memory lane is a place greeks avoid

August 3, 2011

[…] in my first talk with him, referred to many government employees as “camp followers” and “coffeehouse politicians” and described the whole civil service as a kind of pension system for political hacks. These are harsh words, but are not unwarranted. The civil service is overexpanded, underpaid and demoralized. The low salaries have been augmented by a completely baffling system of extra allowances by which a few civil servants probably get as much as four times their base pay.

The result is complete disorganization. I have never seen an administrative structure which, for sheer incompetence and ineffectiveness, was so appaling. The civil service simply cannot be relied upon to carry out the simplest functions of government – the collection of taxes, the enforcement of economic regulations, the repair of roads. Thus the drastic reform of the civil service is an indispensable condition to getting anything else done in Greece. But the civil service is just the beginning. There is far more intricate and explosive question of the political leadership of the country.

One could be excused for guessing that the above was taken from a recent report on the Greek sovereign crisis. Unfortunately, it was written in 1947 by the (former by that time) US Presidential Emissary to Greece. And it highlights the Greeks’ acute lack of memory, who strongly believe that their current plight can be traced to either the 80s or 90s, depending on which “camp” they follow. The grim reality is that the Greek psyche has been stubbornly refusing to modernize; the dreams, aspirations, motivations, hopes and fears of the modern Greek family are the same as they were when the Greek state was established in mid 1800s.

And the flirtation of the Greek state with bankruptcy, collapse and chaos is not new neither. This week hordes of taxi owners have been blocking airports, ports and major roads at will, as new legislation would open their profession to competition. Next week another group will take to the streets and make a complete mockery of the state. The head of the British Economic Mission in the 40s makes a point, which seems to be as valid today as it ever was:

When visitors on arriving in a new country [..] run into a sandstorm or a hurricane, they are always told how unusual the weather is. But the situation you are running into here in Athens – the monetary crisis, the possible civil service strike, the pending fall of the government is the normal [..] political climate of Greece. So far as I could see, the Greek government has no effective policy except to plead for foreign aid to keep itself in power [..] It intends, in my judgement, to use foreign aid as a way of perpetuating the privileges of a small banking and commercial clique which constitutes the invisible power in Greece. [Assurance of foreign aid] was not to stimulate the government to further efforts, but to give it the relaxed feeling that it was delivered from the necessity of having to do anything at all. So it declared a national holiday; there was dancing in the streets. And at the same time it shelved a plan for the immediate export of surplus olive oil – a plan which had stepped on the toes of some private traders

The collective amnesia of the Greeks is constantly kept in check by an army of incompetent journalists, commentators, politicians, academics and general “public” figures. A little bit before Greece had her Will E. Coyote moment, I found myself at a round-table event where some hotshot from the National Bank of Greece was speaking just before me. Rather than boring the audience with equations and figures, he went through the script: the “common journey of the NBG and the Greek nation”, the many ways “NBG supported the Greek state throughout the journey”, and how neither of them have anything to fear if they stick together. I am sure that the audience left the event relieved that this long-standing special relationship of mutual support has been there. The Emissary has a different opinion:

[..] behind the government is a small mercantile and banking cabal, headed by [Georgios] Pesmazoglu, governor of the National Bank of Greece and a shrewd and effective operator. This cabal is determined above all to protect its financial prerogatives, at whatever expense to the economic health of the country. Its members wish to retain a tax system rigged fantastically to their favor. They oppose exchange controls, because these might prevent them from salting away their profits in banks in Cairo or Argentina. They would never dream of investing these profits in their country’s recovery

The Pesmazoglus were a family of bankers from the Greek community of Egypt, which moved to Athens in the late 1800s. Since, they have produced generations of politicians, bankers and newspaper owners. Georgios was all three. The Pesmazoglus are now revered in Greece as national heros; the old Athens stock exchange is on Pesmazoglu street.

Greek shipping was born in the 40s, and the great Greek shipowners of the past are the stuff of legends. Everyone speaks of their business acumen, their ability to succeed where others have failed, their courage entering new markets and pushing frontiers, and ultimately their undying love for their country. The ones that spared some change to build an orphanage or a girls’ school have achieved sainthood to the eyes of the modern Greek.

The shipping interests are in a particularly scandalous position. Today the Greek merchant marine is enjoying a boom, and the shipowners are raking in the profits. But the bankrupt Greek government is benefiting almost not at all from this prosperity.[..] Greek shipowners are making most of their profits out of Liberty ships sold to them by the US Maritime Commission after the Greek government had guaranteed the mortgages. The yearly earnings of a Greek-owned Liberty ship will probably run between $200,000 and $250,000. Of this, only the ridiculously small amount of $8,000 goes to the government in taxes. Foreign experts have urged the government to raise the tax requirements to about $30,000. But the political strength of the shipowners has prevented any effective action.

The US Emissary finished his article on a positive note: although Greece has issues that need to be addressed, when you compare her to Turkey or the Communist Balkan states she is still a long way ahead. This was in the 1940s; now Turkey and the Balkan states are marching forward, while Greece is once again bracing herself for default. The collective amnesia will take care of the rest.


3 Responses to “memory lane is a place greeks avoid”

  1. George Says:

    Could you please reference the source of the quotes? Thanks.

  2. visnumerorum Says:

    It is a collection of old newspaper/magazine cuts. If you give me an email I can perhaps try to send them.

  3. Demetrios Says:

    “The ones that spared some change to build an orphanage or a girls’ school have achieved sainthood to the eyes of the modern Greek.”

    Sounds about right.
    Most of the meager social benefits Greeks enjoy are handouts, the spare change of “patriotic” benefactors, in contrast to non-existent initiatives towards social welfare by corrupt and insensitive governments.
    Their names are engraved on the entrance of the university, library, orphanage, or gymnasium these kind people erected. It is a monument of exploitation that the average Greek taxpayer does not realize that his/her labors have built mercantile empires, for which the returns have been insultingly insufficient.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: