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Crisis, What Crisis?

A sojourn in Greece.

12:00 AM, Jun 16, 2010 • By TONY MECIA
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Nafplio, Greece

Crisis, What Crisis?

It’s afternoon and the Greeks are having one of their lately quite regular national strikes. From behind the register at his parents’ souvenir shop, Vassili Thomas is assigning blame for the country’s economic problems.

Don’t get him started on the international banks, which he says are charging Greece unfairly high interest rates. The media get him riled, too: After the series of strikes and riots, the international press, he says, is falsely portraying his country as violent and dangerous, which threatens to scare tourists away from this sleepy port town about two hours southwest of Athens. Meanwhile, Greek journalists are conniving to convince the public to accept the government’s plans for austerity measures, which are required for the $132 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.

“The TV, they’re trying to lull everybody to sleep and not protest,” complains Thomas, 29, who was born in New York but has lived in Greece since he was six-months-old. “When something is not good, you have to talk about it.”

What about Greece itself, I ask him? Does it bear any of the blame for nearly defaulting on its loans? Thomas moves toward a nearby table to help a tourist find the right-sized T-shirt, but he spins around and points his finger in the air to make a point: “The government,” he says. For too long, he says, the government has added workers as favors, so that politicians can win reelection.

I encountered plenty of Greeks trying to come to grips with their country’s financial woes. Many chalked the troubles up to spineless, corrupt politicians in Athens. Others portrayed Greece as a hapless victim of international forces—a “local manifestation of the global economic meltdown,” as the Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini put it in an editorial.

Few seemed to appreciate that the financial crisis has placed Greece’s entire easygoing way of life—characterized by early retirements, generous pensions, and heavy-handed state involvement in nearly every industry—on trial. Since Greece started attracting international headlines this spring, the country has become synonymous with the perils of an overregulated, overspending, cradle-to-grave welfare state, one infested with a kind of crony capitalism in which every economic sector seems to have struck a special deal for itself.

Yet, on the first night I was in Greece, sipping a glass of ouzo and gazing at Santorini’s famous caldera at sunset, I was tempted to ask: “What crisis?” Indeed, to the average tourist, there are few visible marks that the country is in turmoil.

My wife and I took a long-planned a trip to Greece in late May. In the weeks before we left, friends and family members kept asking if we were still planning to go. We read the news accounts closely and figured out two things: first, nearly all of the demonstrations were in Athens and in the northern city of Thessaloniki; and second, that the labor unions always announced plans to strike ahead of time. Our itinerary called for us to spend most of our time on the islands and on the mainland outside of Athens. We figured the biggest threat to our trip would be a strike that grounded planes or ferries, or that closed some historic sites. As it turned out, things went off without a hitch.

What struck me in reading the Greek English-language newspapers before we left, was how much more the country’s regulations sounded like what you’d expect in the Third World than in a Western market economy. In May, for instance, the country’s health ministry released guidelines legalizing cremation, which had previously been banned at the behest of the Greek Orthodox Church (and probably some union). This being Greece, the crematoriums are to be run by municipalities, which would, the article said, “have the sole right to issue a license for someone to be cremated.” Even in death, you can’t escape the Greek government’s vast licensing regime.

An article on opposition to some of the austerity plans noted that Greek law currently requires scuba diving instructors and English-language teachers to speak Greek—“even if they do not need it for their jobs.” And days before we left, the country’s pharmacists’ union went on strike to protest reform legislation that would abolish the industry’s guaranteed 35-percent profit, remove caps on the number of the country’s pharmacies, and allow foreign pharmacists and corporations to operate in Greece.

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