Wednesday, 22 December 2010

New Year's Resolution

Dear Readers. Dear Friends.
You have faith. You have patience.
I have no excuse.

No that's not right.
I have many excuses.
But no reasons. None good enough anyway.

So thanks for bearing with me. Thanks for waiting for me.
I will be back in the New Year. I shall blog.
With the same anger and renewed intensity.
With the same indignation and increased frequency.

I shall blog.
In the meantime, merry christmas everybody.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Economics for dummies aka us

I don’t know why we bother with government and the IMF in Greece.
The sort of policies we end up with could have been devised by a 7-year old who read the back flap of an economics textbook while waiting for his mum to take him to school.

Ignoring the complicated charts, omitting the long words, leaving out the hard bits involving money supply, employment statistics, growth, sustainability and other such luxuries that Greece has no time for anyway, our industrious 7-year old understands the basics and proceeds from there.

The first idea he grasps is that governments need cash and cash comes from taxes so let’s increase those because we need loads of cash. And since he’s only 7, he can’t be expected to come up with convoluted systems for establishing how taxation is to be calculated and collected. He can’t be expected to assess equitable burden sharing or sensible collection timings. He can’t be expected to ponder on the free rider problem or tackle tax evasion. He’s 7 for crying out loud. He has realised taxes are needed so he shall collect taxes by extraordinary collections. It’s simpler that way. I need, I take.

The second idea he grasps from the blurb at the back of his ‘economics for dummies’ book is that any economy needs people to spend money in order to keep going. Stimulating consumer spending is indeed a vital parameter in overcoming a recession so our 7 year old has done well here. But how can you make sure people spend? Especially when times are hard, salaries low, basic goods expensive and the financial insecurity of the job market is exacerbated by 7 year olds imposing extraordinary tax collections?

Well, how does mum make sure you brush your teeth before bed? She makes you.

So, our 7 year old has sensibly concluded that, if you need people to spend in order to stimulate the economy, then you make them spend. And if they don’t spend enough – ‘enough’ here being determined on the basis of what the state believes you make and what the state believes you should be able to ‘spare’ – then you get fined.
It’s neat, it’s simple, it works. And if you are 7, it also shows rare acumen.

Only the Greek Prime Minister is not 7.
And he should know that increased taxation, extraordinary collections and fines on under-spending based on income assumptions made on the basis of tax return figures simply squeezes one segment of your population dry: The ones who pay taxes already. The ones who declare their income already. The ones that are doing what they can already.
In a country where tax evasion is an epidemic, the government’s tax policy penalises those who fail to tax evade. The government is punishing the good guys.

What would my 7 year old have to say about that?
He’d say that if you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t, then you might as well not and at least stand a chance of not getting caught. But he’d also tell you that his mummy never taught him that. His mummy taught him to be good. His mummy taught him that being good is never punished.

And although, given his age, he’s doing a decent enough job at understanding the bare bones of economics 101, which is all he is going to need if he chooses to go into government, his mummy is really doing a lousy job preparing him for his subsequent career as a Greek citizen and taxpayer.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Citizenship is not a spectator sport

Let me start by outing myself: the title is not mine. The line is Robert Putnam's but it's so good, so succinct and so, well, true that I am stealing it and stealing it with pride. I dare say he'd approve.
Democracy. Citizenship. Voting. And we are done till the next time. Right?
Right. If what you want to end up with is Greece.
No? Didn't think so.

So here's the low down.
Greece has a mammoth fiscal crisis and a deep economic crisis. Money supply issues collide with the net deficit in economic outputs across the board; add to that financial mis-management, corruption and the almost total absence of industry and manufacturing, the decline of agriculture and tourism and the untouchability of shipping and you have Greece in the year of our Lord 2010.
And yes our governments are to blame. All of them, since 1974.
And, of course, citizenship does come in, in as far as we voted for them but really what choice did we have? Lesser evil at best. Devil you know at worst.
Citizenship in representative democracies is not all it's cracked up to be. And whatnot.
Political corruption, venality, patronage, complete lack of transparency and accountability all conspire to make politics a sordid occupation anyway. Good people don't run for office and citizens know better than to take the whole damn mess seriously.

So the economic crisis comes with a deep stateness crisis, profound legitimacy deficits and endemic institutional malfunctioning that is never addressed so it only gets worse with time.
And when real problems hit, delays, poor decision-making and finger pointing are the order of the day. Even though real lives may be at risk.

Take this week, for instance.
Our national outstanding debt to medical suppliers and ill-advised attempts to bring down the cost of medications by 35% meant that the pharmas are simply redicrecting supplies away from Greece leaving the country with a serious shortage in, among other things, insulin.
While the government are negotiating down, stalling and scribbling out figures a suspended death sentence is hovering over the country's 800,000 diabetics. There are no two ways about it. The government is failing us. And there is nothing we can do right now.

So we are victims, really. Of our circumstances and our governments. Of our own choices and our own powerlessness. There is nothing we can do. There is nothing we could have done.
We 'called' it, you know. We saw it coming. We shook our heads at the television screen.
But what can one person do?

The answer to that is unequivocal and simple. One person can do everything. Anything. All of it. Or none of it.
You make your bed and you sleep in it.
Of course our governments are to blame. But so are we.
Not because we voted them in. But because we decided that once that was done, citizenship was over till next time.
So we lived within our concentric circles of home, family, clan and patronage bonds. Never feeling responsible for the butterfly effects of our choices and actions. Never thinking that people we don't directly know matter. That we should matter to them. That community is only real if enough people act like it already exists. And unless you act like it exists then it doesn't. Simple as.
Never stopping to think that 'it's no skin off my nose' is the sort of attitude that sustains dictatorships, allows environmental destruction to go on unchecked and breeds the perfect environment for abuses of all kinds.
We are to blame for everything, because we did nothing. Nothing to stop bad stuff from becoming endemic. Nothing to make good stuff part of the picture.

