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Monthly Archives: February 2012

And on the tenth day after the Greek Parliament voted for the new memorandum, the second “bailout” plan for Greece was approved by the Eurogroup. And today by the Bundestag. And there was much rejoicing.

Hold on a second. Why all this joy and relief by the foreign and domestic press alike? Why are those who voted for the new memorandum –the prerequisite for the new bailout plan- patting themselves on the back? Because they claim that bankruptcy was averted? Do we have any idea what they approved? Do those who approved the plan know the “specifics”?

I seriously doubt it. Just a few short weeks ago, both former and active Ministers and MPs admitted that they had in fact NOT read the first memorandum, even though they approved it! Now we know for a fact that this new agreement was a badly translated rendition of an already shady original.

Full of omissions and vague wordings, especially concerning the definition of “mandatory law” which governs the enforcement of the agreement’s terms, this loan agreement is practically begging to be abused.

Because, in essence, the memorandum is exactly that: a loan agreement.

Let us suppose now that the Greek MPs were common people who wished to sign a mortgage agreement in order to pay off their debts. Would anyone in their right mind sign a paper with empty spaces where numbers were supposed to be and with vague phrasings, easily twisted by greedy bankers looking to steal their home?

If they were just a tiny bit practical, wouldn’t they ask questions?  Wouldn’t they read the agreement more thoroughly?

And yet 199 of 300 MPs agreed to mortgage our home on these uncertain and unrealistic terms, conceding the right to any of our creditors to make claims against Greece before the courts of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

Ignorance, negligence, and the intention to deceive the Greek people are evident from the statements of all those who approved the new memorandum. One of them stands out above the rest, however, and comes from the very architect of political unaccountability in Greece.

Evangelos Venizelos, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, stated, “…we are pleased to inform the Greek people that we have just lifted 100 billion Euros off their back, more than 50% of our GNP.”

The grand deception lies in the lifting of the “100 billion”. Quite simply, 63 billion of this total is in Greek hands, mostly owned by banks of Greece and Cyprus. These banks will require “direct hair implantation” by the Greek state right after the PSI haircut, if they are to avoid collapse.

The cost of bank bailout is estimated at 30-40 billion Euros, which will be drawn, unsurprisingly from the 130 billion which we just borrowed. The largest part of the remaining 100 billion will be used to pay off our previous loans and interests.

Mr. Venizelos further stated that “our country has been granted a new opportunity, one which we must grasp, primarily on the level of financial and social psychology.” This was probably the only speck of truth in his entire statement, if “primarily” is replaced with “solely”, since there is no other benefit to be found.

The only purpose of this agreement is to reassure the Greek people, give time to our EU partners to prepare for the all but inevitable formal declaration of bankruptcy of Greece and, of course, add even more debt on our backs.

Theoretically, the goal of our debt reaching 120% of our GNP by 2020 is achievable. About as achievable as the development of FTL propulsion technology by Greece by the same date, given the monumental inadequacy of our current administration.

And that’s because all estimates claiming that such a thing is possible, blissfully disregard the fact that the recession in Greece is not slowing, but increasing at the rate of an avalanche. 60000 businesses are expected to shut down in 2012, according to a National Confederation of Hellenic Commerce report. Unemployment is skyrocketing, with an estimated 1 million unemployed people in Greece and growing, and the internal market is grinding to a halt.

The GNP of Greece is state-dependent to an excessive degree, a sad but undeniable fact. As public funding and expenditure is limited, the GNP will inevitably shrink. The Greek public sector must be restructured and businesses must find ways to support themselves without the help of the state, but such a change would take time. The repercussions of an abrupt change cannot be ignored for the sake of ill-conceived bailout plans.

Unfortunately, estimates putting the Greek debt close to 160% of its GNP by 2020 (or even higher) are probably much more realistic.

The greatest problem of Greece, however, is neither the new memorandum, nor the troika, nor Angela Merkel and her ilk. The greatest problem of this country is us Greeks. As long as we continue to support or tolerate our corrupt political system, no amount of rescuing, either honest or guided by ulterior motives, is going to save us.

