in yesterday’s linkfest i linked to a terrific article by michael lewis on the current economic state (pretty good!) of germany. he describes the germans and their ordnung ways in a series of anecdotes that reaffirm practically every stereotype of germans that you can think of — efficient, hard-working, loyal, trusting (to the point of being gullible) — and he doesn’t shy away from them. rather, he uses these to explain why germany, today, is practically the only solvent country in europe (the world?) and is maybe the only state in that union that will be able to bail all the others out. maybe. if they decide to.
lewis talks about how there was nearly no financial silliness in germany during the last decade (no sub-prime mortgage crisis and no housing bubble there!), mostly because the germans are not into being silly. they prefer to be responsible — and honest. the exception to the rule, he claims, were the bankers in some of the big private investment banks in places like frankfurt and the landesbanks. they happily dove into purchasing all sorts of dodgy cdos and what not from wall street and elsewhere. why?, he asks.
he comes up with two explanations: 1) a lot of the landesbank personnel were just naive — they never imagined that wall streeters would re-package cr*p and call it triple-a investment opportunities; and 2) well … here’s where he got all freudian.
lewis discusses at some length the german culture’s obsession with all-things-scheiße – your average johan’s endless discussions about his daily bowel movements to sexual fetishes to children’s fairytales. from this he concludes that there’s some sort of “dual nature” to germans: on the outside they like order and cleanliness, but subconsciously they’re just looking to get dirty. so they bought dirty assests … or something like that.
meh, i say.
the real explanation is prolly more along the lines of: there is variation within the german population (as there is in any population) with regard to personality type and, prolly, the more sociopathic/psychopathic wound up working in private investment banks (who else works in those places?) where they could operate in more dodgy ways than in other areas of german society — especially since they were dealing mostly with dodgy foreigners. (also, some of the dodgy “german” bankers might not have been german at all.)
why the german obsession with scheiße (which, knowing quite a few germans, i know to be the case!)? my guess is that more of them simply have a hard time taking a dump than other peoples ’cause they’re still not fully adapted to grains! think of the distribution of crohn’s disease and celiac disease — very frequent in northwest europe — some of the last places where the neolithic farming revolution hit. (that’s my theory and i’m sticking to it!)
anyway — here are some fun quotes from lewis:
“I have arrived about three minutes late, but the German deputy minister of finance [Jörg Asmussen] runs a full five minutes later, which, I will learn, is viewed by Germans almost as a felony. He apologizes a lot more than he needs to for the delay…. His desk is a template of self-discipline. It is alive with implied activity—legal pads, Post-it notes, manila folders—but every single object on it is perfectly aligned with all the others, and with the edges of the desk. Every angle is precisely 90 degrees….
“Jörg Asmussen offers the first hint of an answer—in his personal behavior. He is a type familiar in Germany but absolutely freakish in Greece — or for that matter the United States: a keenly intelligent, highly ambitious civil servant who has no other desire but to serve his country. His sparkling curriculum vitae is missing a line that would be found on the résumés of men in his position most anywhere else in the world — the line where he leaves government service for Goldman Sachs to cash out. When I asked another prominent German civil servant why he hadn’t taken time out of public service to make his fortune working for some bank, the way every American civil servant who is anywhere near finance seems to want to do, his expression changed to alarm. ‘But I could never do this,’ he said. ‘It would be illoyal!’
“Asmussen agrees and then addresses the German question more directly. The curious thing about the eruption of cheap and indiscriminate lending of money during the past decade was the different effects it had from country to country. Every developed country was subjected to more or less the same temptation, but no two countries responded in precisely the same way. The rest of Europe, in effect, used Germany’s credit rating to indulge its material desires. They borrowed as cheaply as Germans could to buy stuff they couldn’t afford. Given the chance to take something for nothing, the German people alone simply ignored the offer. ‘There was no credit boom in Germany,’ says Asmussen. ‘Real-estate prices were completely flat. There was no borrowing for consumption. Because this behavior is rather alien to Germans. Germans save whenever possible. This is deeply in German genes. Perhaps a leftover of the collective memory of the Great Depression and the hyperinflation of the 1920s.’ The German government was equally prudent because, he went on, ‘there is a consensus among the different parties about this: if you’re not adhering to fiscal responsibility, you have no chance in elections, because the people are that way….’
“The drive from Berlin to Düsseldorf takes longer than it should. For long stretches the highway is choked with cars and trucks. A German traffic jam is a peculiar sight: no one honks; no one switches lanes searching for some small, illusory advantage; all trucks remain in the right-hand lane, where they are required to be. The spectacle, sparkling Audis and Mercedeses in the left lane, and immaculate trucks neatly rowed up in the right lane, is almost a pleasure to watch. Because everyone in it obeys the rules, and believes that everyone else will obey them, too, it moves as fast as it can, given the circumstances….
“If the deputy finance minister has a sign on his wall reminding him to see the point of view of others, here is perhaps why. Others do not behave as Germans do: others lie. In this financial world of deceit, Germans are natives on a protected island who have not been inoculated against the virus carried by visitors. The same instincts that allowed them to trust the Wall Street bond salesmen also allowed them to trust the French when they promised there would be no bailouts, and the Greeks when they swore that their budget was balanced.”
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