Monday, 26 January 2015

Will Greece Become Venezuela -- But Without The Oil

One can only say ‘Well Done’ to Syriza after running an energetic campaign promising the long-suffering Greek people a return to the good old days and an end to the struggle, however muted, of dragging the country into the 21st century with much-needed structural reforms. He successfully kept voter attention focused on the hated word ‘austerity’ instead of ‘reform’.  Something no one seems to want. By comparison, the former leading party New Democracy was effectively absent-without-leave during the campaign and ceded all the high, self-righteously indignant ground to the insurgent Syriza. As one observer noted New Democracy seemed tired, worn out, and basically conceded the election before the campaign even began.

            Winning the election is one thing. Transforming the rhetoric into reality is quite another. The Greek treasury is essentially empty. It is not altogether clear just how Syriza’s bold election promises will be met. The glow of victory could quickly fade once the next prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, has to deal with the twin problems of intractable creditors and an extremely fractious party whose more radical elements view the election as revenge for losing the civil war almost 70 years ago. Memories die hard in Greece. Will he be able to tame the parts of his own party that want to replicate Argentina and rip up the debt agreements and repudiate all of Greece’s debt? It’s much too early to tell.

Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras
            His campaign was filled with promises to renegotiate Greece’s debt burden, restore pensions, roll back structural reforms, and essentially remove the influence of the creditors on Greece’s internal policies. By the way, all of this is supposed to happen with Greece remaining in the Euro. Crowd pleasing stuff. Exactly what the Greek people wanted to hear. Unfortunately it has the real impact of one hand clapping.

The creditors wisely remained largely silent during the campaign. It will be interesting to see how they react when presented with Syriza’s ‘demands’. Probably not all that well. There may be room to adjust terms at the margins – possibly extend maturities, be flexible on interest rates, etc. But I expect the creditors to remain firm, initially at least, on demands for continued structural reforms to free up protected professions and reduce the highly politicized over-stuffed bureaucracy that stifles any economic initiative.

The creditors, led by the Troika of the  IMF,  European Central Bank and the European Commission, should be careful, however, because Tspiras is very skillful at changing the nature of the debate and winning the critical public relations battle. The debate will no longer be about the serial failures of Greek policy makers over the last several decades. Their inability or unwillingness to create an economic system that relies on more than state hand-outs to favoured clients will be pushed aside.

Tsipras will no doubt attempt to turn the debt negotiations into grand statements about ‘Greek sovereignty’, the ‘will of the people’ vs. narrow-minded accountants. He will attempt to broaden the argument far beyond Greece and become the spokesman for all the ‘beleaguered, debt-ridden, down-trodden’ people of Europe. Nowhere will there be any acknowledgement that the ultimate responsibility for this current Greek tragedy lies squarely with the Greek political class, or that perhaps billions of Euros of loans just might come with a few conditions. All these unpleasant facts will be buried under tons of ‘anti-bailout’ rhetoric.

This strategy just might work. He knows his opponents’ weakness very well. The bureaucrats of the so-called Troika are not very good at public communications. They act like small woodland creatures caught in the glare of head lights when confronted with media attacks. They either become road kill or retreat rapidly behind bland, bureaucratic statements that Tsipras will tear apart as he backs them into a public relations corner. He will turn them into heartless accountants intent on stripping the hapless people of Greece of their last shreds of dignity and welfare. Hedge fund managers could possibly stand up to this onslaught. But European bureaucrats and political leaders are made of less stern stuff. They will be looking for a way out. They would undoubtedly cover their retreat by saying they acted to preserve the Euro and the concept of European unity. The Germans hate the idea of bailing out what they consider the ‘feckless Greeks’, but even they may wind up bending rather than be painted as the bad guys of Europe once again.

Unfortunately, the actual welfare of the Greek people could be lost in all this upcoming theatre where high-pitched melodrama replaces real substance. Tsipras has a real opportunity to lead Greece out of its quagmire and demonstrate just how he intends to kick-start the Greek economy to provide the jobs and income the people deserve. Can he change the mind set of his countrymen from relying on state hand outs that have a short shelf life? Will be do something like this? Or will he be content with the colourful theatrics of opposition? This is by no means clear.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Enough Is Enough. No More Excuses. No More 'Buts'.

