It is often said that to get a glimpse of our future we should study the lessons of the past. Or we can observe the fate of those marching a few steps ahead of us down a road we seem determined to travel. Take Greece. Long hailed as the birthplace of democracy, it is now a poster child for excessive government spending, bloated public sector unions, unfunded entitlements, and stultifying regulations. What happens when the politicians frantically trying to stave off economic collapse finally run out of other people's money?
The hapless Greeks have managed to keep themselves off the front pages for a few months as they burn through their latest cash infusion, courtesy of the German taxpayer. This is no mean feat considering the dire state of the country's economy and the ever-present threat of a Greek debt implosion that could light the fuse for the unwinding of the euro, the opening act of what would surely become a worldwide economic catastrophe.
But the simmering cauldron that is the Greek body politic has not stopped boiling. Widespread misery and despair are breeding lawlessness and violence. The sense that the country is falling apart is emboldening fringe political parties on both left and right to spew apocalyptic rhetoric, as they inexorably move to fill the vacuum left by Greece's discredited and collapsing center.
Read through the stories appearing everyday in the Greek press (which you might only find buried on the back pages of American newspapers) and you will undoubtedly ask yourself: "How long will these proud people put up with such degradation?"
To combat an explosion of smuggling and tax evasion, the Greek government has increased taxes on home heating oil by 50 percent. To no one's surprise (except perhaps those who believe that taxes don't affect behavior), home heating oil sales plummeted by 75 percent as eight out of 10 Greeks switched to wood-burning stoves. This blew a 400 million euro hole in anticipated tax collections.
And where are Greeks getting all that wood? They are denuding state forests. Environmentalists are going berserk as entire hillsides are being clear cut. It was even reported that an ancient and revered olive tree under which Plato taught his students disappeared one night to be fired up some shivering Greek's chimney. The good news is that now that the trees are disappearing fewer Greeks will be blaming unscrupulous developers or Turkish agents for setting forest fires.
And where is all that smoke going? Into the air around Athens, which has become so laden with soot and smog that authorities are concerned it will precipitate a public health crisis. The proposed solution? The government is promoting the use of modern, ecologically friendly wood-burning stoves! No doubt some minister's brother-in-law can make you a good deal, if you can get the cash.
Strikes are an everyday occurrence, which shouldn't be surprising, as many strikers expect to be paid even when they don't show up for work. Unemployment has passed the 26 percent mark, as Greece vies with Spain for the honor of being Europe's top economic basket case. Youth unemployment has passed an astounding 55 percent. Suicides are skyrocketing as elderly and middle-aged breadwinners see no hope for the future. Barter club scrip is replacing currency as Greeks rediscover the true meaning of money. And while the black market is doing an admirable job forestalling starvation, the consequences on tax revenues have been so dire that the government is considering a ban on cash transactions larger than 500 euros, which would force citizens to use credit cards or other payment methods that leave an audit-able paper trail.
Former Greek deputy Finance Minister Petros Doukas has suggested that the jobless be put to work on a voluntary basis without payment. One can only wonder how this is being received by the horde of former public employees long accustomed to getting paid without working.
A series of small-scale bombings and arson attacks have rattled Athens. Roving bands of club-wielding thugs have targeted immigrants and minorities in vicious drive-by beatings. Gunshots have flown through the windows of politicians who have fallen out of popular favor. An urban guerrilla group whose name translates to the "Circle of Outlaws/Nucleus of Lovers of Lawlessness-Militant Minority" is claiming responsibility for attacking journalists for the crime of defending government policy. Arrests for any of these crimes are rare.
How long before someone gets the clever idea to stage a Reichstag fire?
Study the Greek character and you will find a conundrum of contrasts. On the one hand, you have the caricature of the lazy, tax-evading shirker, sipping ouzo with his buddies in the taverna as he collects money for a no-show government job that his uncle got for him. On the other, you have a fighting spirit so fierce that even Hitler praised the Greeks' martial prowess after he was forced to divert six crack units of the German Twelfth Army to put them down: "For the sake of historical truth I must verify that only the Greeks, of all the adversaries who confronted us, fought with bold courage and highest disregard of death."
Talk about a volatile combination.
Anyone who believes that the situation now spiraling out of control in Greece will end peacefully is dreaming. There is no credible plan for economic recovery. Greek GDP is imploding. Multinational corporations are pulling up stakes, sometimes selling off their Greek operations for one euro just to get out. No foreign investor in his right mind would put money into a new business there, and the local entrepreneurs who try are usually strangled in a tangle of red tape through which no amount of fakelaki can cut. So far the tourism industry is hanging on by a thread as there are many bargains to be had, but when strikes and violence cross the nuisance threshold and the first whiff of foreign casualties hit the news, those international tourists will quickly go elsewhere.
And so the pressure builds and the clock ticks down to the next sustaining bailout payment -- which, at some point, simply won't be there once the Troika is forced to acknowledge that Greek "promises of action" are worth about as much as Penelope's promises to her frustrated suitors.
When the anarchist/communists explode and the fascist/nationalists fight back, will we see a repeat of a civil war that claimed more Greek lives than World War II? How long before a frightened and suffering middle throws its weight behind a junta promising security? Someone will have to restore order when the German money runs out, because it sure won't be German soldiers that are sent to keep the peace.