Your meta-post-truth 2016

800px-bosch_hieronymus_-_the_garden_of_earthly_delights_right_panel_-_man_riding_on_dotted_fish_and_bird_creature

The year 2016 was so “post-” (or “meta-“, to insist on the Greek) that it is closing quite literally with the very last Last Christmas*. As an end-of-year salute we proudly present the 10 most read blog posts of 2016 on Dateline: Atlantis, recalling some of its weirdest moments from a Greek perspective.

#10: In April we eavesdropped on the IMF in Athens: 7 takeaways from that Wikileaks IMF transcript

#9: In March we read the media images of refugees in Greece: This is not a refugee camp

#8: In February we compiled some choice quotes by Greek politicians on the refugee crisis: My big fat Greek refugee crisis quiz

#7: On April 1st we advertised the cruise from hell (and my own personal favourite): Live your (urban) myth in Greece

#6: In December we secretly transcribed the congratulatory call between Alexis Tsipras and PEOTUS Donald Trump – an in our post-truth world some readers believed us: You’re hired.

#5: In April we got a crash course on contemporary Greek culture by watching an Easter toy shop ad: Jumbo nation

#4: In May we looked back on the material culture of the Greek beach bar from the distant future: “Our piece of Paradise”: Patterns of human activity in coastal zones of the Aegean basin in the Middle Anthropocene (late 2nd-early 3rd millennium AD)

#3: In February we got frustrated with the Greek culture of victimhood and its naÏve foreign enablers: The good, the bad and the ugly – travels in Greek hyperreality

#2: In April a papal visit prompted us to issue a brief explainer on the Orthodox-Catholic schism for beginners: Get your Schism on!

#1: In April, a grisly find prompted some timely ruminations on the perils of democracy: Fear and loathing in Athens

Now gird your loins and sharpen your wits for 2017. Rumour has it that Pangloss and Polyanna are preparing to co-author a coping guide (foreword by F. Fukuyama). It must be true, ’cause I read it on Facebook.


* One suspects quite the opposite.

IMAGE: Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, right panel, detail (painted between 1490-1510).

Your meta-post-truth 2016

Yesterday’s news today: a parrot’s digest of Greek headlines we’ve seen before

With an eventful few weeks at the opposite corner of the continent (and now closer to home), there has been a certain comfort in returning to slow news days in Greece. So much so, that Aunt Cassandra thought for a moment that she had mistakenly picked up a newspaper from several years ago, before remembering that her magnificent Amazonian Parrot, Orfeas, unfailingly gets a fresh cage lining of yesterday’s news before it has time to linger. In fact, even Orfeas has noticed that over the years certain headlines in the paper reappear with unfailing regularity. Orfeas thinks his own species’ reputation for repetition is grossly overstated. His own nuanced rendition of the “Vissi d’arte” aria from Tosca has been deemed “better than Callas” by the most demanding members of AC’s opera circle, while his deft impression of an angry Rottweiler is the envy of AC’s security-obsessed friends. But, ever the good sport, he was able with a ruffle of his feathers and a few theatrical hops around his cage to help us compile a whole newspaper out of the repeat clippings. And here it is, yesterday’s news today, for tomorrow’s prescient reader.

PERSONAL FINANCE

Minister warns: “Absolutely no extensions to tax filing deadline.” By now even the most isolated tribes in the depths of the Orfeas’s ancestral rainforest know that the Greek state faces enormous challenges collecting tax – though not quite as enormous as is sometimes portrayed. Filing deadline extensions are a regular summer sport, and hard pronouncements such as this are only made to be broken. With the cosmic cyclicality of druids gathering for the summer solstice, tardy taxpayers watch the news to see how far they can push it against the deadline (or indeed, whether they need to bother at all if it happens to be an election year). This year’s deadline has already been extended once. Last summer Orfeas counted three extensions without even trying, taking the original deadline of the end of June to the end of August. Because capital controls, you might protest? No. Because. Every. Year. And if it isn’t planned, it is virtually guaranteed that the state-of-the-art-circa-1995 electronic filing system Taxis will collapse under the weight of last-minute submissions, requiring (you guessed it) a filing extension.

