National Security & Defense

Beggars and Choosers

“No” campaign posters in Athens on July 3. (Christopher Furlong/Getty)
A temper tantrum is no substitute for a budget.

The Greeks have their Bernie Sanders. What they need is their Chris Christie.

The Greek people spent part of the weekend in the streets celebrating their status as international deadbeat. They spent the rest of the weekend hoarding food, fuel, and medicine in preparation for the manmade disaster they have inflicted upon themselves.

Greek referendum voters overwhelmingly rejected bailout terms offered them by their European patrons. Greece’s leftist prime minister, Alexis Tsipras — think of him as Europe’s answer to Senator Sanders, but with enough discipline to be dangerous — insisted that a popular rejection of the bailout terms would put him in a stronger negotiating position. The European Central Bank (ECB) immediately began to disabuse the Greeks of that notion: The first order of ECB business on Monday was — if you’ll forgive me for eliding the financial gobbledygook — choosing a larger sledgehammer with which to jack up Greek financial institutions should Athens fail to sober up sufficiently for Tuesday’s emergency negotiations. The ECB is imposing larger losses on Greek banks, not smaller ones, and may yet discontinue its emergency support entirely, in which case: lights out.

EDITORIAL: No Good Options for Greece, But There Are Options

Tsipras assured the Greeks they were voting themselves better bailout terms. They are getting the opposite — if, indeed, they get anything. More than a few well-informed observers believe that the Germans have simply abandoned hope that the Greeks are capable of real reform or willing to engage in it, and that the Greek “No” vote was welcomed with a quiet sigh of relief, providing Angela Merkel et al. with a plausible excuse to scuttle further bailout efforts. The Greeks may have burned their bridge to Europe, but the Germans are roasting marshmallows over the flames.

The Greeks pretended to get their deficits and debt under control, and the Europeans pretended to believe them.

The presence of Greece in the Eurozone is the result of a lie: The Greeks pretended to get their deficits and debt under control, and the Europeans pretended to believe them. That was the first act. In the second act, after the advent of the current crisis, the Greeks pretended to enact fiscal reforms, and the Europeans pretended to believe them. Political logic is, not coincidentally, lawyer logic — which is to say, it substitutes consensus for reality. If enough people (jurors, voters) are convinced that your position is the correct one, then you “win.” Maybe the election turns out your way, as with Tsipras and the referendum. Maybe political consensus prevents your opponents from enacting their favored policies, just as conservatives have for decades been frustrated in their efforts to enact entitlement reform by cheap and dishonest images of grandmothers being pushed over cliffs. Maybe O. J. Simpson walks.

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Politics is negotiation. Reality is non-negotiable. The Greeks were not one euro (or drachma!) better off after their weekend temper tantrum; if anything, they were worse off, as attested to by the spectacle of the citizens of a civilized, high-income, European country stockpiling sugar and flour like denizens of some backward war zone. In the homeland of political philosophy, political discourse has been reduced to an infantile bawl on the part of the people — the eternal “I Want!” — and the parental version from the leadership: “Because I Said So!”

Greek public debt is unpayable. More important, the Greek standard of living is, given real economic conditions, unsustainable. Real reform is necessary on the narrow fiscal front and on the general economic front, and the other European powers, daftly committed as they are to the proposition that Greeks and Germans are so different that they have separate countries but so similar that they’ll thrive from a single set of shared economic policies, are offering to help finance those reforms. Ideology and Euro-idealism are, needless to say, not the only motives at work: The Germans have self-interested reasons to preserve the current European order.

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The Greeks, and the anti-“austerity” Left worldwide, can question those motives. They can decry them. But until Venezuela coughs up billions upon billions of dollars to bail out its sister socialist paradise, the Europeans are the only game in town, and the ancient proverbs apply: Greece is a beggar nation, and beggars are not choosers.

#related#It is not as though Americans are immune to the substitution of temper tantrums for real budgets. Polls have shown that Americans understand, for example, the financial problems of Social Security, and that the program’s imbalances mean that there are essentially three possible remedies: raising taxes, cutting benefits, or some combination of both. Majorities of Americans oppose all three. Chris Christie is running for president as the entitlement-reform guy, rejecting the conventional wisdom about the so-called third rail of American politics: “They say, ‘Don’t touch it.’ We’re going to hug it.”

But will voters embrace such reform?

The situation in Greece illustrates the shocking extent to which citizens of advanced, high-income, democratic societies are willing to see themselves reduced in exchange for a small regular check from the government. It does not inspire confidence. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who wrote a book called “Hard Choices,” has embraced the do-nothing agenda on entitlement reform. That wasn’t a hard choice. But there are hard choices to come, and we’ll either be choosers or we’ll be beggars.


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