European Technocracy

by Henry on November 28, 2011

My review-essay of David Marquand’s book on Europe (Powells, Amazon (deprecated))is up at the Nation (paywalled version here , unpaywalled PDF here). It pulls the usual US review-essay trick of being as much about the arguments of the reviewer as of the author (however, since Marquand and I agree on the major issues, it should be less annoying than it sometimes is). I use Marquand’s book to talk about the ways in which technocracy has become the EU’s default mode of policy-making, and the political problems that this creates. Paul Krugman wrote a couple of weeks ago that:

It’s a dubious idea to supplant democratic governance with allegedly non-political management even in the best of times. But to assign authority to unelected men whose actual record suggests that they govern based on prejudices rather than analysis is even worse.

and then went on to write a column about the incompetence of the current shower of technocrats. My piece is about the other part of this argument – the sorry consequences of “supplanting democratic governance” with “allegedly non-political management.”

The End of the West was written before the deficit crisis (HF – it actually was finished at the beginning of the crisis – this is an editing artefact which made it through). Nonetheless, it provides a crisp and relevant analysis of the difficult choices that Europe faces. As Marquand says, the current crisis involves the “revenge of politics over economism.” Europe is caught in a “no-man’s-land between federalism and confederalism — and between democracy and technocracy.” Because they could not get the politics right, European leaders left the politics out, hoping that the usual gradual accretion of policymaking authority would provide an acceptable substitute.
This was a grievous mistake. Yet the EU’s efforts to fix it have been as riddled with hedges as was the original arrangement for economic and monetary union. Europe’s richer states want the deficit problem to go away, but they are not ready to make the necessary fundamental political commitments. They have tried to obscure this lack of commitment in various ways, but the illusion is wearing thin. More hedging will not work. Markets need the certainty of politically credible guarantees if they are to be genuinely reassured. Politically credible guarantees require that European governments come clean with their citizens about the need for new arrangements.

(Thanks to Eric Rauchway for a great and apposite Keynes quote which I repurposed for the review).

{ 40 comments }

1

reason 11.28.11 at 2:36 pm

“Markets need the certainty of politically credible guarantees if they are to be genuinely reassured. Politically credible guarantees require that European governments come clean with their citizens about the need for new arrangements.”

Isn’t, however, the problem more fundamental than that. How is it at all possible for present governments to commit to the behaviour of future governments in a democracy?

2

Ashwin 11.28.11 at 3:11 pm

Quoting from Marquand: “the EU has no buck—or, at least, no buck that stops. There is only an endless maze of indeterminacy.”

What is surprising is that so many lifelong Europhiles such as Marquand openly question not just the existence of the Euro but whether the EU itself is on its last legs. Unless the democratic deficit is tackled, there is a very real possibility that the project itself goes up in flames. And the end will not be a non-violent one – http://www.macroresilience.com/2011/06/29/the-democratic-deficit-in-europe-and-the-crisis-in-the-periphery/

3

ajay 11.28.11 at 3:39 pm

How is it at all possible for present governments to commit to the behaviour of future governments in a democracy?

Legally enforceable contracts, or the threat of a loss of reputation.

4

reason 11.28.11 at 3:45 pm

“or the threat of a loss of reputation?”

Aw come on – your joking. I’m the National Front elected on a anti European contract platform and you are threatening me with calling me names – am I worried?

5

Sebastian 11.28.11 at 3:49 pm

You’re probably afraid that if you don’t have money you won’t be able to pay your para-military thugs off.

6

reason 11.28.11 at 3:52 pm

Yeah – but see the point – the promise of future good behaviour means nothing.

7

William Timberman 11.28.11 at 4:13 pm

I’m a native of the U.S., so my take on analyses like this is always haunted by the squabbles laid out in the Federalist Papers some 220 years ago, and what has become of them in an age when we can engineer our genes. Briefly, if we fear the rabble, we get the Department of Homeland Security, the Roberts Court, and the Koch Brothers. If we fear the aristocrats, we get Sarah Palin or Ron Paul.

That’s the cartoon version, of course. We’ve done better, and Lord willing, we may do better again, but looking at Europe through this lens is instructive, in the sense that we thought that Europeans were doing better — much better — and now look at what’s happened.

8

MPAVictoria 11.28.11 at 4:42 pm

“Legally enforceable contracts, or the threat of a loss of reputation.”

