BONN -- Is the West German economy a lazy giant that is shirking its fair share of the burden of carrying world economic growth?
Or is it an average-sized fellow who already is bearing as much as he can, and who would risk overexertion if he tried to do more?
That is the crux of a longstanding dispute between the U.S. and West German governments that helped to trigger last month's global stock market plunge. The quarrel shows few signs of abating soon.
The United States would like the West Germans to boost their domestic growth rate in three ways: by lowering interest rates, by cutting taxes sooner and by a larger amount than planned, and by removing regulations on industry and consumers.
Faster growth in West Germany would bolster economies throughout western Europe, the Americans say. The western Europeans would then import more goods from the United States, and thus help trim the U.S. trade deficit, they say.
The Bonn government responds that it cannot lower interest rates or cut taxes any more without risking a serious rekindling of inflation. It acknowledges that it should do more to deregulate the economy, but says that process takes time.
The West Germans also maintain that their economy is too small to serve as a "locomotive" for world growth. And they sniff that American exports to Europe are low because U.S. products are of inferior quality.
Independent economic analysts say there are valid arguments on both sides, but most say that the West Germans can and should do more.
There is widespread agreement with the Americans that the West German economy could grow substantially faster without overheating. Inflation currently is running at a negligible rate of less than 1 percent, while unemployment is hovering at high levels of about 8 percent.
Finance Minister Gerhard Stoltenberg has drawn especially heavy criticism for his reluctance to cut taxes earlier than scheduled. West Germany's five leading economic research institutes, which issue joint recommendations twice a year, have urged the government to bring forward to 1989 a substantial tax reduction now planned for 1990.
On the other hand, some analysts say that a West German economic pickup, while desirable, would have only a moderate impact globally. West Germany's economy is less than one-third as large as America's, and only half as large as Japan's.
"It would be a help, certainly, if the West Germans did grow faster. But I think the American authorities are overestimating the potential effects. Just look at the figures," said a western European diplomat who specializes in economic affairs.
The Germans' defenders also emphasize that the United States bears much of the blame, or most of it, for the troubled state of the world economy.
Senior Deutsche Bank official Alfred Herrenhausen, espousing a widely held view, has urged West Germany to do more to promote growth, but stressed that the large U.S. budget deficit was the main problem afflicting world markets.
Some economists and historians trace the Germans' fear of inflation to the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s. The value of the mark fell so sharply then that it took a wheelbarrow full of bills to buy a loaf of bread.
But West German government experts say that they worry more about their country's more recent experience with state-induced expansion in the late 1970s.
Partly because of pressure from President Carter, the government of Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt reflated the economy in 1978. The result, in the view of the conservatives now in power in Bonn, was a troublesome inflation that led to recession in the early 1980s.
"We cannot go in that way again, because we had this bad experience with that philosophy," a West German economic official said.
Critics respond that the 1978 reflation would have been successful except for the sharp rise in oil prices in 1979.
"Until the oil shock, the policy worked just like in a textbook. We had a strong upturn. Unfortunately, the Germans only remember the inflation, but oil prices contributed heavily to that," said an economist at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Underlying the U.S.-West German dispute are fundamental differences over economic philosophy. The Germans -- policymakers and consumers alike -- are skeptical of what they view as America's free-wheeling, excessively consumption-oriented capitalism.
West German families are reluctant to build up large personal debts, and credit cards are not widely used. The government was careful to postpone tax cuts until after it restrained spending.
The German electorate also appears to be willing to tolerate relatively high unemployment.
"We have a conservative government because the voters elected it. You can guess that most of the people are very content and satisfied with their own situation. The people who are unemployed are a minority," said Horst Seidler, a senior economist at the left-leaning German Institute for Economic Research in West Berlin.
"The majority of the population seems to believe that any policy geared to greater public expenditure will only bring about short-term benefits, and that the consequence would be long-term problems because of higher public debt," Seidler said.
Wall Street's plunge generally was interpreted here as a definitive, negative verdict on the Reagan administration's tolerance of large budget and trade deficits.
"If we were to succeed with a very expansionist policy at any price, and if there were the same result as in the United States, this would not be beneficial for the world economy," a West German official said tartly.
There are subtle divisions among West German policymakers over how strongly to resist the U.S. pressure to expand.
Stoltenberg and Karl Otto Poehl, president of the Bundesbank, or central bank, each want the other to do more to spur growth.
Stoltenberg would like the Bundesbank to loosen monetary policy. Poehl would like Stoltenberg to act to cut taxes sooner.
Within the Bundesbank itself, Poehl is known to favor a somewhat less restrictive monetary policy than central bank Vice President Helmut Schlesinger.
But there is widespread agreement about the overall thrust of policy. From the U.S. point of view, there are no soft-liners, but only hard-liners and very hard-liners.
Washington views the West German position as irrational and frustrating.
Here is a country, the Americans say, with low inflation, a comparatively small budget deficit, high unemployment and a large trade surplus. All of those conditions signal that the economy has plenty of room to grow more rapidly.
Yet West Germany's growth rate averaged only 2.25 percent over the last two years, and is expected to fall to less than 2 percent this year. That is well under the average performance of other western industrialized countries.
Senior U.S. officials, led by Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III, have contended since the spring of 1986 that West Germany should boost its economy. The most recent flareup in the debate helped set off Wall Street's "Black Monday" on Oct. 19.
In the preceding week, Baker had publicly blasted West Germany for allowing short-term interest rates to rise. Baker's statements led investors to believe that international economic cooperation was unraveling.
He quickly patched up relations by meeting Stoltenberg and Poehl in Frankfurt. By then, however, the damage already was done.
Since the meeting, the West Germans have sought to cooperate with the Americans in two ways.
They have pushed down short-term interest rates. They also have publicly endorsed, until last week, a modest fall in the dollar's value against the mark.
The latter policy helped lead to the dollar's plunge to a record low against the mark last week. On Friday, West German officials took a harder line as they became concerned that Baker was trying to force the dollar down too far. A decline in the dollar, by making U.S. exports cheaper and imports more expensive, theoretically should help to turn around the U.S. trade deficit.
But the West Germans' actions, while welcome from the U.S. point of view, were largely unavoidable because of market pressures unleashed after the stock markets' fall, according to West German officials and private analysts.
On the more fundamental issue -- whether the West Germans will jack up their growth rate to 3 percent or 4 percent -- Bonn has been pretty explicit in saying "no."
"Our own good, correct economic policy, which has achieved good results, cannot be changed" just because stock markets fall, Economics Minister Martin Bangemann said.