And before the cynics call me naïve, please do some reading.
Civic engagement and civil society participation are statistically positively correlated with economic prosperity, political stability, personal health and well-being, crime reduction – and the list goes on. Engaging with the community builds trust in human interactions and faith in other people. It creates a shared purpose and the conviction that change is possible. It makes corruption seem less of a necessary evil and more of an unacceptable and unaffordable transaction cost. It makes inefficiency seem less unavoidable and failure less inevitable.
Civic engagement teaches people that the personal is the political and back again.
And it teaches people to take responsibility for their actions and expect others to do the same.

I just heard of someone being mugged at needlepoint in front of the National Theatre in the heart of Athens. Junkie, used needle and fear.
Who's fault is that? Who's responsibility? Who's problem?
No-one's, everyone's, yours. Mine.

Greeks were never ones for civil society.
Civic connectedness outside the home, caring and contributing outside the family, protecting and nurturing outside the clan, that's not how we roll.
And now that our streets are full of the homeless and desperate, every street corner crowded with prostitutes and every step shadowed by beggars, now what do we think of social connectedness? Nothing. We think nothing.
We think foreign mafias are to blame for the increase in crime rates and prostitution. We think the influx of immigrants can explain the rising numbers of rough sleepers. We think successive corrupt governments and continuous bad governance explain the state of affairs.
We think we are victims. We think there is nothing we can do.
So we do nothing. We watch and wait and despair.
Because we are convinced there is no other way. Because we have forgotten that citizenship is not a spectator sport.
Because we have forgotten one basic fact of life: if you want change, you need to make it. If you want things to get better, you need to get up, roll your sleeves up and join the fray.

If you want a future then there is only one way to look at this whole damn mess:
Our country. Our community. Our problem.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Back in business - and it's business as usual all round

About time I broke the radio silence, don't you think?

You will be pleased to hear – one hopes – that I am not dead and neither have I given up blogging. But despite the obvious raw material over the past few weeks, I have found the situation in Greece too overwhelming to write about and the UK election too underwhelming to write about.
So radio silence it was.

Not because I've lost my interest in politics, not because I've lost my sense of profound engagement with, well, everything but because my usual outrage has recently been replaced by stunned disbelief and an ever-spreading sadness.

But I will confess that I have been perking up recently.
Things in Greece are stable for the time being, which is the best one can hope for; this United Kingdom of ours has a government and it's not an all-blue one (thank god for small mercies) and the World Cup is about to kick off. What's not to like?

Although the French Open is keeping me from switching back to the news channels as frequently as my natural proclivities would demand, there is no avoiding the fact that the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is still not off the headlines, with six weeks of recriminations and environmental horror pushing us inexorably towards a criminal investigation, empty talk and an as yet unknown impact on our life and health as a species.
At least BP's shares plummeted by 13% yesterday. As I was saying. Small mercies.
According to the Guardian this was the worst one-day fall for 18 years for what was once Britain's most valuable company.

But have the mighty fallen?
Will Obama ban BP from operating in the US? For a time? For ever? Will he take the whole industry to task? Will he find scapegoats and allow the industry at large to proceed in a business-as-usual fashion?

Business-as-usual is a powerful motivator.
Keep things ticking over, restore public confidence, avoid dips in the stock-market, work-force contractions and costly regulatory adjustments.
Of course it all makes sense.
Until the next time we fail to prevent bad things from happening because we focused more on functional continuity than systemic soundness.

Big words, fancy talk and yada yada but it's not just oil spills I'm talking about.
We seem to be living in a chicken-and-egg, told-ya-so universe where nothing gets fixed for fear of missing a beat.
Issues big and small don't get dealt with until they explode and then all they get is a band aid.
If Britain had a different electoral system, legitimacy would not be such an elusive concept for its elected representatives but to achieve electoral reform you need to disrupt government business-as-usual for at least 5 minutes and we can't be having that.
If Greece streamlined and cleaned up its state sector then you wouldn't need to worry about having to bail them out again in 10 years or this current bailout going off track. But cleaning up the public sector will delay the implementation of the bailout and we can't be having with that.
And on and on, business-as-usual.

And forgive the cynicism when I say this, but what was Israel's raid on the aid shipment to Gaza other than business-as-usual? They do their thing, counting on the world's obsession with moving on and going back to normal.
Bullets, zodiacs full of soldiers and submarines. Outrage. Riots, Diplomats shaking their heads and the threat of an investigation.
Oh no, now the Israelis are shaking in their wee boots.

Are we missing something?
With at least 9 dead and insane confusion around what exactly the Israelis were thinking, the explanation that Israel is a big bully isn't quite enough to cover the 'what the hell?' moment we all had when we heard the news a couple of days ago.

And my overwhelming sadness threatens to return.

What sort of a world is this?
So we'll get an investigation. And Israel may even get a slap on the wrist. While everything will be moving back towards business-as-usual. And we can't even hope for small mercies.
Hilary Clinton described the situation in Gaza as 'unsustainable'. At last she noticed.
Now what Hilary dear? Now what?
Now nothing. Now, it's business as usual.

And the cherry on the cake of world madness?
Snazzy, cuddly, pretty Apple had to deal with the embarrassing news of a string of worker suicides allegedly linked to horrible working conditions at the Chinese factory where iPhones and iPads are assembled. Oh the irony.
Steve Jobs must be hating the job now, having to comment on the intimation that cuddly Apple is using sweatshops for fabricating its fancy toys.
And nothing. Apple is selling like mad, overtaking Microsoft as the world's largest technology company by market value and iPads are selling like hotcakes. And although the US justice department is making preliminary inquiries into whether Apple unfairly dominates the digital music market through its iTunes store, it's business-as-usual for Apple despite it all.

