It’s the night of the Greek referendum, a landmark affair that could determine the future of Greece. Locals have gathered in Athens to feast on roasted corncobs, souvlakis, and socialize. No Molotov cocktails, no anarchists, not even so much as a scuffle. The few anxious faces belong to a few dozen foreign correspondents. They have crossed the globe to cover a story about an economic disaster – only to crash a Sunday grill party.
For outsiders, it seems that the Greek response to five years of austerity measures is “Opa!” – a versatile Greek word for “whoops,” “let’s celebrate” and “shit happens.”
But the reality underneath this casual veneer is much more complex than anyone can surmise.
The referendum itself is about EU bailout conditions. But what it is really about is dignity: an opportunity for Greeks to have a say in their destiny. The “oxi” (no) voters want an end to unconditional austerity measures. The “né” (yes) camp believes that separation from the EU would cut Greece off from the resources enjoyed by the world’s industrialized nations. Both sides believe they belong to the majority.
Some, however, realize they’ve lost control of the outcome. “I don’t see a plan to save Greece, on either side,” a waitress shrugs. “Why vote?”
Spirit prevails but only in isolated pockets. A seven-year-old boy with dreamy eyes scurries through a labyrinth of docile protestors, waving an “OXI” (“NO”) flag. He stops suddenly, signaling his gang to a halt, and perks his ears for an announcement.
“OXI, OXI, OXI…” the boy shouts a moment later, his face lighting up. A crowd around him bursts into cheers. It’s a 61% majority win for the “no” voters.
Farther out at the edge of the square the action is more akin to Madame Tussaud’s. Men playing with their Komboloi aka worry beads. Young and old men, chain-smoking with glazed eyes.
“The fate of Greece has already been decided,” states a particularly grumpy old man.
“Who do you think is responsible?” I ask.
“You might as well blame the weather,” he shrugs, exhaling a cloud of smoke.
And he is right. The situation in Greece is past the blame game. It is more akin to a meteorological wonder.
Take a particularly strong storm. It is created by a rare alignment of climatic factors (temperature, pressure, wind, humidity and precipitation). When your hometown is about to get wiped off the map, which factor do you blame? It’s more likely you jump inside a (mental) bunker and hope for the best.
In the case of Greece, copious factors point to a perfect storm. The Greeks themselves, the nepotistic politicians, the predatory bankers, the austerity economists, the EU policymakers, the shady corporations, the corrupt civil servants, combined with a rapidly deteriorating world economy that has pushed social inequality for a stretch too long.
There has never been a storm like this in modern history. This storm is not random. It’s speeding up from a Category 1 towards a (previously non-existent) Category 6, and heading towards the cradle of civilization… as if driven by a purpose.
Pressure Cooking A Cultural Heritage
On July 14, Tsipras’ socialist government caved into the European troika (the European Central Bank, I.M.F, and the European Commission), extinguishing the rest of the government’s political capital both towards its people and the EU. It becomes clear that the referendum was a magic trick. What popped out of the hat wasn’t a white bunny, but a foreclosure notice. The new bailout conditions take the pre-referendum terms for a turbo spin – as if out of spite.
In half a decade, the Greek economy has already shrunk by a quarter. One-fourth of the population has been cast under the poverty line, with another 40% hovering above it, ready for a free-fall. With 53% youth unemployment, a quarter of the population out of work, hospitals shut down, schools in disarray, and two million pensioners living on welfare, some 1.5-2 million people are expected to provide for 11 million mouths all the while nursing an astronomical debt.
Now add another squeeze to pensions on top of already existing 40% reductions, contraction of labor rights and wide-ranging privatization that include the selling of €50 billion worth of national treasures. You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to figure out that the numbers boil down to national hara-kiri.
Former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, describes the revised terms as a “New Versailles Treaty.”
In 1919, the Treaty Of Versailles subjected Germans to WWI reparations worth 132 billion marks, (equivalent to approximately €400 billion today). The treaty led to hyperinflation that demolished Germany, but also provided a financial backdoor to debt management via a depreciating currency.
