For at least a generation, Greece has operated as if the laws of economics do not apply – not the criminally complicated, mad laws, which turned out not to apply anywhere across the global economy, but the simple, good housekeeping rules, such as spending as much as you can afford. Greeks, as individuals, were not the biggest borrowers, having gotten into the game late and only after entry into the eurozone made loans affordable. The problem was elsewhere: in a naive, stupid or convenient inability to understand that when we demanded things of the state someone would have to pay – and that someone would, some day, turn out to be us. This ignorance was evident in polls, where we would see society overwhelmingly in favor of the demands and protests of specific groups (whether farmers or civil servants), when they confronted the state. Deficits went wild as governments caved in to everyone’s demands.
The government’s decision to levy a one-off tax on high earners and to freeze civil servants’ salaries if these are over 1,700 euros per month, is the first sign that reality is catching up with us. Society will now feel the pain caused by our overspending as a nation. And yet, the total amount expected to enter state coffers is a little less than 500 million euros – less than the amount promised to farmers a few weeks ago to get them off the roads and allow the country to function again. Perhaps the next time a group goes on the warpath, the rest of society will consider what it will cost each citizen to placate them. In that case, the government will have to weigh the cost of angering the rest of society and not just look for ways to appease the protestors so as to buy their votes.
However, even as society begins to realize that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, various groups are still behaving as if their acts can be tolerated forever, no matter how much damage they may cause the rest of society or the economy. Banks are still depriving small and medium-sized businesses of loans, despite a 28-billion-euro rescue package; hooded youths still rampage through Athens’s center in narcissistic hysteria; Culture Ministry employees repeatedly block visitors from the Acropolis and other sites and museums. Everyone acts as if the damage they cause is not their concern: Someone else will foot the bill.
Banks are banks: They will try to get away with anything that furthers their own interests. Anarchists’ raison d’etre is mayhem. But how can Culture Ministry employees and their bosses – the politicians who work out their pay and work regime – believe that their interests are served by damaging the country’s tourism industry? Whether the employees are right or not, whether solving their problem will cost a mere 10 million euros or so, the standoff with the government is likely to cost Greece a lot more. If we consider that tourism, which brought 11.3 billion euros into the country in 2007, could drop by between 10 and 30 percent this year because of the global economic crisis, we can make a safe bet that the danger of finding important sites closed will push many people to visit other countries instead. A 10-million-euro dispute could thereby turn into a billion-euro loss.
Perhaps the only way that protestors, the government and society as a whole can find a healthy balance is if we stop believing that our demands will by taken care of by divine providence – i.e., the state or the EU or both. If every demand were met by an additional tax levied on the rest of us, maybe the government, the political parties and the population would be moderate in our demands and thrifty in our spending so that we could emerge from the crisis stronger than we entered it.
AthensPlus editorial, 20 March 2009