Friday, 16 December 2011

“Dictators and Desperados..... Delegation and Democracy”

This article is really about those who are marginalised in the world; but, on a more serious level, it is particularly about the plight of Greece and its people and those of the other EEC countries, Italy, Spain, Portugal, who are facing a similar plight; not forgetting that it wasn't so long ago that the Republic of Ireland was plunged into economic gloom and bust! But is there any reason why we should not begin to worry about the core countries of Europe, Germany, France and... the UK?
It has been on my mind to write an(other) article about the human condition for some time, but with a different perspective. It has to do not only with entrepreneurs, adventurers and leaders; people who stick their necks on the block for civilisation, to solve great human challenges, resolve seemingly irresolvable issues, achieve the impossible, lift us from darkness and create order out of chaos; but it also has to do with how they rise to preeminence, how they deal with it; and how they fall... or rather when the powerful effects of wealth and fame can turn them into bullies and control-freaks! Or cause them to ally themselves with people of such character, in order to retain control. 
I recounted in recent blog post the lesson I learned from an inspiring geography teacher - that "the solution to the problems of the world lies in harmony with the distribution of raw materials"; still relevant in some ways to this debate, but I just remembered another memorable fact he taught us: about the rise and fall of civilisations, of empires. We in the 'West', notably in Britain, whose Empire once painted most the world's map pink, are now in the declining phase of civilisation. So too other European powers and the USA. And the rising powers? The BRICs perhaps? Watch this space! 

