Is Austerity—or Decades of Awful Governance—Responsible for Greek Suicides?


"Austerity drives up suicide rate in debt-ridden Greece," blares a CNN.com article detailing an apparent increase in suicides in the European country arguably in the worst fiscal situation. I say apparently because the only hard facts in the story are these: "According to the health ministry data, the suicide rate jumped about 40% in the first five months of 2011 compared with a year earlier." Are suicides up in 2012, compared either to 2011 or 2010? No word.

The story highlights a couple of high-profile incidents including one in which a retiree shot himself during rush hour in an "what was apparently a protest over the financial crisis gripping the nation." The other case involves a bankrupt businessman who lit himself on fire but survived the attempt. Here what he told CNN:

"I don't feel proud about it, no way, but all these situations made me lose my self-respect and feel like I've been deprived of my rights," says Polyzonis, "because being able to pay your taxes is not only an obligation but also a right. People should have the possibility to pay their taxes, to pay their obligations to others, to offer the basic goods to their family so they can feel that they live with self-respect and dignity."

The writer of the article quotes a Greek archeologist (?) who compared the successful suicide to the event that catalyzed the Arab Spring:

"It made you realize that the overthrowing of these policies requires self-sacrifice, like in Tunisia and in Egypt where hundreds of people died…"

Leave aside the fact that the Tunisian street vendor who lit himself on fire was protesting the state's refusal to allow him to sell fruit on the street, not threatening to reduce social-welfare payouts. And that Egyptians were throwing off a widely recognized dictator who maintained power through repressive police tactics and worse.

The article notes

Under its second bailout program, approved last month, Greece has agreed to implement a series of austerity measures and undertake broader reforms to make its economy more competitive.

More here.

In terms of economic freedom, the Heritage Foundation ranks Greece as "mostly unfree" and one of the most heavily stultified economies in Europe.

Things are not good in Greece, where something like 20 percent of the population is out of work. But to blame "austerity" for social problems in the place seems ridiculous on its face. The main reason that the Greek economy is in such godawful shape is that it's been that way not simply for years but for decades, even as other European nations (Sweden, Germany) were reducing government expenditures as a percentage of GDP. The Greeks are famous for having one of the most out-of-whack welfare states in Europe, with early retirement ages (50), higher-than-average spending on pensions (and still having a problem with poverty among the elderly), and some of the most restrictive labor market policies imaginable. Few countries can maintain a debt-to-GDP ratio of over 120 percent; Greece certainly can't.

To blame the generally universally accepted need for austerity measures (some of which aren't about cuts at all) for social turmoil is to ignore far more crucial questions of how you get into such a hole in the first place. And to ignore voices like this one quoted in a 2010 New York Times story titled "Europeans Fear Crisis Threatens Liberal Benefits":

In Athens, Aris Iordanidis, 25, an economics graduate working in a bookstore, resents paying high taxes to finance Greece's bloated state sector and its employees. "They sit there for years drinking coffee and chatting on the telephone and then retire at 50 with nice fat pensions," he said. "As for us, the way things are going we'll have to work until we're 70."

It's as easy as it is cheap to link "apparent" increases with this or that political or cultural or economic development (that's your cue, Paul Krugman), but whether suicide is on the rise in Greece or throughout the euro-zone, creating the sort of growth and stability that will turn around weak if not dead economies is going to take a very different mind-set than the one that seems to be developing among many media watchers.