"What Are You Talking About? Generous?": Piketty's German Interview
Thomas Piketty, the French economist and author of Capital in the 21st Century (reviewed here by A Dog), has given an searing interview about the European debt crisis to the German newspaper Die Zeit. (Hamilton Nolan has written it up here.) Unfortunately, the only English translation, an unofficial one posted to Medium by Gavin Schalliol, has since been taken down.
With any luck, Die Zeit will put up its own English translation soon. Till then, here’s a small portion of what you’re missing:
On Germany reckoning with history
ZEIT: But we Germans have already reckoned with our own history.
Piketty: But not when it comes to repaying debts! Germany’s past, in this respect, should be of great significance to today’s Germans. Look at the history of national debt: Great Britain, Germany, and France were all once in the situation of today’s Greece, and in fact had been far more indebted. The first lesson that we can take from the history of government debt is that we are not facing a brand new problem. There have been many ways to repay debts, and not just one, which is what Berlin and Paris would have the Greeks believe.
On Germany’s standing to “lecture other nations”
ZEIT: But surely we can’t draw the conclusion that we can do no better today?
Piketty: When I hear the Germans say that they maintain a very moral stance about debt and strongly believe that debts must be repaid, then I think: what a huge joke! Germany is the country that has never repaid its debts. It has no standing to lecture other nations.
On two methods of nations paying back debts
ZEIT: Are you trying to depict states that don’t pay back their debts as winners?
Piketty: Germany is just such a state. But wait: history shows us two ways for an indebted state to leave delinquency. One was demonstrated by the British Empire in the 19th century after its expensive wars with Napoleon. It is the slow method that is now being recommended to Greece. The Empire repaid its debts through strict budgetary discipline. This worked, but it took an extremely long time. For over 100 years, the British gave up two to three percent of their economy to repay its debts, which was more than they spent on schools and education. That didn’t have to happen, and it shouldn’t happen today. The second method is much faster. Germany proved it in the 20th century. Essentially, it consists of three components: inflation, a special tax on private wealth, and debt relief.
ZEIT: So you’re telling us that the German Wirtschaftswunder [“economic miracle”] was based on the same kind of debt relief that we deny Greece today?
Piketty: Exactly. After the war ended in 1945, Germany’s debt amounted to over 200% of its GDP. Ten years later, little of that remained: public debt was less than 20% of GDP. Around the same time, France managed a similarly artful turnaround. We never would have managed this unbelievably fast reduction in debt through the fiscal discipline that we today recommend to Greece. Instead, both of our states employed the second method with the three components that I mentioned, including debt relief. Think about the London Debt Agreement of 1953, where 60% of German foreign debt was cancelled and its internal debts were restructured.
On whether Germany is “generous”
ZEIT: Do you believe that we Germans aren’t generous enough?
Piketty: What are you talking about? Generous? Currently, Germany is profiting from Greece as it extends loans at comparatively high interest rates.