Europe Being Europe

Christopher Columbus sailed west across the Atlantic, to find a new trade route to China, but the Americas got in the way, and there’s been nothing but trouble ever since. Europe had a new world, an expected world, to deal with – so they started calling it the New World. They had to. There were odd civilizations in this New World, or sometimes just strange tribes, and tobacco, a plant people smoked, of all things, and a bean that could be made into some mighty fine chocolate – and gold and silver too. Forget China. There was money to be made in this New World, but of course it being a new place, it soon enough also became a place to start over and try something different. The folks who were fed up with the Church of England – which Henry VIII had created because he was fed up with the Catholic Church in Rome – hopped on the Mayflower and headed here. They’d had enough of state religions in Europe. They wanted one of their own, and that impulse, to do things differently, not as they were done in Europe, in the Old World, led to our revolution in the next century. We were fed up with England. We wanted a country of our own, and we got one. This was the New World after all, and even now, as much as those folks we tossed out are now our closest ally, we do things differently. We don’t have a queen, and we don’t have a parliament that can just dissolve and call for new elections at any old time, and our cops carry guns, big ones, and they use them. We’re not like them. We love them – Downton Abbey is great and there’s a Hogwarts theme park in Florida – but we don’t want be like them, not really. We’re Americans, happily brash while they’re reserved and careful, and our version of football is serious stuff, with high scores and serious injuries, with permanent brain damage. The Brits are quaint. We don’t do quaint.

We don’t want to be like the French either, even if they helped us toss out the Brits way back when. They had their own revolution a few years after ours, but went off in a different direction. Madison and Franklin and Jefferson and all the rest, were products of the Enlightenment and Men of Reason, but America is by far and away the most overtly religious modern nation, ostentatiously so. We’ve had our loud and insistent evangelicals with us from the beginning, with tent meetings and Great Awakenings and the Scopes trial. That’s as American as apple pie – but when the French had their revolution in 1789, what with France being the home of the Enlightenment, they took its premises far more seriously than we did. Church and state were completely separated and they never argued about it again. Each does its thing, indifferent to the other. Americans find this odd, and perhaps appalling. Yes, France is nominally Roman Catholic, but if its citizens take that religion seriously, that remains a private matter. It isn’t a private matter over here – ask any politician – but over there Voltaire and Rousseau won the day, and their tradition of rigorous skepticism lives on. That’s what made the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo possible. That’s why the French took to the streets to defend it even if it is often juvenile – or even jejune as they might put it. American pundits and politicians who defend those Charlie Hebdo cartoons are treading on thin ice – the next Charlie Hebdo cartoon might make fun of Jesus in a really nasty way. They may not want to defend that. There’ll be a heavy price to pay, here.

This is a complicated issue – but our real problem with the French has always been their attitude. They’re not gung-ho. They wouldn’t sign onto our war to remove Saddam Hussein in Iraq. They wanted to wait for the inspectors to report on any weapons of mass destruction they’d found, if any, and they always maintained there were better ways to deal with that guy – war wasn’t necessary and would certainly make things worse. This was the thanks we got for saving their sorry butts in two world wars? Everyone started calling them cheese-eating surrender-monkeys. French Fries became Freedom Fries. Bill O’Reilly called for a total boycott of everything French, to ruin their economy, and then he said it worked – but he made that up of course. Yeah, he cited data in a business journal no one ever heard of, that actually didn’t exist, and there was no other data – but the boycott should have worked, damn it.

So he flat-out lied. What’s the big deal? No one called him on it. He’s still the big cheese at Fox News, although that might not be the best way to put it. It didn’t matter. The French really were cheese-eating surrender-monkeys – and they had betrayed us. He didn’t like their attitude. No one does. Ask him.

