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July 7, 2015

Time For Europe To Cut Its Losses on Greece

One of the most exasperating novels I've ever read is Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. The "hero" of the novel, Philip Carey, is hopelessly infatuated with Mildred Rogers, an unattractive, sickly, boorish shop girl several social rungs lower than himself. She takes horrible advantage of the good-natured generosity and sincerity of Carey, who time after time bails Mildred out of one self-created problem after another, only to be kicked in the pants (figuratively, of course) for his trouble and good intentions. And yet he continually comes back for more.

While you're reading the book (or watching one of the movies based on it), you keep asking yourself: When the heck is Carey ever going to wake up and smell the coffee?

Does this sound like any current European crisis you may have read about recently in the financial media?

On Sunday Greeks voted overwhelmingly, by more than a 6-to-4 margin, to kick their creditors in the pants yet again, only to have their lenders huddle up and try to come up with a plan to shovel even more money to Athens.

I seem to remember pretty much the same thing happening a few years ago. Greece couldn't pay back its astronomical debt load, promised to behave, won a lot of debt forgiveness, and got new loans to replace the old ones. Now here we are with Greece owing even more money, which, of course, it's unable to pay back.

The only difference now is that the Greeks are telling their lenders beforehand that they're not even going to go through the pretense of agreeing to abide by any rules (i.e., austerity measures) the lenders may set as a precondition for getting more money. Yet their creditors are busily trying to find a way to accommodate Athens.

It was Albert Einstein himself who came up with this definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Yet, it doesn't take an Einstein to figure out how to fix this once and for all. At some point, you have to bite the bullet and cut your losses and move on. Governments – including ours – have blown a lot more money on other things and had nothing to show for it. This is no different.

A good friend of mine, let's call her Mary, was approached for a loan a few years back by her nere-do-well brother who had fallen on hard times (yet again). Needless to say, he failed to pay back that loan and came back looking for another one. Mary told him no, and she hasn't heard from him since. She lost some money, but she's happy.

But the Einsteins who run European finances haven't yet come to this conclusion. Maybe they need Mary to help them.

Indeed, rather than have a group of European statesmen (and women) trying to figure this out, maybe they should put together a representative group of people off the streets of Berlin, Paris and the capitals of the other Eurozone countries and try to iron this out. I'll bet the issue would be solved before they broke for lunch, if not for mid-morning coffee.

In last Sunday's vote, the Greek people (or at least 60% or so of them) told the rest of Europe to stuff it. It's about time for the rest of Europe to take the Greeks at their word and kick them out of the Eurozone since that's basically what the Greeks are daring them to do.

The question is, will the rest of Europe have the stomach to do it?

The initial reaction from Berlin and Paris isn't very promising on this score. They stand ready to "negotiate" with Greece on another deal, even though Greece has spoken loud and clear that it doesn't intend to make a deal other than on its own terms. If they do come up with some kind of deal, rest assured we will be back here again a few years from now when Greece can't make the payments on its even larger debt load.

Yes, Greece owes a lot of money: About 380 billion euros, or about $340 billion. The issue is serious, and there will be a big mess to clean up afterwards, but the vast majority of it will be Greece's problem, nobody else's.

I'm not sure exactly what the rest of the Eurozone is afraid of. They have a remarkably strong currency that all of the problems with Greece have been unable to wreck. Losing Greece can only make it stronger, not weaker. It's time to move on.

Spoiler alert: Eventually, Philip Carey does eventually give up on Mildred, meet a wonderful woman – not the woman of his dreams, perhaps, but a loving one all the same – who bears him several children and they live happily ever after. But sometimes you have to go with your head, not your heart.

Graphic Source: Flickr

Courtesy George Yacik for INO.com  

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