If it's business-as-usual for everyone; if all we can hope for is small mercies; if I-told-ya-so is the best we can do, then it better be business-as-usual for me too. Because I may not be able to change a damn thing but I can roll my eyes at the newspapers and shake my fist in anger.
In short, I'm back. Yeah yeah, small mercies indeed.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010


Greece riots on every TV screen.
3 dead.
And I have no words.
Only silent despair.
And tears.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Election special: vote to change how you vote

Election-time in the UK is fast approaching so get your party hats on and sing a happy song, for it is election time and we have all fallen into the trap of watching the leaders' debate and reading the rankings as if they mattered.
Don't they? You ask.
Of course they don't, I reply – and not, for once, just to be controversial.

The leaders' debate is interesting. It shows you how photogenic your new prime minister will be. How good a debater. How good at repeating or creating sound-bites. It may even give you a tiny little glimpse of what his politics will be like once elected, but let's not get over-excited. These guys are trying to get elected, not give you an insight on how realism and constraints on the ground influence policy-making in real life.

The numbers that we all pore over the morning after each debate are also interesting. But ultimately completely misleading.
So we know who the country, overall, would vote for if choosing a prime minister across the nation was how we voted over here. But it ain't so the figures we look at are no use at all in understanding what will happen with the election. They would and could be useful in another place, one with oh I don't know a proportional representation electoral system, perhaps? But this is not that place and looking at those figures is not simply a waste of time, it is a deeply misleading political proposition.

First past the post, folks.
That means you vote for your MP, not your PM.
Yes, yes I know you often actually just choose a party; often not even knowing what your local MP stands for – although you really should not be doing that because that is not how electoral responsibility works in this country but that's another conversation for another time. And yes you vote 'Labour' but you voting Labour doesn't necessarily help Labour get elected. Or the Lib Dems, more to the point.

Diffuse support all over the country is no good whatsoever for making it into government in this United Kingdom of ours. You need concentrated support in a winning number of constituencies. That doesn't even mean a majority in said constituencies. It just means more than the other guys.
An excellent system for choosing your MPs who will then go on to form a government. A pretty poor system for choosing a presidential-style Prime Minister or which party you want in government.

So cut back to the debates.
You look at the three of them and make your choice. 'I'll have Clegg. I like his politics, I like his wife, I like that he doesn't do God, he's my sort of guy'.
And now what?
In a PR system if you vote Lib Dem, you've voted Lib Dem. Your votes towards both your local MP and the government swing the same way. But what about here? You vote Lib Dem and maybe your candidate gets the seat and you are home free. But if not? You may actually be helping the bad guys (whoever you deem them to be) get into government.
Does that matter?
It depends. If you think you are choosing a government on polling day, it matters a great deal.
And our parties seem to want us to choose a government, to select a premier and only as an afterthought also choose our MPs on polling day.
Which is fine, it is how many countries successfully run their democracies after all. But their electoral system fits the way their election is being fought so at least the numbers add up. Most of the time. All things being equal.

So now what?
We are in the land in-between, where the way we are encouraged to vote by party political broadcasts, manifestos, debates and advertising has absolutely no connection to the way we actually vote, the way our vote counts or is counted. Voters in Wonderland and through the looking glass nothing is as it seems so you don't get what you bargained for.

Electoral reform is needed, my friends. Or a return to fighting a pre-election campaign that is suitable to our electoral system.
Eliminating the disconnect between the choice we are given and the way we can make it is the only way to help democracy remain vibrant and relevant in this country. So. If you want to give me presidential-style debates, if you want me to think of politics at party-level and in terms of sweeping national mandates, give me a voting system that allows me to make those choices without unwittingly helping re-elect the people I wanted out in the first place.

Democracy needs informed, responsible voters or it perishes.
So here we are .
Traditionally the main defense of the current system has been its empowering simplicity.
But the simplicity is outdated and its guardians are making the most of the disconnect between the way we vote and the way those votes are counted. Apart from Clegg. He's honest about the need for electoral reform – especially as he stands to gain from it most of all.
Actually, that's not true.
He stands to gain more than any other party.
But the real victor, that would be us. You. The voters. The people.
So power to us, damn it. It is a democracy after all.
And although we tend to forget all about participation between elections, let's at least remember on polling day.
And make it count.
If not in the grand scheme of things then let's at least make the numbers add up.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Eyjafjallajökull is a bit of a mouthful. So is globalisation.

Can't pronounce Eyjafjallajökull?
Fret not my friend for you are not alone. None of us can. But you don't need to be able to pronounce it. Everyone is talking about 'it'. Any mention of 'ash' or your auntie being stranded and you are immediately and perfectly intelligible without twisting your tongue. The effects of the volcano are so pervasive that you don't need to be able to name the culprit to get your point across.

Airplanes have been grounded for days.
People are stranded for an ever-lengthening string of days in places they had visited for a long weekend or for a couple of meetings. Because that's how we have come to expect things to be. Hopping from place to place is not a miracle of science. It's a mundane fact of life for the globalised era. Only now, thanks to Eyjafjallajökull, people, mail and goods are going nowhere fast.

Goods are taking the scenic route, by ship, while the 'Armada' is setting sail to rescue stranded Brittons on the continent.
'Operation Volcano' is, according to the Daily Mail, 'a rerun of the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation'.
Easy on the drama guys.
Or, come to think of it, pile it on because this is as dramatic as drama gets.
Yes it's a bummer that holidays were missed, return dates pushed back, shipments of this and that and the odd parcel have been delayed. But it would not be excessive to suggest that this incident, these last few days have been an alarm bell for the fragility of our entire civilisation model.

Maybe Eyjafjallajökull is Icelanding for 'how could you not have seen this coming?'.
First with global banking. Now with globalisation.
First cash and now ash. Thanks lads. Much obliged.