So what on earth has happened in Greece...
Never more was there a need for significant enlightenment, and leadership, in European economics, as right now. But I should point out, before you read any further, that this is not going to be a learned economic treatise; it will be a philosophical and social commentary if it is to be anything.
And so it is... 
The trouble with any kind of 'progress', howsoever forged by great minds; the inherent fault built into the human condition, the way we are wired if you like, is that even for those, who have the greatest integrity, are the most philanthropic and have the highest motives at the outset, it seems to me that we are programmed to fail; that no human being is perfect or capable of resisting the drug of wealth and power, which always turns so called 'progress' into a crusade. And this will be true at whatever level of society, be it political, religious, commercial, military or social; global, national or local. I can think of few exceptions. 
Whether you are the billionaire owner of a multi-national corporation, general manager of a medium sized company or Chair of the committee at your local Club. The quest to get more and more of it with the inevitability of its desire for supremacy, driven by the desire to rise above the rest, to eliminate challengers, is ever present; and I feel the spirit of Charles Darwin stirring. It may be easier to resist when you occupy the unpaid job of administering the affairs of you local Club, but when it comes to the clearly intoxicating high risk game of power-politics, business and banking, not so!
Competition is healthy, you might say. Yes, I agree. But what is happening to political democracy, to which, I think, the same rules apply as to the world of invention, trade and commerce. 
Let me say this...
In every walk of both my working and social life, I thought I'd seen it all. Democratic team players and delegators at one pole; control freaks and extreme control freaks - or bullies and dictators as we may better know them - at the other pole. In between, a whole array of personality types that bridge the spectrum of humanity, each one of which is a unique representation of its genes and environment. There are other spectra that cross this one; one of them is what I’d call the ‘lucky-unlucky’ spectrum. So much depends on where, when and to whom you were born, as to where you might get to in life. 
I know, you could give me any number of examples of people born into a lowly environments, who subsequently clawed their way to success and riches, using what God-given intelligence they had along with extreme hard word and risk management - perhaps with a bit of luck every now and again. These are exceptional people. I am, however, talking about the general majority of populations, who are not wired in such a way. We are not all born equal; that is with the same wiring, brains, intelligence - the X-Factor if you like - to enable that kind of success. If we were all born equal, into equal environments, with equal opportunities, then, I ask, what would the world be like?
I know I've crossed this philosophical path before in previous blog posts as well as at other points in my life, but rather than setting out to describe this philosophy in detail, I need to get a perspective on it all. It may be perhaps a bit more intuitive and instinctive than it is based on science and proper research, but, in my opinion, it is still a very valid observation. You can be your own judge of that.
For the world to change; for there to be an alteration to the - and some would argue a fairer - distribution of its assets, there would firstly have to be a seed change in the attitude to 'human rights'. I think there is a need to understand what a human being, from birth onwards, is entitled to. How much of their privilege, or lack of it, of their inherited wealth, or lack of it, are they entitled to? How much can they reasonably 'earn' by merit; how can we define 'merit'. Is a Premiership footballer a one hundred and fifty or two hundred times 'better' player than a professional footballer in National League 2; but not just as a player, as a human being too? Is the CEO of Shell as many times better a hard working and dedicated human being, manager, director, creative organiser, motivator.. as his salary bears in multiples of that of the lowest paid in society? I suspect the answer is no! How often is the CEO and highest paid management of companies of such stature born into poverty? And when they do rise from lowly backgrounds, how much of the way they were wired at birth influenced their ability to achieve such high office. Not an easy question to answer, but I suspect it is greed that is the primary fuel of all ambition at this level, at any level. Tell me I'm wrong.
We will always need exceptional individuals, the best and most talented people, to be leaders; to rise and take the greatest responsibilities in the world. But if the posts they fill and the motivations that drive them end up being self-serving; if they are only to generate as much personal wealth for themselves as possible, then where is the justice in that? We all of us need to try our hardest to be the best we can be, given our environment, genetic heritage and opportunities, and there should always be recognition of endeavour.
If materialism isn't going to go away any time soon, how do you motivate people to be the best they can be, when the gap between the rich and poor keeps on widening? At the moment, particularly in the age of materialism - and maybe for the duration of human existence on earth - this seems to be increasingly driven by material greed. We would all like to be rich, some of us famous, but all would like not to have to be a slave to another master.
All of this is grist to the mill of political debate over the ages: socialism vs capitalism; the market economy vs the (perhaps more difficult but not impossible to finance) caring and equitable welfare society.
Oh, I hear someone retort, it's about perceived market value, merchandising, image, branding... I'd like to use stronger language here, but "utter nonsense" is all I shall say (because I want this blog to be read!). Get human, try to get a handle on an alternative reality, because, unless you are amongst the top 1% of the world's rich - and if you were, I suspect you wouldn't be reading this essay - then you have the same motives as the rest of us. We all aspire to be better off, but beware of being a sycophant; allying and associating yourself with a grouping you are unlikely to join in reality, but merely aspire to be associated with. You won't get rich by association, although there may well be exceptions to this. 
That all sounds a bit radical - and maybe it is - but I wasn't born a radical and I'm not one now! In fact I was born into the traditional aspiring, privately educated middle class and was brought up always to believe in taking personal responsibility for my actions and achievements and not blaming someone else for my woes. But, as in any life, there comes a point where ones perspective changes as a result of experience, observation of injustice and a sensitivity to the enormity of the inequality in the world and, perhaps most important, an ability to think more clearly about what is really important about our lives on this earth.
We all need desperately to think, think, think and think again, in spite of the temptation to say "what on earth can I do" and then bury our heads in the sand. Without thought and subsequent conviction and, most important of all, a commitment to vote at every democratically devised opportunity that develops as a result of studied philosophical thought, our democracy will ebb away. It is already looking like it is doing so on the fringes of Europe in the cradle of European civilisation and democracy, Greece.