An excellent example of this corruption is the recent ruling of the Greek Council of State, claiming that the first memorandum was not in violation of our Constitution. Among other outrageous claims, the Greek Council of State deemed that the agreement was not in fact an international treaty.

So an agreement, originally drafted in English, between the Greek state, 14 other countries, the KfW development bank, and two international organizations is NOT an international treaty.

I did not include the IMF along with the other two organizations (ECB and EC), as it has not signed the initial agreement and furthermore has recently expressed doubts about the new one. Members of the IMF are expressing concerns about OUR rights. Not our government, but members of an international organization are opposing a revision of the Greek Constitution.

A revision which, after all, benefits them.

The image of a starving dog comes to mind. One that looks so pathetic, that even the dog catcher is reluctant to euthanize it. Even if that is exactly what he does for a living.

And that’s because Greece is not seen as a “mutt”, it is not (usually considered) a third-world country. It is not even Argentina which, even when it was very prosperous, was still part of Latin America, seen as “lesser” part of the world by unscrupulous “civilized” Westerners. And thus considered “fair game” for the rich and powerful.

Deep inside, every international banker, economist, politician knows that Greece is the cradle of Western civilization, the birthplace of art, democracy and science. Even Mrs. Merkel’s name (Angela Dorothea), is Greek. But neither she, nor anyone else can truly respect us, when we do not respect ourselves.

When we do nothing to stop these power-mongering puppets we call politicians from driving our country to ruin.

Our EU partners and international creditors can only pity us, just a bit, before putting us out of our misery. Or into it.

Intermission #5

A recent comment made by a (real) friend in Facebook got me thinking. She said that this situation we’re living in reminded her of a well-crafted videogame. I partly agree with that. It so happens that videogames are my favourite means of escapism. However, in most of them, the hero acts, strives, fights for a cause. It might be something silly, but it’s still a cause and, in most cases, it’s a noble one such as saving the world.

It does not matter if the action is split in levels, as in more classic-style videogames or is spread out in a vast, realistic looking world, such as in more modern iterations. Enemies are obvious. Goals are clear. The hero is (usually) rewarded in the end. The player, if he is fast, skillful or has an analytic enough mind (depending on the game genre) will eventually triumph. Evil will be vanquished.

This well-crafted videogame in which we live is completely backward. Our worst enemies are the ones professing to represent law and order. Goals are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Players are punished for being capable, honest and conscientious. Evil is triumphant.

This virtual reality, steadily forming around us day by day, is starting to resemble the dystopian scenarios of Orwell’s “1984” and Moore’s “V for Vendetta”.

The greatest paradox is that, while technology advances and the actual virtual “worlds” of the Internet and videogames are becoming increasingly familiar and realistic, at the same time the real world becomes increasingly false and irrational.

Experts are expressing their concerns every day regarding the terrible dangers hiding in virtual worlds, while the subtle erosion of everything that is real seems to escape everyone’s notice.

People always talk about the (very real) dangers lurking in Internet use and abuse, particularly for children. Yet, no one talks earnestly about how the moral values and ideals which we are supposed to be teaching to our children are systematically being destroyed.

Yesterday, riot police used tear gas against a gathering of pupils. Last Sunday they used all their tear gas reserves on the living history of Greece, as well as citizens of all ages who gathered for what was supposed to be a peaceful protest. No one addresses this violence, nor the psychological violence to which every one of us is submitted on a daily basis.

Our virtual reality does not acknowledge that what took place on February 12th in Athens might very well be the most massive protest of our generation. The only thing it registered is that a handful of agent provocateurs, mindless hooligans, opportunists or plain angry people torched several buildings in Athens.

In our virtual reality world, TV and the mainstream media bring to public attention only those stories which are convenient for media moguls and their current allies of necessity or opportunity. And this is called “news”.

Now, the riots are being used as an excuse to form legislation putting serious limitations to public protests. Legislation which is dangerously close to dictatorial.

