Stories about the Olive, part IV: Oiling the Wheels


I have heard this informal transaction described independently by more than one person, leading me to believe that it is not apocryphal:

Around late October/early November you are trying to progress some business with a government office – it could be a tax registration or a planning application, or something along these lines. You have the name of the official responsible for your application, but they are proving very hard to get hold of. Each time you call the office, you will get the same response: “Mr Táde (So-and-so) is not in the office today. He is at his village gathering the olives. I’m sorry but we don’t know when he will be back.”

To the uninitiated, this is an annoyance, but not a deterrent. They will keep trying, hitting their head against a brick wall, cursing all the way at the [expletive] civil service culture of absenteeism.

However, those in the know recognise this line as a coded invitation to tender, to which there is a proper response: “Oh, that is so nice. I hear Mr Táde’s trees produce very good oil. Would you be so kind as to ask him to reserve some for me?” And very soon they will find that Mr Táde has returned from leave, and can be found promptly behind his desk with a couple of five-litre tins of olive oil. They will pay Mr Táde a highly inflated price for the oil (which may be good, but not that good) submit their application, and find it dealt with with great efficiency – the efficiency of a well-oiled machine…

The transaction described above is an inventive riff on the twin themes of the family olive grove as hobby for city-dwellers, and olive oil as a buffer against hardship, which we alluded to in a previous post.

When the Greek government recently looked into the impact of withdrawing some of the generous tax breaks for farmers, one of the patterns that emerged was that, according to one newspaper report,

Only about 350,000 of the 850,000 Greeks involved in farming are full-time farmers, said an agriculture ministry official, adding that a third of agricultural output is sold or traded illegally without receipts.

Olive farming in Greece is largely a family business, with small units predominating. Greek agricultural units overall are roughly one fifth the size of the European average. What they do with their output often blurs the lines between different types of economic activity, several of which are not tracked by EUROSTAT or the OECD.

While the ‘grey’ market for olive oil may be thriving, Greece finds it harder to make a success of the ‘white’ market. In the case of olive oil, although the oil produced is very high quality (80% of Greek olive oil is extra virgin, compared to 65% of that produced in Italy and 30% in Spain), those countries have a much more valuable export market because they tend to standardise and package their product themselves, rather than loading it into tankers and exporting it in bulk (Greece only standardises 27% of its oil, compared to 80% in Italy and 50% in Spain). 60% of Greek olive oil is shipped to Italy, where it is bottled as Italian, and the Italian middle-men pocket an extra 50% premium on the price.

The theme of this story is a familiar one – a true Greek paradox. We seem to be blessed with some enviable natural resources (there is no other elegant word for it without resorting to statistical jargon, since their presence is clearly down to luck, not skill or hard work). We are clearly not lacking in the ingenuity to make a market in them. And yet, it is not a market that connects well with the wider world, and it is questionable whether it benefits anyone beyond the atomistic units that practice it (the individual, the family). Trying to imagine what might happen if that ingenuity were channeled from the ‘grey’ or ‘black’ economy into the ‘white’ is a an exercise at once hopeful and depressing. Figuring out how to achieve it is surely the €100 billion challenge behind the resurrection of the Greek economy.

Stories about the Olive, part IV: Oiling the Wheels

The Carringtons and the Colbys and the rest of us


The leadership election in Nea Demokratia following their defeat in the September 2015 elections has got everyone talking once again about οικογενειοκρατία (ikogeniokratía – with such a tongue-twister it is not surprising that the latin-derived “nepotism” prevailed in English to describe favouritism granted to family members). Having been consigned to the opposition by a (relatively new) party led by a young leader who placed great emphasis on ousting the “old” political establishment, the question for many is, will ND be able to field a candidate to whom the charge of the “old” won’t stick? The first candidate to throw his hat in the ring is Kyriakos Mitsotakis, son of honorary party leader and former Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis, who publicly backed his candidacy. Which makes for tricky family politics, because Kyriakos’s big sister, Dora Bakoyanni, has long led a faction within the party, and her son, Kostas Bakoyannis, has also been mooted as a leadership candidate. It has the makings of a primetime soap opera, if not a Greek tragedy. Meanwhile, another wing of the party are jostling to kiss the ring of Kostas Karamanlis, former Prime Minister and nephew of Konstantinos Karamanlis, the party founder.

If you have just joined us, I know how you feel: I once tried to speed-read One Hundred Years of Solitude in two days. The point is, Kyriakos (as he prefers to be called, unsurprisingly) is already finding it hard to escape his family name, despite having shown signs of being a progressive and intelligent politician. Poor Kyriakos may be a decent and capable chap with the country’s best interests at heart but he is in a catch-22 situation: his surname is a selling point within the party, but electoral poison for the new voters that they need so badly to attract.

