Thursday, July 2, 2015

An open letter to Angela Merkel

I know you're probably fed up with Alexis Tsipras. You know, that irritating Greek demagogue who can't afford a tie? I can quite see why you want rid of him.

But I urge you - I beg you - please stop pandering to your own voters. Yes, I know you have to bring them along too. I know you can't keep giving their money to the Greeks. That's not what I'm asking for.

First, let's consider Mr Tsipras's position. As you know, the job of a head of government isn't easy at the best of times, and Mr Tsipras was catapulted from relative obscurity into his current role at a moment when the difficulty slider was already pegged at '11'. He has no friends, no substantive supporters, and no resources.

Yes, it was dishonest of him to call his referendum when he did, instead of a week earlier, before the IMF default. And it is obviously dishonest of him to offer concessions at precisely the moment when he knows you (and your friends at the ECB) can't accept them. But - setting that aside for a moment, because it's no more than you'd expect from a politician of his questionable training - would you not agree with me that the referendum itself is not only the right thing to do, but the only thing he can do?

His voters hate austerity. That's his party's entire raison d'etre; for him to cave on that would be political suicide. And yet his voters love the euro. For a long time now, it's been obvious that Greece can't preserve the euro without sharp austerity; but for almost as long, it's been equally obvious that austerity is not, contrary to what certain technocrats on your own side would argue, "expansionary". Quite the reverse. If it were, Greece would be doing fine by now.

Calling a referendum was the only way to square that circle. This is a decision that absolutely should be made by Greek voters - not by their government, or by the ECB or the IMF, or even by you. The European Union is supposed to be fiscally sound, honest and transparent, but above all it's supposed to be democratic. That means, nobody is fitter than the Greek people to make a decision about their future. And that is why the rhetoric of some Eurocrats who have described the proceeding as "irresponsible" or "in bad faith" is both unfair and unhelpful.

Making Mr Tsipras an offer he couldn't accept - accept precisely the same terms that he'd just won an election on the basis of rejecting - was also cackhanded. If you want to finish him off - and as I said up front, I completely understand that impulse - you need to be a lot more subtle about it. It's not your job to pressure him - leave that to his own voters.

The jackbooted approach you're currently pursuing is profoundly damaging not just to the euro, but to the EU itself. If the EU isn't democratic - to the very core of its being, overruling every other consideration - then it's basically just a rebranding of the Holy Roman Empire. And it will die the same way, with blood and iron.

And that death may come quickly. Britain's referendum is only two years away. Press the Greeks too hard, and the British will take notice. The euro can, probably, survive Grexit; but can the EU survive Brexit?

If it comes down to a choice between saving the euro and saving the EU itself, which would you pick?

Friday, May 22, 2015

404 fail

I understand people not understanding the Internet. Not everyone is, or wants to be, a geek.

What I don't understand is what stops them from taking at least some advice from a geek before they set up their own web-related business.

Because this:

... is the electronic equivalent of knocking on a door, and hearing a voice on the other side say "There's no-one here".

Friday, March 13, 2015


We just lost one of the brightest lights of modern English literature.

I owe a lot to Terry Pratchett - my family, for starters - and I'll admit to shedding a few tears this morning. My world is a poorer place without him in it.

But in all honesty, I think we lost that Terry Pratchett some years ago, when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. His recent output has been - lesser.

So I'm glad, for his sake, that (from all reports) he was able to die very much as he himself wished. And for my sake, that his canon is now complete, and will not be further diluted with more works that are frankly unworthy of the author he once was.

Once upon a time I would have written much, much more here, about how I knew the man and what he meant to me personally. But I'm still more than a little burned out by grief over a much more personal loss, so that fuller obituary - will now be available only via L-space, to those who know how to navigate it. Here and now, I'll just say:

Goodbye, Sir Pterry. And thank you.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Of Greeks and gifts

I'm rapidly coming to the opinion that my father was right about Germany.

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, he was the only person I knew who didn't think it was an unreserved blessing. As he saw it: for the past 40 years the whole of German policy had been focused on the single goal of reuniting the country, and with that achieved, it would soon turn its attention outward. The rest of Europe had reason to fear.

In the 1990s, when "European integration" was in vogue, he shook his head and muttered darkly about German imperialism. Something about the country's geography and history. I got a glimmering of what he meant when I briefly studied the life of Frederick the Great, but I still thought that tying it to the present day was paranoia. Besides, I reasoned: as long as they didn't start building an oversized army, what's the worst that could happen?

Then came the Eurozone, and he threw up his hands in horror and prophesied doom and catastrophe and the next European war. Those with long memories may recall that, in the beginning, there were "strict rules" about who could join the Eurozone: you had to have public debt below something, a defecit consistently below something else, exchange rates stable over N years and so forth. He predicted - correctly - that those "strict rules" would, quietly and without fanfare, be relaxed, because otherwise Italy wouldn't get in, and without Italy, the Germans wouldn't see the point. It's the Holy Roman Empire all over again.

Again I laughed at his fears. Clearly, his generation has a chip on its shoulder about the Germans, but that was all a long time ago. Me, I've been to Germany several times and I've met any number of Germans, even known a few. They're perfectly normal people. Nothing scary about them.

Now we have the Greek crisis. And suddenly, it's Germany that's playing the heavy.

The Greeks have created an economy where they can run a primary budget surplus (i.e. before counting debt repayments) even with over 25% unemployment. That's no mean feat.

More importantly, though, it's stupid. Governments are supposed to increase spending in recessions (defined loosely, but "over 25% unemployment" would qualify by just about any plausible yardstick) and reduce it afterwards. But the terms of the Greek bailout allow no such latitude. Greece is required to run a primary budget surplus - a large one - every single year for the next 20 years, come boom or bust. The Germans should know from their own history what happens when you impose terms like that on a country: it happened to them in 1919, and within ten years they were setting a benchmark for hyper-inflation that stands to this day.

Realistically, I think the Greeks have two options: they can leave the Eurozone peacefully, or they can declare war on it. I'm honestly not sure which outcome the ECB is currently trying to trigger.