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Friday, May 14, 2010

Mythology and debt

What would the various residents of Mr. Olympus have thought of the current situation in Greece, with government workers rioting to ensure that their benefits remain generous? What might they have done about it? And what lessons might today's Greeks learn from their stories?

Hercules, who was half-immortal (the son of Zeus and Alcamene, a mortal woman) might have solved the problem by redirecting a nearby fast-moving river through the Greek Parliament, washing away all the corrupt, self-indulgent politicians and their legislative horse manure. Another of Hercules' labors to draw a parallel to was when he had to slay the Hydra, the nine-headed serpent. But even the Hydra would be easy prey compared to the million government employees, each jealously protecting his turf.

Apollo was the god of light and purity, music, poetry, and prophecy. He advised humans to be moderate in all things (though he himself often ignored his own advice.) "All things" would certainly include the government deficit. Would the Greek Parliament listen to him now?

Upon hearing of the deficit, Ares would probably have been tempted to declare war on Greece. But despite being the god of war, Ares would most likely have retreated upon hearing of NATO's firepower.

Achilles, that great but petulant warrior, would simply have slain all the evil politicians, one by one. (Would this make him a serial killer in the mold of Dexter?)

Athena was the goddess of wisdom. As such, she might have foreseen the outcome of all that debt; unfortunately, one person's wisdom cannot trump everyone else's greed. So Athena, too, would have been powerless in today's Greece.

Castor and Pollux were the twin sons of Zeus. When one was killed, Zeus devised a plan for them to share immortality. On one day Castor would go to Hades, and Pollux would ascend to Mt. Olympus. On the next day, they would switch. This is not dissimilar to the sort of unpaid furloughs which many states in the US have adopted in order to solve their deficit problems. Greece might benefit from such an arrangement.

Perhaps the tale of Icarus, who was not a god, has some cautionary value for the modern day Greeks. Despite being warned by his father not to fly too close to the sun with his artificial wings fashioned of feathers and wax, Icarus did not heed his father's advice, his wings melted, and he plunged to the earth. The Greek economy might not now be in free fall had the Greeks not been singed trying to obtain too high a lifestyle on too little revenue.

Dionysus.....well, the Greeks have probably imitated him too much already. Ditto for Narcissus and Eros.

The Fates were three pitiless sisters who sat by a treadle, deciding when to cut the thread of life for various people. It was said that they knew what would happen to everybody, even the gods, so even Zeus was terrified of them. Perhaps the modern day Greeks could have done with a little more fear for the future themselves before they became so indebted. Then again, perhaps their problem was that they believed too much in small-f fate, and thus didn't take responsibility for the future.

Hera was the queen of the gods, married to Zeus, known for her great jealousy and temper. Perhaps it would behoove today's Greeks to be a bit more jealous of the way the Germans keep their financial house in shape. This might motivate them to keep their own finances in order.

Hermes was the messenger of the gods, known for his winged sandals, caduceus, and cap. He was also the witty patron of gamblers, businessmen, and thieves. He sounds like a natural denizen of Wall Street, a place where speedy information is king. Perhaps he could help the Greeks with their investments, possibly even with a little insider trading.

Medusa was once a beautiful young woman, until she aroused the jealousy of the goddess Athena, who transformed her into a monster. Medusa had one power the modern Greeks could certainly use: turning people -- in particular, their debtors -- to stone.

Odysseus was said to be short-legged, broad-shouldered, deep-chested, and red-haired. (All Neanderthal traits, by the way.) He was best known for his cleverness and trickery. It was Odysseus who won the war with Troy by coming up with the idea of the Trojan Horse. So his is not a cautionary tale for the Greeks themselves, but for their enemies: beware of Greeks bearing....bonds.

During his travels, Odysseus met an enchantress named Circe, who turned his men into swine. (Has she already done this to the government workers?)

Pandora -- well, too late for that. (Why, by the way, did they name that beautiful planet in Avatar after this overly curious woman who wrought so much damage upon the world?)

Ancient sailors used to claim that they saw Poseidon riding the waves in his dolphin chariot when the sea was particularly wild. One time an angry Poseidon flooded the low-lying areas around Athens. If he saw what was happening today, he would undoubtedly be tempted to wash away the entire country with a gigantic tidal wave.

Sisyphus was the proud prince of Thessaly and the founder of Corinth. When it was time for Sisyphus to go to the Underworld, he told his wife not to bury him; once there, he complained that he had not been given a proper burial. Persephone, the goddess of the dead, allowed him to return to the land of the living to arrange his affairs. But then Sisyphus refused to come back. Finally, Hermes was sent to escort Sisyphus to the Underworld, where Zeus decreed that Sisyphus be forever condemned to push a large boulder up a hill, a boulder which would always roll down again right before it reached the top. The question this evokes is, what is the proper punishment for those Greeks who pushed these Sisyphian loans onto their children, to be paid off only after they themselves were dead?

There were two qualities Zeus particularly abhorred in mortals: pride and trickery. Certainly the current debt crisis incorporates elements of both. Were the ever amorous Zeus able to tear himself away from the lovelies sunning themselves on the Greek isles, he would undoubtedly hurl a few thunderbolts into Parliament.

Hephaestus (perhaps better known by his Roman name, Vulcan), was the god of the forge and the master of fire. It was said that he was happiest when working at one of his underground forges. Perhaps the modern day Greeks could learn from his work ethic.

