The Public Sector

Since I seem to regularly attract people who seem to need to vent their hatred of “the public sector,” and since I regularly hear that nonsense about the Greek economic situation being due to everyone in the public sector receiving ridiculous amounts of money, I’d like to quickly state some facts and explain my position.

The most popular (and brilliant) Greek comic book writer/artist, Arkas, has a comic about a dead guy in Heaven. In one strip, the dead guy, who does not particularly enjoy being dead, inquires about reincarnation. He’s told that it’s an option, but there’s no good position left – only various critters (ants and snails, or something like that)… and public sector employees.

Does that tell you something about what it means to work in the public sector in Greece?

All the hateful ranting about Greek public sector workers enriching themselves, receiving 14 months’ worth of pay, bla bla bla, is simply incredibly ridiculous to anyone who knows the first thing about Greece. Most public sector employees work long hours (Greek people work more hours on average than people in most European countries), get almost no vacation time, a pittance of a pension… and are paid incredibly little. Any extra months of pay that existed weren’t a means of enrichment, they were a way to keep people alive. My mother, who is a doctor with many years of experience, gets so little money that she could probably not live off of it on her own.

And that’s the truth about the public sector in Greece. And all the fantasies about lazy Greeks enriching themselves while the economy goes to hell are just that: fantasies. The only lazy Greek people enriching themselves are politicians, corporations and the Orthodox Church.

So much for that particular myth. The public sector certainly doesn’t exist to enrich anyone. But what does it exist for? What should it exist for, if not in this terrible form?

The public sector should exist because its purpose is to provide a service, not to make a profit. And its existence, supported by our taxes, allows us to live in a society where there is a lot less to fear, and a lot more to do. I often find that American people, so used to a government which nowadays exists primarily to channel funds to the rich and wage war overseas, cannot actually imagine that another type of state is possible. But it is, and I’m not talking about Soviet Russia.

Now, I’m the last person to glamourize Germany; I’ve often stated my dissatisfaction with its cultural standards, its politics and its god-forsaken weather. Neither am I going to claim that “Social Democracy” is the solution to anything. But Germany used to have a very strong, well-functioning public sector; hell, compared to other countries, it still has, even though it’s been taken apart rather massively. Do you know what that means?

Having a strong, well-functioning public sector means that people don’t need to worry about healthcare. Most Americans take it for granted that thousands of people die each year because they can’t afford healthcare, but in most of the rest of the Western world, that seems as barbaric as… well, as barbaric as it really is. Because thanks to the public sector, this kind of thing doesn’t really happen here. If you earn money, you pay your (affordable) contributions, and then you’re OK. (If you don’t earn money, you get support. No, not half as many people as you think exploit it, because most people get bored of sitting at home.) You can go to any doctor you want to. If you need surgery, you get surgery. If you need medicine, you get medicine. And that’s it. It’s that easy. All that worrying, all that fear about getting sick and having your savings disappear into medical bills… doesn’t exist.

Having a strong public sector means being able to get a university education for free. It means you don’t have to enlist in the army and risk dying in another country, or being forced to kill people that have done nothing to you, just to get an education. You don’t have to spend years working shitty jobs to be able to afford university fees. You can spend those years acquiring the knowledge and training that will make you a more enlightened, more productive member of society.

What I just described isn’t some socialist utopia, it’s Germany a few years ago. It’s almost any European country a few years ago. It was everyday reality for millions of people for decades, and it only changed as more and more neoliberal practices were embraced, as the rich used their politicians (which must always be present in a Social Democracy, which is still just Capitalism Lite) to eliminate taxes for super-high earners, to promote free-market practices, and to send the country to war. Then the economy collapsed.

The money to maintain a thriving public sector is right there, if corporations aren’t allowed to dodge taxes and billions aren’t wasted on wars. The money is there to create jobs, to provide free healthcare, to take care of the homeless, and to support education.

And that is why we must support public sector workers in the same way we support all workers.

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