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Timothy R. Clark: The big, fat Greek predicament: How the EU is avoiding the root of Greece's problems

Published: Monday, June 11 2012 3:04 p.m. MDT

The ancient Acropolis hill with the Parthenon temple is illuminated above the city of Athens as at the background is seen the Saronic gulf on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012. After three days of delays, Greek coalition leaders began crucial debt talks Wednesday with the prime minister to review a draft deal on steep cutbacks demanded by creditors in return for a 130 billion euro ($170 billion) bailout.

Petros Giannakouris, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Remember Henry David Thoreau’s statement: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Now ponder that statement with Greece and the European Union in mind.

I look at Greece and I’m not optimistic. Neither the government nor the people seem to possess the moral and political will to reduce entitlements. The European Union can wring its hands and pursue the path of bailouts and imposed austerity. But it can’t rescue a nation that is unwilling to change its behavior. No one can. The centerpiece article in the May 28 edition of Bloomberg Businessweek is heart-breaking. As one 50-year-old Greek lawyer described it, “It has to do with our culture and our failure to prepare for when times get tough.”

Meanwhile, the headline stories surrounding the Greek predicament are focused on the EU and the European Central Banks’ ability to solve the problem. The first thing we need to get straight is that the ECB cannot solve the problem. It can only hack at the branches with more bailouts to buy a little time. It can’t lift the Greek economy; it can only provide temporary life support. This patient must do its part to get well. That will take excruciatingly painful reform, but what kind of reform? Is this a PR problem? Can’t we just rebrand Greece and create a new international image? That’s what some people think.

Many people think Greece needs a fascist ruler to whip the people into shape, which reminds me of Thomas Carlyle who said that slaves needed a “beneficient whip” to help them see the light. It’s an outrageous point of view, and yet when economies stumble and societies find themselves on the brink of destruction, the calls go out for stronger central control, more socialistic — even totalitarian — solutions. And the strident denunciations of democracy and free markets are heard throughout the land. The command economy is seen as the last resort. The moral superiority of democracy and free enterprise are forgotten when people are thrust back into survival mode.

We see the same pattern in many western nations and in the United States. When the economy tanks, the common instinct is to look upon our benevolent government for relief. More tax, more stimulus, more regulation, more subsidy, more spending, more benefits.

“How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been,” wrote C.S. Lewis. The same can be said for the monotonous similarity of cherished orthodoxy to call on the state for relief. And what are the consequences? A creeping, paternalistic, remorseless state that gradually moves into the business of annexing our freedoms. And what are the consequences of that? A spiritual and economic stupor and torpor among the people.

In Thomas Hobbes classic work, "Leviathan," he describes what happens when a society loses its self-confidence. He says, “In such condition there is no place for industry because the fruit thereof is uncertain.” Societies are no different than individuals: When we lose confidence, we usually withhold our best efforts because we don’t think it matters. We don’t bring our best game. If you don’t think anything will grow from your planting, you don’t plant. Do you remember the Soviet-era adage: “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”

It’s actually not very funny at all. If it weren’t for Russia’s vast natural resources of oil and natural gas, the country would be splitting at the seams because it is infused with corruption, depression and is spiritually forlorn. The people there have God-given subsidies that have allowed them to avert economic depression.

Greece is simply a symbol of a much larger threat — the unfounded belief in central banks and welfare states. We seem intent on ignoring the root of the problem, which is a moral problem before it is an economic problem. It’s almost too embarrassing to mention at this point because it’s so obvious: We are complicit in the problem of our own moral and economic malaise and we know it.

As Mark Steyn put it, “It’s hard to come up with a wake-up call for a society as dedicated as latterday Europe to the belief that life is about sleeping in.”

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. His new book, "The Employee Engagement Mindset" was recently released from McGraw-Hill. Email: trclark@trclark.net.

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