That’s always been the problem. Those folks have always had the wrong attitude about everything. The French have that thirty-five hour workweek, and six weeks of paid vacation, guaranteed by law, and laws that make it next to impossible to fire anyone, and most everyone gets to retire at fifty-five too. They don’t take work seriously. They see work as a means to lead a good life, to be savored, not as an end in itself – and that’s just wrong. “The problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur.” That’s what Tony Blair said, not George W. Bush – not that it matters. Both agreed, even if that is a very French word. They couldn’t have come up with that word, even if they did. This has been discussed quite a bit – because no one knows what to make of the French. They aren’t like us.

Anyone who’s found themselves in Paris for extended stays, not just the quick tourist whirlwind, knows that. You can’t buy a damned thing on Sundays. The major stores are closed. We got rid of almost all of our blue laws long ago. Even if we are a flamboyantly religious country you can buy most anything, anywhere, on Sundays. Commerce trumps religion. We know what to take seriously, and the French don’t, but it’s not really a matter of religion. There’s more to it, and now there are problems:

Before the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks on Jan. 7, France was bracing for a dispute that, though neither violent nor volatile, nevertheless goes to the heart of the internal tensions over the role of religion in this devoutly secular country. After a tense, week-long negotiation between a special committee and the minister of the economy, Emmanuel Macron, the National Assembly will begin debate Monday on whether department stores and shops will be allowed to open more often on what has been a traditional day of rest.

Rest, however, isn’t religion:

During his presidential campaign in 2012, François Hollande lambasted the Right for its efforts to transform Sunday into a day like any other, devoted to business and material gain. The great battle of 2012, he declared, was over “the principle of Sunday as a day of rest, one that workers can devote to sport, to family, culture and to liberty.” …

After three years of political disarray, economic malaise and mounting unemployment, however, Mr. Hollande has grown increasingly desperate. In mid-December, his treasury minister, Mr. Macron, offered a battery of legislation that seeks to liberalize some of the nation’s laws governing commerce and the liberal professions. One proposal in particular drew the ire of Mr. Hollande’s Socialist party rank-and-file, not to mention the Communists: The proposed law would allow stores or businesses to open 12 Sundays a year rather than just the five now permitted.

This, then, is an economic issue, and a hot issue at that:

The Socialist dissident Martine Aubry published an opinion article in Le Monde that appeared the same day the government rolled out its legislation. Architect of the 35-hour week, a signature achievement of the Socialists introduced in 2000, Ms. Aubry dwelt on the meaning of the Sunday law. It is, she claimed, “a moment of truth speaking to the one question that truly matters: What kind of society do we want to live in?” Is this, she wondered, all the Left has left to offer: “A Sunday stroll in a shopping mall and the accumulation of consumer goods?”

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a fiery leftist, was even more categorical. A relentless critic of the “savage capitalism” he associates with America, Mr. Mélenchon declared that the Revolution had freed the French to be human, not to become captives of a “blind consumerism.”

This is not about religion at all. It’s about one’s attitude toward life in the here and now, and about Americans and their savage capitalism that seems so empty. The god-folks are just tagging along now:

In the heat of battle, Mr. Mélenchon has found an unlikely ally in a traditional antagonist, the Catholic Church, which has also denounced the law. As one cleric explained, the church has joined the Communists for social as well as religious reasons. Rallying to the support of the Socialist Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, who also opposes the new law, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois reminded his flock that France’s economic difficulties, though great, do not justify ignoring the benefits of “a common day of rest.”

Cardinal André Vingt-Trois didn’t cite scripture. Rest is good for everyone. Religion really doesn’t matter over there, and this is curious:

The French have long had conflicted feelings about Sundays. In the early 1950s, the singer Juliette Greco – one of the muses for French existentialists – made her reputation with “I Hate Sundays.” While she derides Sunday as dead time, made for funerals and the hollow rites of the bourgeoisie, Greco also praises Sunday as the day for making love, not things.

