The wings of despair

It’s one of the oldest scams in the book: some wise guy persuades his friends to give him their money, with the promise of making it grow. The system is based on persuading more and more «investors» to join the scheme – in Greece this is known as the «aeroplanaki,» the little aeroplane whose airworthiness is determined by the number of new passengers who can be tricked into providing the money that makes the original ones (and the pilot), rich. Elsewhere they are called pyramid schemes or Ponzi schemes, after one of their more notorious American practitioners. The plan works well until the moment that «investors» begin to demand their money back or until it becomes impossible to find enough new suckers to meet the demands of the first ones. The most dramatic instance of the phenomenon occurred in 1997. An entire country – Albania – collapsed in violent anarchy when it was revealed that the whole nation had fallen victim to a number of pyramid schemes. These days, in the midst of the global economic crisis, we have been amazed by the unravelling of the global pyramid set up by a demonic American «investment adviser,» Bernie Madoff, who has reportedly admitted to cheating unsuspecting investors out of 50 billion dollars. Because of Madoff, the heightened awareness of investors and authorities has led to the uncovering of many such pyramid schemes around the world. This raises the question: are people so stupid as to hand over their savings to people whom they haven’t checked out thoroughly? The easy answer is that people are more optimistic than they are stupid: They believe that all will go well, until the moment that catastrophe is upon them. A more complicated state of affairs occurs when an entire country becomes embroiled in its dependence on more and more new funds. In Greece we can say that we are experiencing a pyramid scheme in reverse: We know that our economy, our health and pension funds, our state-controlled companies (like Olympic Airlines), our agriculture and so on, depend solely on our ability to attract new loans. We take strangers’ money not to get rich, but to survive now and – hopefully – pay later. The only ones who make money out of this are our creditors. But the system has exhausted itself. This year we expect to borrow about 50 billion euros to cover the year’s needs – a little more than we needed in 2008. Our creditworthiness is dwindling and so we are obliged to pay about 3 percent more than what Germany pays investors who buy its state bonds. This means that we will lose about 1.5 billion euros more than we would have if there were greater confidence in our economy. Because we will not be able to settle our debts, we will be forced to keep borrowing at an ever increasing cost. Our national debt will balloon to such an extent that we will no longer be able to service it. We will hit a wall. But a country is not a business, it cannot declare bankruptcy, go into liquidation and allow bosses and workers to seek work elsewhere; it has no option but to survive. As individuals, the Greeks are creative, conscientious and hard-working. It is the system that lets them down – that and the fact that 40 percent of our wages go to taxes and social security contributions, for which we get miserable services in return. Instead of making good use of the money in our economy to raise productivity and profits, we waste it and are then forced to borrow to make ends meet. Today the public debt stands at 240 billion euros. In other words, every resident of this country – young, old, Greek, immigrant – owes about 22,000 euros, without considering what each owes for individual loans. Yet, no one seems to worry that we are flying in an airplane that no one else wants to board; it remains in the air only because in our despair we are selling our future, the years ahead.