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Greece: Spearing the 'octopus'

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Paul Mason | 20:08 UK time, Monday, 15 February 2010

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On the shelf behind George Papaconstantinou's desk in the Greek finance ministry I noticed two books in English amid the heavy wedge of Greek language finance documents - Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big To Fail and Costas Kataras Nice Capitalism.

Well, Greece has had all it is going to have of "nice capitalism" for some time and the Greek finance minister is about to discover if his country is, like the book says, too big to fail.

For Mr Papaconstantinou, an urbane, young, Western-oriented technocrat, is the first finance minister in the developed world to have the gun of austerity pointed at his head by a coalition of credit rating agencies, derivatives traders, Ecofin, the German media and a pack of foreign press hacks who scarcely know what credit default swaps are, but are convinced they are signal Armageddon.

The key question is, assuming Monday night's European Union finance ministers meeting comes up with the offer of financial backing in return for greater austerity, can the Greeks bear it?

Can they stomach a level of austerity that no developed country has, until now, been asked to bear?

Farmers' blockade

Mr Papaconstantinou is denouncing the EU tonight for its lack of solidarity. We will see on Tuesday whether a deal can be done that maintains Greek social cohesion, but satisfies the readers of Bild and Spiegel with tough conditions.

Last week I travelled across Greece in an attempt to find out. Or I tried to.

Halfway between Athens and Thessalonika, on a long, straight and deserted motorway, I was stopped by 150 tractors lined neatly along the hard shoulder, together with some police tape and a small dog.

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There was nobody around - no police, no traffic and even the owners of the tractors were not to be seen.

Then a man hailed me from the distance. Stumbling along with a sandwich and a cup of beer, he immediately fired at my translator a stream of invective that, she later confirmed, had libelled every public dignitary within 100 miles.

Thanks to my restaurant-level command of the Greek language I picked up one recurrent word - "octopus".

"It's the octopus," said the farmer, flexing his fingers like tentacles. "It's the mayor, the president, the factories, the euro; it's you, the British, the Americans. Take, take, take."

The farmers are in their third week of blockading all routes from northern Greece to the Balkans - 75% of trade has been stopped and fruit is rotting in its containers.

The problem is not, at first sight, Greek-specific. As in Britain their single farm payments have been lost inside a new IT system. The difference is that in Greece the government has no money to tide the farmers over until the subsidies arrive.

So the farmers have blocked the highway.

'Quietly dead' villages

"Does it make you popular with other Greeks?" I asked the farmers' spokesman, Sakis Karaiscos.

He smiled: "It makes us popular with our families and with our villages. I don't want to be popular with a camera, a newspaper."

The villages, he added, are "quietly dead" because of lack of income. When I asked why they have not been paid, he shook his head:

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"We don't know and they don't know. The government. And the problem is that they don't know - don't know, or don't want to know."

It is a microcosm of the problems that afflicted Greece long before it became the test bed for EU crisis management and one that the current finance minister readily admits to:

"Greek people don't feel they are getting the services appropriate to a modern democracy," Mr Papaconstantinou told me. They have to pay under the table to get an operation, for example. They see graft going on unchecked.

It is, he accepts, a problem that goes beyond economics and to the heart of the issue of political trust.

In a country where not paying your taxes is, as my Greek barber says "a national sport" the low-income sections resent the shipping magnates and agri-bosses who they believe pay no tax.

There is a culture of tax evasion among professions even as noble as the law and medicine.

The political system is more or less totally patronage-based - you win, you sack your enemies and bring in your mates to work for you.

Mr Papaconstantinou did not stoop to the metaphor of the octopus, but he said: "The relationship between business and politics is not healthy." And he has brought in a bill to reform it.

Who will be hit?

So the Greek austerity crunch is going to be hard. The question is - who on?

So far the government has cut public sector wages by 10% and raised the pension age from 48 to 60. But this may not be enough.

Between 2006 and 2009 public sector wages rose 30%. Even last year the government hired more civil servants than retired.

There are obvious further measures that can be taken: a 1-2% rise in VAT looks on the cards. And Mr Papaconstantinou's tax evasion crackdown should raise 1.2bn euros.

But with the black economy accounting for 25% of GDP, economists at Kepler University, have calculated Greece could raise euros 15bn a year simply by collecting taxes properly.

The problem is, Greece's fiscal black hole is not yet properly measured. A Eurostat team has been in there since the new government revealed that instead of 3.7% of GDP the budget was 13%.

Now there are further teams of statisticians pouring in. If this crisis plays out to the same form as Enron and Lehman, they will most likely find an even bigger problem somewhere in the books.

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But the problem is not measuring - it is collecting tax and ripping up the essential social contract between the middle class and the state. Basically, it involves spearing "the octopus".

On the dockside at Piraeus, Athens's seaport, the tower cranes and container transporters zip around - but not as fast as they used to. Trade has fallen back sharply as the economy contracted - minus 2.5% GDP last year.

I went there because, if anybody can stop the new austerity package it is the organised workers, and they do not come more organised than the stevedores at Piraeus.

As they sit around waiting to go on shift the men fill their canteen with smoke and the air with invective against their bosses.

On the wall is the communist party daily: headline "Workers Uprising!" On a nearby crane there is graffiti with the hammer and sickle of the KKE (which has 21 MPs) and some phrases inviting Cosco Pacific, the new Chinese owners of the port, among other things, to "go to hell".

The cargo terminal was privatised under the previous government. The holding company is registered in Bermuda and is a 50/50 JV between Cosco and private investors. They believe the new owners have been given "colonial style tax exemptions" and fear they will bring in new men on reduced conditions once a new terminal is built next door.

Stevedores' view

But on the day I met the stevedores, though the customs officials they work with were on strike, they were not. They have already staged a month-long strike already and gone back pending negotiations with the Pasok government.

"There was a social explosion before, in 2008, by the young people," said Giorgos Gogos, one of the dockers' leaders. "I would like a social explosion just to shake this building. But of course there is no point in things becoming chaotic. The problem is one third of Greek people can't pay their bills."

