Beware of Greeks Bearing Debt

Thursday, February 16, 2012
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Image credit: (via flickr)

Editor's Note: This essay was originally published in Defining Ideas on December 2, 2011.

“We are on a difficult course, on a new Odyssey for Greece,” former Prime Minister George Papandreou once observed of his country’s economic malady. “But we know the road to Ithaca and we have charted the waters.” The man could be forgiven for falling back on the iconic Odysseus—Greece has always looked on the Classical Age as a usable past.

But the metaphor of the Odyssey offers no guidance for Greece’s economic travails. For the Odyssey is about adventure and revenge and the yearning for home; profit rarely figures in the journey. And when it does, on one occasion in Phaeacia, it is used to taunt Odysseus to demonstrate his skill at feats of physical prowess. “Oh I knew it!” said a local mocking the traveler. “I never took you for someone skilled in games, not a chance. You are some skipper of profiteers roving the high seas in his scudding craft, reckoning up his freight with a keen eye out for home cargo, grabbing the gold he can!” Odysseus takes the bait—after all, honor and glory matter. He gives the games of Phaeacia a whirl.

 Greece, debts, and the classical age  
Photo credit: (via flickr)

The ancient Greeks did not have much praise for commerce. Plato denigrated it in the Republic, as did Aristotle. Commerce was not fit for men of the polis, and was best left, it was thought, for metics, resident foreigners. No solace could be found in that classical tradition Greece passionately claims as its own. The German bankers should not rest easy if Greeks come forth bearing the inspiration of the epics and heroes of ancient Greece.

Ironically, the more usable—and proximate—past comes from the way the Greeks performed as traders and merchant mariners during the centuries of their subjugation to the Ottomans. The story is not heroic. Banking and business are not the stuff of legend. The Ottoman Empire created structures of collaboration: Some three-dozen nationalities and communities made up that ramshackle empire. The bureaucracy and the army were the preserve of the Turks, but the Greeks found a niche for themselves, and they prospered as merchants and middle-men.

They could be found in all parts of the Sultan’s domains, in the Greek Peninsula, in Anatolia itself, and wherever the Ottoman soldiers went and conquered. Greek was the lingua franca of the Levant, on par, in places, with Ottoman Turkish. “So they always had the sea, the very essence of caprice,” Jason Goodwin wrote of the Greeks in his beautiful reconstruction of the Ottoman world, Lords of the Horizons (1998).

The Greeks dominated the empire’s coasts. Smyrna (today Izmir), on the Anatolian seaboard, stood as a monument to the brilliance of the Greek merchants. In the 1600s, this city was to know a golden age, and the merchants did it on their own, outwitting the Ottoman bureaucrats, and the Sultan’s court in Constantinople. Its world was genuinely cosmopolitan; the Greeks were the city’s bankers, lawyers, merchants, and doctors. Alexandria, too, was a haven for the Greek traders, and Greeks could be found peddling their wares in the remotest corners of rural Egypt. They were a resourceful breed, and the French and the British, pushing their way into the markets of the Levant, saw the Greeks as agile and brilliant competitors.

The ancient Greeks did not have much praise for commerce.

But this accommodation with Turkish power could not withstand the appeals of nationalism, and the Greeks sought a world of their own. As practical as the Greeks had been under Ottoman rule, they grew increasingly romantic. They had lost touch with the classical world, which they would glorify in the course of the nineteenth century. There were foreign admirers, and they fed the Greek sense of specialness, of being set apart from the other nationalisms. Orthodoxy and Hellenism blew at will, and the great powers jostled over the making of this new Greece. The Greeks would at once need foreign help and suspect it—a pattern that carries over to the present. Conspiracies stalked their homeland. Greek nationalists believed that jealous nations were out to rob the Greeks of the place they had had in the past. The calling of “Greater Greece” was a rebuke to the small kingdom that had been secured from the Ottoman wreckage.

There would be no normalcy in the Greek political world—the dreams always deadly, far bigger than the Greeks could attain. The national church was no help. It stoked the fires of these grandiose ideas. Populism and Communism closed the circle of this unhappy history. The Latin West was always needed and hated at the same time. The roots of this schism ran deep, all the way back to the conflict between the heirs of Byzantium and those of Rome.

In his superb book, A Concise History of Greece (2002), historian Richard Clogg writes of a Foreign Office minister who, in 1980, opined that Greece’s entry into the European community would be seen as “a fitting repayment by the Europe of today of the cultural and political debt that we all owe to a Greek heritage almost three thousand years old.” The Greeks took in and lived off this sense of entitlement and specialness. The debt crisis that overwhelmed the country by 2010 was born of that sense of abdication. The socialist tradition ran deep here, and membership in the European Union and in the Eurozone was bound to make Greece a European burden. Not for the Greeks was the discipline of the marketplace. If German savings were to sustain Greece’s indulgences, so be it. In the European Councils, the Greeks made the most of the truculence of their politics—the refusal of the country’s citizens to pay their way, to provide the taxes needed to maintain a modern state, and to accept the structural adjustments for an economy living beyond its means.

Reckoning came in 2010. Greece’s bills had come due, and the coffers were empty. Prime Minister George Papandreou struck an accord with the International Monetary Fund and the European Union to secure a bailout in return for budget cuts of 30 billion Euros ($43 billion). But the bloated public sector wanted nothing to do with the needed cutbacks. A 48-hour strike was staged on May 4­–5, ending in tragedy. Three bank employees were killed, as their bank was set on fire. Papandreou was in a fight for his political life, caught between the demands of foreign creditors and the ways of his population. (It was telling that this prime minister was the grandson and the son of former prime ministers, a dynasticism that even the Arab office holders would envy.) The custodians of power in Greece were in no-man’s-land.

