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August 20, 2013

In Greece, Votes Are Traded for Government Jobs



(p. A4) Some members of Parliament have lobbied for fishing licenses for the owners of pleasure boats in the Aegean islands. Others have asked for government jobs for award-winning athletes or members of dismantled state agencies. One sought to exempt theaters and cinemas from a controversial property tax. Another to reduce fines for the owners of illegally built homes in parts of northern Greece. The list goes on.

In all, more than 90 such budget-busting proposals have been floated as lawmakers scramble to push through last-minute amendments to bills otherwise intended to meet the demands of creditors who want Greece to liberalize its job market, cut red tape and shrink state payrolls.


. . .


But the proliferation of items threatens to delay that step, as lawmakers go to the trough one last time. Greece's practice of trading favors -- often government jobs -- for political support is as old as its 400 years of Ottoman rule, when the system evolved. The word for it, "rousfeti," which means favor, has its roots in the Turkish word for bribe.


. . .


"In Greece, the cross is sold in exchange for a government job," said one of them, Theodoros Pangalos, the outspoken deputy prime minister and seasoned Socialist, referring to the X that voters make on the ballot.

"No one has dared touch this system to date," Mr. Pangalos, who will not seek re-election, said this month in an interview with the French-German television channel Arte. "But it is time for it to change."



For the full story, see:

NIKI KITSANTONIS. "Despite Warning, Old Handouts Die Hard for Greek Politicians Facing Voters Soon." The New York Times (Tues., April 10, 2012): A4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date April 9, 2012.)






February 28, 2013

Greek Government Buries Olive Oil Entrepreneur in Red Tape



AntonopoulosFotisGreekOliveOil2013-02-23.jpg "Fotis Antonopoulos's struggles to start OliveShop.com have made him a reluctant emblem of thwarted Greek entrepreneurship." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



Vassilis Korkidis, who is quoted below, is (p. A3) "the president of the National Confederation of Hellenic Commerce, a trade association in Athens."



(p. A1) ATHENS -- It was about a year ago that Fotis I. Antonopoulos, a successful Web program designer here, decided he wanted to open an e-business selling olive products.

Luckily, he already had a day job.

It took him 10 months -- crisscrossing the city to collect dozens of forms and stamps of approval, including proof that he was up to date on his pension contributions -- before he could get started. But even that was not enough. In perhaps the strangest twist of all, his board members were required by the Health Department to submit lung X-rays -- and stool samples -- since this was a food company.


. . .


With Greece's economy entering its fourth year of recession, its entrepreneurs are eager to reverse a frightening tide. Last year, at least 68,000 small and medium-size businesses closed in Greece; nearly 135,000 jobs associated with them vanished. Predictions for 2012 are also bleak.

But despite the government's repeated promises to improve things, the climate for doing business here remains abysmal. In a recent report titled "Greece 10 Years Ahead," McKinsey & Company described Greece's economy as "chronically suffering from unfavorable conditions for business." Start-ups faced immense amounts of red tape, complex administrative and tax systems and procedural disincentives, it said.


. . .


(p. A3) Part of Mr. Antonopoulos's problem, Mr. Korkidis ventured, was his unwillingness to pay what is routinely referred to here as the "speed tax" -- bribes to move things along.

Nor is Mr. Korkidis much of a fan of recent government efforts to improve things. He pointed to a pamphlet produced by the Ministry of Development, which explained a new "one-stop shop" program for new businesses.

"This doesn't work," he said. "You have to collect 10 papers first -- and then it is one-stop shopping. Ridiculous."

At 36, Mr. Antonopoulos is an aging computer whiz kid with long hair and an easy smile.


. . .


The worst moment, he said, was when representatives from two agencies came to inspect the shop and disagreed about the legality of a circular staircase. They walked out telling him that he "would have to figure it out."

"At that point, we actually thought about just going to the U.K. with this," he said. "One of the inspectors knew about new legislation. The other didn't. And they just refused to come up with a solution."

At one point, the company got a huge order from Denmark, he said. But the paperwork for what amounted to a wholesale transaction was so onerous that they decided not to even try to fill the order.



For the full story, see:

SUZANNE DALEY. "A Tale of Greek Enterprise and Olive Oil, Smothered in Red Tape." The New York Times (Mon., March 19, 2012): A1 & A3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 18, 2012.)






December 31, 2012

Ancient Recipe Rights Protection



"The Sybarites," Phylarchus [the 3rd cent. BCE historian] says, "having drifted into luxury wrote a law that women be invited to festivals and that those who make the call to the sacrifice issue their summons a year in advance; thus the women could prepare their dresses and other adornments in a manner befitting that time span before answering the summons. And if some cook or chef invented an extraordinary recipe of his own, no one but the inventor was entitled to use it for a year, in order that during this time the inventor should have the profit and others might labor to excel in such endeavors. Similarly, those who sold eels were not charged taxes, nor those who caught them. In the same manner they made those who worked with sea-purple dye and those who imported it exempt from taxes."