The dockers will strike on 24 February, with many others, but they still bemoan the lack of unity among the unions.

Here, as on the motorway with the farmers, there was a sense of resignation. And a feeling that - if not the workers it is more likely to be the unorganised youth who fight back.

Everyone in Greece remembers the "social explosion" of December 2008, after Athenian police killed a school student.

Resignation among students

I went to the university district, where the streets are plastered with leftist posters and drug dealers linger at dusk beneath a statue of former British foreign secretary George Canning.

I met activists from the youth group of another leftist opposition party, Synaspismós(Coalition of the Left). The party has 14 MPs and traces its roots to the Euro-communist tradition that was once influential within Labour in the Kinnock years.

But here too there was a mood of resignation. "Most young people I know are thinking about leaving Greece," said one. Youth unemployment is 27% and many graduates do casual work, juggling two or three jobs to take home 700 euros a month with no social insurance or benefits.

"Greek youth feel betrayed," said another, not just by the current government or the old, but by the political system.

He described the education system as "like yours 50 years ago" - beset by bureaucracy and tradition, susceptible to graft and - at the end of it - leaving you with a degree but no possibility of employment.

Instead of "the octopus" the students talked of global capitalism - they tend to see the main cause of the crisis as Wall Street banks and foreign powers, against which the local system of graft and mis-measurement is just a symptom.

There was talk here too of a social explosion from the youth - but it is not one the Synaspismós feels it can either summon or control.

All mainstream politicians I met in Greece said the same thing off the record - it's the youth, not the organised workforce, that will probably explode first if there are further austerity measures.

External threat

So what is the likely outcome? Barring some major financial crisis and the breakdown of the euro deal tomorrow, I think it is manageable.

The Pasok government is social democratic and has designed the austerity package to protect its voting base.

It points to the fact that 60-70% of Greeks for now accept, in opinion polls, that the austerity measures have to work.

Likewise the organised labour movement is not as strong as in Spain or Italy - indeed across southern Europe it has been weakened during the post-Maastricht years. And though youth riots can force reforms they have never brought down a European government.

However all this changes if a Greek government can suddenly point to an external financial "aggressor" - be it the IMF or the ECB or Ecofin.

In Greece there is no Fawlty Towers rule - the older generation "mentions the war" all the time: the German occupation; the British clash with the communist resistance; the civil war.

Any idea of Britain or Germany or the US telling Greeks that the austerity plan they have - for now - accepted is not enough; any attempt to redesign it to cut services rather than raise taxes and cut pay for example, may be the spark that causes a political and social crisis here.

If it happens then make no mistake - this is not some crisis on the periphery of the European social model. It will run to the heart of it because Greek people evolved a southern European version of the Euro-dream. Nice Capitalism, if you like.

They had a welfare state and a culture of rampant entrepreneurship; their city centres are now full of Gucci clothes shops and Swiss watch emporia and the SUV-per-head count, as in all newly enriched countries of Europe, is high.

They lived the dream in their own way, without bothering to pay taxes and in total contempt for the "octopus" and its political tentacles; pretty much in contempt of mainstream politics too.

They bunged money at the GP to jump the hospital queue, salted away money from cash jobs on the side, wheeled and dealt.

Pan-European complicity

And you know what? The rest of us loved it. North Europeans flocked there on our holidays; we paid cash in the restaurants and never asked for a receipt; we rode Greek mopeds, helmetless and in flip flop sandals.

We revelled in the nightlife where there are no measuring taps on the spirit bottles and where - as Damon Runyon once said of Las Vegas - "everyone has nice teeth and no last names".

Our finest statisticians - from cold, humourless Brussels no less - failed to spot the systematic mis-reporting of fiscal deficits.

Our dour, Protestant finance ministers sat side by side with successive Greek counterparts and raised no objections. How come? If Greece really does slide out of the euro, the searching questions will be asked in Brussels and Berlin as well as Athens.

Tonight may put the lid on the Greek fiscal crisis as a euro-problem. But tomorrow morning it will still be a Greek problem.

Anybody who's ever tried to catch an octopus knows how hard they are to spear - and even harder to finish off.

Watch Paul Mason's latest report on the Greek crisis

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Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    This was a very interesting and insightful piece tonight. Having grown up in Greece till my mid 20s, I have been through similar experiences myself, but not knowing anything different I grew up thinking that this is the way that things work ... everywhere!
    The world changed before my eyes when I decided to come to the UK and continue my studies (like 1000s of other young Greeks). The change from a disorderly, rebellious but yet relaxed society, to a relatively orderly and purposeful one is quite shocking and together with the shock of the weather it's not something that the average Greek can persevere for more than a few years.
    Nevertheless, the career opportunities provided by the meritocratic UK employers are much greater than the chances someone "unconnected" would ever get in Greece and this does keep some people from repatriating. As such, I found myself getting more and more embedded in the British way of thinking and over the last 10 years have seen Greece going through the boom of the Euro and the glitter of the Athens Olympics, to the harsh reality of the recession, which was initially "glazed-off" but soon led to widespread despair and misery.
    Unfortunatelly, this was not the worst part ... the worst was that during the same time I saw most of my good friends and co-students (who also studied abroad and experianced the UK or US ways) morph from young bright hopefuls who wanted to improve things and fight the establishment, into "typical" assimilated Greeks that now survive by conforming to the unwritten rules of bribery and tax evasion.
    This has demonstrated to me that these problems are actually endemic to the Greek society and go through all social classes: from public workers, to doctors, to sole traders, to politicians. When the worlds first democracy is actually a nation where the majority of people believe that tax evasion and bribery is an acceptable common practice, then their representatives (i.e. the elected governments) will also be following the same rules and setting a bad example, leading to even more distrust and anarchy.
    Greeks always quote the numerous big public bribery scandals of top government officials during the last 20 years as the main reason that they are not complying with the rules ... "If the politicians are corrupt and abuse public money, then why should I be compliant and give them more of my money to abuse" ... is the classic gateway quote that everyone uses.
    Unfortunately, the only way to break this vicious circle of corruption is by external intervention and controls, which is why this crisis is probably the only real opportunity that Greece might have to change and improve itself. This is why it is important that European governments provide the necessary financial support, whilst ensuring that they have direct control and oversight of the austerity reforms.

