Greece’s exit from the Eurozone has reached critical mass and is now a routine topic at all levels of government. While heads of state still hue to the line that Greece should stay, out of the other side of the mouth comes but—now that the focus is on Spain, the one problem the Eurozone can’t digest. And after Spain is Italy, which is beyond bailout. And now word is out in Germany that Greece is a “failed state.”
No one likes paying taxes. You’d think. And it’s not just income taxes but a slew of other taxes. In San Francisco, we already have an 8.5% sales tax—but propositions to increase the state portion are worming their way onto the November ballot. And if it passes, it’s our own @#%& fault. In Japan, efforts to raise the national consumption tax have led to a groundswell of opposition and a nasty political fight. But what the heck happened in Europe?
They’d wanted to “blockupy” Frankfurt, Germany’s money capital, for four days with concerts, marches, and speeches to protest against the power of banks and austerity policies. But the city issued a blanket prohibition—highly controversial in a democratic nation. And on Saturday, when demonstrations were allowed, they became the background to the G-8 meeting at Camp David: a three-pronged attack on reason—with President’s Obama’s reelection at stake.
Greece suffered in 2011. The economy tanked. Unemployment jumped. The government, up to the gills in debt and cut off from the capital markets, went begging, and in return had to implement painful economic reforms. With their livelihood threatened, people demonstrated, and strikes paralyzed Athens, and street battles were fought with batons, teargas, and Molotov cocktails—horrific absurdities captured in an awesome and shocking video.
While the G-8 leaders are schmoozing with President Obama during their slumber party at Camp David, and while the NATO summit, protests, and rallies are wreaking havoc on the streets in Chicago, Europe is re-descending into rumor hell—where good rumors, as we found out last summer and fall, are head fakes that cause huge rallies in the markets, and where bad rumors, though passionately denied by all sides, turn out to be true.
A sad incident got picked up by the German national media, made even sadder by the very fact that it got picked up: in the tourist town Monemvasia in Greece, some local guys accosted a 78-year old Dutchman who has lived there since the 1990s. They thought he was German. So he corrected them. “German or Dutch, it’s the same thing,” they told him and broke his jaw and nose. While the financial noose around Greece tightened.
On Thursday, rumors that Greece would have a government goosed the stock markets in Europe. While everybody was out to lunch in Frankfurt, the DAX ran up 110 points. In Athens, the ATHEX, which appears to be on a multi-year trajectory toward zero, jumped 4.2%. But on Friday, when it became clear that the rumor was just a rumor, the index resumed its downward trajectory. And Greeks went to bed without a new government.
Originally, François Hollande planned on visiting Germany on May 16, the day after becoming President of France, to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel for some barbed-wire fence-mending. But now he pushed it up to May 15, the earliest second possible. At midnight, President Nicolas Sarkozy will hand him the keys to the Élysée Palace, while Merkel will be putting on lipstick for her dinner with him. And the flip-flopping has already started.
There are certainly some topics that Japan can lecture France on, for example standing in line. In Japan, a line is a display of communal discipline. In France, a line is something to be worked actively. Japan can also lecture France on designing and making cars and electronics. But the topic that Japan—fiscally the most undisciplined country in the developed world—can’t include in its sermon to France is fiscal discipline. And yet….
Europe greeted with excitement—or exasperation—the arrival of the “President of Growth,” François Hollande. And outgoing President Nicolas Sarkozy confirmed that he’d quit politics. He complained about journalists dogging him. “I’m spied on,” he said (ironically). “I hope they will leave me alone.” But that’s precisely what they won’t do because, on May 15, he’ll lose his immunity that has protected him against a ton of malodorous allegations.