It's staggering that Greece gave us modern civilization and now threatens to undermine it. That might be a stretch, but it is fair to say the Greeks, and Europe in general, are causing a lot of problems for the rest of us, as this week's plunge in stock values shows.
It's not just the Greeks. Italy has 1.5 trillion euros of debt. The French have run deficits for decades. Spain has allowed its unemployment rate to reach 25 per cent, and yet the politicians still deny mining projects because a handful of environmentalists oppose them.
All that debt, all those deficits, add up to money borrowed by government and spent. And contrary to what the left-wing conspiracy-mongers will tell you, it did not go to bailing out banks. It went to buy votes. It's as simple as that. More entitlements, more services, more breaks for unions, more fonctionnaires, more tuition subsidies -- it all adds up to more votes. When an irresponsible politician (which means almost any politician) can buy votes with someone else's money, rest assured he will. It's the great failure of democracy.
I'd like to propose a solution to the problem, or at least a treatment. Send a couple of million Europeans to Asia every year and remind them of what hard work looks like. From the Greeks and Romans to the Brits, Spain and France, Europe conquered the world, and invented industrialization and just about every major advance in scientific history. They didn't do it by sitting around whining for another statutory holiday or the right to retire at 58. They did it by working hard. That spirit is gone. Europe is pathetic.
I just spent 10 days in Seoul, South Korea. It's a city of 30 million people. There are more Louis Vuitton and Gucci shops in Seoul than in London and Paris combined. Wealth and prosperity are everywhere, and the people are happy. The unemployment rate in the country is about five per cent. Real productivity makes Europe's look laughable (except for maybe Germany's). Workers get off at 6 p.m. and get half the holidays westerners get. Middle managers and senior people fill the restaurants at around 7 p.m. They eat, drink, laugh a lot, then go back to the office. And no one is complaining, that I could see.
Contrast that with Europeans, who hit the cafés for a long lunch and then again at 5, on the way home. They whine, go on strike and riot in the streets when their precious entitlements are taken away. The Greek civil-service unions are up in arms about layoffs. Yet a New York Times article chronicled the plight of a young, ambitious Greek entrepreneur who wanted to start a web business. He spent months trying to get a licence, and jumped through a hundred hoops and suffered endless buck-passing that culminated in his directors being asked to provide lung X-rays and stool samples. Last year, 68,000 small- and medium-sized businesses closed in Greece. Bureaucrats are the enemy of progress. Meanwhile, large swaths of the Greek (and Italian) populations don't even pay tax.
Europe produces more bureaucrats than any other place. It's not a coincidence they are overtaxed and increasingly under-productive. (In Seoul, the taxi drivers went on strike for one day to protest low wages -- whereas most things in Seoul are priced as they would be in London or New York, cabs are about a third the price.) They didn't blockade the streets; they just stayed home. For one day.)
This week we learned Asia is home to the most millionaires -- the first time neither Europe nor North America topped that list. Again, it's no coincidence.
If Europeans could relearn the value of hard work, they wouldn't be in the mess they're in -- which will last for decades. Rubbing shoulders with people who work the way they used to might help.
But why stop at Europe? We're not as bad in general, but heading in the same direction, as our friends in Quebec, the students who are allowed to blockade streets, destroy private property and prevent others from attending class, demonstrate. Polls show they enjoy surprisingly strong support from the public. This is astonishing, and doesn't bode well.
And if you've had the pleasure of working with 20-somethings recently, as I have, you will not be optimistic about the future of our economy. I'm not sure what's happened between my generation and this one, but they look more and more like Athenians by the day -- indolent and self-indulgent.
Off to Asia with them for a real education -- before it's too late.
Fabrice Taylor is an award-winning financial journalist and analyst and author of the President's Club Investment Letter. Email him at: