My prime minister and your president are a similar type of idiot-genius marketers

When Donald Trump became president I did a blog post about his similarities with the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras.  I was of course mainly impressed with their marketing capabilities.  The unorthodox way they gamed the political system to win.  Some time down the line, it gets even worse.  I am not sure if all populist leaders don’t have some secret forum where they exchange ideas.

For starters they don’t have a left or right, conservative or socialist direction.  They don’t care.  Whatever sounds good, whatever tweets best.  Tariffs where a “socialist” thing, now it’s a Trump thing in an almost nationalistic way.  In no case is it felt necessary to research something.  He will head to meet the leader of North Korea unprepared.  He might even fall asleep during the meeting like Tsipras seems to do in major international leader meetings.    They both have a unique way of projecting their reality, their complete and utter stupidity, their short term, childish “truth” as if it is the actual truth.  It is like watching a two year old lie about the broken vase he is holding.

Like a rather immature two year old they both change their minds erratically and avoid any specifics.  Forget a detailed memo explaining how a major change will happen, here are a couple of tweets I shot out last night.  Go figure.  They get swayed by whoever they last met or whatever they saw on television.  The gaping lack of basic understanding of how the world works poses absolutely no obstacle to them scheming on the grandest of levels.  Our prime minister even set up the Greek Space program recently.  Sure, it is probably just a way to line the pockets of his friends, but that is irrelevant to the fantasy world he is projecting.

Trump and Tsipras hold on to simple ideas.  Really simple ideas.   Imports are bad.  Let’s kill them.  If it gets the crowd cheering they will just default to the simple “truth” in a world where nothing is simple.  And no matter how ridiculously obvious it is that these people are bowing to whatever their friends ask for, those simple “truths” keep being repeated until they drown out everyone else.  Tsipras is co ruling with a party full of people that believe that we are being sprayed from the air to influence our decision making.  Trump takes advice from Navarro.  To say these are far out extreme conspiracy theorists is an understatement.  The simple, obvious, appealing “truth” is all they care about and they somehow manage to persuade a lot of people that is the whole story.

Their opponents are in disarray because by moving pseudo ideologically they have destroyed the structure of politics as everybody else knew it.  The ultimate market redefinition.  Like going into the hayday of a Pepsi-Coke war and getting everybody to stop drinking all together because liquids are unnatural and you can get all you need from cucumbers and watermelons.   Tsipras and Trump have a lot to teach us.   Get off your soap boxes and see how you can use their methodology in other markets.

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Of course we need to get them out of politics as soon as possible.

 

The mythology of the Greek crisis

If you have any Greek friends you have probably heard the yarns.  The terrible harsh measures imposed on Greece “for the banks”.  Global capitalism eating up it’s children like Saturn and not a Zeus in sight to fight back.  Even Alexis Tsipras, the communist trained youngster, couldn’t do a Hermes on them.  He talked the talk and then somersaulted into submission signing one after another Memorandum of Understanding.  The “sold off Greece”, “mortgaged our future” and many other horrible things.   According to most Greeks it was either “the Germans making money off us” or “the EU making an example of us”.  According to conspiracy theorists it is “the beginning of a global economic meltdown.”

Let me help you with some facts.

  1. Greek business is, in general, crap.  “Crap” being a term I use in the strictest sense to denote lazy and unorganized.  Greece doesn’t really produce anything.  As a consultant I see a lot of companies “insides”.  Even those that appear to be healthy or export orientated are usually dependent on lazy government contracts one way or another.  There is no “private sector” really because even companies that don’t belong to the government, end up making most of their money directly or indirectly from the government.  Worse still, there is no major improvement.  If someone gave us a gazillion billions to pay off all our debt we would simply slide into debt immediately again.
  2. The myth about Greek civil servants still holds true.  Don’t look at official figures.  When the latest government of pseudo left incompetents took over, my father declared “well, they have no money to give away, so at least they can’t hire loads of new civil servants.”  Many people, usually like my father no longer well connected to developments, believe this.  The truth is that this government has continued with gusto in the age old Greek tradition of giving jobs for votes.  They just find new ways.  We have consultancy positions, committees and dozens of other ways to give money to have people dependent enough to vote for them again.  It is the PASOK know-how.  (A lot of PASOK went into the current government.)
  3. Greeks are still living the good life, they just complain more.  We have all taken a hit and it is true that some luxury items like expensive cars or international travel have been scaled back.  It is also true that people on the edge of poverty are worse off.  But the picture is not so clear.  Hospitals are worse off, lacking essentials very often, but most people find a way to get either private health care or some in between solution.  Doctors working in public hospitals abuse expensive machinery on the side for example.  Bus travel is virtually free as there are never ticket inspectors.  You hardly ever see anyone with a ticket anymore.  Most Greeks still own the house they live in and their summer house and possibly a flat or two in the city which they rent out or AirBnb on the side.  How many Germans have that?

