I realize that I should be in Washington watching the debt drama there, but I’ve opted instead to be in Greece to observe the off-Broadway version. There are a lot of things about this global debt tragedy that you can see better from here, in miniature, starting with the raw plot, which no one has described better than the Carnegie Endowment scholar David Rothkopf: “When the cold war ended, we thought we were going to have a clash of civilizations. It turns out we’re having a clash of generations.”
Indeed, if there is one sentiment that unites the crises in Europe and America it is a powerful sense of “baby boomers behaving badly” — a powerful sense that the generation that came of age in the last 50 years, my generation, will be remembered most for the incredible bounty and freedom it received from its parents and the incredible debt burden and constraints it left on its kids.
It is no wonder that young Greeks reacted so harshly when their deputy prime minister, Theodoros Pangalos, referring to all the European Union loans and subsidies that propelled the Greek credit binge after 1981, said, “We ate it together” — meaning the people and the politicians. That was true of the baby boomer generation of Greeks, now in their 50s and 60s, and the baby boomer politicians. But those just coming of age today will never get a bite. They will just get a bill. And they know it.
You can see that when you walk around Athens’s central Syntagma Square, where young people now gather every evening to debate the crisis and register their protests at the future being imposed on them. The facades of banks around the square have been defaced, and flapping in the wind are two large banners. One says “IMF Employee of the Year” and has a picture of Prime Minister George Papandreou, and the other says “Goldman Sachs Employee of the Year” and pictures George Papaconstantinou, the former finance minister. (And these are the good guys, trying to fix the problem.) Nearby is a picture of a baby, saying: “Father, whose side were you on when they were selling our country?” And the more blunt: “Yield to rage,” “Class war, not national war,” and, finally, “Life — not just survival” — a message that seemed filled with foreboding about what the next decade is going to be like for young Greeks.
I was struck by one big similarity between what I heard in Tahrir Square in Cairo in February and what one hears in Syntagma Square today. It’s the word “justice.” You hear it more than “freedom.” That is because there is a deep sense of theft in both countries, a sense that the way capitalism played out in Egypt and Greece in the last decade was in its most crony-esque, rigged and corrupt deformation, letting some people get fantastically rich simply because of their proximity to power. So there is a hunger not just for freedom, but for justice. Or, as Rothkopf puts it, “not just for accounting, but for accountability.”
“There are no jokes about this crisis,” the Greek novelist Christos Chomenidis told me. “Everyone is in a bad temper. It feels like nearly everyone is against everyone. If the economic situation gets worse and worse, I am afraid for what can happen.”
The other day striking Greek cabdrivers tried to muscle their way into the minister of infrastructure’s office — only to discover that it was already full of his own ministry’s striking employees. Take a number, please.
That brings up another similarity between Greece and America: that the necessary may be impossible, that baby boomer politicians in the age of Twitter may not be up to addressing problems this big. The hole is too deep and power too fragmented. The only way out is by collective action — where ruling and opposition parties unite, share the pain and take the necessary steps. But that is not happening here or in Washington. There are Eric Cantors everywhere — reckless baby boomer politicians for whom no crisis is too serious to set aside political ambition and ideology.
But there is an adult lurking. China has been buying Spanish, Portuguese and Greek bonds to help stabilize these Chinese export markets. “These are delicate times, and we take a positive role,” Yi Gang, deputy governor of the People’s Bank of China, told the British newspaper The Guardian in January.
This is a role America used to play, but can no longer afford. Anyone who thinks that this economic crisis, if prolonged, won’t also hasten a global power shift has never heard of the Golden Rule: He who has the gold, sets the rules. “We are so used to the Americans providing the solutions for Europe and leading,” said Vassilis T. Karatzas, a Greek money manager. “But what happens when we are both in the same boat?”
What happens is that both the American and European dreams hang in the balance. Either we both put our nations on more sustainable growth paths — which requires cutting, taxing and investing for the future — or we’re looking at a world in which democracies are going to turn on themselves and fight over shrinking pies, with China having a growing say over how big the slices will be.