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Greece is doomed

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras
ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty

Things seem to have reached Desperation O'Clock in Greece, where Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is now seeking a referendum as a way to avoid a choice between agreeing to the kind of austerity budget he promised to avoid and the Greek exit from the eurozone that he also promised to avoid. For the latest developments, you should probably check a dedicated financial news service like the Wall Street Journal, or Bloomberg. For a sophisticated and well-informed account of what Greece's European partners have done wrong, you should read Karl Whelan. For an analysis of the specifics of Tsipras' gambit, you should read Hugo Dixon.

But to understand the deeper causes of what's been going on since Tsipras' government swept to power in January, you really need to set the finance and economics aside and focus on the politics. Greece has been drawing dead this whole time, and the future outlook appears bleak for one simple reason — nobody else in Europe who holds power has any interest in making things anything other than painful for Greece.

1) Giving Greece a better deal would be a political disaster

Tsipras' fundamental miscalculation has been that he thought that by cloaking his specific requests for more lenient terms in the larger cause of anti-austerity politics, he could build a coalition of political support throughout Europe for his position. The reality was just the opposite. While politicians in Europe's creditor nations were naturally reluctant to grant Greece a better deal, politicians in Europe's debtor nations were even more opposed.

After all, if electing a bunch of far-left types to parliament so they can demand a better deal actually worked, then voters in Portugal and Spain and Italy and Ireland would take note of that fact. And the last thing the current crop of elected officials in Lisbon and Madrid and Rome and Dublin want is to all be turned out in favor of a bunch of far-left types.

2) Letting Greece default gracefully would be a disaster

Even if Greece's European partners weren't inclined to give Greece a better financial deal, they could have at least smoothed the path to default. A Greece that doesn't pay what it owes would be instantly cut off from credit markets and forced to run a very austere fiscal policy.

Things could have been left at that. Instead, throughout the year, the European Central Bank has been saying that it will cut the Greek banking system off from emergency funding if Greece doesn't keep paying its debts. That means default will lead to the collapse of Greek banks, and the end of Greek membership in the euro.

That's a political decision the ECB isn't legally required to make. But politically it's the only possible decision. After all, if a default works out non-disastrously for Greece then other countries could be tempted to default. And international investors might worry that other countries could be tempted to default, raising interest rates and slowing the European economy. Only making default as painful as possible can safeguard the interests of other countries.

3) Letting Greece leave the Eurozone gracefully would be a disaster

Here's where the news gets really bad for Greece. Leaving the Eurozone could, in theory, go better or worse. But Europe needs it to go as badly as possible. After all, if Greece leaving goes pretty well, then other countries might be tempted to leave. And that raises the prospect of debt defaults, higher interest rates, and slowing European growth.

Once again, it's in Europe's interest to make things as hard as possible for Greece.

4) This is the time to fold 'em

The tragic irony, if you are Tsipras, is that his plan very well might have worked back in 2010 when his predecessors originally agreed to the terms of a bailout. Back then, the whole situation was considerably more fluid. Greece could have threatened to default and essentially commit a murder/suicide on the entire European economy unless it got better terms. That would have been a very risky strategy and you can see why the Greek government didn't pursue it. But it might have worked.

Yet as the song says, you need to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em.

Five years ago was a good time for a risky bet. Today, Greece has no cards, and their best bet would have been to surrender months ago and hope to quietly score some small concessions down the road after building some good will.

Tsipras couldn't very well sweep to power promising to tear up the old deal and then agree to basically the same old deal. He had to make a great months-long show of trying for something better, even though it's always been impossible for him to get something better.