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A Little Myth-Busting

Europe’s Debt: Lies & Myths

by CONN HALLINAN

“Debt, n. An ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave driver”

Ambrose Bierce, Journalist & writer

“The history of an oppressed people is hidden in the lies and agreed myth of its conquerers”

Meridel Le Suer, Author

Myths are dangerous precisely because they rely more on cultural memory and prejudice than facts, and behind the current crisis between Greece and the European Union (EU) lays a fable that bears little relationship to why Athens and a number of other countries in the 28-member organization find themselves in deep distress.

The tale is a variation of Aesop’s allegory of the industrious ant and the lazy, fun-loving grasshopper, with the “northern countries”—Germany, the Netherlands, Britain, Finland—playing the role of the ant, and Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland the part of the grasshopper.

The ants are sober and virtuous—lead by the frugal Swanbian house frau, German Chancellor Andrea Merkel—the grasshoppers are spendthrift, corrupt lay-abouts who have spent themselves into trouble and now must pay the piper.

The problem is that this myth bears almost no relationship to the actual roots of the crisis or what the solutions might be. And it perpetuates a fable that the debt is the fault of individual countries rather than a serious crisis at the very heart of the EU.

First, a little myth busting.

The European debt crisis goes back to the end of the roaring ‘90s when the banks were flush with money and looking for ways to raise their bottom lines. One major strategy was to pour money into real estate, which had the effect of creating bubbles, particularly in Spain and Ireland. In the latter, from 1999 to 2007, bank loans for Irish real estate jumped 1,730 percent, from 5 million Euros to 96.2 million Euros, or more than half the GDP of the Republic. Housing prices increased 500 percent. “It was not the public sector but the private sector that went haywire in Ireland,” concludes Financial Times analyst Martin Wolf.

Spain, which had a budget surplus and a low debt ratio, went through much the same process, and saw an identical jump in housing prices: 500 percent.

In both countries there was corruption, but it wasn’t the penny ante variety of tax evasion or profit skimming. Politicians—eager for a piece of the action and generous “donations”—waved zoning rules, environmental regulations, and cut sweetheart tax deals. Hundreds of thousands of housing projects went up, many of them never to be occupied.

Then the American banking crisis hit in 2008, and the bottom fell out. Suddenly, the ants were in trouble. But not really, because the ants have a trick: they gamble and the grasshoppers pay.

The “trick,” as Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate in economics, points out,...

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