The Greek Frame

You see it in op-eds. You see it in the comment sections of online newspapers and blogs. If we don’t do “X” – “X” usually meaning taking a chainsaw to social welfare spending or public sector salaries – we’re going to turn into Greece [cue terrifying music]. You usually see some version of the following:

Greece spends [double/triple/or the actual percentage] more on the social safety net than other countries.

Depending on how it’s actually phrased this comment is, in fact, technically true. Greece does spend more on “social protection” and “general government services” than the OECD average. The key, and weaselly, part of it is “social”. Unmentioned is other government spending which is lower than the OECD averages.

Apples and oranges each cost a dollar.

Bob likes apples more than oranges and buys 8 apples and 2 oranges.

Frank like oranges more and buys 4 apples and 6 oranges.

Bob is spending double the amount on apples than Frank but both are spending $10.

Government expenditures per capita

The key metric is total government spending per capita. And in that Greece was almost exactly the OECD average. Yes, they spent more than they took in, but it’s not because they were “proliferate” spenders. Greece fell down on the revenue intake side of things. Such as having a serious tax evasion problem.

So when you see Greece used as a boogeyman in online discussions, look carefully at the phrasing.