Can't pronounce Eyjafjallajökull? How about 'globalisation', can you manage that?
We have long lived with the assumption that the world is getting smaller. That you could pop over to New York for a weekend, take a day trip to Paris, nip over to Dublin for a meeting.
And now we are grounded. Literally.
63,000 flights canceled since Thursday – and counting.
1 million people stranded.
Not to mention the millions of trips that did not take place at all and flights that never got booked.
The cost to the airlines is astronomical.
The overall cost of the crisis is even higher.

And the real crisis is yet to be thought through.
Because while we are waiting for the ash to clear and trying to figure out how to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, our entire civilisation model is on hold and none of us have voiced what we should all be thinking.

Everything from international sporting events to business, from leisure to high-value goods deliveries and mail, relies on thousands of airplanes criss-crossing the ether every day. It's not simply a matter of convenience. Our entire civilisation is based on the assumption that people and goods can move freely and speedily. That is the premise of globalisation. Without that, the entire system hollows out.

Don't celebrate the end of the global era quite yet. For now, no systemic change is thought about For now, we just wait. But we don't know how long this will last or how long we can physically be kept waiting for. Or when we may need to start waiting again.
When the volcano last erupted in 1821 it remained active for 13 months. There's a sobering thought.
You may not be able to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull but you can surely say 'oh dear'.

So what does this mean in real terms?
It means you may have to go without mangetout and mangoes for a while. Forgive me if I don't weep for you.
You may have to go without supplies for engineering and IT hardware needs. Or wait until a boat or lorry brings them over. Delays will cost money. But they will be absorbed in the end.
Arms supplies may be affected. As may, possibly, the drugs trade. Not so sad now.
But it will also mean shortages in pharmaceutical supplies. Unless a plan for road and sea supply routes is implemented soon, before the shortages come near.

Carbon emissions will go down. Although there is talk of severe melt-down (no pun intended) around Eyjafjallajökull which is not good news. But then again it's part of the bad news we already know. And then there is the sister volcano that may still erupt and if that goes, we have no way of knowing what that will mean, for us, in real terms.

But what about the bad news that we haven't yet thought about?
For now we are all waiting for the volcano to stop and life to resume.
We expect this disruption to last however long it lasts – although we hope it won't last as long as last time – and then things will go back to normal. Mail, goods, drugs and people will cross continents with speed and reliability.

But until then?
Until then we are left staring at the face of a civilisation that was kicked in the gut and is panting on the floor. For all our triumph over nature, our commercial giants and the leaps of science, there was no real plan B in place. And there isn't one still.
Our over-reliance on planes is mental as well as practical. Our planes are grounded and we wait. Because we cannot fathom that other ways of doing things are as valid. Or essential.

The newsflash is simple: you can't say Eyjafjallajökull but surely you can say 'nature' and remind yourself we don't actually run it. Even though we often pretend we do.
Our entire civilisational paradigm is based on a massive assumption: that we can fly. Freely. Frequently. At a moment's notice.
And while we can't, maybe we could have a think about what our over-reliance on the airline industry means. What our over-reliance on shipping goods and people across oceans and continents super-fast actually means and how we can live and live well when, for whatever reason, that can't go ahead as planned.

Now, while we wait, we are just waiting. We are not doing any thinking.
We never do any thinking.

But what if Eyjafjallajökull is Icelandic for 'suckers, the system has a massive weakness, how did you fail to spot it this time?'
Oh hold on. It wasn't just this time. It was also last time.

So maybe Eyjafjallajökull is icelandic for 'our arrogance is our worst enemy'.
The money markets. The global nexus. Our 'small world'.
Maybe Eyjafjallajökull actually stands for 'we will never learn'.
Even when we are forced to wait and all we can do is think, we still don't.
Meanwhile nature is doing its thing, despite our plans.
Inconsiderate thing that it is.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

The future is what you dream of it

'No future' sang my beloved sex pistols. Maybe they had Greece in mind. Maybe they had the world in mind. Maybe they were talking of us all. This country is also going to the dogs, say my English friends. Seriously guys, get in line.

Yes our economy (let's not forget, I am a UK tax payer after all) is still not showing signs of recovery. Yes the budget was a bit of a joke. Yes the upcoming election is scaring me (Brown or Cameron? It's a voter's Sophie's choice). Yes I am slightly bemused by the eviction of an Israeli diplomat and the nursery school language used to describe it: 'the Israeli government promised never to do this again' ('this' being the forgery of UK passports) but the UK government stomped its feet because 'they told us the same thing the last time' (they forged passports) and this is a major blow to our 'friendship' so no kissing and making up.
One diplomat gets kicked out, Milliband doesn't go to the Israeli Embassy party (I kid you not) and we are all very stressed about 'what it all means' about the future of British-Israeli relations, about whether forging traveling documents is common practice among spies and international men of mystery and about whether sending the diplomat away was excessive, appropriate or inadequate.

And the Greek in me goes 'seriously folks, you call these problems?'.
And the rest of me (the adult, the political scientist, the voter, the tax payer) thinks 'these are serious problems. They are serious enough without being systemic. They are serious without marking the demise of the entire socio-economic edifice of the state'. That's the sort of thing that should be worrying the media and citizens in a civilised, stable, European democracy.
Not whether there is a future, but how to make the future better than the present.

Not 'how do you deal with your select troops (see SEAL equivalent) who decided that a national holiday parade was a good locus to shout out racist abuse of the worst kind?'
Not 'why did a 15-year-old Afghan refugee die of what sounds scarily like an IED hidden in a rubbish pile in downtown Athens?'
Not 'how do you stop gunmen from robbing diners at point blank in fashionable Athenian restaurants?'

