Percentages that Fairly Scream and, “Catastrophe” is a Greek Word

The WSJ of 7/9/15 shows a comparative table for some European Union countries of spending on pensions as a share of GDP. This comparison denotes roughly the drag effect that payments to retirees has on the whole national economy. To no one’s surprise, Greece tops the list with 14.4%. Germany is at 9.1%. This may seem like a small difference but when it’s turned into actual, absolute figures, the difference becomes downright striking. They scream!

The 5.3 percentage points difference can be applied to both countries’ GDPs (or GDPs per capita, same thing in this case). The International Monetary Fund gives Germany’s GDP per capita for 2014 at about $46,000 and Greece’s at about $26,000*. Pensions cost Germany $4,150 annually for each man, woman and child. Pensions cost Greece $3,400 annually for each Greek. It does not look like the Greeks should be able to afford this kind of disproportionate burden.

Suppose Greece’s pensions took the same bite out of its GDP as Germany ‘s does out of its GDP, 9.1% . In this scenario, today, the Greek economy would have about $1,400 each year unspoken for for each man, woman and child. This money would still be available for spending, as it is through pensions. It would also, however, be available for both public and private investment.  That’s $1,400 each year; that’s a lot by any standard. That’s money needed to rejuvenate the Greek aging economic plant.

How realistic would such a change be, involving raising the legal age of retirement, I mean? The Germans’ and the Greeks’ life expectancies are virtually identical ( 80.44 vs 80.30, in CIA Handbook). There seems to be a little wiggle room to move there. Note that raising the age at which people can claim a pension is doubly beneficial: It reduces the number of pensioners while raising the number of workers who support the pensioners. Some will argue that raising the age of retirement is a pipe-dream in a country such as Greece where there is chronically high unemployment. I think this reasoning is wrong. Many Greeks don’t find a job because investment in Greece is insufficient. People need tools to work. What is certain is that the current dishonest Greek government policies, soundly supported by the exercise of a majority of Greeks’ votes cast, are not going to draw foreign investment. The money to improve both Greeks’ chances of employment and their productivity will have to come from within. One significant source is described above: Close the pension option for one or more years to healthy Greeks. It will provide both ready investment money and confidence abroad.

Note that raising the legal age of retirement is a purely political decision. The Greeks can do it any time they want. They can do it overnight. Perhaps, there will soon arise a political party in Greece that will proclaim the truth: It’s not the mean lenders, it’s us!

This is a fairly simplistic reasoning, I know. The general age of the population places constraints on the practicality of raising the age of legal retirement (but an older population also makes it more desirable; think it through). I have heard leftist demagogues on National Public Radio argue that the big bite that pensions take out of the Greek economy is not the Greeks’ fault, that it results more or less directly from the fact that Greece has an old population. Sounds good but the fact is that the Germans are, on the average, quite a bit older than the Greeks (Median age of 46.5 vs 43.5 according to Wikipedia.) Don’t believe experts on NPR, not even on simple facts!

Alternatively, the Greeks could begin collecting their moderate taxes like the Germans instead of like the Italians. They might also remember that “catastrophe” is a Greek word.

* The figures are “PPP” meaning that they take differences in buying power in the two countries into account.

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From the Comments: Greece, the Euro zone, and Russian prowess

Dr Amburgey writes:

I just returned yesterday from a week in Athens for an academic conference. There seemed to be a big socio-economic divide in voting intentions. The unemployed and menial workers were definite No votes. The Yes votes were physicians and a few academics. Personally I think they should bag the euro and go back to the drachma.

Brandon: how long do you think it will be before Putin is making deals in Athens? Might be nice to have a friend in the EU when sanctions come up again. Port privileges for the Russian navy would be very conveniently located as well.

