ATHENS – Unless you were rich, a business executive, a celebrity, or among the few privileged elite who run the country and for whom every year is a banner year of profiteering, 2011 was the worst year for most Greeks since the American-backed junta of repressive Right-Wing Colonels fell in 1974. The economic crisis rolled on, along with more pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions and scores of thousands of layoffs in a bloated public sector that conspired with politicians for years for a sweetheart deal of lifetime employment in no-heavy lifting, no-show jobs, nice pay checks and early retirement until the day of reckoning came.
The country finished a fourth consecutive year of recession that brought some sad numbers to the country that invented math but couldn’t count when it counted: 17.5 percent unemployment, 500,000 people with no income; 500,000 who gave up and ran screaming to other countries looking for a better life (many of the country’s young and best and brightest among them stifled by a system in which lackeys and troglodytes with political connections get the best jobs and then do nothing); the fastest increase in the rates of suicide and homelessness in Europe; a $460 billion debt that shows no signs of abating; a 10 percent deficit that is three times higher than the ceiling set by the Eurozone, the 17 countries that use the euro as a currency; and an as-yet unmeasured and incalculable number of people who have lost hope.
This doesn’t happen by accident. There are reasons why the most glorious country of ancient times has become the pariah of the world in the 21st Century. So how did Greece get from Pericles to Papandreou some 2,500 years after Greeks created democracy, arts, literature, science, math, medicine, philosophy and a system called democracy it has abandoned in favor of being a plutocratic oligarchy? Greece is being kept alive on $152 billion in bailout loans it can’t repay and needs a second bailout of $175 billion it can’t repay, hoping to write off 50-65 percent of the debt, ensuring there will be far fewer foreign investors taking a chance on a country which can’t pay its bills. Here then are Greek Reporter’s top 11 reasons why the sky kept falling, and why this time next you can repeat them because the people running Greece, and those who go along with them, never learn.
11. DENIAL, DENIAL, DENIAL – The Irish may have the best drinking songs, and the saddest, but nobody beats Greeks when it comes to denying there’s trouble on the road ahead, a bad moon rising, or hell at the doorstep. After years of cheating on its economic numbers to get into the Eurozone and stay there, successive incompetent Greek governments of the alternating PASOK Anti-Socialists and New Democracy conservative Uber-Capitalists who created the crisis and decided to make workers, the poor and pensioners pay for it, denied there was any problem. That despite abundant concrete evidence that showed the country was going down faster than a German submarine bought by Greece with bribe money. It reminded of Bugs Bunny’s line about someone who didn’t get it: “Ultra-maroon, what an embezzle.” It was all made easier by the loans from the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank determined to keep throwing good money after bad and keep Greece afloat – not to save Greece, about which it doesn’t care, but to prevent the Greek Contagion from being down the rest of the Eurozone. The government missed every optimistic assessment it made and even the IMF admitted its own grim predictions were rosy because everyone hoped the problem would go away. It didn’t and it won’t because no one wants the truth.
10. LAWLESSNESS – We’re not talking bank robbery here, unless you count how Greek banks cripple customers with hidden clauses that make them pay for a loan they’ve already paid unless they ask for a letter of discharge, a favorite tactic of Eurobank, which deserves to go bust, but the little, petty everyday law breaking that leads from the proverbial broken window to murder. Greeks park on sidewalks, double park the wrong way, smoke where they want despite five smoking bans in 10 years, go through red lights at will, and simply ignore laws and are allowed to because, as they say when they shrug their shoulders and smile: “This is Greece.” Yes, it is, and that’s why this is Greece today: bereft, broke and still lawless because when there are laws and they aren’t enforced, that’s a textbook definition of lawlessness. Park on a sidewalk one day, get away with murder the next, it’s all the same here.
9. CORRUPTION – Transparency International annually ranks Greece among the most corrupt countries, not just in Europe, but in the world and there’s a good reason for it. Nearly everyone is on the take, from tax inspectors to politicians, doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, clerk, driving inspectors and anyone who has something to gain by making someone else pay for it. When nearly everyone’s corrupt, who’s going to turn them in? Nothing rots a soul faster than corruption, the sense of entitlement that you’re allowed to take bribes and get away with it. Former Defense Minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos was indicted by Parliament on charges of taking money for a submarine deal with a German company and cited by a German court for the same. He’s still waiting to go to court, scheduled for the 12th of Never and in the meantime is among former Members of Parliament suing his country to get a bigger pension.
8. PERCEPTION: Not Inception, the surreal movie, but almost as insane. The world thinks of Greeks as lazy, corrupt, inefficient, ouzo-chugging, cigarette chain smoking (the world’s highest rate) sun-loving beach layabouts, not unlike in the the movie Shirley Valentine, and while it’s generally not true (Greeks have the longest working hours in Europe but many, of course, sit at their desks the whole time) Greeks perpetuate it with their laissez-faire attitude toward everything and now believe it of themselves, which makes it so much easier to do nothing, get away with it, and feel okay about it. So as you sow, so also shall you reap, etc. Even worse, you couldn’t hear the word “default” without having “Greece” before it and that became the reality, even if we’re still waiting for it to inevitably happen.
