How did Greece get into its fiscal situation? It’s best explained in a parable.
Helen is an elegant, if somewhat faded, woman of a certain age. She has impeccable taste and indulges herself freely. She supports her debonair lifestyle with a cushy government job where she is paid for 14 months of work a year. She took up smoking just so she could take smoking breaks.
Despite the generous pay, Helen cannot live within her means: the restaurants, the beaches, the country villa, the maids, the butler, the private island—it’s just too much. Despite her accountant’s clever gimmicks, the credit card companies have finally caught on. After years of using a new credit card to pay off an old one, she has finally run out of gullible creditors.
Fortunately for Helen, the credit card collectors are feeling sympathetic. They have helped her consolidate her debt and lower her interest payments. They have even agreed to forgive half her debt, on the condition that she let the butler go, sell the yacht, and cancel her lease on the private island. If only she would live within her means, they will let her take all the time she needs to pay off her debts.
Helen’s not sure, though. She likes her lifestyle. She likes it a lot. She has a right to live the way she wants! Who are those credit card companies to tell her how to live? Maybe, she thinks, she won’t pay them at all, and she will just keep living the way she was.
But she can’t! Even if all her debts were forgiven, her middle-class income simply is not enough to support that extravagant lifestyle. Without credit cards, she will have to make tough choices: She can power the yacht, but not if she also wants to air-condition the villa. She can pay the butler or the maids, but not both. And since the credit card companies will most likely respond by suing to take some of her pay, she’ll realistically have to return to a modest lifestyle.
Oh, the humanity.
Helen, of course, is a parable for modern Greece. As a nation, Greece owes about $1.90 in debt for every $1 in income—that’s for every dollar earned by every worker and every investor in the entire country of Greece.
Some Greek political parties are making absurd promises: They will reject the bailout and austerity measures, but will not cut a single public job. But a dollar can only be in one place at a time. If Greece keeps its bloated bureaucracy—40 percent of the whole economy—it will have to cease paying pensions to the elderly, or providing medical services, or defending its borders.
Once Helen’s credit cards are canceled, she’ll have to pay for everything she wants with money she actually has.
Greeks have a responsibility to vote for their leaders on Sunday and to make some tough decisions. But no matter how eloquently politicians promise it, a piggy bank (or in this case, national treasury) that lets you spend $1.10 for every $1 you put into it is only a Greek myth.