Civic life

Michael Lewis, in this month’s Vanity Fair, offers the richest and most entertaining account of the Greek crisis that I’ve seen so far. The now familiar themes of corruption, tax evasion, and deception are Lewis’s subjects in “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds.” But he complicates and deepens our understanding of Greek reality by focusing on the scandal surrounding the Vatopaidi monastery, whose abbot is accused of colluding with government officials to take ownership of and benefit from public land. The scandal helped topple the previous government a year ago and has been a mainstay of Greek media coverage since then. But beyond Lewis’s account of visiting the remote monastery, or talking to monks turned real estate developers, the story is remarkable for its insight about the deeper social and moral crisis that is ravaging Greece:

Everyone is pretty sure everyone is cheating on his taxes, or bribing politicians, or taking bribes, or lying about the value of his real estate. And this total absence of faith in one another is self-reinforcing. The epidemic of lying and cheating and stealing makes any sort of civic life impossible; the collapse of civic life only encourages more lying, cheating, and stealing. Lacking faith in one another, they fall back on themselves and their families.

Neither the government, nor the IMF, nor the market, nor the Church can stop this “epidemic” or create a civic life in Greece. Which is why I’ve been arguing that this is far more than a fiscal or economic problem. Rather it is a social and ethical problem and requires an apt solution. Without it, Greece may be able to regain the trust of bond investors, but little else.

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