    (There is so much more to say, but I will stop here.... PAUL, if you are interested in exploring this further, then I would be happy to have a chat and provide you with more insights and tips for further investigations of the matter ... Unless this is now yesterdays news and the BBCs focus will turn to the next country, bank, company in crisis :-))

  • Comment number 2.

    I agree that this is a more insightful article than the usual.

    But it seems to me that the author has picked up some of the methods of "Greek Statistics" (can't blame him after all).

    some examples "pension age fro 48 to 60" - this is really a joke.

    I am 61 and still working - in fact I don't see when I will retire - and if.

    I think that the "average age was 58" - an average that is never kept by most people.

    Another example "75% of trade stopped by the farmers blocs"

    Believe me if that was the case the government would fall immediately.

    It is impossible to stop 75% of trade by blocking one or two customs stops (especially by only a few hours a day). Greece has a lot of its trade by shipping lines etc.

  • Comment number 3.

    Brilliant piece of analysis.

  • Comment number 4.

    To be frank, alot of how things work in Greece remind me of how things work in Wales.

    I don't think the Greeks have to worry about trying to spear the octopus - the Giant Squid has had it tentacles all over Greece for decades and its tentacles stretch from Wall Street to countries all around the world.

    The Giant Squid pays itself enormous bonuses as well!

  • Comment number 5.

    #2

    "I agree that this is a more insightful article than the usual".


    I think this is unfairly damning Paul with faint praise. I've learnt more about more in the last year or so reading these blogs than from virtually any other freely available comment and opinion. This is another splendid piece; compare and contrast with the lightweight offerings from Nick R on the mainstream political scene - goodness, I could write those.

    Keep up the great work Paul, hope you win an award

  • Comment number 6.

    For what it is worth, I think Paul's blog is the best blog on the BBC website.

    Not only is this blog a fascinating and informed account of many economic subjects - made especially fascinating as we are indeed living through the most turbulent economic time in 70 or 80 years - but, and I think this is of vital importance, the blog publishes the views of posters who often disagree with Paul's own writings or who write sometimes 'challenging' posts.

    I think the latter is especially important because, quite simply, many of the BBC's blogs, forums and messageboards 'just don't get it' - 'it' being the importance of free speech and openness on which the BBC was founded and which forms an important and vital part of our democracy.

    I actually think it is quite alarming that many of the blogs, messageboards and forums on the BBC website actively censor posts and remove posts that say minor things such as not liking such and such programme. The Fivelive messageboards, as but one example, are notorious for this and I have witnessed the most harmless, even tongue-in-cheek, posts removed within hours from there - it seems you can ring them up, go on air and be controversial, be tongue-in-cheek, state your point of view, whatever and it, quite rightly, is allowed because it is part of the free speech which is vital to us all... but it seems a complete no no if you try and do it on their part of the BBC website.

    I only highlight Fivelive as an example but they are not alone among the many BBC blogs and boards who do this. Paul's blog, as I said, is refreshingly and importantly different - and I hope it long continues.

    Right, back to the important things.

    The UK economy is stuffed.

    Prudent savers are being sacrificed to save the indebted feckless and the bankers are being rewarded for starting this entire mess in the first place. Obviously, nothing has been learned in the past 18 months and we all know what happens when we fail to learn the lessons of history - yes, bankers gets bigger bonuses and buy up all the houses in the UK! Or something like that.

  • Comment number 7.

    A very interesting insight for myself as I'm not Greek but have enjoyed visiting the country on many occasions.
    The problem does not lie 100% with the Greek government, but the lack of management of finance within the European Union. For too long the politicians and commissioners in Brussels have assumed that all economies operate like France and Germany. Strongly regulated; efficient and controlled. This is obviously not the case.
    Greece will be helped, but at what cost?
    It is certain that the Germans will not approve any measure that does not also include draconian austerity measures; neither will France, Netherlands etc.
    However that is not the point.
    The point is that it has shown how weak the European Union is at dealing with any crisis, financial or otherwise.
    Just consider how long it took the EU to persuade the member states to accept the Lisbon Treaty. Something which is fundamental to the operating structure of the whole of the EU.
    This should at least tell you something about the EU mindset of the people who supposedly run Europe from their new offices in Brussels.

  • Comment number 8.

    1 - On the money with that post.

    'Unless this is now yesterdays news and the BBCs focus will turn to the next country, bank, company in crisis :-))'

    Mexico may fail, US food price's soar, London's metals exchange shuts down and Russia cuts off gas to Eastern Europe.

    Also agree that Paul is one of the Beebs best.

  • Comment number 9.

    Nice article. I can tell you this: We, the Dutch, won't pay for a bailout of a corrupt nation. Actually our parliament already voted unanimously against sending any Euro to Greece. So I guess, since the money has to come from Northern Europe and Germany won't pay as well, Greece can only choose between an IMF bailout and .. ?

  • Comment number 10.

    The European Central Bank will eventually HAVE to bail out Greece. It can say what it likes it will have to do it to stabalise the Euro and whole financial system. The Greek governments measures will fail pushing Greece further into recession and possibly terrible civil unrest.

    Over 6 years ago I argued with many relatives and strangers in Athens
    that they were heading for hell unless they looked back to their ancient past and learnt.

  • Comment number 11.

    9 Thomas : -

    You - the Dutch - have been paying for Greece and the other PIIGS for 30 odd years now. Don't worry, us Brits have as well.

    In those years an awful lot of politicians and their business associates across the Southern Med EU countries have become very rich - usually from various EU QUANGO jobs after leaving office. Nice work if you can get it.

    Interesting to learn about the Dutch Parliament voting against any Greek bail-out though - maybe the EU gravy train is grinding to a halt?

  • Comment number 12.

    So we won't be returning the Elgin Marbles quite so soon then?

  • Comment number 13.

