Friday, November 18, 2011

The German Obsession with Inflation

As a footnote to the previous post, here is an observation about the German obsession with inflation.  Media accounts always bring up the hyperinflation of the 1920s and its supposed role in ushering in the Third Reich.  This is bad history: a decade transpired between the inflationary madness of 1923 and the handing off of the chancellorship to Hitler.  That trope should be buried once and for all.

More generally, while the experience of the ‘20s is invoked by Germans themselves, I think it’s little more than a convenient rationalization.  Most Germans are generations removed from this era; it has as little relevance for them as, say, the great Mississippi flood of 1927 has for those living along its banks today.

The real reason is that Germany is a country of savers.  The savings rate is high, and savings are distributed broadly.  Saving is valorized by the culture; you could argue that it is seen as the greatest virtue of all, above courage, generosity and all the rest.  It is an act of self-denial that looks to the future—one’s own and that of the generations to come.  To have savings is to be free.  Germans see the capital stock of the country as the product of their own savings, and to a large extent they are right.  The mass savings institutions, the Sparkassen and the Postbank and savings banks, constitute the bulk of German finance.  Germany is a savocracy.

The great threat to savings is inflation.  Long before hyperinflation destroys savings altogether, modest inflation chips at their edges.  Policies that permit inflation to increase penalize savers, and this makes them immoral, since saving is the epitome of morality.  Better to allow your economy to go down in flames than to resort to the wickedness of the printing press; at least, in the rubble, you will have your savings to draw on.

Among other things, this perspective fails to take account of where savings come from.  Yes, they come from choices people make, but they also come from the income that make those choices possible.  Cut someone’s salary in half, and no matter how virtuous they are, their savings will take a hit.  And a significant part of German income derives, directly and indirectly, from its trade surplus with debtor countries like the Eurozone peripherals and the US.  In other words, the virtue of savings is inseparable from the vice of debt.  Simple accounting identities require this to be true, but it to point it out is to remove yourself from respectable public opinion in Germany.

Of course, it’s easy for me to see this as an American, the product of a massively indebted society buffered by the exorbitant privilege of minting the world’s currency....


Mike Sax said...

Great point Pete! The cause and effect between hyperinflation and Hitler is pretty long and winding.

One could arguem more as has been suggested to the deflation that was present right before Hitler's election.

This same issue was on my mind this morning.

Anonymous said...

The argument is normally not a direct one, like "the Germans were mad about hyperiflation and thus voted for Hitler". The argument is, that hyperinflation broke something inside Germans which made them susceptible for National Socialism.

The horrors of the German hyperinflation and why it might have made Germans ripe for Hitler is best described in Sebastian Haffners book "Defying Hitler" (Chapter 10, Haffner fled Germany in 1938 and wrote this book in 1939).