Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Hellas in a Handbasket

Greece has long been one of the least affluent countries in Europe. Nevertheless, we certainly think of it as a developed nation with a well educated population and a First World standard of living. To be sure, the country has been badly governed, resting on a dysfunctional political culture, and there was no way to avoid a day of reckoning.

But . . . As Keith Miller reports for NBC, the catastrophe is just horrific, and little noted or truly appreciated in the U.S. Economic catastrophes are always public health catastrophes as well. Greece is no exception. Miller reports that hospital admissions are up 25% (even as hospital budgets have been cut by 40%) and suicides have increased by 40%. Hungry and homeless people are flooding the streets, and money is running out for soup kitchens and food pantries. We've grown tolerant of famine in Africa, but how will the wealthy world react to famine in Europe?

All of this, of course, is caused by the power of what is essentially a fictitious device, money. The Greeks are being forced to starve themselves in order to ship whatever they have to their creditors. The resulting collapse of economic activity gives them even less with which to pay, and into the malestrom they descend. As Atrios has grown tired of pointing out, they could simply refuse to pay. True, they wouldn't be able to borrow any longer, but they can't borrow now. In addition to profligacy, they are in this trap because they don't have their own currency and they can't expand their money supply.

All this is, as MacLeish wrote in Panic, something like (I'm remembering from a long-ago reading) "Blight: Not on the grain. Drought: Not of the rain." Nothing objectively has happened to stop the Greek economy from functioning except that the money is being bled out of it. The factories, farms, fishing boats, stores and trucks are still there and they still could work just fine. Money isn't real, it's just symbolic. Yet there you are, sacrificed on its altar.


roger said...

while the popular press portrays greece's problems stemming from the greed and laziness of the hoi polloi, many of the econ blogs i read point out that wealthy greeks avoid paying tax on a massive scale. gosh. that sounds familiar.

Cervantes said...

As I understand it, tax evasion is pretty much the norm at every level, but if wealthy people aren't paying then for sure, there's no reason the average Plato or Aristotle would pay.