Meanwhile the police, according to the dean of the Law School of Athens, ignored his reports of the occupation of the University’s grounds and the mass production of Molotov cocktails taking place there.

Those reports were submitted in writing from Thursday, February 9th, to Saturday, February 11th. There was absolutely no response.

In our virtual reality, the police do not protect citizens practicing their constitutional right of peaceful protest. They spray us with tear gas and let rioters burn the city unhindered. Thus they uphold neither the law, nor protect public order.

And all this happens just so our Parliament would vote a new batch of measures which will only serve to plunge our country deeper into recession, as set in a document which was so hastily drafted as to be full of mistakes and inaccuracies.

At the same time, one of the MPs of the formerly ruling PASOK party, who had voted on the first memorandum, presented documents proving that our economy currently boasts a primary surplus (if we stopped paying loan interests). That means, Greece could very well survive bankruptcy.

Of course, as is customary in the recent parliamentary history of Greece, the MPs of the ruling parties were ordered to vote “aye”. Those who declined were ousted from their parties. The irony is that in Greek, the Parliament is called “Vouli” which means literally “will, decision”. A member of Parliament is called “vouleftis” deriving from the ancient Greek verb “voulevo”, meaning “to think, to decide”.

In our virtual Democracy, our “vouleutes” do not think or decide for themselves, but it is acceptable for them to follow the party leader’s orders. In other words, they are followers.

The second party of the government coalition, according to the election polls, is now also the dominant party. Its leader, Antonis Samaras, has stated that they are not actually governing the country, but merely supporting the government in its task to approve the new memorandum.

A memorandum which up to a few weeks earlier had been denounced by him.

He also took in two acting ministers and former members of the third ruling party, an extreme right nationalist party called LAOS, one of whom had vehemently denied rumours of his defection to Samaras’ “New Democracy” just two years ago.

He reasoned then that if he left LAOS he would be bowing to the “immigrants and the Turks”. Apparently, he would wait two years to become a deputy minister and bow down to the IMF/ECB/EC troika instead.

This ridiculous mockery of a government has succeeded the government of PASOK, which won the elections by promising not to tax the middle to low incomes any further and to secure the money which the state needed to support itself without going to the IMF for help. By combating corruption and tax evasion, among other things.

A mere two months after the elections, our former Prime Minister, George Papandreou, secretly commenced negotiations with the IMF, a fact which Dominique Strauss-Kahn himself revealed much later during an interview.

The same government proceeded to do the exact opposite of everything it had promised in order to win the elections, with the culmination of signing the first memorandum agreement. An agreement which, as former Ministers and economists from the EU admitted, was both ineffectual and unfair.

Even so, none of the measures agreed upon were actually realized, putting Greece in the international spotlight as a lazy and corrupt country that does not honour its commitments. The only thing that Papandreou’s government did was enforce even more taxes and public sector wage reductions, without doing anything to reduce wasteful spending or to increase foreign investor interest in Greece.

When summarizing these “accomplishments”, a couple of weeks ago, George Papandreou stated that “mistakes were made, but much was achieved”. The current coalition government continued pretty much the same policy of inaction where crucial changes are concerned, and signing whatever outrageous measures the troika sees fit to demand.

None of these two governments were empowered by the Greek people to take such decisions on their behalf. Unless we have come to believe that Democracy in the 21st century means lying through your teeth about everything to the voters, getting elected and do exactly the opposite of what you promised.

Is this the only hope of Greece? Is this circus of clowns, spineless and corrupt to the very core really going to save the same country which they’ve been systematically dismantling for decades?

Is there anyone out there who still believes that this is a democratic country where the Constitution is nothing but an empty book?

Is there anyone who doubts that we are living in a virtual reality nightmare?

Intermission #4

Life is not a videogame, nor should it become one. However, there are surprising truths about life to be found in many of them. One of my favourite quotes from the unforgettable John Marston (Red Dead Redemption) is the following: “As long as there are guns and money, there will never be freedom”. I leave you with this sad and beautiful song by Lana del Ray. She is something of a mystery to me. While her looks are obviously made up and she appears overly stylized, her voice is unique and her songs have hidden layers. She could fool you into thinking that she’s a mass-market product (and maybe she is), yet there is something more than that. Just like a videogame.

