The gilded cage

Maybe the saddest aspect of the Siemens scandal is the great ease with which Greek politicians do deals with economic interests, as well as the fact that no one is surprised by the mysterious ways in which the Greek judiciary works. In Germany, former Siemens officials are already on trial while in Greece we are witnessing the same merry-go-round of endless investigations, selective leaks and the creation of a general state of confusion in which suspicion is cast on everyone so that in the end no one is accountable. Today we are in the phase of allegations of illustrious political figures being involved in deals that seem very small compared to the millions of euros Siemens is alleged to have given to as yet unnamed parties. The deals in question are said to involve purchases of materials and services, with discounts and delayed payment. This might be so. But even if it is all legal, the exchange shows an impermissible, privileged relationship between the German giant and politicians in Greece. When a company that transacts with the state comes into any contact whatsoever with people who can affect those transactions, then the company and the politician or state official must ensure that there is nothing shady about the relationship. Otherwise, the rest of us are justified in suspecting bribery and the exploitation of positions of influence. Ideally, everyone would abide by the many rules regulating dealings between economic and other interests on the one hand and politicians and state officials on the other. But in our country – as in many others – we have not escaped the corrupt power model that is based on personal connections and client-patron relationships. In republican Rome this system was an institution: an ambitious young aristocrat would climb the ladder of success by constantly cultivating friends and relatives as well as «clients» who were dependent on him for money and favors and in return served as his personal political party and bodyguard. All this had a huge economic cost. When the mature politician capped his career with a term in the highest office (as consul) he was rewarded with the governorship of a province in the Roman conquests, where he was expected to exploit the population so as to recoup a lifetime’s investment in politics. The system, with variations, has survived to our day. We see it in politicians’ dependence on family (both natural and through marriage and the institution of «koumbaria»), personal contacts, favors and the exploitation of positions of authority. This does not mean there is no meritocracy in Greece – indeed, most people have to fight hard and rely on their own resources to get anywhere, especially as they must compete with those who get ahead on their connections. But our society has not developed to the extent that everyone can expect the same opportunities and obligations. Good connections are everything. And the use of special relationships has created a gilded cage from which it is difficult for anyone to escape: those who have no special connections feel that they must pay bribes in order to achieve anything, while those in a position to provide services to others come to expect gifts. This applies in personal relationships as well as in the behavior of special interest groups. We have reached the point where the politician, the journalist, the doctor, the prison guard, etc., who does not take gifts in exchange for doing his or her job is becoming the exception. Although we criticize favors and bribes, our society tolerates them as part of the daily routine. As groups, we pursue revenues, pensions and other benefits at the expense of others, and we don’t care who gets a rougher deal. This situation has a huge cost, as we see these days. As long as we believe that everyone else owes us, that we deserve special treatment, we do not learn to build on our own worth, we do not rely on our talents, we cannot free ourselves. This shapes a society that cannot depend on the abilities of its members nor help nurture their talents. Instead, like a promising career that is destroyed by stupidity, it chokes on the tangled web of favors and gifts.