By November 1923, the American dollar was worth more than four trillion Marks. The creditors screamed for gold instead of paper. But the devaluation gave extra time for Germans to brew their own storm. The pressure cooker conditions led to extreme nationalism, fueled by a tiny man with a knack for rhetoric and a charismatic toothbrush mustache.
When the pressure cooker beeped “ready,” out popped WWII.
No need to panic, however. Comparing debt-squeezed Greece to Versailles is a majestically misleading analogy, for many reasons.
Greece doesn’t have the luxury of devaluation, because it joined the euro in 2001. The payback must therefore come from the bone marrow of individual citizens rather than paper-printing machines.
There is also no leader that could lead a radical reform, now that Tsipras has proven to be another political joke. Decades of political corruption and mismanagement have corroded the people’s belief in any form of government.
Then there is the Greek psychology. An uncanny combination of individual pride and jealousy makes the Greek uniquely incapable of uniting under a single cause.
Geographically and culturally Greece stands far and wide apart from any other EU country. Greece is a set of islands floating in a dreamy, blue ocean, with perfect temperatures and inhabitants trading favors high on ouzo (incidentally, they also have more sex than any other nation on earth, according to a study by Durex). Germany on the other hand, is an industrialized nation composed of civil engineers who like to build things (although they also like to go to Greece to drink and tan).
Following WWI, Germany was blamed for one of history’s most destructive conflicts. Greece meanwhile is blamed for squandering money on private swimming pools. In reality, the corruption goes wider and deeper than even alarmists can estimate (as we shall see below).
Where does that leave us in terms of the Versailles analogy? Mostly myth. The Germans had Nibelung and Wagner. Greece still has Odysseus, Heracles, Theseus, Achilles, and a dozen other mythic heroes who were quite mad for most of their lives.
If we assume for a moment that cultural heritage is reactivated in times of extreme stress – as it did in Germany before WWII – then we have to also acknowledge that the Greeks are not to be messed with.
You only need to take a look at Greek history to understand why.
Many of the Greek legends took their advice from oracles in Delphi, who tripped on “sacred fumes” (later proven to be ethylene, an explosive gas that was used for anesthesia in the early 20th century). The hallucinogenic advice guided Aegean history for about a millennium before the gases settled back into the earth.
When the Greek heroes weren’t taking guidance from intoxicated female prophets, they preferred an epicurean lifestyle. Without fail, however, they eventually chose a glorious path full of carnage. Odysseus didn’t go to war for Helen Of Troy out of honor and obedience. He enjoyed his farm and family and did everything possible to shirk war. When the call came, he hooked an ox and a donkey to his plow and sowed his field with salt, attempting to avoid the draft by reason of insanity. A doubtful Agamemnon arranged Odysseus’ infant son to be placed in front of his plow in order to foil his plan. The plan worked. The rest belongs to the stuff of war legends.
That, along with a hundred other stories of heroic myths, is what Greek children are taught. It’s in their collective DNA. Comfort rules, but pride overtakes.
Today some outsiders view the modern Greek as lazy and corrupt. Gone are the days of Sparta, where breakfast consisted of pork blood mixed with flour. Gone are the oracles high on hydrocarbon gases, telling you to arm up. Gone are the heroes and legends. Sacred temples have been replaced by bank-financed Mercedes cars and Jacuzzis.
Maybe if the oracle lived today and had access to a bit of ethylene, she might provide another idea.
Sowing the Field with Salt
On July 15, the day after Tsipras yields to the latest EU bailout conditions, Dimitri, a young civil engineer and a member of the anti-capitalist Antarsya party (antarsia stands for “mutiny”), stands tall in front of the parliament building, waving Grexit banners with half a dozen of his friends.
“Power to the people!” Dimitri shouts into a megaphone.
I ask Dimitri how he sees the future.
“We must return to the drachma and organize for independence. There is no other way. The Syriza party has failed the people who voted ‘no.’ We are the majority. The Greek debt is unsustainable, even the IMF admits this. Thousands of people are committing suicide. This cannot continue.” Dimitri answers, without pause.
