Americans like to believe they are masters of their own destiny. The ancient Greeks had a different understanding. They thought the fate of humanity was in the hands of temperamental gods. Modern Greeks are demonstrating how their ancestors, not Americans, were closer to the truth.
After years of profligate government spending that has brought the country to the edge of bankruptcy, Greece has had a strict austerity regime imposed on it by Germany and the European Central Bank. Sky-high unemployment, curtailed social benefits and a moribund economy have been the result. Not surprisingly, Greek citizens have rebelled. They blame politicians and bankers for getting them into this mess and resent outsiders telling them to feel guilty and suffer quietly.
Trying to take their fate into their own hands, the Greeks held an election a few days ago in which a wide spectrum of political parties -- from neo-Nazis to neo-Marxists -- got shares of the vote. But no one got enough seats in parliament to form a government. So, they will vote again next month hoping for a more coherent result.
One very possible outcome of the next election could be a push for Greece to withdraw from the European monetary union and replace the euro with the drachma. Such a restoration of the national currency might give the Greek government more control over the nation's economic future -- or it may guarantee a dismal drop deeper into poverty.
No one really knows exactly what would happen if Greece left the euro zone, but few seem to think it would be good. Other heavily indebted members of the European Union, such as Spain, Portugal and Italy, could feel heightened pressure from panicked bankers. Bankruptcy in one of those countries could tip the European economy into a steep dive.
With the European crisis as a backdrop, Americans are in the midst of a presidential election in which the economy is by far the biggest issue. Voters will be asking themselves if the modest economic revival in the U.S. is enough to justify rewarding Barack Obama with another four years in office or if Mitt Romney could do better. As is the case in every election, the sitting president will get credit or blame for what happens on his watch. If the economic numbers are being dragged down by events in Europe and the resentful rebellion of the Greeks, voters will punish the man in the White House.
Obama came into office facing the worst financial crisis in 80 years. The opposition party in Congress blocked or watered down nearly all of his proposed remedies. And now, a bunch of unruly, angry people protesting in the streets of Athens may have more effect on the state of the economy than anything he does.
Obama is learning the hard lesson the ancients knew well but that modern people ignore: Our fate is seldom in our own hands. Our best laid plans fall before the whims of the gods -- or the inescapable chaos of human folly.