About Kantoos

Kantoos is a German economist and blogger in his early 30s. He writes Kantoos Economics.

The country of humor is … Germany!

As an economics blogger, I am not an expert on international humor, but today’s sad news got me thinking. Germans insist – mostly unsuccessfully – that “German humor” is not the least bit oxymoronic, the rest of the world just doesn’t seem to understand it. Which is why the prejudice will probably live on.

One of the most German of all humorists, Vicco von Bülow (”Loriot”), passed away on Monday at the age of 87. Explaining what Loriot meant to German humor and culture is difficult (see above). He was probably to German humor what Monty Python was to the British. His sometimes absurd drawings and stories of twisted everyday situations were a provocation at first, but have strongly influenced the way Germans have continued to develop their humor – in comedies, but also in literature and film. ”This is just like in Loriot” is almost a standard expression in German, describing an everyday situation that turns to become so absurd that it is just hilarious.

An example from Loriot’s work: a couple on a romantic date. He, slightly older and played by Loriot himself, starts a short, somewhat serious but also romantic monologue. The only problem: he has a small piece of a noodle from the last dish stuck on his face. The woman cannot concentrate on anything but the noodle on his face. He, somewhat annoyed by her distraction, tries to remove the noodle but then sticks it to some other part of his face. The noodle therefore travels around his face while he tries to get into a serious relationship talk with a completely distracted girlfriend.

Another example is the almost wordless clip “The picture is crooked”, where an older gentleman (again: Loriot himself) waiting in a hotel room for a business meeting, in his attempt to correct a slightly crooked picture on the wall, destroys the whole hotel room.

The most absurd, yet very German, example is probably “Gentlemen in the bath tub“. Two men meet for the first time in one man’s bath tub, and discuss various aspects of taking a bath, when to let in water, at what temperature, when to put a small duck into the bath tub etc. It is mostly a struggle for authority where both keep a formal distance (“Herr Dr. Klöbner!”) while sitting naked in a mostly empty bath tub.

There are a few ingredients to German humor of the Loriot type: you need an audience that knows and has witnessed too many times before how people take themselves and their procedures and rules a little too seriously. In other words, they need to be German. What is more, you need a twisted everyday situation that turns absurd in a very subtle manner and in a way that does not offend your audience. And you need to put in hard work. Loriot did not consider himself particularly funny (although he was the most modest person I have ever seen). For him, humor was simply hard work: carefully observing German everyday life, constructing these situations in a small play, working out the details with the actors (for instance with the brilliant Evelyn Hamann), and thereby making it absurd in the Loriot type of way.

To be sure, not all Germans like Loriot. But his work is a perfect example of two aspects of German humor: it exists, and it is very hard to export (something that Tyler Cowen pointed out a while ago). Therefore, being German is perfect if you are a humorous person: On the one hand, you (more or less) understand and appreciate US, British and also other European humor to some extent. On the other hand, and mainly thanks to Loriot, you have access to a very special source of German absurdity humor. When it comes to humor, Germany might actually be the best-supplied country in the world.

The continued embarrassment that is European monetary policy … economists?

In the summer 2008, when concerns were growing that a weaker economy was approaching, the ECB raised its rates – a step that had to be reversed pretty quickly as we know. Quite embarrassing.

And what happened this time? Another commodity boom “tricked” the ECB into raising rates at the worst possible time, even though there were no signs of a pass-through of the currently higher headline inflation to core inflation, and thus, to medium term headline inflation. Now, this step will probably be reversed quickly, too. Why? Because even Germany might be heading for a recession.

As Henry Kaspar has pointed out repeatedly on my (other) blog, I shouldn’t criticise the ECB for following its mandate. Even though we all know that the ECB broke its own rules in the past when there was a need to do so, there certainly is some truth to that. (Update: Karl Whelan points out in an email that the mandate of the ECB is “price stability”, so the ECB might actually have more discretion than is commonly assumed). So let me instead address those European economists that keep missing that monetary policy is a huge part of the problem, and potentially a big part of a shorter and longer term fix for the Eurozone.

First of all, what is monetary policy supposed to accomplish? Very broadly speaking: macroeconomic stability. An important aspect is to keep aggregate demand (AD) on a stable and predictable path. The reason is simple: prices and wages don’t adjust quickly enough to accommodate nominal changes that are caused by changes in the demand for the medium of exchange (aka money). So better keep the nominal values on a predictable and stable path, so that there is no need for across-the-board adjustments.

Usually, an inflation-based approach is sufficient, and it has stabilized inflation throughout a large part of the world, which is historically a big achievement. Whether it has contributed to the build-up of the current crisis is still an open question. In times of a severe crisis, however, this approach has clearly proved inadequate, as the focus on inflation has allowed AD to plummet 10% (!) below trend:

Such a drop in AD would be devastating for any economy, not only a currency union. It is time to realize that the policy of the ECB has been extremely tight since 2008, measured by the concept of macroeconomic stability and is therefore an important cause of the current mess.

Second, countries in a currency union experience asynchronous business cycles. This is a problem because monetary policy cannot be tailored to all different cycles. So even though there is some differentiation that the central bank can impose, a large part of the adjustment has to come through changes in prices and wages – a painful process as Germany learned during the first decade of the Euro. And as for anything else that is painful, there is one rule: get it over with quickly.

How can you overcome nominal rigidities quickly? Wages rarely decline nominally (see this Krugman post for some nice graphs), which means there is a(nother) zero lower bound. When some countries need to adjust wages and prices downwards, it is best to be further away from this threshold. The reason is simple: if the best you can do is to keep wages constant, the higher the general price increase, the more the decline in real wages. A higher nominal growth during normal times increases your room for manoeuvre during adjustment periods.

