When I recently visited Berlin, it quickly became clear the extent to which Germany had created a fantasy story about Greece. It was an image of Greeks as a privileged and lazy people, who kept on taking ‘bailouts’ while refusing to do anything to correct their situation. I heard this fantasy from talking to people who were otherwise well informed and knowledgeable about economics.
So powerful has this fantasy become, it is now driving German policy (and policy in a few other countries as well) in totally irrational ways. In particular, Germany refuses to discuss debt relief with Greece, yet seems quite happy to see Greece leave the Eurozone, the inevitable consequence of which would be that Greece would obtain much greater debt relief through default. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face. What is driving Germany’s desperate need to rid itself of the Greek problem?
One possible answer is that Germany finds the truth about Greece too upsetting, too challenging. This is because since 2010 Greece has done most of what the Troika asked of it. In particular, changes in its government’s underlying primary budget balance (i.e. the degree of austerity enacted) have been greater, by a long distance, than any other European economy. For many outside Germany what has happened to Greece as a result is hardly surprising: austerity is contractionary, and austerity on steroids is ruinous. Yet Germany is a country where the ideas of Keynes, and therefore mainstream macroeconomics in the rest of the world, are considered profoundly wrong and are described as ‘Anglo-Saxon economics’. Greece then becomes a kind of experiment to see which is right: the German view, or ‘Anglo-Saxon economics’.
The results of the experiment are not to Germany’s liking. Just as ‘Anglo-Saxon economics’ would have predicted, the results for Greece under the Troika have been a disaster. After dutifully taking the medicine for years, and seeing the collapse of their economy, finally the Greek people could take no more. Confronting this reality has been too much for Germany. So instead it has created its fantasy, a fantasy that allows it to cast its failed experiment to one side, blaming the character of the patient.
The only thing particularly German about this process is the minority status of Keynesian economics within German economic policy advice. In the past I have drawn parallels between what is going on here and the much more universal tendency for poverty to be explained in terms of the personal failings of the poor. These attempts to deflect criticism of economic systems are encouraged by political interests and a media that supports them, as we are currently seeing in the UK. So much easier to pretend that the problems of Greece lie with its people, or culture, or politicians, or its resistance to particular ‘structural reforms’, than to admit that Greece’s real problem is of your making.