Thursday, August 11, 2011

Michael Lewis: It’s the Economy, Dummkopf!

It’s the Economy, Dummkopf!

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.

WURST-CASE SCENARIO German deputy finance minister Jörg Asmussen, at a vestige of the Berlin Wall.

By the time I arrived in Hamburg the fate of the financial universe seemed to turn on which way the German people jumped. Moody’s was set to downgrade the Portuguese government’s debt to junk-bond status, and Standard & Poor’s had hinted darkly that Italy might be next. Ireland was about to be downgraded to junk status, too, and there was a very real possibility that the newly elected Spanish government might seize the moment to announce that the old Spanish government had miscalculated, and owed foreigners a lot more money than they previously imagined. Then there was Greece. Of the 126 countries with rated debt, Greece now ranked 126th: the Greeks were officially regarded as the least likely people on the planet to repay their debts. As the Germans were not only the biggest creditor of the various deadbeat European nations but their only serious hope for future funding, it was left to Germans to act as moral arbiter, to decide which financial behaviors would be tolerated and which would not. As a senior official at the Bundesbank put it to me, “If we say ‘no,’ it’s ‘no.’ Nothing happens without Germany. This is where the losses come to live.” Just a year ago, when German public figures called Greeks cheaters, and German magazines ran headlines like why don't you sell your islands, you bankrupt greeks?, ordinary Greeks took it as an outrageous insult. In June of this year the Greek government started selling islands or at any rate created a fire-sale list of a thousand properties—golf courses, beaches, airports, farmlands, roads—that they hoped to sell, to help repay their debts. It was safe to say that the idea for doing this had not come from the Greeks.

To no one but a German is Hamburg an obvious place to spend a vacation, but it happened to be a German holiday, and Hamburg was overrun by German tourists. When I asked the hotel concierge what there was to see in his city, he had to think for a few seconds before he said, “Most people just go to the Reeperbahn.” The Reeperbahn is Hamburg’s red-light district, the largest red-light district in Europe, according to one guidebook, though you have to wonder how anyone figured that out. And the Reeperbahn, as it happens, was why I was there.

Perhaps because they have such a gift for creating difficulties with non-Germans, the Germans have been on the receiving end of many scholarly attempts to understand their collective behavior. In this vast and growing enterprise, a small book with a funny title towers over many larger, more ponderous ones. Published in 1984 by a distinguished anthropologist named Alan Dundes, Life Is Like a Chicken Coop Ladder set out to describe the German character through the stories that ordinary Germans liked to tell one another. Dundes specialized in folklore, and in German folklore, as he put it, “one finds an inordinate number of texts concerned with anality. Scheisse (shit), Dreck (dirt), Mist (manure), Arsch (ass).… Folksongs, folktales, proverbs, riddles, folk speech—all attest to the Germans’ longstanding special interest in this area of human activity.”

He then proceeded to pile up a shockingly high stack of evidence to support his theory. There’s a popular German folk character called der Dukatenscheisser (“The Money Shitter”), who is commonly depicted crapping coins from his rear end. Europe’s only museum devoted exclusively to toilets was built in Munich. The German word for “shit” performs a vast number of bizarre linguistic duties—for instance, a common German term of endearment was once “my little shit bag.” The first thing Gutenberg sought to publish, after the Bible, was a laxative timetable he called a “Purgation-Calendar.” Then there are the astonishing number of anal German folk sayings: “As the fish lives in water, so does the shit stick to the asshole!,” to select but one of the seemingly endless examples.

Dundes caused a bit of a stir, for an anthropologist, by tracking this single low national character trait into the most important moments in German history. The fiercely scatological Martin Luther (“I am like ripe shit, and the world is a gigantic asshole,” Luther once explained) had the idea that launched the Protestant Reformation while sitting on the john. Mozart’s letters revealed a mind, as Dundes put it, whose “indulgence in fecal imagery may be virtually unmatched.” One of Hitler’s favorite words was Scheisskerl (“shithead”): he apparently used it to describe not only other people but himself as well. After the war, Hitler’s doctors told U.S. intelligence officers that their patient had devoted surprising energy to examining his own feces, and there was pretty strong evidence that one of his favorite things to do with women was to have them poop on him. Perhaps Hitler was so persuasive to Germans, Dundes suggested, because he shared their quintessential trait, a public abhorrence of filth that masked a private obsession. “The combination of clean and dirty: clean exterior-dirty interior, or clean form and dirty content—is very much a part of the German national character,” he wrote.

