I.H.T. Op-Ed Contributor
Vacationing While the Economy Burns
By ALEX BEAM
Published: May 3, 2011
Tearing myself away from Farmville — just kidding; I don’t play Facebook games — I exited onto the Praça de Dom Pedro IV to see what all the fuss was about. Yes, they were shouting “The struggle continues!” but they weren’t talking about the Revolution. The crowds were yelling about the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank, which have targeted Portugal for an Ireland-and-Greece-style economic haircut, and possible bailout, to bring Lisbon in line with European Community budget rules.
“We don’t want the I.M.F.!” was another rallying cry. Well, really. Who does?
Because you read the newspaper, you know that Portugal is Europe’s basket case du jour, with its tottering economy badly out of whack. No one wants to run the country — there is a caretaker prime minister — and the Finns, of all people, may have a huge say in the future of their distant, southerly neighbor. The so-called True Finns, a small but influential band of Euro-skeptics, have made noises about withholding aid from Portugal.
By way of a crude generalization, the chilly, post-Reformation Northern Europeans are demanding more social and fiscal discipline from their sand-sea-and-surf loving, post-Catholic, Mediterranean allies. “Calvinist moralism disguised as economic policy,” is how the economist Richard Parker describes it.
The day I spent in Cascais swimming in the still-too-cold Atlantic was the day Portugal recalculated its budget deficit, upwards, alas from 8.6 to 9.1 per cent of gross domestic product. The following day, just before the downtown demonstration, I rode the suburban train to Cintra, the storybook, upland retreat of Moorish warriors and Portuguese kings (“Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes/ In variegated maze of mount and glen” — Lord Byron).
What’s a sybarite to do? Happily, Parker, who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and has been working as a senior adviser to Greece’s government during its current time of trials, reminded me that by lounging around Lisbon’s fado cafés and ogling the Jerónimos monastery in seaside Belém, I was acting out my economic destiny. “That was David Ricardo’s famous example of comparative advantage,” he explained to me, stirring some long-dormant embers of Econ 101. “In the 18th and early 19th century, Ricardo argued that it would be more efficient for Portugal to import British textiles, and for Great Britain to import Portuguese wine, than for either country to do both locally.”
“So you and all your fellow tourists” — I heard a lot of French, Spanish and Russian being spoken around me in Lisbon and elsewhere — “are taking advantage of a distinctively Portuguese product — its ability to produce the pleasing effects of lolling in the sun if you’ve spent the previous nine months in the outskirts of darkest Birmingham or Bremen.” Or Boston, where I happen to live.
Parker bristles at the obloquy directed at countries like Greece and Portugal. “They take undue batterings because if you look at the deficit crisis and its size, it’s not that big. The Greek deficit numbers are the kind of debt that America racks up every 24 to 48 hours. It’s crazy not to refinance the Greeks and Portuguese at a modest cost, rather than see them tip over one after the other.” I asked Parker to compose a bumper sticker-sized message for the Portuguese. Here it is: “Swallow the medicine.”
Portugal, I am rooting for you. Whatever torment those oddball Finns and censorious Eurocrats dream up for you, I am on your side. Any country that paints a subway station (Parque, in Lisbon) ocean-blue, and retraces Vasco de Gama’s voyages of discovery amid disembodied quotations from Plato, Lao-Tse and Gilles Deleuze, author of “Capitalism and Schizophrenia,” has won my heart. I’m coming back, and next time I’m bringing my friends.