The entryway to the neoclassical mansion on New York's Upper East Side betrays not a single indication of its inhabitant's name. A security gate is waiting behind the heavy metal door. Inside, one can see dark wood, marble and valuable paintings. From this base, Steven Rattner manages the private fortune of Michael Bloomberg. New York's mayor has entrusted his billions to Rattner because there are few as adept as him at multiplying money.
Rattner previously served as an economic adviser to President Bill Clinton. Barack Obama had been intending to make him a secretary in his administration, but then he assigned him the job of rescuing the American auto industry during the financial crisis. People in Washington are listening to what Rattner has to say on how things should go forward with the rest of America's stagnating economy. And Rattner is saying: "Germany is a model for the United States."
By now, Rattner has become quite knowledgeable about the issue, as well. He calls the German idea of Kurzarbeit "a model," referring to the "short-time work" program that the German government used during the crisis to avoid layoffs by encouraging companies to reduce workers' hours while making up for some of the workers' lost salaries and benefits itself. Likewise, he says that Germany's system for training skilled workers is a "clear role model for us or any other country" and that its intelligent industrial policies are also worthy of being imitated by Americans.
He also expressly praises the creative approaches of Germany's "Agenda 2010" program, the painful and unpopular reforms to the country's social-welfare system and labor market, and the achievements of Gerhard Schröder, the man who ushered in these reforms as Germany's chancellor between 1998 and 2005. Rattner says Schröder figured out how to steer Germany in the right direction so that a "developed contry could remain competitive even in a world where new economic giants, such as China, India and others, are emerging."
'One of the Wonders of the World'
Rattner isn't the only person who shares this opinion. US newsweekly Time writes that the wide range of German economic and social reforms have been "farsighted" and that German firms, together with those reforms, have forged "the most competitive industrial sector of any advanced economy." The New York Times, meanwhile, says that: "The German economy has been one of the wonders of the world over the last couple of years."
Just a few years back, hardly anyone -- and perhaps Schöder himself less than anybody -- would have expected that his reforms would be lauded in, of all places, the Anglo-Saxon media. Indeed, it was primarily American and British economists and politicians who had written the German economy off as an outdated model in the era of globalization, as too cumbersome and inflexible and weighted down by protections against termination, social equalization and strong unions. In the financial centers of New York and London, Germany was labeled the "sick man of Europe."
And now? As America groans under the aftereffects of the financial crisis and recession, Germany's economy continues to steam ahead, even becoming an object of study. "Americans, including policymakers, are increasingly taking an interest in Germany's reforms and what it managed to accomplish in the last 10 years," says Michael Spence, an American economist and the 2001 winner of the Nobel Prize in economics.
"We need to be more like Germany" concurs GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt. And former President Clinton has praised Germany for what he described as a correct response to the crisis. More than anything, Germany is considered a role model for its successes as an exporting nation. While Germany enjoys a foreign trade surplus of €120 billion ($158 billion), America has a trade deficit of €423 billion.
This imbalance troubled Americans very little in the years preceeding the financial crisis. Nor were they bothered by the declining importance of their manufacturing base. The Americans considered machine building, chemicals and heavy industries -- all of which have been traditional German strengths -- to be yesterday's economic fields and ones that, for at least the foreseeable future, were better left to the emerging powers in Asia.
US Loses 200,000 Industrial Jobs a Year
Since the early 1980s, America has lost an average of over 200,000 jobs each year in the manufacturing industries and, today, only a little less than 9 percent of working Americans are employed in factories. Manufacturing as a share of gross domestic product has fallen to around some 12 percent, whereas the same figure for Germany is 26 percent. Instead, it has been the service sector and, especially, the financial industry that has been gaining in power and importance. Indeed, at times, the financial sector has accounted for over 40 percent of all US business earnings. But all of that has significantly changed since the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008.
In an interview with SPIEGEL published two years ago, Paul Volcker, who was President Obama's chief economic adviser at the time, already said that the crisis had given the United States "a wake-up call" about re-establishing its competitiveness and boosting exports. "I wish we had fewer financial engineers and more mechanical engineers," he said at the time, adding: "Tell me the secret of how the Germans keep this going."
Jennifer Granholm is the former governor of the state of Michigan, which, as the center of the country's automotive industry, has suffered immensely from the rapid decline of industrial production in the United States. In a June 2011 interview with the Daily Beast, she touched upon the same issue. "Germany is the perfect example," she said. "How did they crack the code to get manufacturing to stay?
In their search for the causes behind Germany's success, the Americans relatively quickly stumbled upon its Mittelstand, the small and mid-sized firms making up the lion's share of Germany's manufacturing base and that function differently than their American counterparts, which are often listed on stock exchanges. These are companies that "are family owned, they have a very longterm horizon, they don't have to worry about the next quarter's profits, they have stable ownership" and they have competitive advantages as a result, says Rattner, who first became familiar with the structure of Germany's economy after investing in the private television broadcaster ProSiebenSat.1. "These companies focus on producing sophisticated goods that emerging markets can't easily replicate."
In the meantime, Obama has set a target of doubling US exports by 2015, arguing that "Made in the USA" needs to become a major player again, and more industrial production has to be brought back to the country.
Is the German Economy Truly a Suitable Model?
Despite such enthusiasm, there are still the questions about whether the German economy is really suitable as a model and whether its successes are at all possible to replicate elsewhere. Indeed, one might also ask whether some critics are correct in their assessment that Germany's current economic miracle is in large part based upon the fortunate fact that it is producing precisely the kinds of products that the emerging Asia economies would especially like to have . These critics argue that there isn't just a master plan behind the German model, but also a good deal of chance.
