Freddo or frappé? Boom or bust?

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You would not want to be on the streets of Athens this last week, as the first heatwave of the summer reflected off the concrete and made the air thick and still.

Seeking relief from the heat, anyone visiting Athens during this summer of unabated crisis will doubtless have encountered the Greek national obsession with iced coffee. For someone weaned on Starbucks and other multinational coffee chains’ iced beverage offerings, there would seem to be nothing terribly interesting or controversial about choosing between a frappé and a freddo. The unsuspecting visitor may not realise that in making their choice they are – arguably – re-enacting the same fateful decisions that have led Greece down the path to fiscal ruin and social disjuncture. But I get ahead of myself.

The ubiquitous frappé (Φραπές, o, masculine), notwithstanding its foreign name, bears no relation or resemblance to any French beverage. Also asked for affectionately by its diminutive, φραπεδάκι (frapedáki), it is the ultimate quick refreshment borne out the marriage of the space age food technology of the 1950s and prosaic Greek necessity. Instant coffee, usually Nescafé, shaken with water and tooth-aching amounts of sugar over ice until frothy, then poured over more ice into a glass, is a standard ritual of Greeks during warmer months. A variation is to add NouNou (Greek tinned evaporated or condensed milk) to make a white version. While it can be made at home, it is traditionally enjoyed seated at a shaded outdoor table at a kafeneio. It is a simple pleasure. By its nature, there is no coffee snobbery implicated in this beverage. We are, after all, talking about instant coffee, tinned milk and sugar. A frappé is the polar opposite of a ‘prestige’ food item or a luxury. Or rather: it is an affordable luxury that can be enjoyed by worker and oligarch alike.

However since the turn of the Millennium, and coincidentally the arrival of the Euro, a new drink, or rather drinks, have found favour in the cafes lining parks throughout the city’s neighbourhoods, namely the ‘freddo’ and its manufactured commercial cousin, the ‘freddoccino’. Like the frappe, the name is foreign – it simply means ‘cold’ in Italian. Iced coffee, or more accurately cold coffee, is not unknown in Italy, although hardly common. However the Italian version of a caffé freddo is simply that: cold coffee served black or with milk in a glass, without any diluting ice. The Greek invention known as a freddo is much closer to any number of calorific Starbucks creations than to anything an actual Italian would consume. It is made with freshly brewed espresso, to which may be added milk, sugar and even vanilla ice cream, whipped together into a milkshake-like beverage. A garage mechanic can make a frappe. For a freddo, you need a barista.

When the freddo was born, the public’s optimism and self-image were at a peak. The Olympics were just around the corner, the Greek national football (soccer) team won the European cup. New banks opened and credit flowed. Cafes became stylish venues, exotic sports cars were to be seen on the streets and there was a feeling that appeared to emerge almost overnight of Greece having gained admission to a rather smart and exclusive club. It was seated at the big table with the grown-ups.

And so began the decline in popularity of the simple pleasure of the frappé. Greeks became consumers and connoisseurs; wine bars appeared and gourmet restaurants serving trendy foreign dishes of the moment opened with startling regularity. Lifestyle “lads’ mags” like the now-defunct Nitro had pages filled with watches, cars, motorcycles, the latest mobile phones and all sundry expensive toys for the status-obsessed male consumer. Television was lined from morning ‘til night with chat show clones, long sofas populated by vapid clothes-obsessed C-listers, debating for hours the dress / hair / handbag choices of their B-list superiors, with a final credit roll that name checked every designer shop in Athens. No self-respecting ambitious Greek went to the kafeneio and ordered a frappé unless you were poor, or old, or possibly both. You now had to have an opinion about coffee, and accordingly pay more dearly for it. Espresso over ice it must be. With a foreign name.

And yet the frappe endures, a pleasure accessible to nearly all, distinctly Greek, imitative of nothing. Borne out of necessity, it remains a reassuring ritual of summer. Perhaps a return to a ‘frappé mentality’ lies at the core of any future path forward out of the country’s troubles: ingenuity, frugality, creativity, and an appreciation for singularly Greek qualities and pleasures, rather than a backwards-looking obsession with status and respect for wounded pride, whether real or imagined.

Photo by koutofrangos. All rights reserved.

Freddo or frappé? Boom or bust?

Deciphering the Varoufakis “Plan B”: A couple of hours of my life I’ll never get back

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The headline story:

A secret team within the Greek Finance Ministry was working on a Plan B to steal taxpayer IDs and use them take us back to the drachma.