This brings me to the crux of what inspired me to write this post.
I recently received from a friend a 'forwarded' email, the text of which I have copied for you below. It is about the purported causes of the economic crisis of confidence in our southern European neighbour, Greece. I'm not going to say anything about it before you read it, but it will be followed by the comments I received from a Greek friend, whose opinions on the subject I respect and whom I asked to do so, in order that I could personally get an inside view of what is happening in her country and perhaps the veracity of the statements in this email as well as a feeling for the true plight of a majority of honest Greek people; people who, like you and me, represent a majority of the world's population, who are tasked with doing their best and surviving in the environment into which they were borne... mostly by chance, yes, by chance! 
Here goes the text of that email: -
"Even on a stiflingly hot summer's day, the Athens underground is a pleasure. It is air-conditioned, with plasma screens to entertain passengers relaxing in cool, cavernous departure halls and the trains even run on time. There is another bonus for users of this state-of-the-art rapid transport system: it is, in effect, free for the five million people of the Greek capital.
· With no barriers to prevent free entry or exit to this impressive tube network, the good citizens of Athens are instead asked to 'validate' their tickets at honesty machines before boarding. Few bother.
· Indeed, as well as not paying for their metro tickets, the people of Greece barely paid a penny of the underground’s £1.5 billion cost — a ‘sweetener’ from Brussels (and, therefore, the UK taxpayer) to help the country put on an impressive 2004 Olympics free of the city’s notorious traffic jams.
· The transport perks are not confined to the customers. Incredibly, the average salary on Greece’s railways is £60,000, which includes cleaners and track workers - treble the earnings of the average private sector employee.
· The overground rail network is as big a racket as the EU-funded underground. While its annual income is only £80million from ticket sales, the wage bill is more than £500m a year — prompting one Greek politician to famously remark that it would be cheaper to put all the commuters into private taxis.
· Ridiculously, Greek pastry chefs, radio announcers, hairdressers and masseurs in steam baths are among more than 600 professions allowed to retire at 50 (with a state pension of 95 per cent of their last working year’s earnings) — on account of the ‘arduous and perilous’ nature of their work.
· Take a short trip on the metro to the city’s cooler northern suburbs, and you will find an enclave of staggering opulence. Here, in the suburb of Kifissia, amid clean, tree-lined streets full of designer boutiques and car showrooms selling luxury marques such as Porsche and Ferrari, live some of the richest men and women in the world. With its streets paved with marble, and dotted with charming parks and cafes, this suburb is home to shipping tycoons such as Spiros Latsis, a billionaire and friend of Prince Charles, as well as countless other wealthy industrialists and politicians. One of the reasons they are so rich is that rather than paying millions in tax to the Greek state, as they rightfully should, many of these residents are living entirely tax-free.
· Along street after street of opulent mansions and villas, surrounded by high walls and with their own pools, most of the millionaires living here are, officially, virtually paupers. How so? Simple: they are allowed to state their own earnings for tax purposes, figures which are rarely challenged. And rich Greeks take full advantage.
· Astonishingly, only 5,000 people in a country of 12 million admit to earning more than £90,000 a year — a salary that would not be enough to buy a garden shed in Kifissia.
Yet studies have shown that more than 60,000 Greek homes each have investments worth more than £1m, let alone unknown quantities in overseas banks, prompting one economist to describe Greece as a ‘poor country full of rich people’.
· Manipulating a corrupt tax system, many of the residents simply say that they earn below the basic tax threshold of around £10,000 a year, even though they own boats, second homes on Greek islands and properties overseas. And, should the taxman rumble this common ruse, it can be dealt with using a ‘fakelaki’ — an envelope stuffed with cash. There is even a semi-official rate for bribes: passing a false tax return requires a payment of up to 10,000 euros (the average Greek family is reckoned to pay out £2,000 a year in fakelaki.)
· Even more incredibly, Greek shipping magnates — the king of kings among the wealthy of Kifissia — are automatically exempt from tax, supposedly on account of the great benefits they bring the country.
· Yet the shipyards are empty; once employing 15,000, they now have less than 500 to service the once-mighty Greek shipping lines which, like the rest of the country, are in terminal decline.
· With Greek President George Papandreou calling for a crackdown on these tax dodgers — who are believed to cost the economy as much as £40bn a year — he is now resorting to bizarre means to identify the cheats. After issuing warnings last year, government officials say he is set to deploy helicopter snoopers, along with scrutiny of Google Earth satellite pictures, to show who has a swimming pool in the northern suburbs — an indicator, officials say, of the owner’s wealth.
· Officially, just over 300 Kifissia residents admitted to having a pool. The true figure is believed to be 20,000. There is even a boom in sales of tarpaulins to cover pools and make them invisible to the aerial tax inspectors.
· There has also been a boom in London property purchases by Athens-based Greeks in an attempt to hide their true worth from their domestic tax authorities.‘These anti-tax evasion measures by the government force us to resort to even more detailed tax evasion ploys,’ admits Petros Iliopoulos, a civil engineer. Hotlines have been set up offering rewards for people who inform on tax dodgers. Last month, to show the government is serious, it named and shamed 68 high-earning doctors found guilty of tax evasion.
· Greek school system is now an over-staffed shambles, employing four times more teachers per pupil than Finland, the country with the highest-rated education system in Europe. ‘But we still have to pay for tutors for our two children,’ says Helena, an Athens mother. ‘The teachers are hopeless — they seem to spend their time off sick.’"
My friend works in the private sector in Athens. Her commentary is as follows:
"I really don’t know where to start with this as it ‘attempts’ to address so many issues, suffice to say that this is the kind of propaganda that fuelled the EU mass media machine in the first place.
Kifissia and Ekali are the wealthiest neighborhoods in all of Greece so painting pictures of Kifissia as representative of Greece is tantamount to using Beverly Hills and Hollywood as the example for the United States. 
No doubt a Greek in London is already a Greek of above average wealth - so ‘reliable sources’ may not necessarily be representative of the majority. Ditto for UHNWIs (ultra-high net worth individuals) purchasing property - these are not average Greeks.
There is no doubt that corruption is hugely problematic in Greece - as it is elsewhere (‘off shores’ and Swiss bank accounts = not only a Greek problem). The current Greek government is trying to lure investors (UHNWIs) to Greece with the promise of no taxation. But this is a 99% vs. 1% problem. The same everywhere. Greek shippers have their companies off shore. Again, that's not particular to Greece.

