I really didn’t want to be writing about Greece this week. It seems every email I receive these days starts off with, “What’s happening there?” or some more or less energetic (vituperative?) variation on that general theme.
I certainly don’t fault anyone for showing interest. After all, how can sane people not want to know why the birthplace of reason and democracy is running a Grand Kabuki length production of classic Greek_____ [Ed. Note: Here’s the audience participation part of this week’s rant. Choose and insert “drama” or “comedy” here—as much as that choice might seem a distinction without a difference vis a vis the performance under review].
Forgive me for not jumping right to my answer for “what’s happening.” You see, I’m pining away at the moment for the good old days, ones I described just a couple of books back (Assassins of Athens) when “[T]he rest of the world doesn’t give a damn about what goes on here. Unless something is burning, Greece doesn’t make the international news. Even then, not for long.”
Not sure when those days will return, but that failing puts me in the illustrious company of every politician in Greece, because if one of them has any sense of when that will be, it (I’m purposely using the “neutered” pronoun) sure as hell is keeping that wisdom secret from its government colleagues, the Greek people, and the rest of the world.
So, let’s forget about gaining any meaningful insight into how Greece will weather its crisis from a national, macro-economic point of view. The place to find such a clue is at the micro-economic, down home level; for history has shown that no matter what law or system is imposed upon them, Greeks find a way to survive and flourish.
Any such analysis, of course, must start with Greeks who (still) have money. That narrows the size of the group considerably, since it generally excludes most public employees these days, as well as luxury goods and other industries facing shuttering taxation—as in closing their businesses. And the word “industry” in Greece does not include any meaningful manufacturing base for that fled the country long ago.
Today, industry in Greece means just one thing: tourism. It’s the only game in town. It floats everyone’s boat. It puts psomi on the table. It…well, you get the idea.
In other words, when tourism works things happen. Let’s take Mykonos for example. The tourist season this year wasn’t great. But nor was it as bad as many feared. And since Greeks are by nature optimistic, when they see an opportunity they jump at it.
|Themis, ancient goddess of Justice|
Enter the Greek government with a recently passed law having an admirable purpose. It allows landowners who built illegally on property they could have built on legally, but failed to obtain the necessary official approvals and sign-offs (for various reasons), the opportunity to legitimize what they built. They simply pay a fine roughly equivalent to what it would have cost had the structure been built in compliance with all applicable laws. For example, a 100 square meter (1,076 sq. ft.) home built without legal permission on an otherwise legally zoned spot is legitimized upon payment of a 36,000 euro fine ($50,000). It was intended to be a win-win situation. The owner avoids further official harassment and can now freely sell his property without complications, and the government raises much needed cash.
But there’s always a wrinkle. And where there’s a wrinkle you can be sure that the Greek entrepreneurial spirit of some (both private and public) will find a way to iron it out.
A key requirement of the new law is that the structure to be legalized must have been built on land that was legally zoned for such construction at the time it was built.
In Mykonos, for example, a change to its zoning law did not allow construction to proceed in certain areas after 2005. In other words, no structures could be erected legally after that date.
Mykonos is currently in the midst of a building boom. (Like I said, it wasn’t that bad a season). There’s not a carpenter, plumber, or electrician to be found, and I hear many of them are working on property where new construction is forbidden by the 2005 zoning law.
So, why are so many building so frantically in places where even legal construction is forbidden? Simple answer: Someone hit on the idea to build now and say you built before 2005. Ingenious, huh? Well that’s one word.
I’m sure you’re dying to ask how could anyone expect to get away with that on a small island where everything you do is someone else’s business? And why bother to build at all in the face of such dire financial predictions for your country?
My answer to those questions is the same as the one I have to “what’s happening there?” Don’t bother trying to figure it out unless you’re born and raised there.
Accept it world, some things are meant to remain incomprehensible.