    One of your best Paul, a compelling mix of hard economics and the common touch which enables you to report on the often missed human side to all this. Most journalists seem to rely exclusively on sources within some dry statistical institution or think tank to regurgitate some leveraged view or other.

    What you produce is what journalism should be and has quite a lot creative flow in their bridging the gap between dry economics and human lives.







  • Comment number 14.

    We have not heard much about the audit non-approval of EU accounts for some time. Doesn't this latest debacle reinforce the need to establish proper oversight of all EU financing and fiscal arrangements? We may well deplore the financial accounts of 'lesser' nations but ought to prove ourselves to be above reproach to have credibility.

  • Comment number 15.

    Before you all get too carried away, no matter how good a journalist is, someone who writes about economics needs to have a thorough understanding of how capitalism works.

    Capitalism, humanity's latest (unconcious) way of reproducing society is very complicated to understand; the surface appearances are got what they seem.

    Just because the sun appears to orbit the earth doesn't mean that it does.

    Paul may have studied economics but economists went off on the wrong track 150 years ago by basing their theories upon a subjectivist interpretation of value.
    Hence their inability to explain economic crises without resorting to 'animal spirits' & the like.

    The current crisis in Greece is but another example of the underlying crisis in profitability, just as the bank crisis was.
    To understand the crisis in profitability requires an objective basis for value.

  • Comment number 16.

    'And you know what? The rest of us loved it. North Europeans flocked there on our holidays; we paid cash in the restaurants and never asked for a receipt; we rode Greek mopeds, helmetless and in flip flop sandals.'
    What are you saying here; that because someone went on holiday to Greece we were part of the problem? Explain.

  • Comment number 17.

    Why when their government is so corrupt, not providing essential services, etc do they lean left (more powerful government)? Same thing happens in South America. I just never get that.

  • Comment number 18.

    "The political system is more or less totally patronage-based - you win, you sack your enemies and bring in your mates to work for you."

    As many readers obviously don't know what this means in Greece, let me explain how it's related to the problems, if not its only one.

    Fact one: Greek politicians have been hiring "mates" in the public sector for about 30 years.

    Fact two: Public servants in Greece cannot be fired. By constitutional law. They are there for life.

    Result: An overcrowded public sector. Greece has about 3 times more public servants than France. Greek state TV, with 3 or so channels that nobody watches has about 5500. To compare, BBC permanent staff should be less than 1000.

    Figures are really difficult to calculate but staff in the immediate public sectors and state companies (with permanent job status ) should be around 1.5 million...

    It doesn't matter that Greek public servants are generally paid better than private employees. This absurdity has gotten to the point that even if their pay is cut not by 10% but by 50% it will still be an unsustainable system. These people need to be let go.

    The question has been lingering unanswered and untouched here for many years. Constitutional ammendment is required, which is a very lengthy process. But the single most important factor is the political cost of losing 1.5 million voters in next elections (forget percentages and population numbers - last government was elected by about 2.5 million votes).

    It appears that everyone in Greece is somehow at one or other tentacle of the octopus...

  • Comment number 19.

    @ wetshaves: just about every country failed to account properly for the EU funds that were distributed to them - including the UK. The problem is that the EU auditors aren't allowed to investigate within national areas of competence, such as distributing and accounting for EU funds.

    @ jules_london: how many of us are prepared to pay cash in hand for a job so as to avoid paying VAT? And, when you go to Greece (or wherever) and pay cash, no receipt, although you may be "charged" VAT, guess what? Neither that nor the sale will be declared by the restaurant to the relevant tax authorities. In the first case (cash in hand) you're knowingly aiding tax evasion (an offence); in the second you're an unsuspecting dupe (ie a tourist). But now Paul's put you wise to it, you'll pay by card in future, so the restaurant bill will have to be declared?

  • Comment number 20.

    # 17 : "Why when their government is so corrupt, not providing essential services, etc do they lean left (more powerful government)? "

    It is because the people primarily blame the wealthy few for corrupting the government (in order to make more profit and avoid taxes) and believe that a revolutionary left government with the power to "take" the money from the wealthy and "give" it to the poor would be the solution.

    Little do the know that the wealthy can always hide their money elsewhere where it can't be touched (taking away a lot of the jobs the they give to the people) and that any home grown government official would abuse their power to their benefit some way or another.

    # 18 : "This absurdity has gotten to the point that even if their pay is cut not by 10% but by 50% it will still be an unsustainable system. These people need to be let go."

    Indeed ... I would like to second that! The current measures being presented by the Greek government (reduce public sector salaries and increase indirect taxes) are realistic, but not the fundamental reform required to tackle the heart of the problem.
    The real problems are:
    1- the number of people working at the public sector ... not their salaries
    2- the number of people that are not paying the appropriate direct taxes ... not the level of the taxation

    And the only way to address those is with radical reform of the constitution and the tax collection system (which will not happen unless someone else - from the outside - somehow applies the pressure to enforce it)

  • Comment number 21.

    Thanks to all who have commented. And thanks to all who expressed support for the blog's distinct style.

    #1 I will get back to you. Email me on paul.mason.01@bbc.co.uk

    #2 I only wrote what the Greek researcher told me! It's 75% of trade with the Balkans, not the whole of Greece, ie the road trade. Maybe this only persisted for a few days but it's what my Athenian researcher came up with.

    #15 I am happy to state I have never studied mainstream economics. I am just a journalist. I actually agree with what I think you are getting at - ie the labour theory of value that was pioneered by David Ricardo and Adam Smith and honed by Marx. I don't think this crisis can be explained simply using the "crisis of profitability" theory. The email's above if you want to discuss further.

    Cheers to all. Covering inflation tonight. Paul

  • Comment number 22.

    What a mess! And to think I was oblivious to all this when tucked away in chic little traffic free Loutro a couple of years ago. What I say to the Greeks give two fingers to hard nose anal northern Europeans, make a drachma out of a crisis and get out of the Euro, devalue by 50% take control of the economy protect the poor, borrow from the IMF (or anyone) start a programme of public works to mop up youth unemployment, employ redundant/retiring HMRC staff to cheat proof the taxation system with swingeing penalties for abuse, fleece the tourists especially the teutons.

