Three things to keep in mind

Dear Greeks,

I, truly nobody in particular, am writing this short letter to share a few personal thoughts with you as you?re going through these very, very tough times. I?m a fellow European that has lived away from our old continent for many years now. Being away, I have lost track of what was going on, so I can?t say I understand what is happening, but the sight of our current continental problems, of which the Greek economic crisis is only one part, that sight is not pretty from afar. Whether in letting problems fester or in searching for near-solutions, Europe looks like a place where people and politicians babble a lot, complain most of the way, and only take half-actions very slowly. Aristotle must be turning in his grave: all this talking before thinking, all this passing judgement before using reason, all this arguing for so little motion.

But Aristotle must have been turning in his grave many times, including about the Greek economic management of the last decades. He was never a great economist, but he would tell you that your current economic problems are not an accident that just happened to you, or was imported from abroad. For too many years, too many bad decisions were made and too many good ones were not, by your politicians but mostly, in fact mainly, by too many of you. In a country where a large fraction of people pay too little taxes for the bad services and a few handouts their elected government ends up failing to give them, and nobody takes on that system, not to destroy it but to improve it, well, in such a country, you are all, collectively, democratically, responsible. It is of course very easy and very tempting to find someone to blame for your problems — PASOK, the banks, the European Central Bank, the Papandreou governments, the Germans and the IMF — but the blame game is not a game that anybody ever wins. Whatever it will take to get you out of this mess, it will be difficult, it won?t be fast and it will be yours to do. But you?ll get there, and anyway, your problems are not what I wanted to talk to you about. I wanted to tell you to get on with the job, and in doing so, remember three things you have going for you.

The first thing going for you is that you are Greece. Not just Greece the beautiful tourism corner of Europe, or the Greece of (Brussels?) Caratheodory, or (Freiburg?s) Kazantzakis, or (Paris?) Theodorakis. It?s Greece, 2,500 years of it. You should be reminded of this: for a true European like me, when traveling the world, outside the wiggly borders of that small pseudo-continent where everybody seems to believe that his or her country is so much better than the others, it?s still a source of personal pride that, if one is a true European, one is also a bit Greek. Keep that in mind.

The second thing going for you is an economic fact that is not obvious these days: that your potential GDP is much higher than your actual GDP. If that was not the case, you?d be in a much messier place than you now are. Of course at that higher potential GDP, not only more people work, but people work harder, so don?t think it will be vacation time. But you can get there, so if you can just agree to pay now, all of you, more than you want to, though not more than you need to, for getting in motion from actual to potential, you will get your money back and much more: a better society where problems are solved by not ignoring them. If you make that choice, the payoff will come soon, even if soon is not tomorrow or next year, but it will come. Keep that in mind.

And then, the third thing going for you, is that you have Lucas Papademos. I don’t know him personally, and probably never will, but here is what I know about him. Here is a man who clearly didn?t need any of this. He could have enjoyed his time away from your problems. He had already earned a full life of intellectual enjoyment and personal achievement. A citizen of the world, welcome in the places he likes, he could have looked at Greece from afar. But some time ago, he must have decided that he wasn?t going to let his country sink, and he must have felt that he could use a bit of his lifelong learning as an economist and his professorial tolerance for other people?s mistakes. So let me tell you this: you need to tell your kids to go do their homework rather than burn tyres and foreign flags, and the rest of you to argue a little less and listen a little better when Lucas Papademos speaks. Keep that in mind.

Alan Zable