Sunday, July 12, 2015

In Which I Lose Any Vestiges of Respect I May Have Had for Tsipras

Memo to Alexis Tsipras:  Teddy Roosevelt famously said, "Speak softly and carry a big stick."  We Americans consider that to be the very essence of wise negotiation.  Of course, he was speaking as the big bully on the block in how to deal with little countries in Central America and the Caribbean that we could kick around at will.  When you are a small and weak power, that is not so much an option.  In that case, the best advice is, "Speak softly and carry the biggest stick you have available, even if it is a toothpick."

The main stick Greece had was leaving the euro.  That was something everyone on both sides of the negotiating table wanted to avoid.  Granted, to many people for Greece to threaten to leave the euro was less like threatening the other side with even a toothpick than like holding a gun to its own head and threatening to shoot.  Yet many people will act to prevent even such an action.

Now it appears (at least according to Krugman) that Tsipras considered a Grexit impossible.  (I am not clear whether that means politically impossible or operationally unfeasible).  He thus never made even contingency plans for leaving the euro, which  meant throwing away the only bargaining chip (however weak) that he had.  This was a huge mistake.  From day one, the Syriza government should have been gaming out an exit from the euro, making operational plans, and making discreet contacts with Russia, the US, Greek Americans, and even Turkey for necessary help in getting through the shock of devaluation.  This does not mean that Grexit should have been a favored option.  But every army knows that it should game out scenarios that it considers highly implausible just in case.  This is a new form of warfare.  The treasury should have been gaming out the Grexit from the start to make it a feasible operation if worst came to worst.

With leaving the euro ruled out, the only possible options open were capitulation and begging for mercy.  This being the case, speaking softly became all the more urgent because pleas for mercy made in tones of anger and bluster are most unlikely to be heeded.  In effect, Tsipras ruled out going for the long shot gamble and pleading for mercy effectively.  That left no option other than capitulation, but capitulating after going out of your way to offend the other side is a surefire way to guarantee the worst terms possible.  Right now, those terms are apparently that by Wednesday the Greek Parliament must past legislation demanded by by EU finance ministers including severe austerity, and turn state assets worth 50 billion euros over to an EU trust for privatization.  In return, Greece will get loans enough to tide the banks over for a few more days until negotiations can resume.  There is not guarantee that these negotiations will yield any further assistance or debt restructuring, only that Germany has absolutely ruled out any debt reduction.  And Tsipras is on the verge of capitulation because he has no plans in place for the Grexit.

Whether the Greek Parliament will also cave remains to be seen.  Another possibility is simple paralysis and indecision, leading to a Grexit forced by circumstances.  Any chances of a good outcome from leaving the euro have been substantially reduced by Syriza's idiotic failure to make any sort of plans for it.  Could any worse bungling be possible?

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