Over the course of the day, the square fills up with more agitated voices. By evening, the more radical groups wrap their faces with towels and start throwing rocks at the police. Within seconds, several black buses scream to a halt in front of the parliament and off-load hundreds of riot police. They are confronted by a convergence of approximately two thousand demonstrators. Someone sets the first car on fire. Dustbins are lit and walls spray-painted with “OXI.” The police teargas and chase the demonstrators down the main street of Kallirrois.
In the blink of an eye, Athens is transformed. Peaceful citizens withdraw into their homes and pull down the curtains. Young men rip their shirts off and get into a scuffle with a phalanx of baton swinging officers.
The riot continues through the early morning hours, stretching several miles across Athens.
Maybe the time for “Opa!” is over, after all, as I find myself between a frontier of riot police and the protestors. A man next to me gets hit by a rock and falls down.
Yet, by 8 a.m. the next morning, the streets of Athens are not only peaceful, but they’ve also been cleared of debris and hosed down. The ATM’s spit out 60 euros at a time as people line up.
I have a chat with an old acquaintance, Fotis Sarantopoulos, historical author of several published works (including one on the Balkan wars) and as of late, one of the chief organizers of the “We Stay In Europe” party, to enquire what he thinks of the riots and the current situation.
“Oh, the anarchists? They come and go. It’s a marginal group. Nothing to worry about.” He chuckles.
Fotis is pleased that a Grexit could be avoided.
“The next few years are not going to be pleasant, but it’s better than suicide,” he says. “Greece can’t save itself without the EU. We’ve been in this situation before.”
Fotis is referring to the 1893 bankruptcy of Greece and a host of other financial defaults the country has gone through since the early 19th century. There have been several expensive wars with Turkey for instance. But the pattern of excessive borrowing goes beyond the battles. It’s a tradition.
In 1893, international creditors took control of Greece, pensions were cut by 90%, but the country recovered. By 1910 the drachma was stronger than the French franc. Greece became one of the strongest economies in Europe.
“There is one big challenge, though…” He raises his finger, “do you know who the worst enemy of Greece is?”
Before I have time to guess, he answers himself.
“The Greek.” He says, laughing.
Fotis tells me a classic Greek anecdote that has a few renditions:
There were four neighbors living difficult lives out in the countryside, and by a stroke of luck one neighbor who was a Greek acquired a goat. The Italian neighbor prayed to God, “Dear God, thank you for delivering a goat to my neighbor. I would like one too. The German neighbor prayed to God and said “Dear God, please deliver a goat to me just like my neighbor’s. The Greek, however, prayed, “Dear God, please kill my neighbor’s goat.”
Fotis lights up another cigarette and beams a devious smile.
Ironically the Greeks are the first ones to admit to their zí̱lia (jealousy). Fotis calls it “geographic pride.”
“It’s simple. Every part of Greece is different, psychologically and geographically. Even inside Athens. The people identify with the area they live in and are jealous if others are better off. By the time Greece was flooded with EU money, there was a rush to buy a Mercedes car or second house, simply because the other chap had one.”
After Greece entered the Eurozone in 2001, it became extremely easy to get loans for practically anything, a vacation, a big car with a 72-month payment term, and of course swimming pools.
“It was considered stupid not to borrow,” says Fotis.
The “Greek Miracle” (a growth phase of up to 10% GNP per annum) was based mostly on consumption, import of foreign goods and even agriculture versus building up their own industry and infrastructure. The massive cash flood shifted Greece to a massively dependent import economy.
And as more Greeks signed up to be civil servants, the public sector tripled to a million.
Meanwhile, politicians used financial incentives to lure voters. The regulatory framework that provided kickbacks to politicians and bonuses to voters ballooned into a nightmare.
“A train conductor, for instance, could make €7,000 a month with a €2,000 base salary and a complicated structure of bonus incentives,” Fotis says. “One bonus for cleaning your hands, another for coming to work on time. 4,000 new laws per year!”
Fotis shakes his head.
“Not even the judges know what’s legal anymore. Nobody knows what is legal.”
The easy cash also lubricated corruption to new heights.
“During the 2004 Olympic Games, all contracts were renegotiated to cover bribes. When Greece bought submarines from Germany, 10% went to the politicians under the table. In exchange, they paid double for the subs.”
