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 industrial strategy acknowledges a fundamental truth about growth

It's time for the government to recognise that private businesses need help to thrive. 

When Theresa May created a new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy after taking office last summer, plenty of eyebrows were raised. Industrial strategy, it was widely remarked, was something attempted by the Labour governments of the 1960s and 70s – and it had dismally failed. British Leyland, Concorde and Delorean were the dead proof that governments were useless at "picking winners" and shouldn’t attempt to. What was the new Prime Minister thinking? 

A few commentators did observe that the concept of industrial strategy had in fact been revived at the end of the Labour government and in the early years of the Coalition. Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson had successfully revived the motor industry in 2009-10 and initiated a new offshore wind manufacturing sector; Vince Cable and David Willetts had identified key manufacturing growth sectors and established new support systems for innovation. But they also pointed out that this had been largely abandoned by the next Business Minister, Sajid Javid, and was never embraced by David Cameron or George Osborne. 

So what did May mean? We are about to find out, when the government publishes its green paper on industrial strategy today. 

Among economic and business commentators, it has been widely assumed that this will again largely be about government support to manufacturing industry, particularly in the field of research and development. This is after all where the orthodox theory of "market failure" acknowledges that government intervention may be warranted. 

But this expectation is wrong. Under Business secretary Greg Clark, the government is taking a much wider approach. In fact the green paper will start from two far-reaching observations about the British economy.

First, take the UK’s low rate of productivity. This is not primarily a problem of the major firms in our remaining manufacturing industries. It is instead rooted in the small and medium-sized businesses in the service sectors, which employ 84 per cent of the British workforce. These are characterised by systematic under-investment in new technologies. 

Second, this is compounded by the huge disparity in productivity across the UK’s nations and regions. While London has the highest output per head of any region in Western Europe, more than a quarter of the UK’s regions rank among the lowest. Only if productivity is raised everywhere can it be raised in the UK as a whole. And only if productivity is raised, can wages be increased. So this is crucial to any attempt to help those "left behind" or "just about managing". 

The green paper will therefore make it clear, as IPPR has argued, that industrial strategy is not just about galvanising R&D and brand new innovation – though this is certainly important. It is about stimulating the much more widespread adoption of new technologies in all businesses - the service sector too. And it is not just about high-tech companies in the UK’s golden triangle between London, Cambridge and Oxford. It must happen in every region and nation of the country

In other words, the government looks likely to accept a vital truth - that industrial strategy is not a single strand of policy, but an approach to economic policy in general. It involves a fundamental recognition that firms and markets left to their own devices do not necessarily generate the optimum results for society as a whole.

Firms under-invest; they do not always adopt the most efficient technologies; they cannot on their own achieve the benefits of clustering together in regional centres; their investors’ horizons may be too short termist; they need infrastructure, skills, planning and other public policies to be aligned; they need to be encouraged to locate outside the existing growth centres. 

In other words, industrial strategy acknowledges that wealth is co-produced by the private and public sectors working together, and successful economies need both.

The chief theoretician of this understanding in recent years has been the economist Mariana Mazzucato, who has argued that the best way of driving investment in innovation is for government to set "missions" to address major social challenges. Just as the US moonshot programme generated innovation in a wide range of sectors, so modern missions such as decarbonisation, meeting the health and social care needs of an ageing population and the housing shortage can galvanise a new wave today. The government can use both "demand-side" policies (such as energy policy and procurement) and "supply-side" policies (such as in infrastructure and skills) to promote private sector investment.

In Britain industrial strategy has always been thought to be a left of centre economic idea, because it requires an active role for government. The Telegraph and Mail will no doubt tell Mrs May this week that it is all very misguided. But this is not how the rest of the world sees it. The most successful economies – Germany, Japan, South Korea, the Scandinavians – all work on the basis of public-private partnership to maximise productivity and achieve better distributed growth. All of them have higher productivity, and lower regional disparities, than the UK.

Yet there remain real question marks hanging over the government’s approach. Will the Chancellor cough up? A strategy with no money will be stillborn at birth. In particular, will sufficient resources and powers be given to regional institutions to support long-term economic growth outside London? Shifting the geographic pattern of investment will ultimately be the key test of the strategy’s success. 

The Business secretary is known to favour "deals" with industry to deliver the strategy, in the manner of the "devolution deals" with local government he developed in his previous Cabinet role. But will these be properly transparent, as the agreement which kept Nissan in Britain in the autumn was not? Will they simply favour the best business lobbyists, or can they represent a real compact of mutual obligations between public and private sectors?

The government has already acknowledged that it needs to recruit overseas negotiators to do new trade deals. It could usefully employ some outside experts to help with industrial strategy too. A good test of its commitment to strengthening public sector capacity is whether the government continue with its crazy sell-off of the Green Investment Bank

Ultimately, the key question may be whether the strategy will outlast Clark, who is probably the only Heseltinian member of the Cabinet beyond Mrs May who really believes in it. Labour’s Shadow Minister Clive Lewis, who has been talking intelligently about industrial strategy and has recently launched his own consultation, is no doubt already sharpening his critique. 

For the Prime Minister, the rationale for industrial strategy is clear. As it goes through the trauma of Brexit, the British economy will need to be seriously strengthened. We are about to see whether she can deliver it. 

Michael Jacobs is the Director of the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice and co-editor of Rethinking Capitalism: Economics and Policy for Sustainable and Inclusive Growth (Wiley Blackwell 2016).