Friday 16 July 2010

Reflections on the Present

It’s been nearly two weeks since my last post: I’ve been travelling and working in New York and now Orlando, and this evening briefly logged onto the Cyprus Mail and the Kyiv Post to keep track of news in two of the other countries where I work. The news is nearly universally bad.

In Cyprus, it appears highly likely that the reunification negotiations will be coming to an end, and that one potential exit scenario will be direct trade for the Turkish Cypriots and trade with Turkey for the Republic. It would appear that all the effort of the past two years have been for naught, and that the occupation and division of Cyprus will continue, although very few people—except for a small political and business elite—appear to benefit from it.

It would also appear that there is not just one division of Cyprus—between Greek and Turkish Cypriots—but in fact multiple ones. In the Republic, for instance, the governing coalition is divided against itself, while the right is divided from the left. The political elite is divided from the real world. The business oligarchy is divided against the ordinary citizenry. And the public sector is divided against everyone else.

In Ukraine, President Yanukovich celebrated his 60th birthday with a monumental party, amid reports that his plans to strengthen the power of the Presidency and consolidate his ruling coalition’s power are proceeding apace. One gets the impression, reading the Kyiv Post, that Ukraine is barely holding on to the precious economic gains it has made since independence, and is busy relinquishing most of the political ones. The oligarchical class that dominates Ukraine’s banking and heavy industry is consolidating its political power, and there doesn’t appear to be any political force capable of supplanting it, or offering an alternative.

Reading the wider news on Bloomberg or the Financial Times, if you look very closely, you will see that to some extent, we all seem to be living in Paris in the summer of 1939.

In the United States, mid-term elections are coming up, and an ugly sense of malaise embitters the country and its airwaves. One chapter of the Iowa Tea Party posted a billboard showing Barack Obama between Adolph Hitler and Vladimir Lenin. Negative political advertising dominates the Florida TV channels here, blaring between the imprecations of trial lawyers seeking clients or the latest miracle drug.

Unemployment remains high, the toxic debate over immigration is reaching a tipping point, and the economic recovery may be affecting some business sectors, but not much of it seems to be trickling down to the vast underclass that works the all-you-can-eat buffets or washes the hotel laundry here in the Disney universe. America’s mood seems to be changing: from relentless optimism to vitriolic negativity.

Having been in the United States for nearly two weeks now, the virtues of the life we lead in Greece seem all the more pronounced. To some extent, we live in a banana republic, but I can’t say that the quality of law-making and elected administration here in the United States is terribly different.

Greek debt-to-GDP is probably around 130-140% of GDP as I write this, but the US if following close behind. This year, USA Today forecasts an FY 2010 deficit of $ 1.5 trillion, marginally down from $ 1.6 trillion last year. If you add federal, state, local, Social Security and semi-governmental debt in the US (Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac), it’s probably higher than Greek government debt.

In Greece, Siemens appears to have bought much of the Greek government for a bargain rate of EUR 100 mln. In the United States, the 2008 Presidential election cost over $ 1 bln, while various special interest groups spent over $ 500 mln lobbying against healthcare reform in the past 12 month.

And in Greece, we still have a human scale of life. I was struck once again – as I am each time I visit the United States – of the rootlessness of this place. I was born in Athens, and for all I dislike what that city has become, consider myself an Athenian. There are places in Greece where I know I am home, and which I can never forget.

An American can be born in Salt Lake City, move any number of times in his life, and then settle in some sterile housing park in Florida, without thinking anything is amiss. I can’t imagine living in a suburban Floridian development–each one similar to the other–and shopping for plastic food at WalMart.

Besides that connection to our birthplace, I believe that for all its faults, Greeks are also still cognizant of the sacrifices made by past generations so that the present ones can live in a makeshift democracy. Although Greece too is sinking beneath the weight of mindless consumerism and the idiocracy of morning TV, there are still enough people who remember. For how much longer, I’m not certain.

And yet, as bad as things are in the United States or Greece, they are infinitely worse elsewhere. I don’t think many of us truly know how fortunate we are, especially when compared with the average citizen of Russia, China, or countless other countries.

This is what more than anything gives me the feeling that, all short-term economic signals to the contrary, we are sliding to the brink of the proverbial cliff. It seems that public officials or citizens in the United States and Greece are incapable of taking the difficult decisions needed today in order to survive the challenges of tomorrow. And these challenges are upon us.

What comes next? 


  1. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, although I was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey (home of Princeton).

    I hated all of Southern California and the only Californians I ever met who liked SoCal in general and LA in particular grew up there.

    Now it is true that I wouldn't live in SF again but that's more about the tax structure - Prop 13% reducing property taxes decimated the schools, the universities, and the libraries - pretty much all public services. But I also wouldn't live in Athens compared to Amaliada.

    Amaliada is quiet, calm, no strikes, no riots, no hassle. We experience the same pain in terms of VAT and other "austerity" measures without the public angst that goes with it.

    Personally, I like the quiet.

  2. Living in Athens is difficult, unless you are (a) single, and have a good job (of which there are few), or (b) married, and have a good job, and can create a "bubble" existence which includes private schools, private health insurance, no/little commuting to work, etc.

    The Athens I grew up in was a totally different city, although many of the same limitations applied. There was definitely less traffic, less congestion, and less pollution. We lived in Aghia Paraskevi, and I remember every afternoon around 17:00 - 18:00, the sky would darken with birds (mostly sparrows), flying in great circles, settling the trees for the evening after foraging all day.

    That Athens was also a lot safer. We could walk to school if we needed to. Although the city was expanding northwards even in the 1970s, there wasn't the sense of here today - gone tomorrow that you have today, or the groups of migrant workers standing at the side of the street each morning looking for work, or the Indians and Pakistanis who offer you a package of hankerchiefs or offer to wash your car window. In fact, all this reminds me of NYC in the late 1980s/early 1990s, before the "Great Crackdown" under Bratton/Guiliani.

    I can definitely imagine Amaliada would be better!