Thursday, March 25, 2010


The Real Trouble with Greece

Today is Greek Independence Day, commemorating the 1821 revolution against the Ottomans. Today is also the day of the announcement of the bailout plan for Greece by the Eurozone countries. I find the coincidence fraught with meaning.

The Greeks may have gotten rid of the Ottoman sultan following the 1821 revolution but they kept a lot of the administrative and social structures of the Ottoman Empire. This was not particularly surprising because the Ottomans had adopted a large part of the Byzantine structures and those in turn go back to through the Roman Empire and the Hellenistic kingdoms to the Persian Empire. According to the historian Bernard Lewis "In the course of the millennia Middle East bureaucracies, through many changes of government, religion, culture, and even script and language, show a remarkable persistence and continuity." [The Middle East, A brief History of the last 2000 years, Touchtone, 1995, p. 182].

While modern Greeks like to tout their connection with ancient Greece that connection is at best tenuous and Greece is in essence the successor of the Byzantine state. The historian Warren Treadgold devotes much of the concluding chapter of his book on this topic [A History of the Byzantine State and Society, Stanford Univ. Press, 1997, pp. 851-853].

The biggest problem of Greece is not the budget deficit but the attitude of people who feel that they have no stake in the state and view it as an entity to be fought and defrauded like any tyrannical government. Such attitudes developed over millennia and they were probably the correct response to the Byzantine despots and the Ottoman sultans who succeeded them. In turn those in power (regardless of political party) treat the citizens with disdain and corruption and favoritism are rife.

A few years I got in touch with a former classmate from my high school that was also living in the United States. We had attended an elite high school with only 30 students per class. He had kept track of our class and we found out that more than a quarter of our classmates were in the United States or Western Europe. Students at that school had either to be very good to be admitted or have strong connections (or both). Of course that was not the official policy, only the policy in effect! If I count the people who deserved to be in the school the fraction that emigrated is closer to half. This is only a small sample of a large Greek phenomenon: significant emigration of highly educated people because of their frustration with the infamous "Greek reality". There is also a long list of people who tried to go back but were kicked out. One of them is a famous Greek computer scientist who is now a professor at one of the top U.S. universities who did go back to Greece at one time but then he was fired.

I have often tried to summarize the difference between Greece (and other countries of that region) and the West in the following way. In the West connections are used as the tiebreaker when two people have the same qualifications. In Greece qualifications are the tiebreaker when people have equally strong connections.

In conclusion, the Greek budget woes are only a symptom of a far more serious disease.

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