Letter from Thessaloniki

For a country relatively poor in natural resources which consumes more than it is able to produce, that borrows constantly to finance its imports, resulting in massive deficits that undermine all future development, the present global credit crisis cannot leave Greece unscathed. God, no! Barring the unforeseeable, the future doesn’t look rosy at all. The recent global credit crisis suddenly took me back to my early years and songs such as «It’s the Hard-Knock Life» in one of the most popular musicals ever, «Annie,» which has been shown also in Athens, staged by Marianna Toli – sadly, being an «Annie» cynic myself, I snubbed the Greek version. Ohhhh!!!!!!! / Empty belly life! / Rotten smelly life! / Full of sorrow life! / No tomorrow life! / Will our future be something of the sort? Now, aren’t the lyrics that Martin Charnin wrote to Charles Strouse’s music very near to coming true once again, as homeless and unemployed New Yorkers gather in a shanty town under 59th Street Bridge, which they sarcastically call Hooverville? We’d like to thank you: Herbert Hoover / For really showing us the way / We’d like to thank you: Herbert Hoover / You made us what we are today! No, this time one will have to change the names and instead of the 31st president of the US, Herbert Clark Hoover (1929-1933), the 43rd president, George W. Bush, will have to figure in the lyrics («You dirty rat, you Bureaucrat,» according to the original text of course). In his time, Hoover tried to combat the Depression with volunteer efforts and «economic stimulus» initiatives by the government, none of which produced full-scale economic recovery during his term. Happily, it was President Roosevelt who in 1941 finally got the US out of the Depression by pumping federal money into a rearmament program. Then, FDR spent some $20 billion on defense. War or the threat of war has frequently been a driving factor in US domestic politics. Then and now, injecting public money into the military industrial complex reduces unemployment. And the moral is: If you want to avoid a depression, spend money on defense. However, all this is for Washington to worry about. On our own front, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis is repeatedly assuring investors that Greek banks are healthy and secure even after the US-born financial crisis spread to European countries. «The Greek banking system is healthy, secure and resilient to the shocks that are being felt in the banking systems of other countries,» said the premier. Yes, because in these perilous times Greece is safe – yes siree! – just like Karamanlis says. Easy street, where you sleep till noon and that’s where we’re gonna be / That’s where we’re gonna be! Do the deplorable, comical, mean, orphan tormented Miss Hannigan and her crook brother Rooster mean Greece when they chant: Where the rich folks play / Yeah, yeah, yeah / Move them ever-lovin’ feet. No, Greece is in no danger of having that messy thing called democracy – note, it is a Greek word – colliding with a financial market in full panic. It has been confirmed. Although the exposure of Greek banks and their customers to Lehman Brothers shares and bonds amounts to 270 million euros, «Greek banks’ exposure to high-risk credit instruments is limited,» Giorgos Provopoulos, the governor of the Bank of Greece, announced reassuringly after meeting with the heads of Greece’s four largest banks – National, Eurobank, Alpha and Piraeus. So – croon the lovely Boylan Sisters: Doo doodle-oo doo / Doo doodle-oo doo / Doo doo doo doo / Doo doo doo doo / Your clothes may be Beau Brummelly / They stand out a mile / But, brother / You’re never fully dressed / You’re never dressed / Without a smile… Now why this lively crowd pleaser reminds me so strongly of our ever-grinning Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, I cannot say… After several decades of having the US giving orders to other countries, telling them with whom to trade and to which of their courts they must show up for indictment should they disobey, the banking crisis seems to be overturning American dominance of the financial markets and world politics. The German news magazine Der Spiegel last week published an article with the title «The End of Arrogance.» In unusually strong language («Is it only President George W. Bush, the lame duck president, whom the rest of the world is no longer taking seriously, or are the other 191 UN member states already setting their sights on the United States, the giant brought to its knees?…») the magazine says that the banking crisis in the United States has shaken not just Chancellor Angela Merkel’s affection for America but the respect the rest of the world once held for the US as an economic and political superpower. Just look at the Greek media. No doubt something is missing. Alas, the US is not as popular as – for example – it was a few years ago. And as the multimillionaire Oliver Warbucks sings in «Annie» My speeches are greeted / With thunderous acclaim / At two universities / Bearing my name / Yet, something was missing… / Who would need me for me? / Need me for me alone? / the world was my oyster – But where was the pearl? However, the presumption that «Annie» is solely a kids’ play is inaccurate. It is politics as well. Former State Department economic officer and former Consul General in Thessaloniki Alec Mally does believe that America’s economy is resilient. «I probably sound as if I am still reading a US government policy paper or drafting talking points for the Biden-Palin (our vice-presidential candidates) debate,» he says, «but in the long run there is good reason to be confident in America’s economic strength. America still has the most talented, productive and entrepreneurial workers in the world. America remains the best place in the world to invest and to do business. Consumers around the world continue to seek out American products, as evidenced by record-high exports. America has a flexible system that absorbs challenges, and with the right leadership, makes the needed corrections and has always bounced back.» In this particular case, the most appropriate song can only be the most enduring song of the play as sung by Annie: When I’m stuck with a day / That’s gray, / And lonely, / I just stick out my chin / And grin, / And say, Oh! / The sun’ll come out / Tomorrow / So ya gotta hang on / ‘Til tomorrow Well, the sun may not yet have come out on our present global situation, but who knows what might happen with a colored Democrat for president?

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