Then again, perhaps even the ancient Greeks were no more hard-working than the current crop. Had any of them ever bothered to scale the 9570 foot Mount Olympus, less than one-third the height of Everest, they would have seen that no gods lived atop it.

(It must also be pointed out, the Sherpas never came up with anything nearly as entertaining as Greek mythology.)

Perhaps, instead of looking at Greek mythology, we should look to Greek history. Looking back, it's hard to imagine the country of Aristotle and Plato allowing itself to get into such trouble.

It seemed a more heroic place back then. Who among us hasn't heard of the 300 Spartans who held off 10,000 Persians at Thermopylae?

Today those 300 warriors would probably go on strike unless guaranteed six weeks of vacation, time and a half pay on overtime, and a guaranteed 80% pension starting at age 55.

Herodotus might suggest that Sparta declare war on Athens again, in line with the guns and butter theory of stimulating an economy. But for Sparta to do this would be a bit unseemly at this point. Anyway, the Spartans are hardly what they once were: the very existence of the adjective "spartan" seems ironic today given the current Greek penchant for gorging at the public trough.

The worst part, of course, is that we Americans seem to be well along this same path. (What would Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin think?)


Anonymous said...

Who / what is funding the Greek bailout? According to an article published a few weeks ago the original plan contained substantial funding from Germany. But the German people screamed "NO" and the government listened (unlike the US government on health care). That plan was scuttled and newer plans turned to the IMF, which is largely funded by the US. Not hearing a peep of protest from the US, the IMF plan went forward. I don't know what the ultimate bailout plan contained. However - if true, it would be yet another example of US taxpayers funding something that's wildly inappropriate.

Why is it that appealing to the well being and the future of children is a powerful tool used to over-fund education - both K - 12 public school and college. Action taken. But burying the next generation with crippling government debt is a concern only in conservative circles and is never powerful enough to reign in spending. No action taken. For a number of years gross income has been flat to slightly declining (with the exception of the government sector). It is likely that this generation will be the first to see a lower standard of living than their parent's.

In local government we see budget pressures. In the private sector businesses faced with revenue shortfalls cut salaries, and lay off workers. Millions of workers have lost their jobs, and that's about as much as you'll hear about it in the major media. Lay off a teacher, fireman or policeman and its front page news in the local paper for week.

How do local governments react to budget pressures? First, attempt to extort more money from the taxpayers. Example, claim the budget is cut to the bone and they won't be able fund the new fire truck, library, etc. the town needs; threaten to close highly visible facilities like recreational facilities. Given the choice between reigning in bloated pension plans, unreasonably high government salaries, (gasp) actually making major layoffs of government workers - and closing down facilities, what would the government paid officials do? Around here it looks like they want to close facilities - why are people surprised?

The private sector funds the government boondoggle but is ultimately powerless to do anything about it. The private sector pays for the government but has a lower standard of living and quality of life than the government employees whose salaries they fund. And whether the private sector voters vote Republican or Democrat, the government machine chugs forward and grows unchecked. The see saw tips further and further in government employee's favor.

- Ed

Anonymous said...

Isn't that Neptune with his trident? When does he get a look in?

John Craig said...

Guy --
I'll answer you first since your comment is easier to answer: Neptune is the Roman name for the Greek god Poseidon, who did merit a mention. The same as with Zeus and Jupiter, Ares and Mars, etc. (What a pleasure it is to correct you for a change.)

John Craig said...

Ed --
You're absolutely right, we are funding the Greek bailout via the IMF. It's sickening how profligate our government is with out tax dollars.

And yes, you're right, future debt seems to be a concern only for conservatives, when it should be for everybody. The problem, as always, is that a politician's primary job is always getting reelected, and they know voters have short term memories.

It's too bad that governments don't have to operate like private businesses, and cut when they need to cut. I read recently that even with the recession, the number of Transportation department employees in NY state making over $100,000 went from something like fifty-fold from 2008 to 2009. That, during a time when the private sector is hurting so badly. Sickening.

Anonymous said...

On the Greek theme, I think they need to dispatch Jason and his Argonauts to plunder the gold of foreign treasuries to get their national bank balance back in order. Oh yes, they already did!

Odysseus should be lashing all the politicians to masts so they can't heed the siren call of borrow and spend.

I think Hermes is already working at Goldman Sachs who came up with clever swap schemes to disguise the country's actual debt levels.

John Craig said...

Guy --
Very good.

Anonymous said...

Many in the public sector seem oblivious to the pain experienced by private sector employees in the recent recession - huge losses of employment, reduced incomes and devastated retirement savings, as illustrated by the last paragraph of this recent letter to the NYT:

"In addition to the fact that New York City teachers are working on an expired contract and have yet to receive raises granted to other municipal workers, members of the United Federation of Teachers have agreed to substantial reductions and cost-saving measures in pension, health benefits and retiree health eligibility that equate to nearly $2,000 per member per year, some 3 percent of average pay.
If the private sector and Wall Street would make the sacrifices that the U.F.T. has done, it would go a long way toward solving our city’s budget problems.
Michael Mulgrew
United Federation of Teachers
New York, May 12, 201"

John Craig said...

Guy --
Thank you. Plus, he's forgetting that the private sector is not paid for by taxpayer money.