  • Comment number 23.

    A fairly well balanced article.
    The banality of "crisis is an opportunity" might stand true,adding only "last opportunity", for at least the foreseeable future.
    I think the people are not prepared to accept the harsh measures needed to be taken & as it has developed mithridatism to the political system's corruption & ineptitude,will joyfully jump off the cliff,led by the local demagogues, blaming everybody but themselves.
    But out of this crisis an other major issue arises, the apparent weakness of EU institutions to forestall such ill practices by national governments.The adaption of common fiscal rules among other things & the strengthening of EU institutions is the only appropriate answer to the subtle & not so subtle constant attacks & undermining EU has to face by these powers that only have to lose as Europe takes its well deserved place in the world.

    As for the fifth columnists, that great European Charles de Gaulle has been proved once more right...

  • Comment number 24.

    Crikey, Mervyn was careful with his words in his letter to the treasury, 'more likely than not of getting back below the target by year end'...that would be 51% chance v 49% chance then...hardly encouraging of optimism amongst the striking curators at the national gallery with a 1% pay rise coming off the back of 4% rise in transport costs to get to work.

    The slow motion economic car crash continues unabated. I suppose the pattern is quite predictable, poorly governed nations like greece would suffer first and slowly suck in the more stable ones one by one as they try to support them becuase they are 'too big to fail' Banking sector debt swap for crushing sovereign debt starts its long drawn out but ineviatable sequence of progressive collapse.

    The world can not 'grow' anymore, comodities prices are predicted to accelerate away again in 2010 as the world stubbonly tries to grow while still being close to the buffers of reliable extractable non-renewable resources in stable political areas....copper, steel, energy hungry aluminium rare earth elements, Oil......where will that leave mervs predictions when our imported raw material hit double digit inflation.

    As i have said before, the best we can do is go hell for leather to use the remaining energy of the 'eternal growth economic model' to transform it into a throughput economic model over the comming decades. It can still be done, but nobody is even talking about it, everybody seems to be fretting about how to restore growth in the context of a planet with finite resources but massive capacity to consume them via mechanisation and modern technology.

    In generations to come they will look back upon us and scratch their heads in bewilderment at how we can simultaneously be so clever as bourne out by the recent high technology boom and yet so stupid as to be accepting of something as fundamentally completely and utterly flawed as a global economic model founded on a requirement for perpetual growth driven by consumption of things which are finite.

    It is fine when the population is a couple of billion, but any first year evolutionary biology student will tell you about natures mechanisms for ensuring a population can not consume beyond its eco-systems limits. we are no different, we are part of nature. it is not about Co2 it is all about sustainability.

    It's just so outrageously dumb satirists in the 22nd century will be milking this one for decades. Monty python could not come up with a more bizare collective delusion as the one the world functions by.

    Rant over.



  • Comment number 25.

    Thanks to Jericoa for this most apt description of our situation "The slow motion economic car crash continues"!

    #15 Duvinrouge

    I've now almost finished David Harvey's Limits to Capital. It is eerie to read a book that was written in the late 70s, describe the intricate strategies of the power elite. It is clear that capitalism has over accumulated, mainly in the form of debts (see Steve Keen's blog). The current policy reaction to this crisis is to try and stave off a deflation by inflating the money supply - this just helps those people who have been lending the money.

    His latest book is even more eerie:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PkWWMOzNNrQ

    Class warfare since the 1970s! This is consistent with many mainstream pieces:

    1) The Haldane article "Banking on the State" that Paul linked to a few weeks back
    2) The PBS film "Commanding Heights" a powerful history of 20th history told through ecomomic theory and practice
    3) IMF man Simon Johnson's "A Quiet Coup" on how the banks have "captured" the state

    Since the 1970s Capitalism struggled to grow in the true wealth creation sense. As Soddy once warned us "real wealth rots and rusts, whilst debts grow exponentially".

    What has been happening for the last 40 years or so is a stagnation of REAL wealth, but a ballooning of debt "claims" on wealth. This has actually led to covert class wealth transfer (consolidation in the hands of the few) not wealth creation.

    The Chicago boys sold us a lemon.

  • Comment number 26.

    your figure "retirement age of 48 years old" is wrong. It is 58. They are proposing a raise by 2 years.

  • Comment number 27.

    #25 Hawkeye_Pierce

    Glad to see you have made your way through Harvey's book.
    I like the way he build's upon Marx's 'first-cut' at crisis theory, with a second & third cut.

    A fascinating time to be alive!

  • Comment number 28.

    Check out the financial situation of these states :

    California, Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Illinois, and Pennsylvania

  • Comment number 29.

    excellent piece, Paul and worthy of NN tradition of balanced reporting after the war in fact just before the end Churchill could see Greece going left with the Communists and the partisans going to be a real headache for whatever government was in place after the war so in went the spooks, took out the best of the party and the rest is history but through it all the Greeks have maintained real tradition of democracy that would put ours to shame. When the Generals were in power in the seventies I was taken by local Greeks and shown where the SS had executed partisans against a wall and I was left in doubt of what the Greeks thought of Western 'democracy' the same hostilty is their attitude to Euro economics and their yearning for the Drachma. Greece may be the first domino to fall, but they won't be the last and no austerity measures will change the Greek outlook to economics, it's a bit like.....'let 'em try and get it'

  • Comment number 30.

    Greece is only the beginning of the fall of the Euro.

    Your article is an insight of only one country but what is going on in Eastern Europe and indeed the rest of Europe? Now we have signed the Lisbon Treaty it seems to me that we are so far integrated but kept so much in ignorance.

    Everyday we have Obama this and Obama that but very little is broadcast on what is happening on our own doorstep in the rest of Europe. How many expats are returning to Britain for example? And why?

    It's alright for faceless bureacrats to tell a country it has to have an austerity package but it is the people at the end of the day who either accept it or reject it.

    No longer do we have the militant unions stirring up the strife but we do have an even more powerful medium that everyone can lock into to when it all becomes too much. The internet.

    You are doing such a good job but it seems to me that we need far more reporting on something that could affect the whole of Europe in a very detrimental way.

