The latest Greek bailout request being debated at the European Union's headquarters in Brussels is yet another chapter in what must surely be the longest-playing national debt drama in modern history.
Ironically, the country should never have been allowed to join the euro zone in the first place. Greece was granted membership in 2001 after presenting false data understating the true extent of its budget deficit. Three years later, the government finally admitted it had fudged its books to gain entry.
But when Greece assumed the mantle of a euro zone member, financial markets overlooked the country's overextended balance sheet. Greeks went on a new borrowing and spending spree, while again hiding the true size of their deficits from Brussels through a devious derivative scheme managed by Goldman Sachs. By the time an inquiry into that second fraudulent act was announced in early 2010, Greece's national debt had more than doubled to a whopping €330-billion ($453-billion). The country's debt ratings plummeted to junk bond status, putting it just weeks away from sovereign debt default.
Euro zone members faced a crucial decision: Cut Greece loose or bail it out. They had every right to expel Greece from the euro zone on the basis of such fraud, yet chose not to.
Implementing a bailout meant the euro zone had to overlook these transgressions and also trust that the country's long-entrenched dysfunctional governance, out-of-control spending, bloated and unaccountable public service, business-crippling bureaucracy and institutionalized corruption could be miraculously changed. This reality was summed up in 2010 by German politician Michael Fuchs, now deputy chairman of Germany's ruling coalition, when he said: "If we start now, where do we stop?"
In an April, 2010, column written during that debate, I wrote, "An EU bailout of Greece would surely lead to the rampant spread of a moral hazard disease deadly to the future of the world's largest economic zone." Cutting Greece loose then would not only have meant a much stronger euro zone today, but would also have forced Greeks to face their entrenched problems and begin dealing with them.
Now, five years later, a much weakened euro zone again looks down the Greek debt black hole as debate rages about releasing a further €7.2-billion in bailout funds. Despite receiving €214-billion in bailouts since 2010, the country's debt has actually risen, now standing at some €340-billion. Hardly evidence of the alleged drastic spending cuts that have seen anti-austerity Greeks demonstrating and burning in effigy German Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of their main benefactor. And a new socialist government under Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras that is vowing to ratchet up spending and reverse hard-won structural reforms has just been elected. Just how much is enough to cut Greece loose?
Many commentators contend that the shrinkage of the Greek economy since the bailout spending-reform conditions were implemented demonstrates that austerity has failed. Reaching that conclusion requires denial of the fundamental principle of actions and consequences that apply to countries as well as families and individuals.
Consider the case of a household whose members chronically live beyond their means. They have no savings and their bank account is constantly in overdraft. Rather than cutting back, they obtain multiple credit cards by hiding their true financial situation, but those credit cards are soon maxed out. In desperation, they turn to financially responsible cousins to help them through, again hiding the true scale of their spendthrift ways. Finally, the family defaults on its loans, triggering loss of home, car and other possessions. But instead of recognizing that they were the architects of their own misfortune, they consider themselves victims of the mortgage, car loan and credit card companies. And they even vilify their generous relatives for refusing to lend more money.
Greece's problems have not been caused by austerity, but by decades of irresponsible spending and corrupt behaviour. Expecting that a debt problem will be solved by more debt simply defies common sense and reality. Believing this myth will only make the debt hole that Greeks have dug themselves even deeper, and the challenges of climbing back out ever more unlikely.