This morning the Greek Parliament approved what was likely an inevitable new austerity package on the heels of violent protests this week in Athens. Huge surprise. Neither the austerity package nor the demonstrations are a new phenomenon to Athenians but the world media — and markets — are watching as if it were primetime television.
Note to floundering European economies: Do not have a crisis during a slow news cycle.
There appears to be an eerie pattern between panic in Greece and boredom elsewhere. Greece was struggling just as much in January, February, and March as it is now, but you might not have noticed thanks to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and that whole earthquake come nuclear disaster in Japan.
From mid-May to now, Greeks have been holding daily, peaceful demonstrations as Europe threatened to pull the plug on Athens’ next support tranche. Privatization, liberalization and cleaning up a labyrinthine public sector just didn’t happen fast enough. The Greek media for weeks had been worrying about "the black hole" in Greece’s budget before U.S. audiences noticed.
European leaders appear completely oblivious to timing. They failed to agree to a new bailout package for Greece the same day as a protests got brutal in Athens and Congressman Anthony Weiner resigned.
These demonstrations have given the international media a tragic soundtrack to an otherwise esoteric fiscal and financial problem. They also were a near daily event before the crisis, and even before the 2008 riots.
Being an international correspondent in Greece for parts of two years was a surreal experience for me. Most of the time it involved begging editors for attention on immigration and human rights issues, a tourism piece, the occasional terrorism analysis or some oddball story about history or culture.
Then the media selects a particular pronouncement or rumor from Brussels or Berlin and the race to Athens is on. Suddenly every warm, English-writing body is trying to keep up with demand while elbowing out carpet-baggers for clips.
Here’s the formula. Official statements from Greece and Europeans? Check. Economic analyst quote? Check. Scenery from daily life and a demonstration? Check. ‘Real Greek’ quote? Check. Analysis drawn from the general zeitgeist of the Greek crisis? Check and check.
Voila! You have a Greek Crisis story.
The storm passes after days or weeks, depending on what else is happening in the world, and editors once burning up your phone lines respond, “Eh, we’re done with that for now. Thanks.”
Lost in the shuffle are the truly tragic Greeks.
The prophets warned for years that ‘Greekenomics’ would lead to this reckoning, that if they did not clean up the vicious cycle of tax-evasion, corruption and borrowing that they would lose their economic sovereignty. But they refused to listen.
What is the answer for Greece?
Leaving the single Euro currency probably isn’t it. The theory supposes that Greece could leave and devalue. But there is no exit procedure.
Will a full-out default de-stabilize Europe? Yes. Greece completely reneging on its debt would annihilate the Greek banking sector, leading to depression, and stoking talk in Greece that tanks will have to defend banks.
Will a partial default have that effect? No, but it would be really inconvenient. Private European banks are caught between lobbying for more American-style bailouts and the so-called "French Proposal" of essentially taking the crisis into their own hands and negotiating their debt with Greece. The common thread with the jitters on Wall Street is that investors aren’t so pre-occupied with what Greece will do as much as what European leaders will do, much as ratings agencies are more concerned with Congressional bickering than the massive debt they’ve been willing to ignore for years.
What is the answer for Greeks?
Many media accounts have speculated that the Greeks, like the Irish, will emigrate. I don’t see it. It is seductively simple to live in Greece. The weather is warm. Family ties are close. It takes relatively little money to have a good life — if you can make it at all. Besides, it’s not like the rest of the West is booming right now.
To understand the true tragedy here, consider the pregnant woman killed in the May 5, 2010 bank fire-bombing, the climax of last year’s Greek crisis reporting. She and her fellow Greek husband had degrees and careers in the UK. “But the tug of kin and country proved stronger,” as the Wall Street Journal later reported. There is a reason why they say Greece eats her children.
Just like on May 5, this spate of international coverage will pass. There will or won’t be a bailout. Either way Greece will go on. But there are already many lives lost, literally and figuratively, to this Greek tragedy whether they appear in the media or not.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons