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From The Chicago Tribune's John Kass, who's reporting this week from Athens, Greece:

The old man, reportedly ill with cancer and exhausted by the agony devouring Greece, just couldn't take it anymore.

His name was Dimitris. And so he walked out Wednesday morning onto the beautiful and peaceful Syntagma Square across the street from the Parliament. And with him he carried the tools of his martyrdom: He carried a piece of paper that was his suicide note, and he carried a gun.

He stood on a patch of grass near a tree in the shade. Then he pulled the trigger.

And instantly, the 77-year-old retired pharmacist became a symbol in this economically desperate nation, where one-fifth of the workforce is unemployed.

The retiree left a suicide note, which read in part:
"The occupation government... has literally wiped out my ability to survive, based on a respectable pension which I had paid for during a 35-year period," the pensioner said in an excerpt published in Greek newspapers.

"I find no other solution for a dignified end before I start sifting through garbage to feed myself," he allegedly wrote in red ink.

The wave of harsh austerity measures have taken its toll on Greece, a country which once boasted the lowest suicide rates in Europe. That rate has doubled since the country's social net was slashed, and suicide rates in other troubled eurozone economies are also on the rise. MSNBC lists some of the more high-profile cases around Europe.

What causes a retiree who has worked and paid taxes all his life to stroll into a busy plaza across from Parliament and put a bullet in his head? What caused a 78-year-old Italian woman in Sicily to jump to her death this week? Or led two Italian men to set themselves on fire?

Economic policies are more than pretty PDFs to be waived around election season. They have a real and dramatic impact on people's lives.

This week, President Barack Obama labeled the Romney-Ryan budget plan passed by the House "social Darwinism" because of its severe cuts to our nation's social safety nets:

This Congressional Republican budget, however, is something different altogether. It's a Trojan Horse. Disguised as deficit reduction plan, it's really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It's nothing but thinly-veiled Social Darwinism. It's antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everyone who's willing to work for it – a place where prosperity doesn't trickle down from the top, but grows outward from the heart of the middle class. And by gutting the very things we need to grow an economy that's built to last – education and training; research and development – it's a prescription for decline.
In his push to gains support for his draconian, slash-and-burn budget approach, Representative Paul Ryan warned that if the United States didn't adopt austerity measures itself, it would end up "like Greece."

Greece as fiscal boogeyman has long been a favorite rhetorical tool for conservatives, but there's no truth in the claim that the debt situation in the United States is or ever can be "like Greece." The talking point has been debunked by nonpartisan economists and pundits across the board (you can read more fact-checks of the claim that the United States is "like Greece" here, here, here, here and here, to list just a few). Yet what Nobel prize winning economist and NYT columnist Paul Krugman has called the "Hellenization" of our economic discourse isn't going to go away:

The truth is that if you want to know who is really trying to turn America into Greece, it’s not those urging more stimulus for our still-depressed economy; it’s the people demanding that we emulate Greek-style austerity even though we don’t face Greek-style borrowing constraints, and thereby plunge ourselves into a Greek-style depression.
Greece should be a part of the national budget debate here in the United States, but it shouldn't be used as a convenient boogeyman to scare voters, much less as an excuse to chop away at programs that help the middle class and the poor. As Krugman says, our politicians should look to Greece as a prime example of what happens when a nation seeks to correct its mistakes on the backs of those who already carry the weight of a depressed economy on their shoulders.

So yes, Republicans, let's look to Greece. Let's look what happens when austerity is fetishized and when social safety net programs are viewed as dragons to be slayed by politicians in suits of armor.

According to analysts, Greece is suffering through what could be the worst recession ever suffered by a nation in modern times. The IMF and other entities have stepped up to offer bailout assistance to Greece in exchange for a conservative's dream policy package: hacking away at the minimum wage, obliterating rightly-earned pensions, laying off tens of thousands of government workers, and otherwise shrinking government to the size where it could be drowned in teacup, not just a bathtub.

What's been the result of these austerity policies?

Greece's unemployment rate has skyrocketed to over 20%, with unemployment among 15-24 year olds reaching 51%. UNICEF estimates that one out of every four children in Greece lives in poverty. Pensions have been slashed down to stumps of ineffectiveness -- retirees are seeing their incomes plummet by 40%. Earlier this year, the minimum wage in Greece was cut by 22% -- to about $770 a month (before taxes). Minimum wages for the under 25 set are set at a bleak $575 a month. Unemployment assistance under the austerity measures has been cut back to $467 a month. The poor and the middle class are being squeezed dry, while the government imposes such novel policies as cutting off your electricity when you can't afford to pay your property taxes.

In a move that I'm sure would make Ryan, Romney and other members of the "debt first" crowd smile, the billions that have been pumped into Greece as part of the bailout packages have gone almost exclusively towards debt reduction and not towards pro-growth policies. To emphasize again, the money going into Greece during its years-long recession has largely flowed back out to European banks and bondholders (more here and here).

This is what happens when you focus exclusively on debt reduction over growth. The wealthy and their institutions keep thriving, while the rest of society struggles to survive.

President Obama calls this effect "social Darwinism." I call it cruel and cold-hearted.

Indeed, "cruel" may be the best adjective to describe the Ryan-Romney approach. What else do you call throwing seniors to the wolves of the greedy private health insurance market, sweeping the poor under mismanaged state Medicaid carpets, and dismantling the safety net programs that are aimed at saving the most vulnerable in our society?

President Obama has warned that the Republican budget approach is "really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country." It's a vision of a government that shrinks and collapses into itself while the wealthy and well-connected cheer like a Colosseum audience at the carnage.  We've seen what that type of pro-austerity "vision" can do in Europe. We can't give Republicans the chance to try implementing it here at home.

Originally posted to Georgia Logothetis on Thu Apr 05, 2012 at 07:57 AM PDT.

Also republished by The Federation and Income Inequality Kos.

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