Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Greece and Its Dear Aunt Agatha

The most infuriating link from the previous batch was this one, comparing Greece and the EU to Jim the Spendthrift and his dear Aunt Agatha.  Apparently Jim and Agatha are based on the works of P.G. Wodehouse, a humorous fiction writer who wrote a serious of novels and short stories about Bertie Wooster, an old money ne'er-do-well and his general misadventures, often involving his despised, domineering Aunt Agatha, who is always trying to run his life.

Aunt Agatha gets a character lift from Daniel Davies, going from a hated control freak to a "beloved aunt," and a "generous creditor." When her spendthrift nephew runs into trouble, Agatha bails him out, charges much less than the usual rate of interest, keeps rolling over the loan indefinitely, and comes to the rescue when he runs into trouble.  In return, all she asks for is some very reasonable attempts for Jim to live within his means.  Occasionally she makes a questionable demand, like not paying for Jim to go back to school and qualify for a better-paying job. Eventually, Jim's finances come into balance and he realistically could stop paying, but it would be immoral, and besides, Aunt Agatha is an old woman who will probably die soon and is expected to write off Jim's debt in her will.*

The author makes some reasonable points here, especially that "Jim" can't afford to stiff his aunt when he is still spending well beyond his means and getting a large share of his income from her.  But otherwise, his portrayal of kind-hearted Aunt Agatha rescuing her nephew just because he is family seems a bit unrealistic, either as a description of the EU or of the fictitious Aunt Agatha.  Bertie apparently calls his Aunt " the one who chews broken bottles and kills rats with her teeth," "the one who kills rats with her teeth and devours her young," "strongly suspected of turning into a werewolf at the time of the full moon," and says, "When Aunt Agatha wants you to do a thing you do it, or else you find yourself wondering why those fellows in the olden days made such a fuss when they had trouble with the Spanish Inquisition."  Most Greeks would no doubt agree.  And this description seems strangely contrary to Davies' other post,  in which he freely acknowledges, "The purpose of its [the Greek debt's] existence is as a political quantity; it’s part of the means by which control is exercised over the Greek budget by the Eurosystem."  Now that sounds like the Aunt Agatha we all know and hate.  As for Aunt Agatha dying and writing off the debt in her will, that is supposed to represent European fiscal union which will take the pressure off of Greece, but seems like a much more remote prospect than an old aunt dying.

And why is the young spendthrift called Jim anyhow, instead of Bertie?  And if you are going to deviate from the original in this detail, why not give him a nice Greek name like, say, Greg.  (It's short for Gregorios).  Agatha is a Greek name to begin with.  So, let's see if we can make Greg a little more true to life than Jim.

Greg is the single father of two young children.**  Even his best friends will admit he has been a bad father.  He has been spending recklessly without the slightest thought to what he can afford, including showering his children with expensive but useless toys and baubles.  His children have gotten used to it, thinking that is how father's show their devotion, and, truth to tell, they have gotten rather spoiled. Then financial disaster strikes, and Greg has no one to turn to but his bottle-chewing, rat-eating aunt. Aunt Agatha is all too glad to take advantage of the crisis to run her irresponsible nephew's life and tell him how to bring up his children properly.  She forces him to make drastic cuts in spending, and to sell many over priced luxuries he as bought, including taking the expensive toys from his crying children.  Not only does she keep Greg from going back to school and qualifying for a better job, she forces him to sell the tools of his trade and to cut off many legitimate work expenses.  As a result, Greg's income plummets.***  So stringent are Agatha's notions of what is an excessive expense versus what has to be paid to creditors that Greg's children are reduced to searching through the garbage for food.  Whenever he raises the question of his children with Aunt Agatha, she says that they will be a good object lesson in the evils of over spending.  Also, Agatha has several other nieces and nephews, none as irresponsible as Greg, but some of whom have run into trouble on some foolish investments.  She insists that they, too, sell the tools of their trade and cut off work expenses as a condition of financial assistance, and they, too, lose a lot of income as a result.

Well, now, in spite of everything, Greg had gotten his finances in order and asks Aunt Agatha for a break.  She lets it be known that she has no intention of making any sort of concessions because to do so would mean relinquishing control over his life.  The best she can offer is the possibility of releasing his debt in her will, although she makes clear that she has not written any such will, yet. Furthermore, Greg knows that if she should show such uncharacteristic generosity, some of her other nieces and nephews will try to get her declared incompetent and the will invalidated.  And I can only ask you, who has the stronger moral claim on Greg, his domineering, controlling aunt, or his children?

*So why doesn't Jim just declare bankruptcy? Granted, it will do only limited good so long as he is still running a large deficit, but once he brings his finances into balance, but still has a huge debt service burden and and unpayable debt -- well, that's what bankruptcy is for, after all.  The answer, of course, is that the EU rules don't allow for it, which just goes to show that treating countries as individuals doesn't work so well.
**And where is their mother?  She vanished into a puff of plot necessity.
***Another case of what works for individuals translating poorly into countries.  Such massive cutbacks in budget, regardless of where they are made, have a multiplier effect that they would not normally have in individuals.  Granted, in the case of Greece everyone agrees that austerity was inevitable, or all credit would be cut off and it would have to balance the budget overnight, with an even worse multiplier effect.  But the EU has been forcing similar measures on other countries not facing a fiscal crisis.  See above.

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