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 lesson of 2016 is that identity matters – even for white people

Talking about being white American, or being religious, isn’t considered "identity politics". But that doesn't mean people don't identify with those traits.

How do white people feel about being white? It’s a difficult question. First, majority identities are rarely as deeply ingrained in our psyches as those that make us feel threatened, or different from the norm. “The more power an identity carries, the less likely its carrier is to be aware of it as an identity at all,” Gary Younge wrote in his book Who Are We. “Those who have never been asked: ‘How do you manage childcare and work?’ or ‘How can you prove that you will return home after this holiday?’ are less likely to think their masculinity or Western citizenship and the privileges that come with them are anything but the normal state of affairs.”

For most of the 20th century, to be white in Britain was to be utterly unexceptional. In many places, it still is: Worcester, where I grew up, is 92.4 per cent white. There, white people are just people.

Second, for pollsters there is a huge roadblock when it comes to surveying our attitudes to race: “social desirability bias”. Before answering the question, we do a mental check. Will this make me sound racist?

Yet we must investigate majority identities, simply because so many of those who hold them do feel under threat. The election of Donald Trump was powered by white voters who were concerned about immigration, about jobs going overseas and about becoming a minority in the US by 2045. The places in Britain with the strongest concerns about immigration are those where the demographics have changed most quickly. In Boston, Lincolnshire, where 75.6 per cent voted to leave the EU, the migrant population increased by 460 per cent between 2004 and 2014. And as I have written before, Ukip has its strongest support among those who feel “English, not British”, even though England utterly dominates the UK in terms of population.

Enter YouGov. The polling company offered to work with me on questions that would tease out attitudes to race, and asked them of 1,632 adults (online, to reduce social desirability bias to a minimum).

In total, 46 per cent thought Britain was a “Christian country”, against 35 per cent who did not. There was a split between Remain and Leave voters (only 42 per cent of the former said it was, compared to 54 per cent of the latter). The numbers grew with age, from 19 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds to 65 per cent of over-65s. There was no real class, gender or geographic divide.

The figures for whether Britain is a “white country” told a similar story: 40 per cent overall said it was, while 42 per cent said it wasn’t. Leavers were more likely to say it was, by six points, but the real split was by age (50 per cent of over-65s said it was, compared to 31 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds) and geography, with London showing the lowest level of agreement.

“It’s not as big a difference as we see in other things between Remain and Leave, which is a story in itself,” said Adam McDonnell of YouGov. He pointed to a whole range of issues, such as the death penalty, benefits and immigration, where there is now a stark “Brexit divide”. (Since the referendum, the firm has added EU referendum vote to its crossbreaks, along with age, gender and class.) One reason for the relatively small split on whiteness might be that voters often adopt the positions held by their favoured parties, “but the idea of Britain being a white country was not brought up explicitly by Leave or Remain”.

YouGov also asked respondents how important eight factors were to their identity: job, parents, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, religion and where they lived. The most important were parents and nationality: 88 per cent of Ukip voters said the latter was very important or quite important. Other results were more surprising. “Ethnicity is a more important part of people’s identity than religion, with 54 per cent saying it is very or fairly important,” says the researcher Chris Curtis. “Among Leave voters this rises to 65 per cent.”

Looking at the figures, it becomes apparent that older voters are much more socially conservative than Generation Z, and they have a stronger feeling that Britain is a white, Christian country. Because their turnout rates are so much higher, that matters. Any party that wants to win over older voters will need to speak to their sense of patriotism and national identity.

This course will be contentious. In the US, the academic Mark Lilla caused a storm just after the election when he called for the end of “identity liberalism”. Recognising and celebrating difference was “disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age”, he argued. Reading closely, Lilla’s problem didn’t seem to be so much with the concept of identity politics as with the right being better at them. He argued that the next decade “will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny” and urged the media to “begin educating itself about parts of the country that have been ignored, and about what matters there, especially religion”. Got that? Talking about being American, or being religious, isn’t identity politics. Only talking about being a woman, being black or being transgender is.

Unsurprisingly, many read Lilla as saying that feminists and minority activists need to pipe down, as it means white men feel neglected. I don’t agree with the prescription but the diagnosis is not absurd: even progressive men often complain to me that left-wing discourse treats them as villains.

The lesson of 2016 is that even those with majority identities now feel under threat – and, as a result, they experience those identities more keenly. And if more white people feel white, that changes politics.

YouGov surveyed 1,632 adults online from 22-23 November. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18-plus)

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage