It’s Greek to Me: Caught Between Social & Fiscal Responsibility

Jun 02

It’s Greek to Me: Caught Between Social & Fiscal Responsibility

It was the summer of ‘94 and my dear friend Denise came to visit our family home in Samos, Greece for a couple of weeks. Both my parents were born in Greece and immigrated to the U.S. in the late forties and early fifties. We have been visiting Samos, an island in the Aegean that faces Turkey, since we were kids. In 1990 my parents built a house there for their retirement years.

After a few days on the island, admiring its beauty, the crystal-clear, blue-green waters, lush mountains (unusual for the Greek isles), and thousands of olive trees dotting the landscape, Denise turned to me and said, “What happened to your people?” Sensing my confusion, she said, “This is the cradle of democracy, the land that produced prolific philosophers and writers like Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. Samos is where Pythagoras, the great mathematician, was born. What happened?” She was right. Now all you saw were cafes filled with locals who looked as if they were not in a rush to go anywhere or do anything (a generalization, of course). Siesta that lasts three hours and an attitude that made “mañana” look responsive. That was 16 years ago.

Now Greece is in crisis. The country is on the brink of bankruptcy, having needed a huge bailout from the EU. There are a lot of complicated reasons for this, including government corruption, the effect of the U.S. derivative market on the global economy, overspending, the drachma-euro conversion and subsequent inflation, and so on. Yet year after year as I make my summer visits, the cafes are still filled with locals, and now with teenagers and adults in their early to mid-20s, dressed in designer labels, with cell phones in one hand, cigarettes in another, and either a Coke or a cup of java staking a claim on the table. Day after day, night after night.  And these are not necessarily university students home for summer break. Many live on the island, they just don’t work. Yet no one is thinking about working or where the money is coming from. It’s okay until it’s not okay. Until the well runs dry; until mom and dad don’t have any more to give.

When the government no longer has the money to pay for all the social services everyone wants, the Greek people took to the streets in protest…some even in violent protest. They say the country nearly collapsed because of government corruption and theft by the wealthy and the money should be returned. I am sure this is part of the case. I am also sure that not paying for social services and getting the free ride everyone wants is also part of the problem. My dad told me he read an article whereby the average person living in a very wealthy area in Athens (similar to Beverly Hills, CA, or Scarsdale, NY) declared only about 13,000 euros of income on his/her taxes. Meanwhile their homes are worth millions and Mercedes line their driveways.

I love Greece. I love Samos…don’t get me wrong. It’s my piece of paradise. It’s part of who I am, my blood. I also love the fact that people have a unwavering passion for life and that you are not defined by work, that it’s about family, friends, taking time out. “Smelling the roses”, as we say. But checking out is not “smelling the roses.” Entitlement is not “smelling the roses”. I am what many would label a liberal. I want to help the disenfranchised. I want to take care of the old (I love that in the Greek culture the aged are revered and cared for). I don’t want the ill turned away. I believe in healthcare reform, in education reform. Yet I am also fiscally responsible. I know we can’t do these things unless we pay for them. And there lies the rub. In Greece, and here in the United States.

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