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Friday, July 3, 2015


I will leave it to others to comment on the economics of the disaster visited on Greece by the unelected ideologues of the European Union.  I suppose this is what we must expect when a left-wing politician actually wins an election.  I wish rather to react to the situation in Greece as a philosopher.  We philosophers hold Greece in a special place in our hearts.  It is where our profession began, two and a half millennia ago.  Socrates is to us what Bach is to music lovers and The Babe is to baseball aficionados.   

Now, I understand that the French have always had an affinity for the Romans and to Latin, which bears an easily understood relationship to their own Gallic tongue.  But I always thought the Germans loved the Greeks.  Look at Nietzsche, at Hegel, at Heidegger.  How can the Germans, of all people, be deliberately destroying the Greek economy?  Have they never visited Athens, walked in the Agora where Socrates taught the young Plato?  Have they, at long last, no conscience?  I am glad I never took the trouble to really master the German language. 

Angela Merkel should be ashamed of herself.


formerly a wage slave said...

Do Germans love Greeks or do Germans love Greek beaches? I guess we can't expect German politicians to share the tastes (or virtues) of philosophers....But, don't get me wrong. I'm very sympathetic toward the tenor of your remarks. What's going on is so bad as to leave me speechless. But the treatment of Greece tells us something about the nature of the EU and what's really going on in Europe--not only in Greece......

formerly a wage slave said...

Maybe that last remark about Germans was too cynical. I once had an Austrian student who regularly visited Greece and did have personal relationships with individual Greeks. He liked them very much. It wasn't just about Greek beaches. (Yes, I know Austria is not Germany; but I think in this case, they are close enough culturally for my memory to be relevant.) But, then I would have to revise my remark, and simply say that it's a question of German politicians not of the German people....

formerly a wage slave said...

I am sure you have heard that Germans are being submitted to propaganda about lazy Greeks, but there is a peculiar twist here in the Czech Republic. I recently read a story about a Greek man who retired at the age of fifty, and whose pension currently is much higher than the average local (Czech) wage. The article didn't include many pertinent details that it might have included. (Such as his reasons for retiring, or what his job had been, or the fact that 45 per cent of Greek pensioners are poor.) But I confess that when I first read the article I was shocked because his income as a pensioner was much more than my income as a teacher of English at a university in the Czech Republic. And, then I began to think about the details the article left out, and recalled that the last time I had a full-time job in the USA (in 1996) I had a salary much higher than that of the Greek pensioner.

Last night on Czech television, I witnessed something similar. They were interviewing a Greek man, a journalist or political scientist (I've forgotten which) living in the Czech Republic. And somehow the question arose of leftist nature of the Greek government. I thought the guy gave a very wise explanation which showed to me that he understands Czech culture better than I do. He made a simple analogy. In Greece, they had suffered with the cruelty of a right-wing dictatorship; so leftists escaped any stain from that period. The opposite is true in the Czech Republic.
That remark remains pertinent to me against a background in which I regularly hear Czech commentators suggest that the Greek government cannot be taken seriously (and doesn't deserve respect)because it is "leftist". I'm not sure that the television commentator understood or processed what he was hearing. At the next turn in the conversation, the host suggested that all of Europe was united against Greece. If I understood him correctly, the Greek said that was German propaganda. I would have liked to hear him explain further what he meant, as I've often thought that the Czech media is reflexively and unthinkingly inclined to side with Germany. However, at that point the conversation ended.
I would hate to clog your blog with off-the-cuff remarks that don't really help anyone, but since I had doubts about the value of my two comments above, I hope that at least these new remarks provide some glimpse into what's going on in a smaller country with a "communist" past.

Wallace Stevens said...

It is a great mystery to me how the predicament that the Greeks find themselves in has become a cause celebre for the Left. Any serious left-wing program should involve, at a minimum, redistributing income from those who have to those who don’t. (You raised this point in a recent post, Professor Wolff, and I wholeheartedly agree.) Such a program has no effect on the deficit and does not involve debt. It is therefore highly sustainable. But this is not the program that the Greeks have followed over the last several decades. Instead, they purchased the trappings of a liberal/social democratic society (social safety net, publically provided health care and education, etc., etc.) by borrowing. There is nothing “radical,” or even “liberal,” about debt financing: it recognizes the property rights embedded in the status quo, leaves the rich with their winnings, and offers property owners their property back, intact, after X years, with interest. A program of redistribution is based on a very different “ethos”—to quote a fine old Greek word—and one that I hope requires no further elaboration or defence for the audience of this blog.

(The Right talks a lot of nonsense about debt, and I want to be careful to distance myself from it. Debt makes sense for Keynesian, anti-cyclical reasons. It also makes sense when the money is used for large-scale, long term projects that yield social dividends. But it makes no sense at all as a means of paying for ongoing social programs like pensions, or for the day-to-day running of hospitals and schools. Here, the Right is right. Debt is bad.)