Source:

Athenaeus. Deipnosophistae (the Scholars at Dinner), XII 521c2-d7.

(Note: as quoted on the back cover of Journal of Political Economy 118, no. 6 (December 2010).)






May 20, 2012

"An Entrenched Favors-for-Votes Culture Is Now Coming Unglued"



TsochatzopoulosAkisGreekOfficial2012-05-07.jpg








"Akis Tsochatzopoulos on April 11 became the highest-ranking Greek official ever to be detained on corruption charges." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.





(p. A6) Prosecutors accuse the former defense minister, Akis Tsochatzopoulos, 73, a founding member of the Socialist Party and the highest-ranking Greek official ever to be detained on corruption charges, of pocketing at least $26 million in kickbacks for Greece's purchase of submarines and missile systems and funneling the money through offshore accounts to buy property.


. . .


The case of Mr. Tsochatzopoulos (pronounced zok-at-ZOP-ou-los) marks the rise -- and perhaps fall -- of a political culture that has dominated Greece for decades, in which alternating Socialist and center-right New Democracy governments helped spread the spoils and, critics say, the corruption, during the boom years. That system helped drive up Greece's public debt to the point that it was forced to seek a foreign bailout in 2010.

As the money has run out, an entrenched favors-for-votes culture is now coming unglued, and Greeks have become less forgiving of high-level missteps.



For the full story, see:

RACHEL DONADIO and NIKI KITSANTONIS. "Corruption Case Hits Hard in a Tough Time for Greece." The New York Times (Thurs., May 3, 2012): A6 & A11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story is dated May 2, 2012.)






April 11, 2012

"A Greek, an Italian and a Spaniard Walk into a Bar"



(p. A15) A joke making the rounds: A Greek, an Italian and a Spaniard walk into a bar. Each orders a drink. Who pays? The German.


For the full commentary, see:

DAVID WESSEL. "CAPITAL; For Europe, a Lehman Moment." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., December 1, 2011): A15.





March 6, 2012

"Amazed by the Short-Term Psychology in the Market"



(p. A1) Even after European leaders appeared to have averted a chaotic default by Greece with an eleventh-hour deal for aid, worries persist that a debt disaster on the Continent has merely been delayed.

The tortured process that culminated in that latest bailout has exposed the severe limitations of Europe's approach to the crisis. Many fear that policy makers simply don't have the right tools to deal with other troubled countries like Italy, Spain, Ireland and Portugal, a situation that could weigh on the markets and the broader economy.

"I don't want to be a Cassandra, but the idea that it's over is an illusion," said Kenneth S. Rogoff, a professor of economics at Harvard and co-author of "This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly." "I am amazed by the short-term psychology in the market."


. . .


(p. B3) "I don't think we're anywhere near the endgame," Professor Rogoff of Harvard said.



For the full commentary, see:

PETER EAVIS. " NEWS ANALYSIS; For Greece, a Bailout; for Europe, Perhaps Just an Illusion." The New York Times (Weds., February 22, 2012): A1 & B3 (sic).

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary is dated February 21, 2012.)



Rogoff and Reinhart's thought-provoking and much-praised book is:

Reinhart, Carmen M., and Kenneth Rogoff. This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.






March 3, 2012

Freedom Grew from the Greek Agora



Culture-Of-FreedomBK2012-02-29.jpg











Source of book image: http://images.borders.com.au/images/bau/97801997/9780199747405/0/0/plain/a-culture-of-freedom-ancient-greece-and-the-origins-of-europe.jpg





(p. C9) A city's central space reveals much about the society that built it. In the middle of the typical Greek city-state, or polis, stood neither a palace nor a temple--the dominant centering structures of Asian and Egyptian cities--but an open public square, an agora, useful for gatherings and the conduct of business. When Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, first encountered Greeks on his western boundaries, he sneered at the race of shopkeepers who hung about the agora cheating one another all day. Yet that same race would later defeat his descendants, Darius and Xerxes, in two of the most consequential battles the Western world has seen, at Marathon in 490 B.C. and at Salamis 10 years later.


. . .


Mr. Meier's approach runs counter to a tendency in recent classical scholarship to trace Greek ideas to non-Greek sources or to seek common ground on which East and West once met. The polis itself has been claimed in the past few decades as a Near Eastern, or Phoenician, invention; Carthage too, it seems, had an agora at its hub. But Mr. Meier takes pains to dismiss this claim. Relying on expertise amassed in his long academic career, he reasserts the uniqueness of Greek political evolution, the mysterious and somewhat miraculous process that culminates, at the end of this account, in the emergence of Athenian democracy.