Should people be able to sign contracts requiring their descendants to pay of a loan they have been given? Isn’t requiring democratically elected governments to enter unending contracts a similar idea

9

ajay 11.28.11 at 4:54 pm

Should people be able to sign contracts requiring their descendants to pay of a loan they have been given? Isn’t requiring democratically elected governments to enter unending contracts a similar idea

No. No.

I’m the National Front elected on a anti European contract platform and you are threatening me with calling me names – am I worried?

Yes, because you still need to, e.g., trade with people.

10

Doug 11.28.11 at 4:57 pm

Of course the alternative to monetary policy made in Frankfurt with a seat at the table is, in fact, monetary policy made in Frankfurt without a seat at the table.

11

Kevin Donoghue 11.28.11 at 5:07 pm

The Shorter Henry Farrell might read: “European politicians are now trapped in a situation where their only hope is to do what I want them to do.” To me this looks like wishful thinking. I don’t think these guys see themselves as having much freedom of action, nor do they have much understanding of the problem (they wouldn’t have created it if they did). When Paul Krugman says:

Even a few months ago I regarded a complete euro crackup as highly implausible. Now I’m having trouble finding a plausible story about how the thing survives.

I think it’s time to start making arrangements for the regime which follows the crackup. It looks as if that’s exactly what businesses of all kinds are doing. It might be a very good thing if the EU got behind the Marquand-Farrell programme, but pension funds won’t be going back into Italian bonds even if it does (which it won’t).

Since that looks a bit negative, let me add that everyone should read the full review.

12

MPAVictoria 11.28.11 at 5:16 pm

“No. No.”

Okay then. Thanks.

13

William Timberman 11.28.11 at 5:30 pm

Kevin Donoghue @ 11

You’re definitely taking the smart money position, but I’m intrigued by Henry’s perception that Schäuble and Voßkuhle — and by implication Merkel — are making tentative gestures in the right direction. I’ve been following Schäuble’s signalling in the German press for several months now, and thought I’d detected some movement. Not being German, though, I was at a loss to tell precisely what, if anything, the change signified, and no one else seemed to agree that it was even there until very recently.

Whether there really is movement or not, I do admit that it seems at best a day late and a Euro short. Viewed from this side of the Atlantic, it’s all very sad. As I said above, we expect incompetence from our own, but from our good social democratic friends abroad…?

14

StevenAttewell 11.28.11 at 6:09 pm

Timberman @ 13 – I’ve always thought the very problem was the lack of social democracy embedded in the E.U’s DNA. If the E.U had acted as a supranational safety net, and if the SGP and the ECB weren’t designed to be so hostile to counter-cyclical policy making, the electorate might care more about an E.U that wasn’t making things worse.

15

William Timberman 11.28.11 at 7:27 pm

You make a valid point, Steven. I’m sure that residual chauvinism amongst the folks providing the bulk of the money was a large part of the problem. Given Europe’s history*, convincing every European that he was part of the same family for transfer union purposes always had to be understood as a gradual process. Malheureusement, events have conspired to deny the wafflers in Frankfurt and Brussels any more time.

*On a train trip between Verona and Venice, a trivial distance in the U.S., I was astonished to see what seemed to be a ruined castle on every single hilltop. The history books never made clear — to me at least — just what tiny chunks of turf people were squabbling over in those dark days following the failure of the Roman bureaucracy.

16

Curmudgeon 11.29.11 at 1:04 am

Isn’t, however, the problem more fundamental than that. How is it at all possible for present governments to commit to the behaviour of future governments in a democracy?

As far as economic matters are concerned, the most stable historical solution seems to be to limit the effective franchise–those who have the ability to control policy rather than just make meaningless gestures at the ballot box–to those who own money. Very large stacks of money are very good at protecting their interests over the long term.

17

Barry 11.29.11 at 1:20 am

“As far as economic matters are concerned, the most stable historical solution seems to be to limit the effective franchise—those who have the ability to control policy rather than just make meaningless gestures at the ballot box—to those who own money. Very large stacks of money are very good at protecting their interests over the long term.”

Not necessarily – notice that the big money in Europe seems to be running the system into the ground, in the short term.

18

Glen Tomkins 11.29.11 at 1:47 am

“It had already become clear
in October 2009 that the Greek government
had lied about the size of its deficit.”

That’s the part of this story that I keep hearing repeated, but the mechanics of which escape me.

How does a country lie, I mean lie enough to matter, about the size of its deficits, and escape detection from people doing even a cursory due diligence? It’s borrowing to cover its deficits. You know how big its deficit is from how much it’s borrowing.