Fotis goes on for another 30 minutes with one mind-bending corruption example after another.
“My point is this. Our biggest problem is not the debt. Our biggest problem is a culturally driven moral and political crisis. Only a drastic reform can save Greece,” Fotis concludes.
The challenge is, how to make drastic reform happen when corruption is part of the national fabric. There is no intent even to penalize e.g. political bribing. (One of the few characters who has gone to jail for corruption is former defense minister Akis Tsochatopouls, who alone was reported to have pocketed at least €2 billion).
The other challenge is that even if Greek reform was possible, the countries and corporations doing business with Greece (like Germany, Italy, France) don’t want to see reform happen. They’ve simply made too much money on the Greek’s grasshopper mindset that is only too happy to sacrifice long-term economic viability in exchange for short-term profit.
This is the macroeconomic Polaroid of Greece. One party crazy enough to sow his field with salt, until the field becomes sterile. The other party who sells the salt, in order to eventually cash in on the field.
Foreclose on the Field
The classic Hollywood setup of bad vs. good guy doesn’t apply in a perfect storm setting. Everyone in this saga is a crook, just in varying degrees. If you assigned grey shades to levels of crookedness, the darkest patches would probably show up on the international private banking sector on Wall Street, Fleet Street, Bankenviertel and La Défense.
Not unsurprisingly, it was a Greek banker who helped Greece get into the euro soup in the first place.
In 2001, Antigone Loudiadis, working for Lloyd Blankfein and Goldman Sachs, did the arithmetic on Greece and saw an opportunity. By cooking the books with a cross-currency swap, she was able to wipe out 2% of the national debt – just enough for Greece to comply with euro stress tests. Goldman made $600 million and Greece made the euro.
It was the beginning of the aforementioned “Greek Miracle.” Borrowing became as easy as ordering a frappe.
It’s not a secret that banking institutions have used leverage mechanisms to squeeze developing nations for decades, but Greece took the game to home turf.
Agnes Brochet, a French national who moved to Greece 30 years ago and became a boutique hotel owner in Kiveri, Peloponnese, found the post-euro era confusing.
“Yes, the big businesses profited (from the cash flood), but small businesses began to vanish,” she says.“After joining the euro we mostly started paying money to the banks.”
The consumption of heaven lasted seven years until the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007 put a cap on it. Suddenly the private banking sector was in trouble for gambling too hard with derivatives. It had to be bailed out, or supposedly the banks themselves would collapse.
The arithmetic behind this bailout defies imagination. The Wall Street banks officially received up to $7 trillion, while some estimates put the figure at $29 trillion. The European banks received almost half a trillion.
While the private bankers were swimming in bailout money, they also managed to restructure their Greek debt to the public sector, passing the buck to European taxpayers via the troika. It’s hard to say whether the EU civil servants were fully aware of the risk scenario. The offload happened with uncanny timing, shortly before Greece crashed.
Over the next five years post-2008, the troika had to inject €344 billion into Greece to keep it afloat — the chosen method of exchange for austerity measures.
Never mind that Nobel-prize winning economists like Paul Krugman have proven with mathematical certainty that austerity policies are basically wealth transfer mechanisms that squeeze out the lower and middle class. They have a disruptive effect on a bust economy. Small business gets devoured, entrepreneurs decimated.
“The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury,” stated John Maynard Keynes, the father of macroeconomics back in 1937.
The measures had a predictable effect. Greek GNP dropped from an average of 4% from the previous seven years to nearly -9% in 2011… before shrinking a total of 25% by 2015.
Germany became doubly unhappy. On top of guaranteeing a major chunk of the bailouts, its net exports to Greece (submarines, Mercedes cars, etc.) plummeted. In 2007, as Merkel was trying to sell German Eurofighters to Greece, the Chancellor was commending the Greek prime minister on Greece’s phenomenal growth (which far outweighed Germany’s).
Germany had a nice run with Greece before the subprime crash. A Spiegel article from 2010 describes how German companies exploited the Greek culture of corruption for decades to secure lucrative deals. The lubrication money even got its own unofficial currency denomination: “Miza.” The black currency enriched both politicians and wealthy industrialists but laid havoc on the general populace.
