Germany is celebrating: it is 25 years ago that the Berlin Wall came down, marking the end of Stasi tyranny, and much more than that. No doubt that is reason to celebrate, for Germany, Europe, and the world. As a German and European, I am celebrating too.
Alas, this is also an occasion for hearing that tiresome story again about how costly and burdensome it was for Germany to reunite. For instance, Terence Roth writes a piece in the WSJ titled “After Fall of Berlin Wall, German Unification Came With a Big Price Tag.” Now, this kind of statement really needs to be qualified, especially as the myth about the “burden of unification” paved the way for yet another German myth a few years later that has proven rather catastrophic for Europe: namely, the myth that Germany had to “restore its competitiveness,” which it apparently had lost in the context of reuniting. Undisturbed by any doubt or reason, the German authorities live in their mythical world of economic virtue and vice, famously referred to by finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble as his “parallel universe.” Let’s try to get the matter straight then.
To begin with, it is unquestionably true that German unification came along with a big price tag. But the price Germany ended up paying was only partly due to the wreckage that communism had produced in the east. The macroeconomic policy response, featuring ultra-tight money and mindless fiscal austerity, proved far more costly. In 1991, both Germany’s consumer price inflation and budget deficit as a share of GDP were about 3 percent. Imagine the Federal Reserve responding to the historical challenge and responsibility of national reunification by monetary overkill—which is exactly what the Bundesbank chose to do, hiking rates to 10 percent and pressuring fiscal policy into sharp tightening too. Ironically, this counterproductive macro policy mix pushed headline inflation up, apart from crushing growth. As a consequence, on top of the legacy of wreckage in East Germany, unemployment in former West Germany doubled as 1.5 million jobs (5 percent of the labor force) were destroyed. Unsurprisingly, Germany struggled until 1998 to get the budget deficit back to just below 3 percent. Only the smaller part of the rise in Germany’s debt ratio from 40 to 60 percent of GDP over the 1990s owed to East German legacies (see here and here).
This is not where the story ends though. continue reading…