We have an awful tendency to turn every story into a good-versus-evil, heroes-and-villains tale. Some stories are like this; many are not. The Left and the Right both do this. If you read the mainstream press coverage of the crisis in Greece, you’d get the sense that this is some kind of a battle between poor Greece and the rich German “paymaster.” And indeed, one of the tragedies of the crisis is that to some extent these are the stories being told in the respective countries: Germans complain of greedy Greeks, and Greeks play the ultimate trump card by calling the Germans Nazis. Welcome to the 21st century.
This is no way to solve problems. In fact, it’s demagoguery, and its tendency to overtake every issue is becoming very troubling to me as an ethicist. Public problems are in fact moral problems, but morality plays pretend that reality is considerably simpler than it actually is. In doing so, they often hinder effective social action in solving real problems. This is why we need good judgment when it comes to morality plays in public life.
Above all, we need a decent analysis of the problem. If one wants some decent coverage of the Greek crisis, one should turn to the economics columnists at Project Syndicate. They do not all offer the same perspective on what should be done. But they certainly help us understand the complexity of the problem.
At its core, other European countries (and not only Germany) do not believe Greece is serious about implementing reforms. There is room to haggle about the extent of reforms needed, but there isn’t an argument about the need for serious reform. As one writer puts it, “for reforms to take hold, the Greek government and its electorate must believe in them.”
Michael Lewis, who is no neoliberal, offered an accessible profile on Greece in his little book, Boomerang. The level of government corruption and tax evasion is extraordinary, and the utter mismanagement of funds is extraordinary. Lewis notes that Greeks do terribly on standardized tests, but employ many, many more schoolteachers. Simply put, we should not mistake the Greek economy for some poorer version of our own. Furthermore, unlike some underdeveloped countries who need debt relief, Greeks were not enduring a corrupt ruling family or a military-style dictatorship. They elected these people.
This long-term problem has not been improved by the extraordinarily undiplomatic gamesmanship by the current Greek regime. As of today, the Greek government has offered to agree to a reform package that is almost the same as the one they campaigned aggressively against in last week’s referendum, a hastily-called affair in which an extraordinarily complicated question was put before a population with little sense of the details. The referendum was called by a leader who walked out of negotiations for loans so crucial that the country’s entire financial system is now almost out of money.
On the other hand, most agree that Greece needs some kind of devaluation or debt relief in order to get out from a vicious cycle, even as they forthrightly admit the extent of the Greek economy’s real problems. Given the common currency, it cannot devalue. So it needs relief from others – relief that others appear unwilling to give because they do not actually think the situation is going to change, and what will happen (as has happened) is another cycle of debt accumulation and crisis. Yet there is clearly the desire to trust Greece, since the negotiations have continued, despite the problems – and that is because there is a desire not to give up the Euro project.
Avoiding the morality play, Jeffrey Sachs put it well:
Sovereign-debt crises such as the one in Greece can be resolved only through bold steps by both debtor and creditor. The debtor needs a fresh start through debt write-off; the creditor must find a way to provide one without rewarding bad behavior. For a deal to be struck, both sides need to have their needs addressed. Thus, serious reforms and deep debt relief need to go hand in hand.
This is what statesmen are supposed to do, find two-sided deals for complex problems, and it is deeply hurt by morality plays. Morality plays insist that any admission that the “other side” might have a point is a compromise to be rejected. In situations where chronic problems with complicated causes persist, the solution is not to scapegoat some particular group or side. Indeed, to do so is not to solve the problem. As Daniel Gros puts it bluntly, such “conflicting narratives” matter because they can easily set up a “lose-lose result.”
We may be doing this with our inner cities right now, too. On a recent flight, which had some free internet TV, I switched between MSNBC expressing outrage about a potential case of police violence in Cleveland and FOX expressing outrage about the large increase in violence and the disrespect for police (with Rudy Giuliani commenting, no less). I felt extremely depressed. Neither story seemed in the least interested in the legitimate grievances of the other, nor a problem with a history at least a half-century old. American inner cities are not cops-and-robbers, and I have little sense that these kinds of dueling, give-no-ground narratives will actually improve things. And so it is with narratives where we all have to line up with the Germans or the Greeks. This is terrible, and it actually blocks constructive solutions.
Some stories are morality plays about heroes and villains. I watched Selma recently, amidst the fall of that flag in South Carolina, and one could get a sense of Dr. King’s persistence, prudence, and yet his deep sense of righteousness as he fought against open injustice. It is a great and powerful story, and we should recognize that there are moments when such stories do call us to courageous action. But not all stories are like that. Greece is not like that. In fact, everyone involved in hindered from finding good solutions precisely by the tendency to turn it into one’s preferred morality play. Sometimes, as Pope Francis says in Laudato Si’, the “technocratic paradigm” insidiously distracts us from the conversion we need to address a crisis – however, sometimes we should appreciate that technocrats are knowledgeable people who are often helpful at attending to the social machinery and getting it running a bit better than it is at present.
Your article shines a bright light on an issue of profound importance to religion, the overwhelming human need for story.
It is indeed true that simplistic morality plays make for poor public policy, but they are widely embraced because they serve a more compelling human need, they are great stories.
The teachings of Jesus on love would have still been brilliant even if he had died in his bed in a peaceful old age. But we may have never heard of Jesus without the crucifixion, because it was that event that cemented the compelling obscurity to fame to disaster story in heart of Western culture.
The biggest threat to Christianity is not secularism, Islam or internal weaknesses within Christian culture etc. It is instead the rapidly accelerating emergence of new technologies which will inject stories in to human minds in an ever more irresistible and addictive manner.
Most of these stories will contain little wisdom, but if they are compelling stories, delivered in compelling mediums, they are going to be very hard for humanity to resist. We need only look at our current relationship with television and cell phones to see this is not really a futuristic prophecy, but perhaps the biggest story unfolding before our eyes today.