Shut Up and Pay

New York Times columnist Joe Nocera hinted Monday at something that’s been on my mind for a while, but he didn’t come right out and say it.

His column was on the European money crisis and the gist of his argument is this: it makes economic sense for Germany (Europe’s economic powerhouse) to bail out Greece (Europe’s irresponsible brother-in-law).

The Greeks have gotten themselves – and are dragging the Euro and the Eurozone nations – into this mess with too little austerity and too many early retirements.  It’s the hardworking ants of the Baltic versus the sun-drenched grasshoppers of the Mediterranean.  It’s in Germany’s self-interest to save the Greeks, because if Europe returns to a patchwork of currencies, then those low-value drachmas and lire and pesetas will buy fewer German products.

The Germans, however, resist this logic not for economic, but moral reasons.  “If we bail you out, how will you learn your lesson?” the Germans ask, “Why would you not repeat your mistakes?”  It’s like the parent, about to punish the child, saying, “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you,” and in this case it might be true.

Here’s where Joe Nocera wouldn’t go: why doesn’t Germany just shut up and bail out the Greeks?  Thank you, my cousins, for shifting the terms of the debate from economics to morals.  Now that we’re in that territory, let me remind you that not so long ago, Germany invaded and occupied Greece, killing thousands of its citizens and sending tens of thousands more off to death camps.  (The people with whom I share half my ethnicity hate it when I bring these things up, as if I’m the one who breached decorum.)

In 1945, the Allied nations agreed that forcing Germany to pay reparations for its crimes did not make economic or political sense.  The heavy burden of reparation imposed on Germany after World War I helped aid the rise of the Nazis.  That was a good call and helped get a ravaged Europe back on its feet, but somehow, it insidiously evolved into a dysfunctional denial of history, as if it’s impolite to mention the bombs and bullets.  Forgetting serves no good purpose.

So here’s my proposal: Greece gets a one-time bailout from Germany.  Does that mean that slate is clean?  No, that slate can’t be cleaned.  It just means no further bailouts or reparations or whatever you want to call it from Germany to Greece.

Am I uselessly holding onto the past, onto grudges that serve no one?  I don’t think so.  True reconciliation requires remorse, forgiveness and atonement.  I have faith in German remorse and the forgiveness of Europe.  In more than half a century, there have been no opportunities for real atonement.  Now one presents itself; Germany should take advantage of it.

So, should Spain get a bailout, because the Nazis warmed up for WWII by using Spanish Republicans for Lutwaffe target practice?  What about Poland, France, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands and on and on?  If Germany shores up Greece, we hope those nations won’t need German relief.  What about Italy, now also teetering on the brink?  Does Germany owe Italy?  Morally, no, economically perhaps.  This is the danger when one shifts the philosophical grounds of debate.  (Hey Germany, you started it; I’m just taking the moral debate to a logical conclusion.)

Once this moral/economic argument is engaged, things quickly get complicated.  For instance, if Germany should bail out Greece, does that mean the U.S. should pay reparations to African Americans for centuries of slavery?

Yes, I think it does.

© Mark Floegel, 2011

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