A Sisyphean Effort
This past week, the now hydra-like Greek debt crisis reared yet another one of its re-growing heads. Anti-austerity protests returned to Athens as Greek ministers attempted to acquiesce to the demands of European Union leaders who thought that the problem had already been dealt with. The continuation of the Greek recession, now entering historic periods of length and severity at five years and a 16 percent decrease from pre-recession GDP, should not be seen as a surprise, however, as this is in fact the recession that keeps on going. This continuation of the recession is most likely due to the fact that the combination of aid and austerity measures necessitated by it are causing a massive change in the economic and political structure of Greece. Before the recession, the public center in Greece accounted for 40 percent of the GDP. The service sector, composing 70 percent of the Greek workforce has been severely hit by the recession, with the most recent unemployment numbers comprising 20.9 percent of all Greek workers.
Despite the continual giving of aid, this continued recession, fueled by the massive decrease in spending since the mid-2000s, does not seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. The most frightening of all of the statistics, to me at least, is that the rate of youth unemployment is nearing 50 percent. One in two young Greek citizens does not have a job and increased austerity measures are not likely to help this number at all. What is strange about the measures advocated by Germany and the European Union is that, in addition to decreasing pensions and healthcare spending, they are attempting to cut the size of the Greek public sector workforce. This is strange because it is not the approach that Germany took to successfully steer themselves away from the deep recession and high unemployment numbers that are plaguing much of the rest of the world right now. Germany’s policies in the wake of the recession did not cut the workforce, but instead cut the hours of each worker, keeping Germans employed. This is why Germany’s unemployment rate is in the six percent range and why any protests in Germany have been shadows compared to the Greek, Italian, or Occupy Wall Street protests.
This increase in unemployment also underscores the distinguishing aspect of the anger in the Greek protests. While some may view the key features of the Greek and Italian (or, for that matter, German) state-sponsored economies as large pensions and large healthcare spending, in reality it is the expectation (or entitlement if you’re Mitt Romney) of employment for its citizens.
The violence in Greece is not only in response to a change in policy by the government via the European Union, but to a change in Greek political culture. Accompanying this change in political culture is a generation of young Greeks who are angry, unemployed, and – following this period of unemployment – most likely under-skilled and perhaps unemployable in the long term. In turn, this violence hurts the large part of Greece’s GDP based on tourism. These factors and Greece’s resistance to change could ultimately lead to a very long protracted recovery process. The weight of expectation and the weight of a political culture on a country that has had a state-sponsored economy may prove to be too much for this Sisyphean effort in the eurozone. Even if Europe continues to support an atrophic Greece, the radical changes to Greek society that would be involved in this path to solvency may necessitate an uphill push of that boulder for the foreseeable future.