Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mark Sargent

LETTER FROM GREECE #27: To the barricades

I heard from my friend, Dr. Robert Brandes, who relentlessly travels Eastern Europe and the Balkans talking to and buying from organic farmers.  He lived for years in Greece, is a frequent visitor and an astute observer of the country.  He’s talking tough love.     

Kalimera Mark!

Thanks once more for your interesting view on Greek affairs unfolding…

Great that Syriza has won! Probably the best among several terrible choices…at least politics in Europe become more interesting by this result. Also, Syriza seems to have an interesting coalition partner ;-) ?

Allow me to give you my perspective on the events:
a)      General: last week I was in Serbia. This is a place in crisis. Greece is a RICH country. So, my opinion is: Greeks shut up and deal with your problems! Stop howling like old women and CHANGE! You know, I am a REAL Philhellene. But, traveling through the Balkans up and down every year, mostly in rural places, my eyes see a lot of poverty, and terrible things, affecting old and young people (+ animals!) suffering from states in decay, whose citizens do not have nearly the wealth and ease of many many, probably most Greeks.
b)      Syriza: I am shocked of the totally unclever and unexperienced way of Varoufakis and Tsipras in “negotiations” with the other Euro states…..If I would negotiate in this confronting style with my suppliers and customers (being a grain trader) – we would be out of business soon. And I fear Syriza will be, too, if they keep behaving so un-clever. Very very foolish. “Sounds” good not to go to Germany first, not to speak directly with Merkel, but visit the others first (Italy, France…- who are unimportant) – great! But this is really not the key to success…
c)       I fear that Greece can change only if the mentality of the people changes. This (if possible at all) will take 2 generations. So what I fear is: many Greeks have noticed that the old parties, which in former times provided the “gifts”, are finished now….and just hop into the boat sailing under the flag of Syriza. And Syriza will NOT brake with the habit of Greece – and will provide gifts to their followers….

So, I am delighted that Syriza has won – but I am highly skeptical if this will change the situation or if the un-clever leaders will only fuck up the financial situation even more.
In my eyes, Greece needs a cut regarding the depths – and then drop out of the Euro-zone, to have the advantage of a soft currency, again (they need it because the society will take 2 generations to change and be competitive with modern societies). This will increase local and national production of goods and tourism. And block imports.

As long as the” fakelaki” in the health system is still the norm, as long as the “frontistiria” system in education continues (plus a long list of other sicknesses)– I see NO hope that the Greek society will change.
Because corruption and nepotism is “you and me” – i.e. every ordinary citizen.
If I should hear news of doctors being beaten to death for staying unactive in treating patients, because the doctors haven´t received their bribe as usual, I will become optimistic that Greece will change.
If I should hear that the wealthy people in Greece get heavily taxed and also are made to PAY these taxes, I will become optimistic, too.
But as long as this news does not reach me, I will love Greece - the way it is….and always has  been.   

I am intrigued to see how the story will go on!

Best greetings from Nuernberg!


Some explanation of terms.  ‘fakelaki’ means, literally, little envelope.  But when dealing with any government run agency, especially health care and building permits, it means bribe, something to hasten the desired outcome, and yes, cash shoved in a little envelope is the traditional method.  The ‘frontistiria’  system is, essentially, a second loosely organized private education system which most Greek students are funneled into.  Often, from sometime in late grade school, they are sent, after the regular school day, to private schools that specialize in foreign languages or hard science or history and the Greek language, etc.  Every field covered in the national examination for university entrance has frontistiria.  For this is what all this studying is about, gaining entrance into your chosen area of study or, as is often the case, the field of study that vaguely corresponds to your interests or that you believe you can gain entrance to.  These schools are not cheap and working class families scramble to afford them.  By the time the kids are in middle school they are spending several hours a day in these schools.  There is often no time for lunch, they just grab something they can eat on the way and return home at nine o’clock, sometimes later.  Essentially, the nation is supporting two school systems.  Why?  because no one trusts the public schools to prepare the students, and with good reason.  The public schools are a chaotic mess made even worse by the frontistiria.  As any public school teacher will attest, the students whose parents can afford to access the private system pay no attention in class (they’re getting it twice a day) thereby greatly diminishing chances of poor students learning anything.  This is in the countryside.  In Athens the affluent can bypass the public schools and send the little darlings to very expensive private schools where instruction is in a foreign language, usually English.  Whether Greece can afford a modern efficient school system that encourages creative thinking and innovation; okay, nevermind that, but can it prepare the students to enter the world with curiosity intact (not happening now) is up for question.  But it damn sure can’t afford two, regardless of quality.  

This lack of trust in the competency and integrity of the government permeates the society.  It is one among many reasons that all polls indicate a deep fear of the country leaving the Eurozone, because that would mean that the populace would have to depend entirely on the economic policies of the government.  And right now, though much of the country appears enthusiastic about SYRIZA’s stance towards the EU—a certain national pride that the nation is saying enough already, rather than the previous bend and spread approach—few have confidence in their ability to manage the dreaded Grexit, which would be fraught with peril.  Very good arguments can be made for Greece leaving the Eurozone but let’s face it, for the first two or three years, at least, it would only make matters far worse.  SYRIZA was elected proclaiming their desire to remain within the Eurozone.  And so, as my friend John Psarapoulos pointed out, for Greece to exit the Eurozone would require a new election.  Or perhaps a referendum?  I have no idea how that would play out, but it would be an awful hard sell for SYRIZA.  And if they ran a referendum and it was voted down, then new elections would be inevitable.                       

Allen Greenspan, that ole Ayn Rand disciple, said that he expected Greece to exit the Euro-zone by the end of the year.  The reason?  No one will want to loan Greece anymore money.  Fortunately, he has a very poor record as an economic prognosticator.    