Re: the transport system, there are ticket inspectors and rather expensive fines for people who do not pay for tickets. Personally I do not know anyone who travels on public transport for free - there are not closed turnstiles in Athens as you would find in London or Paris, but the Athens Metro is only one line, connected to 3 suburban lines. It doesn't service much of the population of Athens. The expense to install turnstiles probably wouldn't justify the potential gains; and the ‘plasma entertainment screens’ on the train platforms are simply screens for advertising and to state the weather. It makes me wonder whether the writer of this email has ever taken a train in Athens. 
The school system: teachers get 550 Euros per month, 630 for experienced teachers. This is not enough to live on if you pay rent. Greece has London prices and Bulgarian salaries. This year students don't have books and many schools have been shut down. Class sizes = 30-35 students, but there are no books in schools & very poorly paid teachers... ‘over-staffed’ is not an adjective I would use to describe the school system... ever!
Here's a more realistic picture: my partner works full time, 10 hour days but hasn’t been paid for 4 months since there is no cash flow in the company. Why doesn't he quit? No jobs to go to anyway. His colleague, a 45 year old man with 2 kids, bought a modest apartment 2 years ago in Athens center for 100,000 euros. He hasn't been paid for 4 months so mortgage repayments can't be made. His wife had to go to her village in Crete to find work during the tourist season to pay for food for the family...
…the 90 year old woman on 300 euros/ month pension, who couldn't pay her ‘property tax’ which is now added to the electricity bill. She has her electricity cut off and with winter coming in the Balkans, she may well not survive. 
…I see people sleeping in the streets, the new homeless, and middle classes sorting through bins for food.
Now what's obvious is that the rich make more money during these tragic times, whilst the poor suffer.
Will austerity combat corruption - no it will not! Austerity taxes the poor and the rich will find ways to cheat the system. 
The system is sick, but it's not particular to Greece"
She went on to say...
"’s difficult to answer these things and NOT feel emotional about it. But facts are facts, and the "better off" do not know what regular people are experiencing. Only yesterday my partner and I renegotiated our rent with our landlord - fairly common since rent prices have fallen and salaries have been slashed (if you actually receive one). The only way we could convince them (since they're not in economic need & don’t care if the space is rented out or not - so they say..) was if it was win-win. So the result was a 22% cut in rent for us, and a 50 euro increase for them. How so?
They will be giving us a receipt declaring half the amount we actually give them - so they aren’t losing as much in taxes (which is 40-45%). Did we have a choice? No -- otherwise we'd have to move out and bear the cost of relocating. This is a small example of how the wealthy benefits from times like these -- 
I telework (communications /social media manager) for a US technology company. They had an EU office in Greece (VP of marketing was Greek American) - but the office closed in May. I will be finishing my contract with them at the end of this year - the VP of marketing wants marketing US-based (she's in San Francisco) as she finds the time difference hard to manage (and she isn't the best communicator - bit disorganized too, so makes things harder). At the end of the day she just didn't want to adjust her schedule to work around meeting me online - fair enough. I'm not upset about it, I have been working 10-12 hour days including often to 10pm or so in the evenings just so that I could catch her online. It’s been exhausting and not at all enjoyable. 
So yes, employed and paid till EOY. Already looking for work for 2012."
"at the end of the day John, I have dual nationality (Greek & Australian) - I'm mulitlingual and have worked in different countries, so I'll manage. If Greece becomes a fascist state (the way it’s looking now, that's promising) I will leave. The thing is, most people here do not have any choice at all - they just don’t know or can't imagine what they'll do, it's too scary, or they really don't have the means to relocate. The other side is also: why should they be driven from their own country, their homes and families...
People have been scared into complacency - it feels like everyone is just waiting for things to get worse - and more people will join in protest as they have less to lose. By then I suspect that things will have become much more dangerous. I don’t feel like I'm exaggerating - there has been a dangerous shift in politics in Southern Europe. Our government has a united coalition government (EC seal of approval) with far right members - Greece's "neo-nazis". That would never have happened if we'd been allowed to vote/have a referendum. The new unelected PM (former VP of the ECB) has demanded all party members sign that there will be NO early elections and all members must agree to the proposed bailout agreement - they must SIGN the agreement. What does that mean? The government - all parties, have the same political agenda, the same policies, same agreement with EC, and are bound by that agreement. We will see where that takes us..."
So please remember that you don't have to believe everything you read or hear at first sight, just because it fits with your own preconception; nor take what you read or hear in emails, or even in the press and media, as gospel, at least without first questioning it; delving a little deeper and thinking about it to test its slant and its objectivity and its truthfulness. Things are never what they seem to be. 

