The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Posts tagged ‘Greece’

DEMOCRACY INACTION

Oh, to be in Greece – or at least to be aware of what is going on there.  Greece, the birthplace of democracy (the derivation of the word comes from “demos” which we normally translate as “city-state”.)  This Sunday the Greek people will vote to elect new members of Parliament.  The vote is widely viewed as a referendum on whether or not Greece will continue as a member in the European Union.

A few months ago while the Greek government was negotiating with its counterparts in the EU you may remember that there was wide-spread rioting and protesting going on in Athens.  It reminded me of a scene from what we used to call a “third world country” – certainly not something I would have expected to happen in the capital city in a Western European nation.  But it happened nevertheless – and it happened in the birthplace of democracy.  Why are the events in Greece important for those of us in the United States?

There is a lesson to be learned from the Greek experience.  It is a simple one – in fact, it is one which most of us already know as individuals.  That lesson is that you cannot continue to spend more than you earn for eventually you will consume your savings and there may well be no one who is willing to extend you credit to continue your profligate life-style.  That is true for people and that is true for countries as well.

The Greek nation is now at a point where it has exhausted its own ability to remedy its problems and must look to the generosity of its neighbors for assistance.  If you’ve ever been in the position of having to go hat in hand to a friend or relative for financial assistance because of a personal situation, you know how humiliating and stressful that is.  Perhaps the cause of your problem was of your own doing – perhaps something that was out of your control occurred.  Irrespective, you are now at a point where you must literally, “beg, borrow or steal” in order to get by.  That is Greece’s situation today.

The Greek people are upset, worried and, perhaps a little too late, they are motivated to express themselves at the ballot box.  That expression of their opinion is at the heart of the democratic process and concept of government.  And that is the reason for this post.

In Nevada on June 12, 2012 we held an election – a primary election.  As always, I shared my opinion with my fellow Nevadans by casting my vote.  I participated in something which was new to me since I moved here – it is called “early voting”.

Once upon a time when you voted there was only one day to do so – that was on election day itself.  A few people who were conscientious and knew they would be out of town on that day obtained absentee ballots and would be able to express their opinion through that vehicle.  But that was a very small percentage of the votes cast.  For the rest of us that meant finding a little bit of time on election day so that we could participate in the democratic process and vote for those whom we believed would be most capable of representing us.

By contrast, Nevada voters have it easy.  Early voting lasts for almost two weeks and is available at wide variety of locations – including many supermarkets which we would normally frequent as part of our shopping.  When I went in to vote, it took approximately two minutes to identify myself and register and another five minutes to accomplish the task.  I then went on to buy some groceries.

A few days later I wanted to see if any of the candidates for whom I had voted were going to be on the ballot in the general election this November.  In the course of trying to accomplish this, I happened on a statement made by our Secretary of State in which he said, “We were hoping for an eligible voter turnout of at least twenty percent – but I don’t think we’re going to make it.”

That statistic shocked me.  Less than one in five of us who are registered (and who knows how many of us don’t even bother with that) actually took a few minutes of our time to express our opinion at the ballot box.  According to all the polls, that can’t be because we think that the economy is terrific and we’re all wallowing in more wonderfulness than has ever shone its face on the North American continent.

No, there’s a simple if disturbing explanation for this.  We’re just too damn lazy, too complacent and too apathetic.  We’re too self-centered and too egotistical.  We believe that we are entitled to the best of everything (without having to do anything to obtain it) and that things will always be great for us because we’re “special”.

That’s the way life in Greece has proceeded for several decades.  That is, until the rude awakening came that the world doesn’t work that way.  It didn’t work for the Greeks and it won’t work for Americans either.

It may be true that when you vote, you don’t necessarily get what you thought you were getting.  But if you don’t vote at all, you certainly get what you deserve.

OUR GREEK FRIENDS

 

Without the great Greek thinkers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Western Civilization would be a very different place. It would be unimaginably different. So much of our thought and evolution both politically and religiously would be unrecognizable to most of us.

It was the ancient Greek philosophers who spoke of the demos – meaning the population of an ancient city-state – the common people. It is obviously the basis for our word democracy.

Christianity would be a different faith without the writings of Aristotle. St. Augustine Bishop of Hippo, one of the Doctors of the Church, relied heavily on that ancient Greek philosopher’s views in writing his massive tome on the church’s view of God, man and the world in “The City of God.”

Today the news is again filled with the Greeks. Although the coverage focuses on the “Greek debt crisis” – this is as much a philosophical crisis as it is a financial one. It is the same debate that will soon occur among other members of the European Union and in the United States. The philosophical discussion centers around one concept. That question is, “What is the role of the individual and the role of the state?”

Thousands of volumes have been written about the greatness of the ancient Greek city-states who brought democracy to the world. The smaller Greek population were able to defeat the mighty Persian empire, the greatest one of its time. The Greeks had numerous achievements in social advancement, philosophy and mathematics. So what happened?

Let’s fast forward a few thousand years to 1946 and the publication of Nikos Kazantzakis‘ book, “Life and Adventures of Alexis Zorbas.” In 1964 the book was turned into the successful movie, “Zorba the Greek” starring Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates. If you’ve never seen the movie you’ve missed one of life’s great cinematic treats.

The movie is a celebration of life. Zorba is the most care-free of men, savoring every day, every meal, every woman. If St. Augustine’s admonition to, “Love God and do what you want” every found it’s way into the heart of any man, that man was Zorba.

He takes life one day at a time and is unworried about tomorrow. It is a joyful way to live – but it has its consequences.

So we turn to Greece today. The economy is in collapse. The government is renting out the Parthenon to raise revenues to try to pay for years of overspending. Today a “deal” has been worked out with the European Central Bank to “bail Greece out.” This has been months in the engineering – and the truth is that it is coming at a high price to the Greek people and will probably only defer rather than solve that nation’s economic problems.

The fact is that while government may provide jobs, those jobs do not contribute to the growth of any country’s economy. In Greece over sixty percent of the population work for government. (In the U.S. it’s closer to thirty-five percent – an all time high). So what are the lessons that we need to learn.

The first lesson is one that everyone who runs a household already knows. If you spend more than you earn you are going to get into debt. At first, it may be possible to refinance this debt – which only defers the inevitable. You have either to increase your income or you have to reduce your spending or both. This is something that the Greeks have learned the hard way – and which America’s political leaders refuse to address in a serious manner – hence our $15 trillion national debt.

The second lesson is that there is no such thing as “entitlement.” At some point in time, our actions have consequences which frequently are unpleasant. In Greece there is twenty-one percent unemployment with fifty percent of the nation’s youth in that category. There are going to be reductions in pension benefits, reductions in the number of government workers – adding to the numbers of unemployed, a two day national strike has been called by the country’s labor unions, and we can all remember last year’s riots and the violence which took place on the streets of Athens. All this in the cradle of democracy.

The third lesson is that the United States is set on the exact same course – although it will probably be years before we arrive at the place where the Greeks find themselves today. But the longer we defer serious action, the more difficult it will ultimately be to extricate ourselves from our malfeasance.

It is easy to turn to those in elected office and lay the blame at their feet. It is true that they are the ones who ultimately set policy and set the country on the course on which we find ourselves.

But let us never forget that it is “We the People” who elect these individuals. It is “We the People” who have the right and the responsibility to remove those who betray the public trust. It is “We the People” who are, in the final analysis the arbiters of our own fate. And if we abdicate that obligation it will be “We the People” who pay the price for our own irresponsibility.

 

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