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Jewish World Review
Feb. 17, 2010
/ 3 Adar 5770
America's Greek tragedy?
I have seen America's future, and it is Greece.
By this I do not mean that the Midwest will soon be covered with ancient ruins or that Texans will swap hamburgers for feta cheese. I mean that the ongoing Greek financial crisis is the kind of crisis the United States might face in a few years, if we continue to make the kinds of mistakes that the Greeks have made over the past decade.
For those who haven't followed this saga, let me reassure you that the story is quite straightforward: Greece is bankrupt. And though Greece's bankruptcy is headline news this week Greece's weak finances threaten the stability of the euro the truth is that Greece has been bankrupt for years. Its budget deficit in 2009 was 12.7 percent of its gross domestic product. Overall debt was 113.4 percent of GDP. Those are not figures that can be achieved overnight.
Some of Greece's economic problems are highly specific. The country has an unusually old-fashioned legal system, a bureaucracy straight out of a Kafka novel and a byzantine system of regulation, worse even than our own. The Wall Street Journal points out that Greece, practically alone among developed economies, does not have a centralized and computerized land registry, which means, for example, that farmers can surreptitiously cultivate public land and eventually become de facto owners. By European standards, Greece also has an exceptionally closed economy. Both legal and informal barriers to doing business are very high, which is part of why Greece has one of the world's lowest levels of foreign investment.
More to the point, Greece has borne all of these burdens for a long, long time. Yet nothing has been done because the country's deeply partisan political system is paralyzed. Try to carry out any social security reform in Greece raise the pension age, stop early retirements and watch what happens: Mass rioting followed the passage of a pension reform bill in 2008, and the government became so unpopular it lost the next election. The land registry cannot be modernized because those who possess land illegally will fight back. The barriers to investment cannot be lowered because business lobbies are more powerful than politicians.
The political class is aware of the country's economic problems but denies them. The European Commission issued a report last month accusing Greece's finance ministry and statistical service of "severe irregularities" stemming from "the submission of incorrect data." In Eurospeak, that means the commissioners think the Greeks have been lying: That 12.7 percent budget deficit was originally forecast to be 3.7 percent, and plenty of other figures coming out of Greece seem to have been way off as well. No country makes accounting errors like that by accident.
Greece shares its financial weaknesses with several European countries (nowadays referred to really! as "PIGS": Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain). But in a different sense, Greece's weaknesses are shared by the United States as well. Though we do not have precisely the same problems, we have a similar level of political paralysis and a similar level of partisanship. It is not possible to reform Social Security: President George W. Bush tried half-heartedly and gave up before he started. It might not be possible to reform health care either: Hillary Clinton failed, and President Obama, despite throwing in expensive sweeteners, may well fail, too. The influence of lobbyists cannot be reduced. The power of interest groups to sway legislation cannot be tamed. We might not have farmers squatting on state land, but we do have farmers dependent on huge, distorting agricultural subsidies that apparently cannot be reduced.
Fortunately for American politicians, we do not have to submit our financial statistics to a European Commission, and thus we do not have to lie about them outright. But aside from our very large budget deficit 9.9 percent of GDP and climbing we also have liabilities that are rarely acknowledged. The costs of Medicare and Medicaid are rising, as is the cost of veterans' care. Markets assume that the vast debts of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are underwritten by the government, and someday the government might be called upon to pay them. No one is lying about these things, but no one is doing very much about them either.
The good news is that the American government's bankruptcy is not on the front pages, and it will not be for many years: Our sheer size, our entrepreneurship and our relatively open business culture will keep us going for a long time. But the Greek crisis shows that the combination of debt and political deadlock can be deadly. The catharsis we feel as we watch it unfold that Aristotelian combination of pity and fear should shock us far more than it has.
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Gulag: A History
Nearly 30 million prisoners passed through the Soviet Union's labor camps in their more than 60 years of operation. This remarkable volume, the first fully documented history of the gulag, describes how, largely under Stalin's watch, a regulated, centralized system of prison labor-unprecedented in scope-gradually arose out of the chaos of the Russian Revolution. Fueled by waves of capricious arrests, this prison labor came to underpin the Soviet economy. JWR's Applebaum, a former Warsaw correspondent for the Economist and a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, draws on newly accessible Soviet archives as well as scores of camp memoirs and interviews with survivors to trace the gulag's origins and expansion Sales help fund JWR.