CULTURE

Temporary_Elgin_Room_at_the_Museum_in_1819

“New initiative sparks hopes of return of Parthenon Marbles to Greece.” Ever since the Ambassador Lord Elgin returned to Blighty with a particularly ostentatious collection of souvenirs in his luggage, the campaign to repatriate “the marbles” has been ongoing, simultaneously delivering a steady supply of mental illness-related gags in the Anglophone media, even among those who should know better (Stephen Fry: “It’s time we lost our marbles”). This time, a group of backbench MPs in the British Parliament is supporting an initiative to return the sculptures on the 200th anniversary of the Act of Parliament which granted them to the British Museum. Less than two years ago, it was the photogenic and recently wed Amal Clooney to the rescue, channeling Jackie O and figureheading a legal team invited by then PM Antonis Samaras to advise the Greek government on the matter. Every so often a new initiative arises, taking patriotic Greeks and philhellenes on an emotional rollercoaster, only to have their hopes dashed once again against the intransigence of the British government. In this case, one senses the initiative is particularly poorly timed. Unless, that is, the sculptures can be worked into some kind of Machiavellian EU hostage exchange deal.

JUSTICE

xeiropedes

“Corruption trial postponed indefinitely.” Oh, how we punch the air whenever an arrest is made in an anti-corruption investigation! Finally, someone will be brought to justice for the mess the country is in! We look forward with barely concealed schadenfreude to seeing the erstwhile politician/businessman/big lawyer lamogio do the “perp walk” to the police van with only a limp overcoat to cover their handcuffs. And if that counted as justice, we would be sitting pretty. However in Greece actual justice in the formal sense is closely synonymous with “the tall grass”, as we have had cause to relate previously. This week, two trials relating to the Siemens scandal have been (yes) postponed indefinitely: one, because foreign defendants were not provided with timely translations of the charges; the other, because the presiding judge passed away and there is no provision to replace him. High profile cases like the Golden Dawn trial are not immune to this affliction either. Another measure of the speed of Greek justice is provided by the recently reported final ruling by Greece’s Supreme Administrative Court, ordering the Greek state to pay € 700,000 compensation for two city buses burned by rioters. The events in question took place in 1996-7.

SOCIETY

Muslims living in Greece perform Eid al-Fitr morning prayers in Athens

“Greece one step closer to its first licensed mosque.” Take a classic NIMBY issue and add the involvement of the Orthodox Church, and you have a formula for legal appeals to infinity. The building of the first modern mosque was first planned in 1880. In more recent times it was approved by Parliament in 2000, and again in 2006 and 2011, and close to €1 million in funds have been earmarked for it for some time. A variant of this headline can be generated simply by replacing “mosque” with crematorium. We won’t hold our breath.

POLITICS

vote

“Governing party proposes change to electoral system.” Greece’s electoral system is not spelled out in the country’s Constitution. As a result, it is rare for two consecutive elections to be held under the exact same system, as governing parties with enough parliamentary support have the ability to bring legislation that tailors the system for the next round of elections in their favour. The current system awards the first party a generous 50-seat bonus in the 300-seat parliament. The new proposal put forward by Syriza aims to change this to proportional representation, which is presented as a long-standing commitment of the Left. Last time a similar system was proposed in 1989 it was rejected by, er, the parties of the Left. Passing it this time would depend on the support of Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn.

ENTERTAINMENT

Scorpions

“Scorpions live in Athens!” The nation’s favourite superannuated German hair band, this time back as part of their 50th anniversary tour (has it really been ONLY 50 years?). Crisis or no crisis, and no matter how many Hitler moustaches are painted on Angela Merkel, or Nazi armbands photoshopped on Wolfgang Schäuble, there is a certain portion of the Greek public who will not fail to pack out a venue to hold a cigarette lighter aloft to “Wind of Change”. Rock on, ja!

TRAVEL

nauagio

“Greek beach ranked among top 25 in the world.” Rankings on Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor are great for our national morale, because we can all take credit for a natural wonder that foreigners acknowledge as superior. Though I suppose some credit is due for not allowing an unlicensed construction of some description to be slapped on it.