That’s very secular. Forget God. Sex is good, and pleasurable, as she knew. Her 1957 affair with Miles Davis, when he was in Paris, being cool, is legendary, and that had not a thing to do with religion. They probably had some fine Sundays, but that’s a French thing:

Decidedly, as the French psychiatrist Serge Hefez notes: “Sundays are engraved in the French psyche.” But the day is also engraved in France’s history. During the last decades of the 19th century, French workers, laboring 10 hours a day, seven days a week, repeatedly went on strike to win a day of rest. In 1906, the government grudgingly conceded Sundays as a day of repose, hoping that if workers spent more time at home they would spend less time drinking in cafes. By the end of World War I, Sunday had taken root in the French cultural landscape – so much so that, in a 2008 poll, 84 percent declared that it was “important, indeed primordial, for family, cultural and religious life that Sunday should remain the day of common rest.”

Pirouetting 180 degrees, Mr. Hollande, who had insisted Sunday was a day of republican repose, now dismisses it as a relic of an earlier age. Hammering at the same speaking points as Mr. Macron and Prime Minister Manuel Valls, President Hollande touts the liberty not to rest if one prefers to work (with greater pay, he always adds).

That’s very American – if people want to make big bucks on Sundays and turn the world crass and frantic for everyone else, let them – and he’s losing this battle. This is a quality of life issue, and the French don’t want to be Americans, where the quality of life is determined by the cool stuff you can buy, or even better, by the cool stuff you can sell, so you can make more money to buy even cooler stuff. There’s more to life than that. That seems to be the idea here, and maybe they have the wrong attitude, but it’s their attitude. That may infuriate Bill O’Reilly, but he doesn’t live there. No doubt he’s happy with that, and so are the French.

This is a minor matter – no one outside France really cares about their shopping traditions – but it is an instance of where the Old World and the New World part ways. The underlying issue is savage capitalism, as an ideal of some sort – the brutal way to an eventual good life – versus something more important and perhaps primordial – family and cultural and, if it’s your thing, religious life. What kind of society do we want to live in?

On a Sunday when no one was shopping in Paris, the Greeks held a vote about that:

Greece rejected the harsh economics of austerity on Sunday and sent a warning to the rest of Europe as the left-wing Syriza party won a decisive victory in national elections, positioning its tough-talking leader, Alexis Tsipras, to become the next prime minister.

With almost 98 percent of the vote counted, Syriza had 36 percent, almost nine points more than the governing center-right New Democracy party of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who conceded defeat. The only uncertainty was whether Syriza would muster a parliamentary majority on its own or have to form a coalition.

Appearing before a throng of supporters outside Athens University late Sunday, Mr. Tsipras, 40, declared that the era of austerity was over and promised to revive the economy. He also said his government would not allow Greece’s creditors to strangle the country.

“Greece will now move ahead with hope and reach out to Europe, and Europe is going to change,” he said. “The verdict is clear: We will bring an end to the vicious circle of austerity.”

They’ve had more than enough of this savage capitalism:

Syriza’s victory is a milestone for Europe. Continuing economic weakness has stirred a populist backlash from France to Spain to Italy, with more voters growing fed up with policies that require sacrifice to meet the demands of creditors but that have not delivered more jobs and prosperity. Syriza is poised to become the first anti-austerity party to take power in a Eurozone country and to shatter the two-party establishment that has dominated Greek politics for four decades.

“Democracy will return to Greece,” Mr. Tsipras said to a swarm of journalists as he cast his ballot in Athens. “The message is that our common future in Europe is not the future of austerity.”

Quality-of-life matters more than the economic theory of austerity producing the good life for everyone, eventually:

His biggest promise – and the one that has stirred deep anxiety in Brussels and Berlin as well as in financial markets – has been a pledge to force Greece’s creditors to renegotiate the terms of its financial bailout, worth 240 billion euros, or about $267.5 billion. Squeezed by policies intended to stabilize the government’s finances, Greece has endured a historic collapse since 2009; economic output has shrunk by 25 percent, and the unemployment rate hovers near 26 percent.

While setting up an imminent showdown with creditors, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Mr. Tsipras has argued that easing the bailout terms would allow more government spending. That, he said, would stimulate economic growth and employment as well as help the Greeks who are most in need.

