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Down and Out in Athens and Brussels

NEW YORK – The Greek catastrophe commands the world’s attention for two reasons. First, we are deeply distressed to watch an economy collapse before our eyes, with bread lines and bank queues not seen since the Great Depression. Second, we are appalled by the failure of countless leaders and institutions – national politicians, the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank – to avert a slow-motion train wreck that has played out over many years.

If this mismanagement continues, not only Greece but also European unity will be fatally undermined. To save both Greece and Europe, the new bailout package must include two big things not yet agreed.

First, Greece’s banks must be reopened without delay. The ECB’s decision last week to withhold credit to the country’s banking system, and thereby to shutter the banks, was both inept and catastrophic. That decision, forced by the ECB’s highly politicized Executive Board, will be studied – and scorned – by historians for years to come. By closing the Greek banks, the ECB effectively shut down the entire economy (no economy above subsistence level, after all, can survive without a payments system). The ECB must reverse its decision immediately, because otherwise the banks themselves would very soon become unsalvageable.

Second, deep debt relief must be part of the deal. The refusal of the rest of Europe, and especially Germany, to acknowledge Greece’s massive debt overhang has been the big lie of this crisis. Everyone has known the truth – that Greece can never service its current debt obligations in full – but nobody involved in the negotiations would say it. Greek officials have repeatedly tried to discuss the need to restructure the debt by slashing interest rates, extending maturities, and perhaps cutting the face value of the debt as well. Yet every attempt by Greece even to raise the issue was brutally rebuffed by its counterparties.