And more, there’s really too much now to read. 

Bookmakers in the U.K. make it better than even money that Greece will leave the Eurozone.  Tsipras and Varoufakis have been talking to the big mukkamukkas of Europe the past days and will continue through Monday, but so far it doesn’t appear they are making much headway.  Those guys are hanging tough, making our lads sweat a bit, even though they wear no ties.  I assume and hope that a compromise will be worked out.  Greece will have to accept certain restrictions or programs in order to get a break, slight as it may be.  But maybe the powers that be have decided they can manage a Grexit and that the Eurozone would be better off without a Greece that refuses to bend?  It’s possible.  Many commentators have opined that a Grexit would be a disaster for the Eurozone, but we know those sorts of predictions are worthless.  Varoufakis certainly acts like he believes this or, at least, thinks he can threaten the EU with it.  But this might just be another example of Greek chauvinism, a hubris that doesn’t resonate in Brussels.

There’s an obvious problem with the European Central Bank, and that is the wide disparity of needs within the euro zone, not to mention the differences in economic approach.  The US Federal Reserve began QE (qualitative easing) in Sept of 2012, two and a half years ago while the ECB has been diddling around with half measures during the same time until now.  Although the States has more than its share of market enthusiasts, its policies have not been as near draconian as the scorched-earth austerity programs the Germans have favored.  Perhaps if John McClain had been elected in 2008 the U.S. economy might look like the E.U.?  Though really, there’s not that much difference in basic economic theory between the major parties, just like foreign policy.  Both parties in the States believe in market solutions, which means that everything is turned into shopping.  Health care is about shopping, education is about shopping or, if you will, choices:whether it’s taco chips, why not 150 varieties, or dental care or curriculum in the high school.  And both parties consider a certain amount of debt float reasonable for market adjustments.  Think not?  Just look at debt during the past Republican administrations, Bushes and Reagan.  They were very willing to take on all sorts of debt.  Mostly because they reduced revenue through tax cuts while raising spending.  Duh?  That’s not what the small government Republicans want you to believe, but that’s what they do when they have presidential power. 

Nevertheless, Obama’s pledge to lower taxes for the middle class and raise them for the rich, and I mean really rich (a couple earning over a half a million a year—note, every time Obama talks about raising taxes on the rich the threshold for this taxation climbs ever higher), illustrates the paucity of clear thinking going on in the States or rather, how the political/economic argument has been profoundly skewed by the right, financed by powerful special interests.  It’s not about taxes, it’s about wages, it’s about how much of the wealth of the nation that people creating that wealth are going to get.  The American middle class isn’t over taxed compared to the rest of the West, but they aren’t getting their share of what they produce, of the American economy.  Lowering taxes doesn’t give you more of that, it just allows you to keep a bit more of your inequitable pathetic amount.  It doesn’t challenge the whole setup.  But democratic late capitalism doesn’t have many tools at its disposal to nudge the economy besides QE and taxation.  Large public works?  Good god, you must be kidding.  So, taxes have to go up for folks earning more than say, 60 large, and dramatically higher for those in six figures.  And then you got to put that money to work.  What the hell, do American citizens really believe that the U.S. economy isn’t producing enough wealth for good healthcare, education and the like for everyone? 


Dwight Garner in the NY Times can’t decide about the poet Jorie Graham and ends his review with this: “Ms. Graham was born in New York City, was raised in Rome and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. Her occasional interest in marginal lives can’t dispel the sense these poems have of being written in rooms with very high ceilings.”

On the other hand, Cathleen Schine in the New York Review is orgasmic over Atticus Lish.  The first paragraph: “Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish, is an astounding first novel about a world so large there is, sometimes, nowhere to go; a world so small the people in it, sometimes, get lost.  The book has the boundless, epic exhilaration you expect to find only in a writer as mighty as, say, Walt Whitman.  It is a love story, a war story, a tale of New York City in which familiar streets become exotic, mysterious, portentous, foul, magnificent.  Some of it reads like poetry.  All of it moves with a breathless momentum.”   Damn, someone better change her nappy. 


In two days I’m off for Thessaloniki for weeks of pre-production on our new film, “The Wall.”  It’s a black comedy on the financial crisis, what else?  As Lorrie Moore has a character say in “A Gate at the Stairs”: “The end of comedy is the beginning of everything else.”

A New York Times editorial asks, “What would Jesus do about measles?”  Bloody hell, there’s no alternative, we’re stuck here on this planet, aren’t we?


Let’s cut to the bone.  Here in Greece we’re not mocking others’ religious beliefs or executing people for apostasy or bombing third world villages with billion dollar weapons for vague strategic reasons in an endless phantom war, no, Greece is asking: Wait a minute, why are bankers running this world?  Is the continual transfer of the wealth of societies into the hands of an elite few the inevitable paradigm of Late Capitalism?  Some would say yes, but Greece has to say no.  If the pushback begins here, so be it.  If the crunch comes and Greece is forced from the Eurozone into the chaos of a new currency, then in that crucible Greece will need to forge an unprecedented solidarity or perish as an independent nation, surviving only as a holiday colony for Northern Europe.  When that time comes there will be one place for those who believe this fraudulent process must be resisted.  To paraphrase that ole demagogue John Kennedy in his speech at the Berlin Wall: Some people say that the market is the answer, that austerity is the wave of the future.  I say, Αφήστε τους να έρθουν στην Ελλάδα[i],  let them come to Greece.  For those who value life over money, community over finance, man over mammon, let them announce that thusly: Είμαι Έλληνας[ii]I am Greek. 

10 February 2015

[i] ah-FEE-stay tous na ER-houn steen eh-LA-da
[ii] EE-may EL-ee-nas

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