When my sister and brother-in-law asked a cab driver in Portugal, just two weeks ago, what he thought of the economy, he casually answered: "What Hitler started, Merkel will complete." This comment rings true as much in Greece as in Portugal.
The current German chancellor Angela Merkel's behavior is far from the nastiness of Adolf Hitler and his fascist and racist regime, but her steadfast control of the European Union's economy is reminiscent of the National Socialist Party's concern, in the 1930s, over Germany's inflationary descent into one economic crisis after another and its debt, post-World War I, to other European countries. So, on one level, economic conditions have historically dominated Germany's political and ideological agenda.
On a second level, what the cabbie's comment reminds us is that German dominance over Europe still upsets the Europeans, whether it is military occupation or economic supremacy. Germany's economic strength is dependent on its exports to other European countries just as much as on its own economic discipline and efficiency. This has been amplified in finance capitalism, a new form of state-capitalist imperialism, where the banking sector determines all economic and political choices. Add to that the national guarantees afforded private banks, and the lines of demarcation between public and private interests are quickly erased.
And on a third level, there is a sad recognition by cabbies around the less fortunate EU member countries that German hegemony is malicious and intent on hurting them. Recall the derogatory PIGS or PIIGS (Portugal, Italy (and Ireland), Greece, and Spain) associated in the early 2000s with nations whose debt and economic strife came short of the financial targets set by Germany? It's Germany's way or the highway, as we say in the United States! And those disgusting PIGS must conform to our high standards and turn into beautiful white swans.
But what makes the latest Greek tragedy of internal political strife and broken negotiations with bond-holders and yet another bailout request a European farce is the shift from financial analyses to explicit moralizing. Greece's latest crisis is exposed as a moral failure as much as a financial one. The Greeks are singled out as corrupt tax evaders and lazy pensioners. Their refusal to follow austerity measures is an indication of leftist irresponsibility and infantile expectation that the nanny-state will provide unlimited and free services.
Unpacking the litany of moral accusations deserves careful analysis; instead, one may provisionally answer these charges in three ways. First, tax evasion is a cherished billionaires' sport played around the world (and this doesn't make it right.) Greek billionaires registering their fleets and their multinational corporations in tax-haven islands is no different from German or American ones, from Halliburton's headquarters in Dubai and Apple's banking in Ireland all the way to those depositing their fortunes in private, secured accounts in Luxembourg and Andorra (as Switzerland is now more cooperative with foreign governments.)
Second, since when did pensions become an indicator of laziness? Would Americans condemn military personnel, police officers, firefighters and teachers as inherently lazy? Last I checked, they all have pensions after anywhere from 20 to 25 years of service, similar to what Greek civil servants enjoy, and this is a moral principle worth protecting (perhaps even extending to all working citizens.)
Beware when financial arguments turn into moral judgments not because morality shouldn't be part of the conversation but rather because it should. And if financial debt, as in the case of the Greeks, is so morally offensive, then the third point to recall is the German debt to Greece dating back to World War II (see an interview with London School of Economics' Albreht Ritschl.)
Germany's debt -- financial and moral -- to its European neighbors will never be fully repaid. Whenever self-righteousness is flagrant, as we have seen in the bailout negotiations with Greece, a farce is about to be exposed! Wasn't it megabanks in the US who enjoyed a taxpayers' bailout less than a decade ago?
Raphael Sassower is philosophy chair at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Prof. Sassower's latest books are Compromising the Ideals of Science (2015), The Price of Public Intellectuals (2014), and Sports and Religion in American Culture (2014, with Jeff Scholes). He grew up in Israel and moved to the United States as a young man after serving as an officer in the IDF.
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