Even though the Greek electorate has elected left-wing leaders, the “the Greek government” hasn’t actually changed all that much. It is still dysfunctional, corrupt, and very protective of special interests in nationally harmful ways. Yet I find that if I criticize the Greek government on Twitter I receive many angry, self-righteous comebacks, often but not always from Greeks and usually with a left-wing slant.
One reason the Greek government is so popular with “the Left” has to do, I think, with theories of social change. I often read or hear it suggested that, if only the truth is spoken in forthright, galvanizing terms, beneficial social change will follow. This was a common meme in Krugman’s columns for instance over the years. The claim was that Obama needed to be more like FDR and mobilize a coalition around a commonly articulated series of truths. I don’t think it was ever promised this would succeed right away, due to Republican intransigience, but it has been portrayed as a good long-run investment in political change through the education of the citizenry.
The new Greek government of course has done this and more. They have rather flamboyantly staked out extreme positions, insulted their opponents, and warned of the doom that will follow if renegotiations were to run along the lines of EU law rather than the New Old Keynesian economics. They told their citizenry how much they were standing up for them, and how much this was a moral clash of progressive good vs. austerity evil, with the values of democracy and national sovereignty (supposedly) on the side of good.
The thing is, it’s turned out to be a total catastrophe. As I had suggested early on, there is, in the ruling Greek coalition, no Plan B. Germany and especially Spain just held tight on the negotiations and the Greek government more or less had to fold, not even wanting to vote on the negotiated plan. That plan then failed to receive European approval, nor has Greece drummed up much general support from the other peripheral countries, and now no one knows what to do next. The ECB, IMF, and others still have Greece “by the balls,” to cite one colloquial expression. They’re still trying to spin that “the institutions” are not the Troika, but they don’t talk much about liberating the economy as a means of increasing exports. It seems Emergency Liquidity Assistance may be up for review. Oops.
The Greek government also riled up its citizens and now doesn’t know how to deliver anything satisfactory to them, to the detriment of political stability. The latest irresponsible plan is to threaten a referendum on a new government, a new economic plan, or in one case even a referendum on euro membership was mentioned. Message discipline is scarcely to be seen.
All of that is simply painting the Greek government into a corner all the more, since a referendum will simply heighten the demands for mutually inconsistent outcomes. Signs of broader eurozone recovery, and the relative success of QE in talking down the value of the euro, have almost completely removed the bargaining power of Syrizas, or so it seems as of early March.
As I’ve said before, these people ruling Greece are The Not Very Serious People, and they are increasingly acquiring a reputation as such within the rest of the EU and eurozone.
All of this reminds me of the wisdom of Dani Rodrik and his propositions about the incompatibility of democracy, national sovereignty, and global economic integration. Angry words won’t undo those constraints and they are not something you will hear the Greek government mention very often.
Krugman a few times has praised Syrizas for renegotiating the required primary surplus figures, but it seems this is hardly mattering. Due to plummeting tax collection, the primary surplus is gone in any case, and the agreement with “the institutions” [read: Troika] is not even the main driver of the action here. Greece needs to take steps to reestablish a higher [read: positive] primary surplus in any case.
The broader lesson is this: if politicians are not “speaking the truth to power,” there are usually some pretty good reasons for that. As a political strategy, it doesn’t typically work and it is worse than irrelevant as it very often backfires.
The situation is still not beyond repair, but the Very Serious People are serious for a reason.