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Facing Meltdown in Greece

March 8, 2010

An interesting turn in the Greek economic crisis has been the suggestion by German politicians to sell cultural artifacts, monuments, and even uninhabited islands to help pay down Greek debts. The financial crisis has helped reinforce Germany’s reputation for pinching pennies, first through stimulus and reluctance to use loose monetary policy, and now through their stubborn opposition to bailing out Greece or financial assistance for the other PIIGS.

As horrifying as selling national treasures might sound, it is not without precedent in Greek history. Thucydides noted in his History of the Peloponnesian War that Pericles suggested melting down the gold-plated statues in the Parthenon could raise revenue for Athens. Indeed, in 406 and 407 BC, the Athenian government did just that. The war Greeks think of when they hear German proposals, however, is WWII. Greek politicians have already invoked German occupation in their criticism of Berlin’s policy.

Selling Greek islands strikes me as interesting but probably infeasible (a recession is not a fantastic time to be spending billions on extravagant purchases like private islands). The myriad Aegean islands are already matters of territorial contention between Greece and Turkey. While the Greek government could limit sales to uncontested Greek islands, sell only to individuals/corporations and not any entity pursuing the interests of a foreign power, anything that would  further complicate the legal-political-cultural dispute over the Aegean is probably a poor idea.

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