Friday, 30 January 2009

The fish rots head-first

The Greeks have a saying for poor management: The fish rots head-first (Το ψάρι βρωμάει απ' το κεφάλι). In other words, good or bad leadership fully permeates every level of a hierarchy. It is, perhaps, a trite truism, but it is also, these days, an under-appreciated one.

Anyone living in Greece - and particularly expatriates and Greek repatriates who have made a conscious decision to be here - sooner or later has to make a fundamental decision. Is Greek society being held back by its culture or its leadership? Does the fish rot head-first, or tail-first?

How each of us answers that question is of fundamental importance in how optimistic we are about the possibility of improvement, and where we place ourselves in this society.

The tail-first school will argue that Greek culture suffers from features that make Greeks less easy to govern than, say, a Scandinavian country. Many taxpayers clearly don't believe that honesty is the best policy; many voters expect a job by hook and by crook if their candidate wins; the demand side of corruption (ie the amount of money on offer to officials at various state levels) is higher than one would expect in, say, Helsinki (Greece earns a 4.6 out of a squeaky-clean ten in Transparency International's 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index, whereas Finland tops the list with a 9.4); and Greek individualism and tribal instinct run high, meaning that it is counter-intuitive to your average citizen (or group bound by common interest) to sacrifice some self-interest for the good of the whole.

The current crisis surrounding farmers is a case in point. An estimated 12 percent of Greek society is demanding a handout that will further burden the already large national debt. But we've already seen retirees, teachers, transport and utility workers, civil servants and others march to demand better pay and benefits many times before. The tail-first brigade would say that this is evidence enough that Greece is an unmanageable collection of self-interested groups which, usually during election campaigns, must be thrown a wine-drenched sop because they will never see the bigger picture. Greece will therefore never, as a rule, override special interests to formulate the best possible national strategies that will carry the nation forward (although accidents may always happen).

The tail-first view is not necessarily wrong; it is rich in realism; but it is overly deterministic. It sees the state of the nation as an insuperable historical product and the conventional political limitations of what can be achieved as an ultimate ceiling.

But social, economic or political reasons can always be found for why reform could not happen at any period in history. In this view, individual qualities are not equal to movements or trends, and maximum selfishness is a behavioural default.

Yet both selfishness and altruism have evolutionary purposes (see our perspective on the minefield that is social Darwinism on page 18). Politics are base when not the art of convincing people to take calculated risks for the betterment of all, while creating the perception that a critical mass of voters will, too. Given enough talent, leverage and exposure, an individual can make the greatest difference in appealing to the individual judgement of others, and Greek history is peppered with such talented individuals.

The optimistic view must therefore be the Socratic view - that people err only because they haven't been saved from a misconception of where their ultimate interest lies.

Many will dismiss this as fanciful talk in dire economic times. Now is the time for the evolutionary triggers to clawing and scraping, they will say. But a very powerful case can be made that it is precisely the time when such practice is no longer viable; that much of the counter-reformist labour activism and political mobilisation we have seen over the past decade have been minority-run illusions and not majority opinion at all.

Failures to refinance social security, liberalise education and make Greece a beacon of renewable energy, to pick three examples, can all be seen as failures of leadership, not culture. Better education, more reliable pensions that won't bring our children to their knees and electrical power that won't destroy their world can hardly be considered ideas a majority of Greeks is not ready for.

Nor can the Holy Grail of a meritocratic society be considered undesirable here because of the feudal Ottoman past or some other anachronism. Even the people who are capable of carving out for themselves a microclimate of favour through private connections and short-circuit transparent processes will opt for a system of broad-based meritocracy, as long as they believe that this is really achievable and won't disfavour them, simply because any kind of special environment is tenuous. It won't ultimately last long enough to guarantee fair treatment of their children as well as a system of meritocracy does. And what will they do when they find themselves on an even playing field for the first time?

Why, then, have urgent reforms failed for a decade? Quite simply because neither Kostas Karamanlis nor Kostas Simitis prioritised them highly enough to unite the silent majority. Simitis came to power with 162 seats in 1996 and Karamanlis with 165 seats in 2004. Both have important achievements to their credit; but both squandered their mandate by allowing lesser politicians to raise cheap street theatre against them using little more than children, unionists and the elderly. Neither man stood tall enough in the shadow of Andreas Papandreou to abolish the political correctness of populism. We are now left with a political culture afraid to create anything new, because what has obviously been needed for so long has been made to appear unappealing.

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