Jacques has a good, thoughtful response (“Leaving the Euro zone does not require leaving the European Union”) that I wholeheartedly agree with (and that I’ve blogged about here and here), and it appears Dr Amburgey is in agreement with us (though does he think Greece should stay in the EU?). Contra Dr Foldvary, I do not think there is any need for Greece to leave the EU. If anything, the EU should be adding more states, though not expanding its geographic space.

Regarding Russia, I simply don’t know. Russia – along with Turkey, Iran, and China – is a society that is very hard to understand let alone predict (I would add India/Pakistan to this list, but the states of the Indian subcontinent are traditional post-colonial states and are therefore much easier to predict; the other four were never conquered or carved up by imperial cartographers). The whole Crimea debacle still has me smarting. Nevertheless I’ll add my thoughts to the conversation.

I don’t think Athens will grow closer to Moscow. There are two major reasons:

  1. Greece fears Russia, which is why Athens has remained in NATO for so long.
  2. Most Greeks – even the ‘No’ voters in this recent referendum – don’t want to leave the EU; Greeks overwhelmingly want to be a part of ‘Europe’.

There are couple of minor reasons, too, though I don’t know how minor they are. 1) Greece is not Ukraine. 2) Russia’s economy is in shambles. Greeks have a higher standard of living than do Russians.

On the flip side, the Greeks are always thinking about the Turks. If an opportunity presents itself (though I cannot think of any arising), Athens may start to edge closer to Russia (a traditional enemy of Turkey) if it thinks Ankara is getting antsy about its former province. This is pretty extreme, though. Also, Russia’s economy may be in shambles, but it seems like Moscow always has plenty of money for military expenditures, and rent stemming from a Russian port in the Mediterranean Sea might be too tasty to resist for a country saddled with so much debt.

At this point I don’t think Greece has much clout in European politics, so I don’t see Moscow viewing Athens as a reliable friend in Brussels.

Greece: Democracy in Action

The Greek people expressed themselves with utmost clarity. In response to an incomprehensible question posed to them by their fairly elected Prime Minister, the Greeks voted by a wide margin for the precipice instead of self-discipline. They also voted consciously for blackmail, because their government had explained to them that the “No” vote they gave would put pressure on Greece’s creditors (which include ordinary European Union taxpayers and, to a small extent, through the International Monetary Fund, US taxpayers as well.) The Greek government cynically campaigned for the same “No” vote.

Greece just joined Argentina to form a group of countries where the population deserves what’s coming to it because of its deliberate dishonesty, articulated through perfectly legitimate democratic channels.

As usual the urban poor in Greece – those who have no hens and no apple trees (like my parents in the fifties) – will be the ones to suffer the most as a result of irresponsible collective choices.

When was the last time anything good for the poor ever came out of an election won by any Left at all, anywhere, at any level? Please, remind me.

Greece Needs a Radical Transformation

Having rejected austerity with the “no” vote on the referendum, Greece now sits on the edge of an even worse recession and economic collapse, unless the lenders write off or postpone the debt payments even further. The problem is that the Greek politicians have not provided a program of major policy reforms.

Only with radical changes could Greece rise like a phoenix from its economic mess. These are the measures which could quickly make Greece the most prosperous economy on earth.

1. Amend the constitution to eliminate all restrictions on peaceful and honest enterprise and human action. There would be free trade, without tariffs and quotas, with all countries.

2. Leave the European Union.

3. Crank up the printing presses and give each Greek citizen 10,000 new-drachma in paper currency. The new-drachma would be payable for taxes at a one-to-one ratio to the euro. One new-drachma would also pay for first-class postage to European countries. No new-drachmas would be created after this distribution except to pay previously-existing governmental pensions. Banks would be free to issue private currency redeemable in new-drachma.

4. Immediately replace the income tax, the value-added tax, and all other taxes with a tax on land value and a pollution tax. Replace judicial environmental restrictions with the levies on pollution based on the measured damage. Enable citizens to sue polluting firms that are not paying a pollution tax based on the damage. Allow real estate owners to self-assess their land value with the condition that the state could buy their land at their assessment plus 25 percent, and lease it back to the owner of the building at current market rentals.

