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.


  1. Το σπίτι μας καίγεται και δε μπορούμε να κάνουμε τίποτα για να το σβήσουμε...Θα συμφωνήσω με όσα λες και θα χρησιμοποιήσω και τίτλο πρωτοσέλιδου εφημερίδας που έλεγε: "Ξέχνα την Ελλάδα που ήξερες".
    Έχουμε γίνει ηττοπαθείς,ταπεινωμένοι πολίτες χωρίς κανένα όραμα για το μέλλον.Και πώς να έχουμε άλλωστε, όταν το μόνο που συμβαίνει στη χώρα μας είναι να μας βομβαρδίζουν καθημερινά για το πόσο δυσμενής είναι η θέση μας έναντι των ευρωπαίων εταίρων μας...Φυσικά φταίμε κι εμείς, ο λαός.Και όσο δε θα αλλάζει η δική μας νοοτροπία, τόσο τα πράγματα θα γίνονται χειρότερα για την Ελλαδίτσα μας.
    Το μόνο που εγώ θέλω ή μάλλον απαιτώ ως πολίτης αυτής της χώρας είναι η παραδειγματική τιμωρία όλων όσων συνέβαλαν στο να φτάσουμε σήμερα στην κατάσταση αυτή. Να καταδικαστούν όλοι όσοι καταχράστηκαν δημόσιο χρήμα,όλοι όσοι διόρισαν υπαλλήλους με το έτσι θέλω, όλοι όσοι πήραν το φακελλάκι, όλοι όσοι ζουσαν και ζουν εις βάρος των συμπολιτών τους. Επέτρεψέ μου να ονειρεύομαι βέβαια, αλλά πού ξέρεις? Ίσως όλη αυτή η κατάσταση να οδηγήσει σε ένα πολυπόθητο ξεσκαρτάρισμα...

  2. I believe that what goes for drug addicts will go for Greece this time: when you hit rock bottom the only way is up.

  3. Greece doesn't need more taxes. what it needs is to develop more accountable collection structures and agencies, as well as new social attitudes, and a greater degree of transparency in business and government. Greeks need to learn that hiding money benefits no one in the long term. The adjustment would be painful, and it would arguably take at least a generation or two, but the country would re-emerge in far better shape than it is now.

    But are Greeks prepared to make that sacrifice? Are they prepared to earn less, buy less, and utimately make do for the greater good of the nation? I haven't lived there in years, and wasn't born there either, but my guess is no. There is a sense of entitlement among Greeks, particularly of the younger generations, that is not going to disappear anytime soon, and is quite difficult to fathom from an outside point of view. They were overly spoilt and given false hope. I feel sorry for many that studied hard only to find a low paying job on the other side for their efforts, but where did they get the idea that Greece was some powerhouse anyway? Why did they assume these jobs were going to be there waiting upon graduation? who gave them this idea? Parents? Educators? Politicians?

    Sorry to go off tangent a little, but that is something i never quite understood about the youth of Greece, even when i was living there. They always complained about the job market--understandably, because it's terrible--but i don't understand why they expected anything different.

    Overall i'm sure Greece will improve. the question is how and when.

  4. @ ftylos: δυστυχως εχεις δικιο – φταιει η νοοτροπια, φταιει η γενικη πεποιθηση οτι "τα πραγματα δεν αλλαζουν, οποτε κοιτα να την βολεψεις" – πεποιθηση που διαιωνιζει ολα τα προβληματα και ουσιαστικα εξουδετερωνει καθε ελπιδα

    αν υπηρχε δικαιοσυνη, ολη η πολιτικη ηγεσια της ελλαδας απο τη μεταπολιτευση και μετα θα επρεπε να περασει απο δικαστηριο εδω και τωρα

    βασικα θα επρεπε να περασουν ολοι απο τον τρικουπη και δωθε αλλα τι θα καταλαβεις αν δικασεις νεκρους?

    οπως το λες, χρειαζεται ξεσκαρταρισμα αλλα δυστυχως Ι am not holding my breath – ενα απο τα παραδοξα της πολιτικης ζωης: οσο μεγαλες και αν μοιαζουν oi ανακαταταξεις, oi βασικοι παικτες μενουν oi ιδιοι

    και η ελλαδα ξανα προς τη δοξα τραβα. Or not.

