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Category Archives: Economy

Art by Anastasia Lambrou

Art by Anastasia Lambrou

Dear economists, dear policy makers, dear bankers, dear powers-that-be,

I have a message for you. It is aimed at you, but not really meant for you, rather for the rest of us who are struggling to make sense of this mess you have created.

We are not commodities.

We, the People, vote and elect individuals who are supposed to represent our interests and uphold our ideals for a fair and humane society. Just one glimpse at the news, especially the uncensored/non-sterilized news reports on the Internet, should be enough to convince anyone that we have strayed very, very far from this basic concept of Democracy.

Commodities do not vote. Commodities have no rights or voice. Commodities are bought, sold and utilised as required.

The very moment that our financial system started treating people as commodities, was the moment when democracy started to decline. And now that this very system has come to dominate politics and governance to an absolute degree, what do you suppose has happened to our precious democracy?

Commodification is nothing new. In fact, it is a fairly old concept introduced by Karl Marx. The problem is that many people will dismiss the concept without thinking, just because they might disagree with Marxist theories.

But you don’t need to be a Marxist or a communist, or even a left-wing sympathiser to understand the fundamental truth of this simple statement: people are not commodities.

No amount of reasoning, no financial theory, no argument can be used to change this. In a world which has formally renounced slavery, human labour cannot be thought of as a commodity.

Because when this happens, then the fundamental right to work becomes subject to the principles of the free market and unemployment is suddenly thought of as a financial indicator, instead of a social problem. Even worse, unemployment becomes a useful tool that can be used to force salary costs to lower and work rights to disappear.

It’s all in the name of “rationalisation”, of course. It is “good business”. “Rationalisation” is a very interesting word, used in business circles (and more recently in politics) as a euphemism for salary and job cuts. In psychology, however, it is used to describe a defence mechanism in which perceived controversial behaviours are logically justified.

Or, simply put, “making excuses”.

But we are not commodities and there is no excuse for treating us as such. No one cares what lumber thinks. What matters is that you get the best quality at the lowest price. Iron ore does not need to start a family. All it needs to do is to be good and cheap enough to be used for production.

When you drive the need to optimize production to the extreme, there would be nothing better than a worker that costs nothing, demands nothing and never stops. In other words, a robot. But robots are still pretty expensive to acquire and maintain. Humans remain a better choice for all but the heaviest and most repetitive tasks.

We are now treading on very dangerous ground. A society which places business concerns and interests over that of its own members will naturally push them to become as robot-like as possible. Is this the kind of society that we want?

Is this the crowning achievement of our technological and cultural evolution? Filling up factories and office buildings with human drones and streets with masses of starving, unemployed people?

Somehow, I do not think this is the bright future which we were promised. Somehow, I don’t think that all those billions of people living in democratic countries are voting to become slaves or beggars.

Or things to be exchanged.

Intermission #18

Bulgarian protesters

In Greece the only thing that stirs these days is the occasional ceremonial 24-hour strike or a continuous strike action in a particular sector, which is condemned by everyone (including even a large part of the media-addled population) and put down by the police and the abusive use of law by the state. Meanwhile, in neighboring Bulgaria there are political developments which should be of particular interest to the Greek people.

Assuming that us Greeks still have the ability to see beyond our nose and our TV screen, which bombards us daily with a lengthy “analysis” on the absolute necessity of the Memorandum and the endless austerity measures which support it.

Although Bulgaria has experienced unprecedented economic growth in recent years, the minimum wage remains at 159 Euros, the second lowest in Europe. In the second half of the last decade, it went through a period of intensive privatisation, in accordance with the mandates of the IMF and the principles of modern economy.

Unemployment is low (below 10%) in comparison to that of Greece, but wages are not sufficient, despite the fact that prices are also quite low.

The energy market is in private hands and is completely self-sufficient. Bulgaria produces all of its energy and does not import even a single TW of electricity from another country.

Apparently, these ideal conditions are not sufficient to make market competition work. So, following the recent increases in the price of electricity, people took to the streets en masse to protest, defying even the bitter cold.

The main demand is the re-nationalisation of the energy market. Does that sound backward? Absurd even? Let me tell you what absurdity really is: expecting a pensioner who receives 79 Euros per month  to pay a monthly electricity bill of 89 Euros.

“We are witnessing how the refrigerator overcame TV,” said political scientist and analyst, Arman Bamikian, referring to the fact that television bombards people with the macroeconomic achievements of the government on a daily basis, while at the same time the standard of living is low and fridges are empty.”

