Letter from Thessaloniki

«Our government worked itself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.» Paraphrasing Marx (Groucho), this quote could somehow illustrate the dramatic worsening of our public finances – with a deficit that, in the first eight months of this year, almost doubled from what was forecast. Of course this concerns our current budget. Seeking re-election next spring and admitting that they find it well-nigh impossible to refuse demands for money and tax breaks from almost any constituent or sectoral interest, the Greek government will be submitting the new 2004 budget in Parliament today – not a very encouraging development, considering the alarming backdrop of a deficit that has almost doubled since 2003. There are pundits who slip into the political caricature of themselves and who advocate that in order to distract the public’s attention from real problems, one should direct public opinion toward focusing on menaces in the west and in the east. How ’bout the recent US State Department briefing that has been so grandly overblown in the Greek media? Last week, last Tuesday to be exact, spokesman Richard Boucher briefed the media («I’m sorry, I’m late this afternoon, just seemed like there was a lot to do… ..») and also answered a question on alleged security gaps in the 2004 Olympics. Mr Boucher: «Greece is working with several countries, including the United States, to ensure the full safety of the Olympic Games… Ambassador Cofer Black, US Coordinator for Counterterrorism, is currently in Greece discussing ways to enhance Olympic security. The United States is also providing equipment, policy workshops and security training to that end…» That Tuesday another question was also posed. Question: «Since the Washington Post is insisting over and over that the November 17 terrorist organization is still an open issue, despite the arrests and despite the trials in Athens, what is the position of your government on this issue?» Mr Boucher: «We have certainly welcomed the steps that Greece has taken against terrorism, particularly against November 17. At the same time, our cooperation with Greece, our vigilance with Greece on all matters of terrorism must continue.» Question: «But is the matter still open or closed?» Mr Boucher: «I don’t know what the exact status of that particular organization is considered, but obviously issues of terrorism in Greece haven’t gone away completely and it’s something we continue to work with the Greek government on.» Greece is a world unto itself. Five days later, on the other side of the ocean – our side this time – and while the gap between New Democracy and PASOK was found to be an alarming 7.7 percent, the pro-PASOK press was only too happy to report that the US State Department accused the Greek media of a lack of objectivity. In its regular announcement on Greece, the State Department mentioned that the Greek media is not objective and is characterized by irresponsibility. On the page regarding the media it is stated that: «The Greek media is an institution of influence, usually aggressively sensitized and often irresponsible. Their objectivity, as we know it in the United States, does not exist in Greece. Most are owned by businessmen with immense business interests in many sectors of the economy. They use their newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations for the promotion of their businesses, as well as exercising political influence.» Responding to the US State Department report, Greek government spokesman Christos Protopappas – in a fit of absent-mindedness? – stressed that obviously the authors of the text in question are ignorant of European reality. Bits of language ricochet around in the political world. Incidentally, at exactly the same time, one could see on the Internet the results of the poll issued at the site of the University of South Dakota. The question was simple, almost too straightforward: «Do you think the press in the US is fair? The answers were 17 percent «yes» and 83 percent «no». It is still running. So much for polls. Now, back to our new budget, which might have been subtitled: «Those are our principles. If you don’t like them, we have others» – another Groucho Marx paraphrase that might have some relevance this week (you’ll see, you’ll see) for our Finance Minister Nikos Christodoulakis. Take military spending. To maintain the 7/10 arms race with our neighbor Turkey, it is necessary to have a fearsome enemy intent on our destruction. Therefore, we have to spend more – at least that’s what they say. Sure enough, wasting money on the military is a time-honored tradition, but now it’s truly getting out of hand. Military debt, 6 percent of GDP, is expected to hit 7 percent of GDP or 11.3 billion euros next year. There exists yet another huge problem for future budgets. As populations age, the cost of pay-as-you-go state pension schemes will explode, implying immense tax burdens on future workers. Only last week, the IMF warned that Greece had to prepare for the high cost of a galloping aging population. In all likelihood, our children and grandchildren will be burdened with financing a big part of our old age – in taxes – over their lifetimes. Should we start worrying now, or should we just sigh and say: «Why should I care about posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me?» Yes, once more, Groucho.