Germany: What Next? (And a fascinating read as a bonus)

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed learning more about Germany as a consequence of writing these articles. Alas, I am all too aware that the learning has been very superficial indeed, but that will hopefully only serve to whet my appetite further. I’ll attempt to summarize my key learnings in a post scheduled for later this week, and in March, we’ll learn more about France.

Onwards then, to the topic of today’s essay: where does Germany go from here?

For many years, Germany’s economic strength has been based on prudent
monetary policy, a highly skilled workforce and a renowned manufacturing
sector that has successfully built up export markets across the world. Germany
has enjoyed political stability and exhibited a contained approach towards
foreign policy, where Germany regularly played by the rules set by others in the
liberal international order.
However, these pillars of Germany’s strength and stability may not be the right
tools to manage the upcoming disruptive changes.

That is from the executive summary of a report titled “Is Germany ready for the future? The case for action in a climate changed world“. The report speaks about how increasing digitilization, rising social inequality (globally), the disruption to the rules based trading order that worked so well for Germany, rising nationalism (again, globally) and low/non-existent aggregate demand will challenge Germany’s current model. The infographic below gives their (the authors) recommendations to deal with these challenges. Also, the word for the day where I am concerned: mittelstand.

Figure 1 from the same report linked to above

“Germany isn’t exactly in a state of disrepair. It doesn’t feel as though it is, even though potholed streets aren’t a rarity, trains often don’t run on time and cellular reception is spotty outside cities. Nor, however, does it feel future-proofed enough, even after a decade and a half of Merkel’s generally successful rule. The WEF touts unshakable financial stability (the country got 100 points out of 100 for it in the competitiveness ranking) as one of Germany’s biggest advantages, but that stability has been achieved, in part, by shifting problems to the local level. “

That is from a short, but excellent, persuasive and full of surprises column in Bloomberg by Leonid Bershidsky. The report that he cites is, alas, in German, but his takeaways make for thought provoking reading. And speaking of surprises, from the same article:

The World Economic Forum ranks Germany as the world’s seventh-most-competitive economy this year, down from third in 2018. According to WEF, its greatest weakness is in information and communication technology adoption, where it’s ranked 36th in the world; only one German out of 100 has a fiber optic broadband subscription, compared with one out of 32 in South Korea.

In an embarrassing episode on Monday, a state TV broadcast about a special government session on improving mobile coverage was broken off because of a bad connection.

I traveled through parts of Germany last month, and while Internet speeds in both Airbnb’s that I stayed in were slower than in France, they were certainly good enough, and with no loss in connectivity. I’ll note that for about four hours in a town called Gottingen, I lost connectivity on my phone.

Does this report on population trends in Germany by the year 2050 hold a cultural clue that might help us think more about the excerpt above? Pure conjecture on my part, of course, but worth thinking about, perhaps.

As a result, there will be a clear shift in the age structure of working-age people.
At present, 50% of working-age people belong to the medium-age group, which includes people of 30 to 49 years, nearly 20% belong to the young age group of 20 to
29 years and 30% to the older age group of 50 to 64 years. In 2020, the medium-age
group will account for as little as 42%, the older one, however, will remain almost
unchanged at about 40%; the situation will be similar in 2050 (medium group: 43%,
older group: nearly 40%). The percentage of the 20 to under 30-year-olds will not
change very strongly. As a result, older people will clearly prevail among working-age population.

I’d never heard of Strategic Perspective 2040 until I started searching for phrases linked to the future of Germany. But the fact that it was written, leaked, and the responses to it – they’re all equally fascinating.

The assumption behind the UK’s repeated promise of security cooperation with Europe after Brexit is that the core democracies – Germany, France, Italy and Spain – will remain committed to Nato, democracy and the rule of law. And that a reformed and revitalised Europe will deliver enough jobs and growth to sap the energy of the nationalist and xenophobic right. But it would also be wise for politicians to begin admitting that these things are no longer certain. If we want order, we have to create it – through engagement, multilateralism, by accommodating what we can of the demands of rising powers and through the promotion of resilient democratic institutions. If we fail to achieve order, we must deal with disorder when the US is no longer a reliable ally, nor even a stable democracy.

And now for the bonus. I have read quite a few articles/PDF’s/essays about Germany, and given last week’s essay, about the Berlin Wall. None was as gripping as this one. It is titled “The Story of Tunnel 29“, and it is an absolute must read.

My thanks to Gandhar Joshi, a student of the BSc programme at Gokhale Institute, for sharing it with me.

One on inflation, and four on Germany’s reunification

As a student of economics, I think I’ve read one article too many on Germany’s inflation. In fact, one of the many joys of writing this blog has been discovering how bad inflation was in other parts of the world: the version of economic history that I have studied has underplayed this.

(Name four countries that experienced hyperinflation: Germany! Zimbabwe! Venezuela! Uhhhhhh…..)

But that being said, learning more about Germany this month wouldn’t be complete without at least one article about it’s hyperinflation. And the reason I enjoyed the one I excerpt from below is because while it is full of interesting anecdotes about the period of hyperinflation, it also speaks about how it all ended – and with what consequences. And a fun fact which you may have not known earlier: the root of the word credit means to believe. That’s modern finance, in a nutshell.

Obviously, though the currency was worthless, Germany was still a rich country — with mines, farms, factories, forests. The backing for the Rentenmark was mortgages on the land and bonds on the factories, but that backing was a fiction; the factories and land couldn’t be turned into cash or used abroad. Nine zeros were struck from the currency; that is, one Rentenmark was equal to one billion old Marks. The Germans wanted desperately to believe in the Rentenmark, and so they did. “I remember,” said one Frau Barten of East Prussia, “the feeling of having just one Rentenmark to spend. I bought a small tin bread bin. Just to buy something that had a price tag for one Mark was so exciting.”

