Painting by numbers

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

 

Thessaloniki – Legend has it that Thessaloniki’s White Tower got its name after a prisoner held within its walls whitewashed the 27-meter tall structure so he could receive his ticket to freedom. For Prime Minister George Papandreou, who failed to impress in the northern city last weekend with a flat economic policy speech and an unconvincing display at a marathon news conference, there was no such hope of liberation from the shackles that bind his government.

On Sunday, whether it was the locals lounging in the cafes at Aristotelous Square, the protesting firefighters marching toward the Thessaloniki International Fair, or the police officers –as ever looking like bored guests at a relative’s wedding – guarding the Makedonia Palace Hotel where the Cabinet had decamped to for the weekend, nobody seemed particularly bothered by what Papandreou had to say.

His appearance simply confirmed what Greeks already knew: tough situation, tough choices, and tough times ahead. But almost a year after PASOK came to power and some six months after it agreed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund on a strict plan to tackle its debt crisis, people were entitled to hear something more substantial about where the country will go from here, something to give them hope that a course has been plotted through this economic maelstrom.

Papandreou’s only real note of optimism was in a section of his speech dedicated to Greek entrepreneurs and businesses excelling internationally – proof, the prime minister suggested, that the desire and ability to succeed is strong. Yet, even this attempt to lift the mood rang slightly hollow: one of the companies Papandreou mentioned was a start-up that created iSteam, an iPhone application downloaded by more than 3 million users, but on Tuesday a young entrepreneur involved in the project revealed the firm had been founded in the UK because of the excessive red tape in Greece.

The fact these creative minds were put off by the business environment here says more about Greek reality than the thousands of words in Papandreou’s speech. In fact, there was no indication in what the prime minister said that his government has plans to create a more conducive atmosphere for business, nor an acknowledgment that the terms of the EU-IMF agreement are stifling economic activity. If structural reform, civil service pay cuts, pension reductions, higher taxes and the slashing of public spending are all ingredients of the nasty, but necessary, medicine that Greece has to take, then there has been no move by the government to concoct a potion to combat the ugly side-effects such as negative growth, unemployment, dwindling consumer spending, poor business sentiment and inflation.

All that Papandreou proposed in Thessaloniki was a reduction in tax on reinvested profits and the fast-tracking of foreign investment programs. Both are welcome moves but collectively they fall short of what’s required. It’s hardly the formula to dislodge Greece from 83rd place on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, which was published last week. Ranked last in the EU and nestled uncomfortably between El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago, it will take more than a few common sense measures to thrust Greece onward and upward.

There has been no convincing attempt by PASOK to discover the missing link between structural reforms and the measures needed to stimulate the economy. Instead, Greece faces the prospect of slipping into a vicious circle where a lack of growth would prompt a steady stream of fresh austerity measures to make up for revenue shortfalls. In this scenario, Greece’s fiscal position would steadily worsen and, like a dog chasing its tail, the government would be sniffing out funds just to service its debt and for nothing else. Ultimately, Greece’s credibility on the international financial markets would disintegrate and the whole purpose of entering the EU-IMF fiscal agreement would be defeated.

Trying to get the balance right between fiscal adjustment and growth is an unenviable task and the only saving grace for Papandreou and his government is that they’re not the only ones who don’t have convincing solutions. The opposition parties, for instance, have been heavy on the criticism of the belt-tightening but light on counter-proposals. Foreign experts, meanwhile, are offering suggestions that Greece cannot contemplate politically, such as debt restructuring, default or exit from the eurozone.

The UK is facing a watered-down version of Greece’s problem and critics there have begun challenging the Coalition Government’s drastic deficit reduction strategy. Recently, Ed Balls, a longtime economic advisor to former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, warned in a speech at the Bloomberg financial news service that Osborne’s hefty spending cuts would send Britain into double-dip recession and cause long-term damage. He singled out Greece as an example not to follow, arguing that the spending cuts are undeliverable and that a lack of growth will eventually lead to the markets losing confidence.

“The Greek crisis may have started with concerns over the government’s ability to service its debt but it is now a more fundamental question about whether its economy can grow and its society can remain stable,” said Balls. However he has few useful proposals for Greece. Balls suggests less stringent cuts, spread out over a longer period of time – a luxury not available to Papandreou’s government – and support for a series of programs aimed at boosting employment.

It’s hardly a groundbreaking idea but some kind of apprentice scheme for high school graduates, whereby firms are given financial incentives to take on teenagers would at least be a place for PASOK to start. Papandreou had once been in favor of allowing firms to be excused from paying social security contributions for young hires for a certain period. He might want to reconsider this idea, even though it would be anathema to the left wing of his party, as it would put spending money in the pockets of thousands of teenagers while helping emerging businesses limit their costs. But bolder ideas will be needed. Perhaps the government needs to put the billions spent on feeding, training, housing and transporting Greek youths who have no interest in doing their military service to better use. Why not offer them the opportunity to do community work and spend a fraction of the money on paying them a small wage instead?

However, all this is minor tinkering when major interventions are needed; interventions that will help drive Greek companies forward, that will boost the tourism sector, that will support innovation and that will strip away the bureaucracy which limits entrepreneurship. Greece has been a global economic test case this year and if it manages to find a way to balance drastic fiscal adjustment with economic revival new ground will be broken. Making this happen within the current constraints is an order of massive proportions but that’s what the prisoner must have felt like when, bucket and paintbrush in hand, he stared up at the White Tower. Nevertheless, the job got done and the chains were broken. Maybe there is a positive message to take from Thessaloniki after all.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on September 17, 2010.

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