The anthropologist confined himself mainly to a study of low German culture. (For those hoping to examine coprophilia in German high culture he recommended another book, by a pair of German scholars, entitled The Call of Human Nature: The Role of Scatology in Modern German Literature.) Still, it was hard to come away from his treatise without the strong sense that all Germans, high and low, were a bit different from you and me—a point he made in the introduction to the paperback version of his book. “The American wife of a German-born colleague confessed to me that she understood her husband much better after reading the book,” he wrote. “Prior to that time, she had wrongly assumed that he must have some kind of peculiar psychological hang-up inasmuch as he insisted upon discussing at great length the state of his latest bowel movements.”

The Hamburg red-light district had caught Dundes’s eye because the locals made such a big deal of mud-wrestling. Naked women fought in a metaphorical ring of filth while the spectators wore plastic caps, a sort of head condom, to avoid being splattered. “Thus,” wrote Dundes, “the audience can remain clean while enjoying dirt!” Germans longed to be near the shit, but not in it. This, as it turns out, was an excellent description of their role in the current financial crisis.

The Scheisse Hits the Fan

Aweek or so earlier, in Berlin, I had gone to see Germany’s deputy minister of finance, a 44-year-old career government official named Jörg Asmussen. The Germans are now in possession of the only Finance Ministry in the big-time developed world whose leaders don’t need to worry whether their economy will collapse the moment investors stop buying their bonds. As unemployment in Greece climbs to the highest on record (16.2 percent at last count), it falls in Germany to 20-year lows (6.9 percent). Germany appears to have experienced a financial crisis without economic consequences. They’d donned head condoms in the presence of their bankers, and so they had avoided being splattered by their mud. As a result, for the past year or so the financial markets have been trying and failing to get a bead on the German people: they can probably afford to pay off the debts of their fellow Europeans, but will they actually do it? Are they now Europeans, or are they still Germans? Any utterance or gesture by any German official anywhere near this decision for the past 18 months has been a market-moving headline, and there have been plenty, most of them echoing German public opinion, and expressing incomprehension and outrage that other peoples can behave so irresponsibly. Asmussen is one of the Germans now being obsessively watched. He and his boss, Wolfgang Schäuble, are the two German officials present in every conversation between the German government and the deadbeats.

The Finance Ministry, built in the mid-1930s, is a monument to both the Nazis’ ambition and their taste. A faceless butte, it is so big that if you circle it in the wrong direction it can take you 20 minutes to find the front door. I circle it in the wrong direction, then sweat and huff to make up for lost time, all the while wondering if provincial Nazis in from the sticks had had the same experience, wandering outside these forbidding stone walls and trying to figure out how to get in. At length I find a familiar-looking courtyard: the only difference between it and famous old photographs of it is that Hitler is no longer marching in and out of the front door, and the statues of eagles perched atop swastikas have been removed. “It was built for Göring’s Air Ministry,” says the waiting Finance Ministry public-relations man, who is, oddly enough, French. “You can tell from the cheerful architecture.” He then explains that the building is so big because Hermann Göring wanted to be able to land planes on its roof.

Ihave arrived about three minutes late, but the German deputy minister of finance runs a full five minutes later, which, I will learn, is viewed by Germans almost as a felony. He apologizes a lot more than he needs to for the delay. He wears the slender-framed spectacles of a German film director, and is extremely fit and bald, but by choice rather than circumstance. Extremely fit white men who shave their heads are making a statement, in my experience of them. “I don’t need body fat and I don’t need hair,” they seem to be saying, while also implying that anyone who does is a wuss. The deputy finance minister even laughs just as all extremely fit men with shaved heads should laugh, if they want to remain in character. Instead of opening his mouth to allow the air to pass he purses his lips and snorts the sound out through his nose. He may need laughter as much as other men, but he needs less air to laugh with. His desk is a template of self-discipline. It is alive with implied activity—legal pads, Post-it notes, manila folders—but every single object on it is perfectly aligned with all the others, and with the edges of the desk. Every angle is precisely 90 degrees. But the most striking optional décor is a big white sign on the wall beside the desk. It’s in German but translates easily back into the original English:

the secret of success is to understand the point of view of others.
—henry ford

This surprises me. It’s not at all what an extremely fit bald man should have as his mantra. It’ssoft. The deputy finance minister further disturbs my wild assumptions about him by speaking clearly, even recklessly, about subjects most finance ministers believe it is their job to obscure. He offers up, without much prompting, that he has just finished reading the latest unpublished report by I.M.F. investigators on the progress made by the Greek government in reforming itself.

