Back to basics

After decades of binge borrowing and subsidy subsistence, Greece will have to go cold turkey right from the start of 2010. This year will determine the future of the country and its citizens. Now that each of the big three international ratings agencies have downgraded Greece and we ourselves have recorded our record deficit and debt, we should have a clear idea of where we stand. It is not a pleasant sight but at least it appears to be based on reality. What remains is to set our sights on the future that we want, while – like recovering alcoholics -we take each day at a time. The first thing that Greece needs to do is restore its credibility. This means that our partners in the European Union and international markets have to see that Greeks have woken up to the difficulty of their situation and are prepared to take steps to make the economy more productive. This means higher revenues and lower spending. To achieve this, though, will not be simple. First of all, taxes and social security contributions will have to be used more efficiently, rather than disappearing into the black hole of mismanagement. Our social security system has to find new sources of revenue, given that the ratio of workers to pensioners has already made the system nonviable. Public administration – with too many employees, low productivity and no accountability – is the greatest source of the country’s woes: It stymies every effort to modernize, to produce, to make Greece more efficient. The government must first get a clear picture of who does what and what they earn before it can begin scrapping defunct departments and stop the squandering of public funds. Declaring right now that payrolls will be slashed will not achieve anything, because if productive people are punished for the vagaries of the system, the protests that we have seen so far will seem like a picnic. The second priority is to ensure the viability of institutions and to strengthen them. The judiciary needs to be revived by getting rid of incompetent officials and appointing enough new ones to get the wheels of justice moving, because we all know that one of the great shortcomings of Greece is that the laws are not applied fully and equally to all. Independent watchdogs such as the Ombudsman need to be strengthened, as their parallel operation is the only thing that keeps the state functioning; they are just about the only check on abuses but they are unable to impose change. The education system needs to be fixed radically: from scrapping the rote learning that is its staple in schools to imposing order on the chaos of universities, where freedom of speech has descended into license and lawlessness. The failure of institutions has resulted in a mentality that anything goes, where those who feel strong act with impunity while those who do not have any political, economic or physical clout feel unprotected and impotent. Even the social security system is weighted in favor of certain groups of workers who pay less than most others while enjoying greater benefits. In short, Greece today is not a just society. And an unjust society cannot function efficiently nor inspire hope in its citizens that sacrifices today will lead to a better tomorrow. It will take great courage to deal with the challenges that Greece faces in 2010. And it is most likely that our politicians, trade union leaders, the apparatchiks and, to be honest, most of us, will resist change. But we have seen where the current system has led us – to deadlock at every level and a very real threat to the country’s future. The disaster, though, can also be an opportunity, one that will mobilize the leaders among us and motivate everyone else to dream of a viable future and to take the steps that will get us there.

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