7. UNCOMPETIVE/UNPRODUCTIVE – Less than half of Greeks work, nearly 50 percent of those under 25 are unemployed, 25 percent of the estimated Gross Domestic Product is in the undeclared underground black economy, and the government spends 42 percent of its limited funds on social benefits, the Socialist state created by former Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou 30 years ago that was dismantled by his son, former Prime Minister George Papandreou, who resigned on Nov. 11 after 18 months of social unrest and turned over the reins of a dead horse to a coalition government headed by former European Central Bank Vice President Lucas Papademos. Greeks are less productive than their peers, producing only $35 per hour worked compared to $55 in Central Europe. With a workforce of nearly 1 million in the public sector, including state-owned entities that were outside the books, there are too many alleged workers trying to prop up an economy in which even the country’s best products – olive oil, honey, saffron, lamb – aren’t marketed properly. Greek olive oil, the world’s best, is sold to Italian companies, which re-brand it and things are so bad that Greece is importing olive oil – from Germany – which gets it from Greece and sells it back. Of 193 countries in the world, Greece ranks 101st in the Ease of Doing Business Index from the World Bank. Of course, it’s easier if you hand over a “fakelaki,” a little envelope stuffed with bribe money.
6. RIOT CITY – Most of the images the world saw in 2011 were the riots in downtown Athens, particularly Syntagma Square, where protesters regularly massed to oppose austerity measures, and where for weeks thousands of so-called “Indignants” occupied the area across from the Parliament. When Papandreou called out the riot police, they swarmed into the crowd swinging batons, firing tear gas and chemical weapons and attacking anyone in their way, not just the cowardly anarchists who hide behind hoods and toss Molotov Cocktails, but legitimate protesters. This is the Greece people saw on their televisions and it created a huge public relations problem. Despite those horrific scenes, tourism went up inexplicably by 10 percent because not even the televised nightmare, nor shoddy service and cheap hotels could keep people away from a country whose beauty transcended the ugliness of its rulers.
5. DEAD ENTITIES – Remarkably, Greece does have some good companies – mining, pharmaceutical, health and beauty aids, construction supplies, agricultural products, and even state-run enterprises such as Hellenic Petroleum. But the government operates some dead entities, such as the multiple-bankrupt OSE railway system which is useless, runs near empty trains, pays workers five times the $18,000 annual salary of teachers and has almost no value on the open market. Still, the Troika believes Greece can raise as much as $70 billion by selling or leasing state-owned properties and privatizing state-owned entities, but so far has raised only $3 billion because buyers don’t think there’s any worth in them or are waiting for the prices to fall even further. Germany and China are already licking their chops at picking up some of those of value for rock-bottom prices, but in the meantime, most of the enterprises are big money-bleeders because they are packed with dead weight feather bedded political patronage jobs.
4. INJUSTICE – If people believe they are sacrificing for the common good, they are more likely to accept sacrifice, but all Greece does is sacrifice its best and most decent, creating outrage. Pensioners have to wait months for their first check and years for lump sums they earned – unless they work for companies such as Hellenic Petroleum, and then they get it fast and in full. Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos imposed an avalanche of taxes on everyone except the rich and privileged, and will make the poor pay while the country’s vaunted shipping industry of Captains and Kings pay nothing – zero, tipota – in taxes. No one goes to jail in Greece it seems except the poor and immigrants, further fostering the belief by most Greeks that the government protects its own while making workers, pensioners and the poor pick up the tab. That makes ethical people become unethical and undermines any sense of a nation’s people pulling together because they’re all pulling in different directions.
3. TAX EVADERS – And the biggest injustice, one infuriating enough to make the Dalai Lama want to punch someone, is that while people are paying through the nose – two income taxes, two property taxes, a Value Added Tax of 23 percent that has crippled restaurants, closed hotels, and a pending tax on bank deposits, tax evaders are costing the country more than $60 billion and as much as $13 billion a year more and have escaped with near impunity despite a recent public relations crackdown in which 50 were arrested but none prosecuted. Venizelos has in his pocket a list of 6,000 of them but won’t release it and it wasn’t until the country’s two top tax evasion prosecutors resigned after citing political interference in their work – and then were promptly reinstated – that there was any real momentum toward trying to take the albatross off the neck. None of it will work because tax evasion isn’t limited to the rich and celebrities and politicians, but everyone from fruit and vegetable sellers to mechanics and professionals. As a journalist hired by a British TV show which is designed to promote an image of Greeks as tax cheats put it: “If you pay taxes in Greece, you’re stupid.” Maybe that should be the country’s new slogan.
2. POLITICAL INFIGHTING – After Papandreou threw in the towel, some 75 percent of Greeks gave Papademos their approval, but he’s just like Obama keeping Bush policies and there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between what he’s doing and what Papandreou did on the orders of the Troika because international lenders own the mortgage on Greece and the coalition administration that includes PASOK holdovers like Venizelos, New Democracy and the just-shy-of-cuckoo far Right-Wing LAOS party are its puppets and are busy fighting amongst themselves and trying to position themselves for the next elections, now set back from February to April, in which –if they are held – a new government will take over that will look like all the previous governments and nothing will change. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Greece has no leaders anyone would want to follow into a dark alley. The Greek City States are still waging war but now they are political parties.
1. ZELEVOUNAI – Michael Lewis, the Vanity Fair magazine financial writer who came to Greece and was overwhelmed at the sheer magnitude of corruption, inefficiency and just don’t-give-a-damn attitude, put it best when he said the bottom line problem is that, “Greeks just don’t trust Greeks” and jealousy and envy rule. The favorite game is Poneeros, in which everyone tries to be more clever than everyone else and isn’t happy until they both win and someone else loses. In this case, it’s the whole country.