Wednesday, October 31, 2012

My few cents' worth on "The List"

I don't want to be the only blogger in the world who has not posted his opinion on the recent publication of "the list", so I do it herewith.

Earlier this month, I posted an article expressing my opinion how the list should be dealt with. I argued that yes, it should be used by the authorities even though it was originally acquired illegally but also that "it should be used responsibly and discreetly. Absolute confidentiality must be maintained until such a point where legal action against an individual can be supported".

The argument is being made that since the authorities had ignored their responsibilities for dealing with this information responsibly for two years, this was enough reason to have no confidence that they would deal with it responsibly this time around. Thus, the publication of the list was more or less a public service to make up for the public disservice of the authorities. That argument holds water.

I then asked myself what I might have done had I been a Greek journalist in possession of the list. First of all, I would probably have wished not to be in the possession of the list because it now forced me to take a terribly difficult decision (to publish or not to publish it). I would have searched my soul as to what overall principle should guide my actions and I hope that, as a guiding principle, I would have written down for myself: "Whatever I do, it must have nothing to do with any interest of my part to make news or to become famous! The only guiding principle must be the question of what is the best service to society!" I don't know whether the journalist asked himself that question.

I guess that, before publishing the list, I would have given the authorities a chance to finally live up to their responsibilities. I would have told them that I would irrevocably publish the list in a week's time unless they did the following: (1) appoint a non-political task force reporting directly to the Prime Minister; (2) have the task force announce an action plan as to what they will do, by when they will have done it and how they will report to the public. 

For example, the task force could eventually have come up with the following report to the public: "We have examined 2.000 cases, 500 of which were clearly of a correct nature. We have written to the other 1.500 that they have to 'come clear' within a month's time. 'Coming clear' means that they provide unequivocal evidence about the source of their funds and how they have been taxed in the past. If they cannot 'come clear', they can voluntarily pay all due taxes and penalties and come clear that way. Otherwise, law suits will be filed against them and the public will learn against whom law suits have been filed".

Having said that, I would like to point out that "the list" represents chickenfeed. The authorities have blown it with chickenfeed but they could take this as their cue to act appropriately when it comes to the big stuff.

Why chickenfeed? Well, 2 BEUR isn't exactly a large amount when considering the entire 'black money' which Greeks are estimated to hold offshore. Also, if you were a rich Greek, would you really put all your 'black money' into the Swiss branch/subsidiary of an international bank like HSBC? A bank where you always have to suspect that their international Head Office might know what you are doing with their branch/subsidiary in Switzerland? Or would you perhaps go to a 'real' Swiss asset manager who guarantees complete confidentiality?

Big stuff is around the corner. The authorities know that 25-30 BEUR have been officially transferred by Greeks to offshore accounts in the last two years and they also have the names of those Greeks, allegedly about 50.000 names. Allegedly, 35.000 of those names are not suspect whereas 15.000 are. In light of recent events, the authorities may wish to review whether it is really 35.000 which are not suspect. It sounds like an awfully large number. One could/should follow the same procedure as suggested above: form a task force, announce an action plan and a time frame by which one will render an account to the public.

The authorities blew it when the HSBC list was originally obtained two years ago and, two years later, they did not act consequently enough to convince a journalist that he should not publish the list.

The authorities now have the chance to demonstrate with the 'big stuff' that they can live up to their responsibilities and, in the process, they can restore at least part of their reputation.


  1. As you so correctly point out, whatever is on this list from one small branch of one international bank, is chickenfeed.

    The real money is in Singapore, the Caymans etc, and can be endlessly transferred on to the next tax haven by one tap on a laptop keyboard.

    The real problem now is the complete loss of faith by the greek electorate in the integrity of its government, especially the old ruling parties. This loss of faith is rational and well-earned.

