By Thomas Geoghegan
Originally Harper’s Magazine
Come on: Is the West really in such decline? Yes, we can sit here on our island continent and gloom about the rise of China, as our elite now like to do. Or we can go out into the world and start competing like the Europeans. For here’s a strange fact: since 2003, it’s not China but Germany, that colossus of European socialism, that has either led the world in export sales or at least been tied for first. Even as we in the United States fall more deeply into the clutches of our foreign creditors—China foremost among them—Germany has somehow managed to create a high-wage, unionized economy without shipping all its jobs abroad or creating a massive trade deficit, or any trade deficit at all. Sure, China just pulled slightly ahead of Germany, but that’s mostly because the euro has soared, making German goods even more expensive, and world trade has slumped. Meanwhile, the dollar is dropping, and we still can’t compete with either nation. And even as the Germans outsell the United States, they manage to take six weeks of vacation every year. They’re beating us with one hand tied behind their back.
Why is Germany beating us? It’s tempting to say it’s because we beat them. After all, we helped put a major component of the German model in place, which is the role that German workers have in running their firms. After World War II, we had a problem: Who would keep watch over all the German businessmen who had supported Hitler? We couldn’t put them all in jail. Back in that New Deal era, we and our allies were quite willing to put workers on the boards to keep an eye on businessmen. Still, the idea of works councils was not invented by Americans. In fact, it had its origins in Weimar Germany. And now Germany is the country, out of all countries, including Communist China, in which workers have the greatest amount of control over (dare I say it) the means of production.
Okay, it’s not that much control. But it’s enough to make the German system a rival form of capitalism. And because German workers are at the table when the big decisions are made, and elect people who still watch and sometimes check the businessmen, they have been able to hang on to their manufacturing sector. They have kept a tool-making, engineering culture, which our own entrepreneurs, dreamily buried in their Ayn Rand novels, have gutted. And now, thanks in large part to these smart structural decisions, Germany is not only competitive, it’s rich. Although it’s unlikely that even the most liberal of American politicians would ever use a phrase like “worker control”—much less describe people who work as “workers”—it might still be worth at least considering what would be involved in emulating the German model.
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