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April 23rd, 2017

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The forgotten prophetess

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Feb. 19, 2015

     The forgotten prophetess

The first domino -- Greece -- in the long row comprising the European Union is wobbling and about to fall, and could take the whole EU and its common currency, the euro, down with it someday. Maybe someday soon.

The sweeping victory of an anti-euro party in Greece's parliamentary elections rocked Europe, and may prove only the first step in dismantling the continent's long experiment in currency manipulation as a substitute for solid economic policies. Policies like frugality, which is now called austerity and despised by all those whose first and last resort to any economic crisis is to spend, spend, spend ... and, when that doesn't work, spend even more. (Sound familiar?)

So a poor country like Greece goes on spending money it doesn't have -- in the sure confidence that better-off countries like Germany and Britain will bail it out again and again. But there's only so long such a pretense, like any other Ponzi scheme, can go on. And the suckers are catching on at last.

If voters in Greece have seen through this game, can other European electorates be far behind? Which one will be next to talk about abandoning the euro? Spain, Italy, Ireland, even France? Each has a struggling economy and a fast-rising political party that reflects discontent with the euro.

Each of these growing political parties represents a sizable constituency eager to return to its country's own national currency free of orders from the bureaucrats in Brussels. As weak as their own currency may be, at least it's their own. For good or bad or even worthless. At least its fate would be in each nation's own hands.

For now all is fluid confusion when it comes to European monetary policy, which comes covered by the usual impenetrable verbiage offered by economists. They communicate in a lingo that can only be called econospeak, a vague jargon designed to make an irrational system appear rational.

A story in the always game Wall Street Journal tried to sum up the confused consensus among establishment economists: "International economists say the eurozone needs a judicious mix of all of the above: monetary stimulus to avoid deflation, deficit-cutting by debtor countries, higher spending by creditor countries, and broad economic overhauls in many nations to lift long-term prospects."

Got all that? And if so, what does it mean, if anything? It's Greek to me. An office worker in Athens, one Polyxeni Konstantinou, is quoted in the same story. She was more succinct: "Europe is self-destructing."

The election returns from Athens the other day may prove only a preliminary tremor. The aftershocks could continue for some time. They might even fade away, putting off the day of reckoning still again. But only for a while.

What's all this fuss about? All that's happening in Greece is that the birthplace of democracy is returning to democracy -- and all that goes with it, like self-determination and self-reliance. It all goes with a distinctive national identity, much like a distinctive national currency.

Why settle for anything as novel and nebulous as the euro when the Greeks can return their old drachma, whose origins go back to the Greek city-states of antiquity? Why allow a bunch of faceless bureaucrats in Brussels to determine the value of your money? In short, the Greeks want to be Greece again, not just a wholly-owned subsidiary of Europe, Inc.

And just who are these "Europeans"? In my time, I've met Greeks, Italians, Germans, Frenchmen and Englishmen, but never one of these newly minted creatures who's only a European, which makes me wonder: What language does a European speak -- all of them or just some bloodless form of esperanto that requires simultaneous translation?

When an Englishman rises to sing "God Save the Queen" or a Frenchmen bursts forth in the Marseillaise, what anthem does this artificial construct dubbed a European sing -- an ode to rules and regulations?

What is this composite European's equivalent of Queen Elizabeth's address on the approach of the Spanish Armada, or of Churchill's ringing words in Britain's finest hour? Who is this composite European's own Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Goethe, Flaubert...?

Of course Greek voters rebelled against the imposition of a bland nothingness in place of all that is Greek and all that Greece has meant in Western civilization. Wouldn't you?

The redoubtable -- and far-seeing -- Margaret Thatcher, the long-serving prime minister who finally succeeded in turning the British economy around, was never fond of playing games with the currency or economic facts in general. The Iron Lady preferred to face obdurate reality head-on, and do the hard work necessary to save the old pound sterling -- instead of devising a new and suspect currency backed by ... well, what does back up the euro, if anything? Or aren't we allowed to ask? Maybe not. "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain," as the Mighty Oz told Dorothy.

Lady Thatcher wasn't about to be bluffed. As she warned long ago, the poorer countries in the Eurozone would come to expect the richer ones to bail them out whenever they ran up debts they couldn't afford, and eventually the countries with assets -- like Germany and Britain -- would tire of this game. And the euro would topple.

A central European bank, she foresaw, would supplant national parliaments, and use a single currency to subsidize weaker economies at the expense of stronger ones. A single European union would also undermine and eventually replace the national sovereignty of individual nations, and lead to a general loss of independence and democratic rights in state after state.

Europe is just too diverse in its economies and cultures in general for nations as different as Britain and Greece, to share the same economic system without continual crises.

To quote one astute observer not long ago, "It's one thing to be kind of generically anti-euro, which a lot of people in England have been. It's another thing to absolutely nail why the euro would be such a disaster." Which is what Lady Thatcher did long before this latest crisis struck. But like many a prophetess since Cassandra, her words would be ignored. Till it was too late.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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