Having done a flying visit through the Mediterranean, I’m scarcely in any position to make far reaching comments about the towns or countries I visited. Nevertheless, I do feel competent to offer two very specific comments, one about Greece and one about Italy.
Throughout our visit to Greece, there was a nationwide taxi strike taking place. The air in Athens was unusually clear, thanks to the decreased traffic. Transportation was slightly more difficult than it would have been with taxis, but certainly not impossible. Everyone on the cruise ship seemed to manage fine using Hop On Hop Off buses (in Athens), private buses, private tours, cruise tours, and public transportation. In other words, the missing taxis were inconvenient, but not an insurmountable problem.
As best I was able to understand, the taxi drivers were protesting the fact that the Greek government, in an effort to expand employment opportunities, was making taxi licenses more readily available. In order to show their disdain for this maneuver, the taxi drivers stopped working during peak tourist season. Let me rephrase that: During a total economic collapse in their country, the taxi drivers walked away from the money.
In Italy, too, people blithely walked away from money. Let me explain: August is the top tourist month in Rome. If I had a store in Rome, I’d keep it open, just as I’d keep my store open here in America on December 26. Only a fool closes shop when customers are banging at the door. And believe me, tourists are customers. They are desperate to spend money. A lot of people on the cruise ship get off only to buy things. They have no interests in the sights, traveling only to bring home foreign goodies.
Rome apparently has a lot of fools. An enormous number of businesses were closed for all or part of August. Nor am I talking about businesses that cater solely to the Rome community, such as law firms or insurance companies. I’m talking about stores and restaurants, the kind of businesses that could benefit from an excitable, well-funded tourist trade.
I know that, despite acting foolish, neither the Italians nor the Greeks are actually fools. Instead, they are citizens of welfare states. They know that, no matter how much or how little they work, they’ll still have medical care, housing, food, education, free museum admissions, retirement care, etc. The money earned for work is gilding-the-lily money. It’s nice, but one can survive without it. In theory, this freedom from want (want of health care, want of shelter, want of food, etc.) is a wonderful thing. In fact, though, it is a disincentive to productivity which, inevitably, creates less productivity. The downward spiral keeps on going. Less productivity means less government revenue. Less government revenue means the government has less ability to provide the health care, housing, food, education, free museum admissions and so on. Suddenly, you end up like Greece or England: no money, no benefits, and a citizenry that’s forgotten how to work.
Yes, I recognize that these are overarching generalizations, and that causation and correlation are not the same thing. Nevertheless, it does seem to me that there’s a pattern here of walking away from economic opportunities because there’s no risk. Oh, wait! That’s wrong. The risk is that the economic opportunities won’t come back.