I am angry. I am angry with myself, first and foremost, because I was naïve. On the huge demonstration last Sunday in Athens, at Syntagma Square, there were two great Greeks, one of whom you might actually have heard of, who still fight for freedom and justice in this country despite their combined 177 years of age.

One of these Greeks is Mikis Theodorakis, made famous for putting Odysseas Elytis’ immortal words into music and turning them into weapons of spiritual resistance against the military junta of Greece (1967-1974). The other is Manolis Glezos, who as a young man on May 1941 tore down the Nazi swastika flag from the sacred mound of Acropolis, together with Apostolos Santas. It had barely been flying for a month.

I was naïve enough to believe that, because they were there, the police would refrain from wanton use of tear gas. I thought that the powers that be would wait before unleashing their well-known agent provocateurs, who are always used to cause riots and break up peaceful demonstrations. I thought that the authorities would have the decency to let these two honoured Greeks depart before they set their plans into motion.

My naiveté was dispelled early and brutally upon reaching the rear side of the Parliament and found the first of many riot police blocks. The first of many tear gas bombs also went off at that time. The protest on the square was peaceful. Allegedly, the riot police started launching tear gas once a small group of people threw some fruit at the Parliament building.

I could not see all that, of course. There was no way through. I only heard Mikis’ music that was being played over loudspeakers cut short once the first bangs were heard. The mass of people was unbelievable. It quickly became hard to breathe. For the next 2 ½ hours, even as much as a kilometer away from Syntagma, there was barely a spot with clean air.

I found out, the hard way, the reason why protesters set garbage bins on fire during times such as these. Up to now, I thought it was just vandalism. At the tender age of 37, I learnt that fire drives the tear gas away. It was one bit of knowledge I could have lived without. But our precious politicians have made it their life’s goal to teach us many things.

Such as how to live on a 400 Euro pension, pay taxes from it, pay your rent or additional property tax, and buy your medicine and food. Despite the fact that we pay for our bare necessities as much, or more, than Germans do. Very few pensioners in Greece can afford petrol for central heating these days. Unless, of course, they’ve served two terms as MPs.

I saw a young girl shouting at the police. “Why do you stand up for them? Your wages too will be cut to nothing next month!” She might as well be screaming at the Unknown soldier statue in front of the Parliament. I believe firmly that once the riot police don their armour, their higher brain functions altogether cease.

How else could anyone spray tear gas right on the face of a 90 year old man? Regardless if the victim is a hero of the Resistance or an Unknown pensioner fighting to survive the new Greco-German occupation.

I had to lift my turtle neck, the only protection measure I had brought with me, all the way up to my ears. Looking like that, like many of the protesters wrapped in scarves or wearing medical masks, it was difficult to tell if I was part of the usual hooded rioters or not.

It matters little. I don’t believe in violence, unless as a last resort. I have the feeling, though, that more and more of my fellow Greeks are thinking that this “last resort” time is fast approaching. If you have children and/or mortgages to pay this latest (but not last) batch of brutal measures will almost surely throw you on the ropes.

Many people, well-to-do people with jobs and good homes, are now losing everything. At the same time, the MPs voting for the new memorandum were sitting leisurely during the protest watching football in the Parliament cafeteria. You see, the voting was a lengthy process and many of the 199 who voted “aye” had no time to hear about how the people, whom they are supposed to serve, will starve.

Athens went up in flames last Sunday. There was looting, and clashes with the police went on for hours. However, all that cannot be blamed on the 800.000 – 1.000.000 citizens who participated in what was meant to be a peaceful protest, but was drowned in tear gas canisters and flames.