With shouts and screams of 'we will spill your Albanian blood' and 'we will sew ourselves suits made of your skin' Greece's select troops have waltzed into a massive inquiry at the end of which, I trust, heads will roll. But will the damage be undone?
Will the people who watched these soldiers perform hate chants in unison, chants that had evidently been practiced, sporting weapons and the insignia of the state: flag, badge, uniform, will these people ever forget the fear? The shame? The anger? The horror?
Is the damage to the future to be undone by a committee?

And only days later a young boy, running away from the random death meted out on the streets of his native Afghanistan, dies of an unclaimed bomb/IED on the streets of Athens. Was he rummaging through the rubbish to find food? That in itself is heart-breaking. That in itself deserves a million posts. But that in itself is not the full story. Was he simply curious to see what lay in an abandoned bag? He had fled to safety, after all, to a place where curiosity doesn't kill the cat. Only it does and it did.

And it's not an isolated incident.
Random violence has been on the news and on our minds since the day Alexandros Grigoropoulos died. It's not all connected. It's not continuous. It's not all part of one story. But it is now constantly there. Be it police or anti-police violence, random gunmen, random explosions, stray bullets.
Be it armed men relieving people of wallets and jewelery in Athens restaurants.

What are we dealing with here?
It sounds like law and order is suspended, expectations of mutuality and social self-healing are irreparably breached and fear reigns supreme. Add to that a thick lather of financial insecurity, shame and fear at what the future holds, poverty and grim fiscal prospects and what have you got?
A country that has long since gone to the dogs and sees no way out.
Which is what many Britons think is happening to their country at the moment.

'Don't compare Greece to England' is the rejoinder I get from everyone. And I understand why they say that but, by the same token, it's the fact that we can't compare these two EU-member states, these two European democracies, that holds all the answers to our current predicament.
Why can't we compare them?
Because despite the crises, the problems, the corruption (don't forget Britain is currently in the midst of a new scandal whereby key Labour figures were busted trying to 'sell' their influence to the highest bidder and, on the back of the expenses fiasco, British politics is beginning to look distinctly continental all of a sudden) there is an expectation that the institutions will hold. Disintegration is not on the cards. Over here, the 'country going to the dogs' does not entail a genuine fear of complete lawlessness.
Going to the dogs does not entail the fear of 'shutting up shop' that underlies Greek political discourse over the past few months.

But why not? Are things really that different?
Corruption, poverty, unemployment are plaguing both countries.
Violence too.

A boy was stabbed to death in Victoria station a few days ago. In plain daylight.
A boy died of a rogue bomb in central Athens a few days ago. In the middle of the night.

Bad news all round.
Maybe we are all going to the dogs.

Yet in Greece we are rolling our eyes and shrugging our shoulders and saying 'what can you do' and 'oh it's bad, isn't it' whereas over here people have an unshakeable faith that they deserve more. Where the Greeks expect worse to follow, the Brits demand that their representatives pull their socks up. 'We are going to the dogs' they say 'and we won't be having with that'.
Where the Greeks sing along with the Sex Pistols, the Brits demand Annie.
'The sun will come out tomorrow' to our 'no future for me'.

Maybe that is the main difference after all.
Maybe we have forgotten how to believe in better, how to hope for more.
Maybe we are going to the dogs because we don't know how to think up a different future. Maybe we should start by hoping again. And believing.
For now, the Greeks proudly think that hope is for wimps and small children.
And we despair with our heads held high.

Monday, 22 March 2010

What change should look like

This is what change looks like. Said Obama.
Yes we can. Said the Democrats.
And lo and behold, the healthcare bill passed.
Was it simple? No.
Was it fast? No.
Was it everything we had hoped for? No.
No. No. No. But it was something. Both a practical solution to America's oldest social responsibility deficit and a symbolic move that change is not always for the worst. And many had said it can't be done.

That made me smile.
I haven't smiled at the news in a while.
But the smile didn't last long.
A text message flashed up on my phone a few minutes ago 'factions fighting on the streets, tourist organisations declaring Greece unsafe'. Thanks for shattering my zen. You know who you are.

'It is unthinkable that Europe won't support us' said the Greek prime minister.
No 'this is what change looks like' grandeur in our neck of the woods.
'We consider it unthinkable for the European Union not to give us the assistance and political support we are asking for' said our Premier.
And that is the extent of his policy.
And although it is most probably true – joining the euro didn't come with a withdrawal clause as such, you didn't keep your old currency in the attic 'just in case things didn't work out'. Failure was not an option. That was not the general idea. We were in this together from now on and whatnot.
So of course Europe will help. But Europe will be bitter and difficult about it every step of the way. In the middle of the current crisis, on the back of Germany's strop, the last thing Europe wants to do is help the destitute relative. The last thing they are prepared to do is be gallant about it.
And if the extent of our policy is 'sit back, have another mushroom vol-au-vent, they'll help us, what else can they do' then we need to be prepared for quite a bit more abuse from Germany.

Not that I think that the German press's puerile hate campaign is ok. But then again I don't think the way we've been running our affairs is ok either. And as two wrongs don't make a right, I wish the global press paused long enough to realise that the people mopping up the mess, picking the tab, suffering the cut backs, shouldering the extra tax and suffering the shame of this prolonged press campaign actually have no way of changing their fate. Never did.
And spare me the crap about democracies and the responsibility of the electorate. Procedural democracies with entrenched party systems tend to be stable Polyarchies with limited choice for the electorate whose participation only occurs every five years and in-between civil society is dormant, transparency wanting and accountability faint. Add to that Greece's deep-seated paternalistic venality, favouritism and clan mentality and what you have is a system of extremely qualified access and representation by numbers. Short of a revolution, there is very little 'the people' can do and the Commission wouldn't want a revolution within the eurozone now would they?