Now that the heydays are over, Germany has become the toughest austerity proponent against Greece.
This attitude shift and the troika’s double chokehold on Greece post-July 14 may not be happenstance.
What Lies Beneath the Field
I have lunch with Yannis Maniatis, the former minister of Environment, Energy and Climate Change, in the small town of Kiveri, Peloponnese. He left the political office beginning of 2015 and is now writing a book.
“Yes the Greek were spendthrift and yes the system is corrupt, but so is everyone else doing business with Greece. The real problem is regulatory. For example, it used to take 14 months to pass a simple environmental license. I proposed a law that cut it down to 20 days, which would have helped a lot of businesses. Of course the next government repealed it,” he says, staring into the Argolic Gulf of the Aegean Sea where we sit.
“Do you see any hope for Greece, with the present government?” I ask.
Yannis chuckles and shakes his head. He formulates his words carefully.
“Considering what’s going on today, the combination of capital controls and austerity measures … there is a certain level of feeling that Greece is an… experiment.”
Yannis is not alone in having these suspicions. Like Donald Rumsfeld once said, “there is the Known, Unknown and Better Left Unsaid.” The social experiment story belongs to the Better Left Unsaid category.
In the neighboring town of Xiropigados, a small hotel operator and former mechanical engineer, Christophoros, 43, points me towards both the Unknown and Better Left Unsaid. It takes me a few days to get his confidence, but after I agree to taste his mother’s cake, he brings me several folders of documentation.
“All this data has been online since 2012. The EU forced the government to publish it. But still, no one talks about it. ”
Christophoros is a detail-oriented fellow and judging by the amount of research he’s done, a veritable investigator. He is also a tai chi instructor and a 3-dan karate black belt. Unable to get a job with a top mechanical engineering background, he decided to help his parents with their hotel operation. His parents built the hotel from the ground up in 1973.
“For decades, they put everything into this hotel. Today, we would probably have to pay some German investor €10.000 to sell it,“ says Christophoros.
He pulls out a stack of papers containing government reports (source: www.idika.gr).
“We’re not alone in this soup. The problem is bigger than you think,” he says.
He points to a few basic line items for 2015:
- Total Revenues (taxes and other): €53 billion.
- Operating Budget: €148 billion.
- Required borrowing: €95 billion.
- Total outstanding debt: €360 billion.
- Loans to the banks: €250 billion (with €100 billion marked “uncollectible”)
- Uncollected taxes: €80 billion.
“What none of these figures explain, however, is the invisible debt. Let me give you an example. Some friends of ours nearby have a small hotel they built for €4 million, fully bank-financed. You know how much they were offered for the hotel recently? €500 euro. The owners offered the bank back to the hotel at no cost to avoid the real estate taxes and the bank said, ‘No thank you’.”
Thousands of real estate loans were made during the seven-year Greek Miracle, many of them €200-400 million mega hotels. Those properties are now considered near to worthless. The banks refuse to take them back because it would expose a black hole in their balance sheet to the ECB. Many of the owners operate the hotels and pocket the money directly, without bothering to cover the bank interest. The banks have stopped attempts to collect.
“It’s a bubble inside a bubble, a bit like another 2008, at least another €250 billion worth. Maybe a lot more,” says Christophoros. “Once the ECB finds out about the second bubble, they can decide to close on Greece.”
Not a Field, But a Lab
A few blocks down from Christophoros’ hotel, Greek vacationers are floating in water, enjoying the Summer.
The water is slightly above perfect temperature. The temperature supposedly goes up a little bit every year. I wonder how long it takes before it starts to boil, remembering the Boiling Frog experiment (frogs don’t jump out of boiling water if it’s warmed up, they boil to death).
Unfortunately, the Greek like warm water. It’s unlikely that a revolution is going to happen in Greece. There is a massive brain drain of young, educated people, who could have represented hope for the future. The poor are engaged in organizing basic subsistence. The middle-class seems to be in a state of collective denial. Suicide rates have gone up 35% in the last two years.
