Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Voter, Heal Thyself

On April 4th, a Greek man named Dimitris Christoulas shot himself in a square in Athens, in part as protest for the government's austerity measures. The Exiled has a translation of the suicide note he left:
The collaborationist Tsolakoglou government has annihilated my ability for my survival, which was based on a very dignified pension that I alone (without any state sponsoring) paid for 35 years.
Since my advanced age does not allow me a way of a dynamic reaction (although if a fellow Greek was to grab a Kalashnikov, I would be the second after him), I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance.
I believe that young people with no future, will one day take up arms and hang the traitors of this country at Syntagma square, just like the Italians did to Mussolini in 1945 (Piazza Loreto in Milan).
What a sad story.

Suicide rarely happens only because of one immediate cause - there's a ton of people suffering in Greece, but the vast majority of them aren't killing themselves. Taking suicide notes too literally can cause you to miss the bigger points about mental illness and depression that are likely contributing causes. If you go down that path, you wind up doing ridiculous things like convicting people of bullcrap charges like 'invasion of privacy' and 'bias intimidation' (whatever that is) because they did nasty things to someone who later killed themselves.

So you want to take all suicide notes with a grain of salt. But that said, the note above is interesting as an example of a particular mindset.

The note is full of rage at the Greece's leaders. Not only are they traitors for destroying the country, but likening them to Nazi collaborators in World War 2 suggests that the selling out of Greece to the Germans in the current crisis is something that rankles too. Of course, the reality measures (and the associated cuts in living standards for people like Christoulas who saw their pensions cut in recent budget measures) are the most proximate cause of misery. And fair enough too: pensioners end up thoroughly screwed, because they have the fewest options for replacing their lost income, as they're too old to go back to work. Not that the young and able-bodied have a ton of options for just 'going back to work' in modern Greece, but still.

But now we turn to what is not written.

You might note that there doesn't seem to be much rage at the earlier governments for running up the huge spending tabs that necessitated such dramatic cuts this time around. If you're only angry at the current government for cutting spending, but not angry at the previous governments for creating the whole mess, you've got a serious case of shooting the messenger.

But that's not even the most prominent of the dogs that didn't bark in the note above.

Q: Who is the single biggest group who contributed to the Greek crisis but who doesn't appear in the note above?

A: The Greek electorate.

The virtue of democracy is not that voters necessarily get better government, but merely that voters get the government they deserve. In the end, politicians respond to the incentives voters give them. If you keep voting for more spending, they'll keep spending. If you keep voting for so much spending that the country is now broke, and then vote to demand even more spending, don't be surprised when the politicians appear to act as if they're ignoring the public will. It's like the shareholders of General Motors firing the CEO because he hasn't made a flying car yet. You can keep firing CEO after CEO, but that ain't going to make the flying car magically appear.

The great Milton Friedman understood this well. In a democracy, we don't need to have 'non-traitorous politicians'. We need electorates to reward politicians who make the right choices.

Milt was too nice to point out the corollary to this argument - if the the current politicians keep doing the wrong thing over and over, this suggests that the electorate as a whole, through their opinion polls and their voting behaviour, has given them the incentives to do so. And thus, in the end, they have no one to blame but themselves.

An individual can be justifiably pissed off under a democracy - you vote for the guy who would put in good policies, but the guy with the bad policies gets elected. That's understandable - you did your part to support good policy, but what else can you do?

But the electorate as a whole cannot justifiably be pissed off at the outcomes the policies implemented by their leaders. As a whole, you get the politicians you deserve, whether that's George Washington, Lord Palmerston, Gerry Adams, or Hamas.

As Radiohead put it:
You do it to yourself, you do,
And that's why it really hurts.
You do it to yourself, just you,
You and no one else.
You do it to yourself.
(From a discussion with The Greek).

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