The context:

This was an extract from a live teleconference organised by OMFIF (Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum) that was obtained by the newspaper Kathimerini. Contrary to what the name implies, OMFIF is a private membership body with no official role. Its stated mission is to “promote exchanges of information and best practice in an atmosphere of mutual trust” between public and private sector. The discussion in question appears to have been a two-hander between Yanis Varoufakis, Former Finance Minister, and Lord (Norman) Lamont, chaired by David Marsh, Managing Director of OMFIF. We hear only part of Varoufakis’s presentation. 84 people are listening in to the call. At the end, there is a reminder that the call comes under the “Chatham House rule”, which states that while information from the meeting may be passed on, it is not permitted to link it to a specific source. The host gives a more strict interpretation, which is that participants are not permitted to use the information obtained on the call to trade the markets, nor pass it on at all – this is a “private” discussion, “this is not the BBC.” The audio extract was published here at Varoufakis’s request, and a transcript was published by the FT (subscription required).

Here are my key takeaways.

1. Varoufakis is not an idiot. Bracketing the controversial section is some reasonable, if strongly opinionated, discussion of the challenges of operating within the single currency. The analysis he gives of the power politics within the Eurozone and between creditors is astute. The idea of a self-interested French-led anti-austerity front has gained support from events during the preparations and the outcome of the last negotiation, ironically the one from which Varoufakis himself was absent. Of course he would have scored more points for articulating this insight before it became apparent to all, and perhaps using it more effectively during his own negotiations, but this is all the standard 20/20 hindsight fare you would expect a former Finance Minister to dispense at such a forum.

2. For a Marxist, he seems particularly keen to use the old “school tie” network to establish his credentials, or rather the credentials of his successor in the Finance Ministry, Euclid Tsakalotos. He tries too hard but seems unaware of it. Witness this embarrassing exchange:

Varoufakis: “You know Euclid, you met him at that dinner…”

David Marsh: “Yes, actually he went to my college, Queen’s College, Oxford, so we have a strong bond.”

Varoufakis: “Yes and he is a St Paul’s boy, which is where George Osborne also studied…”

… Embarrassed titters from his interlocutors, no doubt reflecting that the main reason this is known is that Osborne didn’t go to the much posher Eton, unlike most of his cohort in the Cameron Government.

3. Varoufakis is playing to the gallery, and particularly his interlocutor Lord Lamont of Black Wednesday fame. No expression of euroscepticism can be too exaggerated, no language too emotive. He explains Greece’s situation as being “in the clasps of the monetary union.” He introduces his own insights as being “controversial” and “fascinating.” “I’m sure that as you’re hearing these words your hair is standing [inaudible].”

4. It is all about making Yanis look good, and important. The “Plan B” is only introduced when he is challenged. David Marsh makes the point that “you didn’t have a Plan B” and that this weakened Greece’s negotiating position. Not to be made to look bad, Varoufakis starts to describe his Plan B.

5. In terms of substance, his introduction makes clear that what he is about to describe was a contingency plan intended to create an alternative payments system in the event that the banks were closed through denial of liquidity from the ECB. It was not necessarily a transition to the drachma, though he makes clear that this capability existed. (Varoufakis has subsequently tried to rationalise this scheme further by describing it in terms of an internal tax credit system to be used under a “business as usual” scenario to ease liquidity in public payments – however, this is not what is described on the call). But, so far, so good. Am I happy there was a contingency plan? You bet I am – one of the great public concerns during the brinksmanship of the past few months was that there was no evidence of planning for alternative outcomes.  What is concerning is not the existence of a plan, especially since it is not explicitly a plan designed to switch us to the drachma – it is the details of the execution, and what they imply for Syriza’s style of government.

6. Now comes the whole cloak and dagger business about hiring his old childhood friend (“a professor at Columbia”, dontcha know) to clone the tax filing system in order to bolt on this parallel payment system. The concept seems reasonable enough. On this system every citizen and every business has a unique identifier, so that would create a link between the parallel system and existing information. Did he also obtain copies of bank account details, as some have suggested? Would this parallel system allow the tax office to reach into bank accounts? This is not evident from this discussion. Was it breaking data protection rules? Almost certainly, but from Varoufakis’s telling, the data never left his friend’s laptop in the Ministry. Was it even workable? That is an open question. So we have an inventive idea researched with limited resources and very sketchy on implementation. At this point we might still award points for intentions and inventiveness, we can be (very) concerned about competence, but we can discount some of the wilder claims that have been mooted.

