Please please me

We all agree that people often get the governments they deserve. But sometimes this is a case of blaming the victim. Sometimes, the government does not fully reflect the will of the people. This may occur in a democracy like the United States, where fewer people voted for George Bush than they did for Al Gore, and yet Bush has shaped the American agenda as if he had been given a mandate to forge another country – or one like France, in which Jacques Chirac’s landslide in the presidential election was the result of crazy electoral pinball after a strong showing by the extreme right wiped out the center left and sent French democrats to the barricades in support of the system against this dangerous new foe. It often occurs in dictatorships, and no one can say the Cambodians deserved Pol Pot or the Iraqis Saddam Hussein (though the latter does have his admirers, albeit mostly outside Iraq). But what can one say when the people themselves behave as if their ideal form of government is one which serves only the selfish interests of individual groups rather than the communal whole, in which they can demand all their rights but select their obligations a la carte (if they cannot avoid them altogether)? Which brings us, of course, to Greece. We have to conclude that for a large number of Greeks, if not the majority, the only good government is no government at all. That does not imply that we want anarchy. In fact, we yearn for a strong state that will keep us secure and provide us with everything – from jobs and security to a steady flow of lottery tickets as our one nod to personal ambition and private advancement. What we don’t want is any government meddling between us and the state. The way to achieve this is for everyone to be hired by the state and for the state to keep giving us more and more money until we catch up with our partners in the European Union and enjoy the same salaries and quality of life. It makes no difference to us that in those countries there is a radically different relationship between state, government and citizen. Our governments seem to busy themselves by trying to benefit some groups while ensuring that the others don’t catch on. Governments, in other words, mediate between the source and the recipients of the state’s largesse. Ostensibly, this is more fair because they are elected and therefore accountable for their actions. This implies a greater stab at democracy because, in theory, the government will try to keep as many people happy as it can, in order to stay in power. Also, governments are expected to tell the state machinery what to do, functioning as a kind of replaceable brain over an immutable body. But that is where the system in Greece begins to show serious lapses. The body is indeed immutable and the only change that the government – any government – can inflict on it is to make it bigger and fatter, with more people being hired at ever higher wages. Not long ago, people used to fight to get into the public sector even though they knew that wages were low and work conditions were terrible, because they wanted the security of permanent employment. Then, once they were appointed (more often than not as a political favor), they were ready to go on strike because of the poor pay and miserable work conditions. Thanks to the government’s largesse at the expense of real, tax-paying workers, the average public sector salaries are now higher than those in the much riskier private sector. And still, many groups of public sector employees strike – often. Public sector employees have two great advantages. They enjoy immunity from the consequences of their actions (or lack thereof), unlike their unlucky cousins in the private sector, and even more so those who are forced to toil in the informal economy. And they are also involved in a strange and very intense relationship with the government. State sector employees are usually appointed by a party and owe allegiance to it, whether it is in office or in opposition, so the clash of parties becomes a clash of government and opposition within the civil service. But the dynamic politics of the state also make it dictate policy to the government. This would be Dr Strangelove’s recalcitrant hand slapping away at his head – something which appeared to distress him but, in our case, might have raised a sly smirk of satisfaction that the unruly body’s reflexes were OK. Because civil servants can affect government policy and are immune to punishment, they strike. And even though they are fewer than the real working stiffs, a government’s compassion is judged by how it deals with civil service employees first and pensioners of all stripes second. Private sector employees do not enjoy the luxury of the union representation that civil servants do; when they strike they will lose pay or even their jobs. But it is their money, which, through taxes, the government spreads so liberally among those with more power than them – the civil servants. And no one complains, when perhaps the most justifiable protest would demand an end to such reckless favoritism. The government wastes money on the most unproductive sector of the economy instead of using it to spur development by offering incentives to the private sector and by creating a system whereby civil servants who do work will be better rewarded than those who do not. (Right now, we have an absurd system in which every single civil servant gets the same «productivity bonus,» except for schoolteachers – and they will be on strike on Monday and Tuesday, demanding it.) This is egalitarianism, for those lucky enough to be within the high walls of the public sector. And these walls are all but impregnable, because the rewards of getting within the fortress are so great – and the cost of keeping those inside happy is so high – that the state and government, in order to preserve the system that is so useful to both of them, hire people on a contract basis to do the real work. This is a kind of indentured labor system (or a kind of purgatory, if you will), in which people who enjoy almost no rights do all the work, in the hope that maybe one day the sun will shine on them and they too will spend the rest of their days lounging about inside the ramparts. This is the secret of our irrational, national lethargy. Nobody storms this unique Bastille of the privileged because – true revolutionaries – we expect to be on the inside one day, looking out as others do the work. Meanwhile, an ugly battle is taking place in which the government – like an animal at bay, bleeding in the polls – is being pursued by special interest groups. With elections due within eight months, the government itself set off the feeding frenzy by the tried and tested methods of throwing handouts and promises both at those inside and outside the castle. The list of groups on strike grows longer by the day. The most entertaining cohort of all is that of university professors, who say that the government has reneged on a promise to give them a 20 percent raise over two years (while the government is offering between 7 and 8 percent for one year) and are incensed that their pay may be reduced for the days they don’t work. Their strike has become an annual event, like that of Athens’s garbage collectors who, in a seasonal ritual every Christmas, Easter and summer, go on strike demanding that contract employees be hired on a permanent basis. When they are hired, they join the others in not doing much work, forcing management to hire more contract workers to collect the garbage. This is not so much an exaggeration as a distillation of how things work. Perhaps the only consolation is that we are living in a societal bubble that cannot last much longer. At some time the law of gravity will bring our mad world down to earth. High growth rates in recent years have made Greeks believe that they can continue to live beyond their means. And it is very strange that so seemingly serious a government as this one can claim that it will fund its 2.6-billion-euro «social package» through GDP growth, as if the economy’s expansion were free money earned through interest on a deposit account and not tied to other demands. An International Monetary Fund mission to Greece concluded in February that «the resilience of growth is particularly remarkable amid a global economic slowdown, with the Greek economy benefiting from the decline in interest rates associated with monetary union and from the preparations for the Olympics.» But it also warned that «public debt remains very high» and that Greece would have to slow down wage increases to align them more with the eurozone. It is worth noting that in 2002, the average nominal pay increase in the eurozone was 3.5 percent: Greece was highest at 5.4 percent, Austria was lowest at 2.1 percent. The IMF warned also that Greece had to prepare for the high cost of an aging population. Worryingly, official data released this week suggest that 1.5 workers fund each pensioner. Labor Minister Dimitris Reppas said things weren’t so bad, as the ratio was more like 1.8:1. This is when other economies see 2.5:1 as the point for panic. In May, the IMF’s board concluded, «Relatively high wage increases, not fully compensated by relative gains in productivity, and the euro appreciation have led to a weakening of cost and price competitiveness since Greece joined the euro area in 2001.» This implies a downward spiral at this, the best of times. The draft of the general state budget for 2004, made public on Thursday, forecasts strong growth of 4.2 percent of GDP but also a deficit of 1.2 percent, with public debt falling to 98.5 percent of GDP, or 163.9 billion euros. The figures for the first eight months of this year, however, already show things getting out of hand, with the deficit doubling from its forecast. And still, everyone wants more, because they know that some demands will be met. For too many years this has been the case. And this is the test the Simitis government faces. It will either give in to demands and prove that Greeks need no government, only state handouts, or it will stand firm, as the prime minister has suggested. In this case, it may fall the way governments should, making way for others to try to govern. Even in defeat, Costas Simitis will have brought Greece one step closer to the EU.