Surely the total size of all Greek govt borrowing was known. Back when the sovereigns were monarchs rather than republics and not forced to keep public accounts, there was the possibilitily that because they were borrowing from all sorts of sources that you as an individual creditor had no idea existed, you could easily be sending money from whence there would be no hope of return. The sovereign himself might not have a clear idea of his total indebtedness. This is what happened to the Fuggers. Now, insofar as modern sovereigns still do this, borrow on the sly, then anyone who lends to such a sovereign deserves whatever happens to their money, deserves to be thoroughly Fuggered.

If you have that, that all of a sovereign’s borrowing is conducted in public bond auctions, or is otherwise a matter of public record, then you have enough information to judge its ability to meet its obligations. You know how much it’s borrowing every year. Any borrowing that is not directed towards a specific capital improvement, but simply plugs a shortfall in ordinary annual expenditures, should have a particular rationale, such as counter-cyclical stimulus, that has an end date and a plan to make up the deficits in good economic times.

In my experience with banks lending me money, their standard of due diligence is such that they don’t let me lie to them. I’m not allowed to make up an income figure and write it on a piece of paper and that’s that, they accept that I’m “good for it” because I say that I am. They want to see bank statements, and they want pay stubs, and they want tax returns and credit card statements. They want sufficient information about where I get my money and where it goes that they don’t have to rely on any representations I might make about how good I am for it. Bank officers who skipped all that due diligence and let me lie to them would be put in jail for fraud, for failure in their fiduciary responsibility to the people whose money they handed over to me.

There are different, lesser, standards for the people who lend much larger sums of other people’s money to sovereigns? Compared to a sovereign, I am subject to all sorts of coercion — I can be sued — and I am forced to offer the house as collateral before the bank hands over the money. I should get much less scrutiny, not more. That, or sovereigns ought to at least have their math checked, have creditors at least consider the size of what can’t be fudged, the total magnitude of their borrowing, for what that says about their ability to repay.

How did people who knew how much Greece was borrowing imagine that it was good for it all?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but what I’ve assumed all along, and it seems supported by statements in this review, is that at some point the creditors knew perfectly well that their loans likely wouldn’t be repaid by Greece, but that there would be a bail out. Why worry about boring old due diligence if you get to socialize the risks and privatize the profits?

Nuance is great. But when the story is simple, don’t complicate it needlessly. “Greek lies” were no more responsible for this debacle than Freddie Mac wrong-doing was responsible for the housing bubble in the US.

19

Nine 11.29.11 at 3:44 am

“How does a country lie, I mean lie enough to matter, about the size of its deficits, and escape detection from people doing even a cursory due diligence?”

Yes, has there been any satifsactory accounting here ? IIRC, in the wake of Enron, there were a multitude of explanations offered by the hindsighted some of which squarely blamed third party actors like Andersen Consulting. In Greece’s case, by contrast, the only bad actors appear to be the Greeks ? Not buying it.

20

Random Lurker 11.29.11 at 9:43 am

I think that the term technocrat is misapplied to the “eurocrats”: the problem is that we have a neoliberist ideology that has been almost unchallenged for the last decades, so that the aderents of this ideology don’t realize anymore that this is an ideology, they believe that this is reality and act by consequence.

Thus they believe that they are technocrats, but in reality they are very politicized. The main question is, in my opinion, for how long the opposite side and/or the masses will believe that those people really are just technicians that know what they are doing.

21

ajay 11.29.11 at 10:00 am

That’s the part of this story that I keep hearing repeated, but the mechanics of which escape me.
How does a country lie, I mean lie enough to matter, about the size of its deficits, and escape detection from people doing even a cursory due diligence?

The Greeks did two things: they lied about their total debt and about their annual deficit.

There are several ways to do it. You can simply define some state-related debt as “not actually government debt”. The US did this in 1970 with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – their assets and liabilities used to be reported as government debt, which made sense because (as we found out) the US government guaranteed it. But doing that was making the numbers look bad, so Nixon’s OMB shifted them off balance sheet. The Greeks did the same thing with various debts like the pension obligations of state-owned companies.

Or you can conspire with Goldman Sachs to conceal the actual size of your debt. You do this by setting up off-market swaps – fiddling the rate at which you set the swap in order to make them, in fact, loans that don’t have to be reported as such.

For more details, see here: http://www.risk.net/risk-magazine/news/1594806/greek-woes-focus-attention-role-eurostat

And it helps if your auditors are not very energetic and under political pressure to pass your accounts so you can join the euro, spread peace and good government across the continent, and help bring on the millennium.