. . .


After surveying the crucial reforms of the Athenian leader Cleisthenes, the foundation stones of the world's first democratic constitution, Mr. Meier asks: "Was it just a matter of time before the Attic citizenry was reorganized--so that Cleisthenes did something that would have happened sooner or later anyway? Or were Cleisthenes' achievements beyond the scope of men less able and daring?"



For the full review, see:

JAMES ROMM. "The Greeks' Daring Experiment." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., FEBRUARY 11, 2012): C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)


The book under review is:

Meier, Christian. A Culture of Freedom: Ancient Greece and the Origins of Europe. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011.





January 21, 2012

"Just What Ailments Are Pylos Tablets Supposed to Alleviate?"



LinearBscript2012-01-14.jpg










"Professor Bennett's work opened a window to deciphering tablets written in Linear B, a Bronze Age Aegean script." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited below.



(p. 22) Deciphering an ancient script is like cracking a secret code from the past, and the unraveling of Linear B is widely considered one of the most challenging archaeological decipherments of all time, if not the most challenging.


. . .


Linear B recorded the administrative workings of Mycenaean palatial centers on Crete and the Greek mainland 3,000 years ago: accounts of crops harvested, flocks tended, goods manufactured (including furniture, chariots and perfume), preparations for religious feasts and preparations for war.

It was deciphered at last in 1952, not by a scholar but by an obsessed amateur, a young English architect named Michael Ventris. The decipherment made him world famous before his death in an automobile accident in 1956.

As Mr. Ventris had acknowledged, he was deeply guided by Professor Bennett's work, which helped impose much-needed order on the roiling mass of strange, ancient symbols.

In his seminal monograph "The Pylos Tablets" (1951), Professor Bennett published the first definitive list of the signs of Linear B. Compiling such a list is the essential first step in deciphering any unknown script, and it is no mean feat.


. . .


"We know how much Ventris admired Bennett, because he immediately adopted Bennett's sign list of Linear B for his own work before the decipherment," said Mr. Robinson, whose book "The Man Who Deciphered Linear B" (2002) is a biography of Mr. Ventris. "He openly said, 'This is a wonderful piece of work.' "


. . .


As meticulous as Professor Bennett's work was, it once engendered great confusion. In 1951, after he sent Mr. Ventris a copy of his monograph, a grateful Ventris went to the post office to pick it up. As Mr. Robinson's biography recounts, a suspicious official, eyeing the package, asked him: "I see the contents are listed as Pylos Tablets. Now, just what ailments are pylos tablets supposed to alleviate?"



For the full obituary, see:

MARGALIT FOX. "Emmett L. Bennett Jr., Ancient Script Expert, Dies at 93." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., January 1, 2012,): 22.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary is dated December 31, 2011, and has the title: "Emmett L. Bennett Jr., Expert on Ancient Script, Dies at 93.")


The book on the amateur, uncredentialed Ventris is:

Robinson, Andrew. The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris. London, UK: Thames & Hudson, 2002.



BennettEmmettJr2012-01-14.jpg













"Emmett L. Bennett Jr." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited above.







December 4, 2011

In Greece's Bloated Bureaucracy "It's All about Who You Know"



GreekGovernmentWorkerProtest2011-11-10.jpg "Police officers, firefighters and coast guard officers protested austerity measures in Athens on Monday." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A5) ATHENS -- Stories of eye-popping waste and abuse of power among Greece's bureaucrats are legion, including officials who hire their wives, and managers who submit $38,000 bills for office curtains.

The work force in Greece's Parliament is so bloated, according to a local press investigation, that some employees do not even bother to come to work because there are not enough places for all of them to sit.


. . .


Some experts believe that Greece could reap significant savings by reducing its bureaucracy, which employs one out of five workers in the country and by some estimates could be trimmed by as much as a third without materially affecting services. But though salaries have been cut, the government has yet to lay off anyone.

The main reason is also one of the very reasons that Greece got into trouble in the first place: The government is in many ways an army of patronage appointments built up over decades. When election time rolls around, state workers become campaign workers, and their reach is enormous. There are so many of them that almost every family has one.


. . .


Whether the right workers will be laid off remains an open question. "A lot of people in the government are terrified," Mr. Hlepas said. "They don't think any of those people over in Parliament are going to go. They think the ones that do the work will get cut."