The Greeks’ problems are compounded by nothing so vague or hard to measure as “laziness.” The problem is rampant tax evasion—not the exploitation of exotic and clever, but legal, “loopholes”--but evasion pure and simple. And the money that IS collected does not always find its way to good uses—like paying pensions or healthcare. The latter fact, of course, encourages more tax evasion—why contribute when so much is so obviously wasted?—and so on…in a vicious, downward spiral. There is nothing genetic or ethnic in this. The Greeks, through various twists and turns of their history, have found themselves in an ugly equilibrium where only fools pay taxes. Greece is, or should be, a cautionary tale for all of us.

Someone that I know here in Canada who is of Greek immigrant extraction, and who maintains close family ties with Greece, told me that it is not at all unusual for doctors to expect a bribe in order to provide treatment in what, on the surface at least, is supposed to be a universal healthcare system, similar to what we have in Canada. Now that is, or should have been, a left wing cause celebre! If that happened in Canada there really would be rioting in the streets, and not just by young, male, self-styled anarchists. But there was not a peep from anyone in Greece, on the Left or anywhere else. This was accepted as a fact of life. This friend has an uncle in Greece who collects a supplemental pension for veterans of the Resistance, except he was actually too young to have participated in the Resistance. When my friend questioned this, the uncle replied, only somewhat sheepishly, “Well, everyone is doing it…”

Wallace Stevens said...

My apologies for taking up so much space. Here is the continuation of my previous comment, for which there was no room:

I have even heard people on the Left compare what is happening in Greece today to what happened in Chile in the 1970s: a socialist government ousted by force and the country forced to swallow some strong, neo-liberal medicine brewed in Chicago. But the only coercion that Greece is subject to is the passive one of foreign lenders not being willing to lend more money to people who have a terrible record of paying money back and who, at least from the lenders’ point view, to which they are entitled, have no credible plan for paying back the new money they want to borrow. Let’s be clear: Greece is asking foreigners to lend them MORE money. MORE money: this is not even about paying back what is already owed. Greece could default on that past debt and the foreign lenders, the IMF and the rest of the EU countries would be helpless to do anything about it. The fact that they want to borrow MORE—that they have embraced the ethos of debt over that of redistribution--is the only respect in which they are beholden to Germany or to anyone else. There are no gunboats in the harbour. I think it is an insult to the Chileans and the Argentinians to mention their plight in the seventies and that of the Greeks in the same breath. And let’s be clear about something else: Germany is not a paradise of neo-liberal/libertarian, “every man for himself” economics. And neither is France. The Greeks would do well, in fact, to get themselves up to the standard of Germany in terms of social solidarity/cohesion and the financing and provision of social services.

As is maybe coming out in my comment, I find all of this very frustrating. The behaviour of the Greek government, and the support that that behaviour is garnering from the Left outside of Greece, seems, most irritatingly for me, to confirm the old right-wing cliché about the Left: “Their hearts are in the right place, God love ‘em. But they can’t count!”

Magpie said...


I completely agree on your "re-distribution vs debt" observations regarding how to finance a welfare state.

From that point on, I do have some differences. It's clear that the borrower (the Greek state) has responsibility, as you rightly emphasize. But, what about the largely German and French lenders? Were they forced to lend money to the Greek state? I may be mistaken, but as I see things, they made a call and it was the wrong call to make. And, yet, they aren't paying for that wrong call.

This is what happens to that money Greece receives from the Troika: as soon as the money comes in from the Troika, it goes out to re-pay those loans made to finance the Greek welfare (and wealthfare, too, as many fortunes have been made on that account) state; it goes back to the German and French banks.

Yes, it is actually those banks who are being bailed out, not the Greeks.

Why don't these banks just write off those loans? Or, as they say, why don't they take a really meaningful "haircut"?

In fact -- and I am no Varoufakis' biggest fan -- to give Yanis Varoufakis the credit he deserves: he has been publically asking, since his government took power in January, to put an end to this business of paying debts by contracting new debts:

Greek finance minister: 'End the vicious cycle'
Jacob Pramuk
Tuesday, 27 Jan 2015

He doesn't want to borrow MORE. Precisely the opposite.

And, going back to the re-distribution vs debt thing: the Tsipras' chaotic "government" have at least spoken about increasing taxes/crackdown on tax evasion... It is the Troika that has consistently opposed that.

The Troika not only want a budget surplus, they want a surplus achieved through spending cuts, not through additional tax revenues (let alone tax revenues from the rich). The only tax the Troika like is the value added tax (VAT).

K.Reader said...

But I always thought the Germans loved the Greeks. Look at Nietzsche, at Hegel, at Heidegger. How can the Germans, of all people, be deliberately destroying the Greek economy? Have they never visited Athens, walked in the Agora where Socrates taught the young Plato? Have they, at long last, no conscience? I am glad I never took the trouble to really master the German language.

But I always thought philosophers loved unbiassed thinking. Look at Nietzsche, at Hegel, at Marx. How can philosophers, of all people, be deliberately forgetting unbiassed thought? Have they never visited Athens, walked the Agora where Socrates taught the young Plato? Can they, at long last, make no clear distinctions? I am glad I never took the trouble to really master the Leftist language.
What the .... has the German language got to do with the question of Greek debts and the profits of banks, oligarchs ...?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jesus Christ, does no one have a sense of humor any more?