22

reason 11.29.11 at 11:16 am

Curmudgeon @16,
I don’t see how this is relevant in this case. Normally, it is not an issue, because the markets will price it into the debt issuance (i.e. they will calculate the probability of a future government being elected that will repudiate or devalue current debt). In this case though the committment is not being made to the market – but to other governments. That is a crucial difference.

Ajay @9
See Argentina – people will still be happy to take your money so long as you have exports that have value. In Greece’s case it is even harder – do you think governments in Europe will restrict where their citizen’s can go on holiday?

23

reason 11.29.11 at 11:19 am

I think I should make my first post clearer:

Isn’t, however, the problem more fundamental than that. How is it at all possible for present governments to commit to the behaviour of future governments comprised of their opponents?

24

Tom M 11.29.11 at 12:01 pm

How is it at all possible for present governments to commit to the behaviour of future governments comprised of their opponents?
What else is Social Security or Medicare in the US,e.g.? It may be politically difficult to alter or dismantle the programs but the enabling legislation is just that, legislation to be changed at will.
What did GwB do with respect to the International Criminal Court? Future governments of opponents or allies simply have to have the votes or, worse, a supine electorate which doesn’t care to pay attention. They would rather shop.

25

ajay 11.29.11 at 12:18 pm

How is it at all possible for present governments to commit to the behaviour of future governments comprised of their opponents?

As I say, legally-enforceable contracts with penalty clauses. The current UK government has made no secret of the fact that it’s only continuing with CVF because the contract terms – a contract signed by the previous government, now in opposition – would make cancellation more costly. Sovereign immunity’s been gone for a while now.

26

philofra 11.29.11 at 12:57 pm

Funny this talk about unelected technocrats running things instead of democratically elected politicians, when all the time our societies have been significantly run by such people: bankers.

With the economic calamity we are experiencing today we are really getting a glimpse into how influential and destructive unelected bankers have been. Furthermore, the powers of unelected bankers continue unabated in spite of the crisis. Because of the financial crisis they helped create they are hemorrhaging money, thus cutting back on lending, further depressing the economy. Their unelected technocratic powers continue.

27

Guido Nius 11.29.11 at 1:21 pm

As long as we do not scale up democracy like with the European Union we’ll continue to be at the mercy of bankers because money will be able to outrun democratic control.

28

Glen Tomkins 11.29.11 at 2:27 pm

ajay,

Part of what you’re saying is exactly my point — it’s not so much that the Greek govt lied, as that it made representations that the creditors knew perfectly well were untrue, but were useful to gull the creditors’ governments, shareholders and other counterparties, and, last but not least among republics, the voting public in all of the involved countries. The key step in that picture is that the creditors lied.

The conduct of the Greek govt and Greek corporations is not my responsibility as a US citizen. God may hold them accountable for their lies, and the angels may weep for their sins, but their state of grace is not my concern. The conduct of my govt, and of financial institutions licensed by my govt, is my concern. The citizens of Germany and France should be encouraged to think the same way, and impose accountability only on their own. The creditors lied and their govts, our govts, enabled and facilitated, or, to use the more appropriate language of legal culpability, aided and abetted.

Specifically, the accounting dodge over pension liabilities seems to me to fall clearly in the category of representations that could easily have been checked and found wanting had the creditors done even a minimal due diligence. You use the analogy of the Nixon’s OMB shifting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac liabilities off the US balance sheet. But clearly people who were following US accounts in this period would have noticed the drop-off in total liabilities, looked into the balance sheet’s individual items and seen that compared to last year, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac liabilities had disapparated. Greece has had public accounts of govt spending at least since the end of the junta, right? If pension liabilities suddenly disappeared from those accounts one year, then that would not require the CIA to figure out what had happened. If they never included pension liabilities in their public budget, it would still be public knowledge that the Greek govt did in fact have pension liabilities. You could figure that out by hanging out around Greek coffee shops. You could even get a pretty close estimate of the total size of the liability involved by chatting up some pensioners about the terms and size of the payments they receive. Unless you asumed that people from Mars had picked up the tab on these Greek govt pensions, you would count this as a liability against Greek govt accounts, no matter what account the Greek govt published. Obviously, no one should have even considered lending to Greece unless and until it produced a credible accounting of all its liabilities, including the size of its pension liabilities.

