If You Like Bernie Sanders We Have an Island in Greece to Sell You

July 17th, 2015

Funny how we live in such an interconnected world these days and yet so few people really pay attention to what’s going on.

Take for example the throngs of people gathering in rallies to support avowed socialist, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, as he challenges Hillary Clinton for the Democrat nomination for president.  Polling at roughly 30 percent in some samples, Sanders has virtually no chance of actually winning the nomination, but his rising popularity is touted by the press as evidence of growing support for his socialist message in the United States.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Greek citizens continue to find creative strategies for getting their money out of  ATM machines while their leaders negotiate/beg European Union member nations (which really means Germany and to a lesser extent France at this point) to somehow bail them out.

For political scientists, Greece provides an interesting case study on what happens when socialism goes awry (which it ultimately always does as Margaret Thatcher famously observed when she noted that “the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money”).

Since this is a blog and not a term paper, I’ll try to put a summary of what caused the Greek calamity in simple terms.  Basically, Greece attempted to devise a cradle to grave system where it was possible for citizens to retire with a pension as young as forty-five years old. Who wouldn’t like that?

In the meantime, Greeks who were still working and earning money decided that if there was an effective way to avoid paying taxes necessary to support this system they’d have no qualms about using it.  At the same time, the Greek government didn’t get too aggressive about collecting these taxes.  That worked fine as long as other governments were footing the bill for all the Greek entitlement programs in the form of loans, but when the creditors finally decided it was time to get paid back, the Greek government found itself in a deep hole.

The reaction of the Greek people to this entire problem can probably be analogized to an individual experiencing psychology’s five stages of grief. First, there was denial which the Greek people exhibited by electing a socialist government which essentially promised that they could go on as they wished.  Next, there was anger.  When their loan was called and the terms for repayment weren’t to their satisfaction, the citizens took a vote and rejected the proposal for retiring the debt.  It was a total in your face move directed at the rest of the European Union letting them know what they thought of their offer.  It didn’t take a week for the response to be not only “pay us back” but “pay us back on terms you’re going to like less than before you took that vote.”  That’s where the third stage kicks in. Psychologists call it bargaining. The Greek government has been bargaining ever since for some solution that keeps them in the European Union.  Depression is next, but it’s likely they’ve experienced it all along.  The final stage is of course acceptance.  That’s the one that will be most difficult to achieve.

The reason for this entire situation is that once individuals are accustomed to getting something for nothing (e.g., through government entitlements), it’s extremely hard for them to accept having it taken away.  Typically, they fight back by voting officials out of office who dare give them the bad news that the gravy train is gone. Thus, for the Greeks, being told that they must live with austerity and retire at (gasp) sixty-seven years old will take perhaps a full generation to completely accept.

Meanwhile, back here at home, throngs of people are hanging on the every word of a presidential candidate who promises the socialist utopia Greece expected to live under forever.

Let’s hope it won’t take daily trips to the ATM machine for many of our fellow citizens to figure out that what may sound good out of the mouth of Bernie Sanders and others doesn’t actually work in the real world.