So go easy on us because we don't like our leaders any more than you do but we are the ones who have to pay the bills and live with the corruption and the shame.

And before you quote myself back at me, I know that I always bang on about public responsibility and I do not intend to go back on that now or ever. We are responsible writ large for our own society. And we are responsible for our lack of collective action, for the lack of civil society mobilisation. And for the lack of revolution damn it.
But one thing we cannot be held responsible for is our inability to get ourselves out of this bind right now. Social change does not occur fast enough. And global fiscal systems are interlinked with corporate power structures and government, not civil society actors and citizen associations.

Pointing out the obvious? Perhaps.
But as I keep telling my students at the university, the one thing that most political theories forget is real people. As I keep telling my colleagues in the City, the one thing most fiscal systems forget is real people.
But it's real people who die in wars and real people who represent that strange and wonderful animal that is 'consumer confidence'. And it is real people that are living in fear, insecurity and shame in Greece now. And none of them are in government or in a position to do anything right now other than suffer.
And what good is that doing anyone?

If the Commission went straight to the culprits I'd scream off with their heads and accept any stringent regulations that were thereafter imposed on our society. Do we need to up our game? Absolutely. Us the people need to do more. Need to be more.
But to do that we need to be able to stand up. If our backs are broken we are no good for growth and future prosperity.

News coming out of Greece at the moment is the exact opposite to the wonderful feel-good victory feel of news out of the USA. Yes they can and they did. And we cannot and did not. But we could.

Bear with us, is what the Greek government is telling the EU.
We will tax the Church (at last). What else will we do? We don't know. But bear with us.
The EU need to see more.
Damn it. We need to see more. Because we are tired of paying and being mocked by everyone, our government included. And there is little we, the citizens, can do right now. So.

That's what change looks like said Obama.
And why did that matter?
Because he made things happen. Because not only did he remember the real people. He actually made policy for them.

Mr Papandreou, it's your turn to show us what change looks like or face the consequences. Real people are watching.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Selling off the family silver

My mother was right.

'Are we even a country any more' she asked me, after the EU Financial Salvation Army made clear what the price of salvage was actually going to be.

At the time I made some vague noises around conceptual issues and the idea of statehood but as it turns out, she knew what she was talking about and I can just stuff my statehood notions. After explaining to my mother that countries are not businesses for whom bankruptcy can well mean selling off assets and shutting up shop and that borrowing and lending at the state level carries a different set of caveats than corporate lending does, I may just have to eat my words.

You must have heard of the two Germans, an MP and a finance expert, who suggested during an interview that Greece should sell off a few islands and maybe the Parthenon to pay off its debts?
Crazy? Possibly.
But yesterday the article was reprinted in the Guardian. In the Business section. Not the funny pages. Not in the spirit of 'comment is free'. And although it was treated as preposterous, it was still printed. In the Guardian. In the Business section.

So get in line guys.
Crete and Mykonos are already spoken for and me and a couple of mates are clubbing together for Santorini but the rest is available so have a look at the map and take your pick.

Now Josef Schlarmann and Frank Schaeffler didn't actually suggest we sell off the good islands, they are economists after all and this is a practical solution for them: Greece keeps the islands that bring in tourist revenue and the ones that are inhabited at a push – the logistical nightmare of relocation is just not worth it – and uninhabited islets that currently generate no revenue go up for sale.
Oh and the odd antiquity goes up for sale too.

"Those in insolvency have to sell everything they have to pay their creditors. Greece owns buildings, companies and uninhabited islands, which could all be used for debt redemption" Schlarmann told the Bild.

Buildings? If the country's debt would be settled by selling the odd building we wouldn't be where we are now. As for Greece's state-run businesses, again, if they were appealing prospects for private investors we wouldn't be in such dire straits. So. Islands and nuggets of history it shall be, decree our German friends.
Gotta love economists. A problem demands a solution and all assets are ultimately for sale. Ergo.

Now granted, I know that these statements are made against the backdrop of a German populace that is against a Berlin-funded bailout for Greece and I can't blame them. But not helping may not be an option within the confines of the euro-zone and although they EU and its powerful members retain the power – and on some level the right – to demand austerity measures, cut-backs and tightened belts, surely there is a limit to what can be asked of us.

Or is there?

Because, let's face it, this is no joke.

Of course the Bild headline Sell your islands, you bankrupt Greeks! And sell the Acropolis too! was, one would hope, tongue in cheek, the idea is out there. Granted, in the UK at least it has been printed and reprinted as a preposterous idea that is now on the table.
Preposterous. And on the table.
And Merkel is meeting Papandreou, in Berlin today. And she is not going to suggest that we sell off the Acropolis. Or antiquities. Because I am hoping her advisors have filled her in on the EU's legal and moral stand on matters pertaining to the trading in civilisation and cultural artifacts.
But uninhabited islands are real-estate and the idea is out there.

So could future maps show a bit of Austria in the Aegean? A bit of Malaysia in the Ionian sea? Could school-kids in future generations learn that Greece shares borders with Turkey, Bulgaria, Albania and Unilever since their purchase of the island of Evoia?

Of course Evoia is populated – not to mention massive – so it wouldn't be an obvious candidate for sale but the underlying concern is the same: when a distinct and contiguous piece of land – however small – is sold to an individual, company or foreign government what jurisdiction is there on that island? Logically the pre-existing national jurisdiction remains because what you sell is a plot of land, not sovereignty.

So what's the big deal? Land is bought and sold in Greece all the time.
And what the Germans don't know is that there is a law in Greece that protects public access to all beaches. So if Mr Schlarmann buys himself an island, I can always paddle out there and sun myself on his beach whether he likes it or not.
So what difference does it make, if the plot of land sold to an individual, company or government is on the beach or in the middle of the sea in the shape of a tiny little island?

