Slate recently ran an article by Anne Applebaum claiming that the division that now matters in Europe is no longer east vs. west, but instead north vs. south. According to Applebaum, communist east vs. capitalist west no longer matters. The important division is austere northern countries that manage their budgets and affairs vs. profligate southern countries that spend like drunken sailors, hoping others will pick up the tab.
As Applebaum puts it:
“The South contains all those countries whose political classes have not been able to balance their national budgets, whose bureaucrats have not been able to reduce their numbers, whose voters have not learned to approve of austerity….The North contains the budget hawks”
After reading the Slate article, I read Michael Lewis’ article in Vanity Fair about the Greek financial crisis. Lewis describes Greece as less of a country than a national pool of corruption in which the entire populace knowingly plunders the government treasury.
Pairing these two articles really made me think about this dichotomy between governance and chaos, between bureaucrats who do their jobs and those whose job is merely a path to a bribe. And it’s really just a small leap from governance vs. corruption to civic good vs. selfishness and then to democracy vs. despotism. But once I started expanding Applebaum’s dichotomy into a broader range of behaviors, I started to wonder whether her north vs. south division could be expanded beyond Europe. I think it can be.
After all, the northern hemisphere is generally a lot better managed than the southern: Canada vs. Venezuela, Estonia vs. Syria. Of course, Russia is really far north, but it acts south. And North Korea vs. South Korea reverses the pattern. But I think if you were to average across the hemispheres, Applebaum’s north vs. south dichotomy holds. Germany is to Greece as Greece is to Zimbabwe? Even within the US, the southern states tend to be far more profligate than the northern, as in this awesome blog entry, or this table showing which states spend more federal dollars than they pay in taxes.