Greece: Is This Where We’re Headed?

For more than a decade, my wife and I have visited Greece every year; in the past 16 months we’ve been there for more than six weeks. We saw the transition from drachmas to euros, and the chaos of preparation for the 2004 Olympics. We’ve seen the damage caused by forest fires and winter ice storms, and marveled at the stunning beauty of the islands and the rugged mainland terrain on which the ancient Greeks laid the very foundations of Western civilization.

We’ve observed first hand the demonstrators who, camped out in Athens for more than two years now, have proven role models for the assorted “occupy” protestors across the U.S. in recent months, and now presumably for Time magazine’s newest Person of the Year.

Yet we’ve also spent many weeks in the Greek equivalent of “flyover country,” listening and looking at the lives of ordinary Greeks as their country is gripped by political and economic crisis. It’s these latter folks, the real people, whose stories are most important today -- their experiences both mirror and foreshadow our own here in the United States.

We love Greece. And so, in a way, it pains me to share these observations about daily life in a country where the government has long since doubled down on unsustainable spending complemented by cronyism, corruption, and a pervasive and out-of-control sense of entitlement. Now the party is ending, as it becomes apparent to all -- both those who wish it to stop and those who want it to continue, consequences be damned -- that the Greek government has, to use Margaret Thatcher’s prophetic phrase, simply run out of other people’s money.

What have ordinary Greeks experienced during this process? How are things working out there, when those who take well outnumber those who make? How does the productive minority feel about the state of affairs? Let me report what I have heard and seen.

The Occupation of Athens

First, let us quickly reconnoiter Athens, whose metropolitan area is home to about half of Greece’s population of roughly 11 million. Constitution Square, or Syntagma, the broad plaza in central Athens, is bordered by the Parliament and the Tomb of the Unknowns at its upper end and by three of the city’s classiest hotels along one side. At the foot of the square, along streets such as Ermou, lies a chic quarter in which fine shopping and upscale offices abound. Nearby, tourists and locals alike stroll to the shops and tavernas of the Plaka, and to the foot of the Acropolis.

For more then two years now, Syntagma has been occupied by protestors. Most call themselves “indignants,” an appellation that reflects their attitude. As with the more recent “occupy” movement in the U.S., these protestors claim allegiance to a variety of unions and left-leaning activist groups. They squat in a scruffy tent city. Their message is mixed, but is essentially a demand for more unsustainable spending. They have an audacious sense of entitlement. Their conduct is marginal at the best of times, frequently flaring into violence and vandalism.

Spray paint is ubiquitous, besmirching the marble steps leading up to the front of the Parliament, the walls and columns of the surrounding streets, and the storefronts in the nearby shopping district. The odor of urine is an unwelcome companion, not just in back alleys but along the sidewalks of major streets near the Parliament and along the walk to Hadrian’s Arch. Windows have been broken, marble walls and columns smashed.

Let’s be very clear about who is being targeted here. The shops that have been trashed are not just the chic brand names one finds in major cities all across Europe. No, these noble protestors have not confined their destruction to icons of wealth and power. They are equally destructive of small religious goods stores and assorted “Mom and Pop” establishments. They disrespect all businesses, small and large, in the same ugly fashion.

The police, union members after all, have done little to prevent the violence and property destruction. And their inaction, as we heard many say, has simply emboldened the thuggish elements among the protestors.

For ordinary Athenians the ongoing “occupation” has had a variety of unpleasant consequences. A young schoolteacher we know shops for her parents; they are afraid to leave their apartment. Other Athenian friends tell us that union thugs sympathetic to the “indignants” frequently intimidate ordinary citizens, whether they are shopping or going to work or simply out for a walk. This is understandable when one considers that the protestors’ goal is to bring everything to a halt. Quite simply, that means disrupting the public’s ability to carry on with daily life. People are told they should have known what would happen, they should stay off the streets.

The disruption, of course, is aimed at more than the general population. The strikes and other unannounced work stoppages cause electricity and water service outages frequently. Many of these are deliberately timed for late afternoon, to maximize discomfort for tourists checking into hotels, for restaurants preparing evening meals (it’s tough to cook and wash dishes without electricity or hot water), for merchants trying to make sales at the peak shopping time of day (electronic cash registers and inventory systems go “down” when the power fails), and so on.

The tourism-based economy has experienced at least two consecutive years of double-digit declines in hotel bookings. Business is bad. And guess what? That kills private sector jobs and shrinks tax revenues.

Moreover, security concerns have led to a number of very visible -- not to mention annoying -- changes in daily life. Women are warned not to wear expensive jewelry, and to carry their purses carefully, in downtown Athens. Banks in the same area all have “air lock” entrances; that is, customers must enter one at a time, stepping first through an outer door into an enclosed compartment where they are observed and photographed before the inner door opens to admit them to the lobby of the bank.