Hunger cannot be fooled. Obviously, then, the point where civil unrest is almost assured is the point where basic needs are threatened: electricity, water, food.

The example of Bulgaria shows us that it is not just the austerity policy that is ineffective. Apparently, so is the uncontrolled privatisation of everything. And especially that of basic utilities, such as water and electricity.

Neoliberalism threatens to smother every last bit of common sense left, and make us forget a basic fact. Water and electricity are NOT luxury goods, the distribution of which can be determined by profit.

Unless, of course, we have decided that in the name of “economic growth” the majority of the population must resort to using oil lamps (assuming oil is affordable) and wells (assuming that people are still allowed to dig).

And why not indeed? According to the Greek Minister of Finance, Mr. Stournaras, the recent equation of prices of heating oil with that of diesel was deemed successful. For just a moderate increase in tax revenues, many oil distributors went out of business (since heating oil consumption went down by 70%), smog covers the air of Athens at night from stoves and fireplaces and millions of Greeks went cold.

Fatalities due to use of coal heaters and wood stoves by people without any prior experience are not uncommon.

The macroeconomic picture of our neighboring country is excellent. The IMF is happy with the compliance of the Bulgarian government. Daily reality, however, is completely different. In Greece, although a similar course has been plotted, no one will admit what lies behind the promises of ‘growth’, simply because misery does not appear in the statistics which interest the Troika.

The government of Bulgaria resigned in the face of widespread public protests. Not only that, but their Prime Minister made the following statement regarding police beating of protesters: “Every drop of blood for us is a stain. I can’t look at a Parliament surrounded by barricades, that’s not our goal, neither our approach, if we have to protect ourselves from the people.”

Of course, this statement was made for the sake of keeping up a pretense of decency. But it was made, nonetheless. That is much more than what could be said about the Greek Prime Ministers of the past three years of crisis and escalating police violence. And the Greek Parliament has repeatedly been surrounded by barricades and even, on occasion, by the military.

The Bulgarian minister of finance was forced to resign after the first public demonstrations. And when this proved ineffective, the entire government resigned. In Greece, unreasonable and unpopular fiscal measures are a daily reality. Anger is simmering, but nothing yet stirs. And thus, Greek politicians have nothing to worry about.

It seems that in Bulgaria, where people call their own politicians “mafia”, there is still a little dignity among the “mobsters”.

 

Intermission #18

Nick Cave sings/recites about the modern Greek tragedy.

In Athens all the youths are crying from the gas […] and in the cradle of democracy the pigeons are wearing gas masks […] we are, I say, mostly lost.

“”It is well enough that the people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system for, if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.”
-Henry Ford

This quote, attributed to Ford by Charles Binderup, reveals the most fundamental fact of life in the modern world. That it is governed by an economic system that is in no way fair to all parties involved. In fact, it is actually exploiting the majority of the population for the benefit of the few.

That, of course, has been the state of human affairs for most of our known history. However, it was thought that the abolition of monarchy and oligarchy in most modern states of the world, and the gradual adoption of democracy during the previous two centuries, would result in the diminishing of social and financial inequalities.

The struggle for human rights during the 20th century, particularly in its second half, made great progress on every level. Working conditions improved, gender and race discrimination was considerably reduced, freedom of expression and speech was solidified and the future seemed brighter. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, everyone in the developed world believed that we were heading towards a new, more enlightened age of peace and growth.

As we now know, that was very far from the truth. The truth is that while the economy has been globalized to an unprecedented extent, a number of political, legal, national, cultural and religious boundaries and differences have made a comparable progress impossible on an administrative level.

Take the EU for example. The monetary union was achieved before any kind of meaningful consensus could be reached on how the European Union could ever become a single entity politically, socially and, to an extent, culturally.

And since, as we all know, money makes the world go round, there are people and corporations now with the means of small countries who can move freely on a financial level with very little control.

Think of it this way: if the people play the role of a King, then banks, corporations and the rich are the barons. And these barons can now act as they please without really being accountable to the Crown. Because the King depends on them to keep his treasury running and because he has no effective way to control them.

If a King has no real power, then we are no longer talking about a monarchy. And if the “King” is actually the people and the people have no real power, then we are no longer talking about a democracy.

The dawn of the 21st century brought with it the promise of growth, equal opportunities for all, and a wealth of goods and services, all courtesy of the “free market”. Unfortunately, these hopes were quickly dashed by the spectre of a financial crisis with no apparent end.

