Sunday, March 25, 2007

A tale of two cities or why Greeks are Europe's biggest suckers

Lisbon is a European capital that could easily be compared to Athens. It is a city of approximately two million in its municipal borders (quite as many as in the city of Athens) and the biggest city of a country of 11 million (as many as the Greeks more or less) who live in an area as big as Greece’s. Here is where the similarities end and the big surprises start!

The Portuguese capital is a city in human dimensions, with lots of parks, open spaces and pedestrian ways, which are getting more each year, and with an historical center that maintains full respect of its architectural heritage. All this has its reflection on its inhabitants: They are calm, polite and serious people, who deal with numerous and serious problems in their daily lives, namely financial. Indeed, Portugal is not a rich country, but somehow the average Portuguese makes ends meet. They do everything conservatively. They will go out to have fun at night 2-3 times a week, they will dine out 5-6 times a month, and for their holiday destination, they will chose their own country, since it is inexpensive, or neighboring Spain.

The inhabitant of the Greek capital on the other hand lives in a city with scarce green spaces, which are getting less each year, with an almost entirely destroyed architectural identity in its very center, noisy with an extremely high number of automobiles, and in general dirty (excluding maybe the main streets and avenues downtown).

Athenians themselves follow the norms of their city. They are nervous, rude and shout too much. They too are rather poor. And although they deal with many daily financial problems and additionally they’re in deep debt up to their nose since they owe more than they can handle in bank loans and credit cards, they somehow survive the hardships. And they do so in a way that would leave a foreign neutral observer speechless! Their nights out are indeed fewer than what they were a few years back but still they manage to have fun out 2-3 times a week (more in summertime), dine out up to 10 times a month (taverns, restaurants and eateries in general are never in crisis in Greece), and spend their summer holidays in the islands (extremely expensive anyway) or abroad (this is one of the very few places in the world that banks officially provide the service of “holiday loans”).

But let us see some absolutely comparative stats and figures that are directly related to the cultural identity of the two peoples, which will help you all draw your own conclusions:

· Some ten daily newspapers of national circulation are published in Lisbon. In Greece, they are more than 50.
· Lisbon is the home of approximately 80 magazine titles you can buy all over the country. More than 250 are published in Athens alone.
· Five television channels broadcast nationally from Lisbon. Some twenty broadcast from Athens.
· In greater Lisbon there are some 25 long-range radio stations. In greater Athens they are more than 100.
· In Lisbon alone each theater season some 40 theaters present their productions. Athens is the home of approximately 140 theaters that present more than 180 productions.
· Throughout Portugal there are some 60 institutionalized big festivals of all genres all year round. In Greece? Ha! More than 500!

Let me not proceed with counting the number of nightclubs, discos, entertainment venues, cinema theaters, museums, art galleries or any other place of cultural reference. Athens is and thinks Big! And if this is true for the capital city, it is more so for the whole of the country.

So, what’s going on?

I would like to avoid telling you what I really think about this but the temptation is too strong to resist. Greeks are a people characterized by exaggeration on all levels. They care not for tomorrow but rather for today. They are also a people who functions on an individual level and not on a collective one. They want to do things their way, no matter whether this is at the expense of their neighbor, fellow citizen, the municipal authorities, the state, the environment, the rest of the population. Therefore…

· They will buy a car even though they have no place to park it. They can always leave it on the pedestrian passage, blocking access to by walkers or people on wheelchairs.
· When on escalators, they will stand calmly at the left side blocking those in a hurry behind them from moving faster.
· They will not bother to sort out their garbage for recycling and refuse to keep them at the balcony when the city’s cleaning personnel is on strike; they’d rather take them out in the street and pile them up on smelly mountains of trash around the corner of their house.
· As consumers, they will not restrain from consuming overvalued products in order to help bring prices down. On the contrary, they keep consuming as normal as ever, event though the price of the product is going up.
· If they are public works contractors they will certainly want to buy themselves a newspaper or a television channel.
· If they are recognizable actors, they will surely want to have their own theater, which they think they deserve
· If they are football team owners they will press for their very own stadium.
· If they are mayors they will wish a subway like Athens’ for their city (even though it is not necessary)

But all this cost money. Well, who cares? In this magical country, there is always an equally magical way for everyone to survive. At the end they all do. Newspapers, which sell 2,000 copies a day (including the subscriptions by state-run institutions), survive. TV channels that get less than 1% in ratings also survive. Magazines that no one reads, survive. Theaters with no audience, survive. They all survive with their inflationary numbers in a tiny market that is Greece, in such a miraculous way that makes poor old free market guru Adam Smith’s theories have no value at all.

