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.