Greek Crisis: Two Points

I have been glued to the news from Greece for about a week now. Most of this year, after years of ominous noises, I filtered out the regular repetition of such noises. The past week, however, I have had the Guardian and BBC liveblogs open from the time I get up until the time they sign off.

Last week was mostly just sheer chaos. For a few days I provided once-a-day executive summaries to a friend, but by the second half of the week I just gave up; disorder was so complete that events defied summary.

Yesterday’s referendum has reset things, sort of. At all events I’m ready to offer two comments, for whatever my perspective is worth.

One: Much of the prevailing narrative about Greece, particularly among creditor economies, is that Greece has been irresponsible, and must accept harsh discipline. Aside from all of the other problems with this narrative, I think it ignores that there are two sides to irresponsibility when enormous debt is involved. Some years ago I learned of a saying, probably an old one, but still very relevant; I believe it’s extremely relevant here. “If someone owes you $10,000, that’s his problem. If someone owes you $200,000,000,000, that’s your problem.” German determination to deny this reality seems at least as entrenched as Greek determination to deny any of the realities they’re accused of evading.

Two: Through the course of my liveblog binges, I have gotten the impression that the creditor-led EU bureaucracy has become as opposed to dealing with Greece’s Tsipras government as much as it is opposed to any particular policy demand. To be absolutely fair, I can’t deny that they could at least be justified in feeling this way. I’m not in negotiations. It could be that Varoufakis et al. behave so erratically and obnoxiously that they would try the patience of a saint. I have come around to accepting that, based on the public statements and actions of Tsipras’s government, they are at all events clumsy loose cannons without any real plan.

This said, however: who created the Tsipras government? It appears to me that exasperated Eurocrats have no one but themselves to blame for the shortcomings of their negotiating partner.

It is not as though the Greek electorate has a long track record of embracing total outsider “radical leftist” governments. As best I can tell, Greek elections mostly produced the same boring, beige, system politicians that nearly all modern politics seems to produce. Safe, reliable managers who knew how to get along with their counterparts and avoid ruffling feathers. Probably few voters especially liked them, but presumably they preferred this fundamental conservatism to any sudden change. (Even now, having twice endorsed Tsipras, the Greek people seem solidly devoted to retaining the Euro, regardless of how harmful the currency union has been or how unlikely are the prime minister’s assurances on this score.) Everything exactly as the Man From Brussels knows it, likes it and prefers it always remain. So where did Tsipras, Varoufakis and these other yahoos come from?

I submit that they are the direct and almost inevitable product of even greater bungling by the mature, decorous and responsible Powers That Be. The disastrous “reform” measures imposed on Greece by creditor nations have effectively held down the political panic button for years on end. Ever play Civilization? When conditions are bad enough in a region, democratic governments fall. This is what happened in Greece. Foreign Eurocrats can blithely talk about “reforms” but Greece’s economy was reformed into a smoking crater. People actually living in it were, inevitably, rather less indifferent to this reality.

Being citizens of a putative democracy, those people face regular questions about their satisfaction with how things are going; those questions are called elections and not surprisingly people expressed dissatisfaction with the management of their society. Even so that dissatisfaction was, for years, contained within the usual, professional, safe alternatives of “beige simulation of change” versus “gray simulation of change.”

Apparently, though, people will only keep selecting from the same beige options for so long. Is it really reasonable to act shocked? Or reasonable—after insisting that the conditions producing electoral desperation were right and necessary and inescapable—to complain when you eventually find yourself confronting a government that questions this attitude, and which is inevitably from outside of the safe comfortable mainstream that values elite solidarity above representing the people who elected them?

You can, in theory, continue to maintain that those people are wrong; so be it. But you cannot bitch and moan and protest that they have replaced your familiar, chummy negotiating partners after you spent years pressing those negotiating partners to ignore the people on whom their authority depends. This is how democracy works. Governments do not get to ignore electorates forever, regardless of how convinced they and their allies and every expert* in their circle is that the electorate is wrong.

You can dislike that, too. But do not pretend to believe in democracy and the necessity of your policy, then petulantly whine that the rules have been broken when democracy delivers up a messenger who dares disagree with that policy.

* Aside from those who go off-script.

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