Can Greeks count?

Like an imperial power punishing a rebellious town by stationing a garrison within it, the European Commission’s statistics service Eurostat is dispatching another 10 of its cadres to Athens – in addition to the two or three already here – in an effort to root out the true scale of Greece’s debt and deficits. This follows the capitulation of the country as a whole, with the signing of a deal with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund that offers a credit lifeline in exchange for limited sovereignty. Obviously, surrender was not enough to bring us into line: The continual revision of our statistics (with Eurostat now putting the deficit for 2009 at 15.1 percent of gross domestic product) shows that our accountants are simply not up to solving the problem. In just over a year, the estimate for the 2009 budget deficit grew from 6 percent of GDP in September 2009 to today’s 15.1 percent. And no one seems to know where the true figure lies. It’s almost as if numbers have a life of their own, like birds that keep escaping a hunter’s net. The inability to nail down the true figures of our economy seems to be a national trait, irrespective of political inclination. In 2004, the New Democracy government ratted on PASOK, claiming that the former government had lied about debts and deficits in order to qualify for the single European currency. Then New Democracy began to cook the books: In April 2008 it forecast a 2009 budget deficit of 0.8 percent of GDP, grudgingly raising it to 6 percent last year. PASOK, back in government after October’s elections, more than doubled the estimate to 12.5 percent. But it has still been forced to keep revising it upward. Whether trying to hide the deficit or inflate it, our governments cannot get it right. Must we then conclude that Greeks can’t count? That would be an insult not only to our ancestors, who established the science of mathematics after picking up on the studies and records of the Babylonians and Egyptians; it is also disproved by countless brilliant minds among the modern Greeks, from academics in the world’s great universities to neighborhood shopkeepers to kids in school. Numbers have always played a great role in Greek thought, from household accounts in Mycenaean Linear B tablets to the mystical systems of Pythagoras (who argued that the world could be interpreted through numbers) to everyday habits carried down from antiquity, through Christian ritual, to our own times. For example, the ancient gods were invoked in threes, as were the dead, while charms and curses also came in threes. Christianity has the Trinity. Nine was the powerful result of three multiplied by three. The signs of the zodiac, Hercules’ labors and Christ’s apostles were 12. An elaborate system of divination was based on numerical values of the alphabet. And so on. The problem is not personal but social; it reflects how political expediency and intellectual laziness have distorted our society. The breakdown of hierarchies, the lack of evaluation and accountability of civil servants and students, the arbitrary application of laws, the granting of blanket tax amnesties (proof that a corrupt system cannot carry out its most basic function) resulted in a world far removed from reality and fairness. «Political solutions» carried more weight than law and logic. There has been so much waste and chaos that we don’t know who owes what to whom. It is like Cloud Cuckoo Land, the city in the sky in Aristophanes’ «Birds,» where the birds create their own kingdom in order to rule the world. Today’s Greeks created that world by mistake, and at their peril. As John Allen Paulos, the learned mathematician of Temple University, comments, «Since number and chance are among our ultimate reality principles, those who ignore them tend to lose their mooring and more easily float away into Cloud Cuckoo Land.» But this is the real world, and even if we like to believe in Einstein’s theory of relativity, as a metaphor of political expediency, Greece’s fall is more like that of Newton’s apple: irrevocable and absolute. Only when we manage to impose numbers (hard and true facts, values and rules) on our political culture will we regain our politics and our culture – and stop living in the clouds.