In Greek demonology, America is Satan—its capitalism a dreaded menace.

The markets found little comfort in the austerity measures that the Greeks had proposed. By mid-June, Greece got the lowest credit rating in the world, when S&P downgraded it by three notches, to CCC from B. Papandreou struggled mightily—he secured the passage in parliament of an unpopular property tax and he proposed cutting high pensions by 20 percent. But he could never put through these changes, and he was sandbagged by his finance minister, Evangelos Venizelos, a political operative with a substantial base of support of his own.

Papandreou bowed out on November 9, 2011. It was time now to turn to technocracy, which perhaps would succeed where politics had failed. Lucas Papademos, an MIT trained economist and a former vice president of the European Central Bank from 2002­–2010, stepped into the breach.

A detailed, unsentimental report released on November 18, by the European Commission, “Task Force for Greece,” laid out the defects of the Greek economy. Even in antiseptic bureaucratese, the alarm bells can be heard. “The scale of the reform task is daunting,” the report states. The country was in desperate need of “unprecedented fiscal and economic adjustment. The contraction is deeper and more painful than expected. Unemployment, and particularly youth unemployment, is rising steadily. Small companies are facing severe liquidity constraints.” This commission uncovered no hidden secrets about the habits of the Greeks. Tax evasion is rampant (there were 60 billion Euros in uncollected taxes), the channeling of savings into Swiss banks was a time-honored national tradition, and bureaucracy was doing its lethal damage: it takes 230 days to award a public contract in Greece—more than twice the average of the European Union. Europe was paying for the pride of Greece, for the debt owed the classical age.


“Greece is not part of Western civilization, but it was the home of classical civilization which was an important source of Western civilization,” the late Samuel P. Huntington wrote in his celebrated book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). Greece was an “anomaly,” Huntington observed, the “Orthodox outsider in western organizations.” In their self-image, the Greeks stand sentry at the edge of the Western world—where Islam begins. But the borders between civilizations that Huntington drew with such a sharp pencil put Greece in the Orthodox world, a kin of Russia and the Balkan states.

Huntington, it should be recalled, had come forth at the end of the Cold War to divide the modern world into eight distinct civilizations—Western, African, Sinic, Hindu, Islamic, Japanese, Latin American, and Orthodox. He swam against the currents of the 1990s, the giddy insistence that globalization had erased cultural differences. In that decade and thereafter, Greece would bear out Huntington’s thesis of its separateness from the Western world.

Decline is a choice, not a fated destiny.

A fierce anti-Americanism would poison its political and cultural life. The United States had been benevolent in Greece’s darkest time, the 1940s, but the Greeks spun a legend that American intervention had wrecked their political life in the late 1960s. There would be no conciliating this anti-Americanism. In Greek demonology, America was Satan—its capitalism a dreaded menace. The pretexts of this anti-Americanism were endless. America had sinned against the universe by coming to the rescue of the Bosnians and the Kosovars. American power was a threat to the “True Faith,” an accomplice of Turkey and Islam.

There was no coherence here, and no need for it, for in 2003 the Greeks feigned offense at America’s war in Iraq. In a worldwide Pew survey taken that year, the United States was considered a greater threat to peace than Iran and North Korea. Another survey from 2005, taken by TNS Opinion & Social, a research consortium that studies European attitudes, showed that the anti-Americanism of Greece was relentless—85 percent of Greeks had a negative view of America’s role in securing peace in the world, 76 percent had a negative judgment on America’s contribution to the fight against world poverty, and 73 percent weighed in in a similar fashion on the American way of taking on international terrorism. America could do nothing right. Two-thirds of those surveyed believed that American power was detrimental to growth in the world economy. No wonder Greek opinion had rated the Americans on par with the Albanians and the Turks in esteem, lower even than the Gypsies.

Greek political culture has yet to be modernized and stripped of its ruinous passions. In that 2005 study cited above, seven out of ten Greeks believed that the cultural differences between Turkey and the European Union were too deep to allow Turkey’s accession to the E.U. The Greeks, so sure of Turkey’s separateness, did not look in the mirror. The anti-modernist, anti-capitalist consensus that has wreaked havoc in Greece is a mighty barrier all its own.

From the day Lord Byron and the Philhellenes flattered the pride of Greece to the present, the country has lived with the sense that it is exempt from the demands of political and economic discipline. It won’t matter how much relief is thrown at the Greeks, for that sense of entitlement will overwhelm all good intentions. The technocrats now go where the politicians had failed, but the anger displayed in the face of the harsh economic realities provides no solace that Greece is done with deadly dreams—and expectations. While the countries of Europe are troubled each in its own way, the Greek predicament is deeper and more acute than the rest.

A final sobering note must trouble the Greeks: the Turks, who had once been soldiers and bureaucrats who disdained trade and commerce and left such matters to the Greeks, along with the Armenians and the Jews, are now in the throes of an economic renaissance. From its rise in the 1920s through the late 1980s, modern Turkey, having destroyed or banished its trading minorities, became an economic backwater. Izmir had lost out to bleak Ankara. The Turks fell back on economic protectionism—import substitution and a command economy that subordinated economic matters to the primacy of politics. They reaped the harvest of that strategy: their people grew impoverished and flooded the labor markets of Germany to make their way in the world. Then an economic revolution remade Turkey. The markets were opened up and privatization worked its magic. Prosperity came to the dusty Anatolian hills. So culture does matter, but it can be altered and reformed. Decline is a choice, not a fated destiny.