Contemplating the Continental Breakup

the idea of Europe

I’ve thought quite a bit about how I’d introduce this topic. It’s complicated and nearly impenetrable. Notice I didn’t say impossible. But many Europeans I talk to don’t know where to begin.

Or they’re so overwhelmed with the whole thing that they shy away from even trying to start. Many people simply don’t want to talk about it.

That’s why I was pleased to hear Ira Glass turn his NPR radio show This American Life over to the people at Planet Money, who would very succinctly and understandably explain the European debt crisis.

They ask the question that many people in the US and around the world have been asking themselves since this situation exploded: Do I really need to be concerned about this? Like the story itself, the answer is more complicated than you might think.

Here’s the podcast:

I know it’s nearly an hour, but the whole situation is explained rather well. Go back, click on the link, and let the story wash over you. It is quite impressively made.

The most telling part of the whole piece happens between 27:50 and 29:40. The guy working in the Greek Statistics Office says that the newly-elected government informed the citizenry, ‘The deficit is closer to 13% not 6% (what was stated by an earlier administration),’ The male journalist’s voice explains that the money had been lent to Greece, ‘…based upon very specific information, and suddenly that information turned out to be very, very wrong. And they wanted to know, “How did this happen?”.

Then the female journalist’s voice goes on:

‘And see, it’s a little hard to answer that question. The Greek politicians explained, “The last guys – they lied to you. It was never 6%. We are telling you the truth. The truth is 13%.” (my note: always be wary when anyone says outright, “We are telling you the truth.”)

But when you ask the people at the government’s statistics office – the very people who came up with the numbers – …they say things like this: “Everyone here in Greece said, ‘What number is this? It’s outrageous.’” Instead of the Greek Statistic Office saying, “We messed up. Here’s what went wrong. Here exactly is how we’re going to win back your trust and make sure it never happens again.” 

No. Instead, the workers just kinda shrugged their shoulders. The government worker says, “Nobody knows.” ‘

The female journalist challenges him abruptly, ‘But you guys work in the statistics office…you’re the first people who would know that, because you work here.’He answers, ‘The people here who worked about this matter said, “We did our job very correctly.”‘

That’s part of the story right there. The people who made the mistakes were human and neither want to point fingers at their colleagues nor admit that they actually did anything wrong.

But now here I am. How do I even begin talking about all of it? Well, what’s most interesting to me is the stereotypes and cultural pitfalls that’re inherent in the whole thing. When they were doing the planning to bring Greece into the Euro, no-one wanted to offend the newcomers. Everyone in the room probably knew that the figures (for Greece‘s application to join the Euro) didn’t add up, but everyone’s feelings had to be taken into account.

 

When I was talking to some of my German acquaintances about this, I started by saying something like, ‘The impression is that the vast majority of Greeks make a game of not having to pay their taxes.’

‘No! That’s not an impression-that’s a fact,’ the German said. ‘The fact is that both middle class and even higher class people there do everything to avoid paying taxes.’ Here’s the thing. Here’s the crux of the matter.

Can you imagine paying your taxes fastidiously and then finding out that you’re paying for an untenable situation in other countries? That even if you dump money into that situation, the other countries’ systems will continue to go on as they did before?

The conclusion at the end of the podcast seemed to be that Germany should try being more like other countries. Or be somehow grateful that it has to bail out the others. It’s sort of a weird conclusion, but I think the Germans might be more willing to accept such a plan if it appeared it would even work.

Just because I live here doesn’t mean that I’m going to argue the German perspective. When I don’t agree with a policy or the direction things are going, then I say something. But all the way through this crisis the conventional wisdom is that in the end the Germans are going to pay. The fact that they’ve dragged their heels or questioned whether paying would do any good whatsoever has been met with outrage. Which is also rather curious.

The other thing here is that it’s easy sitting outside of the situation to assume you know what the players should do. The Hatfields and McCoys look ridiculous unless you actually are either a Hatfield or a McCoy.

What’s difficult for someone outside of Germany to comprehend is the blowback that’d occur if the German government were to accept the demands of other European countries to continue to throw money at the problem without stipulations. Without somehow believing that they were somehow setting up a system that’d make sure this didn’t happen again.

Does anyone (except for those on the fringe of Europe) really believe the Common Currency is going to dissolve? It might be talked about theoretically, but the vast majority of people I talk to can’t even comprehend the failure of the grand experiment that is Europe.

And strangely enough…even with the crisis and the cultural differences and all the other problems that are thrown about in the papers and on the television political shows…even with all of that, I tend to agree with my friends who say ‘How could there not be a Europe?’

How indeed.

5 thoughts on “Contemplating the Continental Breakup

  1. Would anybody have thought five years ago that Kodak would cease to exist, or that people would be emptying their desks by the hundreds down at Canary Wharf? Or that rogue traders would have the ability to set back large financial institutions by the billions?

    Europe should be stronger than the treaties it has signed and the monetary obligations it has assumed. I have a feeling that the ‘architects’ of the European Union foresaw a meeting of the minds of the European people. Unless the people within Europe stand united and face the crisis without grasping every opportunity they get at blaming each other, then there won’t be European Union for long. Simple.

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    • True Stella.

      I’m still optimistic that the people will choose to proceed united. And the way they’ve prepared us that it might get ugly? I’m hoping it doesn’t have to get ugly for people to decide, in fact, to stand together.

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  2. Thanks for this post. Until people decide to look more closely at how things are run whether in Europe or across the pond here in America, things don’t have a strong chance of improving.
    Situations can sound so complicated that people throw up their hands and move on to something shiny.
    In politics here, they have invented a room for lying. They call it a “spin room”. Commentators laugh about it but it is a room where people explain their lies.

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    • Yes, John. I know of this Spin Room. I also know it’s really easy for me to gravitate to people I already agree with. To pat myself on the back for being incredibly evolved.

      A friend of mine was watching a show about neuroscience years ago, and the thing he took away from it was this: our brain will go to great lengths to convince itself that what it’s doing is right. That it’s programmed to be right at almost all costs. We’re curiously evolutionarily predisposed to think we’re right.

      That what we think is right, and what we’re doing is right. This story will most likely become it’s own blogpost.

      Thanks for your contribution. You bring a lot here.

      Like

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