Some arson and looting targets were almost certainly planned beforehand. There are reports of people casing jewellery stores and blackmailing shop owners earlier in the same week. Several buildings, banks and department stores mostly, were torched by others as symbols of capitalism and the debt crisis. When total chaos reigns, it is impossible to tell who burned what and for what reason.

The truth is, however, that the extensive police blockades seriously hindered access of the Fire Department vehicles into the area of the city centre. Many news outlets, of course, blamed the protesters instead.

It is a great shame when historic buildings and properties burn. It is even more shameful that people who have been working all their lives and have paid for their pensions are now unable to sustain themselves, that real-life Greek heroes are brutalized because they dare to fight for their ideals, even in their twilight years.

The silver lining in these dark clouds is that people are rediscovering their solidarity. Total strangers would rub cream around your eyes or spray them with water to drive the tears away. When you fill your life with consumer goods, there is little room for that sentiment. But it is the only thing that will see us through. And it is the main thing, apart from honesty, that our politicians sorely lack.

Mind you, we are not done here. We are only just beginning.

Intermission #3

 

Odysseas Elytis is, without doubt, one of the most important poets of the 20th century and when Mikis Theodorakis put his words to music he imprinted them indelibly onto the Greek consciousness during the hard years of the military junta. The original, definitive version sung by the great Grigoris Bithikotsis might sound dated to those not familiar with the song, so I picked this version by our greatest rock singer, Vassilis Papakonstantinou. Bear in mind that Elytis’ poems are notoriously hard to translate and this translation does in no way do justice to the original.

Lone is the swallow and costly is the Spring,

For the sun to turn it takes a lot of toil,

It takes thousands dying at the wheels,

It takes the living to shed their own blood.

God my Master Crafter, You built me into the mountains,

God my Master Crafter, You enclosed me in the sea!

The body of May by mages it was stolen,

They buried it in a tomb of the sea,

In a deep well they have sealed it,

Its scent fills the darkness and all of the Abyss.

God my Master Crafter, You too among the Easter lilacs,

God my Master Crafter, You smelled the Resurrection.

Or apples and oranges. While the EU partners of Greece and the IMF are putting the pressure on our government to reduce our (already low) wages in order to “increase our competitiveness” I’ve been trying to make sense of this demand. Do they really believe that this move will help improve the deplorable state of our economy?

I think not. But that is another matter. The real question is: how can our undoubtedly low wages result in a high salary cost? So high, in fact, that it rivals that of Germany? Since I am no economist, I decided to look for hard data on the Internet. And there I found about the term “unit labour costs“. I also found that these costs include factors which have little to do with actual salaries.

Most importantly, they include productivity. And how can one measure productivity? Generally speaking, by the value of the goods produced or of services rendered. And then I stumbled upon a key factor which many analysts conveniently ignore: quite simply, for the EU the measure of comparison is… Germany.

So what these “experts” are doing is comparing the world’s second most complex economy and second largest exporter with Greece, which is in the 51st and 65th place respectively. Our main exports include food and beverages, manufactured goods, textiles, chemicals and petroleum products (with mostly imported oil). Germany, on the other hand, exports several of the most complex products in the world.

Including  photon beam process machine tools. Don’t ask. Effectively, they are comparing the output of a factory building stealth bombers to that of a factory producing apple juice. Not that I have anything against apple juice. It doesn’t kill people (as much).

Regardless, the comparison is moot and you don’t need to be an economist to understand that. Greece is being compared to a country with which it could not possibly compete, because our products are entirely different. China would be a much more valid comparison.

But we can’t compete with China either, because we could never lower our wages that much and survive. In fact, the 20% wage decrease (part of the additional measures demanded now in exchange for the next bailout package) is probably the death sentence of the Greek economy.

Lowering wages would diminish tax returns, which means even less money for the already struggling social security system, public services and government spending. Reduced tax income would trigger more cuts and more taxes. It’s a spiral leading straight to total collapse.

To quote a very interesting working paper of the Levy Economics Institute our problem is that we “are stuck at middle levels of technology and we are trapped”. It would take several years of careful planning and restructuring to truly make our economy competitive again.

