Why German Believe Fantasies About Greece

Simon Wren-LewisI am well aware that I often appear to be anti-German. That’s not entirely an incorrect assessment. Germany reminds me very much of the United States. Both are countries filled to the brim with undeserved self-righteousness. They say to anyone who will listen, “If only you were more like us, you would be fine — or at least better.” I hate this attitude in individuals and when I see it in countries, it frightens me. But is it really the case that Germany is behaving so badly toward Greece because of their pigheaded self-delusions about the German work ethic and frugality? Let’s say that it is at least a bit more complicated.

On Tuesday, Simon Wren-Lewis wrote, Why Germany Wants Rid of Greece. The title itself reminds me of World War I. There was a sense of relief among the power elite of Europe once the war came. Up to then, there had been all this messy and difficult negotiation. And as always, the power elite don’t like to negotiate. They are of the “all or nothing” persuasion (given that they are used to getting “all”). And there is little doubt that Germany would like to get get rid of Greece, as though that will get rid of the problem, and even more, as though that will be good for Germany.

Wren-Lewis confirmed what I’ve long thought:

When I recently visited Berlin, it quickly became clear the extent to which Germany had created a fantasy story about Greece. It was an image of Greeks as a privileged and lazy people, who kept on taking “bailouts” while refusing to do anything to correct their situation. I heard this fantasy from talking to people who were otherwise well informed and knowledgeable about economics.

The reason I’ve thought this was so is because people over here repeat that kind of nonsense. In 2011, Thomas Friedman wrote, “Germans are now telling Greeks: ‘We’ll loan you more money, provided that you behave like Germans in how you save, how many hours a week you work, how long a vacation you take, and how consistently you pay your taxes.'” David Brook similarly wrote, “[Nations like Germany and the US] believe in a simple moral formula: effort should lead to reward as often as possible.” Far be it for these two over-paid pundits to actually do a little research when they can just base whole articles on stereotypes. Matt Yglesias responded with facts, Are Greeks Lazy? He noted:

It’s true that Germans and Greeks work very different amounts, but not in the way you expect. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average German worker put in 1,429 hours on the job in 2008. The average Greek worker put in 2,120 hours.

Wren-Lewis has an interesting argument to explain why it is that the Germans can believe such patently false things. He says that Germans have never liked Keynsian economics. They prefer marginal economic ideas like expansionary austerity, because it goes along with how they see themselves. But Greece represents a great problem to this. Despite what you will hear on the right, Greece has done almost exactly what the Troika has demanded for the last five years. The result: economic catastrophe with unemployment above 25%. The Germans have only two choices here: either admit that their economic theories are bunk or blame the patient. We know what their choice is.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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