BONUS GIFT

Amazon-Parrot

… and of course, just like the old days, the paper comes with a free CD courtesy of Orfeas himself: “Viiisiii d’ar-te, viiisiii d’amooo-re…”

 

Yesterday’s news today: a parrot’s digest of Greek headlines we’ve seen before

7 takeaways from that Wikileaks IMF transcript

livesofothers

There’s nothing like a good controversy to kick-start the weekend. This morning (Saturday) whistle-blowing crusaders Wikileaks released what they purport to be a transcript of an internal conference call by the International Monetary Fund on March 19, assessing the status of the ongoing review of the Greek bailout programme. In the transcript, IMF officials discuss their concerns that the EU is too distracted by the refugee crisis and the Brexit referendum to focus on negotiations with Greece, and that without intervention this may lead to another cliffhanger negotiation, or even risk of default in July, when Greece reaches its next repayment deadline. Sensational interpretations have not been far behind (e.g. Paul Mason’s typically sanguine “IMF plots new ‘credit event’ for Greece – Neoliberalism does not give a shit – part II” – presumably part of a series), but what struck us about this document?

Regular readers will know we love a good leak. We wade tirelessly through turgid audio files to decipher conspiratorial Grexit plots; when duty calls, are not afraid to release (possibly unverified) explosive transcripts ourselves. Once again, we have done the hard work to extract the key “takeaways” (as we say in the boardroom) of the Wikileaks transcript.

1. The sense of corporate ennui and frustration that suffuses this transcript makes it seem all too genuine. Doubt has been cast over its authenticity (Wikileaks do not reveal how it was obtained or from what source, and it has some oddities that make it slightly suspect); however, anyone who has done time on a major project will recognise the slow death of the soul that comes from spending hours in beige conference rooms having the same meeting over and over in bureaucratese, wishing you were somewhere else and wondering when you’re going to see your family again. Stakeholders who can’t agree on the project objectives, let alone metrics and KPIs (“if you go out and say for this year for instance you say they will end up with what you say, -0.5, -1 or something like that”… “-0.5 lets say, if they do all the measures”… “Ok, let’s say -0.5 and the Commission will say that they end with zero or +0.25 or whatever they have”… “+0.5″…); senior management who won’t intervene for fear of losing face (“We should have another meeting like had in Brussels and agree how to proceed”); targets that are fudged (“But can we do what you suggested? Have two programmes with two targets?”); deadlines that drift; missions that creep. “This is going to be a disaster,” says the IMF’s chief negotiator in Athens. Sigh. I know where you’re coming from, my dear. The glamour of international diplomacy isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. All of a sudden, the IMF seems human.

2. What makes it slightly less familiar and therefore (maybe) less convincing? It’s all business. There is no smalltalk. Plenty of dithering about business but no deviating from it. No “going anywhere nice on holiday?” (the call took place just before the Easter break, after all). No internal politics, no bitching about absent colleagues or negotiating counterparties. No quibbling over expense forms. No swearing, not a single tiny F-bomb (this must be how the international institutions differ from investment banking, cf. “Wolf of Wall Street”, “The Big Short”). I suspect the IMF must fish in the same recruiting pool as the FBI. I admire their ruthless efficiency but I’m not sure I would fit in (sound of cv being balled up and tossed in the general direction of the bin).

3. Aren’t we forgetting someone? There is no mention of former Greek Finance Minister and self-appointed centre of the universe Yianis Varoufakis. Which may explain why he went ballistic within mili-seconds:

(= For anyone who doubted that Troika = shadow state battalion of ineffective pseudo-technocrats who undermine Europe).

4. The Troika never went away. Participants refer to the creditor institutions by the T-word throughout, despite a ban on the term issued at behest of the current Greek government after it took office in 2015. Naming disputes seem to be flavour of the month in Athens.

