Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Where Are The Optimists?

I have been in Athens for the past week and have worked very hard to find an optimist. It is like looking for water on the moon – only with less chance of success. Even those who consider themselves optimists for the long term worry about their ability to survive the short-medium term.

Events in Egypt may have temporarily pushed Greece off the front pages, but, as one disgruntled Athenian put it, “At least the Egyptians have some hope.” As the country struggles to solve its staggering debt problems with long overdue reforms the ordinary people face a gauntlet of challenges every day: transportation strikes, surge in illegal immigrants, demonstrations, sit-ins, riot police in front of the parliament, strikes by pharmacies, and on and on.

Grafitti on a wall of the Polytechnic University sums up the frustration of Greece today: "For Nothing, Against Everything." Even the dimmest of the demonsrators or politicians realizes there can be no return to the old ways. But no one has a clear view of what lies ahead. Therein lies the confusion.

On top of this people have to deal with individual bureaucratic idiocy. For example, it’s not enough that the Athens Law School has been in chaos for several days as a sit-in by illegal immigrants and their supporters has just about shut down the school. A professor schedules a major exam in the middle of this mess on a day when the public transport system is on strike. He refuses to change the date of the exam, and consequently about 90% of the students can not even get to the school for the exam. No wonder people are losing their cool.

A friend brought a civil suit against a bank about six years ago. He has not yet even appeared in court. The first year the court adjourned before the case was heard. He was postponed, not for a day, not for a week or a month, but for an entire year. The next year there was a court officers’ strike on the day of the case. Again, another year. The following year, there was a bomb scare. No case. The next year the lawyers were on strike. Finally his case got on the docket, but never got heard because the first case of the day took up the entire morning before the court adjourned at noon. He was recently told that the case may, may, be heard in 2013.

My wife’s effort to have the name Edgerly appear on her Greek passport required about three years of constant guerrilla attacks after which the authorities threw in the towel and did it her way. The Greek passport, understandably, requires all names to be written in the Greek alphabet. Fair enough. But then in addition they translate the Greek version back into the Latin alphabet for the rest of the world to understand. Rather than simply rely on the already available English version of our name they invent an entirely new one, ENTZERLI. Great. Very helpful.

After it was forced to borrow €110 billion to stay afloat Greece has essentially ceded control of its economic affairs to the so-called Troika – the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. This has battered the Greek psyche.

“We used to think of ourselves way ahead of countries like Turkey. After all, we were members of the European Union and our economy had improved enough – so we were told – to join the Euro. Now Turkey is surging and some of our people are even looking for work over there,” moaned one small businessman.

The Troika soon discovered that Greece, unlike other financially troubled countries like Ireland and Portugal, needed a complete overhaul of its entire economic system. The distortions that continue to cripple Greece have been in place for decades, and removing them all at once is like having two root canals simultaneously, without anaesthesia.

Inflated pensions, pretend jobs that unfortunately have real pay and benefits, bloated and inefficient state sector, absurd regulations that protect most professions from any hint of competition and strangle innovation and initiative at birth, corruption big and small, and a political system that ensured a job-for-life for your brother-in-law’s idiot cousin if you voted for the right person. Misguided attempts to increase the price of public transport rather than collect existing fares have led to strikes and refusal to pay road tolls. These strikes are aimed at getting the government to back down just like every other Greek government has done. Few people really believe the government has the courage to follow through on opening the closed professions. So far they may be right. One example is that the 30% guaranteed profit margin for the pharmacies remains untouched.

But the Troika running the Greek economy is not easily intimidated. They’re not facing an election. The government is reduced to rubber-stamping the Troika’s demands and then ducking the flack that comes from the public. The government tries lamely to explain that all these changes for the best, and that eventually everything will be just fine.

It is hard to overstate the anger that ordinary people feel toward the political class. Former prime minister Costas Simitis was attacked in the street and only saved by his security detail as he cowered in the lobby of a near-by apartment building. Former ministers are lustily booed if they dare appear in restaurants. The public ignores the fact that it was equally complicit in the tragedy of the Greek economy.

For all its difficulties Greece has undeniable assets, mainly in its well educated and bright young people. Many of these people have achieved global renown in their fields of interest. The real challenge for the government is to remove the roadblocks for this generation and let them realize their potential in Greece instead of in some other country.

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