    Is Euroland really too big to fail? I don't think so.

    Bye Bye HSBC. Gone to Asia.

  • Comment number 31.

    The cargo terminal was privatised under the previous government. The holding company is registered in Bermuda and is a 50/50 JV between Cosco and private investors. They believe the new owners have been given "colonial style tax exemptions" and fear they will bring in new men on reduced conditions once a new terminal is built next door.

    writes Paul Mason

    This event has already ocurred in the building trades, in agriculture and in many parts of the public service eg public works. Greek labour was replaced by globalised labour at minimum wages. The Greek state was told to invest heavily into the Balkan ex-communist states and they are collapsing. Investments are falling big time from this and the repercussions are immense for the whole of the region.

    An exit of Greece from the EURO back to the drachma will have immense repercussions. Staying in the EURO will lead to bankruptcy unless the remaining public sector chooses to work on 25-30 Euros a day like in the private sector. Either which way, 30 years of the EU led to bankruptcy.
    All the political parties are committed to the EU none seek an exit from it or demand Greece leaves. But Greece cannot survive within the EU. A return to a national economy, national production and away from debt-induced Goldman Sachs bondage is the only solution.

  • Comment number 32.

    Does George Soros have any responsibility in all this?

  • Comment number 33.

    Great report on Newsnight - I like the way you get into the Greek pysche and explain that effectively. Not sure of your complicity point but agree that questions must now be asked. Greece joined the Euro without meeting the entry criteria - its gross debt was over 100% of GDP. Isnt the lesson here that too much emphasis was placed on the politics of expanding the eurozone to persuade the opt-out countries to jump on to the euro merry-go-round. Loads of central bank policy wonks all beavering away at the technicalities of merging central banks with the ECB - payment systems-conversion rates etc etc.Not enough serious attention paid to the fundamentals as to how an entrant country reliably conducts its fiscal business - you know, the hard bit.

    We shouldnt be complacent by any stretch. Excessive Deficit Procedures have been issued against the UK. Notice how audit has crept in to the priority for our national accounting. Ecofin is worried about our off balance sheet PFIs etc. The effects of an ever ageing population on our fiscal position needs more serious attention. All too easy is it for lip service to be paid to warnings from Europe. Its as if the bond markets have to deliver the pain before countries wake up.

    Its an irony that Germany could be regarded as the potential economic agressor now in Greece. Remember the Delors Report and the Mitterand / French anxiety of bringing Germany into the euro so that its power could be democratised across the euroland. I read Stephanie joining a chorus of criticism that Germany are at fault because they cause economic imbalances by exporting, saving and not increasing their home demand.

    If I were a German, I'd be feeling a bit miffed at this stuff - damned either way.

  • Comment number 34.

    Can't be bothered to read a load of boring economic texts, then how about a simple 2 page parable ?

    http://www.michaeljournal.org/myth.htm

    Unfortunately the for michael, his proposed solution deconstructs too !

  • Comment number 35.

    #34

    hmmm...checked out the link, raising awareness of the faults of the existing system is only part of the answer though.

    You have to come up with a compelling, attractive and realistic alternative to the current system, do it, demonstrate it works (people are happier, the quantum of suffereing is reduced), the rest will follow.

  • Comment number 36.

    As with all debts when the baillifs come knocking on the door they choose
    the best items to sell off. Greece has much needed land, many islands and a seafaring population with a tradition of spearing octupuses. This economic tragedy will mirror but not repeat directly what happened last time the gold vaults were looted in 1941 by northern europeans who are now being sold as the ...saviours of the crisis.

    The expansion project of the EU died with the repeated votes for the Lisbon Treaty, its epitaph was written with the Greek Euro crisis. When the only show on the road is austerity, austerity and austerity whilst the City sharks make millions, the new depression will lead to a social explosion. The economic measures required to serve mammon imply economic harakiri for the population and a break up of the country Yugoslavia style. Containing it within the Balkans will be the next big issue. It will be difficult indeed almost impossible as the EU-NATO forces cant even put down the fires in Afghanistan.

  • Comment number 37.

    'He described the education system as "like yours 50 years ago" - beset by bureaucracy and tradition, susceptible to graft and - at the end of it - leaving you with a degree but no possibility of employment.

    Instead of "the octopus" the students talked of global capitalism - they tend to see the main cause of the crisis as Wall Street banks and foreign powers, against which the local system of graft and mis-measurement is just a symptom.'


    It seems the Greek students interviewed were not very bright (see Australian OECD PISA site for confirmation)?

    Social-Democrats were once termed social-fascists by true socialists/statists. They are not really socialists at all in fact, just libertarians. Wolves in sheeps' clothing. Still, since when have most European people cared? They've 'paid cash in the restaurants and never asked for a receipt; .. rode Greek mopeds, helmetless and in flip flop sandals..... revelled in the nightlife where there are no measuring taps on the spirit bottles and where - as Damon Runyon once said of Las Vegas - "everyone has nice teeth and no last names".

    Is it any wonder 'Our finest statisticians - from cold, humourless Brussels no less - failed to spot the systematic mis-reporting of fiscal deficits.' ? After all, they're social-democrats aren't they? 'Libertarians'................

  • Comment number 38.

    And so it will come that the GAiant Squid will inherit the Earth.

    Yes Jeremy, it is gobsmacking.

    Yes Jeremy, we are powerless... powerless drones in the Giant Squid's collective. Resistance is indeed futile.

  • Comment number 39.

    Paxman had a studio guest on last night who 'made the case' for the 'investment bank-government merry-go-round'. The sort of person who would have no problem arguing that putting rattlesnakes down one's pants might have the merit of keeping one on one's toes no doubt.

    Such people never seem to grasp the bigger picture - perhaps because it's beyond them and their interests? They 'get on' just great in the liberal-democracies', mind. They foment liberal-democracy, anything else is 'evil'.

    Err...they're Satanists, basically.

  • Comment number 40.

    In the past 3 months the Greeks have withdrawn 8 billion in cash from Greek banks - a quarter of the cash deposits in Greece - out of fear that they will be unable to get their hands on their cash or that it will be prohibitively taxed.

