Poor Cousins

9 July 2011

Saturday


The eurozone currently consists of Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain.

A Parable

Once upon a time there was a large family, which either because of or in spite of their long intimacy and shared history, was a fractious and disputatious bunch, with old fights and old grudges that were never forgotten, even though the principals to these disputes were long dead. Over time the fortunes of the family had diverged, and some that had been rich in the remote past had become quite poor, while others who had started with nearly nothing had done very well for themselves.

The wealthy members of the family, who owned many industries, employed many people, and had large, modern, comfortable houses for themselves and their immediate family, were fully aware of their improved status in their world, while those members of the family who had fallen on hard times were equally well aware of their fallen status.

The poor cousins nurse a sense of resentment over the lower living standards and their perceived lower social status, while the well-to-do cousins nurse a sense of resentment over contributing to the support of their ne’erdowell cousins. The former never lose sight of the fact that every penny given has been given begrudgingly; the latter never lose sight of the fact that every penny spent on the poor cousins is a penny they are not spending on themselves or their children.

The wealthy cousins were constantly faced with the question of what to do with the poor cousins. Say you put the poor cousins on the dole. They become lazy, drink too much, pick fights, and cultivate a sense of entitlement. Do you help the poor cousins find work? Do you make work for them in your own industries? The same problems reappear: the poor cousins show up drunk and do shoddy work.

Say that the wealthy cousins attempt to observe the old maxim that if you give someone a fish they eat for a day, but if you teach them how to fish, they can feed themselves in perpetuity. In this spirit, the wealthy cousins help the poor cousins to start businesses. But the business doesn’t go well. Do the wealthy cousins continue to support the failing business, just so the poor cousins have something constructive to do? And, if they do, for how long?

In the fullness of time, the wealthy cousins decide to pool their resources and create a bigger business enterprise than ever before. The poor cousins want to be part of this, so the wealthy cousins tell them that if they maintain certain standards, stop drinking, and promise to work very hard, that they can be part of the new business enterprise and share in the wealth that will be produced.

Alas! the present plan works no better than previous plans. The poor cousins join in the new business, but they can’t quite make it work, and worse, they threaten to pull the whole industry down with them. What’s a wealthy cousin to do? Cut the poor cousins loose? Keep giving them money so they can continue with their end of the business, even though it is obvious that they can never turn it around?

The Lesson

Europe has not an essence, but a history. Like the individuals who jointly constitute Europe, there is no metaphysical center to the continent any more than there is a metaphysical center of the individual person. It is the shared history that constitutes Europe that makes Europe what it is. But in addition to being a shared history, it is also a disputed history. Every part of Europe has its own perspective on European history, and therefore its own sense of its place within Europe.

The shared history of the European nation-states makes the Eurozone seem like an obvious idea, so much so that it would only seem to be a matter of financial engineering in order to get things right. It would seem to be a mere matter of details to be cleaned up and the whole scheme put into practice, but, as is often said, the devil is in the details. The disputed history makes the obviousness of the Eurozone not quite so obvious in practice.

The crafting of the Eurozone turned out to be more political than financial engineering. As a political creation, the Eurozone was more diplomatic than a strictly business deal would ever be. Businesses deal with hard and unpleasant facts; if they fail to do so, they will go bankrupt. Diplomacy, however, avoids hard facts because hard facts are the rocks upon which ships of state come to grief. In diplomacy, nothing that can be stated indirectly is stated in direct and unforgiving terms.

This diplomatic behavior is fine for cautious nation-states who always keep an eye on neighbors, even when they have signed a peace treaty with them, but when it comes to unifying economies, it is no longer an acceptable practice. To make the Eurozone work for all members of the Eurozone would have required internal mechanisms that would, quite without sentiment, transfer wealth from where it was abundant to where it was needed. But rich cousins don’t want to support poor cousins, and poor cousins have no incentive to go to work if rich cousins are there to foot the bill.

It was widely reported not long after Greece joined the Eurozone that it had cooked the books to show itself as having met the Eurozone standards for entry into the monetary union. This was no secret once it came out. Greece was not summarily dismissed. Once made part of the family firm, how do you fire your poor cousin? Now the Eurozone is paying the price both for its diplomacy and its family sentiment.

Every large extended family has at least one drunk, one lunatic, one pervert, one criminal, one womanizer, one ne’erdowell, and one layabout — at least one, and more likely several of each. Europe is a family, it has its share of misfits, and some of these misfits are the most successful among the European nation-states. Family sentiment can paper over the strained relations withing families in the limited and controlled context of a family reunion, but when it comes to sharing the family purse, family sentiment is not enough.

It has been a fascination and an education for me to open up the Financial Times over the past few weeks, since every day has brought a new round of stories and opinion pieces on the looming Greek debt problem, possibly leading to default. Every possible opinion has been presented and argued for and against. I suspect that what is happening in the pages of the Financial Times is often more important than what is happening in government bureaucracies and boardrooms around the continent, since everyone in the bureaucracies and boardrooms reads the FT before they attend their meetings, and they probably all take their arguments from those already presented in the press.

I have the luxury of being intellectually fascinated by the process; those in the Eurozone must be experiencing that sinking feeling and so cannot really fully engage in the question as an intellectual exercise. For the Europeans, this is about family. And so the question remains: what is to be done with the poor cousins?

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Grand Strategy Annex

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