Nea Demokratia are not the only ones with a problem. The last power struggle in PASOK, once the other pillar in Greece’s pre-crisis two-party system, was between factions headed by the man who many saw as the rightful heir to the founder’s dynasty (George Papandreou, son of PASOK founder Andreas and grandson of Georgios Papandreou the Elder who also led his own party and served as Prime Minister) and the daughter of the man who was once his father’s heir apparent (Fofi Gennimata, daughter of Georgios Gennimatas). In the event, having left PASOK to form his own party, Papandreou was unable to run in the last elections due to lack of funds, making this the first election without a candidate from the Papandreou family in almost a century.

The prevalence of political dynasties is a fact of life in Greece that was thrown into sharp relief by the crisis, as it became yet another Greek peculiarity on which to pin the country’s decline. A widely quoted article in Der Spiegel blamed three political families for “ruining the country” through their nepotistic practices, and there are several lists and accounts one can turn to for more detailed and nuanced background. The leading families are often referred to as τζάκια (tzákia, literally fireplaces or family hearths) or σόγια (sóya, a Turkish word meaning clans, singular σóι – sói). The truth is that the phenomenon is more pervasive than the top three or five families, and extends across the political spectrum. In 2007 it was estimated that one in five parliamentary candidates came from a political dynasty (in Eleftherotypia newspaper, article no longer available online). Newer political constellations are not immune to it, as the meteoric rise of former Speaker Zoe Konstantopoulou (daughter of Nikos Konstantopoulos, leader of the new-defunct Synaspismos party that was absorbed into Syriza) demonstrates.

Professional politics is not the only arena in Greece where family ties prevail. Traditionally, voting preference has flowed along family lines. But then so has career and business, from the family-owned SMEs (shops and small manufacturing businesses) and professional service businesses (law firms, construction firms and private medical practices) that dominate Greece’s economy, to the family-owned conglomerates in the larger industrial sectors. Many areas of life are effectively a “closed shop”. It is hard to get a job in Greece, especially a first job, without a connection that often comes from family ties. How often have you heard of a talented, well-qualified person who applies for a job or bids for a contract only to find out that it has been awarded to someone’s (often totally unqualified) cousin? Even in the go-go days of the 1990s and 2000s when my age group entered the job market, most of my peer group had to persist for up to a decade before finding a job that matched their qualifications. Even as the economy superficially boomed, lack of opportunities for the young (the “€700 generation” as they were dubbed then after the typical entry-level monthly income) was blamed for recurring riots in the city centres and around the universities. It is no wonder that since the bubble burst, the young have found themselves at the sharp end; youth unemployment hovers in the mid-50%, and €700 now looks like a sweet deal if you can get it. And of course this exacerbates big future issues like the pensions time-bomb which politicians are only now reluctantly starting to wrestle with.

It is in these conditions that you can also see the flip side of family ties, and possibly start to understand how they come to undermine “the greater good”. The family is the most resilient institution in Greece. In a country that is marked by weakness in its political and civil institutions, the family offers the most reliable refuge and inter-generational safety net. We all like to joke about the Greek boys who can’t leave their mothers; over half of Greek adults of both sexes up to the age of 34 live with their parents compared to around 14% in the US and the UK and single digits in the Nordic countries. Moving in with the parents as a result of unemployment (for those who had moved out) was less of a culture shock and less stigmatising for Greeks than it was for the Americans and the Brits who had to return to the nest in the aftermath of 2008. Family networks extend back to the ancestral villages that Greeks left in droves in the post-war era, and they have also provided support ranging from olive oil to childcare to a newly rediscovered rural life for families finding themselves without income and roots in the big city. It has long been the norm in Greece for retired parents and grandparents to care and be cared for by the extended family, and only enter retirement homes in extremis. Now it is not uncommon for them to share their pensions with their unemployed children and their young families – indeed, the Greek social security system seems to be designed around the assumption that pensions will “trickle down” to support the unemployed and the needy in later generations.

You may think that I have strayed too far from the subject of nepotism into “motherhood and apple pie” territory, but my point is, it is all connected. When the crisis hit, many of us were optimistic that it would act as a catalyst to weaken some of the old structures and create new opportunities where they had previously been stifled. Now that seems less likely. Times of crisis strengthen family ties rather than pulling them apart, and if it is so at the bottom why imagine that it’s any different at the top? We like to think that politicians are a different species, especially when it comes to apportioning blame, but really they are flesh from our flesh. As the Greek lawyer or doctor might encourage their son or daughter to follow them in the profession and inherit not just the office space and the brass plaque but also the clientele, so the politician.

The biggest concern with nepotism in political life is not so much the lack of meritocracy (the quality of our elected representatives is an issue more broadly speaking) but the perpetuation of the inherited patronage system by the “politico-familial” complex. It is lazy thinking to believe that by diluting the gene pool in parliament the problem of political patronage will instantly be solved. A much more effective remedy would be to strengthen the social and political institutions that can provide the checks and balances, and step in when family support bleeds into discrimination and clientelism. Principles such as transparency, competition, performance assessment, management of conflicts of interest, are resisted as alien to the “native” culture precisely because they challenge pervasive vested interests. Closed professions and unrepresentative unions react to them in much the same way, like a vampire to garlic, and that can only be a good sign.

The Carringtons and the Colbys and the rest of us