Exploding the myth of the feckless, lazy Greeks

Stereotypes and untruths are everywhere, but this economic crisis is not self-inflicted.

Maria was born in Paros in 1942. The country was under Nazi occupation. She experienced real fear, real poverty, starvation, bomb raids and executions. She survived the war and went to a Catholic girls’ school. Maria was good at sport and an excellent singer. She left school top of her class, got married, started working for the Archaeological Museum in Mykonos, from where she retired 44 years later at the age of 64 – one year before she was officially supposed to – in order to look after her husband who was dying of pancreatic cancer.

Maria worked two jobs most of her life – times were often hard. She was on PAYE all her life. She contributed to her pension and saved. She raised three children. She sat at her sewing machine many an evening, altering her skirts; so that they wouldn’t look so 50s in the 60s; so that they wouldn’t look so 60s in the 70s.

There are millions like her. She is a typical lazy, feckless Greek woman.

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Here is the first myth: This crisis is made in Greece. It is not. It is the inevitable fallout of the global crisis which started in 2008.

Are there features in the Greek economy which made it particularly vulnerable? Yes – there is rampant corruption, bad management, systemic problems, a black market. All this has been explored ad nauseam. There are other factors, too; rarely mentioned. The crisis came at particularly bad time for Greece – four years after this tiny economy overextended in order to put on a giant Olympics and prove to the world it had “arrived”. When the crisis came, the country lacked the monetary and fiscal mechanisms to deal with it, because of its membership of the single currency.

However, all of the above are contributing factors – nothing more or less. The catalyst was the behaviour of the financial sector after the crisis. Here is what Angela Merkel had to say in February 2010, when the “Greek problem” started to rear its head, as reported by Bloomberg:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized market speculation against the euro, saying that financial institutions bailed out with public funds are exploiting the budget crisis in Greece and elsewhere. In a speech in Hamburg, she hit out at currency speculators, who she said are taking advantage of debt piled up by euro-area governments to combat the financial crisis. “The debt that had to be accumulated, when it was going badly, is now becoming the object of speculation by precisely those institutions that we saved a year-and-a-half ago. That’s very difficult to explain to people in a democracy who should trust us.”

And since it was difficult to explain, it appears, she gave up trying.

The crisis is a financial one. It is not. It is a political crisis and an ideological one. The difficulties of an economy the size of Greece (1.8 percent of eurozone GDP, 0.47 per cent of World GDP according to 2010 IMF figures) should hardly register as a blip on the global radar.

The primary reason for the widespread panic is the interconnectedness of the banking sector – the very same systemic weakness which caused the domino effect in 2008 and which the world has collectively failed to address or regulate.

The secondary reason is the eurozone’s refusal to allow Greece to proceed with what most commentators have seen as an inevitable default for many months now.

Both these factors are down to political decisions, not sound fiscal policy.

Greeks are lazy. This underlies much of what is said about the crisis, the implication presumably being that our lax Mediterranean work-ethic is at the heart of our self-inflicted downfall. And yet, OECD data show that in 2008, Greeks worked on average 2120 hours a year. That is 690 hours more than the average German and 467 more than the average Brit. Only Koreans work longer hours. The paid leave entitlement in Greece is on average 23 days, lower than the UK’s minimum 28 and Germany’s whopping 30.

Greeks retire early. The figure of 53 years old as an average retirement age is being bandied about. So much so, that it is has become folk-fact. It originates from a lazy comment on the New York Times website. It was then repeated by Fox News and printed in other publications. Greek civil servants have the option to retire after 17.5 years of service, but this is on half benefits. The figure of 53 is a misinformed conflation of the number of people who choose to do this (in most cases to go on to different careers) and those who stay in public service until their full entitlement becomes available.

Looking at Eurostat’s data from 2005 the average age of exit from the labour force in Greece (indicated in the graph below as EL for Ellas) was 61.7; higher than Germany, France or Italy and higher than the EU27 average. Since then Greece have had to raise the minimum age of retirement twice under bail-out conditions and so this figure is likely to rise further.


 
Greeks want the bail-out but not the austerity that goes with it. This is a fundamental untruth. Greeks are protesting because they do not want the bail-out at all (or the foreign intrusion that goes with it). They have already accepted cuts which would be unfathomable in the UK. There is nothing left to cut. The corrupt, the crooks, the wicked, our glorious leaders, have already transferred their wealth to Luxembourg banks. They will not suffer. Meanwhile Medecins du Monde are handing out food packages in central Athens.

Greece’s total annual deficit is €53bn Euros. Of that, our primary budget deficit is, in fact, under €5bn. The other €48bn is servicing the debt, including that of the two bail-outs, with one third being purely interest. Europe is not bailing out Greece. It is bailing out the European banks which increasingly unwisely gave her loans. Greece is asked to accept full responsibility as a bad borrower, but nobody is examining the contribution of the reckless lenders.

Western politicians have developed a penchant for standing on balconies and washing their hands like Pontius Pilate; lecturing from a great height about houses on fire with no exits. This conveniently draws a veil over the truth – that our house may have been badly built, but it was the arsonists of Wall Street and the Square Mile that poured petrol through our letterbox and started this fire.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is the Lebanese-American philosopher who formulated the theory of “Black Swan Events” – unpredictable, unforeseen occurrences which have a huge impact and can only be explained afterwards. Last year he was asked by Jeremy Paxman whether people taking to the streets in Athens was a Black Swan Event. He replied: “The real Black Swan Event is that people are not rioting against the banks in London and New York.”

