Saturday, September 18, 2010

How Socialism Destroys

While I disagree with most of his deeper analyses, this (way too) long piece on Greece by author Michael Lewis has some interesting observations. Most importantly it illustrates how the tenets of socialism literally make life in society impossible. As I'd noted in this piece it starts with everyone (and therefore no one) controlling property:
Yet achieving justice isn’t capitalism’s only virtue. It also fosters social harmony. To see this, contrast it to socialism where, perforce, we’re each concerned with every decision anyone else makes. The result is a nation of intruding, whining, Monday-morning quarterbacks. Did GM overspend on advertising? Are doctors prescribing too many pain meds? Is Fannie Mae’s CEO paid too much? The list of potential affronts to redress (via government intervention) is endless.

Not so under capitalism. Here each person’s concern is exclusively with their own property. For instance, if I’m not a shareholder of a firm, I really don’t care what the CEO is paid. Indeed, if I think a particular company is overpaying its CEO, rather than it being a grievance — it’s an opportunity. Namely for me to start a business where I save money by offering reasonable compensation — thereby winning market share due to my lower costs. The beauty of capitalism is that it works by free competition; there’s no need to lobby the government to forcibly intervene in anyone else’s business.
But then it begins to infect all social interactions. Here's how Lewis describes Greek society:
The Greek state was not just corrupt but also corrupting. Once you saw how it worked you could understand a phenomenon which otherwise made no sense at all: the difficulty Greek people have saying a kind word about one another. Individual Greeks are delightful: funny, warm, smart, and good company. I left two dozen interviews saying to myself, “What great people!” They do not share the sentiment about one another: the hardest thing to do in Greece is to get one Greek to compliment another behind his back. No success of any kind is regarded without suspicion. Everyone is pretty sure everyone is cheating on his taxes, or bribing politicians, or taking bribes, or lying about the value of his real estate. And this total absence of faith in one another is self-reinforcing. The epidemic of lying and cheating and stealing makes any sort of civic life impossible; the collapse of civic life only encourages more lying, cheating, and stealing. Lacking faith in one another, they fall back on themselves and their families.
Economically the result is exactly as Ayn Rand portrays at the Twentieth Century Motor Company:
In just the past decade the wage bill of the Greek public sector has doubled, in real terms—and that number doesn’t take into account the bribes collected by public officials. The average government job pays almost three times the average private-sector job. The national railroad has annual revenues of 100 million euros against an annual wage bill of 400 million, plus 300 million euros in other expenses. The average state railroad employee earns 65,000 euros a year. Twenty years ago a successful businessman turned minister of finance named Stefanos Manos pointed out that it would be cheaper to put all Greece’s rail passengers into taxicabs: it’s still true. “We have a railroad company which is bankrupt beyond comprehension,” Manos put it to me. “And yet there isn’t a single private company in Greece with that kind of average pay.” The Greek public-school system is the site of breathtaking inefficiency: one of the lowest-ranked systems in Europe, it nonetheless employs four times as many teachers per pupil as the highest-ranked, Finland’s. Greeks who send their children to public schools simply assume that they will need to hire private tutors to make sure they actually learn something. There are three government-owned defense companies: together they have billions of euros in debts, and mounting losses. The retirement age for Greek jobs classified as “arduous” is as early as 55 for men and 50 for women. As this is also the moment when the state begins to shovel out generous pensions, more than 600 Greek professions somehow managed to get themselves classified as arduous: hairdressers, radio announcers, waiters, musicians, and on and on and on. The Greek public health-care system spends far more on supplies than the European average—and it is not uncommon, several Greeks tell me, to see nurses and doctors leaving the job with their arms filled with paper towels and diapers and whatever else they can plunder from the supply closets.
And then comes the violence:
Thousands upon thousands of government employees take to the streets to protest the bill. Here is Greece’s version of the Tea Party: tax collectors on the take, public-school teachers who don’t really teach, well-paid employees of bankrupt state railroads whose trains never run on time, state hospital workers bribed to buy overpriced supplies. Here they are, and here we are: a nation of people looking for anyone to blame but themselves. The Greek public-sector employees assemble themselves into units that resemble army platoons. In the middle of each unit are two or three rows of young men wielding truncheons disguised as flagpoles. Ski masks and gas masks dangle from their belts so that they can still fight after the inevitable tear gas. “The deputy prime minister has told us that they are looking to have at least one death,” a prominent former Greek minister had told me. “They want some blood.” Two months earlier, on May 5, during the first of these protest marches, the mob offered a glimpse of what it was capable of. Seeing people working at a branch of the Marfin Bank, young men hurled Molotov cocktails inside and tossed gasoline on top of the flames, barring the exit. Most of the Marfin Bank’s employees escaped from the roof, but the fire killed three workers, including a young woman four months pregnant. As they died, Greeks in the streets screamed at them that it served them right, for having the audacity to work. The events took place in full view of the Greek police, and yet the police made no arrests.

As on other days, the protesters have effectively shut down the country. The air-traffic controllers have also gone on strike and closed the airport. At the port of Piraeus, the mob prevents cruise-ship passengers from going ashore and shopping. At the height of the tourist season the tourist dollars this place so desperately needs are effectively blocked from getting into the country. Any private-sector employee who does not skip work in sympathy is in danger. All over Athens shops and restaurants close; so, for that matter, does the Acropolis.
If we don't reverse the ideological trend here in the US, this may be what's in store for us too.

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