5. Decentralize all government programs and bureaucracies other than the military to the 13 provincial “regions.” The Greek constitution already prescribes that the administration of the country be decentralized. The land value tax would be collected by the regional governments, which would then pass on a portion to the national government.

6. Pay the foreign lenders with futures contracts payable in new-drachmas maturing in 2025.

Greek democracy was restored in 1974. The politicians sought votes by legislating a welfare state funded by borrowing. With radical reforms, national welfare programs can be phased out as employment increases and programs are shifted to the regional governments.

A prosperity tax shift would bring in massive investment and quickly eliminate unemployment and tax evasion. Billions of euros held in foreign banks would come back to Greece to finance investment and production.

Without radical reforms, Greece will be stuck in debt, austerity, and poverty. Radical reforms are the only way out.

Around the Web: Greece Edition

  1. Tyler Cowen has been owning this debate.
  2. Unfortunately, Greek citizens have been too fed up with the rest of the world to listen.
  3. (Perhaps libertarians and their arguments were just late to the party.)
  4. This is still the best concise sociological analysis of Greece and the EU I’ve come across.

It’s worth noting here that the overwhelming majority of ‘No’ voters – the ones who just rejected the EU after their elected, far Left leader walked out of talks days before said talks were scheduled to end – don’t want to leave the EU. Confused? See the Cowen link.

Matthew and I had a dialogue on Greece awhile back here at NOL that might be of interest.

Dear Greeks:

I hear you can’t pay your debts again. I am a little sorry but you brought it on yourselves. A few reminders.

Your country is a democracy. The way you got into this pickle is through the stupid, self-indulgent policies of those you elected. You did it again in your last election by bringing to power a bragging leftist party in the old Stalinist mold. What did you think they would do: Frighten the European Union, The International Monetary Fund (Number one stockholder the US), Germany, the world, into submission, into erasing your debt? Think!

The reason Germany is your principal creditor is that one of your previous governments begged Germany for help and it agreed to help. The Germans did not cram loan after loan down your throat; you asked. The big sillies thought you would be honorable and pay up as agreed. Do you care about your future reputation, your honor, your children’s future ability to walk in the world with their heads up? Here is a basic rule of politeness which is also a moral rule: When somebody gives you a hand, you don’t bite it viciously.

There are several reasons your government can’t pay its debts. One reason is that your political class is corrupt trough and through. Another is that you are reluctant to pay taxes the way normal people do in the European Union. Too many Greeks want to work and pretend-work for the government instead of doing real work. And your government still owns stuff no government anywhere should ever own because governments always make a mess of running them, resorts, among others.

Another reason why your government can’t pay its bills is that your country is genuinely poor for a European country. There too, you have a lot of explaining to do. For one thing, you have been living above your means for a long time, pretending you were more or less like Danes, or Germans. Well, the truth is that you are not, not even close; Danes and Germans are very productive; you are not. So, you should not have ever expected to work short weeks and to take long summer vacations, like Danes and Germans. Such privileges do not come automatically with membership in the Union, you know. You should look over the border on the despised neighbors, the Turks, instead. They don’t pretend to themselves that they are already rich; they go to work early and they close their shops late. Many of them work six days a weeks. Over the past ten years, the growth rates of their economy has left yours in the dust. Coincidence?

And you only make yourself even more scorned with your treatment of others. The real horrors that Nazi Germany inflicted on Greece more than 70 years ago are not much of an excuse anymore. A previous government of yours, an elected government, accepted reparations a long time ago. And, by the way, in 1945, Germany was much more devastated than Greece, and still in 1948. See where the Germans are now, and where you are? Any comment?

And do you ever wonder why the Estonians, in the stultifying Soviet prison for fitly years, never ask for new loans to pay back older loans? And how long anyway did you expect German workers to work until age 69 so your public servants could continue to retire at 63? Are you out of your minds?

