I love Germany. And Greece. And especially Finland.
If you are sympathetic to Greece and therefore mad at Germany, you are a sucker. If you think the Greeks are lazier and more dishonest than is usual in the human species, you are also a sucker, and have let a political framing cajole you into bigotry. If you think Germans are unusually cruel, you have also let politics make a bigot of you. If you are taking sides in a conflict framed as nation versus nation, you have already taken the wrong side. You’ve made a basic error, like picking a day when a tricky prosecutor asks whether you committed the murder yesterday or last Thursday. (I presume your innocence.)
You can usually find evidence in support of lots of different narratives. Hypotheses of human affairs are not in general mutually exclusive. Many different stories can in some sense be true. Among those in-some-sense-true narratives, we should choose to emphasize those whose application will lead to better social outcomes over other potentially defensible narratives. That’s why I frequently argue that we should emphasize the role of creditors rather than debtors when lending arrangements go bad. I am not making a claim about God’s view of the subject. Perhaps Hell is a debtors’ prison, and there is truly no greater evil than failing to repay a loan. Perhaps Hell is full of creditors who failed to fit through the eye of a needle. These questions are, I think, beyond the sort of knowledge that should inform policy. What is clear is that unserviceable debt arrangements, when they accumulate, are enormously costly in human and economic terms, and so we need norms and institutions to regulate credit extension. My view, which I think almost anyone with a passing familiarity with the human species would have to concede, is that people under financial stress make decisions with a view to a shorter-term time horizon and with less capacity to be fastidious than people who have already financed their own immediate term. That is why I argue that we should emphasize norms that hold creditors accountable more than norms that hold debtors accountable. Creditors as a class are capable of regulating the initiation of debt arrangements at lower cost and with greater effectiveness that debtors are. If we want societies that yield good outcomes, then, we should impose a heavy regulatory burden on creditors, and we must choose moral narratives consistent with that.
Perhaps the very worst moral narratives in all of human history are those that allocate blame on the basis of tribal, ethnic, or national groups. There is just never, ever, any sufficient reason to go there in my view. It is perfectly reasonable to hold leaders and governments accountable, as well as the institutional embodiments of interest groups. This is not because leaders individually are worse people than members of the public who may agree with their decisions. I carry no water for fairy tales about the inherent virtue of ordinary folk. The reason we hold people and institutions that act consequentially within the political sphere accountable is because those entities are points of leverage on whom relatively humane forms of accountability — career impairment and financial loss, shame or loss of reputation, in extremis imprisonment — may powerfully regulate the behavior of the polity. To impose accountability at the level of “the people” is the logic of Dresden, barely fit even for warfare, to be avoided at all costs. (I hope in this context the World War II analogy will not further inflame national passions.) “Collective punishment” — regulating the behavior of a polity or nation by imposing consequences on all of its members — is inefficient in terms of human suffering provoked. It is also risks being much worse than counterproductive unless it lives down to the Machiavelli’s dictum that “If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.”
Civilized people do not blame nations, even when publics of those nations are holding mass rallies in the street supporting bad actions. Civilized people hold leaders and institutions to account for the conditions under which their constituents’ passions got that way, if the passions are misplaced. This is not to assert, as a positive claim, that political leaders and elite institutions “control” the will of their populations. Like most causal arrows, this one runs both ways. As with creditors and debtors, where we impose the accountability is a function of which choice leads to better outcomes. However hollow it may ring (and however hypocritical in the face of what people who use this rhetoric have sometimes done) claiming that “we have no argument with the people of Oceania, only its government” is a healthy impulse.  As civilized people, we ought to try to define political, economic, and social institutions that make good decisions on behalf of polities. Those institutions should both genuinely represent the diverse interests and views of their publics, and also constrain and shape those views so that the democratic will of the polity is consistent with high quality outcomes in both a functional and ethical sense. When things go awry, it is those institutions we must hold to account. To hold institutions to account effectively we must hold people to account, but we focus our scrutiny on people in roles of disproportionate authority rather than extending it to nations as a whole.
