Greek on a soapbox

Will try and keep this short and unGreek in drama.  I am a Germanotsolias according to many people here.  The term refers to the police collaborators with the Nazis and is very fashionable again.  Ι write in full knowledge that I am probably going to be pinpointed by this, already the Press is facing ridiculous inquisitions on political grounds.

Europe I am sorry.   We just kept taking your money, lying through our teeth and spending it.  Even just before the referendum, our government was busy hiring more civil servants under various guises.  Even after the referendum, our ministers are lying to your face.  They are not going to make any proposals.  Even if you give away all our debt and accept all our terms, they won’t sign any agreement.  They don’t need to.   61% of half the voting age Greeks, voted No to the referendum.  Some of them were fooled.  Many of them truly believe that now is the time to start a global revolution against banks, the European Union and the shortcomings of the global economy from our country.

I am sorry.  I know it sounds ludicrous.  It is preposterous.  Imagine what we feel like.  That 39% that managed to vote “YES”, despite all the pressure.  Despite seeing close friends suddenly lose touch with reality with a religious fervour that is truly frightening.  People that should have known better.  They studied abroad, they do business with other countries, they work with the European Union yet….somehow they manage to disregard reality.  For some it is a knee jerk reaction to being accused by others.  For some it is an indirect admission of guilt.  They feel we should be reduced to rumbles in order to work our way back up.  They imagine it as a quick musical interlude in a corny American movie, a dramatic song, our hero working overtime and then…everything is fine ten minutes later and the movie ends.

On top of it all, our latest government has played the “Europe needs fixing” card in a way which is criminal.  Just as the Scottish referendum showed the UK how to move towards a more Federal model and things are moving in the right direction, comes the Greek bulldozer.  So let this be a warning to you all.  For too long, European politicians have blamed Europe.  It was the easy choice.  Be careful what sows you seed and by all means, don’t allow your current politicians to lead you to fanatical choices.

Maybe Europe doesn’t “work” for you.  If you have a strong economy, reliable politicians and social cohesion maybe you can do something better on your own.  Just don’t rush into it.

A conversation with your average Greek about debt

-This debt is unsustainable.

What do you mean?

-We have to get more loans just to pay the interest!  We will never manage to pay it off!

So what do you propose?

-Write all the debt off so we can recover.

But that would mean other Europeans having to pay for it.

-Yes, but you are all richer than us.  We have very very high unemployment.

You do, eh?  Are those unemployed looking for work?

-Of course they are!

So why are the cafeterias full of young people paying three times the price of a coffee in other European cities?

-That’s not typical. There are really poor people in Greece in other areas.

Oh really?  Can you show me one indicator that supports the idea that Greeks are poor?

-We don’t need indicators.  People are dying on the streets.

More than they are dying in other European cities?  This is inaccurate.  You have the least deaths of homeless people or elderly people.  They are living better than others.

-Because we care!  We have extended families.

No, because half the population lives with handouts from the Public Sector.  Either pensions you receive much earlier than other Europeans, or civil servant positions which are ridiculous…

-We work more than other Europeans!

Well, it must be pretty unproductive work, because your country keeps needing more money.

-Not our fault.  All our governments are sold out to the Americans and to Europe.  They suck our blood and get richer as we get poor.

Well, why are you allowing your government to make fools of you in Brussels now, demanding ridiculous things in the most rude way possible?

-They are heroes!  Someone had to stand up to the bloody Germans!

Germans have less than 50% home ownership.  Greeks are above 90%.

-That is simply a different culture.

Germans share car rides, prefer buying used clothes, have price differentiation in their product lines because they shop around for price.

-Well that’s just miserable!  We Greeks don’t bother with rubbish like that.

My point is, Germans and other Europeans try to save their money.  If they don’t have enough money, they go to the movies on a Monday afternoon when it is cheaper, they split their restaurant bills based on what they ate.

-What an awful idea!  In Greece we don’t scimp like that!  We order plenty food and then fight over who will pay the bill.

Oh really?

 

 

Ariel Castro needed to rewrite Greek history?

As we walked through central Vienna, I pointed to one of the windows:

“You know”, I explained to an interlocutor who probably knew better than me, “when Greece was formed as a modern country in 1828, the people living in those buildings had several centuries of experience of living in a city with other people.”

I stopped by a water fountain which looked two or three hundred years old:

“This fountain has survived upheaval and waves of military events here.  But the people around it found ways to agree despite their differences.  In Greece we would probably have destroyed it from some internal bickering.”

I have no idea where you start in order to get over trauma like being held in a basement and raped for many years.  But I assume that coming to terms with all that you missed out during those years of captivity is a big part of it.   At the start of the economic crisis I used psychological terms to help readers understand the denial symptoms expressed in Greek society.     Now I want to point out a huge problem in our national narrative.

Most Greeks are taught a pretty twisted version of history.  Ancient Greek wonders, mainly Athenian, a little bit of a vague Byzantine history and then… a huge gap.    Like prisoners of some Ottoman Ariel Castro, like a rape victim that doesn’t want to talk about it, 400 years are ignored.  During that time the West took off, shook away the obsession with Aristotle and other Greeks and set the stage for the modern world.