I am nevertheless very grateful to the friend who sent me the original email, because she was, just like me, ready to forward an email that basically painted a picture that I thought to be truly representative and that agreed with my preconceived notions about Greece and Greek society. How stupidly wrong I was to adopt that unquestioning stance! But for my Greek friend, I might still be thinking in the same vein now. What her response did do was make me think about it more deeply. 

Whether or not I've got my point across in this overly long essay, it still expresses, in the best way that I can, just how I feel.
At times of difficulty in our lives, and now is such a time, a very human tendency is to polarise, by which I mean groupings of people split into opposing camps - in this case probably into the 'haves', the 'hangers-on to the haves' or the 'I'm all right Jacks' on the one hand and 'have-nots' on the other. I count myself amongst the ‘haves’, because I am better off than the greater proportion of the world’s population, who probably live below the poverty line, depending on where you draw that line.
We are all fragile creatures, in reality, and there must be a better way. But - and this is a big BUT - I take the strong view that radical physical action is not the answer; protest marches always carry with them the risk of riot, which is so often spurred by a minority - from either side of the argument it has to be said - including from those with a vested interest in the legal clamp-down that results from serious rioting. I say this because, if you study the history of the march toward fascism and dictatorship in any country, we know that the seeds of unrest are planted by economic instability, but the result of this is often civil unrest the only logical conclusion is that police and ultimately military force becomes necessary, if a breakdown in law and order is threatened. And, let’s be honest about this, quite often those that cause civil disobedience and law breaking, apart from being in the minority, do not, I believe, have the same motives as the authentic protestors.
So, we should instead, take to the pen and the paper and, audio-visual and social media; whatever peacful means are at our disposal to share, debate and lobby.  AND, above all, cast your democratic vote at every opportunity; exercise your electoral rights… whilst you still have them!
Finally, spare a thought and a prayer, if you will, for the ordinary people of Greece, for whom it may already be too late; whose freedoms have already been eroded. Take a closer look at who in that country (and elsewhere) has profited from all this, because you can be sure there are a few who have… enormously.
Some further information for your edification:
Maker of the Film "Debtocracy" and commentator Aris Hatzistefanou's interview.
And an article in Spiegel Online International about Miza and Fakelaki
...and some more challenging reading: 
"Abandoning a Sinking Ship" by Yanis Varoufakis 

Monday, 5 December 2011

But, You Signed for It...!

This poem is for Shan, who, it seems, has suffered the most shameful of Christmas greetings, courtesy the Royal Mail. She received a letter, by 'Recorded Signed For' delivery, which she did sign for, just as we all would. On opening the envelope, she read the letter enclosed and looked for the vouchers described in the message - £200 worth of them - but nothing was there. It has to be said that, apart from the fact these are for her two young children's Christmas presents, she is a single mum living on next to nothing. What is almost worse, she says, is the thought that someone - maybe a postman - is walking around with £200 worth of Park Vouchers in their pocket, and that they will undoubtedly be spent for the benefit of someone for whom they were not intended!

Spare a thought for petty thieves and stick some needles in their 'dolls'. They don't deserve anything for Christmas!


That’s what they said, in a round about way
Please call us with any concerns
We are here to help; you must have your say
(On that premium rate number!)
What! Two hundred pounds! Lost in the post?
Are you quite sure about that?
OK, it was posted, recorded, at cost
Yes, but, you signed for its receipt!
Ah, well, you see, what can we do?
Cos you signed for the letter, you see!
Enabling control by receipt, that’s you
ensuring you get what you should.
So why don’t we point out your need to make sure
what you’re signing for is actually there?
You say: they give you no time to ensure
you can open and check what’s inside.
So what would we think if the driver were asked
to wait for the opening to occur?
They work to a very tight schedule and tasked
to complete it all on one day.
Besides, it’s all in the conditions you saw;
you’ve to sign before you break seal
So we can’t do that or we’d have to charge more
And I’m sure that wouldn’t appeal.
It’s all in the terms and conditions, you know
whatever you say, we can’t help.
Excuse, if we seem somewhat keen to go
and answer the next concerned call.
But if you have any worries at all
We are here to help so please
don’t hesitate, pick up the phone and call.
Royal Mail, at your service, willing to please.

© 2011 John Anstie

If you feel like getting in touch, and able to offer advice or succour to Shan, you will find her on Twitter @awdures