In fact there is no crisis. Or rather, there would be no crisis if the global financial system was equipped with the proper safeguards against fraud, misuse and exploitation. Or, quite simply, if it was fair and sustainable. But that would entail more governmental control and that term alone is enough to send any economic liberalist screaming.

Because the “free market can regulate itself”. Only that it can’t. It is like thinking that you can put two death row prisoners in a cage to fight for their lives and expect them to play fair. They won’t. They will use any trick in their disposal to beat their opposition, no matter the cost.

Likewise, a corporation will do anything it can get away with in order to increase its advantage over the competition. If its customers or employees are hurt in the process, it’s fine as long as it is never proven or detected. Substandard equipment, processes and materials, abominable working conditions and practices, legal loopholes and tricks, literally anything will be employed in the fight.

Not all of them do it, but when most “players” do, then their competitive advantage either drives the rest out of business or into the same game.

Banks are no exception to this rule. Once considered one of the main structural pillars of any economy, they now operate solely and openly for their own profit, with any thought of promoting sustainable growth taking a back seat or getting kicked out of the car altogether.

If a prosperous country like Iceland can be effectively ruined financially by its own banks, then one easily understands how this could happen to any country in the world. All this happened with the government and the central bank of Iceland turning a blind eye to the incredibly irresponsible dealings of a handful of people.

Nevertheless, the first order of the day was not to arrest the persons responsible, but to hand the bill to the people of Iceland, as if they were somehow accountable for this mess.

The exact same thing is happening in most countries of the developed world right now. The people are asked to take the brunt of the cost for gross mismanagement on the part of bankers and corrupt politicians, even from other countries, all in the name of avoiding the deepening of a crisis which, by all accounts, is a bottomless pit.

The crisis will never end because we are trying to treat the symptoms, while the root causes remain unaddressed. The majority of people will see their incomes steadily decreasing, there will be steadily fewer and fewer jobs; work rights, which have been paid for in blood, will vanish.

This has been happening for two and a half years in Greece and in the poorer countries of Europe. Greece is on the verge of total collapse, socially and financially, the neo-Nazi party is on a meteoric rise and the troika is still demanding for more cuts and “reforms” which will be nothing short of disastrous.

But it will not end with Greece.

This system which kicks people out of their homes, jobs and deprives them of a future, which sends young people abroad as immigrants and which has replaced constitutional rights with violently enforced austerity measures will spread. Once the people of Greece and the other “PIGS” countries have been forced to work for wages comparable to those of China or starve, where do you think that most major corporations in Europe will move their manufacturing to?

And what will happen to their own workforce at home?

Fascism now wears a respectable face, a suit and carries a tablet. You may call it “austerity”, “reform”, “free market”, “economic rationalization” or however else you wish. I call it Finanscism.

I was meaning to write about something else, yet again I ended up elsewhere. But that is no wonder. No matter what our plans may be, whatever we might set our minds on for the future, everything depends on things that we cannot control. On forces that seem above us.

The key is to understand when these forces are real and when we just think that they are, and by this belief we actually make them so.

We need to know when we are really being pulled by the current, which no human-made dam can stop, and when others want us to think that the wake of their luxury boats is an unstoppable tsunami.

Luxuries which some acquired unlawfully with “borrowed” money, stolen from us. Taken from ‘lazy’ pensioners who work illegally past their 70s because their pensions are simply not enough to sustain them. From university graduates, with honours and distinction, now unemployed. From workers who go unpaid for months and could find themselves jobless at any moment.

From small children in a country with no future, from which we somehow still expect to be well-behaved and obedient like half-dead goldfish in a fishbowl.

Kids these days have no values, some say. Who would teach them values? Proud Greek citizens who curse the same politicians which they keep voting for? Underpaid teachers in understaffed and underequipped schools? Politicians who, in order to gain their precious office, have sold their souls three times already?

There are no values in our time, beyond the instinct of survival. We turn the other way so that we do not see the homeless. We nod our heads in sympathy before the unemployed (while we secretly feel fortunate to have a job, those of us who still do). We shut our eyes to avoid reading about suicides.

And when even this instinct fails in the face of despair, there is nothing left. Who would teach values to children? Those who take their own lives?

Not that I blame them. The shame and despair of having nothing to offer to those who depend on us are enemies beyond understanding.

Amidst all the general confusion of these days I read the most absurd thing. According to an online article, news of suicides should not be published on the Internet since in encourages people  to commit suicide for the sake of… publicity. It’s remarkable how obsessed Greeks have become with their post mortem reputation in the span of just two years, isn’t it?

