Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

A modern Greek tragedy

Watching Greeks fire-bomb their banks, shut down their airports and ruin the tourist trade that is their economy’s main prospect, I can’t help but hear Virgil reprised. In that Roman poet’s great narrative The Aeneid, survivors of the Trojan War seek a place to start anew, after much difficulty founding what will become the Roman ...

LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

Watching Greeks fire-bomb their banks, shut down their airports and ruin the tourist trade that is their economy's main prospect, I can't help but hear Virgil reprised. In that Roman poet's great narrative The Aeneid, survivors of the Trojan War seek a place to start anew, after much difficulty founding what will become the Roman Empire. It's rough going, and after much hard luck and stormy seas, the Trojan women burn the ships in order to prevent the men returning them all to sea.

They knew the Sybil (a rough approximation to an oracle for the Greeks) had prophesied that when they "quit at last of the sea's dangers / for whom still greater are in store on land... wars, vicious wars / I see ahead, and Tiber foaming in blood." Seeing the fleet in flames, Ascanius' reaction is "but your own hopes are what you burn!" And so it is with the Greeks -- they burn their own hopes by such unwillingness to do the unpleasant but necessary belt tightening.

Tourism provides one in five jobs in the Greek economy and a full sixteen percent of its gross domestic product. Being tied to location, it cannot be manufactured elsewhere. Being tied to history and culture, it is inherently Greek. And the best way to attenuate the effects of the austere cutbacks in government spending necessitated by Greece's financial crisis is to grow their economy as fast as possible. The debt to GDP ratio goes down both by reducing the numerator and increasing the denominator. Yet the Greek riots against the austerity program are sure to diminish tourism.

Watching Greeks fire-bomb their banks, shut down their airports and ruin the tourist trade that is their economy’s main prospect, I can’t help but hear Virgil reprised. In that Roman poet’s great narrative The Aeneid, survivors of the Trojan War seek a place to start anew, after much difficulty founding what will become the Roman Empire. It’s rough going, and after much hard luck and stormy seas, the Trojan women burn the ships in order to prevent the men returning them all to sea.

They knew the Sybil (a rough approximation to an oracle for the Greeks) had prophesied that when they "quit at last of the sea’s dangers / for whom still greater are in store on land… wars, vicious wars / I see ahead, and Tiber foaming in blood." Seeing the fleet in flames, Ascanius’ reaction is "but your own hopes are what you burn!" And so it is with the Greeks — they burn their own hopes by such unwillingness to do the unpleasant but necessary belt tightening.

Tourism provides one in five jobs in the Greek economy and a full sixteen percent of its gross domestic product. Being tied to location, it cannot be manufactured elsewhere. Being tied to history and culture, it is inherently Greek. And the best way to attenuate the effects of the austere cutbacks in government spending necessitated by Greece’s financial crisis is to grow their economy as fast as possible. The debt to GDP ratio goes down both by reducing the numerator and increasing the denominator. Yet the Greek riots against the austerity program are sure to diminish tourism.

It is difficult not to sympathize with German hesitation to bail Greece out. Germany has labored for nearly 20 years to bring the former East Germany up to par with the West. Greece leapt into the euro on questionable accounting and proceeded to splash around the cheap credit that German stolidity in finances extended to the rest of the eurozone. One in three Greeks is a government employee. Hairdressers can retire at age 50 with full pensions because their jobs are categorized as hazardous.

But now much more outrageous is that than our Foreign Service Officer’s Union refusing rewarding diplomats that serve in war zones? When Secretary Rice tried to give preferential promotion to diplomats that volunteered for service in Iraq or Afghanistan, the union representatives argued that every posting is dangerous — as though volunteering to serve in Iraq took no more courage than volunteering to serve in Costa Rica. Currently two-thirds of foreign postings are designated as hazardous duty posts.

The state of our public finances is not as bad as Greece’s, but we’ll get there fast. Current and future obligations already incurred by our government amount to 500% of our GDP. And President Obama’s budget will triple our already staggering national debt by 2020.

What may — may — save America from Greece’s fate is that public outrage is building at our government spending money we don’t have. When California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to move against public sector unions in 2005, voters rejected his ballot initiatives. Californians cannot yet bring themselves to make the hard choices Greece is now having imposed on it by the IMF and its EU allies. New Jersey governor Chris Christie seems more successful, perhaps aided by greater public awareness of the parlous state of government finances. The hold of "entitlements" and public sector unions over government finances needs to be broken — otherwise we really will be Greece.

Markets will not bankroll U.S. profligacy forever. No one can say when the chill will start, but once it does — as Greece’s example demonstrates — the effects are dramatic. The longer we stall before facing up to the unpleasant reductions we must make, the more draconian will be the demands. As the spiraling cost of reassuring markets of the EU’s commitment to support Greece demonstrates, it’s much better to beat markets to the reckoning.

Here again Virgil offers sound advice. As the Sybil gives Aeneas instructions to Hades, she cautions:

The way downward is easy from Averinus.
Black Dis’ door stands open night and day.
But to retrace your steps to heaven’s air,
There is the trouble, there is the toil.

It’s easy to become Greece. But it’s very hard to get out of their predicament.

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake

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