Ode on a Grecian Yearn

by Michael Auslin

Athens — Democracy is under siege in its birthplace. In a room of over 50 Greek CEOs and scholars from the American School in Greece, not one raises their hand when I ask if they think their democratic government is capable of solving their economic problems. Nor does anyone raise their hand when I ask if they think there is a better system of government that could fix Greece’s economic crisis. More disturbingly, a good 70 or 80 percent agreed with the comment “I feel that my freedom is disappearing.” The yearning for a way out of the labyrinth is palpable. 

Spending several days in Greece clearly is not enough time to understand what is happening here, but one can absorb an enormous amount by getting away from the tourist spots even for a few hours. James Q. Wilson would be horrified by the state of the city — every surface within reach is covered by graffiti, many buildings are falling apart, there is a general feeling of decay. At first, I thought the subway was part of an urban art project, so thoroughly were the cars covered. It’s a bit like walking through New York in the 1970s, where even nice areas are filled with spraypainted logos and slogans. 

Yet, for a country with an official unemployment rate of 27 percent (“closer to 35 percent,” I’m told by businessmen, cab drivers, and others), the cafes are filled, downtown shops that are open seem filled with customers, and people both young and old mill through the streets. Granted, there are a huge number of closed storefronts, but there is a constant bustle, even on weekdays. I ask varied people how everyone survives, if unemployment is so high. Some say it is the money economy — more people are working than the statistics capture, they’re just doing it under the table and paying no taxes. Others say it is because so many young Greeks live off their parents’ pensions, pay no rent at home, and pay no taxes on the work they do. Still others claim that no one saves any money and so everything just goes right into consumer spending. All feel that the economic system is near breakdown, and the young people I talk with have a grim reaction that combines anger with blithe unconcern, almost a feeling that there is nothing they can do, so they may just as well ride above the waves as long as they can.

As for politics, I’m told by more than one person that the current center-right government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and his New Democracy Party is “100 percent” better than the Socialists under George Papandreou, son of Greece’s most powerful postwar leader, Andreas Papandreous. Yet, even with the goodwill of many of the business leaders, retirees, and young people I talked with, few believe he has any real chance of creating a sustainable recovery. At best, people were cautiously optimistic that the country is no longer dropping off a precipice, but as for rebuilding, few felt anything significant was happening.

What is left is a sense of limbo — not knowing where the country was going, nor what crisis could next hit, espeically after watching Cyprus implode just a few weeks before. One thing they all hope for, though: good weather for tourist season. The tourists are our only economic hope, I’m told. Not the most sophisticated of recovery plans, but grabbing on to anything just to make it through the storm seems the one thing all Greeks I talk with can agree upon.

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