Greek politicians are fiddling while Athens burns

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Week before last I had the good fortune to travel to Athens, Greece. I have lived and worked in Europe, but I had never been to Greece. So when I was given the chance to travel to a conference in Athens, I gladly accepted. I wanted to see the ancient ruins in Athens and experience the brilliant Mediterranean sunlight. I also wanted to see how the country was dealing with its economic crisis.

Greece, of course, has been at the center of the news in recent months as it struggles with a terrible debt crisis that threatens to break up the eurozone and send the world economy into another crisis. The country had been forced to hold its second national elections in two months the weekend before I arrived because the inconclusive results of the first election had made it impossible to form a new government.

The source of the political instability in Greece is the austerity being forced on it by other countries in Europe. They have lent Greece money to help pay its debts and, in return, they have demanded that the Greek government cut spending and raise taxes. The reasoning is obvious: "If you have borrowed more money than you can pay back, then you need to cut your spending and raise more revenue. We aren't going to help you unless you stop doing the things that caused the problem."

But austerity has been wildly unpopular, which is understandable, given that the economy has been shrinking. Greece has been in recession for five years, so the latest spending cuts and tax increases have been particularly painful.

Unemployment for people under age 24 is over 50 percent, and poverty is spreading through the middle class. Greeks are torn between wanting to pay their debts even as they fear the ruinous terms of the loans they need.

Greece is arid this time of year, so, despite being on the sea, Athens has a pleasant, dry heat that makes you feel invigorated rather than sapped. Walking around the Acropolis was wonderful. But it was disturbing to see people living on the street and begging.

My own children are ages 24, 20 and 15, and I considered what it would be like to know that their entire generation was being denied the chance to build skills and start careers. I worry about my children enough in the American economy; I can hardly imagine what the depressed prospects of the Greek economy must feel like. The idle teenagers lingering on Athens streets never felt threatening, but knowing their situation made me sad.

The conference I had come to Athens to attend was part of a growing effort to link American liberal arts colleges with liberal arts colleges outside the United States. Thirteen small Midwestern schools in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana joined with 13 colleges from Europe, Africa and Asia to talk about the challenges and opportunities we face.

We were hosted by the American College of Greece, a 137-year-old institution founded by American missionaries to educate women in the Ottoman Empire. The college has had a difficult history -- its original campus in Smyrna was burned to the ground by the Turkish Army; during the Second World War, its Athens campus was looted by the Nazis and used as a field hospital -- yet it has emerged as one of the most distinguished undergraduate institutions in Greece.

Thus, you can imagine how shocked I was to learn that in recent years the college has faced repeated challenges to its existence. Successive governments, from the right and the left, have tried to pass laws to abolish colleges like the American College of Greece.

As it is, the government will not itself accredit private colleges or universities, and a law passed in the last decade disqualifies anyone with a degree from a private university from being a college professor. Therefore, for instance, a faculty member at the American College who earned a an undergraduate degree there and then went on to Princeton, Harvard or Oxford for graduate work is not legally able to teach. One of the best colleges in the country has been placed under constant duress in this way.

Why would anyone try to close a highly successful college? Why would anyone want to take educational opportunities away from young people in a struggling economy?

Because Greek public universities and their professors act like a cartel. Making private universities essentially illegal and preventing their graduates from teaching increases enrollment at state universities and benefits the professors who work for them. Both of the main parties buy votes by protecting these professors' jobs.

This is exactly the problem in Greece. All labor markets are highly regulated and the state creates many advantages for special interest groups. This is a major reason why hundreds of billions of dollars in aid that have been funneled into Greece since it joined the European Union have not spurred significant economic growth. This is why other countries in Europe demand structural reforms in return for loaning Greece more money.

As I watched the poor begging in the streets and reflected on the terrible employment prospects for young Greeks, I wondered at the priorities of legislators who have wasted their time trying to close down an outstanding college. Instead of dealing with the country's real problems, they fiddle while Athens burns.

opinion_commentary

Bradley W. Bateman is provost of Denison University, which is located in Granville, Ohio (batemanb@denison.edu).


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