Not just their Big Fat Greek Funeral

MARK STEYN: As lazy, feckless, corrupt and violent as Greece undoubtedly is, it’s not that untypical

Yiorgos Karahalis / Reuters

From the Times of London: “The President of Greece warned last night that his country stood on the brink of the abyss after three people were killed when an anti-government mob set fire to the Athens bank where they worked.”

Almost right. They were not an “anti-government” mob, but a government mob, a mob comprised largely of civil servants. That they are highly uncivil and disinclined to serve should come as no surprise: they’re paid more and they retire earlier, and that’s how they want to keep it. So they’re objecting to austerity measures that would end, for example, the tradition of 14 monthly paycheques per annum. You read that right: the Greek public sector cannot be bound by anything so humdrum as temporal reality. So, when it was mooted that the “workers” might henceforth receive a mere 12 monthly paycheques per annum, they rioted. Their hapless victims—a man and two women—were a trio of clerks trapped in a bank when the mob set it alight and then obstructed emergency crews attempting to rescue them.

Unlovely as they are, the Greek rioters are the logical end point of the advanced social democratic state: not an oppressed underclass, but a pampered overclass, rioting in defence of its privileges and insisting on more subsidy, more benefits, more featherbedding, more government.

Who will pay for it? Hey, not my problem, say the rioters. Maybe those dead bank clerks’ clients, assuming we didn’t burn them to death, too. The problem facing the Western world isn’t very difficult to figure out: we’ve spent tomorrow today, and we can never earn enough tomorrow to pay for what we’ve already burned through. When you’re spending four trillion dollars but only raising two trillion in revenue (the Obama model), you’ve no intention of paying it off, and the rest of the world knows it. In Greece, the arithmetic is starker. To prop up unsustainable welfare states, most of the Western world isn’t “printing money” but instead printing credit cards and pre-approving our unborn grandchildren. That would be a dodgy proposition at the best of times. But in the Mediterranean those grandchildren are never going to be born. As I pointed out in my bestselling hate crime America Alone four years ago, Greece has one of the lowest fertility rates on the planet—1.3 children per couple, which places it in the “lowest-low” demographic category from which no society has recovered and, according to the UN, 178th out of 195 countries. In practical terms, it means 100 grandparents have 42 grandkids. Greek public sector employees are entitled not only to 14 monthly paycheques per annum during their “working” lives, but also 14 monthly retirement cheques per annum till death. Who’s going to be around to pay for that?

Welcome to My Big Fat Greek Funeral. As to every profligate Western politician’s enduring faith in mass immigration, what hardworking foreigner in his right mind would move to the Hellenes? According to the World Bank, when it comes to the ease of doing business, Greece ranks 109th out of 183 countries. If they were dramatically to liberate their business-killing economy, they might overtake Lebanon at big hit position 108, and Ethiopia at 107, and maybe Papua New Guinea at 102. And who knows? With even more radical reform, they might crack the Hot One Hundred and be bubbling under such favourable business environments as Yemen (99) and Moldova (94). Greece ranks 140th when it comes to starting a business, and 154th when it comes to protecting investors. They cannot mitigate their deathbed demography through immigration, because, even more so than Canada and the rest of Europe, the only foreigners with any incentive to head there are those who either want to lounge around on welfare or plot jihad at taxpayer expense. In my “alarmist” book I put it this way:

“Projected public pensions liabilities are expected to rise by 2040 to about 6.8 per cent of GDP in the U.S. In Greece, the figure is 25 per cent—i.e., total societal collapse.”

Four years on, thanks to Obama in Washington and business as usual in Athens, the situation has worsened. Yet in a sense the comparison is academic: whereas America still has a choice, Greece isn’t going to have a 2040. The mob is rioting for the right to continue suspending reality until they’re all dead. After that, who cares?

Greece has run out of Greeks to stick it to. So it’s turned to Germany. But Germany too is in net population decline. The Chinese and other buyers of Western debt know that. If you’re an investor and you don’t, more fool you. Tracking GDP versus median age in the world’s major economies is the easiest way to figure out where this story’s heading.

Traditionally, a bank is a means by which old people with capital lend to young people with ideas. But the advanced democracies with their mountains of sovereign debt are in effect old people who’ve blown through their capital and are all out of ideas looking for young people flush enough to bail them out. And the idea that it might be time for the spendthrift geezers to change their ways butts up against their indestructible moral vanity. Last year, President Sarkozy said that the G20 summit provided “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give capitalism a conscience.” European capitalism may have a conscience. It’s not clear it has a pulse. And, actually, when you’re burning Greek bank clerks to death in defence of your benefits, your “conscience” isn’t much in evidence, either.

Let us take it as read that Greece is an outlier. As waggish officials in Brussels and Strasbourg will tell you, it only snuck into the EU due to some sort of clerical error. It’s a cesspit of sloth and corruption even by Mediterranean standards. On my last brief visit, Athens was a visibly decrepit dump: a town with a handful of splendid ancient ruins surrounded by a multitude of hideous graffiti-covered contemporary ruins. If you were going to cut one “advanced” social democracy loose and watch it plunge into the abyss pour encourager les autres, it would be hard to devise a better candidate than Greece.

And yet and yet . . . riot-wracked Athens isn’t that much of an outlier. Greece’s 2010 budget deficit is 12.2 per cent of GDP; Ireland’s is 14.7. Greece’s debt is 125 per cent of GDP; Italy’s is 117 per cent. Greece’s 65-plus population will increase from 18 per cent in 2005 to 25 per cent in 2030; Spain’s will increase from 17 per cent to 25 per cent. As lazy, feckless, squalid, corrupt and violent as Greece undoubtedly is, it’s not that untypical. It’s where the rest of Europe’s headed, and Japan and North America shortly thereafter. About half the global economy is living beyond not only its means but its diminished number of children’s means.

Instead of addressing that basic fact, countries with government debt of 125 per cent of GDP are being “rescued” by countries with government debt of 80 per cent of GDP. Good luck with that. Alas, the world has deemed Greece “too big to fail,” even though in (what’s the word?) reality it’s too big not to fail. And the rest of us are too big not to follow in its path:

“Another reform high on the list is removing the state from the marketplace in crucial sectors like health care, transportation and energy and allowing private investment,” reported the New York Times. “Economists say that the liberalization of trucking routes—where a trucking licence can cost up to $90,000—and the health care industry would help bring down prices in these areas, which are among the highest in Europe.”

Removing the state from health care brings down prices? Who knew? This New York Times is presumably entirely unrelated to the New York Times that’s spent the last year arguing for the governmentalization of U.S. health care as a means of controlling costs.

The EU is now throwing an extra trillion dollars at countries which by any objective measure are insolvent, and are unlikely ever again to be anything but—at least this side of bloody revolution. How do you grow your economy in a remorselessly shrinking market? That’s to say, Greece is a land of ever fewer customers and fewer workers but ever more retirees and more government. How do you increase GDP? By export? Where? You’re entirely uncompetitive; you can’t make anything at a price any foreigner would be prepared to pay for it. More to the point, foreigners already own your debt, and just servicing that in the years ahead will gobble up around 10 per cent of GDP—which you’ll have to try and make up domestically. How? You’ve got some of the lowest productivity rates in Europe, and a “workforce” that would rather rouse itself to murder bank tellers.

Greece, wrote Theodore Dalrymple, is “a cradle not only of democracy but of democratic corruption”—of electorates who give their votes to leaders who bribe them with baubles purchased by borrowing against a future that can never pay it off. The future is now here, and the riots will spread.




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