    Sounds like a bank run to me.

    The depression is yet to come.

  • Comment number 41.

    Paul,

    Great piece about Goldman on Monday. Would be good to see a blog post on this topic, as this story could run, especially if Neil Barofsky's investigations expose the "liars loans" and control fraud:

    "Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, who delivered a report on the AIG bailout in November, says he's not finished."

    http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=ax3yON_uNe7I

    Could he be the new William K Black?

    http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/04032009/watch.html

    As we should all know by now: "The best way to rob a bank is to own one"

  • Comment number 42.

    "Nobody likes the sort of briefing that goes on," Mr Darling said, "the forces of hell were unleashed".

    The Telegraph 24 February 2010

    There you go, Satanists! ;-)

  • Comment number 43.

    Re Darling's comments - some of these boys need to get a sense of perspective.

    If they lived and worked in the real world most of them would quickly realise that their traumas are minute compared to most.

    I had a bacon sarnie this morning but had run out of ketchup - the forces of hell were obviously working against me and now my 2010 is ruined!

    Get a life Alastair!

  • Comment number 44.

    tawse57 (#43) You don't think he might be saying:

    Hey look, my boss isn't the wuss that Morgan made out. He's actually very scary - a real bully! Look, he unleashed the forces of hell on me, and I didn't mind a bit! 'It was the right thing to do!'

    Hear ye hear ye!....Get your hell hounds here - Number 10, get your hell hounds from here!

    Don't mess with Number 10! Forces of hell...

  • Comment number 45.

    Statist (#44)

    The only person who would think like that probably would dress up in a rubber gimp suit of the weekend.

    If that is what he is trying to convey then it has back-fired and shows how poorly this Govt calculates.

    Darling's comments at best shows a schism at the heart of Govt and, at worst, perpetuates the stories about Brown being a bully.

  • Comment number 46.

    45. tawse57 'If that is what he is trying to convey then it has back-fired and shows how poorly this Govt calculates.'

    Have you noticed anything odd about the economy?

  • Comment number 47.

    LOL Statist - I believe the economy is well and truly busted and that is the politest way I can describe it!

    Don't worry, as long as there is one banker left in London making a billion Pound bonus each year then I am sure everything will turn out just fine.

  • Comment number 48.

    #27 Duvinrouge

    "A fascinating time to be alive!"

    That's one way of putting it. Question: what do a Republican Congressman from Texas, and a former Cambridge comedian turned eco-activist have in common?

    http://www.lewrockwell.com/paul/paul303.html

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQhhrzHKMhI

    Seems they are also broadly in keeping with Loren Goldner, are they not?

    Petroeuro anyone?

  • Comment number 49.

    Postcript to #48

    Is the Euro getting a damn good kicking for daring to topple the petrodollar? Funny, just prior to the Iraq invasion, the Euro was on a roll:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2003/feb/23/oilandpetrol.theeuro

  • Comment number 50.

    49. Hawkeye_Pierce - Hmmmm so this is why the Great Squid of NYC is tightening its grip on 'The Axis of Weasels'?

    Thanks.

  • Comment number 51.

    #50 Statist

    That's right. Think of GS as a bit like Mossad, a covert operation that can perform "hits" in other countries, totally under the radar. It has cunningly been appearing as friendly to its marks, but has in fact been spending decades identifying (& exploiting) their weaknesses.

  • Comment number 52.

    #48 Hawkeye_Pierce

    I've read the first link.
    Much of what Ron Paul says I'm sure Loren Goldner would agree with.
    But he clearly hasn't read anything by Loren, or if he has he's totally failed to grasped the key point - capitalism has had to resort to fictitious capital (such as fiat money) because the objective limits of capitalism (as predicted by Rosa Luxemburg) are now being hit.
    In otherwords, capitalism has always relied upon looting - free inputs into the circuit of capital - to grow.
    Primitive accumulation in the form of agarian revolutions - throwing peasants into the factories - are coming to an end.

    Harvey too talks much about looting by he calls it 'accumulation by dispossession'.
    He emphasises the importance of struggles against dispossession - land rights, pensions, health care, benefits, ecological damage, etc.

    Capitalism has to resort to debasement of currencies - of which the dollar is far & away the most significant - to live another day.
    But it's getting harder & harder to buy time.

    Capitalism's great Ponzi scheme looks like it's coming to an end.

    Let's hope we the people of the world can take collective control of our destiny & live much more in harmony with the natural world in the future.

    I look forward to civilisation.

  • Comment number 53.

    52. duvinrouge 'the objective limits of capitalism (as predicted by Rosa Luxemburg) are now being hit.'

    There are good 'communists' and bad 'communists'. Rosa was one of the bad 'communists' (much like Ayn Rand and the rest of the wicked NYC squid club if you look into it). The good 'communists' were statists like Joseph Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt, Sidney Webb, Benito Mussolini (even Adolf Hitler) and Michael Young here who drafted the 1945 Labour manifesto.

    I know we aren't allowed to say Mussolini or Hitler were good guys, but they truly cared about their people, and were arch enemies of naked capitalism. They really did are about their people, but the bad 'communists' (anarchists, i.e free-marketeer neocons) are now in power in the liberal democracies and have done a very good snow-job on history. Really. Things will just get worse and worse as a consequence. We migt look to China as an alternative. After all, they are Stalinist too. Do they do awful things to their people, or are they like Cuba?

    Hmmmmmmm... reality, it's so hard to grasp.

    PS. Communist = public ownership of means of production, exchange and communication. Workers = all the people who make their living from work, not from capital (capitalists= enemies of the people, i.e criminals).

    Examples of public ownership in UK :Gas Board, Coal Board, BOAC, PO. BBC, NHS etc in the past.

    Soviets = councils. Read the Webb's big book....

  • Comment number 54.

    #53

    Not you again!
    Reports of your death were premature!!

  • Comment number 55.

    So, is it true that Brown is going to announce the election at the Welsh Labour Confence in Swansea on Sunday - just after Cameron makes his speech in Brighton?