Is it just that we resent being told what to do?
Is it that we resent the symbolic power of selling off islands rather than the odd field? Chunks of homeland, rather than plots of land?
Is it that we resent the implication of what was said: you are finished anyway so you might as well sell the family heirlooms and the house because you'll be out on the street whether you like it or not.
Or do we resent being told by the Germans who, after all, were the guys who most recently tried to take those islands away by force, and are now seemingly trying a different route? The echoes are deeply unpleasant. That, of course, is a facile criticism but that doesn't make it any less true.

Not that the Greeks would have enjoyed being told to sell by anyone else. The implication of selling distinct chunks of land and antiquities is too stark: you are finished, you are through, the vultures are circling your body and the heirs are already squabbling over the silver. Not a pleasant image and of course we are upset. But let's be honest with ourselves.

We are not upset just because two very practical teutonic economists found very practical teutonic solutions to a practical hellenic problem without consideration for our feelings.
We are not upset just because two lone voices in Germany told us we are finished.
We are not upset just because the world press is discussing that we are finished, as if we couldn't hear, as if it didn't matter we can hear.
None of this would matter as much, if we weren't all actually convinced we are finished. And if every solution didn't ultimately feel like selling off the family silver because there's nothing else left to do.

So onto the auction block. And don't forget. I've got first dibs on Santorini. You lot squabble over the rest.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

The problem with Greece

If I had a penny for each time someone asked me 'so what on earth happened in Greece' I could be retiring to an exotic destination round about now, with funds enough to sustain a life of leisure and several pina colladas a day. I don't even like pina colladas. But anything would be better than having to explain to people that the only viable answer to 'what on earth happened in Greece' is nothing.


Nothing happened in Greece.
And that means two things.
It means, nothing happened in Greece – from a fiscal and economic perspective. Nothing was done to fix any of the pre-existing fiscal and economic problems and that is the problem.
It also means nothing new has happened in Greece. Things have been bad for a very long time. But now you noticed. The global markets noticed. And the moment they noticed, confidence – what little there was of it – died and with it died Greece's obscurity. You are no longer an embarrassing relative that can't keep their house in order. You are the problem child that needs to be chastised, disciplined and brought to order.

We should have seen it coming.
We always knew we were a problem child. Did we think we'd never get grounded?
That's what people had in mind when they were saying 'join the Eurozone, then Europe will be responsible for saving us. We won't be able to hurt ourselves too badly any more'. True words. But I am not sure what type of rescue they had in mind. Galloping stallions, gallant princes and pats on the back? Not a stern warning and instructions to cut spending and pull our socks up.

The Greeks are shamed. Why us and not the Irish?
The Greeks are angry. Demonstrations protesting salary cuts, demanding investment.
And the moon on a stick.

The Greeks are afraid. Are we still our own country, after we've been bullied, made to buy military equipment we neither need nor can afford only to be given money to buy it with? Are we still a real independent state, after the big boys have stepped in, settled in, changed the wallpaper?
We are to be kept under observation, now, of course. Of course.
There is no such thing as a free lunch.

If this was a lecture, this is where I would introduce the idea of a 'failed state'. But it's not a lecture. And it's not an account of a far away land. This is my homeland we are talking of and objectivity goes out the window as my heart breaks every time I hear Greece mentioned on the news.
The news.
Some times sympathetic. Some times outrageous. Always bad.

The Observer wondered out loud a few days ago whether Greece is up for a coup. Seriously. Sack the idiot who wrote that and the idiot who hired them because if you don't know Greece's military is emasculated and largely rudderless – and therefore incapable of political action, at last – then you should not be allowed to publish your drivel. One thing we learned over the last century is to keep the generals out of politics. With hindsight, we should have kept the politicians out too.

Because let's face it, this is several decades' worth of financial mismanagement catching up with us. And yet we've learned nothing. And the Greek government is still acting as if tricks will fix this.
Encourage consumer spending, say the economics textbooks, I know what I'll do, says the Greek government: I will make things like eating out tax deductible, then I will both tax and fine people who don't hit a certain level of spending. That should do it.

That's so perverse I can't even laugh about it.
Or maybe I can't laugh because after years of teaching development policy to keen-eyed students, I know how the mechanics of international debt work. I know what good governance standards entail and I know what happens next. Which is invariably nothing.
Nothing happens. Things don't get worse. Things don't get better. Things don't slide but they don't improve either. Purgatory for the fiscally irresponsible.

And this will be soon the problem with Greece.
For now, the problem with Greece is Greece.
The problem with Greece is that to the world Greece is the problem.
The problem with Greece is that to some of us it's home. And our home is on fire.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Collateral damage

'What the hell are you doing to the Euro?'

That is how a client greeted me on arrival at a meeting last week.
You can imagine my confusion.
I was pretty sure I hadn't done anything to the euro.
Not recently, anyway.
I was pretty confident that my company had done nothing to the euro either – suspecting we would have noticed if we had gotten mighty enough to destabilize the supreme European currency.
The meeting I had just arrived at was decidedly not about the state of the euro. Nor was it about European fiscal policy. But it was taking place in a country where the euro is indeed in use so I suspected my client of wittily referring to something that had hit the news that day, implicating our industry and the fate of the euro.
But no.
None of the above.

Seeing my confused look he elaborated: 'what are you Greeks doing to the Euro?'.
That one.

What the Greeks are doing to the Euro is hitting the news hard all over the world. Apart from Greece. And I seem to have to personally answer for it wherever I go in Europe.
Thanks guys.

'Was being back home for Christmas really depressing?' asked an Irish friend whose own credit crunched homeland showed signs of wear and strain over the holidays.
But the answer is no, being back in Greece was really not depressing because the vast majority of people have not fully appreciated how bad things are.

