The Greeks Are Being Unfairly Maligned by Global Financiers: The Truth Is Very Different
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Yiannis manages a small inn in Crete. The 50-year-old from Heraklion with salt-and-pepper hair and a hefty moustache has a son just graduating from college.
“We tell the young people to leave,” he says quietly. “There’s nothing for them here.” Protests and strikes are sweeping the nation, but Yiannis doesn’t like talking about the economy. I sense a feeling of pride holding him back. But he does offer this insight: “We know that it is the ordinary people, not the rich and the powerful, who pay for this.”
The Lazy Greek Meme
Greece is a land of ancient myth. But more recent myths have made Greeks like Yiannis cringe when foreigners start asking questions.
Greeks are lazy. They don’t work. They’re profligates who are taking down Europe. The caricature has become so common that a recent TV commercial in Slovakia used it to sell beer, drawing a contrast between the virtuous Slovak and the paunchy Greek indulging himself on a beach.
Most foreigners know Greece from holidays spent lolling on its beaches and drifting around its magical ruins. You could easily take it for granted that everybody here is just chilling out. They aren’t. The Greek labor force, comprising 5 million souls, works the second highest number of hours per year on average among countries in the Organization for Economic Development (OECD), right after South Korea. Greeks work 42 hours per week, while the industrious Germans toil just 36.
The average Greek worker earns a bit over $1,000 a month. Private sector employees are the most underpaid in the EU. Even before the harsh austerity measures imposed by the EU and the IMF, the Greeks had already cut the real average wages in the private sector to 1984 levels. This week the Greek parliament is expected to vote on measures that would place 30,000 public sector workers in a “labor reserve” at slashed pay – up to 40 percent.
Greeks retire a bit later than the European average. And the average pension, $990, is less than that of Ireland, Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Thirty percent of the labor force works with zero Social Security or protections, while in the rest of the EU only 5-10 percent of workers are in this precarious situation.
So much for the myth of the overpaid, lazy Greek.
The reality is simple, though rarely admitted – except maybe by Yiannis, who seems to know exactly what’s happening. The “bailout" of Greece is really a bailout of big European banks. A game of smoke and mirrors leads us to think that Greek indolence led to financial ruin. The Greeks have done some things wrong, to be sure. But it was a dangerous mix of stupid economic theories and high-flying finance, fueled by a corrupt government, that exploded the economy. If all this sounds sickeningly familiar, it should. We’re witnessing Round 2 of the Great Global Shakedown by the banks.
Mini-History of the Modern Greek Economy
In modern history, southern economies have typically been weaker than those in the north. They industrialized later and only fitfully; large landowners often dominated them far into the 20th century. Economic growth was painful, marked by big deficits, bloody political conflicts and instability. You can see this in the history of Italy, Spain, and even France to a degree, but especially in Greece. The Greeks got socked in WWII and then creamed again by a brutal civil war (1946–1949), in which American military aid to the Greek governmental army ensured the defeat of the Greek Communist Party.