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I was listening to The Economist’s podcast summarizing their special report on Germany and and when I got to the equivalent of this line:

It is the largest creditor country in the euro zone, and as chief paymaster it has the biggest clout in determining the single currency’s future.

And I guffawed. And it’s worth explaining why.

When a creditor loans money to a debtor, there is the potential for everyone to be better off – the debtor can make an investment they could otherwise not afford, and the creditor receives some interest in return. However, there is a large potential opportunity for the debtor to rip off the creditor and never pay back their money, thus getting free money. Therefore, creditors have traditionally tried to employ both the power of the state and extra-legal threats to ensure compliance. There is a long history of violence and threats of violence in this regard, from Mafia kneebreaking on the black-market side to the Venezuelan blockade on the macro-side. The reason the Iron Bank of Braavos* gets paid back is because they have proven their willingness in the past to depose and assassinate kings to collect.

But modern norms have changed that. Sure, you can still be imprisoned for debt in certain parts of the United States, but remember that the entire state of Georgia was originally envisioned as a debtor’s colony. And on an international scale, while you will suffer for sovereign default, you won’t be invaded and expropriated, and note that countries like Argentina have done surprisingly OK after even a spectacular sovereign default. Not that being shut out of most financial markets, both as an individual and a nation, is without consequences, but it’s a lot better than being behind bars or under the gun.

What’s the point? The key is the huge power of social and cultural norms, and how many can persist even as related ones change. For example, our increased unwillingness to use violence and imprisonment to punish debtors would seem to encourage double-dealing by borrowers and recalcitrance by lenders; yet our powerful social norm in favor of paying back debts and in viewing creditors as virtuous (“savers” “investors”) and debtors, especially debtors who fail or struggle to repay, as sinners (“deadbeats” “spendthrift” “profligate”) then debtors will largely continue to pay and creditors will largely continue to lend even though debtors, not creditors, are gaining in leverage and material power. They have your money! Germany isn’t invading Greece or Italy or Spain or Portugal or Ireland! But debtors don’t have anyone’s respect and that matters tremendouslyAnd economic models (and economic commentators) fail to account for it.

*You seriously thought I was going to go all day on this blog without a reference to “A Song of Ice and Fire?” Ha! Ha, I say, ha!

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