Economist and globalization expert Spence, who teaches at New York University, believes there is a lot that can be learned from Germany's example. He suspects that the world's economic evolution will force industrialized nations to regularly "restructure and re-orientate their economy through major policy changes." Likewise, he believes that Germany has already been rather successful at doing so with its labor-market and social reforms and adoption the appropriate industrial policies. He also predicts that "America is going to have to go through a similar process."
One particular focus of this debate is on Germany's system of technical training. In terms of technical and scientific training and the esteem given to engineers and technical professions, Rattner says, Germany should serve as a "model" for the US.
The United States has no equivalent to the German training system or comparable programs for retraining or continuing education. As a result, despite high unemployment figures, there is still a lack of workers qualified to fill positions in the manufacturing industry. Anglo-Saxon shareholders view the German tendency to secure jobs in times of doubt as a competitive disadvantage. For this reason, an economic decline in the United States leads to a swifter and more drastic slashing of jobs, aimed at guaranteeing short-term profits, than it does in Germany. However, the prevailing "hire-and-fire" mentality also discourages companies from investing in the basic and advanced education of their employees.
Obama now intends to change this state of affairs -- with government financial support, as well. During the State of the Union speech he delivered on Jan. 24, Obama dealt at length with how a new gas turbine factory in North Carolina served as a model example of how to give more Americans the "skills that will lead directly to a job." The company "formed a partnership with Central Piedmont Community College … (and) helped the college design courses in laser and robotics training." The program also received government support. The company behind the gas turbine and the unique partnership was Siemens, the German engineering giant. The company had hired some 30 recruiters to find the workers needed for its long-running expansion in the US -- but it wasn't an easy task. "There's a mismatch between the jobs that are available and the people that we see out there," Eric Spiegel, the chief executive for Siemens in the US, told the Financial Times in June 2011. "There is a shortage (of workers with the right skills)."
'America Must Learn from German -- Before It Is Too Late'
Given these circumstances, the Americans are also paying close attention to Germany's Kurzarbeit idea, which helps companies hold on to valuable skilled workers in troubled economic times. Rattner says it is a very interesting way of ensuring that it isn't workers alone who must absorb the impact of the economic slump. The government and companies also share the burden. But he believes the kind of consensus-based culture needed for a program like that may be lacking in America. "There is no appetite here for anybody to do anything they don't have to do," he says.
Spence also thinks the German Kurzarbeit system makes a lot of sense. As he sees it, the labor force needs to be viewed as more than just a good. "Human capital is really quite valuable and it needs to be maintained," he says.
Nevertheless, it is unlikely a program like that will be introduced anytime soon in the US. In the current political climate, anything associated with government-provided financial assistance is taboo. The Republican majority in the US House of Representatives even tried to block a temporary extension of unemployment benefits until finally relenting in February. Given these circumstances, it is highly unlikely that the US will imitate what experts see as another advantage of the German economic system: strong state support for research and development.
Measured as a percentage of GDP, Germany now invests more than 20 times as much as the United States in the industry-related R&D of small and mid-sized companies, says Rob Atkinson, the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a leading think tank in Washington.
"America must learn from Germany -- before it's too late," Atkinson warned in a recent editorial for CNN's website. "Germany has mustered the discipline to think long-term and not merely about the next quarter," he continues, adding that this is why Germany has "emerged from the recession in relatively robust economic health, poised for continued job growth and enhanced competitiveness." One German institution that often receives particular praise from Americans is the Fraunhofer Society, the partially state-financed organization comprised of over 60 research institutes and which has an annual research budget of €1.8 billion.
Nevertheless, there are also some criticisms of the German model, such as the one coming from the other side of the Atlantic that claims that the country's successes in exporting have come at the price of stagnating wages. What's more, some say that the growth in recent years can primarily be attributed to the relative weakness of the euro. According to this view, in recent years, Germany has mainly grown at the expense of its neighbors because its currency is heavily undervalued in comparison to those of European countries not in the euro zone and of the other industrialized nations. On the other hand, if Germany still had the deutsche mark as its currency, it would most likely be the world's hardest currency and, consequently, present a major disadvantage for the country's foreign trade. "It's like having a big wind at your back as you try to run a road race," Rattner says. "I call it a dirty little secret" of Germany's success.
Globalization expert Spence also views the euro's weakness as an advantage, though to a lesser extent. "I wouldn't dismiss the exchange rate argument," he says, "but it's a combination of that and important reforms. Without those reforms that were undertaken, I think Germany would be on a very different trajectory."
Can Germany Keep Up the Pace?
There is still some uncertainty about how long Germany's economy can continue to steam ahead. If the global economy falters, or its European neighbors slide even deeper into recession, or if central banks stop making cash injections, Germany's most recent economic miracle will probably come to at least a temporary halt. Likewise, should that happen, it could also spell the end of the admiration for Germany's economic model.
In any case, when it comes to their own economic performance, the Americans have certainly not suddenly become sheepish. For example, after praising Germany's accomplishments, New York Times writer David Leonhardt recently wrote : "I'm not saying that the United States should want to become Germany. Americans remain considerably richer. We have the innovative companies -- Wal-Mart, Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter -- that make other countries swoon."
Likewise, Rattner underscores how the Mittelstand also has its own range of problems. For every stable, family-owned company, he argues, "you'll find one that has the idiot son."
Above all, he praises the United States for having "the most flexible labor market in the world."