    The government wasted 2 full years (730 painful days for greeks) refusing to take up its above responsibility toward the public. Against this, it wasted no time at all in immediately looting pensions, salaries, savings; the universities, pension funds and the hospitals etc. etc. Against this also, it made NO move to reduce its voter-base public sector, regulate rapacious cartels, go after big business, and - least of all- tax evasion in the form of offshore money.

    It's policies have systematically destroyed the private sector, such as it was, which after all pays all the bills.

    Really, time ran out.

    The time has p

    1. I am glad you share my view about 'chickenfeed'. I would only disagree with your last sentence. If someone were on the Titanic a minute before it disappeared in the oceans, I might agree if he said that his time has run out. A country can never disappear from the surface of the earth. Greece will continue to exist one way or another. So time will always be there. I would only hope that people come to senses and use that time well!

    2. I meant - time ran out for greeks to be patient.

      That journalists are taking matters into their own hands, for the sake of increased transparency, and to goad the government into action, has been a traditional remit of the 4th estate. A constructive by-product of the crisis has been that greek journalists, who for too long served the interests of their proprietors and not the public, have through unemployment been set free to become real journalists again. There is always a bright side!

      Of course there is a legitimate argument about invasion of privacy - however the public is not interested in the genuine savers who kept their money in HSBC and who are the victims in this instance: yes their privacy has been violated to a degree. The public IS rightly concerned about illegal offshore monies of the greek political class and their cronies.

      Law can be used either way - the government used the excuse of the Lagarde list's illegal provenance to justify doing nothing - unlike France and Italy who used this information to great effect.

      Again I refer back to greek public's total loss of faith in its political class. In this case it can be argued that the spirit of the law matters more. Interestingly every single foreign newspaper I have read so far - conservative and financial press included - has sided with the journalist. Not only greeks, but foreigners have become impatient and disgusted with the obvious foot-dragging and cover-ups of the greek governments.

  2. What is just chickenfood for those who have enough of it is something big for those who are going to lose even the last security for having their daily "food". In that view it fits to show respect to those who are suffering and don't have even "just" chickenfood, by doing their duty in a decent way.

    Having a task in a country asks dignity and it is below any dignity towards a people to put even "just" chickenfood somewhere else to follow up and obey to the lowest instinct: to survive, not as a people, but as an asocial selfish type, who is on an other moment creating rules for the small ones, the common people, that if THEY don't follow up laws and rules they will suffer. By punishments which go beyond what is human, in my eyes and opinion.
    Not possible, so they will have to eat finally their shoes.

    No, for people in the higher classes, knowing how to escape from rules and laws, using their intelligence for their own little small selfish "I", instead of to use it for the country and to overcome the disaster of the present, I do not have any kind of understanding for their immature irresponsible selfish behaviour, and I am not willing to make it lesser than it in fact is:

    They have been/are on the sinking ship named Greece, and it is not possible for me to make it lesser bad when I see that some of those who have used this ship to get where they want, to earn (big) money, now just jump on boats around the ship, to try to save their money, their wallet...., their own little self. To jump back on the big ship named Greece when it is possible again in the future to navigate it and sail it over in the Greek waters?

    No. You are too kind for these individuals, dear Klaus.
    Far too kind.
    Too decent. You have too much understanding, make chickenfood out of what is poison in my eyes.
    Because you don't see what they do, in fact.
    It is cheating. Not allowed for owners of small wallets, not for owners if big wallets as well.
    It works subversive.

    It is not the amount that counts to find out if there has to be a punishment, a scandal, or not.
    It is about ethics and ethos, about principles.

    In my opinion the higher the job, degree or level, the more heavy the punishment should be. Publication is a punishment for those who hide on purpose, and a sign that all what people do must be able to be published, that it can stand the light of day.
    This counts for all.
    Without any exception.

  3. Tax returns of all people taxed in Greece are available to the public, including publication in newspapers. , article 85.

    The least a correct journalist could have done would be to check the list against the published tax base and cry foul when finding a large discrepancy. But that requires work and elbow grease, not fireworks.