Opinion » Viewpoint

A Greek Tragedy

Has the cradle of democracy now become the birthplace of economic chaos?



While leading a group of Southwest Tennessee Community College sociology students on a study-abroad program in Greece this spring, I happened to be in Athens at the start of the six weeks of continuous protests, which have been dubbed Aganaktismenoi (loosely, "the indignant").

On the first morning, nearly 1,000 Greeks gathered at Sygmata Square. On cue, the riot police formed a line separating the crowd from the parliament building. The mood was friendly, with no violence that day. A "Greek Spring" it was. The powerful labor unions had not been a part of this "spontaneous" outpouring. Weeks later, however, more than 100,000 would crowd the square.

Much like our own Tea Party movement, the protests were an outgrowth of Greeks' frustration with their government for getting them into economic difficulties. Unlike the Tea Partiers, these were hard-core socialists who were not in the mood to sacrifice the standard of living the government was threatening with its austerity program.

The crowd was quite diverse, with a scattering of Che-shirted older men as well as mothers and babies. Drums and whistles, banners denouncing the government, and the cries of "Kleftes!" (thieves) stirred up the crowd. The Greek equivalent of our middle finger is hands raised with the palm toward your target. In this case, hands were aimed at politicians inside the parliament building. Leaflets entitled "300" were passed out by stylishly bearded young men. Greeks are really into the movie 300, with its depiction of the outnumbered Greeks holding off the Persians — or, in this case, the politicians. In reality, they only held them off for a while, but why ruin a good story?

As I mingled, I attempted to get a sense of who the crowd blamed for their country's troubles. After all, was it not Greece that brought it on itself after joining the European Union (EU) in 2001? With all the cheap money floating around then, the party had begun.

Greece already had a debt to gross domestic product ratio higher than 100 percent in 2000, before it joined the EU. After cooking the books, Greece convinced the EU to let them in and now the country has a debt of $500 billion.

After a bailout package of $155 billion from its international creditors, the Greeks are eagerly awaiting another installment of $17 billion in early July. There is a "but," however. The government must show its intention to eliminate part of the debt with austerity measures. They have cut their deficit by 5 percent of GDP already this year, but it still stands at a whopping 9.6 percent. The package that will be presented to Parliament this week will cut $40 billion in debt by 2015, or 12 percent of Greece's GDP. The equivalent cut for our government would be $1.75 trillion! Even the Tea Partiers wouldn't go there.

I didn't find a single person who blamed Greece for causing its own problems. No, it was the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, the EU, and the Germans who were forcing these draconian cuts on the Greek people. No matter that Greece has several hundred closed crafts, such as taxi drivers, hairdressers, and pharmacists. No matter that if your union has enough pull, you can convince the government that your profession is so stressful that you should retire before age 60. Pastry chefs, for example, get 100 percent pensions, compared to 40 percent for Germany?

No problem, right?

Taxes? Who pays taxes? Only 5,000 Greeks admit to making over $144,000 a year! The government has taken to the air to photograph Athenians who have swimming pools to show the incidence of high income.

With 25 percent of the workforce employed by the government, there are rolling blackouts by workers for Genop, the state power company, in protest of the government's plan to sell off its holdings from 51 percent down to 34 percent.

Unfortunately, the Greeks have few options. They can't devalue their currency or lower interest rates, since they are wedded to the Euro and the European Central Bank. They must take their medicine and hope for another bailout.

The Greek parliament was scheduled to vote on the austerity program this week. A failure to pass it would mean that default is just around the corner. Steve Haley is a professor of sociology at Southwest Tennessee Community College.

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