Monday, April 16, 2012

The Question to Ask Greek Politicians

When a country nears an election, it is natural to ask politicians, “what will you do if elected?” But in the run up to the May 6 election, the Greek people should ask a different question: “what do you think went wrong?” The answer will convey more information than slogans, promises or programs. To survive this crisis and to tolerate the hardships that still lie ahead, the Greek people need a narrative about what happened and how the country will escape its misery. And a grand narrative begins with a diagnosis.

The political elites, as a whole, have offered an answer: “everything.” Corruption, clientelism, unaccountability, tax evasion, the big Greek state, false statistics, PASOK, New Democracy, Papandreou (Andreas and/or George), Karamanlis, the Olympic Games, the European Union, Merkel, Sarkozy, the IMF, the common currency, the Americans, cheap money, low interest rates, the rating agencies, foreign banks, speculators, globalization – everything went wrong. The problem, of course, with the answer “everything” is that it is synonymous with “nothing.” When everything is at fault, nothing is at fault. “Everything” is not a good enough answer. Greek politicians ought to do better.

In my mind, there are three ways to make sense of this crisis, which although interlinked, offer different interpretations of this crisis. The first way is to see this crisis as a crisis of leadership, Greek and European. If only Greece hadn’t elected Kostas Karamanlis in 2004 or in 2007; or if it hadn’t elected George Papandreou in 2009; or if its politicians had been less corrupt, more honest and more capable; or if Europe had more decisive leaders during this crisis; if Angela Merkel weren’t so timid and the European Central Bank so rigid; if Europe had a leader that could articulate a vision for the Continent and forge a comprehensive solution to this crisis from the beginning – if, if, if – none of this would happened.

A second way is to see this crisis as a crisis of design, global or European. The capitalist system is whimsical. Capital can move too quickly and easily from place to place, with few restrictions or regulations. Markets are undemocratic and can punish governments that are impotent vis-à-vis banks, speculators and credit agencies. Even the Eurozone is systemically flawed, cobbling together countries that should not have a common currency. With cheap money and with no ability to depreciate its currency, is it any wonder that Greece is defenseless against the whirlwinds of global capital?

A third way is to see this crisis as a crisis of Greek culture. For at least thirty years, the Greek people have developed a political system that disconnected work from reward. It is a system that is afraid of markets and that leans on government to provide employment and social services – at least in theory, since in practice government services are both overly costly and substandard. It is a system meant to protect the “little man,” although in practice, the little man either lives very well without having to work very hard or struggles while working long hours – all the while, the privileged minority shirks its tax-paying duties and uses the political system to defend its prerogatives. This crisis was long coming – no leader or design could have averted it.

Of course, all three explanations contain some truth (readers of this blog will know I like answer #3). But in such a fundamental crisis, the language that politicians use to describe the past will be as important as anything they say about the future. Each explanation carries different policy prescriptions, signifies different levels of moral and politician responsibility and reveals different instincts about what went wrong and what needs to happen. More than any one policy or program, Greece needs a leader who “gets it” and who has an that offers an answer to the question that every Greek is asking: “how the hell did we end up like this?”


  1. Unfortunately Greek politicians have shown no more backbone in this than they have in any other aspect of the crisis.

    Pangalos's comment 'we all ate together' was crass and ill-timed, but nevertheless contained a kernel of truth. Implicit in criticism of the system is a criticism of those who did well out of it. Nobody who is now struggling wants to hear that they played a part in the crash.

    1. That's right Chris. What Greece really needs is a politician that can capture and articulate the ambivalence of the place and the nuances of responsibility and guilt. I wrote a bit about that a long time ago ( but it's been in my mind a lot lately. I hope to devote a post to this issue exactly soon.

    2. Doesn't Greece have that already in Stefanos Manos and Drasi? Unfortunately though, it seems Drasi is hovering between 1-2 percent in the opinion polls.

  2. Dora, Manos or Tzimeros?

  3. It is very sad that the Greeks will not take responsibility for their actions. This election will not fix anything. It will just continue with more promises and less action because no one has the "xxx" to make the changes that need to make a difference.

  4. Pangalos comment "Together we ate it" was one of the greatest comments made during the crisis. The reality is that Greece needs institutions to breed good politicians. They need to promote and support good politicians and reward good actions from the grass roots. To do so Greeks need to be more mature voters, not following parties like they follow football teams. They are currently getting a crash course, which is quite cruel but effective. The institutions are changing slowly, but on average they are in the right direction.


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