Sunday, 19 June 2011

Tragedy Becoming Farce

The woeful state of Greek economic and political affairs is about to cross the thin line from tragedy to farce. So far the Greeks are way ahead of the other European Union players – after all they invented the art form. In fact, only someone like Euripides or Aristophanes could do this situation justice.

This tragic farce in Three Acts has the following dramatis personae including the off stage choruses of wailing people, foreign banks and hedge funds.

In Act One we have:

Happy Greek People
Happy Greek Banks
Happy Foreign Banks
Happy Politicians
Silent Economists
Silent Eurocrats

Act One opens with the Happy People dancing and borrowing from the Happy Banks to spend money they don’t have. Need a vacation? Call your friendly Happy Bank. Need a car or a gift for your wife or mistress? Call your friendly Happy Bank. The banks lend much more than the deposits they have and are confident in getting cheap loans from Europe to cover the difference. Don’t have a job to repay the loan? Don’t worry. Your Happy Politician will fix that. Government needs money to pay for all this joy? No problem. Borrow from the friendly Happy Foreign Banks. Why not? Thanks to this marvellous invention of the Euro the rates are so low it’s almost free money. Some junior economist in Brussels sees a tiny problem with all this happiness because somewhere, somehow, this money is supposed to be repaid. Before this junior economist named Ernst can voice his doubts too loudly his fellow Eurocrats send him on a two-year fact finding trip to Central Africa.

In Act Two we have:

Less Happy People becoming Angry People
Stiff Upper Lip Greek Banks
Nervous Foreign Banks
Nervous Politicians
Very Happy Hedge Funds
Suddenly Righteous Eurocrats
I-Told-You-So Economists
Baroness von Brandenburg
Sly Duc de Versailles
Bewildered Vikings
Stern Headmaster
Loud Choruses

Act Two opens with storm clouds over the Acropolis, offstage clashing of cymbals, angry wails from the chorus. We won’t pay! This is not our problem! Nervous Politicians discover that the cash drawer is empty. No money can be repaid. Something Must Be Done! Cuts! Austerity! And, God forbid, Taxes! Offstage chorus of whinging masses becomes louder. Delighted hedge funds set up an opposite chorus. Default! Default! You’re Broke! Admit It! The I-Told-You-So Economists are indulging in an orgy of self-congratulations at one of the few times their predictions actually came true. Self-righteous Eurocrats proclaim loudly that they are shocked, shocked that Greece is broke. How can this be? You told us you were a member in good standing of the Euro Club! We took your numbers at face value! You mean they weren’t true? Say it’s not so! The Baroness von Brandenburg proclaims that good, thrifty Northern European (German) taxpayers will not pay one more pfennig (oops, Euro) to the shiftless bums stealing money for their holiday homes on Aegean islands. The Sly Duc de Versailles, whose banks own about €30 billion of Greek paper, rushes to the baroness’ side to plead for caution. His pleas are accompanied by another loud chorus of Contagion, Contagion, Contagion. Think of Ireland, Portugal and Spain.

 -You’re absolutely right Baroness. They are shiftless bums that don’t deserve another centime. But    let’s not be hasty here. Remember all those nice Teutonic toys, those Volkswagens and Mercedes they bought with all that money we gave them? All those nice roads and airports you Germans built. Maybe we can find you a nice little island. Just a few Euros more and we’re out of the woods here. Now is not the time to be pedantic.

Then the Bewildered Vikings start complaining about all the money they’re spending on Greece. The Duc de Versailles flies into action once again as the Vikings get nervous.

- How can this be? How can a country not know how much money it has or doesn’t have? This does not happen in real countries! This should not happen!

-That’s the point Olaf. You’re absolutely right. But how many times have I told you to forget the word ‘should’ when talking about the Mediterranean. It works with your reindeer and igloos, but loses a lot in translation when you head south.
- But . . .
- Sit, Olaf. Calm down. Just a few more Euros and we’ll pretend this never happened. Just raise your hand at the right time and we’re home and dry – or whatever you say up on the glaciers.

The Stern Headmaster, who knows the real condition of European banks, is petrified at the thought of default. Impossible, he thunders. At the same time he knows full well that he, or his lucky successor, is going to wind up with most of the dud Greek paper.

The Baroness and the Duc finally agree to have the sturdy, frugal, work-ethic obsessed Northerners make extra payments on the condition that the Greeks completely reform their economic life and become more like, well, Germans.

Cue puzzled looks by Nervous Greek Politicians. Reform? What are they talking about? We’ve been doing this for years. Oh, I get it. They want us to agree to their terms. Of course we will. How simple. We’ll agree to anything. Actually doing anything is another matter, but agreeing is easy. This is accompanied by much offstage banging about, shuffling of chairs, and loud cries heard by the audience. Oh, do be quiet and do what you’re told for once! Don’t you realize we have the upper hand. They have to give us the money or they go bust along with us. Just shut up and go through the motions of these so-called reforms. Then things will return to normal. Trust me.


Act Three opens with more wailing by the chorus of Angry People. The Sly Duc de Versailles once again takes the centre stage he loves so much.

-See, my friends. There is a magic word here. Pretend. This is what the Baroness and the Vikings don’t really understand. You don’t have to Do anything. (He shivers at the very thought of this.) But we pretend to pay the Greeks who immediately turn around and give the money back to our banks for all those nasty Greek bonds. The Greeks pretend to reform, jettison a few hapless cabinet members pour encourager les autres, and in a few years everyone has forgotten about this petite je ne sais quoi. The only people left holding the bag, as you Anglo-Saxons put it so well, are the Stern Headmaster and the people at the IMF who, tant pis, seem to be without a leader at the moment. They will perhaps understand in about five years what a great game this all was.

He gives a very Gallic What Else Can I Do shrug and slithers off the stage.

Meanwhile the Eurocrats are left with a problem. How to make sure the Greeks at least try to implement some of the reforms? The solution? Find someone to go to Athens to oversee the process. Who better than young Ernst? Honest and dependable young Ernst, and, more important, expendable young Ernst. An urgent call goes out to Central Africa to find young Ernst, if possible, and bring him home.

Young Ernst is dispatched to Athens with firm instructions to make sure the shifty Greeks stick to the Northern European plan. His zeal distresses his Greek counterparts no end, and they particularly don’t like this business of working through lunch and even on the weekends. At last they come up with a solution. They call upon shapely young Maria to do her national duty and introduce this handsome young Teuton to the ‘lighter side of Greek life.’ In time nature takes its course and the work hours begin to slip, the cigarette and ouzo breaks become more frequent, and Ernst’s reports back to Brussels and Berlin get shorter and shorter.

In the final scene we see the sun setting slowly over an Aegean island, and Young Ernst, clad only in shorts and adorned with a new tattoo, is dancing the sirtaki with Maria to the sounds of bouzouki music. Happy People have once again returned to a Happy Country.

                                                             The End

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