Germany! Become More American!

It looks like I’m on something of a German roll here – but maybe that’s OK, since I noticed that articles from the German press tended to get short shrift in EuroSavant recently. (For instance, click the category for Germany to the left and see what’s there for the month of July.) In any case, who could resist a headline like “Germany Must Become More American” (free registration required)?

That’s the title of the recent editorial in Handelsblatt from Daniel Schwammenthal, who writes a regular column for that newspaper under the title “American View” (that’s the series’ title, i.e. it’s in English, not in German). And, to make a previous circle complete, we’re back here to the reasons I briefly discussed in a recent post, from the Economist (subscription required), about why Germans are disliking America these days. It’s something I didn’t mention in that previous post, but the Economist author ultimately suggests that Germans dislike America these days not because of George W. Bush, but because of their fear of being forced by rising economic pressure to accept what they call amerikanische Verhältnisse, or “American conditions” – you know, that “cowboy capitalism” they practice over in the States, in which family breadwinners can be shown the door from their jobs at the drop of the hat, where everyone works hours that are way excessive and only a small cohort of fat millionaires ultimately benefits.


Whatever those amerikanische Verhältnisse really are, it’s also a well-known fact that American unemployment has been half of the German rate for over a decade, just as American economic growth has at least been double that of the German. It’s Schwammenthal’s point that, in fact, some of those “American conditions” are precisely what Germany needs to turn its economy around. At the beginning of his piece he harkens back to mid-1984, when the German labor movement made its big push for the 35-hour work-week, with demonstrations, stikes, and lockouts by management. Ultimately, it won what it wanted. (I was in Germany at the time, but I confess that I didn’t notice any of this – probably because my German then was still somewhat rudimentary, and also because I was busy with other, military things.) And so, as Schwammenthal puts it, “[w]hile elsewhere the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions rolled, Germany danced around the nose of old Adam Smith. While the US and Great Britain concentrated on lowering taxes, deregulation, and hard work, labor leaders in Germany fulfilled their dream of a ‘leisure society’.”

Twenty years after what turned out to be that watershed summer, that 35-hour work-week is now under attack, successfully in Germany if still unsuccessfully in France. (Where it has the force of law, although the current conservative French government purportedly has that law in its gunsights. On the other hand, the Economist (subscription required) opines that that government will never get very far in really rolling back that 35-hour week statutorily – out of fear of riots in the streets! Oh, those emotional French!) Siemens has regained the 40-hour week – with no increase in pay – from its employees at two plants, Daimler-Chrysler has done the same at an important factory at Sindelfingen and, as Schwammental notes, other firms in Germany are set to do the same: MAN, Philips (itself a Dutch firm, of course), and even the German railways.

How can this be? It’s because, in view of those key factors of economic comparison with the US economy I cited above, “the Germans are doubting the correctness of their economic model.” Tome after tome on the German non-fiction best-seller lists sports a title such as “Can Germany Still Be Saved?” and “Sunset of a Superstar.” German labor, as the most expensive in the world, has simply priced itself out of the market (see this cogent, if longish, analysis from Fistful of Euros). And the breaking-point has been rushed forward early by the recent accession of those ten, mostly Eastern European states, to which it seems German firms are glad to shift their production, and so the employment they offer.


As Schwammenthal puts it, “The new competition out of the East is teaching Germans something: If they want to maintain their standard of living, then they have to work longer and harder.” And: “As paradoxical as it sounds: Germany must become more like America, in order to remain the old Germany.” Actually, those “American conditions,” when you look at them closely, are supposedly not so bad after all. As a parting reading recommendation, Schwammenthal recommends a recent book from the US correspondent of the German business weekly Wirtschaftswoche that makes this point. It’s frustrating that he has to be so coy and name neither the book’s title nor it’s author; if I can use the Net to find this information, I’ll append it to this post. In the meantime, by way of my own counter-proposal to that, I would bring up for your edification Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich, to give those interested a picture of what it’s in fact like to work a job in America whose pay still keeps you below the poverty line and barely able to make ends meet. And don’t let me forget my German-speaking audience here: that work is also in translation (and available from, among others,, under the title Arbeit poor.

UPDATE: I found that book from the economics correspondent for Wirtschaftswoche in the US, Olaf Gersemann, that supposedly explains how the American economic environment isn’t so bad after all; and of course it’s entitled Amerikanische Verhältnisse (published last November; not out in any language other than German that I can find).

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