It’s All Greek To Me

Deutsch: Deutsches Logo der EZB. English: Germ...
Deutsch: Deutsches Logo der EZB. English: German Logo of the ECB. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”  – Alexis de Tocqueville

I was recently in between books and in the mood for some entertaining non-fiction which led me to Michael Lewis’ latest book, Boomerang: Travels In The New Third World.  I was eager to escape and vicariously live someone else’s life. Yet, instead of learning how to protect a quarterback from a blind side blitz or sitting as a fly on the wall as a handful of contrarian investors bet heavily against the housing and credit market bubble in the late 2000’s, I was ricocheted around the globe to observe the financial meltdown occurring in Europe and the US as sovereign debt crises threaten to turn their currencies into monopoly money.

Not since reading The Exorcist had I been unable to sleep, wide-eyed into the darkest hours of night drinking in this black comedy of hubris and denial.  I kept talking to myself out loud and waking up my wife, “No! Spain! Don’t take that loan from the ECB, you’ll kill yourself!” The tension of Lewis’ book reads like the script of a slasher film as you try trying to figure out how many of the hapless characters are going to end up as worm bait buried in the back garden.

 When I transferred to London in April, 2000, the world was heralding the creation of the European Economic Community. We were astonished at EEC member’s abilities to put aside differences for the sake of a common currency – the Euro.  Like adolescent girls, Europeans had fallen in love with the notion of a common currency but did not really believe it required anything beyond kissing.   The idea of diluting their national identities for the sake of a binding and stricter monetary matrimony – especially one that has Germans involved was not really considered.  Now, after a decade of honeymoon profligacy, the hotel bill has finally arrived. Europe’s reaction to its mounting debt crisis can best be summed up by the acronym “FEAR” which can stand for “Face Everything and Recover” or “ F@*$ Everything and Run.”

The member nations of the EEC themselves are odd bedfellows.  They are also, for the most part, broke.  To the south, there are the “Wimpies” – countries who assured their new partners that they had plenty of cash in the bank but always seemed low on lunch money – telling everyone that they would gladly pay them Tuesday for a hamburger today.   To the North, there are the “Stoics” – nations who spend and laugh less but supported the concept of a common currency so they would have a sunny place to hold meetings during the winter.  The fact that each nation had dated, divorced or lobbed grenades at one another in the last one hundred years, seemed to have eluded its architects. 

 The contagion of borrowing, spending and speculating while all the while coming up with new generous public programs to guarantee incompetent governments reelection spread to Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy.  In late 2009, a French polemic, I Never Met An Entitlement I Did Not Like became a best seller – partly because of its criticism of the profligate spending by the smaller EEC nations.  One French Finance Minister was quoted as saying, “Mon Dieu, only we should be allowed to spend money like this.”  Portugal was quick to retort, ” Why should the French have all the fun.  We plan on using the money to build a huge Catholic theme park at Fatima.  It will be a miracle!” 

Furious and confused by his own nation’s lack of fiscal restraint, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a strident speech on national TV but made the mistake of saying “we must think of austerity” when he meant to say “think of posterity”. He was promptly voted out of office the next day.     

Meanwhile, Chancellor Angela Merkel and the judicious Germans have been watching this drachma drama from a distance.  While Southern Europeans prefer to avoid discussing the logistics of fording this dark river of debt until they are literally on its banks, the Germans are quietly mapping the next 500 kilometers and do not like what they see.  After all, the European Central Bank is responsible for the Euro Zone’s financial stability of the European currency – and Germany holds much of this debt.  Yet, austerity is not happening in many nations who share the euro currency with the Germans.  Still sensitive over their bad reputation for plotting the extinction of most of their neighbors, the Teutonic Knights have laid low, sitting in their back yards listening to polka music on their head phones, doing the debt calculus and getting worried. 

Things got worse last week when the Greeks threw out their current government- a legislature that had encouraged them to pay taxes, accept cuts in entitlements, tolerate reductions in the minimum wage and understand that not everyone can retire with a full pension at the ripe old age of 25.  The new Prime Minister got elected on a platform that one must first be shaving before they are eligible for a pension which seemed acceptable since most Greek men and women have facial hair and are shaving by age 10.  Many Greeks were outraged at their former PM’s suggestion of tightening their belts since he had gotten so fat that he had stopped wearing belts in 2005.  The new Prime Minister is now attempting to form a collation government – the equivalent of trying to build a space ship out of newspaper and jello.