All money is a matter of belief. Credit derives from Latin, credere, “to believe.” Belief was there, the factories functioned, the farmers delivered their produce. The Central Bank kept the belief alive when it would not let even the government borrow further.

The political “give” that was needed to get the political, economic, cultural and civilizational “take”, in an interesting article from DW. The set of links at the bottom of this article are also worth a read. (Note that I have added the WIkipedia link to the 2 Plus 4 Agreement, it is not there in the original).

The 2 plus 4 Agreement, also called the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany, recognized all European borders established after World War II, resolving this outstanding dispute once and for all. Bonn and Berlin’s signatures to the treaty meant that a newly reunited Germany would recognize national borders as they stood, not as they once were. Coupled with the reduction in military concentrations, the acceptance of current borders was a significant step toward an enduring peace in Europe at large.

An unusually short excerpt by my own standards, but this is the last sentence in the Wikipedia article about German reunification. It deserves to be read in the full, the entire article, especially if you were under the impression that reunification in Germany was relatively quick, painless and that there was much happiness all round.

The absorption of eastern Germany, and the methods by which it had been accomplished, had exacted a high price throughout all of Germany.

But there is an argument to be made that it was worth it, because one way of thinking about it is this: West Germany purchased access to culture by sharing economic prosperity, while East Germany purchased access to economic propserity by sharing culture. Costs matter, but maybe, just maybe, culture trumps economics?

“On average, people in the East are less successful, less productive and not as wealthy. Materially speaking, they’re less happy,” Seemann said. “But that’s exactly why cultural diversity in the eastern states plays a more important role than in the West. People in eastern Germany are aware that there are things which are more important than making money and paying taxes. They see the arts as a creative process of ‘togetherness.’ We need to strengthen this consciousness, because that’s the only way to ensure culture and society continues to thrive — regardless of where we stand economically in the years to come.”

Note that there are links at the bottom of this article about whether lessons from German reunification can apply to Korea. Alas, the article says no. I am an Indian, so double the alas for me, please.

And finally, a reminder that these things take time! This article is about the reunification of not Germany, but of the German language. Note that the East Germans had to adapt, and not the other way around. Maybe, just maybe, economics trumps culture?

The former East and West Germany have grown closer together in many areas over the past 26 years. At the same time, some differences are still marked precisely by the former border between East and West, such as economic strength, family structure and wealth. Furthermore, stereotypes about Wessis and Ossis have still not been consigned to history. According to a study carried out by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, it will take another generation before German unity is firmly anchored in people’s minds. It has, however, long been reflected in the way they speak.

Links for 6th May, 2019

  1. “Not long ago, the Liverpool away coach uniform was technical mountain climbing apparel, which had its roots in drug dealers in cold northwest England figuring they didn’t need to freeze to death slinging weed in a park. That meant a lot of North Face gear, which became fashionable. One leader at an LFC firm bought so much high-end gear that when he got a stadium ban several years ago, he actually started climbing mountains around the country, unsure of what else to do with all the stuff he’d bought.”
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    A nice long read on Liverpool: the city and the club. Also a fascinating peek into a place in England that isn’t necessarily English.
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  2. “In my view, reform of government economic administration must take priority. As things stand, it is a prerequisite for the success of any other reform. A weak state cannot deliver anything other than grandiloquent statements of intention. This must change. Without a capable State, there can be no transformation.”
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    Rathin Roy explains in the Business Standard why India hasn’t fulfilled its potential so far, and what needs to be done to change the status quo.
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  3. “How much, in all, does Popovich spend annually on food and wine? That’s hard to say. But he reportedly earns $11 million a year, the highest salary in the league for a head coach. Considering the offerings from his private wine label and that he holds thousands of bottles in his cellar, plots out dozens of high-end dinners per year at some of the country’s most high-end restaurants, drops $20,000 on wine alone at some dinners, and routinely leaves exorbitant tips — well, it’s not a stretch to suggest that Popovich might ultimately drop a seven-figure annual investment on food and wine. “He’s spent more on wine and dinners than my whole [NBA] salary,” former NBA coach Don Nelson says. But in San Antonio — where Popovich has won more with his team than any NBA coach has with a single team in history — the investment, apparently, has been worth it.”
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    Is good dining the means to an end? Read this fascinating article to find out one man’s answer.
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  4. “Gorbachev pushes back at the notion that the Soviet Union’s end was somehow a triumph for the other side. “Americans thought they’d won the Cold War, and this went to their heads,” he says. “What victory? It was our joint victory. We all won.” Well, maybe not entirely — Vladimir V. Putin, pointedly absent from most of the film, is glimpsed in footage of Raisa Gorbachev’s funeral — but you come away from the movie agreeing with Herzog’s assessment, and yearning for Gorbachev’s brand of diplomacy.”
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    A short article about Gorbachev – a documentary about the man. He’s 88 this year, but the article is interesting throughout. And the excerpt is a great way to think about whether you have really understood the concept of a zero-sum-game.
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  5. “The Northern states are densely populated. But this density has clearly not provided the economies of scale to promote rapid economic growth. One problem is that the dense population in the Gangetic plains is not clustered in large cities. Prateek Raj of the Indian Institute of Management in Bengaluru has written about the metropolis vacuum in the Hindi speaking states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which together have 500 million residents (bit.ly/2UOS2Kv). “The glaring absence of a major metropolitan center in the region has forced young people to migrate away from the small towns and move to other cities in the West and the South,” he argues.”
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    A lovely read from Niranjan Rajadhakshya about what ails Northern India and how one might tackle the issue. The lack of urbanization is a very real problem in Northern India, among others.