Killing the twin monsters of Greek bureaucracy and rampant corruption would go a long way towards that goal. So would exploiting our (so far inexplicably) untapped natural resources. But nobody trusts our corrupt politicians to carry out these tasks. And with good reason.

Today, our Parliament is supposed to approve the new memorandum of brutal austerity measures, which will only serve to plunge Greece deeper into recession. If they do approve it, it would probably stave off bankruptcy for a few months. In the meantime, there is no provision for any measures that would help promote economic growth.

Unless the Greek government takes urgent steps to truly reduce corruption, tax evasion and the insurmountable non-salary costs for businesses, no one will invest in Greece. No one in their right minds builds on a swamp.

Inevitably, we will be asked to take even harsher measures by summer. And as anyone living in Greece can see right now, that is not a viable option.

The bottom line is this: statistics (such as the unit labour costs) are a tool. And just like any tool, they are not inherently useful. It all depends on the manner of their use. You can use a hammer to drive a nail into a wall. You can also smash your thumb with it or use it to crack open someone’s skull.

In our case, statistics are being used to set goals that Greece cannot hope to achieve. Whether the EC/ECB/IMF troika are unaware of this fact or actually betting on it is a matter of debate. Personally, I don’t believe they are naive.

The real irony is that we are desperately trying to once again become part of a system that ultimately does not work. But that is a story for another time.

Intermission #2

What can one possibly say about Pink Floyd and not sound trite? Rock music (or music in general for that matter) would not be the same without them.

But if you ask for a raise /It’s no surprise that they’re giving none away

The reason of existence for this blog is to be an anti-newspaper of sorts. That is, a newspaper that publishes not just news but ideas and headlines that pop in my mind. Headlines that have some meaning and are not just sensational or catchy. News that I think should be read carefully. Line to line and in between. In the endless stream of information it’s very easy to miss the truly interesting bits, the ones that matter the most.

“May you live in interesting times”. This curse, which is also the basis for the name of this blog, is regularly attributed to the Chinese. No hard evidence has ever been put forward to support this, but times being such as they are, no hard evidence is needed to support anything, really. In recent years, entire wars have begun based solely on rumours or on unsubstantiated reports, later proven or admitted false. No one seems to mind much. At least, no one “important“.

All the “important” people care about today, is debt. And it is not just them. It seems that debt is all people are talking about on TV, in the newspapers, on the street, in Parliaments and in houses of ill repute (one and the same, actually). The Greek debt, the EU debt, the US debt. The debt crisis (a Greek word, by the way).

And so, I chose this wordplay as the name of my blog, where I will post my thoughts and feelings about the state of my country (Greece) in specific and the world in general as I see it. Hopefully, it will be interesting and, perhaps, pertinent to our times. But I can promise you now that reading it will not save you from debt, nor prevent global warming, nor bring about world peace. And that is the sole disclaimer I can offer.

It will, however, bring me some measure of personal peace by letting me express questions and thoughts that haunt me on a daily basis: about the human condition, about the so-called crisis and about whatever else I see fit to comment on. My hope is that, perhaps, it will offer a new perspective for some and that it will also help make people think more about our interesting times.

“Interesting” is, of course, used here as a euphemism, a Greek word by the way. Sort of like calling mass slaughter “collateral damage“. Or calling people looking in the trash for food and jumping out of office windows[1] “austerity measures”. Austerity being, as you might have guessed, another word with Greek origins. By the way.

It seems that my honoured ancestors gave this world all the values and ideas it needed to prosper and become a better place and all the necessary words to describe its failure to do so. Interesting, don’t you think?


[1]  Any similarity with computer software of any kind is purely coincidental. Even if said software does make me want to jump out the window, on occasion.

Intermission #1

One of my all-time favourite songs. The fact that today, 23 years later, it sounds more pertinent than ever, amazes and appals me in equal measure. Pollution, violence, greed and the inevitable downfall of our society in a few, short lines.

And all the roads jam up with credit / And there’s nothing you can do / It’s all just bits of paper flying away from you…