Myths are dangerous because they rely more on cultural memory and prejudice than facts. And behind the current crisis between Greece and the European Union (EU) lies a fable that bears little relationship to why Athens and a number of other countries in the 28-member organization find themselves in deep distress.
The problems of the eurozone are ultimately malinvestments. In Greece these days the struggle continues about who will ultimately foot the bill for these investments. During the early 2000s an expansionary monetary policy lowered interest rates artificially. Entrepreneurs financed investment projects that only looked profitable due to the low interest rates but were not sustained by real savings. Housing bubbles and consumption booms developed in the periphery.
Europe has always been a rather tenuous concept. A rump continent, Europe represented the barbarous hinterlands for the Greeks and Romans. The first use of the term "European" occurred in a chronicle describing the forces of Charles the Hammer that turned back the northward advance of Islam at the battle of Tours in 732. Long celebrated in Europe as a victory of civilization over barbarism, the Battle of Tours was, as historian David Levering Lewis reminds us in God's Crucible, actually the opposite: "the victory of Charles the Hammer must be seen as greatly contributing to the creation of an economically retarded, balkanized, fratricidal Europe that, in defining itself in opposition to Islam made virtues out of religious persecution, cultural particularism, and hereditary aristocracy."
With a 50 percent haircut recently given on the Greek sovereign-debt question, investors are increasingly asking what the real risk of sovereign debt is. It would appear that investors underpriced the risk inherent in sovereign debt, especially that of Europe's periphery. One might even go so far as to say that investors made foolish choices in the past and are now getting their just deserts.
When Greece exchanged its drachma for the euro in 2000, most voters were all for joining the Eurozone. The hope was that it would ensure stability, and that this would promote rising wages and living standards. Few saw that the stumbling point was tax policy. Greece was excluded from the eurozone the previous year as a result of failing to meet the 1992 Maastricht criteria for EU membership, limiting budget deficits to 3 percent of GDP, and government debt to 60 percent.
Cafés are full in Athens, and droves of tourists still visit the Parthenon and go island-hopping in the fabled Aegean. But beneath the summery surface, there is confusion, anger, and despair as this country plunges into its worst economic crisis in decades. The global media has presented Greece, tiny Greece, as the epicenter of the second stage of the global financial crisis, much as it portrayed Wall Street as ground zero of the first stage. Yet there is an interesting difference in the narratives surrounding these two episodes.