Thomas Tsamatsoulis, 41, who works for the Greek equivalent of the Federal Aviation Administration, said he found himself on an early list headed for the reserve pool, though he had been sent to the United States for electronics training and now has a skill that is rare in his agency. At the same time, Mr. Tsamatsoulis said, the agency, which has just two airplanes, has more than 15 pilots.

"You want to believe the government will do this right," he said. "But it is very difficult. It's not how it has worked in the past. It's all about who you know."

Greece's bureaucracy has been growing steadily since democracy was reinstated in 1974, with each new administration adding its supporters to the payroll -- and wages rising steeply in the past decade, experts say.

"There was really a party going on," said Yannis Stournaras, an economist and the director of the Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research in Athens. "The government kept adding bonuses and benefits and pensions. At election time there was a boom cycle as they handed out jobs."

"Now they need to cut," he added. "But they have already lost precious time."

Stories of excesses abound. Mr. Papandreou told Parliament that one of his ministers found a predecessor's $38,000 bill for curtains when the Socialists returned to power in 2009. Mr. Mossialos said he found that his own ministry, for media and communication, was spending $750,000 a year for office space for just 11 people.

But some experts question whether the culture of bloat and favoritism will ever be conquered.



For the full story, see:

SUZANNE DALEY. "Bureaucracy in Greece Defies Efforts to Cut It." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., October 18, 2011): A2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 17, 2011.)






October 10, 2011

In Greece "Entrepreneurial Activity Was Denigrated"



CoustasDanaosGreekShippiingEntrep2011-08-10.jpg











John Coustas. Source of image: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.







(p. A15) Athens

If you've ever wondered why so many Greeks succeed in shipping, John Coustas has a plausible theory: "Greek shipping has nothing to do with the Greek state."

His firm, Danaos Corporation, is a case in point. Mr. Coustas took over the company, which owns container ships, from his father in 1987 and has since transformed it from a three-vessel outfit into the third-largest company of its kind in the world, with a fleet of 56 ships. Danaos is incorporated in the Marshall Islands, a popular and stable jurisdiction for the global industry, and handles many of its operations through its German, Ukrainian, Russian and Tanzanian offices.

Nevertheless, Mr. Coustas is deeply concerned with the fate of his country. The government is now on the brink of default after passing its latest round of spending cuts and tax hikes. Yet the biggest risk to Greece, he says, is brain drain, that "all the good people, who really have something to offer, are either leaving or seriously considering it."


. . .


On top of misguided government spending, Mr. Coustas says entrepreneurial activity was denigrated for many years and profit was regarded as "wrong." "Anyone who wanted to make an investment here was considered a kind of bloodsucker."



For the full commentary, see:

ANNE JOLIS. "Greece: Where Profit Is Taboo; A shipping magnate on the fate of his country." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., July 13, 2011): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





March 30, 2011

In Greece It Is Illegal for Brewers to Produce Tea



PolitopooulosDemetriGreekEntrepreneur2011-03-09.jpg "Demetri Politopoulos at his microbrewery in northern Greece. He says Greek leaders need to do more to make the country an easier place to do business." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. 1) DEMETRI POLITOPOULOS says he has suffered countless indignities in his 12-year battle to build a microbrewery and wrest a sliver of the Greek beer market from the Dutch colossus, Heineken.

His tires have been slashed and his products vandalized by unknown parties, he says, and his brewery has received threatening phone calls. And he says he has had to endure regular taunts -- you left Manhattan to start up a beer factory in northern Greece? -- not to mention the pain of losing 5.3 million euros.

Bad as all that has been, nothing prepared him for this reality: He would be breaking the law if he tried to fulfill his latest -- and, he thinks, greatest -- entrepreneurial dream. It is to have his brewery produce and export bottles of a Snapple-like beverage made from herbal tea, which he is cultivating in the mountains that surround this lush pocket of the country.

An obscure edict requires that brewers in Greece produce beer -- and nothing else. Mr. Politopoulos has spent the better part of the last year trying fruitlessly to persuade the Greek government to strike it. "It's probably a law that goes back to King Otto," said Mr. Politopoulos with a grim chuckle, referring to the Bavarian-born king of Greece who introduced beer to the country around 1850.

Sitting in his office, Mr. Politopoulos took a long pull from a glass of his premium Vergina wheat beer and said it was absurd that he had to lobby Greek politicians to repeal a 19th-century law so that he could deliver the exports that Greece urgently needed. And, he said, his predicament was even worse than that: it was emblematic of the web of restrictions, monopolies and other distortions that have made many Greek companies uncompetitive, and pushed the country close to bankruptcy.



For the full story, see:

LANDON THOMAS Jr. "What's Broken in Greece? Ask an Entrepreneur." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., January 30, 2011): 1 & 5.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated January 29, 2011.)





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