‘In Berlin the situation is serious but not desperate; in Vienna, the situation is desperate but not serious.” This quip was heard around Central Europe in the closing days of both world wars, but certainly predates 1918. Political scientist Paul Gottfried, my go-to guy on matters Mitteleuropäisch, thinks it originated with one of the late-Habsburg Hungarian statesmen — Andrássy or Tisza. The point of the quip is to show the different outlooks of Prussians and Austrians: the first soldiering on to the end in dogged hope, the second in fatalistic acknowledgment that while the curtain may indeed be about to fall, there is no point forgoing life’s normal pleasures in the interim.
“Desperate but not serious” seems apt for the fiscal situation of the Western world. Everything I read seems to tell me that things are dire, if not terminal, at all political levels: nations, regions, states, cities. Here’s a headline from the New York Times, February 27: “To Pay New York Pension Fund, Cities Borrow from It First.”
There is a pension system for state employees, you see. Cities, towns, counties, and particular employers like the New York Public Library have to make annual contributions to the system. Alas, they are all broke. To meet their obligations to the pension fund, they have to borrow . . . from the pension fund. The analogy that comes to mind is of a human being in the last stages of starvation, when the body begins to consume its own tissue for nourishment.
Over on the other coast, I see that California’s money troubles are going from bad to desperate. Says the Sacramento Bee: “The courts and the Obama administration are stalling, perhaps permanently, many of the spending cuts that the 2011–12 budget had assumed.” Oh, dear. But how about this year’s budget? “A Legislature controlled by Brown’s fellow Democrats is refusing to jump-start more health and welfare reductions in his 2012–13 budget.” So that: “Already, then, Brown’s budget scheme is billions of dollars short of closing the state’s chronic operating deficit.” And then: “The situation got a lot worse Monday . . .” Spare me.
Across the pond in Euroland, a state of permanent crisis seems to have taken over. At the time of writing, the poor old Greeks have secured another bailout package from their fellow Europeans, on condition they can persuade their private creditors to take 50 cents on the dollar. The analysts say they will so persuade, thus surviving to pass on into some new phase of the slow-motion apocalypse. Friends who understand these things tell me that Greece is small potatoes, and that Italy is the one I should worry about. I need more to worry about?
And yet, this is all old stuff. I seem to have been reading these crisis stories for years, even before the 2008 market crash. Somehow we forge ahead: making a living, drawing a pension, distracting ourselves with sport, gossip, TV, and gadgets. The sky has a way of not falling. Things are desperate, but not serious.