Tuesday, November 08, 2011


I expected to be irritated by Channel 4's Go Greek for a Week. I wasn't disappointed. Actually, there were a few fleeting moments of decent analysis from good commentators, but they were buried in the cliché and stereotyping of the rest. The programme became an attempt to use some of the more dismal tricks of reality TV to lay the blame for the whole of the Greek budgetary crisis on malpractice, rather than trade imbalances, exchange rate inflexibility and austerity programmes (OK, not quite as easy as to dramatise with a hairdresser and bus driver, I'll give them that. Though I seem to remember Robert Tressell doing it rather well with house painters). I also grimaced at the way good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon honesty was compared to the cunning, underhand practices of those pesky Mediterranean types.  But the most egregious part was the statistical trick they played.

You would have thought that if you wanted to compare the earnings of a bus driver in Greece with a bus driver in the UK you would, er, compare the earnings of a bus driver in Greece with a bus driver in the UK. No. That's not the way they did it. Instead, they took the bonuses and allowances of a Greek bus driver and calculated them as a percentage of the Greek average wage. They then worked out what that percentage would amount to if it was calculated against UK average earnings (they are higher than Greek ones). They then took that amount in cash, handed it to our bus driver and said to him that was the extra weekly earnings he would get under the Greek system. At no stage did they say what the respective figures for average earnings are, nor did they say what the Greek bus driver's basic salary was before the additions. Ben Goldacre would be having fits.

There was no need for this distortion, Greeks themselves are as critical of the abuses mentioned. But you came away with the impression of Greeks living a life of idle luxury; lazy, over-paid and dishonest as well as being the main cause of the economic crisis.  Needless to say it hasn't gone down well in Greece itself and so they have made a version of their own:

Hat Tip KTG


Anonymous said...

totally agree with your analysis, found it also annoying that the surgeons wife was complaining about how things were, im not saying what was done was right, far from it but her husband earns over 10 times the wage of his Greek counterpart, perhaps they should have asked him to live on 25000 instead of 300000, would have liked to see the look on his wifes face then! also the way they portrayed the country was so racist, using stereotypes to put down a whole nation that is really struggling is disgusting. Was actually surprised how racist it was, could you imagine the uproar if they targeted another race or religion so unfairly?

George S said...

I didn't see the programme, having read the blurb, deciding it would be sensationalised and pointless. I might have been wrong on that.

However, the picture so far is extremely muddled. We don't really know how the various strata of Greek society were living before 2008 and what the difference is now. What happened to the lives of the fisherman, the industrial worker, the low grade clerk, the shopkeeper, the skilled tradesman, the middle-management figure, the academic, the professional, the financier, the politician, the child, the pensioner, the very old etc? What were the economic factors that dominated and dominate their lives.

The verbal battle between those who cry: Greeks corrupt spendthrifts, parasites on the European purse, early retirement, fat pensions, cooked books! and Greeks honest hardworking folk exploited by the EU, normal retirement, standard pensions, pretty straight dealing apart from at the very top! is so stark it makes little sense to me except as crisis talk.

Peter, you are there quite often. I know I am asking for far too much detail, but maybe you could offer some insight into the above. I am already aware of the temptations of borrowing and the pressure to borrow exerted by the very people who now won't lend, but I'd like to get a little beyond that.

The Plump said...

You weren't wrong to give the programme a miss George. It is just that I take a perverse pleasure out of being irritated.

Your question is more suited to a long night over a bottle of Jameson's than a comment or a blog post. I think that it is worth remembering that Greece has always been a low wage economy. It has also had relatively low levels of private debt. This is a sovereign debt crisis with two main causes. The first is a chronically inefficient state with high levels of clientilism and petty corruption that has been spending unsustainably for decades. The second, and this is what is making the situation so intractable, is the poor design of monetary union meaning that the only policy to enhance competitiveness is 'internal devaluation' - a deliberate policy of lowering living standards. Arguably, this hinders reform as people fight to maintain whatever can keep them going.

For those reliant on salaried posts and pensions in both the private and public sector living standards are collapsing.

Here are three stories:

The first

The second

The third

And one from me. A good friend of mine was taken ill 18 months ago. Every other patient who had presented to the hospital with that disease before had died. The surgeon saved his life. On the hospital wall there was a sign saying, "the doctor who is treating you has not been paid for three months". No bribes were necessary, there was no tax fiddle. They did their job and were proud and delighted by his survival.

But life continues, people manage, families are strong, independent and small traders work the system as people do the world over. They survive. The rich send their money overseas and avoid tax.

The problem with austerity is that it does not just make people poorer, it collapses perfectly viable businesses, induces severe recession, reduces government earnings and actually makes the debt get ever higher.

But, just as you suggest, things are more complex than a war of stereotypes and this article gives the best analysis I have seen.

And in another post the author makes the following point,

"What do I think of the Greek people? We are no better or worse than the Swedes, the Germans, the British or the Zimbabweans. We respond to incentives and when incentives are skewed we act in ways that are harmful to ourselves and others."

This is so obvious it is a truism and it is certain that perverse incentives exist. However, what this programme did was pander to a popular stereotype by implying that some = all, utterly infuriating to those who face the imposition of a policy that was reluctantly accepted as a painful necessity until the moment it became apparent that it was a complete failure.