Greece’s mon­e­tary melo­drama

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - GE­ORGE F. WILL georgewill@wash­post.com

Now come Greeks bear­ing the gift of con­fir­ma­tion that Mar­garet Thatcher was right about so­cial­ist gov­ern­ments: “They al­ways run out of other peo­ple’s money.” Greece, from whose an­cient play­wrights Western drama de­scends, is in an ab­sur­dist melo­drama about se­cur­ing yet another cash in­fu­sion from in­ter­na­tional cred­i­tors. This would add another boul­der to a moun­tain of debt al­most twice the size of Greece’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct. This pro­tracted dis­pute will re­sult in de­sir­able car­nage if Greece de­faults, thereby be­com­ing a con­struc­tively fright­en­ing ex­am­ple to all democ­ra­cies dol­ing out un­sus­tain­able, growth-sup­press­ing en­ti­tle­ments.

In Jan­uary, Greek vot­ers gave power to the left-wing Syriza party, one third of which, the Economist re­ports, con­sists of “Maoists, Marx­ists and sup­port­ers of Che Gue­vara.” Prime Min­is­ter Alexis Tsipras, 40, a re­tired stu­dent rad­i­cal, im­me­di­ately de­nounced a Euro­pean Union dec­la­ra­tion crit­i­ciz­ing Rus­sia’s dis­mem­ber­ment of Ukraine. He chose only one cab­i­net mem­ber with prior gov­ern­ment ex­pe­ri­ence — a for­mer leader of Greece’s Stal­in­ist Com­mu­nist Party. Tsipras’s min­is­ter for cul­ture and ed­u­ca­tion says Greek ed­u­ca­tion “should not be gov­erned by the prin­ci­ple of ex­cel­lence ... it is a warped am­bi­tion.” Prac­tic­ing what he preaches, he pro­poses abol­ish­ing univer­sity en­trance ex­ams.

Vot­ers chose Syriza be­cause it promised to re­verse re­forms, par­tic­u­larly of pen­sions and la­bor laws, de­manded by cred­i­tors, and to re­sist new de­mands for ra­tio­nal­ity. Tsipras im­me­di­ately vowed to re­hire 12,000 gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees. His shrill­ness in­creas­ing as his op­tions con­tract, he says the Euro­pean Union, the Euro­pean Cen­tral Bank and the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund are try­ing to “hu­mil­i­ate” Greece.

How could one hu­mil­i­ate a na­tion that chooses gov­ern­ments com­mit­ted to Rumpel­stilt­skin eco­nom­ics, the belief that the straw of gov­ern­ment largesse can be spun into the gold of na­tional wealth? Tsipras’s ap­proach to mol­li­fy­ing those who hold his na­tion’s fate in their hands is to say they must re­spect his “man­date” to re­sist them. He thinks Greek vot­ers, by mak­ing delu­sional prom­ises to them­selves, ob­li­gate other Euro­pean taxpayers to fund them. Tsipras, who says the cred­i­tors are “pil­lag­ing” Greece, is try­ing to pil­lage his lo­cal gov­ern­ments, which are re­sist­ing his ex­trale­gal de­mands that they send him their cash re­serves.

Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s fi­nance min­is­ter, is an aca­demic ad­mirer of No­bel lau­re­ate John Nash, the Prince­ton ge­nius de­picted in the movie “A Beau­ti­ful Mind,” who re­cently died. Varoufakis is in­ter­ested in Nash’s work on game the­ory, es­pe­cially the the­ory of co­op­er­a­tive games in which two or more par­tic­i­pants aim for a res­o­lu­tion bet­ter for all than would re­sult ab­sent co­op­er­a­tion. Varoufakis’s idea of co­op­er­a­tion is to ac­cuse the cred­i­tors whose money Greece has been liv­ing on of “fis­cal wa­ter­board­ing.” Tsipras tells Greece’s cred­i­tors to read “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Ernest Hem­ing­way’s novel of the Span­ish Civil War. His pas­sive-ag­gres­sive mes­sage? “Play nicely or we will kill our­selves.”

Since join­ing the euro zone in 2001, Greece has bor­rowed a sum 1.7 times its 2013 GDP. Its 25 per­cent un­em­ploy­ment (50 per­cent among young work­ers) re­sults from a 25 per­cent shrink­age of GDP. It is a men­di­cant re­duced to hop­ing to “ex­tend and pre­tend” for­ever. But ex­tend­ing the bailout and pre­tend­ing that cred­i­tors will some­day be paid en­cour­ages other Euro­pean so­cial­ists to con­tem­plate shed­ding debts — other peo­ple’s money that is no longer fun.

Greece, with just 11 mil­lion peo­ple and 2 per­cent of the euro zone’s GDP, is un­likely to cause a con­ta­gion by leav­ing the zone. If it also leaves the mis­be­got­ten Euro­pean Union, this ev­i­dence of the E.U.’s mu­ta­bil­ity might en­cour­age Bri­tain’s “euro-skep­tics” when, later this year, that na­tion has a ref­er­en­dum on re­claim­ing na­tional sovereignty by with­draw­ing from the E.U. If Greece so cher­ishes its sovereignty that it bris­tles at con­di­tions im­posed by cred­i­tors, why is it in the E.U., the per­verse point of which is to “pool” na­tions’ sovereign­ties in or­der to di­lute na­tional con­scious­ness?

The E.U. has a flag no one salutes, an an­them no one sings, a pres­i­dent no one can name, a par­lia­ment whose pow­ers sub­tract from those of na­tional leg­is­la­tures, a bu­reau­cracy no one ad­mires or con­trols and rules of fis­cal rec­ti­tude that no mem­ber is pe­nal­ized for ig­nor­ing. It does, how­ever, have in Greece a mem­ber whose dif­fi­cul­ties are won­der­fully di­dac­tic.

It can­not be said too of­ten: There can­not be too many so­cial­ist smashups. The best of these pun­ish reck­less cred­i­tors whose lend­ing en­ables so­cial­ists to live, for a while, off of other peo­ple’s money. The world, which owes much to an­cient Athens’ legacy, in­clud­ing the idea of democ­racy, is in­debted to to­day’s Athens for the re­minder that re­al­ity does not re­spect a democ­racy’s delu­sions.

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