7. This is where it gets even hairier in my view. The reason given for this plan being executed in such an unorthodox way is that the tax collection system is, according to the former Finance Minister, “controlled fully and closely by the troika.” He elaborates that the Secretary General of Public Revenues is appointed through a process that is controlled by Brussels. We may be missing a subtlety here, but what he is essentially objecting to is the fact that the most senior civil servant in charge of tax collection is not under the Minister’s direct (political) influence. This is a problem, and it is a problem shared by his predecessors. The forced resignation of the previous incumbent in this position was reputedly the result of his perceived over-zealous pursuit of tax evasion and his refusal to bow to political pressure to grant preferential treatment. Given that clamping down on tax evasion by vested interests has been a flagship policy of Syriza, it is very worrying to see the independence of the civil service branch charged with this task being painted in this way by one of the chief architects of the Syriza manifesto.

8. Varoufakis can’t help over-egging his description: the whole plan was carried out “surreptitiously”  and involved “hacking” with the Minister’s express approval. “I will deny it” he says conspiratorially when the suggestion comes up that this might be too sensitive to discuss. A couple of minutes into his account, his host, clearly embarrassed by the revelations, suggests that they move swiftly on. Varoufakis has always sounded in his public pronouncements as if he learned his English from studying Bond villains. This makes him very quotable, so he should not be surprised when he is quoted verbatim; and if he choses his words unwisely, it is disingenuous to accuse the press for sensationalising his statements. One interpretation I have heard is that the call was leaked under the instigation of the creditors to silence Varoufakis; in this case it has backfired, as it has further prolonged his 15 minutes of fame.

9. The biggest loser in this is Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who was, after all, Varoufakis’s sponsor in the sensitive post of chief negotiator with the creditors.  In conclusively failing to shut this story down he comes out of it looking like either a dupe or a liar. Either way, this story has handed the opposition a stick to beat him with, at a time when he depends on their votes in Parliament. When it comes to choosing between conspiracy and cock-up, in Greece it is generally the former that prevails. In making this a story about a coup from within, the opposition risk embarrassing themselves. Even if one opts for the cock-up version of history, the Prime Minister emerges as an appalling judge of character.  I am not sure which is the scarier in this case, and what is says for the future.

10. This is another distraction from the real issue which is that nothing is resolved yet. My hope is that we have reached “peak Varoufakis”. Shows you how much I know… As I write this, the latest issue of the New Yorker hits the stands with a profile of the very same. In the first paragraph, the quote “Honey, I shut the banks.” I can’t muster the appetite to read it. If you do, feel free to send me a precis.

Image from http://wallpapercave.com/hackers-wallpaper

Deciphering the Varoufakis “Plan B”: A couple of hours of my life I’ll never get back

NEW! E-MAIL FRAUD ALERT: TRAVEL SCAM

Please be advised that a new e-mail scam is currently circulating on the internet. A person purporting to be a former high official in the Greek government is sending emails impersonating friends or family of the message recipients and requesting that money be wired at once to a foreign bank account. These ‘travel scam’ emails are a common technique of fraudsters and should be deleted without responding. Under no circumstances should money or personal financial details to be sent over the internet to the sender of the email.
travel scam msg fix
NEW! E-MAIL FRAUD ALERT: TRAVEL SCAM

Satire is dead: The rival heist plots

I feel no need to post any original content today.

I will merely refer you to two stories that surfaced this week. Let’s call them “Old Skool” and “New Economy”, the rival alternatives to Greece achieving an agreement with its creditors and staying in the Euro, at least for now.

“Old Skool”: Hatched by Panayotis Lamfazanis, leader of the “rebel” Left Platform faction of Syriza, until recently Minister of Productive Reconstruction, Environment and Energy and volunteer fire-fighter, this plot involved arresting the Governor of the Bank of Greece, taking over the Greek mint and confiscating the country’s currency reserves. The plan was to use the reserves to pay public sector salaries and pensions while preparing for a return to the drachma. Delightfully retro in its conception and blissfully uninformed of the technicalities of fiat currency, this plan also momentarily distracted from its real-life scariness with amusing mental images of out-of-shape former Communist party hacks struggling to drag sacks marked “SWAG” through a hole in the vault. Chased by Inspector Clouseau.

“New Economy”: This one came to light after someone leaked the tape of a teleconference between former Finance Minister and current #ministerofawesome (at least in his own mind) Yannis Varoufakis, Norman “Black Wednesday” Lamont, and a bunch of shady (by definition) hedge fund managers. Being a more modern kind of rebel, Varoufakis imagined using an old mate’s computer hacking skills to clone the online tax filing database in order to create a “parallel banking system” as an interim arrangement while transitioning to the drachma. As with the rival plot, it is easy for the killjoys to pick holes in it, but got us picturing a more up to date version of “WarGames,” lots of suspenseful scenes in a darkened room illuminated only by the green code on a black screen. The villain once again is the “troika” because they “control the software.”

