Let the lazy Greeks help themselves!

Titles in the Bild Magazine about Greece and the bailout

"Just sell the islands you banrupt Greeks!" "The Bild writes to the Greek bankrupt PM: You won't get anything from us!" etc.

Greeks were happily spending others’ money and piling up uncovered debts. They were living beyond their means. They should be therefore punished or at least publicly humiliated. Anyway, all southerners are similar idlers and slackers. All you hear is just their mañana, domani, siesta and fiesta. Greeks are especially repulsive. They’re fat, they sit all day long outside their houses, eat lamb and drink ouzo.

Indeed, the Greeks are the fifth most obese developed nation, they eat by far the most lamb in Europe and they have a world monopoly for ouzo. But how do you want to measure laziness? There’s no clear indicator whatsoever, which would capture it in its entirety and hence confirm this dangerous but seemingly obvious popular wisdom. On the contrary, the indicators we have would suggsest the very opposite.

One of the hardest working nations in the world

The productivity of work seems to be a good indicator of diligence and hard work. However, it’s reflecting much more importantly the capital mix rather than hard work. For obvious reasons a Burundian nail-factory worker is much less productive than a Swiss watchmaker, although they may be both equally diligent and hard working.

The hard working should by definition work more than the lazy. The time you spend in work is therefore a decent approximate indicator of hard work. It’s not perfect because you simply can’t quantify the extent of what would an unorthodox economist call a “coefficient of work idleness” and a diligent European “slacking in work hours”.  But it’s good enough because you can slack or remain idle just for a fairly limited part of the time you spend in work and therefore the indicator should be valid for gross comparisons. Besides, many (protestant) work-ethic fans do consider the time worked as a good indicator of laziness/hard work, while comparing the US and Europe.

Worked hours per active worker (OECD)

Hours worked per active worker 1992-2008 (OECD)

If we consider it as a good indicator as well, then we have to admit however that Greeks are the hardest working developed nation after South Korea! A usual 8-hour day being considered as a standard, an average Greek works some 3.9 months more than an average German every year. In practice it obviously does not mean that Greeks work for their thirteenth and fourteenth salaries even the sixteenth months but that they spend every day two hours and twenty minutes more in work than Germans – a nation we have in our conventional popular wisdom associated with diligence and hard work.1

Where do the loafers take all the money and time?

It’s also commonly understood that most Greeks don’t work at all. Either they depend on state aid – so they can sit the whole day outside and drink – or they retire sometimes in their thirties, so they could stare to by-passers and play with their prayer beads. Obviously, they have to borrow to finance all that repulsive passivity, since they could never find enough money to do that just by sponging on each other.

Well, the reality is, again, completely different. An average Greek retires admittedly 6 months before an average German, but this is due to the gender mismatch. Greek men retire later than German men.2 More importantly, if you add up the additional hours worked, the lazy Greeks are winning just incredibly. German men and women would have to work almost 14 years more (!) to catch up the time the Greeks spent in work. Equivalently, if Greeks were to enjoy the same leisure time as the Germans, their worked hours would correspond to a retirement at 75! The wildest dreams of pension reformers couldn’t reach this age in the century to come.

And, just to add some icing on the cake, Greece spends full six percent of its GDP less on social expenditure than Germany.3

Populism

Laziness is not behind the current crisis but rather incapacity of former governments to face a difficult situation, gradually reform the country and increase tax revenues. The strategy of expanding its own electorate through public service jobs has also been revealed to be a dead end.

The Austrian party FPÖ severly opposed the Greek bailout and tried at the Constitutional court.

"Our money for our people"

Similar strategies are nothing but electoral frauds for which the hardworking and honest Greeks should not be held reliable. The impossibility to reform the current state of affairs and the discord of the Greek people expressed on the streets is a result of a despaired nation, which faces decades of austerity and precariousness. It has nothing to do with laziness or with the alleged willingness to be bailed out and fed by other Europeans.

The Greek problems are structural above all: rent seeking, unclear economic institutions, corruption, low tax collection, grey economy… but again, it has nothing to do with Greek laziness or incapacity to face professional challenges. To say otherwise is a European hypocrisy, racism or buck passing.

Originally published in Czech on Aktuálně.cz


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About Ales Chmelar

Economist. Researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).

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