Saturday, 19 November 2011

Culture Club - Are things as bad as they say they are in Italy and Greece?

They've been dominating the front page and business section for several weeks. So let's start out today with some conventional wisdom on the two Southern European Mediterranean countries called Italy and Greece.

You may know by now that their birthrates are in the bottom five of all countries worldwide (both hovering around 1.2, well below the 2.1 population replacement rate). You may know that their debt to GDP ratios are among the highest of all nations on earth. You may know that their borrowing costs and public finances have become catastrophic to the point of causing two elected prime ministers to resign and be replaced by unelected, European financial-industry technocrats in the past week. Yet even if you do know all this, it remains unclear how these leaders will right their nations' fiscal ships at the pace needed to restore "confidence" in the euro zone. The governments of these places are rife with corruption, collect few taxes, and continue to fund expensive state run apparatuses (military, health care, etc). Unsustainable spending and social programs in both places have wrought havoc on the euro zone, made its common currency vulnerable to collapse and threatened to bring down the whole global economy, but the structural flaws I mentioned will still never be called into question. Rather, even more debt will be piled on by the IMF and other parasitic institutions under the ridiculous pretext that these economies are going to rev up and fire all cylinders soon.

Whether you were aware of the numbers or not, they are all national statistics and mainstream media facts which you could have gleaned from looking at the headlines and reading news articles over the past few weeks. And the phenomena are just as applicable, for the most part, to Japan. The ugly demographic and economic pictures don't tell the whole story, though. What do shitty economies actually mean to the people of these nations?

If you're young and urban, it may very well mean voting with your feet, as millions of Italians and Greeks have done for decades. The descendants of these folks make up a large part of North American society now, including yours truly. This would be nothing new for the wanting-to-be-upwardly mobile, bourgeois section of these societies; there is scarcely an elite (doctor, lawyer, press, finance, economist) within them who has not received all or part of his education at some prestigious, English-speaking institution abroad (I know immigrants used to be poor with that dime a dozen "Came here with $20" story, but immigration for poor people effectively ended in North America decades ago). Take the highest level example: deposed Greek prime minister Papandreou and opposition figure were former roommates at an Ivy League university.
I remember travelling in London a few years ago and meeting an upstanding young Greek man under 30 who was doing his master's or PhD, I can't recall, but what I do recall is how incredulous he was when I wondered aloud why he might not study in his country or, god forbid, his language. The point is that these countries have suffered a brain drain amongst their well-heeled who, for many reasons, prefer the anglo-saxon way of doing things to their native lands'. Unable to reconcile the two, they have left and continue to leave for the shores of North America, UK and Australia.

Other people have stayed back. And I wouldn't worry about most of them, despite their greying character. I heard two things in the last week that made me remember how incompatible modern, digital, up to the minute news driven society and the flashy, skyscraper, benz and suit character of modern ponzi scheme capitalism are with the idyllic mediterranean countryside. In the comments of one article a gentleman remarked how he recently ate at a Greek restaurant in North America and asked the Greek waiter, as a joke, when he was going back to Greece. The waiter surprised him by explaining his parents had a house, a garden, land, goats, and made everything from wine to cheese themselves, and whatever happens in Athens doesn't mean a damn thing to them. I'm sure they used drachmas to purchase what they needed for decades and wouldn't bat an eye at using them again. Such people generally don't have time for the hyperbole and noise of 21st century debt-bubble capitalism on steroids and the 24 hour tripe cycle on the interwebs.

As I'm sure it is for the good people of Sardinia as well. I was reading in a publication last weekend (a circular for Italian Canadians living in the GTA, actually) that this island, the 2nd biggest in the Italian territory, is one of the rare "blue zones" in the world. This designation comes from the UN which monitors population statistics and health indicators and gives the "blue zone" label to people such as the Sardinians who live to 100 much more frequently than average. Chalk it up to moderation, a healthy localised economy, and the olive oil, low meat mediterranean diet. I'm sure more heart attacks about Italy's economic situation have occurred on trading floors and in front of computers and TVs around the world than in Sardinia.

So there's today's bit of unconventional wisdom. Instead of clinging to the mainstream media's depiction of these countries as basket cases and economic clowns, maybe you should go visit them and see what really goes on outside the capitals. You will find millions of people who are opted out of a destructive system on many levels - because they were anchored enough in a healthy and traditional lifestyle that it never made sense for them to buy in to begin with. These are people whose lives will probably not change very much when their countries' economies collapse and the rest of the world is plunged into chaos with defaults, bank runs, and 2012 social unrest that will make Occupy Wall Street look like the Santa Claus Parade.

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