I’ve been skeptical of claims that the massive problems that confront Greece are a sign of America’s future. For one thing, although we’re not “too big to fail,” we may be too big to be likely to fail in the same way and to the same extent that Greece has. For another, I still put some stock in American exceptionalism.
But my prejudices should not be confused with facts or first hand comparative observation. For a different perspective, I offer this report from my friend, and occasional Washington Times op-ed columnist, Ray Hartwell:
My wife and I are spending three weeks on a small Greek island that’s off the beaten path for American tourists. We’ve been here before. As it’s a bit like a small town, we know a variety of people, from across the generations and socioeconomic strata.
Our conversations persuade us that Greece is a sort of crystal ball for America’s future. We know this assertion has been both defended and debunked in our mainstream media. But the debate in the press has generally been based on the policy views of assorted columnists and pundits. There has been relatively little in the way of reporting on what’s happening on the ground in Greece, much less on what Greek citizens are saying about how their country’s predicament is affecting their everyday lives.
So, we set out to talk to people, to see what they are thinking about current events. Some of our sources are folks we’ve known for years, others were relatively more random encounters. Our information derives from discussions with a diverse group of more than a dozen, among them (1) a retired and formerly successful businessman, who is about 70; (2) a current small business proprietor, who’s in his mid-50s; (3) the successful manger of a leading hotel on the island, in her 40s; (4) a retired merchant marine engineer who owns a bed and breakfast and works part time as a property manager; and (5) a restaurant hostess (in her mid-20s) charged with the hiring and supervision of wait staff.
One common theme we hear, in remarks directed mainly at the younger generation (and with deliberate exaggeration), is that “nobody wants to work.” The young folks, it is said, “all want to get a public function job.” We find it ironic that having a “public function” job is viewed as synonymous with “not working” — i.e., these jobs offer great security and benefits, and are perceived as a very easy and cushy way to get paid without having to give up going to the clubs at night.
Thus, when the small business proprietor looks for people to help him and his wife pick their olives, younger Greeks won’t take the job. So, the work and the pay go to Albanian immigrants. These are not illegals (that’s another story, and also a serious problem here), but rather Albanians who are legal immigrants, already working at other jobs the local Greeks don’t take. So, the Albanians who pick olives for our small business proprietor “moonlight,” taking work that could be done by
young Greeks here on the island.
Similarly, we see many employees at local restaurants who are not Greek, but mostly from other and less affluent Balkan countries. The young hostess at one of the island’s finest restaurants finds this frustrating, as she would like to have Greek staff given the local character of the establishment. She can’t find Greeks who want the work, especially with the lure of “public” jobs.
Many comment, and we’ve certainly observed, that the array of new taxes enacted in connection with government austerity measures have driven prices up significantly, even above the upward trend line that commenced when Greece joined the euro zone. For example, gas prices are up 20% in the last year, to the equivalent of more than $8 per gallon. This is the result of two successive 10% tax increases on gasoline. More generally, the VAT — the inescapable, pan-European sales tax — has been raised, so prices across the board have risen by about 5%.
Salaries for those employed in the private sector have not gone up. Public employees have been largely protected, although not wholly immune from recent austerity measures. Retirees feel threatened, fearful they’ve paid into the “system” for years only to face the prospect of dramatically reduced stipends.
Everyone also acknowledges that tax compliance continues to be a major problem here. Indeed, a retired businessman says if Greeks had actually paid all the taxes owed over the past decade or so, they wouldn’t be in nearly such bad shape. Of course, we noted that tax compliance has been very good in the U.S., especially when compared to the rest of the world. This means we don’t have a large source of potential revenue available simply from doing a better job enforcing existing tax laws.
On this score, we can understand why the Obama administration is ramping up the size of the IRS, and stepping up tax enforcement. They plan massive tax increases for Americans, including a myriad of fees and mandates embodied in health care and other complex and detailed legislation. They know that a result of this will be that tax compliance in the United States will be “Europeanized” — along with everything else.
There are positive findings to relate as well, I’m happy to say. For one thing, there are many bright and hard working young Greeks, and they can make a big difference over time. Also, The Greeks have a rich heritage and are rightly proud of it; they do not apologize for their history, not should they. Finally, and most encouraging, the people we’ve queried all understand that too much government, and too much dependence, have caused the current crisis. They know it will be a slow a painful path back to reality, but they are taking the first steps. Thus, our friend the retired businessman said that he’d been a “progressive,” on “the left” and “very anti-American,” for many years, but now he says that if he and others here had learned from America in the 80s and 90s, Greece would be in a different place.
In all of this, naturally, it is easy to see parallels with the United States. Each of us has a great heritage; each has made lasting contributions to the evolution and preservation of Western, and human, civilization. Today, we in the United States should all be looking hard at Greece, wishing her people well, and hoping we’ve not already been hurtled further into the abyss by our current administration’s reckless policies.