5. Move along now, there’s nothing to see… There are bigger experts out there than me, having their weekend ruined picking this apart, so no doubt you will get a more informed analysis in time. But from where I’m standing, the transcript mostly reaffirms what we already know or have suspected about the positions of the various parties in the negotiations: that the IMF and the EU disagree on the necessity and desirability of debt relief for Greece; the IMF has been suggesting lightening the medium-term fiscal targets in order to move to a restructuring of Greek debt (i.e. what the Greek government has been asking for, indeed supposedly Alexis Tsipras’s own private Ithaca); the IMF does not trust the Greek government, and trusts the Europeans even less; that the reforms being negotiated in the ongoing review are politically difficult for Athens (duh!); that there is the looming deadline of a debt repayment in July, so a successful bailout review and the contingent loan instalment has to precede it. The IMF officials even sound a sympathetic note on how it might affect the Greek people if agreement is not reached by July (“I hope for the sake of the Greeks that we are going to find a solution soon…”). The leak is compromising for the IMF in that it reveals their internal doubts about their own negotiating strategy and shows their hand in the negotiation more generally. It is slightly embarrassing for the Greek government in that it highlights what concession they have made so far on reforms, and also reveals the IMF’s hunch that the Greek side are more focussed on avoiding short-term political pain than attaining the Ithaca of debt relief. But to act like any of this comes as a shock is disingenuous.

6. Unless you are the Greek government. In which case it is clearly a conspiracy by the IMF, meriting this spirited but barely legible statement and an official demand for explanations:

… clearly intended for the home crowd in the hope that no one would bother to try reading the original transcript (very conveniently, since the IMF team is due to return to Athens on Monday to continue the troubled bailout review)…

… to which the robots manning the IMF emergency response line in the wee hours of Saturday (EST) responded thus:

And eventually this (Sunday evening) from Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF:

  
Ouch.

7. Finally… Wikileaks gets its intel from the Greek press. Well, some of it…

… enough to undermine Mr Asantz’s* credibility somewhat – for future reference.

And the blustering and language confusion continues – from the deputy leader of Greece’s main opposition party:

 

*We have also decided to follow Greeklish naming conventions for the purposes of this post.

 

 

7 takeaways from that Wikileaks IMF transcript

τα μπανια του λαου: Who is and isn’t going to the beach this summer?

FullSizeRender

τα μπάνια του λαού (ta bánia tou laoú): translates into English inelegantly as “the people’s swims.” The traditionally sacrosanct August holiday season; part of the modern equivalent of “bread and circuses.”

The phrase made a comeback in a recent tweet by a Syriza MEP in which he, somewhat sardonically, outlined this summer’s unofficial political schedule:

“first agreement (with Greece’s creditors) and the “μπάνια του λαού,” then beginning of implementation, debt relief, conference of the “social” (faction of) Syriza, and, if needed, elections.”

Most Greeks associate the expression τα μπάνια του λαού with Socialist former Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, who famously used it as a pretext to avoid calling snap elections in the summer of 1987 – as in, “we won’t ruin the people’s holidays.” In fact the concern with working peoples’ right to refresh themselves on the beach first became a strong feature of populist politics in the interwar period. In Italy, Mussolini’s championing of “i bagni del popolo” was aided by his much-lauded ability to make the public transport run promptly.

Who isn’t going to the beach this summer:

  • the technocrats and select Greek ministers involved in ongoing bailout negotiations aiming to conclude by the 20th August;
  • anyone eyeing elections in the autumn;
  • former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis caused outrage when he absented himself from a crucial parliamentary vote last month to take a break at his holiday home on the island of Aegina; however, he is known to prefer his private swimming pool to the public beach;
  • 7 out of 10 small business owners in Greece, according to a recent survey.

Who is going to the beach this summer:

  • several frontline government ministers and opposition shadow ministers, including (briefly) PM Alexis Tsipras;
  • the “A-team” of every Greek news gathering organisation – you know everything’s OK when a good portion of the news bulletin on any channel is using the thinnest of pretexts (weather? lifeguard skills? tourism flourishing or failing?) to show ladies in Brazilian thongs frolicking on the beach;
  • over 1,000 refugees and migrants per day, totalling over 124,000 since the beginning of the year, the vast majority war refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Sub-Saharan Africa, who made Greece their top European destination over Italy this summer. They are greeted by a national and European policy vacuum.

Image: Screen grab of the results of a Google image search for “μπάνια του λαού” on Thursday 6th July 2015.

τα μπανια του λαου: Who is and isn’t going to the beach this summer?

