Someone, somewhere is responsible for the Greek tragedy

Riot police use tear gas as protesters stand in front of the Greek Parliament in Athens, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2012. Riots engulfed central Athens and at least 10 buildings went up in flames in mass protests late Sunday as lawmakers prepared for a historic parliamentary vote on harsh austerity measures demanded to keep the country solvent and within the eurozone. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Have you noticed that the whole world has now become an expert on Greece and the Greek economy? Moreover, quite a lot of people in this country, who work in the financial and legal worlds, are having to face a possible Greek exit from the Euro, not knowing whether it will happen or not – the odds keep on changing – and not knowing what it will entail if it does, as this has never really happened before now. (In my humble opinion, it has, more or less happened before: a reasonably close parallel is provided by Argentina’s ignominious abandonment of dollar parity back in 2002 – though even that is rather more complex than it first appears.) 

Economics is not an exact science, though one feels it should be. One needs a guide through this murky world of distorting mirrors. There are quite a few good commentators over at Telegraph blogs that I follow, and I am also hanging on the words of the very clever Faisal Islam, a man who is so brilliant he makes it all intelligible for people like me.

But as a theologian who knows precious little about economics, what can one say? Is there anything theological to be said as we watch the slow-motion Greek car crash? Well, yes, there is.

Someone, somewhere is responsible for this mess. It is not nobody’s fault. Somebody at some point made a bad decision that led to a cascade of bad decisions, that resulted in the present situation. I am not saying that this someone was an individual: it could have been several people, it could have been a whole class of people, and the original decision could have been made many decades ago. I am not even saying that this original bad decision was a sin – it may have only been a mistake. The difference would lie in the degree of knowledge and deliberation that the decision involved.

I am not sure what form this original mistake took, in other words, what was the substance of the mistake. Was it the decision to fudge the criteria for entry into the Euro, to let Greece in even though we can now see that Greece should never have been let in? Was it something anterior to all that, namely the inability or unwillingness of Greek governments to govern, and to enforce the rule of law, especially when it came to taxation? Did all this start centuries ago with some minor official with his hand in the cookie jar, and his co-workers all pretending they saw nothing?

Moral theologians would certainly point to the chief sin at work here being a lack of responsibility, coupled with the fatalistic idea that none of us can do anything about economic mismanagement, as it is all out of our hands. And one notices now that everyone is blaming everyone else and no one is really admitting they were at fault. The most outrageous form this takes is the idea that somehow or another the Germans must pay for Greek debts, or that it is all the fault of Mrs Merkel. How could it be? If the Greek government had been run by sensible hausfrauen, you can be damn sure none of this would have happened.

In the end the moral point is a very simple one: if you want to spend money then you have to face the bill. Each one of us knows this every time we go into a bar or restaurant. The Becky Sharp approach to debt is an immoral one. She, you remember, is the adventuress who is the anti-heroine of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. She sets up a grand house in Mayfair with her husband Rawdon Crawley, and spends, spends, spends, with no thought of ever repaying. And of course she does not pay; the tradesmen who are taken in by her suffer, and some go bankrupt. In the end someone always pays. This is how Wikipedia sums it up:

Becky and Rawdon appear to be financially successful, but their wealth and high standard of living are mostly smoke and mirrors. Rawdon gambles heavily and earns money as a billiards shark. The book also suggests he cheats at cards. Becky accepts trinkets and money from her many admirers and sells some for cash. She also borrows heavily from the people around her and seldom pays bills. The couple lives mostly on credit, and while Rawdon seems to be too dim-witted to be aware of the effect of his borrowing on the people around him, Becky is fully aware that her heavy borrowing and her failure to pay bills bankrupts at least two innocent people: her servant, Briggs, whose life savings Becky borrows and fritters away, and her landlord Raggles, who was formerly a butler to the Crawley family and who invested his life savings in the townhouse that Becky and Rawdon rent (and fail to pay for). She also cheats innkeepers, milliners, dress-makers, grocers, and others who do business on credit. She and Rawdon obtain credit by tricking everyone around them into believing they are receiving money from others.

Sounds familiar? The Greek crisis, which is a moral crisis, has a moral lesson to it that we could all learn. Only spend what you can afford, and do not expect others to settle your debts for you.