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What the Doomsayers Haven't Been Telling You about Greece
By Steven Hill
The recent battle over health care reform in the United States, in which the Obama administration was barely able to pass weak reform, is just further proof of how far the U.S. has fallen behind Europe. Yet all the media has been able to obsess over for the last couple of months is -- THE GREEK DEBT CRISIS!
By now of course everyone knows that Greece is in really tough shape, right? Practically at the cliff's edge, ready to collapse? All the gloom and doomers like Simon Johnson and others have been telling us this for two months, not only in the mainstream media but on Huffington Post and other progressive media outlets. So it must be true. But before we pronounce it so, let's take a quick pop quiz:
* Which country has less inequality, Greece or the United States?
* Which country has lower rates of infant mortality, Greece or the United States?
* Which country has greater age longevity and more affordable university education? Which country has a lower homicide rate and about one-tenth the number of people in prison, Greece or the United States?
* Which country has a lower rate of teenage births and lower rates of drug use? Which country emits far fewer carbon emissions per capita?
* Which country has affordable, universal health care for all its people, and pays about half as much money per person to receive it -- Greece or the United States?
Surprisingly, the answer to all those questions is: Greece. Certainly Greece is going through a difficult spot in its long history, but how difficult depends on how you measure it. In some very important ways Greece is doing better than the United States (which also is saddled with enormous government deficits, as is virtually every country in the world, due to stimulus spending designed to jumpstart national economies after the global collapse).
Why then is gloom and doom all we hear about Greece, 24-7? A good part of the reason is ideological. With U.S. government deficits soaring, conservatives from the Tea Partiers to Fox News to Senate Republicans are sounding the alarm about a return to "big government." Recently former GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani even stated that President Obama was moving the US towards -- gasp -- European socialism.
For conservatives like Giuliani, Glenn Beck and others, "Europe" is a code word for "big government", "high taxes" and more recently "big deficits." When they bash Europe they are really taking aim at government in the United States. All this talk of Greece -- a small country that makes up only 2% of Europe's economy -- is being used to attack the Obama administration and its stimulus spending and budget deficits. "The U.S. will end up like Greece!" has become one of the conservatives' rallying cries.
A second ideological front is glimpsed when you realize that most of the analysts and reporters are looking at this, not from the point of view of everyday Greeks, but from that of the bankers and bonds traders, and the investment class in general. The Electronic Investor Herd is skittish that they might not get paid back the money they have loaned to Greece. And most of the reportage on Greece's situation comes from media outlets owned by corporations that reflect the commercial interests of its owners.
But from the average Greek person's perspective, it matters little if Greece defaults on its debt or instead manages to roll over that debt at a high interest rate. Either way, Greece is going to have to enact austerity measures, and that will be a hardship for its people. Greece has been living beyond its means, rolling up deficit after deficit, and the bill has come due. In a country where many occupations are allowed to retire at the age of 50 or 55, while the Germans are raising their retirement age to 67, this is not terribly surprising.
Even with Portugal's economy (which is smaller than Greece's) possibly added to the mix, this crisis has been manageable for the European Union. It's not as if Europe is the only place suffering the aftershocks of the global economic earthquake that shook the world in 2008. California makes up 14% of the American economy, truly too big to fail, and had to issue IOUs to pay its bills and prevent default. California has been slashing social programs and government jobs, and is being swamped by foreclosed homes. So why are we are hearing more about Greece than California?
Because Greece has more rattled the investor class and the slavish corporate media that reflects its interests.
What's more surprising is how many progressive media outlets also have echoed this simplistic "bad Greece" storyline. Whether on NPR, the Huffington Post, or other news outlets, many commentators have unleashed Greece-bashing tirades that have fed into the hysteria. Prominent among them has been Simon Johnson, a MIT professor and former International Monetary Fund economist who has departed from his usually balanced and insightful analyses to become increasingly shrill with over-the-top gloom and doom predictions. Nuance has been lost because, hey, it's more dramatic and attention-grabbing to report on a car wreck, right?
So Greece makes for a convenient punching bag for those who either wish to score ideological points or draw our interest with scare stories. But if there's any hope of ever having a more progressive government in the United States we have to unwind this "government is evil" conversation. So it's disappointing that progressive media outlets like the Huffington Post are unwittingly enabling this conservative narrative. It is instructive to realize that Greece is just the latest episode in this longstanding, American-led Europe-bashing. Here is a sampling of the numerous gloom and doom headlines that have appeared in U.S. media outlets in recent years, trumpeting the imminent collapse of Europe:
"The End of Europe"; "Europe Isn't Working"; "Will Europe Ever Work?"; "What's Wrong with Europe"; "The Decline and Fall Of Europe"; "Old Europe Unprepared for New Battles"; "Western Europe Is Cursed"; "Reforms in Europe Needed"; "Is Europe Dying?"; "The Rise of the Fortress Continent"; "The Decline of France"; "Political Crisis Paralyzing Europe"; "Europe's Long Vacation Is Ending"; "Why America Outpaces Europe"; and "Europe Turns Back the Clock."
These alarming headlines appeared from 2003 until late 2006, when--surprise, surprise--it was discovered that the European economy actually was surging past the U.S. economy. In fact, an article published in the international version of Newsweek on November 20, 2006, blared the headline "The Great Job Machine: Despite Its Laggard Reputation, Europe Continues to Grow Faster, and Create More Jobs, than America"--yet that story never appeared in the domestic version of Newsweek.
Just as the media misreported weapons of mass destruction and completely missed an $8 trillion housing bubble, it frequently misreports Europe. The ideologically-slanted U.S. media continue to shield Americans from injections of reality that are badly needed to understand their country's relative standing in the world. Even the reporting on street protests in Greece has been tinged with alarmist depictions calculated to scare Americans about Europe. I believe it's a good sign that the Greeks are fighting to preserve their social contract from the maraudings of the banks, the bonds traders and their previous terrible governments that indebted them and then hid it with the help of Goldman Sachs. What I find truly worrying is that Californians, as well as their fellow Americans, are taking all of this lying down. There seems to be little fight in the American people, despite the lost ground.
And if there is little fight left in that Spirit of 1776, and on top of that Americans don't value government very much, they are never going to push for the adoption of better policies in which a smart and progressive government plays its suitable role, defined via the rough and tumble of politics.
[Steven Hill is author of the recently published Europe's Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age (www.EuropesPromise.org) and director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation]