Austin Bay
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As 2012 ends, the Greek debt crisis continues. In December, the Greek government began restructuring its debt for the second time this year.

"Restructuring" may sound clean and clinical. It isn't. Greece couldn't meet its debt payment requirements, so its lenders agreed to a new repayment schedule.

Occasionally, the term "selective default" appears when restructuring occurs. Finance ministers and treasury secretaries will tell you the term is just credit rating agency lingo, which Wall Street understands, so don't let it scare you. In fact, Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said exactly that right after Greece began restructuring. "The word selective default scares without reason. It is not a real event; it is not default."

But if you live on Main Street, and work on Main Street, and pay bills on Main Street, and know that one plus one equals two on Main Street, and ultimately the basic math is the same on Wall Street and in Athens, as well, you might not share the finance minister's confident assurance. Selective default means some lenders get paid now, others later and other others still later. Maybe. For the creditors at the end of the line, and that's usually those who lack the political clout to get paid first, all they've got is a promise.

J. Wellington Wimpy -- the gluttonous, globular straight man who appears in old Popeye the Sailor cartoons -- is a character from another entertainment era, the 1930s. That decade, however, has resonance for 21st century Greece, the Eurozone and every other nation currently engaged in racking up debt: The 1930s were the worst years of the Great Depression. Wimpy loves hamburgers, an amour that leads to his signature line, "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."

The line, a diner's hustle, neatly captures the risk of lending to any individual or national entity who spends loaned money to pay for immediate needs. Wimpy eats his burger today. Then comes Tuesday, goodness, he's hungry again. "Shall we," a not-so-theoretical 21st century Wimpy asks, so sincerely, "restructure the debt? Until next Tuesday? And I'll need to eat, in order to survive, so that I can pay you. So ..."

Greece isn't a cartoon; it's a tragedy. The people of Greece have suffered, are suffering and, unfortunately, will continue to suffer. Their suffering could get much worse.

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Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
 
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