Last Thursday, we were in Athens as part of a tour of several Greek islands and the mainland. The port seemed as austere to me then as it must have seemed to the ancients. The ride across the city toward the Acropolis was a sad view of failing developed city, rife with graffiti, viewed from the comfort of an air-conditioned Mercedes van.
Our Athens tour guide was articulate in four languages and a veritable fount of information about Greece and the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. She was a college graduate and a mother, who went to school for more than two extra years, passed exams, and had to be licensed to be a tour guide—more training than a typical graduate degree. Her extensive knowledge punctuated our observations.
Yet, like many Greeks, she could not afford to have more than one child. She worried both about the economics of living in Greece and what she referred to as the dilution of Greece by hordes of immigrants unwilling to assimilate. It was what we heard from three of the four guides during our sojourn in Greece.
Athens, the birthplace of democracy and the first republic, was then a functioning contradiction of ideals that were an enforced blend of brilliant thought and selective democracy amid cruelty, demagoguery, and oppression. The touted yet imperfect Athenian republic was a crucible of true social inequality and sanctioned slavery.
This heavily traversed land, rich with knowledge, prolific with olives, and bereft of arable land, was destined to suffer by the influential indignities of commerce and conquest. The great Greek constructs that were meticulously designed to withstand millennia were damaged, destroyed, ransacked, or further diminished by discordant decisions of ignorant or incompetent leadership born of greed and fear aided by acquiescence born of complacency. If this song sounds all too familiar, it has played throughout history.
The Acropolis is a flat, seven-acre outcropping upon which the Parthenon presides some 400 feet above the 690,000 occupants of greater Athens, and is visible for miles. The remnants of meticulously crafted structures stand in defiance to the passage of thousands of years and would have done so intact but not for invaders and inept decisions. One gets the sense that local pride in these treasures is closely tied to the flow of millions of tourists who critically support the teetering Greek economy.
How Did Socialism Crop Up in Greece?
Understanding Greek socialism today requires a look at the myth of ancient Greek democracy and modern Greek history. Ancient Greece and forward consisted of separate city-states, connected only by culture and trade, which were at odds and at war with each other for centuries. Athenian voting was for a male aristocracy; women, non-land owners, and slaves were property. Slavery enabled both commerce and constructs.
Any future unity was under autocratic control until the Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1829, after which the kingdom was then ravaged by two world wars, a civil war, and a military dictatorship that was in place while we went to Woodstock, put a man on the moon, and had a sexual revolution.
When the Greek ministry recently brought in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development for advice, they found that Greek socialism resulted from the evolution of complex, fragmented, and duplicative welfare state programs with no clear strategy or comprehensive plan. The population under the poverty level was 30 percent and highest among youth, and the high poverty rate increased by forced austerity on social programs caused by their bankruptcy.
Unemployment was 50 to 60 percent, and the recession was not abating. Drastic cutbacks in social programs and pensions were recommended but angrily opposed by the populace. Dependent voters don’t like cutbacks, so reforms are marginal at best.
The American Difference
In contrast, the United States is a political and economic anomaly. Our 13 colonies were left to develop commerce and communication while Britain was keeping the sun from setting on the empire and fighting with France. American independence was fought to retain our grassroots economic independence, which then paid for only limited services from the government.
Simply put, America’s economy was built from the ground up, not the top down. That diversification and self-determination is a proven strength that Greece apparently doesn’t possess.
The return route from the Acropolis showed a bustling side of the city with museums, a university, upscale stores, and well-kept businesses and housing, as well as less graffiti. Unkempt olive trees on the streets survive the lack of water in contrast to brown uncut grasses in city parks.
Beyond the beckoning businesses, balconies, and bougainvillea, the numbers tell the tale. Three-bedroom apartments rent for about 500 euros per month but are rarely available because they rent to travelers for much more. University graduates, if able to find jobs, make 500 euros per month. There were no signs of new industries.
This economic stagnation is the result of oppressive taxation, voter apathy, pedantic pride, and poor leadership that belies the advancements of the promising ancient past. The European Union imposes a 22.5 percent value-added tax on all items purchased. Income is taxed at 50 percent, and the supposedly free health care system is mostly okay but substandard, with long waits and much negative commentary. Private health care requires a 25 percent co-pay, up front.
Gasoline is about $7 per gallon and cash is king, driving the economy down and much commerce underground. The population of Greece is just over 11 million, and is expected to shrink to about 8 million over the next decades. That’s smaller than New York City. The Parthenon overlooks the subtle sadness of a civilization that is again ripe for conquest — perhaps by Germany and China, both of which have poured billions into this island nation.
The Greek republic today is an example of socialism by demand, not design. Learning the history and meeting the people, one would not expect that they started out to be carried by any government. But absent any real history of a better model, here they are, doomed by sheer arithmetic to suffer major reform or economic collapse.
Our tour guide said she loves Greece, but is leaving Greece and Europe because there is no future there for her son. Anyone in the United States who thinks the European socialist model is the way to go need only chat with a Greek worker, shopkeeper, or consumer.