A high ranking official in the Greek government invited my wife and me to dine with him, a highly principled man whom I know very well. He came to greet us at a private residence on a very crowded street in central Athens. Following some pleasant conversation we emerged to find the car standing on the busy sidewalk smack in front of the door. Once we were all comfortably seated in the car, the driver charged off the sidewalk, cut off all traffic and proceeded down the other side of the street as though on the way to the proverbial fire. No one protested.
My friend sensed my astonishment. He said I have tried to get him not to drive like that, but he says he must, because I am too important. It was an unmarked car so I asked why everyone gave way without protest. The people of Athens know a government car when they see one, he replied. The restaurant was Greek casual exclusive. For an added touch the US Ambassador paid us his respects while we were there. It was in the Old city, snuggled up against the mount upon which sits the Parthenon. It was a pedestrian only zone, but no matter, when we were done the car and driver were waiting right at the front door.
We were not surprised. I thought if privilege so soon becomes expected, is it any wonder that after a few years, privilege becomes seen as a right. Add that to the list of arguments for term limits.
I found Greece to be a fun place. It is a disorganized land where no one takes the details of law very seriously. Perhaps that is why it is a fun place. A one-way street sign simply indicates which way most of the traffic will be going. A No Parking sign means you may get a ticket but it does not mean you have to pay it.
That was all before the crisis. My host of a couple years ago is now a diplomat with the European Union and a mere observer of the Grecian scene The New York Times, with all its faults, is very good at covering things like this, but to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, one should “Trust the Times, but verify, especially if you have access to inside information”. So I called and asked an open question, “What are your comments”. The essence of his response was:
Too much spending, of course.
However, it goes beyond that. It would barely qualify as hyperbole to say the government has no computers. They literally do not know how many people are on the payroll. They are ill-equipped to enforce income tax compliance because they do not know who owes what. And everyone knows they don’t know.
Typically, a very high income earner declares something, partly because he wants to support society and partly because he knows he cannot get away with declaring nothing.
Unlike the United States where much employment is with large companies, in Greece 60 percent of workers are self-employed. If you need a plumber he has a price. If you need a receipt the price is 30% more. If you want to see a doctor you must bring something known as an “envelope”. There is nothing murky about all this, it’s just how it’s done.
It looks like the New York Times got it right. My friend is not of conservative persuasion. We rarely discuss American politics, but at the conclusion of the phone call he said “I see democracy is working very well in your country, unfortunately.”