Erhard spent the summer de-Nazifying the West German economy. From June through August 1948, wrote Fred Klopstock, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, “directive followed directive removing price, allocation, and rationing regulations” (p. 283). Vegetables, fruit, eggs, and almost all manufactured goods were freed of controls. Ceiling prices on many other goods were raised substantially, and many remaining controls were no longer enforced. Erhard’s motto could have been: “Don’t just sit there; undo something.”
Journalist Edwin Hartrich tells the following story about Erhard and Clay. In July 1948, after Erhard, on his own initiative, abolished rationing of food and ended all price controls, Clay confronted him:
Clay:“Herr Erhard, my advisers tell me what you have done is a terrible mistake. What do you say to that?”
Erhard:“Herr General, pay no attention to them! My advisers tell me the same thing.”2
Hartrich also tells of Erhard’s confrontation with a U.S. Army colonel the same month:
Colonel:“How dare you relax our rationing system, when there is a widespread food shortage?”
Erhard:“But, Herr Oberst. I have not relaxed rationing; I have abolished it! Henceforth, the only rationing ticket the people will need will be the deutschemark. And they will work hard to get these deutschemarks, just wait and see.”3
Of course, Erhard’s prediction was on target. Decontrol of prices allowed buyers to transmit their demands to sellers, without a rationing system getting in the way, and the higher prices gave sellers an incentive to supply more.
Along with currency reform and decontrol of prices, the government also cut tax rates. A young economist named Walter Heller, who was then with the U.S. Office of Military Government in Germany and was later to be the chairman of President John F. Kennedy’s Council of Economic Advisers, described the reforms in a 1949 article. To “remove the repressive effect of extremely high rates,” wrote Heller, “Military Government Law No. 64 cut a wide swath across the [West] German tax system at the time of the currency reform” (p. 218). The corporate income tax rate, which had ranged from 35 percent to 65 percent, was made a flat 50 percent. Although the top rate on individual income remained at 95 percent, it applied only to income above the level of DM250,000 annually. In 1946, by contrast, the Allies had taxed all income above 60,000 reichsmarks (which translated into about DM6,000) at 95 percent. For the median-income German in 1950, with an annual income of a little less than DM2,400, the marginal tax rate was 18 percent. That same person, had he earned the reichsmark equivalent in 1948, would have been in an 85 percent tax bracket.
The effect on the West German economy was electric. Wallich wrote: “The spirit of the country changed overnight. The gray, hungry, dead-looking figures wandering about the streets in their everlasting search for food came to life” (p. 71).
Shops on Monday, June 21, were filled with goods as people realized that the money they sold them for would be worth much more than the old money. Walter Heller wrote that the reforms “quickly reestablished money as the preferred medium of exchange and monetary incentives as the prime mover of economic activity” (p. 215).
Absenteeism also plummeted. In May 1948 workers had stayed away from their jobs for an average of 9.5 hours per week, partly because the money they worked for was not worth much and partly because they were out foraging or bartering for money. By October average absenteeism was down to 4.2 hours per week. In June 1948 the bizonal index of industrial production was at only 51 percent of its 1936 level; by December the index had risen to 78 percent. In other words, industrial production had increased by more than 50 percent.
Output continued to grow by leaps and bounds after 1948. By 1958 industrial production was more than four times its annual rate for the six months in 1948 preceding currency reform. Industrial production per capita was more than three times as high. East Germany’s communist economy, by contrast, stagnated.
Because Erhard’s ideas had worked, the first chancellor of the new Federal Republic of Germany, Konrad Adenauer, appointed him Germany’s first minister of economic affairs. He held that post until 1963 when he became chancellor himself, a post he held until 1966.