It would be ludicrous, would it not, if one were to publish a newspaper article citing a Teutonic tendency for occupying other countries, a Balkan predisposition for war, or any other such stereotype. Yet the Times earlier this month, sought to explain the disagreement between Germany and France over ways to deal with the Greek debt crisis by resorting to the same sort of gross generalizations: “Prussian attachment to rules and an instinctive frugality” and France’s “Mediterranean attitude toward public debt.” In the current context, of course, it’s taken for granted that frugality is good and debt is bad. (Tell that to the German and French people who must rely on public hospitals and other essential public goods.) But if the reader still fails to understand what “Mediterranean” means, as it is used here, the article provides some clues: a propensity for luxury (as in the French President’s “millionaire friends and taste for expensive brands”) and a belief in “state intervention” in the economy, which is said to be shared by the French elite. Factor these stereotypes into all of the recent talk about “profligate” spending in Greece, Spain and Portugal, and a fuller definition of the word, “Mediterranean,” begins to emerge: those blue waters are no place for bond buyers.
If the bond markets, themselves, have dictated low inflation/low growth policies in those countries (and the many others without an outlet to the Mediterranean), or if the size of the economy, the geography, history (including German occupation), and natural resources of those countries have forced them to borrow, then those factors present far too many complications for a newspaper article. Near the end, the Times piece tries to head off criticism like mine by stating that “There are limits to national stereotyping,” and cites a former German chancellor who sided with the French in “breaking the euro zone’s budgetary limit.”
Here’s another unmentioned limit of German frugality and the Mediterranean attitude toward debt: Siemens AG, the German-based industrial firm, allegedly paid nearly $58M in bribes to Greek government officials in exchange for lucrative public contracts from 1997-2003. Afterwards, I guess the Germans at Siemens took their profits from those contracts to the bank; while the Greeks blew all of their bribe money on some Parisian shopping spree.
Next time: Can a Greek society that discriminates, pollutes, and destroys prosper?