Saturday, November 2, 2013

A Message to Remember: Don't Mess With the Greek People

October 28th is a major holiday in Greece, called Oxi Day (pronounced o-hee and meaning “no”).  It commemorates the day in 1940 when Greece responded to Italy’s demand for its surrender to the Axis powers with the single word, “Oxi.”  What the Italians thought would be a three-day war had them tossed back on their heels for more than five months, forcing the Germans to invade Greece on April 6, 1941, an effort that took the Nazis an additional five weeks and dealt a disastrous blow to their planned invasion of Russia before winter.  Greece suffered horrifically during the war years for their defiance but left no doubt in anyone’s mind how tough and determined Greeks can be when their backs are against the wall.

So what does all this have to do with the few days I just spent in Athens?  Let’s begin with the good news.  Well-informed rumor has it that big spending foreign tourists sent the high-end food, drink, hotel, and private yacht tourism sector off the charts, and ultra-luxury foreign name brands did extraordinarily well among foreign tourists.  As for how much of that is attributable to there being few daring enough to venture further east in the Mediterranean during these unsettled days I have no way of knowing.  I’m sure, though, that the Greek government is thankful for those six weeks of blissful revenue generation. Or was it eight weeks?

But summer is over folks and it’s back to reality.  Here’s the reality: IT’S NOT GREEKS SPENDING.   They simply don’t have it.  Basically, Greece’s only serious revenue generating engine operates a couple of months a year, and even then not at all times on all cylinders.  On the other hand, the government has a huge public sector work force that it refuses to pare, and so it must pay.  So, where does the government get what it needs to pay all the people it employs?  Yep, you got it, by raising taxes.  And raising taxes. And raising taxes.

Imagine yourself as one who’s worked hard and honestly all your life.  You have a pension of $2000 a month for which you paid every working day of your life.  You live in a house that you paid for in a nice neighborhood.  Imagine now, that over a five year period the government increased your real estate taxes five-fold (from $5000 to $25,000 per year) based on a fair market value for your property at least twice its actual worth, cut your paid-for pension to $800 per month, converted “temporary taxes” into permanent, and raised your income tax rates while cutting down on deductions.

How would you react? Back in the U.S. I bet the Tea Party would be selling one hell of a lot of tee-shirts.  And Occupy Wall Street might even find game.

But wait, there’s more.  In Greece you can’t just ignore the tax bills, because your electricity is shut off if you don’t pay real estate taxes, forcing many into making triage like decisions on what to cut:  heating, petrol, food, medical, children’s education?   And if you’re lucky enough to have a business (obviously not my retiree example) you’ll likely have little choice than to fire employees, expanding the depth of their problems.

If you have an ancestral home in your family’s village, or a summer place you bought in the good times, you’re likely trying to sell it if not rent it.  But there are no takers.  Except, it seems, foreigners—or Greeks who somehow have money available to take advantage of fire-sale opportunities.

All the while you’re hoping there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that all your suffering is part of a grander government plan to save your country’s way of life.  But it’s hard to keep the faith when your only first-hand interactions with your government are far too often with bureaucratic employees surly, resentful and unhelpful; as if you, personally, are responsible for expense cutting measures threatening their public employee way of life, rather than as a fellow citizens asked to sacrifice much of what you’ve acquired in life to pay their salaries. 

Resentment now builds on both sides, and paired with a loss of faith in their government to lead, drives a suffering, hopeless electorate to extremes. In Greece those extremes are represented by an amalgam of parties on the far left promising nirvana (SYRIZA), and Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) promising a right-wing Greek Reich.

Thankfully, the government has taken bold steps against Chrysi Avgi to label it a criminal enterprise, and prosecute its leadership for complicity in a host of crimes, including murder.  One can only pray the prosecutions will prove successful, but that alone will not end the extremist rhetoric or limit the appeal of demagogues.  Not as long as the Greek people believe—as virtually any Greek you ask will admit—that their government is either unwilling or unable or to go after the corrupt and the tax cheats, and has no thoughtful plan for resurrecting the Greek economy beyond making the honest already paying taxes pay more.

The government is not seen as listening to its people.  The middle class is screaming.  The poor are devastated.  The public sector is demonstrating.  The private sector is disheartened and on the run. 

So where’s it all headed, toward a resounding bang or a muffled whimper?  In revolution or an inexorable slide toward a third world economic existence that relies upon the spending whims of foreign vacationers coming here to enjoy their holidays oblivious to everything but the sweet song of summer—akin to a crew of well-meaning Neros fiddling on while someone else’s Rome burns.

Or something in between…like a massive taxpayer boycott.   

