Many people assume that Germany has long been an economic success story. It was certainly successful back in the 1950s and 1960s. But as recently as 2004 it was widely viewed as the “sick man of Europe” despite all those sleek BMWs and Mercedes they churn out each year.

The normally reliable Matt Yglesias falls into the trap of (implicitly) assuming long term German success in a piece on youth unemployment. Yglesias tries to explain the low rate of youth unemployment by pointing to their system of technical training for students that are not college bound. That certainly seems like a fine system, but it’s been around for decades, and thus can hardly explain the amazing post-2004 German jobs miracle. Why do I use the term ‘miracle’? Consider:

1. Germany was hit roughly as hard by the 2008-09 recession as the US.
2. Unlike the US, the German working age population is not growing.

Put those two together and you’d expect very little German job creation in recent years. And yet German employment has risen by 6% over the past 6 years, whereas American employment has declined, despite a RGDP recovery that is far more brisk than the eurozone, indeed faster than in Germany. That’s pretty amazing.

I sometimes wonder how progressive readers would filter Yglesias’s message. The type that thinks that if a program works in Sweden it would certainly work over here. The ones that Paul Krugman insists are “reality based” in their thinking. German job training seems good, and Obama has recommended some programs for America. The highly inegalitarian German high school system might make American progressives squirm, but Yglesias reassures them that this approach would be hard to implement in a country that lacks the tight cooperation between companies, unions and local governments.

Of course none of this has anything to do with explaining how Germany went from being the sick man of Europe to its shining star, all in a period of 10 years. Here’s the German unemployment rate since 1960. Notice that Germany had 8% unemployment as far back as the mid-1980s, during the Reagan boom in America. Things had been getting worse for decades, and the 1980s figures suggest that the problem wasn’t just German reunification.

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So what’s the real explanation for the German success? That’s pretty obvious; the Hartz reforms of 2003 sharply reduced the incentive to not work, and sharply increased the incentive to take low wage jobs. As a result, today Germany has lots of very low wage jobs of the type that would be illegal in France or California. (Germany has no minimum wage.) Here is the Guardian:

Exactly 10 years ago today, Germany’s labour market was subjected to the first of the so-called Hartz IV reforms. Brought about by the smooth centre-left chancellor Gerhard Schröder, it was a watershed moment that changed the way the German government deals with poverty.

The changes were riddled with the kind of Anglicisms that German officialdom likes to deploy for any modernisation. In the past decade, unemployed Germans have been bewildered with a kaleidoscope of new “Denglish” terms, from “Jobcenter” to “Personal Service Agentur” to “Mini-Job” to “BridgeSystem”. But the measures recommended by the Hartz commission – named after its chairman, former Volkswagen executive Peter Hartz – boiled to down to this: the bundling of unemployment benefits and social welfare benefits into one neat package.

The immediate effect was to leave those living on benefits worse off (as of 2013, the standard rate for a single person is €382 a month, plus the cost of “adequate housing” and healthcare). But the new element that brought the most profound change was the contract, drawn up between the “jobseeker” and the “Jobcenter”, which defined what each party promised to do to get the jobseeker back on somebody’s payroll. This was coupled with “sanctions” – in other words, benefit cuts – if the jobseeker failed to keep up his or her side of the bargain. With those two measures, Germany came to accept the modern interpretation of the word “incentive” in the job market: the doctrine that poor people will only work if they are they are not given money.

There are myriad debates about the net results or benefits of the Hartz reforms. Unemployment, both long-term and short-term, has certainly dropped considerably in Germany since 1 January 2003, but critics say that’s only because most jobless people are forced to accept the next job they can find – and often they end up in one so low-paid and part-time that they were still dependent on some sort of state welfare anyway. Then again, the flexibility that allows employers – especially major industrial companies – to take on and lay off part-time shift workers depending on the state of the export market has certainly helped Germany to ride out the global economic crisis in the past three years.

But what is hard to overlook is that the Hartz reforms have had two social effects. First, they have helped to accelerate inequality in Germany. According to an April 2012 OECD report, “Germany is the only [EU] country that has seen an increase in labour earnings inequality from the mid 1990s to the end 2000s driven by increasing inequality in the bottom half of the distribution.” The report goes on to point to “a set of reforms in 2003 meant to increase the flexibility of the labour market” which help to explain the “wage moderation”.

So the one major success story among developed countries has achieved its success by doing essentially the exact opposite of what progressives want. Germany has no minimum wage, reduced its incentives to live off welfare, and has a level of wage inequality that is increasing even faster than in the US. It’s no wonder that progressives prefer to focus on things like “vocational training programs,” which were just as common during the 30-year period of steadily rising German unemployment.

And yet Paul Krugman can say the following without blushing:

Just to be clear: Yes, you can find examples where *some* liberals got off on a hobbyhorse of one kind or another, or where the liberal conventional wisdom turned out wrong. But you don’t see the kind of lockstep rejection of evidence that we see over and over again on the right. Where is the liberal equivalent of the near-uniform conservative rejection of climate science, or the refusal to admit that Obamacare is in fact reaching a lot of previously uninsured Americans?

Here’s an example for Krugman. Much of the progressive movement seems entranced by a pied piper from France who thinks inequality can be reduced almost costlessly, and that even France needs to be much more socialist. Meanwhile they almost totally ignore a highly successful social market economy. The biggest economy in Europe. What would Al Gore call German labor market policy success? An inconvenient truth?

PS. I have a follow-up post on Germany here.