduly on aggregate demand.

So much for the pose that Obama is a sophisticated intellectual. He is, rather, monomaniacally wedded to liberal dogma.

The German experience also tells us much about the bullying behavior of the Obama team. Domestic critics are brushed off, Israel is browbeaten, and Germany is harangued because they don’t roll over and comply with the misguided vision of the president. Caldwell explains:

Germany has been scolded, even browbeaten, by Obama administration officials, from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on down, for saving too much and spending too little. It has refused to stimulate its economy as the United States has done, on the grounds that the resulting budget deficits would not be sustainable and the policies themselves would not work. Administration officials have not been the only ones to warn the Germans about the path they’re on. On the eve of last summer’s G‑20 summit in Toronto, the economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman gave an interview to the German business paper Handelsblatt in which he said that, while Germany might think its deficits are big, they are peanuts “from an American viewpoint.” Germany cannot say it wasn’t warned.

There is a dreary predictability about Obama. Take outmoded liberal dogma. Double down on it. Ignore empirical evidence. Deride and bully opponents. And when the dogma fails, blame those who resisted. Whether we are talking about health care, economic policy, or the Middle East, the pattern is the same. It is not simply that Obama is wrong on the merits on these issues (although surely he is). It is that Obama’s self-image as the “smartest man in the room” prevents him from learning from errors, absorbing the experience of alternative policy choices, and showing grace and magnanimity toward friends and foes. No wonder Obama has become a sour figure, and the public has soured on him.

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