What’s more, it is not just them who survive but the same goes for all those who see prices going up because of the inflationary trend. Thus, in Greece the unbelievable number of services related to the culture and entertainment production does not work like it would normally in any other mainstream society. Competition does not bring prices down but instead what happens is quite the opposite!

Prices are the highest in Europe and this concerns everything: The concert ticket, which the twice as rich Englishman pays for 20 euro, costs the Greek 40 or 50. For exactly the same concert of the same band that tours Europe! The same goes for theater, cinema and museum admission tickets. The same for books in bookstores, CDs and DVDs in record stores. The same for DSL connections to the internet, which cost in Greece five times more than in France (with much faster speed). And it is the same for the frappe coffee they drink or the dinner they eat (for the quality they get…).

It is also the same when Greeks travel by bus, train, boat or air. To fly from Athens to Thessaloniki and back, costs as much as the rich Brit is paying to fly from London to Crete and stay in a hotel for a whole week on half board! And yes, there is no more a flying monopoly of state-owned Olympic Airlines in Greece as it used to be. But, despite the fact that the country has its share of private air carriers, which would normally bring air fare prices dramatically down, all companies have the same more or less pricing for their services. One more free market theory rule that proves wrong in this miraculous country!

Have no doubt that when the state monopoly of OTE Telecom comes to an end soon this is exactly what is going to happen too. As soon as the Greek market is “liberalized,” the new private telecom companies will simultaneously raise phone billing and bring it on the same level. This is exactly what happened with the super market chains, which coincidently have the same prices for the same products wherever they are around the country, although they should be competing. This is also the case for the four mobile telephony companies, which bill the same, and for the banks, private or state, which provide the highest rates for loans and credit cards and the lowest for accounts (the banking sector is the only that is really thriving in Greece).

All these, even though they seem irrelevant to my subject, are indeed describing what happens in an area that is called “free time and leisure economics,” which surrounds the sphere of activities related to the culture of every day life. These are the things that a citizen must have access to in order to feel happy, even when they have not resolved their basic problems of living (employment, education, health).

A simple surfing in the internet can help anyone see by themselves what is going on in other parts of Europe and compare prices of the same products or services in the area of “free time and leisure economics” in Greece and in far richer countries like France, Spain or Germany.

So, I get back to the question: what happens in this small country that stands out for its impressively high inflation of services, a fact that does not strengthen competition but instead pushes prices to the skies and makes Greeks seem as the biggest suckers in Europe as they pay with gold what their fellow Europeans pay with pennies? What makes Greeks distinguish from the absolutely comparable Portuguese, whose "boring" country follows the international norms? Why is this happening?

The answer might be found if we look deep down into the cultural heritage of the Greeks, namely the teachings of the ancient Athenian philosophers who were the first to talk about the individuality of the citizen and the value of the person as a unit within the community. It's just that the people who inherited this very land, with tons of Roman, Ottoman, Middle Eastern and Slavic DNA in their blood, mistook the whole thing and interpreted it in modern Greek with the you-know-who-i-am-dude question. And this is not what happened to the humble, ordinary and "dull" Portuguese of our story. They, like any other citizen in the western world, were taught the ancient Greek ideas at school but kept more than the individuality part. They emphasized further into the part that defines the role of the community or "demos" and its power or "kratos," which is what we call today Democracy, a term that commonly refers to a political system but also means much more than that.

Conclusion: Contemporary Greeks might be Europe's biggest suckers but they don't know it. And they will not know it for as long as they value their individuality higher than their community. For this to happen, many –far too many- decades will pass. And this is something that the contemporary Portuguese does not have to worry about.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

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i think we made it... see you all there this weekend.

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