End of the Athens Ghetto

Posted June 27th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

A welcome casualty of Greece’s economic meltdown: the most grating exemplar of the cafe-entitlement culture in my neighborhood. Ghetto Luxury Lounge opened around the turn of the millennium, peddling overpriced tequila sunrises and iced cappuccinos to a clientele whose aspirations appeared strangled in their skinny jeans. This weekend I noticed the “For Rent” sign on Ghetto with a jolt of pleasure as sweet and nasty as the drinks it used to serve. Along with all the unwelcome dislocation of the Greek economic crisis, at least we can look forward to a little weeding.

Indignant at Syntagma: Tahrir Comes to Athens

Posted June 12th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Inspired by Egyptians and spurred to action by Spaniards, the Greek people have taken over their capital’s central square to demand, simply, an end to corruption, consumerism, and their nation’s long, self-induced economic immolation. Now that Greece has committed hara-kiri, its citizens can point to other culprits, like bureaucrats from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund who erroneously prescribe austerity at the inflection point of a depression.

Set aside the political economy for a moment, and behold the pop culture of protest. Syntagma Square looks like Tahrir with beer, franks, and port-a-potties. And, oh, not nearly so many people.

Yesterday on an evening tour of the tent city I encountered a drumming circle, some stoners playing the guitar; immigrants rights activists; labor organizers planning the nationwide general strike called for this Tuesday; legions of beer salesmen; a pair of dueling end-of-the-world-is-nigh prophets; a row of sausage salesmen without any customers; representative of NGOs for the homeless, the environment, and other worthy causes; and curious passers-by on their way to the metro entrance.

Supporters rally at the Facebook page “Indignant in Syntagma,” and the rest of Athens plans their days by consulting a student-run page which lists all the strikes that disrupt life in the capital.

Banners declare “The quiet citizen is a useless citizen” and “We are peaceful.” Speechifiers spoke of IMF ineptitude, government failure, and the imperative for labor solidarity on the day of the general strike. “The nation must come to a halt,” a said without any inflection over a megaphone.

The popular grievances are legitimate, of course: the tax scofflaws, union maximalists, over-leveraged materialists, and greedy politicians who ruined the country over the course of 37 years probably include only about half the citizenry. The remainder are justifiably upset that their economic prospects have been doomed as well. Of course, it’s unclear which half is represented in Syntagma Square. But it is clear that they’re peaceful, well-fed, and not likely anytime soon to face a shortage of nicely chilled Mythos Beer.

UPDATE: Today organizers are hoping to bring 1 million people out to the center of Athens. The mass protest is meant to start at 6 p.m., by which time I hope to be sailing away from the mainland, so I’ll have to learn from afar how it goes.


Another Greek Exodus?

Posted September 17th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

While I was traveling I missed this fine story by Niki Kistantonis about the newest generation of Greeks flooding abroad because of the lack of opportunity. For much of its modern history, one of Greece’s most successful exports has been its young. It’s a common story in underdeveloped nations — the initiative-takers, the smart and resourceful self-select for emigration, and take their work ethics and brains abroad. In the early twentieth century and again in the 1950s and 1960s hundreds of thousands of Greeks fled to the diaspora.

Those  who remain, especially the ambitious and the well educated, find themselves choked from opportunity. She quotes a recent poll:

According to a survey published last month, seven out of 10 Greek college graduates want to work abroad. Four in 10 are actively seeking jobs abroad or are pursuing further education to gain a foothold in the foreign job market. The survey, conducted by the polling firm Kapa Research for To Vima, a center-left newspaper, questioned 5,442 Greeks ages 22 to 35.

The economic crisis in Greece has taken a huge toll on the country, and heightened generational anxiety. At the same time, economic opportunities are dampened everywhere right now, not just in Greece.

I just spent 10 days in Lebanon, long famed as the most debt-ridden nation in the world. It was striking during this visit to regularly have people ask me whether Greece has surpassed Lebanon in debt. Even one Greek banker I met had to stop and calculate in his head before concluding that Greece was barely ahead of Lebanon in debt-to-GDP ratio.

Greece and Lebanon have painful similarities: impressive human capital, speedy journeys from developing to developed economies, endemic graft, ossified political structures, and diasporas whose economic achievements dwarf those of the metropolis.


Posted August 29th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

During our vacation in July, I reported a piece for The Boston Globe Ideas section about the economic crisis in Greece, which was just published today. Two questions intrigued me. How much would the collapse of the economy degrade actual quality of life? And had the Greeks proved that market orthodoxy was partly based on a mirage by calling its bluff and surviving?

The answer, I found, was that average working Greeks were suffering substantial losses, and were bracing for far more in the fall — for starters 5 to 10 percent cuts in real wages and real pensions for many people, in addition to increased taxes. That’s not taking into account rising unemployment, social tension, and macroeconomic changes.

For Greece, the real test comes in the next few months, when the government tries to move ahead with the austerity plan it promised Europe in exchange for the bailout, and Greek unions take to the streets.

What happens next will resonate far beyond this small country’s borders. Greece is about to learn whether a modern state can withdraw entitlements that people have come to take for granted but which the government no longer can afford. For fiscal hawks, this is a harbinger of what could happen to the American economy when, say, the social security system finally goes bankrupt, or when the government no longer has enough money to fund Medicare. For Greeks, it’s something else as well — a kind of identity crisis for a way of life defined almost as a rebuke to contemporary liberal market economics.

Americans, the saying goes, live to work; Greeks work to live. As a credo, it reflects a Greek belief that a worker on any rung of the class ladder deserves security and pleasure in exchange for hard work. It’s not outsized salaries or short workdays that define the Greek model. First and foremost it’s job security: Until recently Greeks struggled to find jobs, but once employed they never feared losing them. A close second is the principle of egalitarian access to the pleasures of life: going out to eat or listen to music on the weekends, and taking your family on Easter and summer vacations.

From the outside, the Greek sense of entitlement is often misunderstood as a desire for some kind of lazy lifestyle. In actuality, though, most of the government and union workers raising hell in the streets work hours as long as any American blue collar or office worker; many of them, in fact, work two jobs — at a bank or ministry in the morning, driving a taxi in the evening. What Greeks have treasured for decades and are now contemplating losing is the kind of job security that most Americans surrendered in the 1970s. All those wasteful government jobs underwrote a vast reservoir of public confidence, and in large measure blessed Greece with a joie de vivre. Small entrepreneurs don’t feel as stressed when the government countersigns their loans and when they know, if the business fails, they still have a stable job at the state water and sewer authority.

You can read the full story in the Globe.