    @ Daisy Crazy: my friend, this is actually the only credible positive spin on things anyone has given me. I will take it!

    @ Mark: firstly, welcome.
    Secondly, I totally agree that Greece doesn't need more taxes and it desperately needs a more accountable collection and redistribution structure. In fact, scrap 'more' in that sentence. It needs such a structure to replace the void. And yes new attitudes are needed, bottom up and top down. And that is part of the problem as attitudes don't change fast and they don't change as part of social engineering experiments.

    Are Greeks prepared to make the sacrifice?
    The million dollar question.
    I think the answer is that Greece is now highly and multiply divided and the people taking home 700 euros after tax can't make any more sacrifices if they tried. And those Greeks who still have the option to earn less and still survive will surely not suddenly develop a social conscience out of nowhere. So where does that leave us? External intervention is where it leaves us. The EU heavies will step in, mop up the worst of the mess, limit some behaviours, ignore others and at the end of this difficult process we'll be facing a new hybrid Greece. Whether we'll like it or not is another matter. Whether we'll even recognise it is debatable. But there is no alternative option currently open to us, now the wheels are in mottion.

    Regarding the slightly separate question of Greek youth, their expectations and sense of entitlement, I know what you mean although I wouldn't describe things exactly like that myself. There is a very privileged wealthy strata in Athens that believe the world is their oyster because, in the small confines of the heavily paternalistic Greek economy, it is. That group is small but among students their sense of entitlement is infectious to their schoolmates who share the lifestyle but not the connections or ready cash, ie they lack the means to perpetuate what at 16 seems obvious. They are the ones who crash and burn when they realise that they have no empire to run and they need to go out there and get a job that will leave them dissatisfied on all levels - monetary and personal. Who encourages them to hope? I think the shortest answer to that is human nature. Not many people can say 'well, I am of average ability and I inhabit the ultimate provincial backwater of the world market so all I can hope for is an average life, a poorly paid dull job and no prospects'. For me it is normal that they should hope. What is not normal is that they hope but not strive. Because, if nothing else, the sum total of frustrated hopes could, in an ideal world, be the powerhouse of change.

  5. Thanks for explaining the situation to me. Makes complete sense. Two of my cousin's in Greece are very much part of this fortunate group. When they graduated from university, there were jobs waiting for them at their Dad's firm, with a _starting_ salary of around 1800-2000 Euros a month. Now they earn at least twice that amount, if not more.

    To be honest, i don't believe i met a Greek that made more than 1500 Euros a month without connections while living in Athens.

    I get your point about hope and it's well appreciated, but hope is never totally groundless, unless one finds themselves in a desperate situation. extremely desperate. I agree about not 'striving' but it's a catch 22. How can they 'strive' without opportunity? The whole 'then birazi' mentality makes sense against this background of limited opportunity, but it's terminally self defeating. a vicious circle.

    There are no easy answers. You are right that attitudes do not change overnight, and people tend to not respond to top-down changes, hence the failure of social engineering. Bringing about change in culture, esp traditional cultures, is a long and arduous process because vestiges inevitably remain. Even in Greece today, amongst the increasingly Americanised/Europeanised youth, connections can easily be made.

  6. @ Mark – it is interesting and sad in equal measure. I went to school with people who walked into a managerial role the minute they were ready to start work, courtesy of Daddy Inc. I went to school with people who are not even pretending to work, courtesy of Daddy Bank Plc. And I went to school with people who amassed degrees, knowledge and experience and take home 700 euros a month and are told to be grateful they have a job.
    And then there are those of us who left the country. But that's another story altogether.

    Connections are the key to life in Greece. No matter what it is you need to get done – from getting a hospital appointment to your career, from dealing with a speeding ticket to planning permissions – you are who you know. Maybe that's why we got to where we are now: everyone's view of the world is so fragmented and myopic, going as far as the outer reaches of their own cycle of power relations, that the bigger picture was totally forgotten by all and sundry.

    And yes, you are right. Hope without opportunity is just soul medicine. But now we are dangerously nearing a situation where the Greek youth have neither hope nor opportunity.
    And then what? How does a society pick itself up then?

  7. Καλό μας κουράγκιο, λοιπόν..

  8. @ pinelopi - you said it sister...