Greece got out of its prison in 1828.   A country of shepherds and people of little means, were suddenly called upon to become a modern Western country.   Athens was little more than a village.   Which grew way too quickly with absolutely no associated experience of how to live in a city.  Yet we cling to fantasies that are a bit like Superman rushing into a telephone booth to change into a super identity.   As if we can instantly turn ourselves into a world leading power based on some magic fairy dust that the location or the DNA of Ancient Athenians have bestowed upon us.

We need to face the facts.  To openly express our regret that we missed out on the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution.   We need to cry over all the stuff we missed.    Retrace the steps we didn’t make with the rest of Europe.   I often get accused by nationalists of being a “Greek basher” because I systematically try to get Greeks to let go of their obsession with Ancient Greek wisdom.  Maybe if I reposition it as a “rediscovery of the wonders of Europe” it will work better.

Elsewhere in this blog I pinpointed the mistake that European leaders have systematically made in “selling” the European idea to their citizens.  Maybe the whole of the Continent and not just Greece could benefit from revisiting those great moments in European history as it led the world for many centuries since the Middle Ages.

Rewriting history is good.  It can be fun.  And – if you get it right – it is a cathartic  experience for all involved.  Not as in catharsis  of Ancient Greek tragedy.  Get over it  I said!

Tolstoy and the Greek War of financial Independence

“War and Peace” is monumental in the way it helped create the myth of the united Russian people.  Despite its size it glosses over and completely avoids going historically where the narrative would be in conflict.  Important battles aren’t even mentioned and the massive diplomatic effort to keep the armies fed isn’t present.  The two years that follow what is in the massive book are far more interesting as the incredibly disciplined Russian army entered Leipzig and Paris backed by superior intelligence and diplomacy.  However a Tolstoy is exactly what Greece needs now, not a loan.

It was the amount proposed as aid that got me thinking.  Sure the zeroes at the end of it are dizzying and in many ways an awesome show of EuroFinanceFirePower.  But it seems that it is just enough to keep Greece ticking until just before the next national elections.  Makes sense you could say.  Get your shop in order and you get more help, Mr Papandreou.  No giving it all away to gain favours like your Dad was so good at doing.

And then there is the matter of financing risk spread.  How involved are European banks in Greek debt?  Hard to tell but if you average out the guesstimates it seems that the amount the European Union is proposing to lend is just a bit less that it would cost their banks if Greece defaulted, a lot of which are practically national affairs.  And of course if Portugal, Spain or any other similar economy went down not even the EU or World Bank could muster enough cash.

So let Greece crash please.  We need to face up to the debt and restructure it like so many other countries have succesfully navigated these past decades.  It will do us good.  During the War of Independence against the Turks, the spirit of teamwork was incredible.  Same at the start of the second world War.  People singing in the streets for joy and working together, putting aside differences and just working to a common goal.  Both those wars then had a bleak period of infighting and turmoil as “normality” settled in.  We need to shake off “normality” not invite it right now.

We need to face up to the facts.  This is war.  We need to rally up to the common cause instead of digging our heads in a hole.  And if the politicians can’t write a book as good as “War and Peace” we need inspiring figureheads to do as good a job as possible.  This article is in English because it is not my fellow Greeks that need to read it; fellow Europeans, please take the moral high road.  Don’t chicken out and use Greece as a delay mechanism for sorting out the real structural problems Europe faces.  The EU can survive Greece’s economy crashing but if we let the threat dehabilitate us, world financial markets will just keep playing the EuroZone like this forever.  Like wolves isolating stragglers in a herd of deer, it will never end.  Restructuring debt isn’t the end of the world.  Sure Argentina got ugly, but Belize, Uruguay and even Jamaica did very civilized jobs of it.  The work of people like Lee Buchheit(download an excellent paper on the topic here) shows us exactly how the alternative would work.  Sure, there is no way to exit the european union but just as we stopped using the drachma, we could reinstate it as an inbetween phase to recovery.  And if anyone wants an inspiring story of a people rising from the ashes in tough times, follow Wilma Mankiller’s story as she fought an urban war to get Cherokee people proud again on their terms.

One way or another, in five years Greece should be able to stabilize things.  But if we build crutches into the core of a newly born Europe now, the whole idea of a truly united Europe will not be able to recover for decades.  It wasn’t the Russian winter that beat Napoleon, that is just a convenient myth, like all the myths about ancient Greek superiority we keep on the backburner in Greece as an excuse not to actually work.

I am kidding of course.  Greece has major liquidity issues, bank structural problems and an unhealthy reliance on the public sector which is completely corrupt.   We need the loans but it would be great if we could organize ourselves to actually make the necessary changes without feeling some “foreigners” forced us to make them.   If Greece is forced to make these changes too fast, a whole nation will struggle to transform itself so fast.   We have no Tolstoy and no Churchill to lead and inspire us and the social connections in the country aren’t strong enough to keep it together while we mature.

 

Like a lot of important writers, Leo Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Russian (Greek Orthodox) church.  The day after this was announced students and workers paraded in his honour.  So if Fitch wants to grade Greek bonds BBB- (just above saying it is toilet paper!) I say let’s take to the streets in celebration too; if this bunch of people really puts minds and hearts to it, we can and should get great stuff done!