My birthplace has been in the news lately—this time not for tragic plays, philosophy, or wartime gallantry, but for cheating. In cahoots with Goldman (Ali Baba) Sachs, the Greeks cooked the books, took E.U. money, and ran. Once caught, they rioted and even managed to murder a pregnant woman who—unlike the rioters—was working at her bank desk. “What is wrong with you Greeks?” asked a friend of mine. “Can’t you play by the rules?” Well, er, no, not really. Here is a brief historical background so we can understand why Greeks in general, and Greek governments in particular, cheat.
After the glorious centuries of antiquity, the Greeks became an integral part of the Eastern Roman Empire with its opulent capital, Constantinople, founded in a.d. 330 by the emperor Constantine.
Constantinople lasted until 1453, when Sultan Mehmed II and his Ottoman Turks captured and sacked the city. Four hundred years of Turkish domination followed, and with it came most of the ills that have plagued modern Greece: civil disobedience, distrust of authority, and a lack of political maturity.
Modern Greece was founded in 1830, after nine years of revolutionary struggle against the Turks. Britain, Russia, and France assisted the revolutionaries, but the new government struggled from the start. Today, 180 years later, Greece is still out there begging for money from Germany and France. Why? Greek intellectuals and historians have generally blamed the 400-year Turkish occupation for the nation’s ills. And it is a fact that, where humiliation persists through several generations, the oppressed begin—in defense of their own dignity—to imitate their oppressors. The cruelty, vindictiveness, and harshness shown by the warring political factions testify to this theory.
Mind you, the volatility of the Greek character, probably the only remaining link to the glorious past of antiquity, is another factor. The highly individualistic Greek is too self-seeking to submit easily to the dictates of others. His unruliness has helped him to survive centuries of oppression and to rise above adversity, economic or otherwise. But it has also made him unaware of the advantages of communal spirit and true democratic attitudes. There is nothing of the Swiss village-level democratic system in Greece. The Greek will vote for anyone who promises to help him screw his fellow man. It is as simple as that, however awful it may sound. The Greek will go to any lengths to attain his goals, not hesitating to lie and cheat. This has created a climate in which cheating is a way of life, and in which the highest and lowest citizens do not hesitate to use dishonesty, especially where politics are concerned.
A direct result of this way of life has been the “spoils system.” Although not a Greek invention, nowhere has it been practiced more assiduously than in Greece. Succeeding governments have shamelessly brought in their favorites, returning favors and expecting new ones, and changing laws to suit their purposes, thus encouraging resentment, divisiveness, and a “wait-until-my-turn-comes” way of thinking.
The latest crisis was inevitable. One in three Greeks works for the state, and Greece is known for having the worst civil servants in Europe, if not the civilized world. How can civil servants with a 14-month-per-year salary and a retirement age of 50 be striking as I write? Most have phantom jobs and simply collect their salaries or pensions every month. But politicians award civil-service jobs to unqualified people in order to gain votes. It is a vicious cycle that gets more vicious as time passes.
The social contract between state and citizen has never worked in Greece because it was never put into effect. The state did not fulfill its responsibilities, and the citizen, in return, went his own way in order to survive. But the Greek is sly and has survived since time immemorial. Today, he knows that the European Union pretends to be rescuing Greece but in reality is rescuing German and French banks that hold Greek bonds. While the unions are demonstrating and street fighting has broken out, expensive four-wheel-drive SUVs are choking the roads to the beach. Everyone, it seems at times, has a second home in the countryside and a flat in Athens. I just wish to warn the Americans, who are going Greek as I write: Deficits will get you nowhere except to the poorhouse.
Yet the lying persists. George Papandreou, the prime minister, came to power demanding higher wages and shorter hours for civil servants. Now he tells Thomas Friedman, a cheerleader, that the civic revolution he proposes will have an emphasis on stimulating private initiative and decreasing the incentives that focused too many Greeks on getting a lifetime government job.
Has the old socialist zebra changed its stripes? Don’t bet on it. The German cow is there to be milked by the thirsty Greeks.