One last thing: You are not exactly Classical Greece. Stop wrapping yourselves in Aristotle’s toga. Really study Socrates. He chose to die than cheat even a little. Neither he nor Aristotle was a whiner. That’s why they are still remembered and honored.

In the end, I wish you well. Everyone can unlearn bad habits and learn basic rationality, even late in life. I hope you soon leave that club where you don’t belong. I hope further that you can make your way back. Begin by getting up at 6 every morning. Also, learn the obvious: socialism does not work well for rich countries; it’s miserable for poor countries.

Talking to Greeks and Talking to Germans

Germans and Greeks, despite the glaring differences between their national administrations, do not hate each other. Perhaps the relationship is more akin to that of an older to a younger brother. The elder is mature, self-assured, and judicious in action. He looks at his younger brother, playing with toys, weeping when he stubs his toe, begging for cookies, and other youthful activities with some measure of aloof disdain, but with greater measure of pity. Or, perhaps the relationship is like a tired, Stoic householder with his shrill harpy of a wife. He brings home the bacon, and she spends it all and demands more. Or a number of other interesting metaphors which I have failed to conceive. I suppose my lack of vision here has something to do with the simple fact that I have never gotten the two of them, the German and the Greek, in the same room together. Instead, I have only talked to one, and then to another, at different times and in different places. What they have to say to each other while apart is, in some ways, what quarreling brothers have to say to each other: you are immature, well you are mean!, but, you deserve it, but I don’t! and so forth. It’s also like the tired husband and his old lady: please be more fiscally sound, no, give me more!, but I already gave you-, NO, more! and so on. Who really knows how the exchange might play out, or if these media stereotypes at all hold true, if they came together to talk?

In Patras, on the first night of the last weekend of Carnival, I was milling about the central square waiting for the floats to come by. In one hand I held a souvlaki, the most delicious street food made by man after burritos, and in the other, a bottle of sweet local wine. “A house specialty” the server told me, “very good with souvlaki.” Greeks are a raucous people, and in these times even their holidays are not as enjoyable as they once were. So, naturally, they were holding a protest in preparation for the large crowds that were to come. I spoke with Maria, a local schoolteacher.

  • Self: “I can’t read Modern Greek very well. Can you tell me what those slogans say?”
  • Maria: “Yes, well, I don’t know how to say it in English. But, we owe a lot of money, and we don’t want to pay.”
  • S: “Okay, but why shouldn’t you pay?”
  • M: “Our governments took out the loans for us, we didn’t know about them, and now we’re here. Why should we have to pay for something we didn’t agree with?”
  • S: “Valid points, valid points. But, you all benefitted from that money, right? Your government hired a lot of civil servants on that money. And, you could have voted for a more austere party that wouldn’t have taken bad loans, but you enabled PASOK and the others to accept disastrous loans that Greece could not sustain.”
  • M: “Yes, those things are true. But we don’t want to pay, and we can’t pay. Very few people have jobs, so they can’t take more money from us. All the bailout goes to is the debt. There is nowhere for the money to come from. We need jobs, not more pain.”
  • S: “Certainly, and I wish you luck in that quest.”

At another time, at a taverna in Meteora, I had a caveman-like conversation with a gaggle of old Greek men, having dinner with their wives.

