Tom Friedman had a lunch of grilled fish with the Greek prime minister the other day, and we got to read about the impending Greek revolution. With the Acropolis in view, the two men agreed: the private sector would remake Greece and save it. The state would reduce spending by cutting wages and pensions, while private firms, now more able to flourish, would move in to fill the economic gap. This fantasy has underpinned all of the news coverage of the Greek economic crisis, revealing a seemingly universal acceptance of neoliberal economics among mainstream media. Friedman, too, espouses this version of reality, asking not if the theory works, but only whether Greeks are capable of applying it.
Apparently, neither Friedman, nor very many other journalists seem to know much about the country’s anemic private sector. “That means the Greek state’s primary role is as an employer because, to put it bluntly, the private sector is not up to the task of ongoing job creation,” argues Paul Buchanan, a political writer residing in Greece. The sector has no internationally competitive industries; or it consists of firms that either avoid paying taxes by cheating or by taking their profits offfshore (shipping); or it’s just too small. Too, a Greek commentator recently writing for the Times, Philomila Tsoukala, a law professor at Georgetown, identified the role of the family as a central problem: “The more pressing issue is that the country’s private sector is comprised mostly of family-owned and family-staffed businesses that hinder competition and innovation and depress wages.”
I am reminded of a job interview in Athens with a cement company named for a powerful mythological figure. The firm was big, with $1B in annual revenue. After some time with the HR director, I was ushered to the office of a man my age, the son of the company’s founder, now too rich and old to visit the office regularly. In early summer, the son was already well tanned, which had me picturing him on Mykonos, forgetting to apply sunscreen. He sat, dressed in an expensive suit sans tie, behind a small desk, which was devoid of any trace of work. A few days before the interview, a worker had been killed in an industrial accident, covered widely in the news. This man before whom I sat was, I had been told, the public affairs director. Yet there was nothing on the desk. Not a computer, not a pen, not a piece of paper, or even a phone. If you’re wondering, I didn’t get the job.
[Next time: The Mediterranean attitude toward debt, according to the Times.]