To add ouzo to the fire, Interpol foiled a plot last week by the new French government of Francois Hollande to sell the Greek islands of Mykonos and Cos to the Saudis for $1T euro and a promise that no German woman over the age of 40 would ever remove her top on a Greek beach again.  French operatives posing as Greek officials had agreed on a price and had already transferred Saudi funds to the French National bank crediting Hollande with finding $1T euro.  It could have gone down as the greatest swindle since gthe purchase of the Isle of Manhatten when one of the “Greeks” heard a car backfire and immediately raised his hands.  As one Saudi security officer put it, “Greeks run away but French tend to surrender. We knew something was not right.”

Lewis goes on to warn us that the sovereign debt crisis is hardly a “euro” thing. Consider the sad saga of Iceland, whose prosaic national occupation with fishing lost its luster when Icelandic men realized that blond supermodels preferred dating financial professionals who spent money like drunken sailors and did not smell like cod.  The problem was that no one in Iceland really understood the world’s complex financial markets and after three years of borrowing, buying high and selling low, the proud, independent nation of mariners went broke.

The creepiest thing about Michael Lewis’ book is it sounds a lot like America.  In his last chapter, Lewis drops us helplessly into the middle of California – the world’s largest economy and now America’s number one candidate to enter The Biggest Financial Loser contest as it struggles to shed $ 16B of budget deficit.  If the state of California were a man, he could have three wives and they would never meet.  Alas, America, the all-powerful, young invincible that fears no one, and believes like our teens that bad stuff only happens to other people, has wet its own bed.  

As I rant about fiscal conservatism to my Australian Shepherd, he licks my hand indicating support as long as I do not cut his kibble. It seems everyone agrees with the notions of sacrifice, as long as it is someone else doing it. And to make matters worse, we keep sending the same jellyfish back to Washington to assume their place in a two-party skirmish line that is at odds over how to achieve the magic of stimulus without tripling tax revenues, reducing public spending, ensuring everyone owns a home, has health care and a loaf of multi-grain bread on the table. 

Yes, I admit to not being a math major but the corrupted calculus of our Congressional expenditures in the face of $15T of debt and $38T of underfunded Medicare benefits doesn’t work for me.

But hey, it’s all Greek to me….

The Christmas Truce of 1914

A cross, left near Ieper in Belgium in 1999, t...
Image via Wikipedia

Any traveler touring rural England often first stumbles upon a village by spying the distinct silhouette of an ancient Norman church. Buttressed by low stone walls, spring-time dafodils and ancient graveyards, the house of worship date back to eleventh century and are a living memorial to those who lived, toiled and died within the shadows of its spire.

Upon entering the narthex of these sacred places, alcoves and recessed memorials are dedicated to those who fell in the Great War.

World War I left a deeper and more jagged scar on the British Isles than any conflict in its nation’s history.  The human losses were incomprehensible – – 60,000 dead in the first few hours of the Somme, 1,000,000 dead at Verdun. Soldiers were often recruited and organized from villages and districts. The result was close knit regiments, brigades and battalions that fought and died together in close quarters – -often holding one another’s heads above the clutching mud, searing gas and devastating artillery.

On September 15, 1915, 10,000 British soldiers were ordered to attack a German salient near the town of Loos in Northeastern France.  Over the course of a 3 ½ hour slaughter, the brigades from Manchester, Northumberland and Connaught lost 8,246 men with no German casualties.  In a single engagement, entire villages within a fifty kilometer radius lost every man between 18 to 40 years old.  In the Memoirs of Flakenhayn, the German General Lundendorff was heard to comment to another officer, “The English soldiers fight like lions” – – to which the other German officer quipped, “True .  But don’t we know that they are lions led by donkeys”.

