Monday, November 3, 2014

Greek Protests and the EU

Our last Saturday in Greece we decided to walk from our hotel down to the National Gardens located behind the main Parliament building and Syntagma Square.  As we got ready, both Dahlia and Indya thought they heard some kind of loud bullhorn, which was pretty amazing, since any bullhorn would have to be super loud to rise above the general level of noise and chaos in Athens.  We walked about five blocks and we found the source:

Apparently we had stumbled across one of the staging grounds for a protest in front of the Parliament building on Syntagma Square.  All over the city different disaffected political parties gathered and then marched on to the square, closing traffic on several major arteries and the square itself.  Here they are about to head out with a police escort:
Indya asked one of the marchers what the protest was about, and it was an objection to austerity measures and the firing of government workers like policemen and fireman.  As Glenn Reynolds would note, anytime a large government entity makes cuts they unsurprisingly describe them as the termination of popular government workers like teachers, policeman or fireman . . . .

Anyhow, when we got to the National Garden we found it closed "until the protest ended."  It was closed because it was apparently the staging ground for the police.  Disturbingly, there were busloads of police in riot gear with plastic shields and what appeared to be teargas masks.  We have no pictures of their preparations, they didn't seem likely to enjoy any photo ops.

So we lapped the Garden and found the protest in full swing.  It was a pretty big and loud protest, with a couple of thousand people from various political parties waving flags and making loud speeches.  Here is Dahlia getting excited about it:
In the end there was no riot.  Apparently after the riots of 2011 the police take no chances though.  Indya asked a bystander how often these protests occurred.  His answer: "Every day.  Beats working."

That is obviously an exaggeration, as we traveled through Syntagma square daily in our four days in Athens, and this was the only protest we saw.  But, what at first seemed to us to be a pretty big deal turned out to more akin to background noise.  Just off off Symtagma Square is one of the main shopping districts in Athens, and with various All Saints Day sales in full swing we saw an equal number of Athenians enjoying 20% discounts just a block or so from the protests.

It was a very weird juxtaposition for us and the girls.  The whole experience taught us a few things.  First, I have had several Slovenians tell me that they admire American self-reliance.  (An equal number have told me they hate our obtrusive and pushy diplomacy and insistence on free markets, but that is a different post).  In Slovenia, and apparently in Greece, when something is wrong with the economy people march on Parliament and demand that the government fix it.  Obviously this happens in the US too, but there is definitely more of an understanding in the US that hoping for the government to create growth is suboptimal.

Second, Dahlia is a budding capitalist for sure.  Georgia asked us what the protests were about and Dahlia asked if she could explain, and launched into a hilariously pro-business and libertarian attack on the protesters and general laziness that included this gem: "Did you see all of the riot police?  They are protesting to keep police jobs, and the protests themselves lead to a bunch of police officers working overtime on a
Saturday, loafing around in riot gear.  Coincidence?  I don't think so!" 

Third, Indya is usually our defender of the government (and in East Tennessee it is hard to get too exorcised about what is a pretty lean and whipped government), but the bureaucracies and government spending policies of Greece and Slovenia make even her quite uncomfortable.    

Fourth, the EU has a lot on their plate.  Theoretically the EU unifies countries as diverse as Greece, Germany, Slovenia, the UK, Sweden, and Estonia!  We were really, really surprised by how relatively poor Athens seemed.  It is a city of five million, and yet we saw fewer office buildings or signs of a functioning economy (outside of tourism) than we see every day in tiny Ljubljana (which is hardly a beacon of economic growth).  Underemployment was rampant.  One of our cab drivers was from Bulgaria and he told us he was headed home after 14 years in Athens: "No jobs." 

Fifth, more than the different sizes and types of economies in the EU, Greece reminds you of the very, very different cultures.  How they possibly get elected officials from Greece to agree with elected officials from Germany about governing things as random as highway construction standards or the requirements for becoming a lawyer in the EU seems absolutely crazy.

Last, Athens is probably the wrong way to gauge Greece. Greece is not even close to the bottom of the EU in GDP per capita adjusted for purchasing power: it is ahead of Portugal, Poland, and Hungary and waaayyy ahead of Bulgaria and Romania.  In particular, our trip to the Mykonos showed us that life on the Greek Isles is pretty sweet and that tourism is certainly alive and well.  Mykonos reminded us of Nantucket and St. Bart's, as a comparison point.  Proof?  Here are the girls enjoying a rousing game of hearts after our resort breakfast:
   There are worse places to be underemployed for sure!

1 comment:

  1. Read this twice and will return again. Really interesting and thoughtful. Dahlia looks a bit like the French Revolution...So grateful you are passing on to the girls your, and out, love for the sea!!! (from the shore, at least!) Good thoughts, Ben!