This outrageous view is apparently shared by Mrs. Aphrodite Al Saleh, a spokeswoman of the “socialist” PASOK party, who also dismissed suicide as a “stupid thing”. It seems that apart from vain, Greeks are now also becoming increasingly stupid. The ruling parties in Greece still deny that there is any relation between the shocking increase of suicides and the fact that millions of people have nothing to support themselves with anymore.

We now live in a state of absolute absurdity. Life has ceased to seem real. It looks more like a Fellini movie clip, cut during editing.

These thoughts were spurred by the following short piece that I came across on the Internet. Concerning tax authorities in Greece, which have now become graveyards for bankrupt businesses.

Green eyes on a red background and the “Code” …

I passed by an office on the floor of the IRS. Dozens of people were furiously tearing up papers. I went to have a look and asked a strange girl with green eyes on a red background if I could help. She nodded “yes”. I started tearing. “What are we tearing?” I asked. “Invoices” she said. “Why tear them?” I asked, tearing all the while. “Because we are closing,” she said. When we had torn everything up she went to an employee who was watching people tearing up papers. She took the torn papers, checked them, put a seal on them and gave the girl a piece of paper.

“Are you done?” I asked the green eyes, now on an even redder background. “No. Now I need more papers, then I have to unregister from the Technical Chamber and after that from TEVE (Self-Employed Workers’ Insurance Organisation). ”

I did not know what to do. After we had torn her papers away I felt like I was her friend. We sat on a bench. She had started her business twelve years ago. Two years ago she began going under.  Yet she loved it, and would not give it up. She worked all day long, but there was no end in sight. Then she had to admit that it was over. “It is sort of like losing a child. I made it, I nurtured it, I watched it grow and set it on its way, but it was going nowhere”. She cried. “I owe money to TEVE too, but now they are not going to get a dime,” she said. Then she stood up, wiped her eyes and went on to finish off the rest of the paperwork.

I climbed the stairs back to the tax office. I went to the office where everyone was tearing up papers. I found out that it was called the “Code”. Now even more people were tearing up papers. I approached a gentleman, about fifty years old, with brown eyes on a red background. “Want me to tear up toof?” I asked him. He said “yes” with a nod. And then I went to another and to another. I was tearing up papers until they sent us away at 3 o’ clock. With every paper torn I threw a curse. Some of them will work. They have to… ~ by HARA

And you, oh so serious and credible politicians, you seek taxes from the dead, from torn papers and closed up shops and people who can no longer make a living. Not from those who have something to give.

And you put those uncollected taxes in your calculations. And you plan your policies based on non-existing numbers. And when your calculations inevitably fail, you will increase the death toll. You will destroy  even more shops, families, people. Even more plans for the future. A future that no longer exists anywhere. Only on torn papers.

Do not tear up just papers. Tear them up. Write them off. Delete them.

We’ve been trying in vain for years to write our future on lies, on misery, on indifference, and the crumbs and beads of their empty promises. Like a palimpsest that will one day be discovered by an incredulous archaeologist. How did this happen? Why didn’t anyone speak up?

If we do not tear them up once and for all we will never be able to turn the page. We will end up writing on the margins and nothing will make any sense. And we will be lost in time and archaeologists in the future will wonder who these slaves were who never stood for their rights?

Intermission #14

They say silence is gold. Sometimes, though, it is just compliance.

I was touched by the sensitivity of Mme. Lagarde. You know, that eloquent, chic lady lawyer, ex minister of France and now Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund. With her stylish suits and her serious hairstyle.

During her interview by The Guardian she stated that she thinks about “the little kids from a school in a little village in Niger who get teaching two hours a day, sharing one chair for three of them, and who are very keen to get an education.”

When confronted by the grim reality of Greece, where the national healthcare system and the pension funds are falling apart, threatening to send thousands to an early grave, she said that the little kids in Niger need more help.

Let’s not talk about Greece any more. It has become tedious. Let us talk about Niger instead. Niger is a landlocked, extremely poor African country. Since 2004, it has been plagued by locusts, drought and famine.

Niger has the misfortune of being directly below the Sahara and actually a large part of the famous desert falls within its borders. That is not a good thing for a country which is forced to rely on agriculture and livestock to support its starving population and struggling economy.

Without access to the sea and fishing, which is the only salvation from starvation for many other African countries, Niger is literally at the mercy of the subsaharan tropical climate. One can imagine that there is little mercy to be found there.

