The Public Policy

The Good Life, Greek Style

You maybe thought Greece was reformable?

By From the September 2011 issue

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Back in the 1980s, pop singer Belinda Carlisle topped the charts singing that heaven was in fact a place on Earth. Prophets are often ahead of their time, and notoriously underappreciated in their own land. But Miss Carlisle ended up being proved right. Heaven is indeed a place on Earth. It is called Greece.

It is possible, amid the recent footage of riots, tear gas, burning buildings, and pepper spray, to get the wrong idea. But if you have lived and worked there over recent decades, you know Greece is the only place to be. You are one of the blessed, a lotus-eater, a dweller in the happy isles.

Let's say that you're in your fifties, and have worked for 30-odd years in one of the world's toughest professions -- something sweat-inducing, a real ball-buster -- on the front lines defending civilization as we know it. Hairdressing, for instance. If every weekday since leaving coiffure school you have been in the salon, providing first aid to split ends and sun-damaged hair, then from the age of 50 you could put your feet up. The state would support you for the rest of your natural life. And it’s not just hairdressers who enjoy this privilege.

Other hazardous occupations that the Greek government decided deserved decades in retirement clover included street peddling, radio broadcasting, and nightclub singing. I don't doubt those nightclub crowds in a seaside resort like Faliraki can be tough, but why should belting out the hits to sunburned tourists for 35 years single you out for four or five decades of the good life on a full state pension? The answer is that you’re not singled out. Nearly 600 jobs are similarly rewarded by the Greek authorities. Pastry chefs and trombone players are also deemed at risk, the former from breathing all that flour dust, the latter from gastric reflux. Radio announcers are considered to be vulnerable to microphone bacteria, while the toilers in Greece's hair salons deserve compensation for handling the lethal chemicals used in hair products.

It all makes Greece sound like a mighty dangerous place. Except that it's not. It's wonderful. Life expectancy is higher than in many other European countries, including Denmark and Great Britain. The average retirement age nationwide last year was 61, compared to 65 in Britain and 67 in Germany and Holland. What’s more, when they do retire, Greek citizens can expect to receive 80 percent of their final salary -- not average or median, but final. So Greek retirees can live the rest of their lives in the manner to which they most recently became accustomed.

In Greece recently I took the opportunity to hang around with the locals. It was a mind-altering experience. The government's first round of so-called "austerity measures" was going through, but hadn't made any palpable difference to the high life. It wasn’t just the easy talk of yachts and holidays I heard, but the everyday talk of endless entitlements. Civil servants employed to begin work at 9:30 in the morning and finish at 2:30 in the afternoon don't pick up the phone after 2 o'clock. And even this is not as onerous as it sounds. Because these civil servants don’t actually have to be at work at 9:30. In fact there is a bonus scheme rewarding those who actually do turn up on time. And after that optional early start, the lunch break is certainly deserved. It’s all a foretaste of the civil service early retirement package.

The more you listen and the more you look into it, the more it becomes clear that Greece is a social first, the fulfillment of an elemental human dream: the Greeks have created a country with no consequences. When they entered the eurozone they simply lied, concealing the truth of their woeful financial situation from Eurocrats too excited about extending their base to bother with due diligence on the cooked Greek books. When, at the end of this year, Greek debt hits 160 percent of its GDP, it will still have almost no impact on the majority of Greeks. Having had one bailout already from the European Union, they now await another.

Since being saved from the precipice of financial catastrophe, the Greek government has finally been forced to rein in some of its worst excesses. So it has finally stopped paying final-status pensions at the rate of 14 months a year. That’s right: state pensions counted 14 months in a year, or rather two months a year which acted as double months -- special pensioner bonus months. But even that’s assuming you’re one of the four out of 10 Greek citizens who actually pay any income tax. Considerably more than half the population find the whole tax business beneath them, or claim to be beneath it. So alongside the virtual and unreal real economy is a shadow, unreal, unofficial economy. And perhaps it’s this that keeps the whole party boat afloat.

BUT WHATEVER the reason: this is the place. The weather is beautiful. The scenery is magnificent, and if you’re one of those smart Greeks who have found a way to live the high life at the expense of others, then there’s nowhere better in the world.

The country is often talked about by doom-mongers as a foretaste, a warning, of what could happen to Spain, Italy, Britain -- even America. But the truth is that as cautionary tales go, it's not very scary. Because anyone who actually tries the Greek life will love it and do anything to get a piece of it. What is happening in Greece is the culmination of the European welfare dream.

As if to prove it, the United Nations' independent expert on foreign debt and human rights just consoled the dreamers by warning the Greek government that its belated austerity measures may be impermissible. The "basic human rights" of the Greek populace must be protected, said Cephas Lumina, particularly "their economic, social and cultural rights." The reality suspension seems endless. It’s not only a basic right to live the high life -- it’s against your human rights to be denied it.

Heaven is a place on earth where you get to spend not only beyond your own means, but beyond the means of all your neighbors as well. You run up tabs you’ll never pay. And then you do it again. It is a country where no failure -- either governmental or personal -- is punished. And when the money runs out, it doesn’t. There are simply new ways to invent more. And on it goes. And nothing has consequences. The money grows on foreign trees. The party rolls on. And nobody will permit the music to stop. Because if it does then the lights will come up. And the aging Greek nightclub singer won’t be the only one looking ugly in the ensuing glare. 

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About the Author

Douglas Murray is a British writer and commentator.  He was the director of the Centre for Social Cohesion from 2007 until 2011, and is currently an associate director of the Henry Jackson Society.