When you mention off-books lending from Goldman-Sachs, you bring in a factor that, for the first time in the discussion, would actually tend to excuse Greece’s other creditors. Not Goldman-Sachs, of course, since they would know about the publicly ackowledged debt, plus what they were lending off the books, so they would have had a reasonably accurate picture of Greece’s ability to be good for it. But to the extent Greece was effectively keeping two sets of books, acting like Charles V or Al Capone, yes, to that extent it would seem to reserve the culpability for fraud to itself alone, well, itself plus G-S and any other off-book creditors.

But I would argue that even that practice of off-book swaps, because the practice was publicly known, does not relieve other creditors of their responsiblility to understand the financial position of potential debtors before lending to them. The various exotic novelties that G-S specializes in creating have as their purpose the creation of opacity, the evasion of regulation and any other form of public scrutiny. Unless Greece and G-S both kept absolutely secret the mere fact of their relationship, that fact alone, without any transparency as to the amounts involved, should have prevented any lending to Greece. If a bank learns that I am in debt to bookies, for amounts that, given the business practices of bookies, are not publicly determinable, they have to assume the largest imaginable figure for the size of that indebtedness, and refuse to lend me dime one. Anybody aware that Greeces had turned to G-S for funds, in the form of one of its opacity specials, could only reasonably assume the very worst about the size of that liability.

The reason we have public information about corporations and governments, the reason we have publicly traded companies and republics, is that we tried the alternative and found it wanting. I read about the current crisis, and it’s as if the South Seas Bubble, Charles V and the Fuggers, or the ancien regime’s disastrous fiscal arrangements, were playing out again several centuries later. No one as interesting as John Law, but same script, just produced with less talented actors this time around. If Adam Smith were to return to us in glory, he would find that he still has the exact same work cut out for him. Do we really still need lectures about such basics as the need for free markets to be open and transparent? If we don’t observe the basics, what’s the point of critiquing downstream irregularities? The worst of those are venial sins compared to the mortal sin of tolerating opacity.

It’s useless to preach Keynes to people who have forgotten their Smith.

29

ajay 11.29.11 at 3:09 pm

The various exotic novelties that G-S specializes in creating have as their purpose the creation of opacity, the evasion of regulation and any other form of public scrutiny. Unless Greece and G-S both kept absolutely secret the mere fact of their relationship, that fact alone, without any transparency as to the amounts involved, should have prevented any lending to Greece.

No, that’s not true. Greece also had a lot of perfectly legitimate on-market swaps with Goldmans and with lots of other major banks. So do almost all other countries. If you’re saying that the mere fact of a relationship between Greece and a major bank should have given the game away, then you don’t really understand the situation. Greece doing business with GS was business as usual in the sovereign debt world.

But your general point is correct, because not only was the practice of off-market swap lending well-known, these specific off-market swaps weren’t kept secret – they were reported, and criticised as dodgy, more or less at the time in Risk. The Italians had been doing the same thing, allegedly including death threats against whistleblowers, since the nineties.

It’s just that apparently no one at Eurostat was reading Risk in 2003. Eurostat either didn’t know about them or regarded them as permissible – stories differ – and signed off on Greece’s misleading accounts anyway. And everyone else seems to have trusted Eurostat and the Greek government.

30

Tim Wilkinson 11.29.11 at 5:29 pm

legally-enforceable contracts with penalty clause

No such thing, in English law anyway. But contract and other basic common law principles indeed de iure the best hope for a govt to bind its successors, except for some constitutionally peculiar matters like extending the franchise or ceding sovereignty (both of which are more legislative matters though), and except – of course – for doing things that are themselves actually very hard or impossible to undo.

31

novakant 11.29.11 at 7:30 pm

“Democratic governance” sounds great, but where is it actually realized? Certainly not in the US/UK. Maybe it’s a bit like what the diehards used to say about socialism: it hasn’t really been tried yet.

32

Ken 11.29.11 at 7:51 pm

And to be honest, socialism still has not been really tried yet. Not in the communistic form, at least (the communist countries we know of, past or present, had nothing communistic about them).

We just had lots of farms, some run by humans, some run by pigs, but all run by animals.

33

Glen Tomkins 11.30.11 at 3:24 pm

Ajay,

“Greece doing business with GS was business as usual in the sovereign debt world.”

My point exactly. We no longer think it unusual, we have no sense that it violates basic principles, to have opacity in transactions so large that they need to be very public.