I have written before about the many signs that Greeks are still wealthier and lazier in economizing than most Europeans.  Things like the lack of used goods stores or the price of coffee. Greeks still top charts on rates of spending on personal care or plastic surgery.   Supermarkets recently started charging for plastic bags and there was an uproar.  Old habits die hard.  You still don’t see too many people with carrier bags.  We just take plastic bags from the vegetables section and use them!  The “average American” we all like to make fun of, has infinitely more financial literacy than a Greek.  We don’t spread risk, or count investments or move money, here is a conversation with your average Greek about debt.

No, that sort of thing is for “stupid foreigners.” We just wait for the next Euro idiot to give us more money to share.

A horse designed by a European Committee

I take offence to the expression ‘a camel is a horse designed by a committee’.  Camels are incredible animals, possibly ideally suited to the desert.   They have been instrumental in thriving civilizations and commercial breakthroughs which changed mankind forever.  A camel is in fact an animal no European committee could ever imagine.  Someone would argue it doesn’t look right, another would object to it’s saliva based on some european health guideline or other, for sure we would bicker for years about whether or not we can eat its meat; and with more than 100% certainty, the number of humps would become the bone of contention between heads of State for decades.   In total, we would probably spend millions of euro in meetings, public hearings, research and other pleasantries and end up with …a horse.

An excellent recent example is that completely stupid button you have to “accept” when visiting websites.  It is of course completely useless.  A bit like making a sign reading “attention! If you get on this camel, a lot of people will see you because you will be higher up than before“.  A paper sign.  Which camel owners will have to put on the camel everytime a “new” rider comes along.

Perhaps the best illustration of the futility of approaching technology is carrier neutrality.  To put it simply, this is the notion that Facebook has to “deal” with hate talk or sexism on its platform.  Or that it is Twitter’s “fault” that some people spread false rumours via tweets or bots.  In practical terms, this is like asking the telephone company to interfere if two or three of us start talking about building a bomb one day on our phones.  Completely and utterly ludicrous.  In fact, we could make telephone companies completely ban profanity on the telephone.  All calls could go through voice recognition systems and when a swear word was recognised it could cut off the line or send you a fine.

There are two reasons we don’t do this and both are interesting.  The first is that despite spending billions on automatic translation research, Europe still lags far behind in terms of real time machine translation.  Things you can do for free on any Android phone, simply can’t be handled by any European infrastructure in technical terms to handle the task.  Much like no French company could serve videos as well as YouTube.  The second reason is of course that we could never all agree on what constitutes “profanity”.  A French man’s “merd” is not exactly the same as a British “oh, poo!” or even a German “scheisse!”

In the same time Europeans would take to “initiate a working group to deliberate the need for a committee to address the issue”, Google staff would have solved it.  In fact they did.  Not for ethical reasons, but for commercial reasons, YouTube made video channels with profanity inelligible to take adverts.  Problem more or less solved.    Air BnB had a similar problem with users of their platform who refused tenants based on race or ethnicity.  This is no easy problem to solve.  It is virtually impossible to find a solution talking about it around a table.  Air BnB didn’t “initiate research”.  They tried, tested, improved and made it work.

Essentially the problem is one of friction.  Technological networks operate on the premise that less friction is better.  You want your phone to serve instantly.  Search results at a the blink of an eye.  What Silicon Valley does when presented with a challenge is usually to actuall add friction.  That ludicrous european website button informing us about cookies is in essence an added step.  It is meant to ensure we all understand cookies.  Except it doesn’t.  Compare it to Facebook trying to teach us about privacy.  They constantly change the way messages pop up, the content of the messages, the way they try to make sure we are all on the same page concerning who sees what when we post on their platform.  Other platforms have online mini lessons about hate speech.  You start to post something and it pops up saying “hey!  Do you know that this word you are using is considered negative in some parts of the world?  Would you rather use one of the following suggestions:……”  They even give mini history lessons relating to words or uses of words to help make sure you say what you want in a way which will actually get the message across.

Europe will never, ever catch up with Silicon Valley like this.  Artificial intelligence is not about installing a “kill” button.  I read through the blurb and it is a bit like bad French or Italian academic literature.  Too much theory and mostly outdated.  Impressive for headlines, useless in practice.  In this particular phase of technological development we need to be building infrastructure and platforms.   We need millions of experiments and we need to learn much faster.

Sir Alec Issigonis, designer of the legendary Mini, is often credited with coining the expression about horses, camels and committees.  The question is whether today he would be enticed by a cushy university job, doing European research and enjoying European committees and funding, rather than building the iconic Mini car.  I think he would prefer to work for Google and just get things done.

Were Greeks always easy to sway?

It is surprising that this trick worked.  Greeks have always been more intelligent than barbarians.  And Athenias even more so, they are the smartest of all Greeks.

Yet Pisistratus the tyrant, got his position back with a very simple trick:  he found a pretty and quite tall girl from the peasants and dressed as if she were the godess Athena.  With full armor and other accessories the girl rode with him in a chariot.  And Pisistratus had heralds announce that Athena herself was bringing him back to power.

 

(Herodotus – Histories, 1.60)