Europe's endless financial crisis often plays out, in the continent's own media and political culture, as a sort of comic-book clash of ethnic stereotypes.
There's the stolid German hausfrau looking over it all disapprovingly, pinching pennies and mending socks as the rabble to the south begs her for a loan. There's the Italian, in Super Mario garb, sneaking and charming his way through the calamity. The cocky Irishman, shaking his fist after finding out he'd put all his savings on the wrong horse. The hapless Englishman, looking like Hugh Grant in his dishevelled woefulness, trying to duck away from this spot of bother.
And the Greek. Above all, the Greek – smoking at a café table in the middle of the workday, hiding from the taxman, driving a Mercedes someone else has paid for, bursting into rage at any suggestion that he clean up his act, and then voting for a succession of extremist parties out of spite. Opa!
That's a tempting image, especially now that Greece has overwhelmingly elected a government run by the left-wing, anti-austerity coalition Syriza. New Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras tellingly described the country's bailout program, which directs the devastated Greek economy entirely toward debt repayment at any cost, as "fiscal waterboarding" and said he will demand a writedown of the debt.
You could almost watch the editorial cartoon clichés unfold: "The Greeks must now pay the consequences and cannot saddle German taxpayers with them," harrumphed Hans-Peter Friedrich of Germany's conservative CSU party, a member of the governing coalition.
But beyond those standout quote bubbles, you can start to see the ink fading on those caricatures.
Europe's economic problems were never about overspending Mediterranean types borrowing from frugal northerners. Greece, which really did run up a tonne of debt, is an odd exception, but the countries that ran into deep trouble include Spain and Ireland, which ran some of Europe's leanest, most austere and debt-free public-sector economies. Reforming Greece and weaning it off debt might feel good, but it won't do anything to solve Europe's problems. And Greece is already running a surplus worth 2 per cent of GDP, all of which must be shipped abroad for debt repayment.
It's as if the past five years were a contest between Europe and the United States over who had the best idea for fixing a broken economy. If so, the winner is clear: The U.S., having used stimulus to kick consumption back into gear, is now returning to full employment and growth. Europe, which tried choking off its economy, is falling deeper into trouble. It's finally admitting as much – this month, the European Central Bank finally proposed $1-trillion in quantitative easing, the bond-buying stimulus program that put the U.S. into recovery.
As a result, the wild-eyed Greek is looking less cartoonish every day. Indeed, a surprising range of people have come out in support of Syriza's anti-debt agenda.
Reza Moghadam, the former head of the International Monetary Fund's European division – thus one of the people responsible for Greece's austerity program – came out Monday with a rather extraordinary endorsement of Syriza's anti-austerity agenda and a call for half of Greece's debt to be written off.
"Syriza, which stands outside ruling elites, may be more willing than its predecessors to push through reforms," Mr. Moghadam acknowledged, writing in the Financial Times. "Its hand would be strengthened by relief from austerity … As an incentive to reform, most proceeds could be allocated to social spending. Just as Syriza needs to overcome Greece's reluctance on deep structural reform, Europe needs to overcome its taboos on debt relief."
Mark Carney, the Canadian who heads the Bank of England, spoke up in support of replacing the debt-and-austerity cycle with a European fiscal union, something that would bail out the economy itself, rather than the debt: "It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, if the euro zone were a country, fiscal policy would be substantially more supportive," he said.
The editors of business-friendly Bloomberg View agreed, calling for austerity to be replaced by debt forgiveness: "Some of this money would be better used for spending that would put people back to work. Higher employment and faster growth would make it easier for governments to pay their remaining obligations" and would restore "popular support for the European project," they said.
Whatever their flaws, Greece's far-left crazies might, paradoxically, be the ones to push for real reform: They're offended that the biggest industries pay no corporate tax and that the bloated pension system siphons money from the poor to benefit the well-off. This could be the moment when everyone breaks out of the comic-strip frame.