No wonder a lot of the educated Greek believe that their country is the ultimate modern social trial. The country is small. It’s part of EU. The people are a perfect mark. It’s easy to feed them with debt and bribes. It’s also a conveniently pretty area to own.
Christophoros says the Greek are going through the second phase of Pavlov’s experiment. Once Pavlov stopped feeding the dogs after cueing them with feeding signals, some of them got aggressive. Interestingly, the dogs that first became aggressive also were the first to become permanently docile. They kept salivating upon cue, but resigned to their fate.
In 2011, when the Greek first demonstrated against austerity measures, 1.5 million showed up on Syntagma Square. In July 2015, it was only a few thousand. “Opa!”
Greece is sometimes described as a laboratory by outside sociologists and economists. It’s the first modern European country that is being wiped out methodically with a silent, financial take-over that reassigns its wealth to a select few.
The question whether the “social experiment” is consciously manufactured or whether a unique alignment of factors is to blame, is inconsequential. It doesn’t change the end result.
The Sun Also Rises in Greece
A collapse of the cradle of civilization will be harder for Europeans to ignore compared to Africa or Latin American countries. Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and many other poor EU countries are watching their neighbor.
The story of Greece may seem hopeless, but every story has a flipside. Smart and innovative Greek entrepreneurs are devising ways to shortcut the rules of capital controls and austerity measures. They want to create their own economy ground up.
Take Christiana Gardikioti, 56, a former Merrill Lynch financial consultant who is inviting world-renowned experts to advise her on how to build a sustainable community in her mountain hometown of Agios Ioannis. While business in the village is dying, her idea is to go back to the roots: start producing your own food; take over the vertical control of industries like Greece’s olive oil (currently being dumped in Italy at bargain prices and passed off as Italian olive oil), leverage alternative energy, desalination, waste-to-energy solutions and create a success story that will inspire other communities to do the same.
Another example is Dimitri Haritos, 43, a serial entrepreneur from Athens. He grew up in Brussels with Greek parents who were positioned at the highest levels of the European Commission. Thanks to his background and international education, Dimitri has a unique insight into how politics and business are entangled via Brussels and Athens.
“A currency union should include a realistic plan on how to restructure a smaller economy to be more competitive,” says Dimitri. “Greece needed a business plan, a clear restructuring phase before joining the euro. Instead, we were cast in the same boxing ring with Germany without preparation.”
“Today the government supports oligopolistic structures, not entrepreneurs. The private sector is under the mercy of civil servants.”
Despite the seemingly hopeless situation, Dimitri believes that Greece can be turned around – in a very rapid manner.
“The agricultural, tourism, health and energy sectors have unlimited potential. We have 300 days of sun per year. We can grow our agriculture year round in fertile land. Solar and wind energy work here better than almost anywhere else in Europe,” adds Dimitri, who is networking with leading businessmen to unite agricultural entrepreneurs and empower them with a real-time auction platform.
“We need maybe 300 leaders to come together to turn Greece around,” he smiles, referring to the 300 Spartans who once blocked the Persian army in one of history’s most famous last stands. “We can streamline the market mechanisms, assure quality control and re-establish trust by eliminating the middle-men. We need to take control of our own brands and margins in a transparent manner.”
The entrepreneurs, the knowledge, the will and the resources exist in Greece to make the country flourish again. But first the ‘300’ have to learn to work together to overcome an institutional dinosaur and disentangle the private and public sectors.
Greece is showing us that massive currency and trade unions that organize their principles around money first; people second, are doomed to fail in the long-term.
Greece is a teacher, not an experiment.
Not that globalization is bad per se. But a purely currency-fueled system that promotes inequality and stifles a cultural minority goes against the very basics of evolution, which is about fostering diversity.
During the July 15 demonstrations at Syntagma Square, an old man pulls me aside. His name is Bernis. He is a former pharmacist and an entrepreneur. He has a hunch so deep that I have to lean in 45 degrees to listen to him. He talks for an hour about how the Greek survived wars and catastrophes throughout millennia.
Bernis carries an EU flag. I ask him why he’s pro-EU.
The little man breaks into a wide smile.
“It’s the fastest way to collapse and rebirth,” he says.