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Maria has never dodged a tax in her life. She doesn’t drive a Porsche or own a yacht. She hasn’t voted in ten years – “they’re all the same”, she says, “liars and crooks”. Her pension has been cut to €440 Euros a month. Her benefits have not been paid in almost a year. She faces the same rampant inflation that we do. She is exhausted, but not defeated.

Maria grows as much fruit and vegetable as she can in her small “pervoli”. She keeps chickens so that her grandchildren can have the freshest eggs. She still sings beautifully. She battles daily with Alzheimer’s, looks at pictures of her late husband and smiles, sits at her sewing machine, still, and modifies the same old skirts.

There are millions like her. She is a typical strong, defiant Greek woman, my mother.
 

Riot police clash with demonstrators during a protest outside the Greek parliament in Athens, October 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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The 2017 Budget will force Philip Hammond to confront the Brexit effect

Rising prices and lost markets are hard to ignore. 

With the Brexit process, Donald Trump and parliamentary by-election aftermath dominating the headlines, you’d be forgiven for missing the speculation we’d normally expect ahead of a Budget next week. Philip Hammond’s demeanour suggests it will be a very low-key affair, living up to his billing as the government’s chief accounting officer. Yet we desperately need a thorough analysis of this government’s economic strategy – and some focused work from those whose job it is to supposedly keep track of government policy.

It seems to me there are four key dynamics the Budget must address:

1. British spending power

The spending power of British consumers is about to be squeezed further. Consumers have propped up the economy since 2015, but higher taxes, suppressed earnings and price inflation are all likely to weigh heavily on this driver for growth from now on. Relatively higher commodity prices and the sterling effect is starting to filter into the high street – which means that the pound in the pocket doesn’t go as far as it used to. The dwindling level of household savings is a casualty of this situation. Real incomes are softer, with poorer returns on assets, and households are substituting with loans and overdrafts. The switch away from consumer-driven growth feels well and truly underway. How will the Chancellor counteract to this?

2. Lagging productivity

Productivity remains a stubborn challenge that government policy is failing to address. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the UK’s productivity performance has lagged Germany, France and the USA, whose employees now produce in an average four days as much as British workers take to produce in five. Perhaps years of uncertainty have seen companies choose to sit on cash rather than invest in new production process technology. Perhaps the dominance of services in our economy, a sector notorious hard in which to drive new efficiencies, explains the productivity lag. But ministers have singularly failed to assess and prioritise investment in those aspects of public services which can boost productivity. These could include easing congestion and aiding commuters; boosting mobile connectivity; targeting high skills; blasting away administrative bureaucracy; helping workers back to work if they’re ill.

3. Lost markets

The Prime Minister’s decision to give up trying to salvage single market membership means we enter the "Great Unknown" trade era unsure how long (if any) our transition will be. We must also remain uncertain whether new Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are going to go anyway to make up for those lost markets.

New FTAs may get rid of tariffs. But historically they’ve never been much good at knocking down the other barriers for services exports – which explains why the analysis by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research recently projected a 61 per cent fall in services trade with the EU. Brexit will radically transform the likely composition of economic growth in the medium term. It’s true that in the near term, sterling depreciation is likely to bring trade back into balance as exports enjoy an adrenal currency competitive stimulus. But over the medium term, "balance" is likely to come not from new export market volume, but from a withering away of consumer spending power to buy imported goods. Beyond that, the structural imbalance will probably set in again.

4. Empty public wallets

There is a looming disaster facing Britain’s public finances. It’s bad enough that the financial crisis is now pushing the level of public sector debt beyond 90 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP).  But a quick glance at the Office for Budget Responsibility’s January Fiscal Sustainability Report is enough to make your jaw drop. The debt mountain is projected to grow for the next 50 years. All else being equal, we could end up with an incredible 234 per cent of debt/GDP by 2066 – chiefly because of the ageing population and rising healthcare costs. This isn’t a viable or serviceable level of debt and we shouldn’t take any comfort from the fact that many other economies (Japan, USA) are facing a similar fate. The interest payable on that debt mountain would severely crowd out resources for vital public services. So while some many dream of splashing public spending around on nationalising this or that, of a "universal basic income" or social security giveaways, the cold truth is that we are going to be forced to make more hard decisions on spending now, find new revenues if we want to maintain service standards, and prioritise growth-inducing policies wherever possible.

We do need to foster a new economic model that promotes social mobility, environmental and fiscal sustainability, with long-termism at its heart. But we should be wary of those on the fringes of politics pretending they have either a magic money tree, or a have-cake-and-eat-it trading model once we leap into the tariff-infested waters of WTO rules.

We shouldn’t have to smash up a common sense, balanced approach in order for our country to succeed. A credible, centre-left economic model should combine sound stewardship of taxpayer resources with a fairness agenda that ensures the wealthiest contribute most and the polluter pays. A realistic stimulus should be prioritised in productivity-oriented infrastructure investment. And Britain should reach out and gather new trading alliances in Europe and beyond as a matter of urgency.

In short, the March Budget ought to provide an economic strategy for the long-term. Instead it feels like it will be a staging-post Budget from a distracted Government, going through the motions with an accountancy exercise to get through the 12 months ahead.

Chris Leslie MP was Shadow Chancellor in 2015 and chairs Labour’s PLP Treasury Committee

 

 

 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour’s backbench Treasury Committee and was shadow Chancellor in 2015.