When a Nation Melts Down

Anyone who's likely to shed a tear when opening their credit-card bills after their holiday shopping may also want to cry a little for Argentina.

That nation is drowning in red ink, with nary a life preserver in sight.

Latin America's third-largest economy has been on a spending binge with borrowed money. Now it's living on borrowed time.

In less than three weeks, it's gone through five presidents, suffered street riots, and declared bankruptcy on $132 billion of debt.

Is there a cold lesson in this meltdown? Yes, but it's not necessarily economic.

Rather, Argentines have shown that people anywhere will get the economy and government they deserve if they don't take enough civic responsibility for their country.

Take taxes, for starters. Or rather, tax cheating. Argentines evade their value-added taxes at about a 40 percent rate. That's nearly double the rate in Chile and Uruguay.

Then consider that Argentines demand so many public services that government spending accounts for nearly a third of the economy. That helps breed the rampant political corruption that, in turn, makes it difficult to avert huge government deficits.

Then Argentines just blame such problems on the "system" or the rich elite who send their money overseas. More and more of them simply choose not to vote or to spoil their ballots. Rather than win control of their country, they lose hope. Nearly half now live under the poverty line.

Argentines can let this crisis serve as a wake-up call for economic patriotism and civic pride. Fundamental solutions don't lie in pleading with international creditors or recycling the same politicians. They lie in taking responsibility for the system, not evading or trashing it.

Honesty and unity of purpose are critical needs. They can be found as much in new leaders as in the citizens themselves.

Then foreign leaders and international lenders will want to help.

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