The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.
In the charged pre-election atmosphere in Greece, Christine Lagarde’s comments on Greek taxation have fallen like a bombshell in the public media. They were published in an interview with The Guardian, and hardly contribute to improving the situation, no matter how correct she may be in essence about the need to crack down on tax evasion. I repeat the text here: each reader can draw their own conclusions as to what she meant to say, and what political response to her comments is worth.
Nevertheless, while this might come as a surprise to Greeks suffering under extreme austerity, some say Lagarde's approach to the eurozone is less draconian than the IMF's traditional policy towards developing world economies. Is it easier to impose harsh demands upon small economies, but much harder to tell difficult truths to the big ones – particularly fellow Europeans?
"No," she says firmly. "No, it's not harder. No. Because it's the mission of the fund, and it's my job to say the truth, whoever it is across the table. And I tell you something: it's sometimes harder to tell the government of low-income countries, where people live on $3,000, $4,000 or $5,000 per capita per year, to actually strengthen the budget and reduce the deficit. Because I know what it means in terms of welfare programmes and support for the poor. It has much bigger ramifications."
So when she studies the Greek balance sheet and demands measures she knows may mean women won't have access to a midwife when they give birth, and patients won't get life-saving drugs, and the elderly will die alone for lack of care – does she block all of that out and just look at the sums?
"No, I think more of the little kids from a school in a little village in Niger who get teaching two hours a day, sharing one chair for three of them, and who are very keen to get an education. I have them in my mind all the time. Because I think they need even more help than the people in Athens." She breaks off for a pointedly meaningful pause, before leaning forward.
"Do you know what? As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all those people who are trying to escape tax all the time. All these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax."
Even more than she thinks about all those now struggling to survive without jobs or public services? "I think of them equally. And I think they should also help themselves collectively." How? "By all paying their tax. Yeah."
It sounds as if she's essentially saying to the Greeks and others in Europe, you've had a nice time and now it's payback time.
"That's right." She nods calmly. "Yeah."
And what about their children, who can't conceivably be held responsible? "Well, hey, parents are responsible, right? So parents have to pay their tax."
(c) Philip Ammerman, 2012
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