In Depressed Athens, a Money Museum Tries to Turn the Tide

As the people of Greece anticipate an even deeper slump and a possible abandonment of the euro, the central bank unveils a museum chronicling the history of money. This is what passes for financial education.

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ATHENS — It doesn’t take long to get the pulse of this country’s economic problems. After my arrival, the taxi ride to the hotel was delayed an hour by street demonstrations. “We have big problems,” the driver volunteered. “Greeks go to bed each night with no idea what will happen in the morning.”

Outside the city, on the isles, people speak of “The Depression” in Athens, and merchants advertise “crisis prices.” A jeweler said she was selling at the cost of materials because the tourist season is over and “I can’t eat turquoise this winter.”

A few defend austerity measures, saying the debt must be paid. But many more say they are just waiting for Greece to default and abandon the euro. They have no idea how that would affect their financial well-being. But they expect things to get worse anyway, which is saying a lot in a nation where public pensions and wages have been cut 20% and the unemployment rate is 24% — and twice that for people under 30.

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Amid this upheaval, there’s been little effort to join the global financial-literacy movement. The private banking industry sponsors a Junior Achievement program geared at high school students. But there’s been little penetration. In many schools, the teachers are so disgusted with bankers that they won’t let volunteers visit their classrooms. Meanwhile, the government is preoccupied with recapitalizing its banks and saving the economy. It’s done almost nothing on the financial-education front.

“We understand that financial literacy is more important since the crisis,” says Christos Gortsos, secretary general of the Hellenic Bank Association. “We expect it will become more of a priority next year.”

This is all understandable. The people of Greece are going through wrenching change. “The life of Greeks will never be the same,” an official at the Bank of Greece told me. “We have to change our ways. We have to plan our futures with less — less income, less support and less privilege.” He asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

This change, though, is precisely why the country should be embracing financial education right now. Going forward, and forever after, Greeks will bear a greater burden in securing their own financial security. This is the mother of all teachable moments. The economy is in the news, and people are interested.

Nations get religion about financial education for different reasons. In the U.S., the movement is well advanced and is rooted in efforts to encourage retirement savings as traditional pensions have faded away. In Colombia, the effort got started when inflation rates were 20% to 30% for two decades into the middle 1990s. In Spain, financial education caught on following the Internet bubble. It takes a financial crisis to get started.

One thing Greek officials have done is open a national museum of economic history, geared toward high school students. Increasingly, the two-year-old museum is a popular destination for young people on educational tours from the U.S., museum officials say. The museum is meant to help students understand the euro crisis, which an official called “cathartic” for Greeks and comparable to a person’s “learning they have cancer.”

Many Greeks struggle with the very concept of a central bank and why inflation must be controlled. To make the point, the museum features the largest-denomination drachma ever: a 100-billion bill, printed in 1944, when that amount wouldn’t buy a loaf of bread in the wake of hyperinflation related to the German occupation. The history-of-money exhibit ends with the drachma’s being converted to euros in 2001. This year, incidentally, is the last anyone will be allowed to turn in their drachmas and receive euros. Still, 0.3% of the former currency remains in private hands, most likely all of that with collectors.

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Also on display are the earliest known forms of currency, including a whale’s tooth, boar’s tusk and cowry shells dating to 1600 B.C., and the first known paper currency, from China in 1287, bearing a written warning that anyone attempting to forge the currency would be put to death by beheading.

I enjoyed my museum visit. But this will not give students a real understanding of the euro crisis. What it does well is make the point that draconian change is upon Greece, and its people are going to need to be more self-sufficient. That condition is true in many other countries too, including the U.S. — though the change is far more orderly and manageable. Still, it’s a point that can’t be made too often. Especially in Greece.