Monday, December 30, 2013

Observing Greece During 2013

At Christmas 1945, when a war-torn Austria was economically devastated and hunger prevailed throughout the country, the then Chancellor Leopold Figl said the following in his Christmas radio address to the nation:

"There is nothing that I can give you for Christmas. I cannot give you candles for your Christmas tree --- provided that you even have one. I can give you neither bread nor coal. We have nothing! All I can ask you is: believe in your country!"

Historians later described this as one of the most important speeches by an Austrian politician ever. It is said to have had a significant impact on the morale of Austrians during terrible times.

If a Greek politician said something like this over this past Christmas, then I have missed it. We are, of course, talking about soft facts; not hard facts. About compassion (not comisery). One has to bear in mind, however, that a most important instrument to influence the hard facts is to focus on the soft facts in a society. On morale, on motivation and - in times of misery - on compassion.

The Greek economic leadership has accomplished most remarkable hard facts during 2013: a primary surplus, a surplus in the current account and quite a few more. However, throughout 2013, my impression was that the focus was entirely on hard facts with the soft facts being more or less ignored.

My wife and I spent 2 months in the spring in Greece and another 3 months in the fall. I can't say that, living in a city like Thessaloniki, any change in the hard facts, be it positive or negative, was clearly recognizable. The superficial oberserver saw a city at the end of the year which did not seem to be any less bustling than at the beginning of the year. And a bustling city Thessaloniki is!

However, there was a very noticeable change in spirits. Not too long ago, it seemed quite easy to get Greeks excited in conversations and discussions. Only the mentioning of the name 'Merkel' would get some people up in arms. It seemed that someone like Alexis Tsipras had the pulse of Greeks at his fingertips and could arouse disenfranchised people whenever and wherever he wanted to. As the year progressed, spirits changed: passivism, fatalism, depression could be felt all over. My wife has, more than once, suggested that we give up our apartment in Thessaloniki because witnessing all the depression in her family and in society is getting too hard for her to bear.

Regardless which economic policies Greece will pursue going forward, regardless which politician will lead the country --- it will take a very, very long time until an improvement in the hard facts will trickle down to those who need it the most. Yes, there may be bullish periods from time to time when the world (particularly the foreign creditors) will hail Greece as a 'success story'. However, little of that success will be felt by the common people.

When, as I understand, at least one-third of the Greek population are in extremely dire straits, it is simply inconceivable that any economic policy can improve the lot of one-third of a population in a reasonably short timeframe in a significant way. Yes, there may be a little growth in 2014 and, yes, the unemployment figure may go down a little. But what is the difference for a society if unemployment is 'only' 25% instead of 27%? Only if and when unemployment returns to pre-2009 levels will the people feel that 'we have made it!' And that, as I said, will take a very, very long time.

In such a situation, it is almost reckless governance to focus exclusively on hard facts and ignore the soft facts.Yes, one could bank on the hope that, one way or another, suffering Greeks will simply remain passive, fatalistic and depressive --- but no more than that. On the other hand, one might want to read what John Maynard Keynes once wrote about such situations:

"Economic privation proceeds by easy stages, and so long as men suffer it patiently the outside world cares little. Physical efficiency and resistance to disease slowly diminish, but life proceeds some how, until the limit of human endurance is reached at last and counsels of despair and madness stir the sufferers from the lethargy which preceeds the crisis. Then man shakes himself, and the bonds of custom are loosed. The power of ideas is sovereign, and he listens to whatever instruction of hope, illusion, or revenge is carried to him on the air (...). But who can say how much is endurable, or in what direction men (Greeks?) will seek at last to escape from their misfortunes?"

In mid-2013, a NYT-article suggested that 'an unlikely campaign to change the flawed policies that govern the European Union has begun in Greece, a small, proud country that has, in the past, given quite a few ideas to the world — including one, people’s government, that we like to call by its Greek name'. Well, anyone who argues that Greece can and will change the flawed policies of the EU needs to have his head examined, in my opinion.

However, there is, I believe, one area where Greece could set the standard; could carry the torch. Extreme hardships can, if soft facts are well employed, set loose enormous energies in a society which otherwise remain dormant. That requires true leadership.

The EU is a place which, nowadays, is very long on top politicians but very short on true leadership. Or can anyone quickly name a politician who would fit the mold of predecessors like de Gaulle, Mitterrand, Brandt, Kohl, Thatcher, Palme, Kreisky and so forth?

There may be no other place in the EU which needs true leadership more badly than Greece does. Leadership in the sense of bringing people together in the midst of misery; in the sense of setting loose energies in a society which otherwise would remain dormant; in the sense of presenting a vision of a better future which makes today's sacrifices appear worthwhile; etc. etc.

Such leaders are unlikely to come out of an entrenched political system like that of Greece. But they don't necessarily have to come out of the political system. They could come out of the economic sector; the cultural sector; even out of sports. 

Back in early 2011, the HuffingtonPost published an article titled "What Greece Needs Now is a New Hero". There are undoubtedly enough potential 'new heroes' in Greek society except they do not come to the forefront.

My wish and hope for Greece for 2014 would be that those potential new heroes pluck up the courage and step forward to employ their talents for the benefit of Greek society. During the first half of 2014, Greece will hold the EU Presidency and the country will have the stage. That would be as good a time as any for potential new heroes to get on that stage.

It is not in the area of correcting flawed EU policies where Greece can leave a mark on Europe. Instead, it is in the area of leadership where Greece could distinguish itself in a continent which is, for the most part, without true leadership. Greece could set an example how a society, in the midst of misery, can be brought together; how a society can set loose energies which otherwise would remain dormant; how a society can present a vision of a better future which makes today's sacrifices appear worthwhile; etc. etc.

All that is necessary is that those Greeks who have the potential of being heroes pluck up the courage and stand up to be counted!

1 comment:

  1. Yes Klaus, this is the key to the solution. Years ago I wrote in Comments on Ekaterimini and on the personal blog of Mr. Malkoutzis that Greece needs a Greek "Lech Walensa".

    Keynes described what history repeats for centuries. Let's hope that upheaval will not proceed to a destructive route!

    H. Trickler