Everyone’s playing psychologist, so I will too.
September 26, 2011 Leave a comment
It’s kind of amusing to watch all these journalists and economists put on their psychologist hats and try to explain why hard-working, austerity-loving Germans are willing to put their taxpayer euros toward bailing out those lazy, irresponsible Greeks and Italians. I’ve seen all sorts of explanations. The most common one is economic, and it’s got a few different formulations: German businesses rely on Greek and Italian and Irish customers to buy their products; or Germany benefits most from the euro (because it essentially cheapens their exports for foreign purchasers) and won’t allow it to collapse; or the run on banks resulting from an out-of-control Greek default would cripple the entire European (and world) economy.
Another explanation, put forward by NPR’s Planet Money a few days ago, is historic. Germans, the theory goes, are so freaked out by the memory of World War II that they’ll do anything to be good European neighbors, even if it means giving hundreds of billions of hard-earned euros to those no-good southerners.
And in yesterday’s New York Times, we have a third type of explanation, which is purely cultural:
Germans struggle with a national envy. For over 200 years, they have been searching for a missing part of their soul: passion. They find it in the south and covet the loosey-goosey, sun-filled days of their free-wheeling Mediterranean neighbors. […]
Nietzsche claimed that the staid German psyche was stunted and needed more than a beer stein of passion. He was fascinated by ancient Greece and famously juxtaposed sober Apollo with that reckless, wine-drinking southerner, Dionysus. A dose of Dionysus might not be so bad, he figured.
Today, Germany still looks too Apollonian. Companies like BMW and Siemens conquer industrial markets by manufacturing flawless, perfectly timed motors. But when do Germans experience the fun of Dionysus? Only when vacationing in Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal.
I’d argue there’s some truth to all of these arguments, though you probably get diminishing returns as you go down the list here. But my hunch is that if you have to sum it all up in a single, neat idea, it probably has more of an element of a moral imperative than any of the aforementioned suggest.
Why do wealthy Americans willingly pay taxes for Medicaid, or childless Americans for schools? Sure, you could drum up some economic evidence showing that employers benefit from the health of their employees, or that good schools raise property values and lower crime. Or you could point to history and say that people remember their own impoverished upbringings and want to provide better for future generations, since who knows where their children or grandchildren will be. Or you could really stretch and give a cultural explanation: Rich Americans secretly long for dingy Steel Reserve parties instead of their own buttoned-up wine tastings, or rely on the street culture provided by their poorer brethren.
But none of that’s really the case. In reality, people pay for this stuff cuz, I dunno, it seems wrong not to. Are you really going to let lots of people suffer when you can afford to help? That’s not the way a society works. And Europe — like it or not, for all the economic, historical, and, yes, cultural reasons listed above — is increasingly acting like a society.
We’ll see in the coming months what kind of explanations the politicians give for trying to hold Europe together. Something tells me that when it’s all said and done, we’ll see a combination of economic, moral, historical, and maybe cultural arguments, likely in that order.