Thursday, March 11, 2010

Greece's Tantrum: When Safety Net Becomes a Crib

(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

(reflections on recent street demonstrations in Greece and health care debate in the US.)

In Greece, we're seeing lots of demonstrations. We're also seeing a demonstration of what happens when the State becomes Daddy for its people. Naturally, those people become like adolescents -- dependent, feeling entitled, petulant, short-sighted -- but without the charms of youth or the adolescent's excuse of a disconnected frontal lobe.

Today, the AP reports up to 30,000 demonstrators including masked "youths" who hurt people and property, while some units of the police, also dependent on government largesse, stood by in silent approval.

Earlier this week on NPR, I heard one of those demonstrators against the Greek government's austerity plans ask, "What will the government ration next? The air we breathe?" She thought she was making a clever rhetorical point about the current government's callousness, but she unwittingly demonstrated how decades of Greek voters' clamoring for more protections, more programs, more subsidies have made those same voters frighteningly dependent on their Daddy.

That image of the "safety net" has long since lost its original meaning. The acrobat who falls into a safety net is supposed to jump right out and get back up on the trapeze. But now, when liberals speak of "safety net," they're thinking of a floor beyond which no one can drop by reason of old age, disability, illness, location, temporary unemployment, chronic unemployment, unemployability... regardless.

Greece demonstrates that the safety net can become a crib, infantilizing its people. Where's security when a large chunk of the population is dependent upon the state for salary, health care, transportation, retirement income, utilities, and an ever-growing list of services promised to attract votes from an ever-larger chunk of the population?

A Greek union official, quoted on NPR, called the government "hypocrites" for making "the people" pay for the mismanagement of the previous government. Again, he's revealing something scary: In the birthplace of democracy, where voters chose the previous government on the basis of its promises of benefits, who's to blame for the mismanagement?

I've heard further analysis about the government's failure to collect taxes, because some 80% of the population is involved in some form of "black market," bypassing taxes. The Greek economist scolded his own people: "Corruption causes poverty, not the other way around."

While Greece is tangled up in its erstwhile "safety net," the US Congress is considering a federal mandate to purchase health insurance in order to spread risk for companies.

It's hard for me to see this as quite the threat that Republicans' rhetoric makes it out to be. Nor can I see the government takeover of GM and purchase of stock in AIG as creeping European Social Democracy. My very conservative Republican state of Georgia has long mandated that everyone purchase auto insurance for exactly the same purpose as the proposed health insurance mandate; and Ronald Reagan oversaw the buying up of Savings and Loans and the bailout of Chrysler -- temporary measures to stabilize the markets.

But it's easy to see how temporary "safety net" provisions have become permanent parts of everyone's plans for their own futures, Republicans' as well as Democrats'. That's how, thread by thread, the safety net becomes a different kind of net, a snare.

No comments: