Gains and costs

Greece’s economic indicators do not allow any government to promise handouts to voters. Whatever the parties may say today, whichever one is elected on October 4 will be called upon to explain to Brussels how it plans to curb the country’s deficits and debts. No one wants to frighten or dishearten voters but the truth cannot be hidden: The budget deficit is estimated at 6 percent (double that allowed by eurozone membership); the public debt equals 105 percent of gross domestic product; growth this year is in negative territory; and Greece is expected to borrow 60 billion euros in 2009, an incredible 50 percent above the already high budget estimate of 40 billion. In this context, the measures that PASOK leader George Papandreou referred to in Thessaloniki just over a week ago – in support of lower income groups, the unemployed and small businesses – cannot be translated into significant amounts of money. The government’s cries that such promises will cost the economy another 10 billion euros do not make much of an impression, given the disastrous state of the economy already. The question is: How will the next government be able to improve citizens’ lives without widening deficits but in a way that will actually save money? Every party that hopes to gain power likes to believe that it will be the first in Greek history to curb spending and stop waste, in order to fund handouts. No one has achieved this yet, because, very simply, in Greece the law does not apply to everyone and institutions are not allowed to function in a free and objective manner. The greatest innovation, in other words, would be the immediate and absolute imposition of the law, whether this applies to cars parked on sidewalks or to billionaires who function as a state-within-a-state. This is the permanent cliche about what is wrong with Greece but we cannot emphasize enough that arbitrariness – in all its forms – is the source of most of our political system’s ills and, consequently, that of our economy and society. Another sphere that needs radical reform is the state machine, from bottom to top. This need not be a revolution and can start from the very basic measure of reorganizing public services so that citizens are immediately informed of what they need to do the moment they enter a tax office, a ministry or a hospital, for example. Procedures need to be simplified, whether this involves starting a new service or renewing a residence permit. In this way, citizens, immigrants and civil servants will all save precious time. To put this another way, if the country’s finances do not allow us to increase the incomes of lower-income groups, at least we can try improve the quality of life for everyone. In hospitals, for example, better organization and keeping checks on services and personnel would not only not add any costs but would improve the quality of life of patients and employees. It is inconceivable that successive governments have done so little to achieve this – not in the health sector, in the education system, in bureaucracy nor in the cleanliness of public spaces. The major structural problems demand solutions that will make the country more competitive and functional in order to secure a better future. But this requires a clash with various entrenched interests and, until today, very few politicians have appeared ready to undertake such a burden. The decision to make our society function more rationally has neither political nor financial cost, only gains for citizens and government. The necessary employees and officials are already in place, as are the buildings and technical infrastructure. Funds exist, too, and they are squandered, with taxpayers who foot the bill getting the raw part of the deal. What is missing is the genuine interest of those who govern in the people who live in this country, who work, who hope.