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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Greeks should learn from Austrians?

Mr. Philip Andrews recommended in a letter to the Editor of Ekathimerini that Greeks should learn from Austrians. As an Austrian, I felt compelled to respond to Mr. Andrews as follows.

Dear Mr. Andrews, 

you suggested in a letter to the Ekathimerini that Greeks could learn a lot from Austrians. Undoubtedly so! The first thing which Greeks could learn from Austrians is to “package” things the right way. Let me explain.

By now, it is probably known in the most remote island of the world that Greeks are corrupt; that Greeks work with “fakelaki”. Now that is really poor form on the part of Greeks. Austrians would never engage in blatant corruption like this. Instead, Austrians will talk about Mozart and Beethoven when they visit a dentist in Salzburg. When the dentist has his cost estimate ready, he will ask – sort of between Mozart and Beethoven – whether he should do it “in black”. Now that is gentlemanly! Greeks should learn from that! If you are a gentleman, there is no way that you cannot accept the offer of the dentist to do it in black! By golly, you might offend him if you didn’t go along!

The EU does not allow import tariffs. Austrians would never violate EU-treaties! That’s for people like the Greeks to do. Austria doesn’t manufacture cars and it hurts to pay so much for car imports. So Austria, the world’s trendsetter as regards environmental concerns, implemented an environmental charge on cars. Of course, there was no discrimination against foreign cars. The rule applied to all cars. But when all your cars are imported, you understand what I mean. And that is, I believe, about 20% per car.

Greeks don’t pay taxes; in fact, they openly cheat. Now, Austrians would never do that! However, in Austria there is a thing called “neighborhood assistance”. This means that if you help your neighbor to build a house and he helps you, you don’t have to pay taxes on the mutual earnings. And one is amazed to see that apparently all Austrians are neighbors! And many of the suppliers of building materials are neighbors, too! Estimates are that up to 30% of the economy bypasses official books that way (it is called “Pfusch”). Members of the Austrian government have repeatedly stated over the years that without “Pfusch” there would be a lot less houses in Austria (thereby implying that “Pfusch” was good).

I could go on but let me now be serious. Almost 50 years ago, we had a teacher in Gymnasium who explained the Austrian economy to us the following way:

"Children", so he called us teenagers, "we (Austrians) don't have oil and we don't produce cars, but we need oil and want to drive cars. Thus, we have to import a lot. Since we need foreign currency to pay for those imports we must find ways to obtain foreign currency. Thus, we have to try to export as much as possible but, as a small economy, we cannot export enough to pay for all the imports. So we have to find other ways to obtain foreign currency and one of them is tourism. The more tourists come to our country and the more foreign currency they leave here, the better our chance to close the hole between the imports we need and the exports we have. And since that hole cannot be closed even after tourism, we need to be a very attractive place for foreign investment so that foreign investors bring us their money and the government needs to keep its household in order so that it can borrow money abroad".

This is exactly the challenge which Greece needs to get serious about. Why, when there is now the Euro? Because the Euro is a foreign currency to every EZ-country (none of them can print it on their own). The amount of money which Greece spends abroad (imports, etc.) is phenomenally greater than the amount of money which Greece earns abroad (exports, tourism, etc.). That is what “living above one’s means” is all about. There are many things which Greece must import because there is no local availability: oil, cars, smartphones, etc. But there are many other things which Greece should not import and, instead, produce domestically. Above all, Greece should not import agricultural products. That is like Cuba importing sugar. Greece should become one of the premier exporters of agricultural products!

And then there is another thing. Austrians, like Greeks, have a complex history. The idea of an “Austrian nation” stands perhaps on similar grounds as the idea of a Greek nation descendant from ancient Greeks. Austria decided to become a nation after 1945 when it was prudent to disassociate oneself from the terrible doings of Germans. I hope I do not offend anyone when I say that, 200 years ago, only few people living on the soil of today’s Greece were convinced that they were direct descendants of ancient Greeks. Populations moved all over the European continent in the last couple of millennia. I don’t know how many different ethnic groups moved through Austria (a lot of Slavs!) and there is no reason why this should not apply to Greece as well.

All Americans except native ones are immigrants. They come from all geographic areas and from all ethnic origins. However, they are Americans! Austrians have had a very tough time to find their own identity after 1945 because basing your identity only on the grounds that you were not German is not really good enough. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the new role of Austria as a bridge towards the East gave Austrians a new identity. It has dramatically changed Austrian self-confidence. Greeks should urgently attempt to find an identity which is oriented towards the future instead of creating illusions about a past which are not supported by facts! “Know thyself!” is one of the first things about ancient Greeks which we learned in Austrian Gymnasium.

Greeks, under Ottoman occupation, missed some of the key developments which shaped Central Europe (Reformation, Enlightenment, etc.). But it is never too late! Greeks should make every effort to follow the spirits of ancient Greeks: know yourself; accept yourself; and deal with the world as it is (instead of complaining why the world isn’t the way you think it should be and blaming others for that).

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