How can that be?
'How bad things in Greece are' is on the news all over the world all the time, how can the Greeks not realise?
Are we just unfazed because we are so used to being in trouble?
Are we just serene because our government seems to suggest this ship ain't sinking?
Or are we still calm because we believe in some comforting conspiracy theory: maybe the EU is picking on us but, really, Ireland, Spain and – wait for it – France and Germany are in exactly the same pot and we are just being made an example of. And before you mock me, I didn't make the last one up. I heard it. From a Greek banker. Nuff said.

So. What are the Greeks actually doing to the euro?
In some ways, they are doing no more to the euro than they have been doing to the drachma since time immemorial. Only now they are not on their own, this is not their own little gig – theirs (ours) to mess up to their hearts' content – others are watching and suffering overspill from the Greeks' mess and, to be brutally honest, they don't much like it.

In some way however, we have to ask ourselves, whether this is different to other times because, well, those 'times' have lasted so bloody long that something will eventually have to give. There is no system, no economy, no society that can survive being in a perpetual state of crisis without something either being fixed or ending up irreparably broken.

So which will it be in Greece?
Those of you who have been reading this blog regularly know that optimism is not my strong suit.
And much as I try, I don't see a solution on the horizon.
And I mean this in both senses: I do not see what the possible solution could be given the magnitude, depth and complexity of the problems facing Greece and their multiple interconnections with other problems, in Greece and abroad, that all point to the need for a whole host of radical, visionary and above all rapid solutions to be kicked off at once and, let's face it, when did that ever happen within a state bureaucracy?
But neither do I see a solution (of whatever magnitude) being put on the table by any domestic or international agent, political or regulatory.

So if no solution, then what?
We can hope that things will carry on ticking over.
But for how long?
And when they stop being able to tick along – there is only so much you can do with string and scotch tape and there is little else holding the Greek economy together at the moment – then what?

And to be honest, it's not the euro I am worried about.
At the end of the day, money, the economy, fiscal balance are all semiotic exercises and big boys in big offices will work out a way to stabilise things in the end.
It's the people I'm worried about. The people of Greece who had the euro thrust on them with no protection and after watching their salaries shrink and the cost of their lives soar, after being left with few options and little cash, after being taxed for everything and anything to make up the national deficit, now they are being asked 'what have you done to the euro'?

On one level, we did back to the euro what the euro did to us.
It's not big, it's not clever but there was little else to do and there is even less to do now other than hope that whatever crisis ensues doesn't end up breaking the backs of Greek wage-earners. Because at the end of the day, it wasn't them who messed up the euro. It was a string of useless governments and although democracy comes with responsibility for those you voted into power, give us a break, already.

So. We know something's gotta give.
I just hope whatever gives, stays in the realm of banking. I hope it stays in the big offices. I hope it stays out of people's homes.
I hope, but I do not trust.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Happy new year. But just how new would you like it?

Happy New Year to All and to all a good day.

Sadly, I have to report that my pre-festive determination to leave the world at my mother's doorstep largely failed.
Partly because my father is a news junkie (I had to take after someone in my family and I could have done a lot worse, trust me).
Partly because politics is what the Greeks discuss at table. Always and without fail. Ok maybe not all Greeks. But all the ones I am related to do which made all the difference as I was trying to stick to my no-sadness-no-aggravation Christmas diet.
And finally because some of the news is so random that even the dry-cleaner cannot resist offering you his theory on how the police should go about apprehending the Athens sniper (done now, maybe he called the authorities after failing to get the right reaction out of me).

So I failed.
Even though I barricaded myself behind mountains of confectionery, the world with all its despair and madness filtered through.
Christmas-day despair, poverty and desperation reached me as I had feared it might.
And the new year celebrations were no different.
I got to hear about the first casualties in Afghanistan for 2010 – if there could ever be a stronger reminder that the old adage holds strong: different year, same ole crap. People still dying way too young, fighting an un-winnable war, following a bankrupt policy in someone else's ravaged country.

But I've been here before. And I guess that's the point.
As I look through the news – no longer pretending to try to avoid it – I feel more than ever that Christmas is just a time in the calendar. A time during which you put things on ice, maybe, slow things down, perhaps. But Santa never leaves solutions under the tree and goodwill and love don't go beyond our TV screens.
Maybe I spent way too long watching made-for-TV American movies in which 'it's Christmas after all' was the line that resolved a seemingly unsolvable problem. 'It's Christmas after all' is what melted the heart of the most hard-nosed unrelenting mean-spirited bastard.

What a thought.
If only we really had a window of time when we could hope to appeal to inner goodness and do what is right on a higher plain. But then again, if that was possible for two weeks a year, it would be conceivable for the rest of the year and where would that get us?

A very nice place, is where it would get us. A fairer, stabler and altogether more livable place, is where it would get us. But it would dent P&L accounts, it would weaken power-holds, it would shift our priorities, the things that make our world go round. It would make our world less like the mess we currently live in and more like the sort of place we pretend we want to live in in Christmas movies.

Well. Sign me the hell up.
I want to live in a place where 'it's Christmas after all' justifies altruism, goodness and a kind gesture. Because I believe that what goes round comes round. And I believe in goodness as a way of life. And if it means I get to live in a more humane world, then I'll believe in Santa Bloody Clause if that's what it takes.

So as I read about Obama facing a mass exodus in the Senate, Brown facing demands for early elections, young boys accusing the Greek police of torture on the island of Patmos, war risks rising in the Sudan and a drive-by shooting at a Coptic church killing seven innocent people in Egypt on their Christmas, what I try to hold onto is my faith. That what we have is not all we can have. That all there is is not all there can be.

That, although it's not Christmas any more, if you are capable of goodness once you are capable of goodness always. That we are capable of goodness once.
Because it is our life and our world and our future, after all. Christmas or not.
So happy new year to all.
Let's see what we can do with this one.