But if the government does not get the message and act, something will happen.

For this is the land of men and women who know how to shout, “OXI,” and back up their words with determined resistance.



  1. I pray it will not be the bang, which would be a bomb going off. The whimper would be better than that. At least it would not shread human beings Throwing out the useless government would be a start, but even in the land the invented democracy, it's hard to see how voters could revolutionize their entire political infrastructure. There has to be a way short of war and better than despair. What a heartbreaker.

    1. The trouble in Greece, Annamaria, when it comes to "throwing the bums out" is the same as here in the US. Every single person in Parliament (or Congress) is bum, EXCEPT my MP or CMan who takes care of my problems. And that's how the same B*^%$S keep getting elected.

  2. Unfortunately, the likelihood of Greece (and the rest of the world...) resolving this socio-economic dilemma without a major upheaval is getting smaller and smaller. When a boulder is perched at the top of a steep incline, it takes little work to push it back from the edge, but once it tips over the edge, it's rare for anything short of a miracle preventing a loud bang when it hits the bottom. And I fear our boulder is already rolling along at a pretty high rate of speed. But welcome back to the U.S., Jeff, where everything is peachy and rosy. Heh.

    1. Thanks for the welcome back, Everett! I like the boulder analogy except I think in Greece the bigger risk is a slow slide toward economic oblivion. Why? Because no politician seems serious about changing the economic status quo in any meaningful way that might jeopardize the entrenched interests of themselves and their patrons. As for the people, let them eat campaign promises...

  3. It's Oxi day again. So glad that some of the Golden Dawn members have been charged, and also that the state has cut funding to them.
    It's probably the spirit of Oxi day that is motivating the public sector workers. I would not put any of the economic burden on them. Thousands do face layoffs -- and this in an economy with 27.6 percent unemployment (55 percent for youth), and nearly 1/4 of the people living under the poverty level. I don't blame the public sector workers for fighting for their jobs; they're fighting for their lives here.
    People are going hungry, the suicide rate has increased, and mothers are putting their children into government care because they can't afford to feed them.
    So, it won't help to have more people unemployed, without any job possibilities, and desperate. That just makes things worse for more people.

    1. I share your always thoughtful concerns, Kathy, but as I also understand not one of Greece's approximately 700,000 public sector workforce (out of a population of 11 million with 5 million considered in the workforce) has actually lost a job through a cut mandated by the crisis, the unemployment figures you quote are almost exclusively borne by the PRIVATE sector workforce, which has much direr implications for the economy. (The actual youth unemployment rate is 57%)

      Whether or not that observation is 100% accurate (to stay with percentages)--it's hard to find any Greek (from those performing the most menial of tasks to survive, to those clipping coupons) who doesn't share the same negative view on what they perceive as a bloated, surly public sector workforce, riddled with corruption.

      But that's not really the issue. The remedy should not be expressed in terms of Public v. Private sector, for that will only lead to a different sort of "class" warfare. (See below). Otherwise the simple solution would be to declare everyone a public sector worker and all would be well with the world:).

      But that obviously won't work, and in these extreme times the remedy has to be expressed in terms of what will get the economic engine of Greece working again so that the millions now unemployed have a chance at better future. To do that there can be no more sacred (or politically protected) cows.

      This past week the Golden Dawn situation took a dramatic, though not unexpected, turn when three of its members were gunned down outside its headquarters (two died), sparking concern of a "blood feud" vendetta between the extreme right and left.

  4. As part of an agreement with the "Troika," there are supposed to be several thousands of public sector workers laid off by the end of next year, with some laid off now.

    I would never counterpose workers in the private vs. public sectors. None should be laid off. First of all, it takes money out of the economy and then that creates more crisis and then more layoffs.

    Second, it's disaster for parents, in particular, who have to feed, house and clothe children. To lose a job in an economy with such high unemployment where no jobs are available is a horror. What will they do? Services that they need have been cut, and as I said above, some parents are putting their children into government care because they can't feed them. I guess this is mostly people who worked in the private sector -- but who needs to increase their numbers?

    I'd say to put children's needs first, and then to put the needs of other people first. People should not be so desperate and hopeless that they're committing suicide in record numbers or hunting for food in dumpsters, which has been written about.


  5. Just as a note: The New York Times of Nov. 9 ran an editorial calling for no more layoffs in Greece, as required by the European "troika," of IMF, EC and ECB. And the editorial also called for a much fairer tax system, which taxed the rich and the well-connected, instead of the middle and working classes. Good points.

  6. From "The Times" lips to God's ear, Kathy, though at times I think "The Times" tends to think of it the other way around:).