That’s the alternative theory:

“Tsipras won because those who imposed austerity never thought about the effects of such drastic policies that impoverished millions of people,” said Paul De Grauwe, a professor at the London School of Economics and a former adviser to the European Commission. “In a world where people are so hit, they just don’t remain passive. Their reaction is to turn to the politicians who will change the process.”

Sure, but that won’t be easy:

Mr. Tsipras will face immediate challenges. Greece is waiting for a €7 billion bailout payment needed to keep the government running and to pay off billions in debt obligations due in the coming months. Mr. Tsipras has demanded that creditors write down at least half of Greece’s €319 billion public debt to give the country more breathing room for a spending stimulus.

And this might start something:

“This is a turning of a page, a historical moment for all of Europe,” Yiannis Milios, the chief economist for Syriza, told reporters. “The Greek people are taking their future into their own hands.”

Europe “cannot go on with deflation, recession, increasing unemployment and over-indebtednesses,” he said. “Greece points the way. Our country – our people – are the groundbreakers of a very big change.”

A Syriza victory would lift hopes elsewhere for parties that are critical of the European Union, especially in Spain. There, the left-leaning, anti-austerity Podemos party, which is less than a year old, already is drawing 20 percent support in national opinion polls. The leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, joined Mr. Tsipras last week for Syriza’s final campaign rally.

“What the whole debate about Greece and Syriza highlights is that voter anxieties, voter resentment and electoral disillusionment over austerity policies can be expressed at the ballot,” said Jens Bastian, an economic consultant based in Athens and a former member of the European Commission’s task force on Greece. “The example of Greece today may become a precursor to what happens in other countries like Spain, Portugal or Italy.”

Perhaps so, but a battle is coming:

While Greece sees itself as being punished by creditors’ demands, Germany and a host of European officials have argued that Greece and other troubled nations in the Eurozone must clean up the high debts and deficits at the root of Europe’s crisis. They say Athens has failed to make enough progress on structural reforms seen as necessary to stabilize the economy, and they are pressing Greece to raise billions of euros through more budgetary cutbacks and taxes.

Many analysts say Mr. Tsipras must moderate his campaign promises and take a more centrist approach if he wants to save the economy and keep Greece solvent. “That will be the best possible outcome for Greece and for Europe, because it would show that these protest movements ultimately recognize reality – which is that they are in the euro, and they have to play by the rules,” said Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

Otherwise, he warned, “things could get a lot worse.”

“Very, very quickly,” he added.

Maybe so, but what sort of society do we want to live in? That question keeps coming up, and the Europeans have a different answer than the New World capitalists have.

The odd thing is that American corporations file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy all the time, and renegotiate their debt obligations, and then come out just fine. True, no bank will renegotiate the terms of a home mortgage, ever – they’ll foreclose and toss you out before they’ll give up even one penny that’s due each month – and American personal bankruptcy law has been rewritten so that declaring personal bankruptcy ends most debt obligations, but not those student loans. You may have nothing left and live under a bridge in a cardboard box, but you’ll still owe every single penny of that, and you have to pay on time. There’s such a thing as moral hazard. Start forgiving debt and we’ll turn into a nation of sleazy deadbeats. But that involves people. Corporations don’t face moral hazard. Corporations may be people, but they’re not people in that way, or something.

It seems the Greeks have had more than enough of that kind of thinking. They’ve had enough of savage capitalism, and so have the French, in their minor way. Christopher Columbus discovered a new world, and there’s been nothing but trouble ever since.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to Europe Being Europe

  1. Rick says:

    The lessons learned in Greece should actually be encouraging to the rest of us, although those lessons may, unfortunately, be of no help in saving Greece itself.