In WWI, the last gasp of 19th century civility was suffocated by the brutal advances in the technology of killing and the arrogant and incompetent military leadership that valued bravado over brains.  In the sumer of 1914, the initial German had ground to a halt resulting in a vicious stalemate and hundreds of miles of jagged trench line that stretched like a sutured wound from Belgium into Southern France.  British officers emboldened by decades of success in Colonial wars fighting third world native forces naively the war would be over in a matter of weeks.  Completing the confederacy of incompetence were French officers who believed that honor and élan could overcome kill zones of enfilading artillery and a no man’s land of unmerciful and interlocking machine guns.  Millions were ordered “over the top” of their trench lines to certain death.

Those alive in December, 1914, say it started with a spontaneous truce afforded by each side to bury those left dead on a denuded battlefield.  Letters that would be smuggled past censors to loved ones in Germany and England attested to the miracle that began with a snowflake of compassion — Germans and Brits meeting On Christmas Eve to exchange small gifts such as cigarettes, chocolate and food.  Peace became infectious and the entire Western front soon fell into an unintended armistice as small pockets of soldiers met drank beer, sang Christmas carols and even played games of soccer with tin cans as footballs and spiked helmets as goal posts.  “Fritz” and “Tommy” joined together in the common humanity of Christmas – – creating an enduring mythology that rose like a heavenly chorus above the bullets and bombs that had savaged and broke a generation of  young men.  From Ypres to the La Basee Canal, it was truly a silent night.

In some sectors of the trench line, the Christmas truce was occurring in direct contradiction to military orders.  Officers were urged to round up enlisted men who were engaged in “ the destructive action of fraternization with the enemy”.  Sir John French, in command of British forces wrote disdainfully, “individual unarmed men run from across the German trenches to ours holding Christmas trees above their heads.  These overtures were in some places favorably received and fraternization took place throughout the day. It appeared that a little feasting went on and junior officers, NCOs and men on either side conversed together in No Man’s land. When this was reported to me, I issued immediate orders to prevent any reoccurrence of such conduct and called the local commanders to strict account….”  Before being relieved of command for incompetence, French was successful in presiding over the systematic slaughter of thousands of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh soldiers in exchange for, in some cases, meters of ground won.

The truce became a heroic stand for common man in his struggle against the insanity and the cruel machinery of war.  It also proved that the only thing stronger than hate and war — was indeed love and the humanity that it nurtures.  The world may never again witness a war as senseless, devastatingly efficient in its slaughter or tragic in its consequences.  As your fingers trace the names of the dead, etched in marble, you can feel the souls swirling and rising –the voices of young men taken too soon, ripped from the moorings of a life whose book was sill unwritten.  Yet, in the darkness and hopeless moments, a light flickers in all men.  Each understood being so near to death the precious gift of life and in recognition, they offered Thanksgiving for the chance to rise to see another dawn. If you stand at Ypres and concentrate, you can almost see them – haunted, muddied gray and green khaki shadows moving like echoes and memories across a wooded landscape long since silent.  You can see their faces in pale candlelight, the shattered eighteen year old German from Munich shaking hands with the ancient 24 year-old NCO from Stow-on-the Wold.  They perhaps gesture, exchanging a canteen and hang a piece of ribbon on an ersatz Christmas evergreen, both men longing for a Christmas at home.  One might try to describe his tradition of cutting a hunter green fir in the deep snows of a Bavarian mountain forest while the other listened, dragging on a cigarette as he imagined the warm light of the pub, spilling across a crisp, frosted pasture on an ebony Gloustershire night.

In the end, the truce would not last.  The Generals and the killing machines prevailed. The march of folly carried on for three more bloody years.  In May of 1915, Lieutenant Col. John McCrae wrote a poem to memorialize the death of his friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer, 22 years old, who had been killed in battle the prior day.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

In this holiday season, it is important to remember that miracles still happen.  As in all things, miracles come in the form of people – – soldiers hunched and homesick in a cold foreign bivouac,  a person acting against injustice or the those who choose to put the interest of others above themselves.  As was the case of the Christmas Truce of 1914,  the love of God, stubborn humanity and a common instinct to survive, found a way to grind the great machinery of war and hate to a standstill. And though it lasted for a few brief moments, it’s power reminded everyone that peace, not war, remains the greatest conqueror of all time.