Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Talent-ed Drachma

Many years ago, me and my wife went appliance shopping. We had just purchased a new home, and we were looking for the wonders of technology. To wash our clothes and scrub our pots. And, while walking in a gigantic area inside a Home Depot, lined with the latest marvels of technology, we were pondering over washing machines. What shall it be - front loading or top loading?

I was approached by a tall and thin gentleman, who turned out to be the salesman in charge. And once I got talking to him, I couldn't quite place his accent. So, I asked the question that people in America seem to ask every other person they meet. "Where are you originally from?".  The man said rather mysteriously, "You probably have never heard of it. It is a small country in Europe, called Bosnia-Herzegovina."

Since I had to show off what a history buff I was, I blurted out, "Of course I have heard of your country. You were the folks who started the first world war, and by extension, the second one. Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. Isn't that true?". He suddenly got very serious and said very gravely, "That is what the history books would tell you. But, we were merely the first domino. In a series of dominoes that toppled."

Bosnia-Herzegovina is a country in the Balkans, which was once a part of the mighty Ottoman empire. And the fragmentation of this empire and the subsequent creation of many small states, fighting against each other, resulted in the rather pejorative term, Balkanization. Another country, that is a part of the Balkans, and one that everyone seems to be talking about, is Greece. In a context, that makes people wonder if this country will lead to another round of toppling dominoes and Balkanization. A financial one, this time.

Many of us still remember a romantic side of Europe that others are almost beginning to forget. The Europe of currencies galore -- the Europe before the Euro. Many years ago, while the Germans made their mark with the Mark, the French would frolic with the Franc. While the Italians sang with the lyrical Lira, the Greeks dramatized their fantasies with the Drachma. And then, the new currency of the Europeans, the Euro, swept all of the old ones under the carpet with a wide broom. A new Europe was born, with its own common market and currency -- and the musical names for European money disappeared. Overnight.

At the time of the transition, I had asked a friend of mine, who was very good at economics, what this had in store. Would a common currency ever succeed? And, he gave me a very long answer. In a continent, where people have different attitudes to work, and different levels of efficiency, which is quite ingrained in their respective cultures, a unified economy could not succeed. There would always be disputes over who works the hardest and who parties. And Europe was too diverse and too complicated to unify the currency. So, I assumed that his short answer would have been a no. A resounding one.

It seems that my friend was right. Economists famous and pedestrian, have Greece on their mind nowadays. Greece, the land of Plato and Aristotle, hasn't really made much news in the last few centuries, even during the two world wars that swept over Europe. In my small and insignificant life, the Greeks make an appearance once in every four years. During the Olympics, when they light the torch. Hellenic beauties in beautiful togas conduct the breathtaking ceremony. And almost inevitably, I tell my beautiful wife, how much more pretty she would look in a Grecian hairdo. And her response is also the same. Always. "You have been watching the Olympic opening ceremony again, haven't you?"

So, why is Greece in the news? For the wrong reasons?

It seems that the Greeks have been having a good time for some time. And while, most of that was subsidized in the past with their own debt, their bacchanalian ways are now beginning to pull down the common currency of the Europeans. And their industrious cousins to the north, the ones that survive on sauerkraut and beer, are furious. The national debt of the Greeks has ballooned so much, that the country might go bankrupt. But, the scary part is the domino effect, that is now possible since the global economy is tied together. The other boisterous neighbors of the Greeks -- the Italians, the Portuguese and the Spaniards, are in a similar boat. And if they all collapse, the Euro will be in big trouble. And if that happens, there might be another financial crisis. Worldwide.

Since all of this is beginning in the Balkans, it seems that Balkanization is a logical solution to some. So, the Greeks might have another shot at their own currency, since they are too risky for the Euro. When I heard this news, I suddenly remembered all the lost currencies of the Europeans. Specially the Drachma. Of the Greek.

The Drachma goes way back. In fact, it was in circulation about a thousand years before the birth of Christ. Plato and Aristotle probably paid for their amphorae of wine with Drachmas. And six thousand Drachmas were equal to about nine years of wage for a skilled craftsman in Greece. And that much money, was called one Talent.

Though the classical Greeks never minted a coin equal to one talent, they had a unit of money to quantify it. With the current economic crisis in play, the modern Greeks probably need a lot of talent-ed economists around. And may be, for their services, they will now be paid in Drachmas.


  1. AAh Greece! Remembering Homer, suddenly :)

  2. I have been reading some of your posts, off and on. I love them. Totally.