    Probably the biggest lesson the world should have learned from Greece is that the Republican way was tried there, and it failed miserably — as is explained by economist Paul Krugman today in his column entitled Ending Greece’s Nightmare:

    To understand the political earthquake in Greece, it helps to look at Greece’s May 2010 “standby arrangement” with the International Monetary Fund, under which the so-called troika — the I.M.F., the European Central Bank and the European Commission — extended loans to the country in return for a combination of austerity and reform. …

    You see, the economic projections that accompanied the standby arrangement assumed that Greece could impose harsh austerity with little effect on growth and employment. Greece was already in recession when the deal was reached, but the projections assumed that this downturn would end soon — that there would be only a small contraction in 2011, and that by 2012 Greece would be recovering. Unemployment, the projections conceded, would rise substantially, from 9.4 percent in 2009 to almost 15 percent in 2012, but would then begin coming down fairly quickly.

    What actually transpired was an economic and human nightmare. Far from ending in 2011, the Greek recession gathered momentum. Greece didn’t hit the bottom until 2014, and by that point it had experienced a full-fledged depression, with overall unemployment rising to 28 percent and youth unemployment rising to almost 60 percent. …

    What went wrong? I fairly often encounter assertions to the effect that Greece didn’t carry through on its promises, that it failed to deliver the promised spending cuts.

    Those critics may have figured that the Greeks can’t possibly be doing what they were told to do, since nothing is getting better there!

    Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Greece imposed savage cuts in public services, wages of government workers and social benefits. …

    Yet Greek debt troubles are if anything worse than before the program started. One reason is that the economic plunge has reduced revenues: The Greek government is collecting a substantially higher share of G.D.P. in taxes than it used to, but G.D.P. has fallen so quickly that the overall tax take is down. Furthermore, the plunge in G.D.P. has caused a key fiscal indicator, the ratio of debt to G.D.P., to keep rising even though debt growth has slowed …

    Which is about what any Democrat (or at least one that hasn’t bought into Republican voodoo economics) would tell you to expect:

    If you drastically cut spending, even government spending, you will be cutting lots of people’s income, meaning they’ll be paying less taxes on that income, and so tax revenues will fall. The “Troika” apparently believed, as conservatives everywhere do, that the economy would improve because investor confidence would improve, once people saw all this spending going down, but instead:

    Two years after the Greek program began, the I.M.F. looked for historical examples where Greek-type programs, attempts to pay down debt through austerity without major debt relief or inflation, had been successful. It didn’t find any.

    Will the electoral victory of Syriza save the country? According to Krugman, probably not:

    If anything, the problem with Syriza’s plans may be that they’re not radical enough. Debt relief and an easing of austerity would reduce the economic pain, but it’s doubtful whether they are sufficient to produce a strong recovery. On the other hand, it’s not clear what more any Greek government can do unless it’s prepared to abandon the euro, and the Greek public isn’t ready for that.

    Tsipras promises he will renegotiate Greece’s debt, which much of the rest of Europe thinks will destroy the country’s chances of ever getting another loan.

    Still, there may be precedent for this sort of thing — Iceland, having bought into the bubble of the first part of this century, faced a similar problem when it found itself in a downward spiral in 2008 after a handful of people persuaded the normally-sober Icelanders to largely abandon fishing and get into speculaton. This got a small number of people very temporarily rich at the public’s expense, which ran the country into debt, but when it came time for the voters to decide whether to pay this debt back, they said — no!

    What followed was a pathway out of hell that, according to this article in Der Spiegel, Paul Krugman had called “doing an Iceland”:

    Krugman, an admirer of Iceland’s dramatic comeback, has recommended a similar policy cocktail for other nations in crisis. The rules are as follows: Allow your ailing banks to collapse; devalue your currency if you have one of your own; introduce capital controls; and try to avoid paying back foreign debts.

    Of course, you can only walk this path if you have a currency of your own — that is, one that you can control. Fortunately for Iceland, they did, but so far, Greece doesn’t. Stay tuned.

    Rick

  2. Your writing touches on many topics, always a learning opportunity….this time, beyond Greece and austerity and capitalism- a beautiful introduction to muse Juliette Greco. Thankyouverymuch. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PtXzVFYPkyc “Sundays ARE for love-making.” Smiles.

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