    Seems to be a lot of satellite trucks around the conference setting in Swansea. What a great weekend for Brown - UK economy makes a miraculously minute recovery, 0.3%, on a Friday, off to Swansea for an ice cream on the prom and calling the election on the Sunday, then off to see the Queen on the Monday or Tuesday.

    Oh, could such things be true?

  • Comment number 56.

    54. duvinrouge Care to explain that? What is wrong with what I posted?

  • Comment number 57.

    Watch out for the return of double digit commodity inflation and commodity price volatility as the next process along the path as the current economic system continues to eat its own tail to sustain itself.

  • Comment number 58.

    Why Greece, Why Now?
    http://www.neurope.eu/articles/98933.php

    California is a greater risk than Greece, warns JP Morgan chief
    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

    After the EURO and £ we get One World Currency? IMF Chief...
    http://rawstory.com/2010/02/imf-chief-pushes-power-worlds-stage/

  • Comment number 59.

    Paul,

    As the polls turn against the tories and the money markets start to re-assess their position on sterling and our sovereign debt as a result it must be worth robustly re-visiting an earlier point you made. Something on the lines of labour taking credit for the markets relative stability when in fact the markets were responding well in advance in anticipation of a tory government and tight ' greek like' fiscal policy along with it.

    It should be a good line of questioning for Jeremy to get labour to explain why the markets are responding negatively as the prospect of labour becomes more positive?


    I dont hold out much hope for any meaningful outcome from that of course, but one can only try. Otherwise may as well become a monk and live on a mountain dis-enagaged and looking down upon the whole bizarre spectacle of humanity at the moment with a sense of amazement and mild amusement as one would with some form of performing court Jester complete with silly hat, comedy rattle, giant elongaged curly comedy shoes.

    Increasingly I am inclined to just smile, shake my head then go and plant a few potatoes or something then watch the sunset.



  • Comment number 60.

    Costas

    Yes, the Euro is certainly under a lot of pressure.

    Whichever currency is used for oil trade gets a major free lunch. As I said earlier (#49), I don't think there's room in this town for two currencies to fight over oil (follow the link to Rob Newman's History of Oil in post #48, skip to 6/9 and 7/9 for eye opening piece on the "magic chequebook").

    The US has two ways of stopping the petroeuro. Invade the countries that dare sell in Euros (Iraq, Iran etc.) or bring down the currency. I guess that if the Euro has a serious breakdown soon, then perhaps the rhetoric against Iran will severely subside!

    As for SDRs, these will not work unless Oil gets priced in them. This may never happen. The US has its economic equivalent of the CIA (in the form of GS) to take out any pretenders to the crown. They wouldn't want to share out the magic chequebook with the other currencies in the SDR basket.

    The only thing that could stop the US from its blatant milking of the petrodollar is for a Chinese led coup for a more robust trading currency. If they have any sense they will insist on a structure of SDR that is both an international reserve currency for settling balance of payments and (more importantly) for settling the purchase of oil, ultimately with some form of tangible backing such as Gold. From the fantasy era of the petrodollar to the austere era of petrogold.

    Hang on to your hats its going to be a bumpy ride these next few years!

  • Comment number 61.

    #59 Jericoa and Paul

    Before you exit to the vegetable patch or disappear up the mountain, have a read of CentreForum's - Giles Wilkes- analysis of QE and why it needs to be re-targeted and rebooted. It might motivate Paul and others to ask some searching questions of the politicians who have fallen to sleep on the job, preferring to leave this difficult stuff to central bankers and the City. Remember, this stimulus was the big idea to get the real economy going.

  • Comment number 62.

    59. jericoa 'Otherwise may as well become a monk and live on a mountain dis-enagaged and looking down upon the whole bizarre spectacle of humanity at the moment with a sense of amazement and mild amusement as one would with some form of performing court Jester complete with silly hat, comedy rattle, giant elongaged curly comedy shoes.

    Increasingly I am inclined to just smile, shake my head then go and plant a few potatoes or something then watch the sunset.'

    Like many many others I reckon.....

    Wasn't the original 'argument' for the markets being left to determine value essentially a capitulation to the impossibility of anyone rationally analysing, predicting and managing/governingbthe way economies would run given a) the number of variables involved b) their non-linearities and c) that we live in a global community where natinal governments can have little control unless they put up (and maintain) Iron/Bamboo curtains?

    That being said, surely it can't be good for lots of us to be ever more dumbing down, and giving up on everything else too?

  • Comment number 63.

    #61

    ''preferring to leave this difficult stuff to central bankers and the City''

    I enjoyed the paradox in your posting, I found my 'self' (there goes the monk in me again) simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with it.

    I agree politicians have given up on governance and have simply become slaves to the outputs of focus groups and opinion polls, staggering around like drunks on a popularity public opinion crawl.

    I disagree with the implication that the markets are performing some form of difficult task..they are simply parasitically taking advantage of the leadership vacuum to make outrageous fortunes for themselves outside of any sense of greater social responsibility.

    I would like to think that a huge chunk of salaries and bonuses in the city get directed towards various charitable foundations and not for profit scientific research like a great unsung philonthropic movement for the greater good. After all you can only eat one breakfast a day, there is a limit to the benefit of the human experience wealth provides an individual with beyond a certain level.

  • Comment number 64.

    63. jericoa 'I would like to think that a huge chunk of salaries and bonuses in the city get directed towards various charitable foundations and not for profit scientific research like a great unsung philonthropic movement for the greater good.'

    Such counterfactual conditionals make one's head spin, which is the only reason why most people indulge in them I sadly suggest. We'd all like to think stuff - the hard (and unpleasant) thing to do is to stick with what is. The trouble is, most people don't like reading/hearing/thinking such stuff stuff or those who produce it. It's just not what dreams are made of, and the media, at root, is just a dream machine.

  • Comment number 65.

    I am Greek citizen thus I know that many Greeks were living beyond their financial capabilities, thanks to EU's money, thus I find quite reasonable that many EU countries complain.

    I hope that the average Greek will learn that he can not live like that for ever.

 

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