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Greece's Financial Crisis Related To Design Of Eurozone


Is there something uniquely Greek about the Greek debt crisis? Well, listening to Yannis Palaiologos or reading him, you come away with a sense that there is. He's a journalist. He wrote a book about the crisis called "The 13th Labor Of Hercules." Newsweek quotes him this week as saying this of his fellow Greeks - "we have a heavy inheritance from the ancient world and were never able to make the transition to modernity. We were shielded from our faults, and now they've caught up with us. But we are shocked and blame others for them." Yannis Palaiologos joins us from Athens. Welcome to the program.

YANNIS PALAIOLOGOS: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: When you say that Greece has failed to make a transition to modernity, what do you mean by that?

PALAIOLOGOS: Well, I mean, basically, that since the beginning of modern Greek history, we have failed on a number of levels to construct a modern, Western-style state with, you know, the rule of law and with proper taxation which will pay for modern services for its citizens. There's obviously been a lot of improvement since the 1830s, to a large extent in the last few decades thanks to the European Union. But it's still the case that most of the Greeks view the state with great suspicion. They don't view it as the embodiment of the common good, and they're reluctant to pay taxes. And then, of course, they complain for the shoddy services they get in return.

SIEGEL: If they don't see the state as representing them, what do they see as representing them?

PALAIOLOGOS: Well, there's a great deal of tribalism connected with political parties or with unions or local interests of various kinds. And people try to use their affiliation to various groups like that to, in a major or minor sense, plunder the state. They get things from it - anything from, you know, government contracts to a government job or, you know, to get the tax man to look the other way when they themselves do not contribute to that state. They see it as something to be plundered and not something to contribute to.

SIEGEL: You're saying ask not what I can do for my country but what my country can do for me is what you're describing.

PALAIOLOGOS: Yes. It's a subversion of Kennedy.

SIEGEL: Modern Greece, though, became independent before Italy and Germany were unified. It was devastated in World War II, but so were other countries. And the former communist countries have had to rebuild legitimate politics from scratch. What is persistently different about Greece and Greeks that still leaves you in this fix?

PALAIOLOGOS: Well, I think first of all, we have to recognize that compared to all the other areas of the Ottoman Empire that got their independence in the 19th century, Greece has actually done better than all of them. It's become richer. It's become more democratic, so, you know, it's not the case that it's been a history of consistent failure. In fact, you could say that it's a history of continued progress despite many failures.

The particular fix we're in now is very strongly related to the many problems that the eurozone has in its design and in the way that it was set up. So, you know, it allowed us in the early years, when everyone thought that everything was going great, to borrow far too much both as a government and as individuals. And when the world crisis came, it affected us especially badly. And because Greek institutions have been corrupted in the previous years, they were unable to bear the burden of adjustment and still are not able to do it.

SIEGEL: But when we see the events of the past week or so - a defiant referendum, an audacious prime minister, a country with a very weak hand acting like it's holding four aces - how do you explain that attitude?

PALAIOLOGOS: Well, some of it has to do with desperation. I mean, this is a country that's undergone a tremendous amount of austerity. It's lost about a quarter of its income in the last five years. Unemployment has been above 25 percent for three years now. So people were warned by European leaders that a no vote in the referendum would threaten a Greek exit from the euro. Some didn't believe it, but many believed it and just didn't care because they thought how much worse can things get? My view is that they can get a lot worse, but many people have had it.

SIEGEL: You've written about the question facing any Greek in your situation, which is, do you stay? Do you stay or do you go? How common is that question in the lives of Greeks today, and how do you cope with it?

PALAIOLOGOS: Well, it's become painfully relevant in the last few days. I know many people - and I would include myself in that category - who - you know, people have connections abroad - who have studied abroad, who would like to stay here and build a life here and work here. But, you know, especially if things go badly this weekend and we are put on a path out of the euro, I think the kind of chaos that we will see here will make it impossible for many of us to stay. So in a sense, this kind of brain drain will be much worse for the country itself because it will be its most able citizens, those who will be better able to build a new future for Greece, who will leave and offer their services elsewhere.

SIEGEL: Journalist and author Yannis Palaiologos, thank you very much for talking with us today.


SIEGEL: Mr. Palaiologos spoke to us from Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.