FROM THE ANTHOLOGY: Europe’s Monetary (Dis)union


How to Contain Athens' Economic Problems

A pensioner holds his priority ticket as he waits to receive part of his pension at a National Bank branch in Athens, Greece, July 6, 2015. Christian Hartmann / Reuters

In the late 1990s, the Western world became concerned with a phenomenon known as Y2K (Year 2000), or the Millennium Bug—that is, a mass collapse of all computer systems in the seconds after the clock struck 12:00 on New Year’s Eve 2000. Most early computer programmers had entered dates only according to their last digits, rendering 1976, for example, as “76.” They did so mainly to save memory space, which was very expensive in those days, and also because they assumed that their programs would have a limited shelf life. Now it was feared that some computers would not recognize the new date in 2000 and assume instead that they were back in 1900. Some worst-case scenarios envisaged hospital machines breaking down, banking chaos, and even airplanes falling out of the sky.

A "No" supporter flashes a victory sign before a Greek flag atop the parliament in Athens, Greece July 5, 2015.
A "No" supporter flashes a victory sign before a Greek flag atop the parliament in Athens, Greece July 5, 2015. Yannis Behrakis / Reuters
The threat was taken extremely seriously both by governments and by the private sector, which spent billions of dollars checking and updating computer programs in the years leading up to 2000. In the end, the bug did not bite. There were some system failures—for example, in Japan, radiation-monitoring equipment at Ishikawa failed for a while; in the United Kingdom, falsely positive pregnancy tests were sent to some women; and in some countries, various ticketing machines gave a little trouble—but that was about it.

All this calls to mind the long Greek agony over the euro. When the crisis first blew in 2010, there were widespread fears that if Greece defaulted on its public debts, contagion would bring down banks across the eurozone and destroy the market for government bonds in the next-in-line states, such as Italy, Spain, Portugal, and perhaps even Ireland. The fears seemed somewhat justified: nobody quite knew how markets would react, and the complex interconnections between Greek debt and bank solvency elsewhere were not clear to even seasoned experts. It was precisely this sense of uncertainty on which Greek governments traded from the start of the crisis and upon which Syriza’s “game theorists” based their ultraconfrontational stance starting in

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