Five simple “Greek” pleasures that could become luxuries after a Grexit

kalamaki2

After the unplanned “stress test” of capital controls most Greeks will have become much more aware of the country’s dependence on imports for its most basic economic activities. Most will know that Greece imports essentials like fuel and medicines, as well as raw materials for most manufacturing activities (a great visualisation is available here). All of these would become more expensive overnight if Greece were to revert to a national currency and face a devaluation. So far, so (yawn) interesting for economists. Most civilians, however, still believe that even after much belt-tightening they could still go “back to basics” and find comfort in life’s simple pleasures.

This is sadly not true. Even the most “Greek” of everyday pleasures could become luxuries for Greeks after a Grexit because they, too, are dependent on imports so their prices would skyrocket:

  1. Souvlaki: Almost two thirds of pork consumed in Greece is imported mainly from Denmark, Holland and Germany. Over 80% of beef is also imported from other EU countries, as are substantial quantities of chicken. Even with a strong currency, Greece’s exports in fish and olive oil are not remotely sufficient to cover its imports in red meat. The negative balance of trade in meats has increased as a direct result of the Common Agricultural Policy which favours livestock farming in the North of Europe, but is also due in part to a lack of quality control infrastructure and sclerotic regulation in Greece.
  2. Anything with lemon: despite growing lemons, last year Greece imported close to 25 metric tonnes from Argentina, Turkey and Italy to cover domestic needs. Greek fruits frequently go unharvested when they are undercut by global prices.
  3. “Greek” yoghurt: Greece is self-sufficient in fresh milk but does not produce enough for other dairy products. Most mass-produced yoghurt is therefore supplemented with powdered or condensed milk from other EU countries.
  4. The “Mediterranean diet”: Aside from olive oil, most other components of the Mediterranean diet, particularly pulses which are the traditional source of protein, are largely imported, often across large distances. This includes 90-95% of lentils consumed in Greece (from Canada, the US and Turkey), 65-70% of chickpeas (Mexico and Turkey) and 55-60% of beans (US, Canada). A nostalgic return to the simple φασολάδα (fasoláda, bean soup), which many Greeks consider the real national dish, would not necessarily be as cheap as we would hope. Two thirds of bread flour is also imported. And although Greece could be self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables, the fuel, fertilisers, pesticides and machinery used for their cultivation are almost entirely imported.
  5. “Tost” (τοστ): A staple of most family homes is a toasted sandwich made with sliced bread, yellow cheese and ham. The vast majority of yellow cheese consumed in Greece, particularly the cheap sliced stuff, is imported from Holland and Germany; most local Greek cheese varieties are too expensive to be melted in a sandwich.

Photo by koutofrangos. All rights reserved.

Five simple “Greek” pleasures that could become luxuries after a Grexit

Regressive tax alert – feminist edition

4455683809_3230ca9bef_zOops! Menstruation just became a luxury in Greece (VAT on sanitary towels up to 23%).

As did birth control and safe sex (condoms also up to 23%).

But not shellfish (still at 13%) – so you can still feast on aphrodisiacs provided you don’t intend to consummate*.

These are some of the latest tax reforms that Greece will be implementing from Monday, an indicative list of which is translated at the bottom of this post.

It is disappointing that our brave new left wing government continues to plough the furrow of regressive tax gathering carved by its predecessors, trying to squeeze ever more out of Greece’s captive but diminishing tax base. In case you haven’t thought it through, VAT increases on basic goods mean that everyone has to pay more regardless of their income or spending ability, which means that those on lower incomes are disproportionately punished. The additional €157 per year spend on basic foodstuffs that the new rates equate to will be felt much more acutely by lower income households.

No doubt this outcome will be justified as part of the blackmail exerted by the creditors. I can’t help thinking that if they hadn’t backed themselves and the country into a corner they would have had a golden opportunity to put their social justice actions where their rhetoric is. This is does not bode well for thornier comprehensive reforms to tax and pensions that are also on the cards.