Everyone does it these days. That’s why everyone is in trouble, that’s why we have contagion, and that’s why panic will undoubtedly set in once the cards start falling. Everyone knows that all accounts are dodgy, because everyone has dipped into opaque transactions, and inherent in the opacity is uncertainty over the size of liabilities involved. The switch will be flipped in an instant from imagining the best about those liabilities to fearing the worst

No doubt that much of GSs business is old school and above board and transparent. Insofar as they had transparent relations with Greece, everyone else could factor in those known liabilities to their lending decisions. Now, if you believe that it is credible that GS might have done enough off-books, opaque, lending to Greece to make a difference, to have amounted to sums large enough to affect Greece’s ability to meet obligations, why do you exempt everyone else from the need to make the same inference? Unlike you and I, the people throwing vast sums at Greece had a legal and ethical fiduciary duty to make the most unfavorable such inferences allowed by what is publicly known.

It is absolutely no defense that GS and opacity are everywhere, that people in charge of deciding where to throw money have no high RoI alternative available that is not contaminated by opacity, that all big accounts these days are dodgy. You still can’t throw money where you have no idea of the risks, not if it says on your shingle that you perform due diligence. The fact that the people tossing the money around make every pretence of assessing risk, that they hire Arthur Anderson (sorry, wrong scandal), or Eurostat to pretend to do risk assessment, to pretend that the books are all in order, only serves to establish mens rea. Everyone knows that opacity cannot be allowed, but everyone does it anyway. You can’t teach people who already know the right way, as demonstrated by the elaborate measures they take to evade the strictures imposed by the right way, yet choose to do wrong. Only reality can do that, and it looks like reality is about to deliver a pretty memorable lecture. To everyone, because everyone does it, and it’s business as usual.

34

David - Pediatrician Schooling 12.01.11 at 11:16 am

I live in Spain and what is “seen” from here is pretty lousy, recently “the kids in the UK” an given notice to all its embassies in the countries of the European periphery to prepare and advise expatriates to the imminent fall of the euro, to gain access to their capital …

We expected a “playpen “…?

To make way for a single world currency…?

35

bert 12.01.11 at 6:47 pm

The review is a good read.
And for the Krugman part of the discussion, there’s this now:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/dec/01/italy-wrong-man-agriculture-minister

36

Glen Tomkins 12.01.11 at 10:19 pm

bert,

It was his connection to the University of Guelph that got him the job. If he had worked at the University of Ghibelline, they would have sent him poisoned wine or something.

37

bert 12.02.11 at 12:04 am

I don’t think technocrats have their enemies poisoned.
They have them audited.

Henry’s longstanding prediction of moves toward fiscal union does look like it’s inching closer at the moment. Whether centralisation will mean democratisation is an open question, to put it mildly.
Europe getting interesting and Europe getting democratic are different things also. But there’s no question we’re living in interesting times.

Wikipedia swears Guelph is an actual place, and the nextdoor town is called Berlin.

38

Glen Tomkins 12.02.11 at 6:06 pm

Well, we have Viennas in both Virginia and Georgia. I met an inhabitant of the Georgia Vienna during Basic Training, and when I pronounced his hometown the standard way, he just looked at me like I was hopelessly ignorant and said, “No, it’s pronounced Vi-een-a, just like the sausages.” Austria or its capital was as much terra incognita to him as the imperial struggle between the Welfs and Houhenstaufen probably is to most of the current inhabitants of Guelph. But obviously at one time, these places and conflicts from Europe stirred the imagination of backwoods North Americans whose people weren’t from any of those places they chose to name their little two-horse towns after.

I wonder if this is all happening largely because Europe has had such a boring stretch lately that the old animal spirits just need some outlet, any outlet. Vienna just wants to get interesting again. Berlin would like another fling. The whole continent thirsts to regain those times when even a Waiblingen might produce folks at the center of some bloody grotesque or other so great as to stir the imagination of people as far away as Canada or Georgia. If even terminally uninteresting folks like Trichet act so clearly to bring the apocalypse, it’s got to be forces larger than life at work.

39

bert 12.02.11 at 7:31 pm

By “the old animal spirits” you’re talking about the Death Instinct, right?
Strip out the abstractions Freud enjoyed inventing about the psyche. Leave the sex to one side. At bottom, he was trying to explain how Europe went nuts in 1914. It might be relevant that Berlin, Ontario officially changed its name in 1916, and has been called Kitchener ever since.

40

Glen Tomkins 12.03.11 at 4:56 am

Berlin to Kitchener, great. They’re in the middle of a catastrophic war they blame on German imperialism, and the best name alternative they can come up with celebrates English imperialism. Our death wish is 85% better than your death wish!

Maybe I’ll change my name to Merkwuerdigliebe when I renounce my citizenship.

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