What do you think of when you think of Germany and the German people? Let me guess:
That’s about what I thought. Well, let me tell you: from about the 1770s through the 1920s, the German-speaking world was fucking awesome. Not that you necessarily always wanted to be there, especially when Napoleon came through. But they had Kant, Mozart, and Goethe AT THE SAME TIME. That’s like John Locke, Shakespeare, and The Beatles all just hanging out around England, kicking it.
And it wasn’t like it was just a handful of philosophers, composers, poets, and scientists. It was one after another. And an industrial boom. And the formation of a new empire, when everyone else was beginning to walk back the whole empire thing. The Germans were pumping out babies like it was their job, but unlike the Brits, they had nowhere to go. So they came to America. (More Americans can claim German descent than any other ethnicity.)
Prussia beat France in a war in the 1870s when France was at the top of the world. And didn’t just beat them — they stomped on them. France was so shook up, it had to have another revolution about it. This was like England beating the Spanish Armada.
The industrial revolution? Yeah, the Brits did some nice things with textiles, and the Americans had a lot of bodies to throw at it (plenty of them German), but the rest of it? German.
The twentieth century was Germany’s to lose. And sweet Jesus, did they lose it.
But the Germans didn’t. Not all of them. Because all of that knowledge spread throughout the world. There’s a great line in The Right Stuff, where one of the Americans claims that the Soviets can’t be ahead of them in the space race: “Our Germans are better than their Germans.” World War II just never stopped for them — the so-called Allies kept fighting each other on their turf, using their brains to do the work.
This history — which the understandably overwhelming memory of the Nazis has effectively wiped out for most Americans — is the theme of Peter Watson’s new book The German Genius. He calls what happened in Germany in this period “the third Renaissance.” Here’s a glimpse:
At Göttingen and Halle in the 18th century, and at Berlin and Bonn in the 19th, Germany invented the modern university, combining teaching with research in both humanities and science — at a time when Harvard and Oxford were conservative and theology-centered. University grads staffed a new bureaucracy of experts, and their work in laboratories and archives made research “a rival form of authority in the world.” The universities also enshrined a new ideal of individual cultivation (the fetishized German word is “Bildung”). Germans from Kant to Mann embraced this “secular form of Pietism,” turning inward to find truths not anchored in reason or revelation — and often, like Mann in 1915, choosing mystical wholeness over messy liberal politics.
So how did all this happen? Well…
There’s a new thesis making the rounds that has already stimulated plenty of discussion about the benefits and costs of copyright laws. It comes from the German economic historian Eckhard Höffner, his work summarized in a Der Spiegel review titled “No Copyright Law: The Real Reason for Germany’s Industrial Expansion.”
Höffner contends (according to the review) that the near absence of copyright law in eighteenth and nineteenth century Germany laid the groundwork for the “Gründerzeit”—the enormous wave of economic growth that Deutschland experienced in the middle and later nineteenth century.
An “incomparable mass of reading material was being produced in Germany” by the 1830s, Höffner notes. Some 14,000 publications appeared in the region in 1836, widely distributed thanks to the presence of “plagiarizers”—competing publishing houses unafraid of infringement suits. The result was a cheap mass book market catering to a huge reading public…
And this “lively scholarly discourse” didn’t just focus on poetry and philosophy. It included endless tomes about physics, chemistry, biology, and steel production—crucial subjects a nation would need to master to launch a top flight industrial revolution.
That’s right. They BitTorrented it.
Here’s an idea Malcolm Gladwell throws out in a long back-and-forth with ESPN’s Bill Simmons that’s mostly about the NBA. Simmons argues that career longevity, European imports, and overachieving young players have helped make the current NBA particularly well-stocked not just with talent, but with well-used talent. Gladwell makes one of his trademark Gladwellian connections:
What we’re talking about is what are called capitalization rates, which refers to how efficiently any group makes use of its talent. So, for example, sub-Saharan Africa is radically undercapitalized when it comes to, say, physics: There are a large number of people who live there who have the ability to be physicists but never get the chance to develop that talent. Canada, by contrast, is highly capitalized when it comes to hockey players: If you can play hockey in Canada, trust me, we will find you. One of my favorite psychologists, James Flynn, has looked at capitalization rates in the U.S. for various occupations: For example, what percentage of American men who are intellectually capable of holding the top tier of managerial/professional jobs actually end up getting a job like that. The number is surprisingly low, like 60 percent or so. That suggests we have a lot of room for improvement.
What you’re saying with the NBA is that over the past decade, it has become more and more highly capitalized: There isn’t more talent than before, but there is — for a variety of reasons — a more efficient use of talent. But I suspect that in sports, as in the rest of society, there’s still an awful lot of room for improvement.
Noam Scheiber, writing in The New Republic this week, says basically the same thing (about management, not basketball):
A lot of people talk about reviving the domestic manufacturing sector, which has shed almost one-third of its manpower over the last eight years. But some of the people I spoke to asked a slightly different question: Even if you could reclaim a chunk of those blue-collar jobs, would you have the managers you need to supervise them?
It’s not obvious that you would. Since 1965, the percentage of graduates of highly-ranked business schools who go into consulting and financial services has doubled, from about one-third to about two-thirds. And while some of these consultants and financiers end up in the manufacturing sector, in some respects that’s the problem. Harvard business professor Rakesh Khurana, with whom I discussed these questions at length, observes that most of GM’s top executives in recent decades hailed from a finance rather than an operations background. (Outgoing GM CEO Fritz Henderson and his failed predecessor, Rick Wagoner, both worked their way up from the company’s vaunted Treasurer’s office.) But these executives were frequently numb to the sorts of innovations that enable high-quality production at low cost. As Khurana quips, “That’s how you end up with GM rather than Toyota.”
In effect, what we’ve been doing in American industry is overpaying flashy ball hogs who put up great statistics but don’t know how to build teams or win games. In a similar vein, Umair Haque says that the whole model of a “leader” needs to be rethought, and what we really need are builders:
Leadership was built for 20th century economics. It’s a myth that leadership is a set of timeless skills. Is it? Abraham Zaleznik famously defined leadership as “using power to influence the thoughts and actions of other people.” Influence is the key word. The textbook skills of the “leader” — persuasion, delegation, coalition — aren’t universally applicable. Rather, they fit a very specific context best: the giant, evil, industrial-era organization.
Leaders don’t lead. How did this particular skillset emerge? Influence counts because the vast, Kafkaesque bureaucracies that managed 20th century prosperity, created, in turn, the need for “leaders”: people who could navigate the endlessly twisting politics at the heart of such organizations, and so ensure their survival. But leaders don’t create great organizations — the organization creates the leader. 20th century economics created a canonical model of organization — and “leadership” was built to fit it.
Haque actually doesn’t do a great job at articulating what a “builder” does differently, other than throwing out a few examples. (Yes, Obama isn’t as accomplished a builder as Gandhi — but saying that Gandhi “built” nonviolent resistance only scratches the surface.)
But if you use Haque’s new-economy and Scheiber’s old-economy critiques of current practices, you get something very powerful. The pre-managerial, heroic-age-of-capitalism industrialists of the 19th and early 20th centuries didn’t always build things that were good, from our perspective — but coalsmoke aside, they BUILT things, creating real capital and value along the way. It’s this fifty-year-blip of late uncreative capitalism, milking old property for its dregs, reshuffling money to create something from nothing, that has culturally really screwed us up.