Spanish Dream: Become an Apparatchik?

14 Mar

While “civil servant” is perhaps the most literal translation of the Spanish word “funcionario“, it doesn’t quiet capture the multi-sided flavor of the word, which can range from (faceless, Mandarin) “bureaucrat” to (unfireable, useless) “apparatchik”. That’s not to say that everybody speaks badly of government functionaries in Spain, or that all of them are useless. For one, a funcionario is just as envied and respected as it is depsied. Teachers and police-officers certainly could not be dispensed with, and it’s not like their earnings are ridiculously high as are bailed out CEO’s in the States, but with the Spanish economy being what it is, there is a lot of resentment toward the funcionarios—the majority of whom are not teachers, firefighters, and mailmen, but rather paper-pushers.

I don’t want to go into the economics and politics too much, but suffice it to say that a lot of the resentment comes from the fact that the current socialist government in Spain is quite bloated and that the civil servants (who were supposed to have sacrificed a high private-market salary that for the security of a stable monthly salary) are now earning higher wages and doing less work than the rest of Spain—all at a huge expense to the indebted Spanish government.

Of course, in the Spanish mindset, just because you hate them and disagree doesn’t mean you wouldn’t trade places with them. So there’s something of a joke in Spain that the Spanish Dream is to become a government functionary, who needs barely to show up to collect a stable salary. And it’s not easy to do so. The tests are notoriously difficult, so it’s mostly the top-of-the-class who gets to such positions, but when they’re in they’re in for life and even the most studious people need incentives and gentle pushing to keep doing a good job.

As an outsider, I run the risk of sounding too critical. But don’t get me wrong. Spain’s economy could continue to decline the strength of the Spanish family would likely keep the society fairly stable, the cities inhabitable and the culture lively. You see very little crime in Spain (especially violent crime) and the people tend to have a more live and let live mentality. That is, they don’t want to root out everyone who isn’t doing their job and make sure they lose their work and get put out on the street. You just don’t look over someone’s shoulder to make sure they’re doing their job in Spain. You wouldn’t want them doing that to you, right? But the whole problem with that is—and I’ve noticed this among myself—that things get so relaxed and easygoing it can be hard to push yourself out of a somnolent do-nothing mindset. Something Ortega y Gasset noted about the pueblo-dwellers in his Revolt of the Masses was that the reason the Spanish in small towns are so helpful to outsiders isn’t that they really seek to help them out, but that they have absolutely nothing else to do.

So from time to time, it’s fun to laugh at the parallels of the future and the past. Such as this record of the historical decline of Spain, which has been going on for about 400 or so years now.

…Into the 1600s in Spain the landed aristocracy was holding on to its powers, and many if not most Spaniards clung to the values of the aristocracy. They believed that business was fit only for Jews, Arabs and other foreigners [Nowadays, the British, Germans and Chinese]. For employment, people looked to the Church [Zapatero’s socialist government], to the imperial court and to governmental bureaucracy. Rather than the bourgeoisie’s interest in frugality, those with wealth squandered it on luxuries for the sake of prestige, and Spain’s Habsburg rulers squandered wealth fighting wars for the sake of prestige and their Catholic faith. [The upperclass hasn’t changed all that much in this respect, minus the wars.]

Rather than interest in balancing its financial books, the king’s government was engaged in deficit spending. [Same.] The precious metals gathered from the Americas was used to purchase goods from other countries. Much of the coffee and tobacco that Spain took from the Americas it consumed rather than sold to other countries. It fell to the merchants of the United Netherlands to buy goods in Spanish ports and transport them elsewhere, including to the colonists in the Americas.

Spain’s population declined as a result of its wars and a migration to the Americas [Today, a low birth rate makes them rely on immigration from the Americas]. And Spain had lost the skills of Jews and Arabs driven from the country in the early 1600s.

Spain’s nobility was one tenth of its population [like the modern funcionarios]. They spent some of their fortune seeking government office, and in government, it is said, were thirty parasites for every man who did an honest day’s work [same complaint today]. Some of the nobility maintained customs barriers as a source of revenue, taxing commerce and driving up prices. … Harvests in northern and central Spain were gathered by French workers, doing work that the Spaniards preferred not to do and taking their pay back with them to France. Trade and industry in Madrid was pursued largely by Frenchmen, about 40,000 in number, who claimed to be Flemish or Burgundian rather than Frenchmen, in order to escape a special tax imposed upon the French.

It surely is not that bad today. Certain parts of the country are more European, with a large, frugal, entrepreneurial middle class, such as Catalan—though that also means they’re not as nice to outsiders asking for directions.

But anyway why should the goal of the Spanish be the same as the goal of the Chinese or Americans, who often put a robust economy over other social concerns? As the Spanish say, “trabajar para vivir, no vivir para trabajar” (work to live, not live to work).


Posted by on March 14, 2011 in Economics, Politics, Spain, Spanish History


2 responses to “Spanish Dream: Become an Apparatchik?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: