Anybody who has read Greek mythology knows the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. Jason’s uncle (Pelias) killed his own brother to ascend to the throne of Iolkos held by Jason’s father. This prompted Jason’s mother to give her son up to the protection of Cheiron, a centaur who raised Jason into adulthood. Jason returns to Iolkos to reclaim the throne from his uncle Pelias, who commands Jason to go to Colchis and retrieve the fleece of a golden ram, a gift by Zeus to Jason’s ancestor Phrixus. Jason agrees and recruits an able-bodied crew (the Argonauts) to man the Argo. They then set sail to reclaim the Golden Fleece, which is guarded by a dragon. With the help of sorceress Medea, who takes a liking to Jason, Jason and his crew get the Golden Fleece and return to reclaim the throne of Iolkos. King Jason’s reign was short-lived, however, and this mythological drama eventually plays out to a tragic ending.
At this writing, the mythology of modern Greece is atop the economic news cycle – the myth being that Greece can ever repay its full debt load. The electorate of modern Greece has voted in referendum to reject the austerity measures imposed on it by the European Union (EU) banking establishment as a condition of approving bailout money and avoiding default and possible withdrawal from the Euro and the EU. There is no precedent to this situation, and it may well take some demigod to fix this political and economic mess. In the week since the Greek people voted not to accept bailout terms from the EU, a last-minute agreement was reached whereby Greece would accept a $95 billion bailout loan in return for the timely implementation of economic reforms, including a sales tax increase, possible sales of national assets, and pension and labor reforms.
For decades, the Greek people have had the luxury of a government that supported a very liberal retirement system, which (in far too many cases) allowed retirees to collect benefits for more years than they worked to earn them. Add to this a populace that makes a national sport of income tax evasion and a government too weak (or lazy) to go after the evaders, and you have a recipe for economic disaster, which is unfolding as this is written.
Why should it concern us?
The reasons are many. We all know, for example, that the economic world has gotten smaller. The mere hint of Greece’s exit from the EU sent capital markets around the world, including the U.S., reeling. Greece’s possible withdrawal from the Euro will eventually weaken the currency and the EU in general, however, especially if countries like Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy follow a similar path in years to come. If that happens, the EU is destined for ultimate collapse and world markets will most certainly be threatened.
In the thousands of years since the mythological events surrounding the Golden Fleece occurred, the word fleece has crossed the boundaries of syntax and morphed into a verb meaning, roughly, “to swindle.” I think the word applies here, for the Greek government has repeatedly misrepresented its intent to tighten its economic belt. And yet, the EU has a lot to lose if it allows the precedent of a country leaving its currency.
We will see how all this plays out in time, but the Golden Fleece has turned into a Leaden Fleece for the Greek people, and sometimes reality outpaces mythology in pushing the bounds of what is credible.
Dean M. Peters, Editor