While our own nation wrestles with record deficit spending, soaring national debt, and credit rating downgrades with threats of more, we should take particular interest in the current circumstances of the nation of Greece. Not because the Greek financial crisis directly impacts our own nation’s financial future, but because many of the same mistakes made over the past 100 years in Greece could easily be duplicated here. Allowing our government’s determined trend toward nationalization of some industries and institutions, especially healthcare, instead of reforms within the current configuration, will shift our economic future onto the path, or rut, upon which Greece has found itself entrenched.
Following World War I, Greece transitioned to the nationalization of many institutions including schools and hospitals. Where local trustees had once successfully administered these vital social institutions with passion, representing community interest and supported by local funding, state-appointed bureaucrats replaced them, being awarded posts on the basis of politics rather than proven merit. As national control expanded, local and community interests became less influential than national political agendas. The local leaders, state appointed, then worked to strengthen their own party machine by distributing what our own political system calls ‘earmarks’, that would encourage local support for the national party most generous, regardless of inefficiencies and wasteful spending.
One economic expert, Richard Parker, a lecturer from the Harvard Kennedy School, attempts to debunk some of the popular explanations for the current crisis in Greece, noting, for instance, that the percentage of Greek workers employed by the state is no higher than most other European countries at 1 of every 5. And yet, what Parker fails to mention is that public payroll expenses (salaries and pensions of state workers) have ballooned from 38% to 55% of state revenues over the period from 2000 to 2009. It should be no surprise, then, that local appointed officials are the most hostile to reform and austerity measures aimed at reducing the burden these benefits have become, the very privileges that have contributed to this broken system.
In a recent letter from Thessaloniki, Antonis Kamaras, advisor to the mayor of Thessaloniki, encourages Greeks to solve the current financial crisis by looking to the example of their grandparents, who relied upon local, community based administration and funding of many of these services and institutions that have been nationalized.
What I found fascinating was to recognize that a letter was written to Thessaloniki, from the Apostle Paul, recorded as Second Thessalonians in our New Testament. And just as today many in Greece are relying upon the government to ensure their own income and future, in Paul’s day there were some there who were relying upon others for their own welfare. Paul addressed this issue as follows:
For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we might not be a burden to any of you … For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone will not work, neither let him eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:7-10).
In our own country, we have a growing percentage of our population who is dependent, to some measure, upon government assistance. What is more troubling is the desire of one of our political parties’ to nationalize certain segments of the economy, a move which will only deepen the tax burden required to support the growth in government assistance those changes will bring. As Kamaras has advised his country to look to the example of their grandparents, I would encourage them, and us, to look further back to the exhortation that Scripture gave to their distant relatives.