  • Old Greek man one: “Me, I am fat communist. I have very important work tomorrow. I drink coffee, I drink tea, I read newspaper. Very important!”
  • Old Greek man two: “Bah. You always so lazy, Kostas.”
  • Old Greek man three: “We like Tsipras. He [points to OGM2], he capitalist. He no like Tsipras. Tsipras make Greece strong! [laughter]”
  • Me: “But what about the debt?
  • OGM1: “Debt no important, Tsipras will do good.”
  • OGM3: [Says nothing, shakes head, spins worry beads]

There seems to a be a certain cavalier attitude amongst the Greek people, whether young or old. The old are happy and fat, living on their pensions from the government, which despite recent cutbacks still seem sizable enough to allow for daily trips to the local taverna. They look on the struggles of the youth with kindly pity, but without the necessary foresight to see that their present happiness is built on the suffering of their descendants. It seems that a man can never escape his times and his view of the world. This view is dominant amongst the older citizens of Hellas unless, like OGM3, they have to do serious work for a living. He was an olive and tomato farmer, and was struggling to make a profit in the face of an onerous tax burden and the shrinking market for his products, most of which he was now forced to ship abroad. Throughout the dinner his face oscillated between one of benevolent, bemused distraction, and one of painful contemplation. The young, by contrast, are bitter and cynical. They have no jobs, no prospect for practical work, and no use for their university degrees. They spend their time, like many children of the West, in idle amusements like smoking, drinking, and fornicating at college parties. As Russell observed in his History of Western Philosophy, in times of decay there are always two countervailing tendencies in man. One leads to a resigned morality, convinced that the world is terrible and all we can do is respond to the terror. This is the ethic of the Stoic, which cut its teeth as the Hellenic world decayed and made way for Rome. Another leads to an unrestrained libidinous and orgiastic hedonism, which has no aim and no long term satisfaction. The worship of Dionysus, or of strange mystery cults, social fads, and passing fancies. You can guess which road the youth have taken. They are correct in saying that they really shouldn’t have to pay, because the burden foisted on them was made before their time. But they are correct for a world that is ideal, where Germany does not assume that a debt contracted is a debt that must be paid, regardless if the beneficiaries do the paying or not. They are, as Homer says, between a rock and a hard place: pay the penalty to Charon and eventually cross the river, or spit in his face and feel the pain all at once. Germans are more annoyed than anything at the behavior of their southern neighbor. One beautiful morning in Freiburg, in southern Germany, I was drinking tea with my host, Matthias, and asked him what he was reading in the paper.

  • Matthias: “This nonsense” [tosses the paper my way]
  • Self: “So Greece wants World War Two reparations? Didn’t Germany already pay?”
  • M: “Yes, but the Greeks are saying that we only paid individual reparations, and not structural reparations. Hitler forced the Greek national bank to give him a loan roughly equaling 11 billion Euros in Reichsmarks. But I don’t think it will go anywhere.”

The next day, while I was on a bus to Hamburg, I met a German named Vincent. We talked amiably in Hochdeutsch until he realized I wasn’t a local, which only happened when I said those four magic words: “Ich kann nicht verstehen…” His attitude towards the Greeks was less of bemusement, more of annoyance.

  • Vincent: “These people are ridiculous. They want reparations now? And then I heard they want to give European papers to thousands of illegal immigrants and send them by bus to Germany. This would be funny if it weren’t so sad.”
  • Self: “Yes, but I understand them. The young didn’t make the debt, and they can do nothing about it now. There are no jobs, no opportunities for them at home. What should they do?”
  • V: “Beyond me. But their government is out of place. We have given them so much, and they have nothing to show for it. In the past couple weeks two foreign firms have tried to invest in Greece, but the Greeks wont let them. ‘No no, this is a public part of the economy’ or ‘no no, we won’t privatize this!’ It’s ridiculous. They can’t even help themselves.”

It’s a position I also sympathize with because, like many dilemmas such as these, both sides are in the right. Greece destroyed its own position with years of financial mismanagement, though the real crooks are still free while the burdens they created are borne not by them, but by the young. Germany gave bailout money to Greece, but on harsh terms which have done little to ameliorate the problems. Both have alienated each other with rhetoric and with stupid actions, which is reflected in the sentiments of their people. Like an older brother, Germany has indulged Greece in its flights of fancy for some time now. But I think they will soon pull out the rug from under their younger ward, and let them rot.