Almost 150 years ago, the great English economic essayist Walter Bagehot pondered the problem of European monetary integration in the The Economist. At the time, Italy had just been unified in the wake of the Austro-Prussian War and it was clear that Germany, still divided into several separate political entities, was heading in that direction. How far would consolidation go, from an economic point of view? It was clear enough to Bagehot that a single European currency would never do, but two currencies might. Rather, he looked forward to a future in which “there would be one Teutonic money and one Latin money” and posited that “looking to the commercial activity of the Teutonic races, and the comparative torpor of the Latin races, no doubt the Teutonic money would be most frequently preferred.”
The language and reference to alleged racial differences between Latins and Teutons are outdated, but the basic economic claim remains.
David Brooks, for example, wrote on Dec. 2 that the underlying issue in the European debt crisis is that people in prosperous northern European countries “believe in a simple moral formula: effort should lead to reward as often as possible … self-control should be rewarded while laziness and self-indulgence should not.” Over the summer, while the crisis was in a less-acute phase, Thomas Friedman informed us that the key question was why can’t a Greek learn to be like a German. “Germans are now telling Greeks: ‘We’ll loan you more money, provided that you behave like Germans in how you save, how many hours a week you work, how long a vacation you take, and how consistently you pay your taxes.’ ”
Certainly it’s difficult to visit Germany without being impressed by the efficiency and orderliness of German society. And any visit to Spain or Italy or Greece suggests there is something frustratingly lackadaisical about the Mediterranean work ethic.
But stereotypes are tricky. Human beings are primed to see evidence that confirms our pre-existing patterns of belief. Germany is richer than Italy, and German politicians currently hold the whip hand in internal political deliberations. Blaming the whole mess on the comparative torpor of Latins places a convenient moral framework around complicated economic questions, and affirms prior beliefs about who does and doesn’t work hard.
But the data don’t support it.
It’s true that Germans and Greeks work very different amounts, but not in the way you expect. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average German worker put in 1,429 hours on the job in 2008. The average Greek worker put in 2,120 hours. In Spain, the average worker puts in 1,647 hours. In Italy, 1,802. The Dutch, by contrast, outdo even their Teutonic brethren in laziness, working a staggeringly low 1,389 hours per year.
If you recheck your anecdata after looking up the numbers, you’ll recall that on that last trip to Florence or Barcelona you were struck by the huge number of German (or maybe they were Dutch or Danish) tourists around everywhere.
The truth is that countries aren’t rich because their people work hard. When people are poor, that’s when they work hard. Platitudes aside, it takes considerably more “effort” to be a rice farmer or to move sofas for a living than to be a New York Times columnist. It’s true that all else being equal a person can often raise his income by raising his work rate, but it’s completely backward to suggest that extraordinary feats of effort are the way individuals or countries get to the top of the ladder. On the national level the reverse happens—the richer Germans get, the less they work.
Closer to the mark is the observation that Germans (like the Dutch and the Austrians) are thrifty, net savers who consume less than they produce and therefore export more than they import.
Even if there is some sense in which Germany’s trade surplus and attendant thrift is admirable, it simply isn’t possible for all countries to emulate Germany and export more than they import. Your exports are my imports. Your saving is my borrowing. Your assets are my debts. Living within one’s means certainly sounds like a good idea, but it’s not really advice that everyone can take. If every European country strives to reduce government and private borrowing simultaneously, a severe recession and steep decline in output is the only possible outcome. Which is just a reminder that what makes sense as edifying advice to a new college graduate doesn’t necessarily work as a large-scale policy prescription. It would be convenient from the standpoint of moral instruction if laziness were at the root of the European crisis, but the real world is more complicated than that. And faced with those complexities, just about the worst thing we can do is to fall prey to the distinctive torpor of the pundit class and rely on stereotype and hazy generalization instead of cold, hard facts.