Mme. Lagarde’s comment was unfortunate, to say the least. You see, those children in Niger who actually make it to school are the lucky ones. According to the Save the Children organization, Niger has the highest mortality rate in the world for children below the age of 4.

Sophisticared Mme. Lagarde thinks of them all the time. I do too, madam. But I can do nothing for these children. You, however, who support the international financial system and all those who participate in it, what have you done about Niger, which seems to weigh so heavily in your thoughts?  Pretty much what you’ve done about Somalia and so many other poor countries of the so-called “Third World”.

The Third World which is constantly expanding instead of shrinking and is now slowly taking over Europe. Do you think that Bulgaria, which according to the troika is an economy competitive to that of Greece, is in a much better state? Have you considered that Greece with close to 1.5 million unemployed citizens and God-knows-how-many unpaid employees is rapidly heading the same way, thanks to your wonderful bailout plan?

You could say that Greece has not adopted your proposed reforms. And you would be mostly right. Apart from imposing even more taxes on those who cannot evade them, few measures have been applied by our esteemed governments. Yet Niger has adopted the IMF suggestions. The end result was that gas prices were driven through the roof, food prices skyrocketed and now the poor simply cannot afford to buy what food there is.

The civilized West thinks a lot about the Third World. It has dedicated most of that thinking to finding new ways to exploit it and deny it the means to develop properly. As if the millions of slaves which were moved to America and Europe during the 19th century were not enough, or the exploitation of natural resources, mineral wealth and oil, we have now reached the point of stealing even their fish!

Pardon my plural, I must accustom myself to the idea that Greece is no longer a part of the prosperous West, but belongs to the lazy, poor South and the hapless Near East. I forgot that the caring international financial system is doing its level best to turn Greece into a genuine Third World country, so that it can think of us too without feeling guilty in the future.

Besides, those responsible for the starving children in Greece, according to Mme. Lagarde, are their tax evading parents. I wonder, how do the unemployed and the underpaid manage to evade taxation? Those who are responsible for the lion’s share of unpaid taxes are also those whose children will NOT starve, madam. So, they don’t give a damn, nor for the children in Niger, nor for those of their neighbour.

Or perhaps the director of the IMF believes that reduced tax revenue is due to increased tax evasion. Yet even a child can understand that when businesses go bankrupt and unemployment is increasing every day, tax revenue will decrease. Is the former Trade Minister and Economic Affairs Minster of France truly unable to understand this basic fact?

Rather, Mme. Lagarde is unwilling to acknowledge that, becase by doing so she would have to admit that the financial model she is supporting is simply not working. The very same model is letting multinational corporations move their factories to China, where people work for almost nothing under extremely poor and dangerous conditions in order to produce high tech products for the West. Inevitably, this will force the competition to lower wages and working conditions in the rest of the world.

Competition, supposedly the driving force behind the economy, is driving companies who “lose” the game to bankruptcy, takeovers and mergers. The logic of competition is now being applied to countries too. The IMF and the troika tell us that we need to lower our wages to the levels of our competing countries. They neglect to mention, however, what will happen to the countries who “lose” the game.

Because someone has to lose. This is the way of modern economics. So, what will it be? Bankruptcy, takeover or merger?

I think about the little kids everywhere. For they are the losers in a game they never even played.

Intermission #12

We had high hopes about this world when we were little kids ourselves…

Pink Floyd – High Hopes

Beyond the horizon of the place we lived when we were young
In a world of magnets and miracles
Our thoughts strayed constantly and without boundary
The ringing of the division bell had begun

Along the long road and on down to the causeway
Do they still MEET there by the cut

There was a ragged band that followed in our footsteps
Running before time took our dreams away
Leaving the myriad small creatures trying to tie us to the ground
To a life consumed by slow decay

The grass was greener
The light was brighter
With friends surrounded
The nights of wonder

Looking beyond the embers of bridges glowing behind us
To a glimpse of how green it was on the other side
Steps taken forwards but sleepwalking back again
Dragged by the force of some inner tide

At a higher altitude with flag unfurled
We reached the dizzy heights OF that dreamed of world

****

Encumbered forever by desire and ambition
There’s a hunger still unsatisfied
Our weary eyes still stray to the horizon
Though down this road we’ve been so many times

The grass was greener
The light was brighter
The taste was sweeter
The nights of wonder
With friends surrounded
The dawn mist glowing
The water flowing
The endless river

Forever and ever

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.

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