Quote for the Day: Wilde on Sincerity and Bad Art
KaDeWe Receipt from 1972

Iraq War 2005 = (sort of) Greece Bailout 2015

American economic historian Jacob Soll notes the self-righteous anger shown by German economists at a recent meeting:

But when the German economists spoke at the final session, a completely different tone took over the room. Within the economic theories and numbers came a moral message: The Germans were honest dupes and the Greeks corrupt, unreliable and incompetent. Both parties were reduced to caricatures of themselves. We’ve heard this story throughout the negotiations, but in that room, it was clear how much resentment shapes the views of German economists.

Clemens Fuest, of the Center for European Economic Research, who has advised Mr. Schäuble, kept reciting numbers about Greek debt and growth, and said the Greeks had failed at every level over the past several years to manage their debt. He believed they should simply be thrown out of the eurozone. Henrik Enderlein, of the pro-European Jacques Delors Institute, said that Greece should stay in the eurozone, but only if it applied more austerity and better management. Daniel Gros, director of the Center for European Policy Studies, theorized that Greek debt and economic woes could be countered only with better export numbers.

All points were important, but to hear it from these economists, Germany played no real part in the Greek tragedy. They handed over their money and watched as the Greeks destroyed themselves over the past four years. Now the Greeks deserved what was coming to them.

When I pointed out that the Germans had played a major role in this situation, helping at the very least by insisting on austerity and unsustainable debt over the last three years, doing little to improve accounting standards, and now effectively imposing devastating capital controls, Mr. Enderlein and Mr. Fuest scoffed. When I mentioned that many saw austerity as a new version of the 1919 Versailles Treaty that would bring in a future “chaotic and unreliable” government in Greece — the very kind that Mr. Enderlein warned about in an essay in The Guardian — they countered that they were furious about being compared to Nazis and terrorists.

When I noted that no matter how badly the Greeks had handled their economy, German demands and the possible chaos of a Grexit risked political populism, unrest and social misery, they were unmoved. Debtors who default, they explained, would simply have to suffer, no matter how rough and even unfair the terms of the loans. There were those who handled their economies well, and took their suffering silently, like Finland and Latvia, they said. In contrast, a country like Greece, where many people don’t pay their taxes, did not seem to merit empathy. It reminded me that in German, debt, “schuld,” also means moral fault or blame.

Here lies a major cultural disconnect, and also a risk for the Germans. For it seems that their sense of victimization has made them lose their cool, both in negotiations and in their economic assessments. If the Germans are going to lead Europe, they can’t do it as victims.

I agree that Nazi comparisons are moronic (the better historical analogy is the Treaty of Versailles). But many mainstream German commentators react with outrage to any criticism of Germany’s handling of the Euro crisis, no matter how well-informed.

The German reaction to criticism reminds me of the reaction of certain Americans (and some others) to criticism of the Iraq War in, say, 2005. In both situations, countries which were pursuing their own self-interest (probably a very short-sighted and foolish version of it, but self-interest nonetheless) wanted everyone not only to let them pursue it but to admire them for doing so.

The other dynamic, which proved so fatal to many European America-philes, was a version of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Some of the critics of the American invasion were delusional leftists who always criticize the United States in harsh and often unreasonable terms. Since I despise these sorts of people and everything they stand for, the America-defender thought, I must instinctively support anything they oppose. This dynamic, known as ‘punching the hippies’, reappears throughout history and has been responsible for millions of dumbass decisions by otherwise generally smart people.  

Because of these two dynamics, any criticism was chalked up to resentment, ignorance, or prejudice. Sober questions about whether the policy was effective or morally justified were met with the kinds of deflection and misdirection that people universally resort to when defending a decision an action they vocally supported, but which is rapidly, publicly going pear-shaped. The conversations went a little like this:

So, do you think the invasion of Iraq was justified and will lead to positive results?

-- What are you implying? Have you seen the protesters with their Bush = Hitler signs? Let me tell you, if morons like that are against it, it’s probably a good idea.

So, do you think the invasion of Iraq was justified…?

-- Why don’t you ask a Kurd or a Marsh Arab or one of Saddam’s countless torture victims that question?

So, do you think the invasion of Iraq was justified…?

-- Europe is full of anti-American cranks who are going to hate us no matter what we do, so I don’t particularly care about their opinion.

So, do you think the invasion of Iraq was justified…?

-- People who think modern problems can always be solved peacefully are foolish, naive, and irresponsible.

So, do you think the invasion of Iraq was justified…?

-- You’re trying to make this into an American thing. Don’t you realize the coalition of the willing includes Britain, as well as many Eastern European and Micronesian nations?

So, do you think the invasion of Iraq was justified…?

-- The historical analogy you’re implying in your question is both inaccurate and deeply offensive.

So, do you think the invasion of Iraq was justified…?

-- I see this is the thanks we get from Europe for saving their asses twice during the last century.

So, do you think the invasion of Iraq was justified…?

-- If America has to go it alone in spreading democracy and freedom in a troubled part of the world, I guess that’s just what it will take.

And so on and so on, ad infinitum. I see basically the same dynamic playing out now in Germany, as the agreement reached after the recent summit is being roundly attacked by the vast majority of non-German observers, and not a few German ones as well.

My advice to Germans still clinging to the Finance Ministry’s viewpoint: give up. There's no defending the indefensible. It’ll make your life, and everyone else's, much easier.

UPDATE: Krgthulu's mailbox is buzzing with angry Germans:

You see, I’ve been getting a lot of mail from Germany lately, in a break from (or actually an addition to) my usual deluge of right-wing hate mail. I’m well aware that this is a highly distorted sample, since I’m only hearing from those angry enough and irrational enough — seriously, what do the writers expect to accomplish? — to send such things. Still, the content of the correspondence is striking.

Basically, the incoming missives take two forms:

1. Obscenities, in both English and German

2. Bitter accusations of persecution, along the lines of “As a Jew you should know the dangers of demonizing a people.” Because criticizing a nation’s economic ideology is just like declaring its people subhuman.

Again, these are letter-writers, and hardly representative. But Germany’s sense of victimization does seem real, and is a big problem for its neighbors.