Both plots carry a G rating (suitable for all audiences) as neither features sex, at least in the literal sense. With two blockbusters going head to head at the start of the holidays, there’s something here for all the family!

Photo from telegraph.co.uk

Satire is dead: The rival heist plots

Dear Aunt Cassandra… Can I trust Alexis?

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Dear Aunt Cassandra,

Should I go steady with Alexis, our new school council president? He is very popular, and you wouldn’t know he used to be a Communist, he is so clean cut and well spoken. He has promised me he will take me out when he gets his allowance back. He only staged a sit-in at the school to claim his allowance, and now he has taken a summer job at the bank’s debt-collection unit. I am really confused. He told me his evil uncle made him do it, it’s not the real him, and once he’s got back into his uncle’s good books he will be able to take me out to the mall and the cinema like he says I deserve. He used to hang out with a guy on a motorbike who mum said was a bad influence and always getting into trouble, but then they had a big bust up and now they aren’t talking any more. Sometimes I don’t know if I can trust him and sometimes we fight but then he looks me in the eyes and tells me everything’s going to be OK and I feel like the luckiest girl in the world. He even charmed my grannie when he came to pick me up and told her how unfair it was that her pension was cut, and how he would do things differently. Since then she can’t stop saying what a καλό παληκάρι* he is.

What should I do?

Yours,

Parthenope


Dear Parthenope

You know I won’t sugar-coat things, so I’m glad you came to me for advice.

My poor innocent darling, let’s look at the evidence. Your friend Alexis may not be talking to that idiot with the bike anymore (cool? in my day we had “Happy Days” to tell us what that was all about), but look at who he still hangs out with. His new best friend is a fat insecure bully who everyone knows will do anything for the chance to play Call of Duty all night because he’s not allowed to at home. What about that scary tomboy who flushed your iPhone with the limited edition One Direction cover down the school toilet and then started screaming for help saying you were pulling her hair? You know, the one who hangs out with the skinheads in the park after school. Then there’s those creepy older boys who are repeating the year for the third time and are telling everyone who’ll listen about their plan to rob the bank. You tell me if that’s a gang you want to be part of.

Do you really think he cares about you? Has he told you the one about how when girls say “no” they really mean “yes”?

My tip is, don’t trust anyone who goes into politics this young. Love’s young dream could easily turn into a nightmare. This isn’t “Grease”, this is Greece 2015. I suggest you take a cold shower and spend the summer learning a useful skill, like growing your own food. You might need it.

Yours ever,

Aunt Cassandra.

P.S. Are you sure he doesn’t have a drug problem?

*(kaló palikári) = good boy

Dear Aunt Cassandra… Can I trust Alexis?

The Devil in a USB stick

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This week, Greek MPs had to wade through 977 pages of legislation in less than 48 hours, in order to vote on a mega-package that was a prerequisite for proceeding to the next stage of bailout negotiations with their European partners. It was delivered in the form of dead tree, 300 times over. One opposition MP estimated that this equated to 25 trees, 47 KWh of electricity and 324 tonnes of water. To illustrate his point further he held up a thumb drive and announced, “Someone should inform [House Speaker] Mrs Konstantopoulou that the 21st century gives us the convenience of being able to use USB sticks.”

Ouch. That was a deftly aimed shot. She may be the youngest ever House Speaker at 38, but Zoe Konstantopoulou has very strong opinions on how things should be done, and she takes a very grim view indeed of the USB stick (στικάκι, meaning “little stick”). Only last month, she thundered against the Governor of the Bank of Greece (already high on her hit list of “enemies of the people”) for daring to submit an annual report that (a) contained a factual account of the parlous state of public finances, and (b) was submitted not in person on the printed page but by courier on an evil “stikáki”. She intoned the word with particular disgust, as if she had just discovered a sex aid in a nun’s cell.

We don’t know if Mrs Konstantopoulou really is a luddite, but she certainly loves to play one. She knows her audience. You wouldn’t know it looking at the kids in Athens glued to their smartphones and addicted to Instagram, but as we have noted previously on this blog, at least 40% of Greeks have never used the internet, a very low rate for a developed country. To almost half the country’s population, technology is a bit of a mystery, and its use in government invokes a sense of suspicion and dread.

