Tuesday, 25 January 2005

Germany's historical school of economics

Hmm. It seems that the German feudal system that suppressed Carl Menger’s work is only now dying (link may require subscription):

PUT five economists in a room, on Winston Churchill’s arithmetic, and you get five opinions—unless one is Keynes, when you get six. In Germany the sums have usually been simpler: you get just two opinions, with four economists sharing one point of view, and the fifth a token Keynesian, sent by the trade unions. Yet German economists are becoming more like their peers abroad. The typical specimen is becoming more empirical, pragmatic and ready for controversy, after a period when he was usually long on theory and reluctant to criticise colleagues.

This change has now reached the pinnacle of Germany’s “five wise men”, the country’s council of economic experts. Earlier this month, a public dispute erupted among the five (actually they are four men and one woman). What is more, they are likely to pick as their next chairman Bert Rürup, a hands-on, down-to-earth academic. This could have an influence on policy, for the underlying row among the five wise men was really about how to get the economy growing again. One of them, Peter Bofinger, even called for wage increases in line with productivity growth.

German economists have long had the knack of going their own way. Until the second world war, they hailed mostly from the “historical school”, which held that there was no such thing as economic rationality. In contrast, most are now wedded to neoclassicism, declaring that macroeconomic policy is ineffective and preferring to focus on supply-side issues. Labels such as “Keynesian” or even “pragmatist” have been insults. This partly reflects Germany’s cultural fondness for consensus, not a competition of ideas. Michael Burda, an American economist at Berlin’s Humboldt University, argues that German economics is only just escaping the middle ages.

Their escape is long overdue, it would seem.