“They have not sufficiently implemented the measures they have promised to implement,” he says simply. “And they have a massive problem still with revenue collection. Not with the tax law itself. It’s the collection which needs to be overhauled.”

Greeks are still refusing to pay their taxes, in other words. But it is only one of many Greek sins. “They are also having a problem with the structural reform. Their labor market is changing—but not as fast as it needs to,” he continues. “Due to the developments in the last 10 years, a similar job in Germany pays 55,000 euros. In Greece it is 70,000.” To get around pay restraints in the calendar year the Greek government simply paid employees a 13th and even 14th monthly salary—months that didn’t exist. “There needs to be a change of the relationship between people and the government,” he continues. “It is not a task that can be done in three months. You need time.” He couldn’t put it more bluntly: if the Greeks and the Germans are to coexist in a currency union, the Greeks need to change who they are.

This is unlikely to happen soon enough to matter. The Greeks not only have massive debts but are still running big deficits. Trapped by an artificially strong currency, they cannot turn these deficits into surpluses, even if they do everything that outsiders ask them to do. Their exports, priced in euros, remain expensive. The German government wants the Greeks to slash the size of their government, but that will also slow economic growth and reduce tax revenues. And so one of two things must happen. Either Germans must agree to a new system in which they would be fiscally integrated with other European countries as Indiana is integrated with Mississippi: the tax dollars of ordinary Germans would go into a common coffer and be used to pay for the lifestyle of ordinary Greeks. Or the Greeks (and probably, eventually, every non-German) must introduce “structural reform,” a euphemism for magically and radically transforming themselves into a people as efficient and productive as the Germans. The first solution is pleasant for Greeks but painful for Germans. The second solution is pleasant for Germans but painful, even suicidal, for Greeks.

The only economically plausible scenario is that Germans, with a bit of help from a rapidly shrinking population of solvent European countries, suck it up, work harder, and pay for everyone else. But what is economically plausible appears to be politically unacceptable. The German people all know at least one fact about the euro: that before they agreed to trade in their deutsche marks their leaders promised them, explicitly, they would never be required to bail out other countries. That rule was created with the founding of the European Central Bank (E.C.B.)—and was violated a year ago. The German public is every day more upset by the violation—so upset that Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has a reputation for reading the public mood, hasn’t even bothered to try to go before the German people to persuade them that it might be in their interests to help the Greeks.

That is why Europe’s money problems feel not just problematic but intractable. It’s why Greeks are now mailing bombs to Merkel, and thugs in Berlin are hurling stones through the window of the Greek consulate. And it’s why European leaders have done nothing but delay the inevitable reckoning, by scrambling every few months to find cash to plug the ever growing economic holes in Greece and Ireland and Portugal and praying that even bigger and more alarming holes in Spain, Italy, and even France refrain from revealing themselves.

Until now the European Central Bank, in Frankfurt, has been the main source of this cash. The E.C.B. was designed to behave with the same discipline as the German Bundesbank, but it has morphed into something very different. Since the start of the financial crisis it has bought, outright, something like $80 billion of Greek and Irish and Portuguese government bonds, and lent another $450 billion or so to various European governments and European banks, accepting virtually any collateral, including Greek government bonds. But the E.C.B. has a rule—and the Germans think the rule very important—that they cannot accept as collateral bonds classified by the U.S. ratings agencies as in default. Given that they once had a rule against buying bonds outright in the open market, and another rule against government bailouts, it’s a little odd that they have gotten so hung up on this technicality. But they have. If Greece defaults on its debt, the E.C.B. will not only lose a pile on its holdings of Greek bonds but must return the bonds to the European banks, and the European banks must fork over $450 billion in cash. The E.C.B. itself might face insolvency, which would mean turning for funds to its solvent member governments, led by Germany. (The senior official at the Bundesbank told me they already have thought about how to deal with the request. “We have 3,400 tons of gold,” he said. “We are the only country that has not sold its original allotment from the [late 1940s]. So we are covered to some extent.”) The bigger problem with a Greek default is that it might well force other European countries and their banks into default. At the very least it would create panic and confusion in the market for both sovereign and bank debt, at a time when a lot of banks and at least two big European debt-ridden countries, Italy and Spain, cannot afford panic and confusion.