VAT (ΦΠΑ) up to 23% from 13%:

  • Fresh or frozen beef (but not pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, fish or shellfish)
  • Packaged foodstuffs (including pasta, rice, flour, coffee, cocoa, processed meat, marmalade, chocolate, ice cream, baking goods, spices, bread, prepared meals, sliced bread, rusks, soft drinks and juices, herbal teas, sugar, vinegar) – no staples there, then…
  • Pet food, insect repellants, condoms, sanitary towels, firewood, cars for the disabled (another great progressive move), funeral services (the logical conclusion)
  • Eating out and catering
  • Public transport and taxi fares
  • Repair and restoration of old properties

Please don’t ask me what VAT rate applies to tampons – this is largely academic as they seem to be as rare as hens’ teeth in the shops these days. And no, it’s not my “time of the month.”

*CORRECTION: Of course it’s more complicated. Since the time of posting, a more detailed list reveals that shellfish are also in the top VAT bracket, so unless frozen calamari gets you going, this pleasure is also for special occasions only…

Image: Vintage 1956 Kotex ad licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Regressive tax alert – feminist edition

Winners and losers

imageEach crisis has its casualties, but you may be surprised to know that some have benefitted from the capital controls that have otherwise paralysed the Greek economy since the banks closed on the 29th June.

Overall, the damage is expected to be pretty catastrophic. The tab has not yet closed, but already some first assessments are being produced by retailers and other market participants.

Below I have compiled a list of the winners and losers of the capital controls, lest we forget what a topsy turvy world we have been living in:

The losers:

  • Anyone without a cashpoint card or credit card: cash withdrawals are limited to €60 (effectively €50 as the ATMs ran out of €20 notes within a few days), but anyone with a card can use it within Greece. Only pensioners without cards have been allowed limited counter service at selected bank branches.
  • Pensioners without ATM cards: these were given more limited access to their bank accounts, permitting €120 per week, compared to 5x€60, until the banks were able to issue new cards; given the high rate of unemployment, it is not uncommon for pensioners to have a large number of dependents, creating a ripple effect.
  • Import reliant businesses, including many manufacturing and exporting businesses which rely on imported equipment or raw materials.
  • Retailers of clothes, shoes, toys and other low-value non-essentials have seen sales fall off sharply as purchases are postponed.
  • Anyone reliant on foreign services, e.g. foreign airlines, iCloud and cloud applications: foreign payments and transfers have been frozen, so subscriptions have been suspended. Apple has given free iCloud access to Greek users until further notice.
  • Anyone reliant on drugs and medical supplies, with the exception of certain essential prescription drugs which like other imports, are starting to run short in pharmacies and hospitals.
  • … and of course tourism, accounting for 6.5% of Greece’s GDP: while tourists have continued to arrive at Greek destinations, future bookings reduced and cancellations increased.

IMG_20150710_103445897_HDR (1)

The winners:

  • Supermarkets: turnover increased by 30-40% as households topped up their regular shop with a few more essentials, though there has not yet been full-blown panic-buying.
  • Petrol stations: most drivers made sure they were topped up with fuel in the event of a supply squeeze, though queueing has not been as widespread as news reports implied
  • Consumer electrical and electronic goods retailers and car dealerships: many consumers fearing that a Cyprus-style bank bail-in my result in haircuts to bank accounts well below the nominal €100,000 threshold decided to sink disposable cash into flat screen TVs, cookers, fridges and electronics “while they still have it”. One UK-owned chain boosted it’s parent company’s profits by 21%.
  • Working parents (at least temporarily): banks were on a “holiday” and many businesses sensing a slowdown and unable to meet payroll demands put employees on unpaid leave; parents and toddlers have been enjoying the parks and beaches mid-week.
  • The Greek state (paradoxically): the fear of a deposit haircut on bank accounts also prompted may taxpayers (businesses in particular) with access to e-banking to expedite payment of their taxes.
  • Visa and Mastercard: credit and debit card use has not been widespread in Greece, especially for small amounts; but as card payments within Greece have been exempt from the capital controls, their uptake has been rapid.
  • Private security firms: workload for firms offering secure storage and armoured transport took off, as a number of private companies opted to pay their employees in cash. Electrical goods retailers experiencing a spike in sales but unable to bank their daily cash takings also required daily transport and secure storage.

Some more detailed examples, mainly of losers can be found here.

Photos by Atlantis Host. Street market and white goods delivery in a middle class neighbourhood of Athens, two weeks into capital controls.

Winners and losers