Let’s face the music, not dance

There were a couple of things I didn’t have much experience of before coming to Greece. One was dancing at weddings; the other was taking part in strikes. The decision by the union that represents my profession to call three 24-hour strikes in the last three weeks has given me ample time to consider the similarities between wedding dances and strikes. The speed and togetherness with which a long line of unions have come together to express themselves, this time in opposition to the proposed pension reforms, seems to bear a resemblance to the wedding guests who are sucked into the frantic Syrtaki dance that livens up every reception. The only problem is that the band won’t be playing for much longer and we are going to be left with much more than sore feet if a solution to our imminent pension crisis is not found. The unions have every right to stamp their feet because the government has handled the issue woefully so far. Seemingly unclear on what its exact positions are, apparently unfamiliar with the exact figures and constantly looking to make adjustments that will grab a favorable headline or boost a poll rating – it doesn’t appear the best way to tackle what is set to be the biggest political and social issue of the next decade. The decision to appoint Fani Palli-Petralia who was, presumably, not rated good enough to continue at the Tourism Ministry to take over as Employment Minister following the Magginas fiasco is also a curious move. However, the behavior of the unions could also be called into question. The right to protest over such an important issue cannot be doubted. As French philosopher and political economist Bertrand de Jouvenel wrote: «A society of sheep must in time beget a government of wolves.» Being alert to a possible erosion of rights or benefits should be the natural instinct of any society. Rebelling against injustice or perceived injustice is what rejuvenates our democracy and the idea that the retirement age could be increased or the size of pensions decreased clearly arouses anger among many people. But there is also an inherent contradiction in the position of many of the unions. They all may be united in demanding that the levels of pension payouts and retirement ages are safeguarded but they are also demanding that the pension funds remain separate, even if this could lead to the collapse of the whole system. The government has proposed, in virtually its only clear suggestion, that the 155 pension funds that currently exist be merged into five or eight – still an inordinately high number compared to most Western countries. Some of these funds are wealthy, others are bankrupt. Professionals insured with the wealthier funds appear appalled at the idea that their group could be merged with other, less well-off, funds and their money used to make up for shortfalls in the system. So, on the one hand, they are demanding a pension system that is viable and equal for everyone but on the other they want to maintain the exclusive benefits built up over the years. With the dancers pulling in different directions, some are going to be left in a heap on the floor. This is where one would expect the opposition to step in, but PASOK has remained largely silent on the issue. Presumably, this is for two main reasons: Firstly, it believes the government is making a fine mess of things on its own and doesn’t need any help and, secondly, because the proposals that New Democracy is making now are very similar to the reforms that the Socialists attempted to implement in 2001 but failed largely due to a lack of political will when confronted with mass protests, similar to those seen in Athens earlier this month. The fact that we are dancing to the same tune six years later does not say much for the maturity of our democracy. In that six-year period, there has been a lack of debate about one of the key issues, which is how the reserves of the pension funds are invested. Too often the people managing millions of euros and who hold the financial security of thousands of people are financial novices rather than experts and the return they get on investments is a trickle rather than a steady flow. The positions of the two other main opposition parties, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) and the Communist Party, which have refused to take part in any kind of discussions aimed at reforming the pension system, also seem to be counterproductive. PASOK and the two main unions, GSEE and ADEDY, have also rebuffed talks with the government. All we need now is Groucho Marx to reprise his role as Professor Wagstaff in «Horse Feathers,» where he sang: «I don’t know what they have to say It makes no difference anyway Whatever it is, I’m against it No matter what it is or who commenced it, I’m against it Your proposition may be good But let’s have one thing understood: Whatever it is, I’m against it And even when you’ve changed it or condensed it, I’m against it.» The issue of pension reform should be big enough to cross party lines if for no other reason than the fact that it will trouble governments, regardless of color or political persuasion, for decades to come. But the public is the one that needs to set the tune. Instead of protesting in favor of maintaining the doomed status quo, we should be pushing for change and encouraging the system to adapt to our changing needs. Pension reform is now a global, not just a local, problem. The Italian government faces a vote of confidence today on its proposed pension reforms. The British government this week went back on its pledge to grant stay-at-home mothers the same pension rights as working women. It’s clear that ensuring the long-term viability of pension systems across the world is going to require some sacrifices to be made by governments and voters alike. Geoff Mulgan, a former adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, wrote in his recent book «Good and Bad Power»: «The best state is one that is servant to the people. The best society is one where the people are servants to each other.» It’s time for us all to face the music and stop the dance of the absurd. Our future depends on it.