Comment on JWR contributor Anne Applebaum's column by clicking here.
02/09/10: The Big Problem With Big Solutions
01/26/10: India's model of reflective patriotism
01/12/10: Haiti's man-made disasters
01/12/10: We need a smarter way to fight the jihadi elite
01/05/10: How every year we waste millions on wasteful homeland-security projects
12/30/09: The next decade will be bad for authoritarian regimes except one
12/15/09: The Apocalypse Is Not Upon Us
11/24/09: Superpower without a partner
11/17/09: Why has the global response to swine flu been so politicized?
11/10/09: After the wall fell
11/03/09: Angela Merkel's Quiet Revolution
10/20/09: Will the President of Europe Be a Gifted Pol or a Compromising Bureaucrat?
09/29/09:What Is Iran Afraid Of?
09/22/09: Letting Europe Drift
09/17/09: Greed and fear are proving stronger than companies' commitment to free speech
09/08/09: Will Obama Fight For Afghanistan?
09/01/09: The Polish Prologue
08/20/09: Why Afghans Need a Vote
07/29/09: No Burqa For Clinton
07/14/09: The Summit of Green Futility
07/09/09: Obama Puts Medvedev Ahead of Putin
06/30/09: In Morocco, an alternative to Iran
06/23/09: An overlooked force in Iran
06/16/09: Some good in a bad election
06/09/09: Why Is the Right Doing So Well in Europe?
06/02/09: Is China Pulling Strings in North Korea?
05/26/09: What a Member of Parliament Deserves
04/22/09: The Twitter Revolution That Wasn't
04/14/09: Do we really need interactive exhibits to bring Jefferson to life?
04/07/09: No Nukes? No Thanks: Obama's odd obsession with universal nuclear disarmament
03/31/09: What's Loud, Unnecessary, and Costs $75 Million?
03/03/09: European Disunion
02/24/09: Who cares what Hillary Clinton says to China's leaders about human rights?
02/17/09: Witless protection
02/10/09: Our Ticket Out of Afghanistan
01/27/09:Why some foreigners can't believe Obama won the presidency fair and square
01/20/09: A Flight Test for All of Us
01/14/09: Europe's New Cold War
01/07/09: Pointless Peace Proposals
12/30/08: The magnificent rhetorical legacy of the Founding Fathers
12/23/08: Do riots in Athens portend demonstrations in Paris and Cincinnati?
12/16/08: Breach of Trust: Bernard Madoff's massive fraud will cripple American capitalism
12/09/08: In praise of charismatic politicians
12/03/08: Moscow's Empire of Dust
11/20/08: Getting Past Mythmaking In Georgia
11/12/08: In Praise of Political Rock Stars
10/03/08: Election Day myths you must resist
09/30/08: Not just a metaphor: Lehman Brothers was economic's 9/11
09/04/08: Class of '64
08/28/08: Did Hillary really help the Barack cause?
08/27/08: Show of Power, Indeed
08/19/08: What Is Russia Afraid Of?
08/13/08: When China Starved
08/11/08: Two of the world's rising powers are strutting their stuff
08/05/08: How Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago changed the world
07/29/08:The Hour of Europe Tolls Again … But are European politicians up to the task?
07/15/08: Why Does Obama Want To Campaign in Berlin?
07/01/08: Citizen Athletes: How did a guy who can't speak Polish end up scoring Poland's only goal of Euro 2008?
06/24/08: Why do we expect presidential candidates to be kind?
06/17/08: Pity the Poor Eurocrats
06/12/08: Is the World Ready for a Black American President?
05/28/08: The Busiest Generation: America seems to value its children's status and achievements over their happiness
05/20/08: Leave Hitler Out of It: The craze for injecting the Nazis into political debate must end
05/13/08: A Drastic Remedy: The case for intervention in Burma
05/07/08: A Warning Shot From Moscow?
04/23/08: Radio to stay tuned to
04/17/08: China learns the price of a few weeks of global attention
04/01/08: Head scarves are potent political symbols
03/26/08: The Olympics are the perfect place for a protest
03/19/08: Could Tibet bring down modern China?
03/12/08: Have political autobiographies made us more susceptible to fake memoirs?
03/05/08: Why does Russia bother to hold elections?
02/20/08: Kosovo is a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences
02/06/08: A Craven Canterbury Tale
02/06/08: French prez' whirlwind romance reminds voters of his political recklessness
© 2009, Anne Applebaum. By permission of the author