Using German ingenuity to fix our economy

This from David Leonhardt at the NY Times:

The first lesson is that it’s really possible to make government more efficient. Like much of Western Europe, Germany long had a unemployment benefits system that discouraged work. But almost a decade ago, it began to make some changes.

It cut many benefits, in both duration and level, and it reduced the incentives to retire early. It also began trying to move the long-term unemployed into the labor force.

Specifically, the government took a fresh look at people who had not worked in years to determine who could and couldn’t work. The able and healthy were matched with potential employers. If they took a low-paying job, which was often the case, they would still receive a small portion of their benefits for a time. If they refused to work, their benefits were reduced anyway.

“The incentives to take up work were strengthened,” says Felix Hüfner of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, “and also the sanctions were strengthened.” Sure enough, the reforms have nudged more people back into the labor force — and work tends to beget more work, as people develop skills and have more money to spend.

In the United States, short-term jobless benefits are not generous enough to be a major problem. But the Social Security disability program, which is one reason nearly 20 percent of working-age American men are not working, would benefit from some German-like reforms. So would those public sector pensions that encourage people to retire at 55 or 60.

Beyond the job market, Germany has also made a big effort to improve its education system. Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University economist, notes that Germany’s performance on the main international math, reading and science tests have become such a matter of national concern that the name of the tests — Pisa — is now a household word. “In the U.S.,” he says, “Pisa is still a bell tower in Italy.”

The math scores of German students have risen significantly since 2000, extending their existing lead over American students. Germany’s national average is now higher than the average in Massachusetts, this country’s top-performing state. And there is obviously a connection between strong technical skills and a strong manufacturing sector.

But the German story is not merely about making government more efficient. It’s also about understanding the unique role that government must play in a market economy.

That role starts with serious regulation. American regulators stood idle as the housing bubble inflated. German banks often required a down payment of 40 percent.

Unlike what happened here, German laws and regulators have also prevented the decimation of their labor unions. The clout of German unions, at individual companies and in the political system, is one reason the middle class there has fared decently in recent decades. In fact, middle-class pay has risen at roughly the same rate as top incomes.

The top 1 percent of German households earns about 11 percent of all income, virtually unchanged relative to 1970, according to recent estimates. In the United States, the top 1 percent makes more than 20 percent of all income, up from 9 percent in 1970. That’s right: only 40 years ago, Germany was more unequal than this country.

Finally, there are taxes. Germany does not have a smaller budget deficit because it spends less. Germany, you’ll recall, is the original welfare state. It has a smaller deficit because it is more willing to match the benefits it wants with the needed taxes. The current deficit-reduction plan includes about 60 percent spending cuts and 40 percent tax increases, Mr. Hüfner says. It’s like trying to lose weight by both eating less and exercising more.

As I suggested before, the American economy’s strengths may still be greater than the German economy’s. But Germany sure does seem more serious about dealing with its weaknesses.

And us? Well, lobbyists for the mortgage bankers and the N.A.A.C.P. have recently started pushing for less stringent standards for down payments. Wall Street is trying to water down other financial regulation, too.

Some Democrats say Social Security and Medicare must remain unchanged. Most Republicans refuse to consider returning tax rates even to their 1990s levels. Republican leaders also want to make deep cuts in the sort of antipoverty programs that have helped Germany withstand the recession even in the absence of big new stimulus legislation.

There is no getting around the fact that financial crises wreak terrible damage. It’s too late for us to prevent that damage, and it will take a long time to recover fully. It is not too late to learn from our mistakes.

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About James Crist

How do we stop America's decline? The country is in trouble and we can all feel it. Where did we go wrong? How do we fix it? We now have an auction-based government, for sale to the highest bidder. Politicians have become nothing more than corporate whores and pawns for the rich. If we want our representatives to represent us, let them get their campaign money from us, their constituents. We have to amend the constitution to get the big money out of politics.
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