By all means blame Schäuble or Merkel or Varoufakis or Tsipiras. I have my views about who is more blameworthy, your views may differ. You may blame people like me, if you like, members of “the press” generally, and hold us accountable by reputation and career. My view is that banks and securities underwriters on both side of the Atlantic, as well as many individuals who worked in that sector, ought to have been held to much greater account for events of the financial crisis (but I also think it is too late for punitive accountability to make much of a difference now). You may disagree. These are all fine arguments to have.
But do not blame “France” or “Germany” or “Greece”, do not blame the “United States” or “Iran” or “North Korea”, tribes and nations cannot be held to account, only institutions and leaders can be.
I have not visited Germany, but I very much want to, and admire very much about its culture and economic arrangements. My own family’s difficult experiences 75 years ago do not temper my affection for Germany. It is, I think, a wonderful country. I have visited Finland, and despite the fact that I think its government’s role was less-than-constructive with respect to the Greece crisis, it remains one of my favorite places in the world. As a student of political and economic systems, I admire the Scandinavian countries above all others, regardless of their role in this crisis.
The European crisis is a crisis of bad framing. Characterizing Europe-wide credit problems in terms of national actors, then fixing that characterization into place via intersovereign lending, were deeply pernicious, deeply destructive, errors. I don’t doubt these errors arose more from increments than ill intentions. There were pressures and interests and paths of less resistance — no need for any vast conspiracy.  The international framing was convenient to domestic constituencies throughout Europe. In every country, elites find it convenient to deflect passions to an external bad actor rather than take responsibility for mistakes at home. Sometimes on the merits they have a case, sometimes not. Regardless, inflaming passions against another nation is always a terrible choice. Even when a dispute really is a zero-sum conflict of interest between two nations, great diplomacy is called for. That may be a lot to ask for, but it is what civilized countries do. I wish my own country lived up to it more often.
The credit crisis that has writhed and recrudesced into a Greece crisis never needed to become a conflict between nations. I believe Europe’s current crop of leaders must be held to account for having made it that, and I repeat my admonition. Shame. I hope (against the odds perhaps) that a less narrow and compromised set of leaders replaces the current generation, that Eurofinance is reformed much more deeply than it has been, and that as passions fade the European project can resume. I even hope that the Euro survives, although I think the economic case against it is powerful and correct. Fixing the Euro is possible. It just requires institutional innovation that at the moment seems unthinkable. But, in the recent cliché, the unthinkable has an odd habit of becoming inevitable in politics. There is still room to hope.
 Yes, the Orwell reference is intentional. We are in very grey territory here.
 The errors in the Eurosystem’s financial architecture were not a vast conspiracy either, as some readers have mistaken from my piece on Greece. Yes, sovereign lending looked like free money to Eurozone bankers because all Eurosovereigns were risk-free as regulatory matter. But that regulatory choice came from a misguided political decision to treat sovereigns equally and optimistically, in spite of very divergent economics. Bankers did not lobby for the error, they responded to it. That does not absolve them of their bad loans. Bankers’ job is to regulate credit allocation, and if regulators give them rope to hang themselves they still oughtn’t use it, and ought to be held to account for having done. Western banks are institutions in need of fairly wholesale reform, from which they have thus far been spared. But to indulge in hatred of “bankers” as a class is ugly and unfocused. In general, when we hold people to account as we must, we should do so in sadness because it is necessary, not in glee because we are righteous.
- 14-Jul-2015, 6:30 p.m. EEDT: “you a sympathetic” ⇒ “you are sympathetic”; “institutions that demand fairly” ⇒ “institutions in need of fairly”; “the Euro survives, even though I” ⇒ “the Euro survives, although I”
- 15-Jul-2015, 0:00 a.m. EEDT: “for fairy tales about inherent virtue” ⇒ “for fairy tales about the inherent virtue”
- 15-Jul-2015, 1:05 a.m. EEDT: “ought to be held account for having done” ⇒ “ought to be held to account for having done”