At the bottom of this unholy mess, from the point of view of the German Finance Ministry, is the unwillingness, or inability, of the Greeks to change their behavior.

That was what the currency union always implied: entire peoples had to change their ways of life. Conceived as a tool for integrating Germany into Europe, and preventing Germans from dominating others, it has become the opposite. For better or for worse, the Germans now own Europe. If the rest of Europe is to continue to enjoy the benefits of what is essentially a German currency, they need to become more German. And so, once again, all sorts of people who would rather not think about what it means to be “German” are compelled to do so.

Jörg Asmussen offers the first hint of an answer—in his personal behavior. He is a type familiar in Germany but absolutely freakish in Greece—or for that matter the United States: a keenly intelligent, highly ambitious civil servant who has no other desire but to serve his country. His sparkling curriculum vitae is missing a line that would be found on the résumés of men in his position most anywhere else in the world—the line where he leaves government service for Goldman Sachs to cash out. When I asked another prominent German civil servant why he hadn’t taken time out of public service to make his fortune working for some bank, the way every American civil servant who is anywhere near finance seems to want to do, his expression changed to alarm. “But I could never do this,” he said. “It would be illoyal!”

Asmussen agrees and then addresses the German question more directly. The curious thing about the eruption of cheap and indiscriminate lending of money during the past decade was the different effects it had from country to country. Every developed country was subjected to more or less the same temptation, but no two countries responded in precisely the same way. The rest of Europe, in effect, used Germany’s credit rating to indulge its material desires. They borrowed as cheaply as Germans could to buy stuff they couldn’t afford. Given the chance to take something for nothing, the German people alone simply ignored the offer. “There was no credit boom in Germany,” says Asmussen. “Real-estate prices were completely flat. There was no borrowing for consumption. Because this behavior is rather alien to Germans. Germans save whenever possible. This is deeply in German genes. Perhaps a leftover of the collective memory of the Great Depression and the hyperinflation of the 1920s.” The German government was equally prudent because, he went on, “there is a consensus among the different parties about this: if you’re not adhering to fiscal responsibility, you have no chance in elections, because the people are that way.”

In that moment of temptation, Germany became something like a mirror image of Iceland and Ireland and Greece and, for that matter, the United States. Other countries used foreign money to fuel various forms of insanity. The Germans, through their bankers, used their own money to enable foreigners to behave insanely.

This is what makes the German case so peculiar. If they had been merely the only big, developed nation with decent financial morals, they would present one sort of picture, of simple rectitude. But they had done something far more peculiar: during the boom German bankers had gone out of their way to get dirty. They lent money to American subprime borrowers, to Irish real-estate barons, to Icelandic banking tycoons to do things that no German would ever do. The German losses are still being toted up, but at last count they stand at $21 billion in the Icelandic banks, $100 billion in Irish banks, $60 billion in various U.S. subprime-backed bonds, and some yet-to-be-determined amount in Greek bonds. The only financial disaster in the last decade German bankers appear to have missed was investing with Bernie Madoff. (Perhaps the only advantage to the German financial system of having no Jews.) In their own country, however, these seemingly crazed bankers behaved with restraint. The German people did not allow them to behave otherwise. It was another case of clean on the outside, dirty on the inside. The German banks that wanted to get a little dirty needed to go abroad to do it.

About this the deputy finance minister has not that much to say. He continues to wonder how a real-estate crisis in Florida could end with all these losses in Germany.

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1 comment:

Alan Shouls said...

Hi David,

Great blog.

My feeling is that the Euro will only hold together if Germany is willing to to pay for it. Germany is a democracy and it is not what the majority of Germans want. Logically then it is hard to see how it can continue to hold together.