The essence of this: choose a higher inflation, or even better, nominal spending target the more diverse (read: suboptimal) your currency union is. For the Euro area, an inflation target of below 2% is inadequate. This seems so painstakingly obvious, and yet you will have a hard time finding European, let alone German!, economists who share this view – even though the evidence from the Gold standard era supports this argument, too.

Finally, economic historians like Kenneth Rogoff point out that we are currently in a situation of high debt and over-leverage that happens only rarely. When it does, the decline and adjustment usually takes many years – unless the central bank takes decisive action to prevent a severe drop in AD. This may entail temporarily higher inflation, as a period of deleveraging may hurt growth. But it is worth it, as Kenneth writes:

[In 2008] I argued that the only practical way to shorten the coming period of painful deleveraging and slow growth would be a sustained burst of moderate inflation, say, 4-6% for several years. Of course, inflation is an unfair and arbitrary transfer of income from savers to debtors. But, at the end of the day, such a transfer is the most direct approach to faster recovery. Eventually, it will take place one way or another, anyway, as Europe is painfully learning. … Some observers regard any suggestion of even modestly elevated inflation as a form of heresy. But Great Contractions, as opposed to recessions, are very infrequent events, occurring perhaps once every 70 or 80 years. These are times when central banks need to spend some of the credibility that they accumulate in normal times.

Higher nominal spending growth (or inflation) is therefore an important building block to solve the current, short term European crisis – even if you disagree with my argument above that monetary policy since 2008 is one of the major culprits for leading us into this mess. The ECB’s achievement to keep inflation at 2% is a Pyrrhic victory, as Ryan Avent ironically describes:

If the euro zone does fall apart, a fitting epitaph might read, “The ECB feared 3% inflation”.

I sincerely do hope that I read the wrong newspapers and missed all those European economists and commentators screaming all these things (or even better: that I am wrong). But whenever I try to hear something, there is just silence – or Axel Weber lashing out at Olivier Blanchard. Meanwhile, European policy makers and central bankers are wrecking one of the most fascinating projects in human history, the unity and friendship among the countries of Europe. This is beyond depressing. Way beyond.

Germany is not turning on itself

I’ve recently read some interesting but somewhat shocking article, recommended by FT alphaville, in The Globe and Mail (Canada): “Germany’s season of angst: why a prosperous nation is turning on itself”. Fortunately, the author Doug Saunders is wrong.

Describing Germany’s booming economy, he writes:

These are, by several measures, the most successful people in the world. Yet it is very hard to find anyone here who is happy about this state of affairs.

And from my personal anecdotal evidence, he is right. When I talk to my fellow Germans about the economic situation, I have the same impression. But why is that? Doug’s interpretation, that Germany is afraid of change, involvement with the outside world, immigration or technological progress may be fitting with an earlier image of Germany. But I find other explanation much more plausible.

For starters, Germans fear the consequences of the Euro crisis in part because some politicians, academics and the media deliberately nurture fear. From “defending the Euro” to Prof Sinn’s exaggerated Target-2 arguments, from claims of high inflation to a Lehman-moment, the Germans are being told that the economic risks for them are huge and imminent, which is only partly correct (if at all). Interesting enough, the political risks – that the German taxpayers will become the major creditors of the periphery thanks to fear-induced bailouts (money and friendship…) – is discussed much less often.

But more importantly, Germans have lived through 15 years (!) of near-stagnation or mind-bogglingly high unemployment or both. That shapes your expectations in two important ways.

First, Germany knows how difficult it is to integrate and reform an economically (much more) devastated country of roughly the size of Greece. In fact, they have just been through it. So not only are they jolly well fed up with paying for something like that: after cumulated net public transfers of €1400bn (it’s not a typo), there are still €6bn in net transfers going to Eastern Germany. Per month. (The brain drain from former Eastern Germany was heavy, so how much “Western” Germany really payed is debatable.) At the same time, many Germans feel obliged to help European friends according to a recent poll:

A new survey finds that 60 percent of Germans believe their country has to help Greece in the eurozone debt crisis — like it or not.

Anyone caught in this tension will stray to extremes at times (like the person that Doug interviewed). The trigger may be when the Greek press retaliates with Nazi-jargon to German tabloids’ disgraceful headlines. Or when German politicians – supported by part of the German press – keep talking about “rescuing Greece” instead of being honest about what is actually being rescued: German investors and banks.

Second, after a decade-and-a-half-long economic struggle, Germans simply cannot believe that those times have finally passed for good, which is fully understandable for a country in whose national psyche security comes first. And no, Doug, the German boom is neither built on the birth of the Euro nor on “a deliberate strategy to keep labour costs low and productivity high”. It is built on Germany having re(!)-gained its competitiveness (warning: shameless cross-linking) and an ECB that will have to conduct too loose monetary policy for Germany in the years to come.

Doug’s other examples, immigration and a new protest movement, as well as nuclear power and the Libya war, have multiple roots that are too complex to discuss in a single post. He might have a point here, but there are more sympathetic and equally plausible explanations. For instance, the success of a populist and alarmist book by Thilo Sarrazin about the alleged decline of Germany is a late response of the German public to problems that have been piling up largely unaddressed over the last 30 years. In this context, Doug much too easily dismisses the internationally underappreciated contrast to Italy, Netherlands, France or even Sweden (!), not to mention Austria, that no right-wing populist party has made it into the federal parliament during the last 20 years, despite an unmatched economic malaise and a proportional election system.

Germany is not turning on itself. Germans just have a hard time dealing with and making sense of the current economic situation – and who could blame them? But if you give it some time, you will see that the 2006 & 2010 World Cup euphoria was not just a break from a national state of angst.