Katerina Sokou, 37, a Greek financial journalist at Kathimerini, a daily newspaper, told me this story: A group of German members of the Bavarian Parliament came to Athens shortly after the economic crisis erupted here and met with some Greek politicians, academics, journalists and lawyers at a taverna to evaluate the Greek economy. Sokou said her impression was that the Germans were trying to figure out whether they should be lending money to Greece for a bailout. It was like one nation interviewing another for a loan. “They were not here as tourists; we were giving data on how many hours we work,” recalled Sokou. “It really felt like we had to persuade them about our values.”
Sokou’s observation reminded me of a point made to me by Dov Seidman, the author of the book “How” and the C.E.O. of LRN, which helps companies build ethical business cultures. The globalization of markets and people has intensified to a new degree in the last five years, with the emergence of social networking, Skype, derivatives, fast wireless connectivity, cheap smartphones and cloud computing. “When the world is bound together this tightly,” argued Seidman, “everyone’s values and behavior matter more than ever, because they impact so many more people than ever. …We’ve gone from connected to interconnected to ethically interdependent.”
As it becomes harder to shield yourself from the other guy’s irresponsible behavior, added Seidman, both he and you had better behave more responsibly — or you both will suffer the consequences, whether you did anything wrong or not. This is doubly true when two different countries share the same currency but not the same government. That’s why this story is not just about interest rates. It’s about values. Germans are now telling Greeks: “We’ll loan you more money, provided that you behave like Germans in how you save, how many hours a week you work, how long a vacation you take, and how consistently you pay your taxes.”
Alas, though, these two countries are so culturally different. They remind you of a couple about whom you ask after their divorce: “How did the two of them ever think they could be married?”
Germany is the epitome of a country that made itself rich by making stuff. Greece, alas, after it joined the European Union in 1981, actually became just another Middle East petro-state — only instead of an oil well, it had Brussels, which steadily pumped out subsidies, aid and euros with low interest rates to Athens.
Natural resources create corruption, as groups compete for who controls the tap. That is exactly what happened in Greece when it got access to huge Euro-loans and subsidies. The natural entrepreneurship of Greeks was channeled in the wrong direction — in a competition for government funds and contracts. To be sure, it wasn’t all squandered. Greece had a real modernization spurt in the 1990s. But after 2002, it put its feet up, thinking it had arrived, and too much “Euro-oil” from the European Union went back to financing a corrupt, patrimonial system whereby politicians dispensed government jobs and projects to localities in return for votes. This reinforced a huge welfare state, where young people dreamed of a cushy government job and everyone from cabdrivers to truckers to pharmacists to lawyers was allowed to erect barriers to entry that artificially inflated prices.
European Union membership “was a big opportunity for development, and we wasted it,” explained Dimitris Bourantas, a professor of management at Athens University. “We also did not take advantage of the markets of the [formerly] socialist countries around Greece. And we also did not take advantage of the growth of the global economy. We lost them all because the political system was focused on growing public administration — not on [fostering] entrepreneurship, competition or industrial strategy or competitive advantages. We created a state with big inefficiencies, corruption and a very large bureaucracy. We were the last Soviet country in Europe.”
That is why, he added, that Greeks, when they move to the U.S., “unleash their skills and entrepreneurship” in ways that enable them to thrive in commerce. But here in Greece, the system encourages just the opposite. Investors here tell you that the red tape involved in starting a new business is overwhelming. It’s crazy; Greece is the only country in the world where Greeks don’t behave like Greeks. Their welfare state, financed by Euro-oil, has bred it out of them.
With the decline of Beirut and Dubai, Athens should have become the service center of the Eastern Mediterranean. Instead, Cyprus and Istanbul seized that role. Greece must not waste this crisis. While it has instituted some reforms in the last year, Prime Minister George Papandreou said to me, “What is most frustrating is the resistance in the system. How do you produce a change in culture?”
It will take a cultural revolution. And that can happen only if Greece’s two major parties come together, hold hands, and collectively force through a radical change in the governing culture from the top down. Without that, Greece will never be able to pay back its loans.
Source: NYT July 20, 2011