The word stikáki itself became common currency in sinister circumstances. It was on a stikáki that in 2010 Christine Lagarde, then French Finance Minister, handed the then Greek Finance Minister George Papakonstantinou a list of Greek account-holders in HSBC Bank in Geneva, part of a data leak that gifted European tax authorities with information on potential tax evaders. It was this stikáki containing the infamous “Lagarde list” (λίστα Λαγκάρντ) that Papakonstantinou is said to have tampered with to remove the names of family members, before passing it on to the tax authorities and the financial crime unit for investigation, an act for which he (singularly and slightly suspiciously if you ask me) received a conviction in court after he left office. The stikáki, then, was introduced into popular consciousness as an instrument of fraud, and a corruptible one at that. Media reports of the stikáki affair only helped to build up the mystique, describing the process of copying and editing as if it was a form of black magic, understood only by a dark priesthood, and illustrated with stock visuals of 1980s-era computers with archaic command-driven interfaces untainted by the introduction of the mouse. When Konstantopoulou rails against the stikáki, she is tapping into something deeper.

A hostile attitude to technology is dog-whistle for a brand of populist anti-elitism that sells well in the current environment. Earlier this week, former Prime Minister George Papandreou, in an interview in English to Fox Finance, used the example of his inability to make purchases on Amazon to illustrate some of the practical effects of capital controls to a US audience. In Greece he was instantly trolled, ironically on Twitter, for being the kind of out-of-touch elitist who worries about online retail therapy while pensioners have to queue at the bank for their daily cash rations. The symbolism was already in place and he walked right into it: even before he became a hate figure for being at the wheel when Greece first had to acknowledge its deficit and ask for a bailout, Papandreou was already tainted for speaking English more fluently than Greek, and engaging in such pretentious practices as working out (in lycra!) in a Parliament proudly riddled with grotesque obesity. His obsession with taking government online was yet another stick to beat him with.

Other examples of populist technophobia abound, and it is easy to see how for a generation not raised with tablets or even PCs, information technology has unpleasant connotations. When online tax reporting was made compulsory in 2011, some sectors of the public service were still paying employees “computer literacy” bonuses. As if the association between computers and the tax system isn’t deterrent enough, large numbers of taxpayers now rely on the services of tax accountants at a fixed fee of €20-50 to perform even even simple filings, because the user interface is so complex and unintuitive.

Internet-enabled transparency has also lagged. For example, there is no equivalent of the UK’s Hansard for publishing verbatim parliamentary debates, and the best that an interested researcher can do is trawl through hours of video footage in real time to locate particular statements or key words. A reformist Speaker supporting people power might have made this this a key priority; instead, funds have been devoted to mawkish propaganda videos advocating for German WWII wartime reparations, screened in the Athens Metro.

This is ironic. In the midst of the crisis, homegrown internet-enabled startups have been one of the few genuinely productive sectors that have achieved some success, encouraged by a combination of highly skilled returning graduates, low overheads, and relatively high grade infrastructure and connectivity. Ironic, because at the same time more conservative parents used their retirement bonuses to fund their kids in “safe” but unproductive ventures like souvlaki shops and bars (great for local consumers but not exactly scalable or exportable). And finally ironic because these same startups became some of the first casualties of the capital controls, when they were cut off from the connected world that they rely on for their business.

Zoe Konstantopoulou gives satirists an easy job, and it is too tempting to trash her when it has become such a popular sport among her very own political class. In demonising technology she is only giving her own caricaturish spin to a familiar trope. This is the real reason to be concerned.

Why would political leaders wish to stoke a climate of technophobia?

The obvious gain (for them) is that seeing technology as an insurmountable barrier deters people from asking the pertinent questions – and from sussing out the bogus ones, like this month’s referendum. You don’t have to subscribe to the Silicon Valley libertarian’s blind faith in the internet as a one-way street to democracy, enlightenment and prosperity, to agree that this is a bad thing. For bonus points, the canny populist can also make the technology business look like a bunch of irrelevant Marie Antoinettes or limp-wristed hipsters, rather than allow it to become a real economic alternative to honest public sector toil and heavily subsidised industrial farming.

Gotta go now. Just got called to perform an emergency stikáki exorcism.

Photo from koolnews.gr

The Devil in a USB stick

Tsipras denies Ibogaine rumours

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Another all-night parliamentary debate in Athens, another behemoth legislative package on the table to secure the next bailout deal for Greece.

Passing a mysterious scrap of paper (wrapper?) from hand to hand, Alexis Tsipras addressed a fractious parliament. “It is entirely conceivable… that [Tsipras’s] brain was almost paralyzed by hallucinations at the time; that he looked out at that crowd and saw gila monsters instead of people, and that his mind snapped completely when he felt something large and apparently vicious clawing at his legs.”

The outcome of the vote is was in little doubt, the monsters were mostly in his own party, and the symptoms of Ibogaine addiction were clear.

Archive photo from Die Zeit.

(c) Hunter S. Thompson.

Tsipras denies Ibogaine rumours