Eventually, it won’t be ‘Greek’ to us

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 18, 2011

In high school we had a chemistry teacher who told us he spoke all languages except Greek.

When we’d roll off a phrase we’d learned in French class, he’d reply, “Greek to me.”

I thought of him this week as CNN broadcast footage of thousands of demonstrators marching on the Greek Parliament to try to keep the government from passing a five-year austerity plan to cut spending by reducing benefits and public services, raise taxes, and sell state property.

The country’s economic crisis has been in the news for more than a year. In 2010, Greece’s government received more than $150 billion in loans from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to avoid defaulting on $400 billion in sovereign debt. The terms of that loan required austerity measures that weren’t enough.

The newest austerity measures are an attempt to get continued support from the IMF, despite a worsening credit rating.

Standard & Poors recently downgraded the country’s credit rating from B to CCC, making Greece the least credit-worthy nation out of 131 countries it monitors.

Americans should be paying attention. Our own government reached its $14.3 trillion debt limit on May 16, and only action by a reluctant Congress can raise it. To date this year, decisions over raising the ceiling have resulted in partisan standoffs followed by spending cuts.

Congress needs to act by Aug. 2 so that we can borrow approximately $4 billion a day to pay our bills. Yes, that was billion with a “b.”

Economists have differing opinions about what would happen if the world’s “richest nation” defaulted on its debt.

“Nobody knows what would happen, but why in the world would you want to try to find out?” David Walker, the former U.S. comptroller general now heading the fiscal watchdog group Comeback America Initiative, said. “At least we experimented with nuclear bombs before we dropped one.”

Congressman John Tanner (D-Tenn) called the debt ceiling issue “ a live-fire exercise.”

It is compellingly clear that the United States can’t continue to spend money at its current rate, which means more taxes or more cuts. And here’s what’s scary about that: the reaction to austerity measures in America would probably make the protests in Greece look like a summer picnic in the park.

Safe highways; military protection; Social Security funding for retirees, the disabled and orphans; farming subsidies; parks; food stamps; housing subsidies; student loans; education; federal retirement; the federal payroll; cancer research; air traffic control; Medicare; Medicaid, foreign aid that turns potential enemies into allies … which of these things do you think we as a nation could live without?

There are pitfalls to any we might choose, and any of them could worsen a week global economy.

Yes, we should be watching Greece, for the problems they face might not always be ‘Greek’ to us.