Here’s a good reflection on why the unloved George Papandreou might be the only honest man left in Greece. Excerpts:
Papandreou seems to understand something that Stefanos Manos had hinted at 20 years earlier: Greece’s problem isn’t financial, though that’s certainly a symptom. A few thousand years after Greeks invented Western civilization, the basic premise behind it has broken down: the Greek individual and the Greek state no longer work in concert. Over the past generation, Greece has been slowly devolving into a state of quiet anarchy. Maybe the soon-resigning Prime Minister understood this as well as he appeared to or maybe he didn’t. But whoever succeeds him will have to address Greece’s growing ungovernability before he or she can hope to fix its finances.
European Central Bank critics [of Papandreou’s proposed referendum] were missing the point. Though a bailout and austerity might help Greek balance sheets, they would do little to resolve the underlying crisis: Greek people were out for themselves. The Greek state, simultaneously attacked by so many of its citizens, was unable to defend itself. Greek public sector workers had teemed up to exploit wildly inflated salaries and benefits that the state could not afford. Private sector workers became such incredible tax cheats that the state had less and less revenue to pay out its expanding bills.
The point is that Papandreou understood that the Greek people couldn’t keep going like they have been — that the quality of a democracy depends on the quality of the demos. People have got to feel that they have a stake in their own government, and not just feel that way, but behave that way. Did you ever read Michael Lewis’s amazing report from Greece? Holy cow. No wonder that country is a sinkhole of bad debt and anarchy. For example:
As it turned out, what the Greeks wanted to do, once the lights went out and they were alone in the dark with a pile of borrowed money, was turn their government into a piñata stuffed with fantastic sums and give as many citizens as possible a whack at it. In just the past decade the wage bill of the Greek public sector has doubled, in real terms—and that number doesn’t take into account the bribes collected by public officials. The average government job pays almost three times the average private-sector job. The national railroad has annual revenues of 100 million euros against an annual wage bill of 400 million, plus 300 million euros in other expenses. The average state railroad employee earns 65,000 euros a year. Twenty years ago a successful businessman turned minister of finance named Stefanos Manos pointed out that it would be cheaper to put all Greece’s rail passengers into taxicabs: it’s still true. “We have a railroad company which is bankrupt beyond comprehension,” Manos put it to me. “And yet there isn’t a single private company in Greece with that kind of average pay.” The Greek public-school system is the site of breathtaking inefficiency: one of the lowest-ranked systems in Europe, it nonetheless employs four times as many teachers per pupil as the highest-ranked, Finland’s. Greeks who send their children to public schools simply assume that they will need to hire private tutors to make sure they actually learn something. There are three government-owned defense companies: together they have billions of euros in debts, and mounting losses. The retirement age for Greek jobs classified as “arduous” is as early as 55 for men and 50 for women. As this is also the moment when the state begins to shovel out generous pensions, more than 600 Greek professions somehow managed to get themselves classified as arduous: hairdressers, radio announcers, waiters, musicians, and on and on and on. The Greek public health-care system spends far more on supplies than the European average—and it is not uncommon, several Greeks tell me, to see nurses and doctors leaving the job with their arms filled with paper towels and diapers and whatever else they can plunder from the supply closets.
Where waste ends and theft begins almost doesn’t matter; the one masks and thus enables the other. It’s simply assumed, for instance, that anyone who is working for the government is meant to be bribed. People who go to public health clinics assume they will need to bribe doctors to actually take care of them. Government ministers who have spent their lives in public service emerge from office able to afford multi-million-dollar mansions and two or three country homes.
Which culture is it that taught us that character is destiny? Hmm.