Of Profligacy

Athens, 2003. (G. Sarrinikolaou)

A Google search for “profligacy” or “profligate” and “Greece” turns up tens, if not hundreds, of references, suggesting a laziness among journalists and others who resort to the same words when trying to convey a simple idea: that the country is running a deficit. My dictionary, a well-worn Webster’s New Collegiate, defines”profligate” this way: adj. 1) completely given up to dissipation and licentiousness, 2) wildly extravagant: prodigal; and as a noun: a person given to wildly extravagant and usu. grossly self-indulgent expenditure. So here we have a word that implies great excess chiefly associated with drinking and sex, and secondarily with spending. Too, there is a moral judgement implicit in the world, a violation of what is right, in the Biblical sense.

It is obvious to me that none of the people who use the word knows very much about life in Greece. Or perhaps they only know about the drinking and the sex. But to characterize Greeks as profligate is to overlook how difficult it is to make a living in that country. The state would not be the largest employer if there were a vibrant economy. And civil service employees would not seek second and third jobs if they were paid adequately. The pensioners I have known, people who long toiled as farmers and laborers, lead quite modest existences. And the public goods provided to them and to their younger compatriots — healthcare, transportation, education, public safety, and infrastructure — are often gravely inadequate. (Read the “Grandfather” chapter in “Facing Athens: Encounters with the Modern City” for the gruesome treatment of one pensioner at a public hospital.)

The governments that have operated the Greek state are undoubtedly guilty of using the civil service as patronage, and of using pensions, public investment and the tax code to buy votes. In the process, a small class comprising Greek politicians and their friends has emerged as “wildly” rich. But the net economic effect of government spending spread across Greek society hasn’t generated a nation of profligates. It may have kept many Greeks out of poverty, or even pushed a good number of them into the middle class, but not much more than that.

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One thought on “Of Profligacy

  1. Fine piece of writing. Gave me a clearer understanding of the crisis in “the old country”.
    Mark Mooney
    Retired Teacher LIC

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