Finally, in the wake of the attacks in Paris, there is a significant change in response from some quarters of the Moslem community in Europe and in the Islamic world in general. Too often the extremist outrages have been greeted with a ‘Yes, but . . .’ response that usually winds up indirectly blaming the victims. Now, important voices in the Moslem world have said enough is enough, and we must look to answers within our own community. Yes, the West has not always been welcoming or kind in its response to Moslem immigration. But that type of moral equivalence to justify the jihadi violence is beginning to break down

            Whatever one may think of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, he  recently delivered some important home truths in a speech to Islamic scholars and clerics at the heart of Islamic learning, Al Azhar, in Cairo. He called for nothing less than a revolution in the teaching of Islam.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi offers a few home truths
          “I am referring here to the religious clerics. We have to think hard about what we are facing . . . It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the umma (Islamic world) to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!”

            He added that Moslem clerics needed to approach Islam "from a more enlightened perspective" -- and that this necessitates a "religious revolution." These are dangerous words for a Moslem leader, and he was quickly condemned by more radical Moslem groups. It is worth noting that el-Sisi is the first Egyptian leader, ever, to attend a Coptic Christian service in Cairo.

                      Former Turkish President Abdullah Gul  issued a strong statement condemning the Paris attacks.

Former Turkish President Abdullah Gul condemns 'barbaric acts'
“It is clear that this kind of violence is totally immoral and against the fundamental precepts of any religion, and indeed of  Islam.
“The perpetrators of this barbaric act not only betrayed and tainted Islamic values and principles, but also targeted millions of European Muslims who have nowhere to live other than Europe.”

Gül also called on the Islamic world and all Muslims to denounce “the inhuman attack and demonstrate solidarity with the people of France against religious extremism.

             This was a refreshing contrast to the current Turkish president, Tayyip Erdoğan whose default position to such attacks is to remind everyone that what he calls Islamaphobia is really responsible for such outrages.

                      Turkish journalist Ahmet Hakan wrote a powerful column saying “No More Excuses Left For Massacres.”
Ahmet Hakan: Beware the 'buts'
We are going through days when sentences containing ‘but’ have peaked.
‘I condemn this, but . . .’
‘Of course killing is horrendous, but . . .’
‘One would not support a massacre, but . . .’
‘I would never tolerate what has been done, but . . .’

Here’s how to understand these types of sentences. Disregard all of the words before the ‘but.’ Concentrate on what comes after the ‘but’, because the actual ideas are hidden there.

The benchmark is this

When our religion and our prophet are mocked, it is legitimate and acceptable to turn your face away. To protest and to show discomfort is acceptable. To oppose is acceptable. Even to say ‘This can not happen; this is unacceptable’ is quite fine.

However, to kill, attack, behead, strafe with a machine gun, massacre, bomb, or blow up . . .Such reactions are never legitimate and never acceptable.

Having to remind (people) of the very basic humane and Islamic benchmarks to such an extent, however, is simply humiliating, shameful.”

While it is refreshing to hear calls for a serious re-think in the Moslem community, it is also important to rebut the ridiculous claims about the “Islamization of Europe.” From a demographic point of view this fear is sheer fantasy. Take Germany with about four million Turkish Moslems. This is less than 5% of the German population. And the vast majority of Turks I have encountered in Germany identify themselves as Germans. They are widely represented across all professions and businesses. I make it a point of asking young German-Turks if they ever think of going ‘home.’ The vast majority look at me quizzically and say firmly that their home is Germany. They were born there, their German is better than their Turkish, they went to school there, they work there, and they are delighted to be German citizens.

Mouhanad Khorchide: A voice of reason
            If the short-term answer to this Moslem-extremist violence is better security, the long term answer is education. Too much of Islamic education is based on rote-memory of the Quran or listening to hate-filled sermons from semi-educated self-styled imams. Non-Moslems need to understand that Islam is more than the distortions of the jihadis. The New York Times did an interesting story about Mouhanad Khorchide, a professor of Islamic pedagogy at the University of Münster in Germany. His courses are intended to groom teachers who will teach Islam in primary schools and then secondary schools, putting it on a par with Christianity and Judaism. This effort to take real Islamic instruction out of the hands of the fanatics will take time, but it is the only way to reduce the attraction of the violent jihadi groups like Al Qaeda or ISIS who prey on the ignorant and the vulnerable.

Monday, 5 January 2015

The Greek People Deserve Much Better

The ancient Athenian dramatists would find plenty of subject matter in modern Greek politics. The only question would be whether Aristophanes or Euripides should write the play. There’s enough material for the comedies of the former or the tragedies of the latter.

            There is absolutely no question that the Greek people have been put through the economic and emotional wringer ever since the crisis began more than five years ago. The economy has almost ground to a halt, unemployment has soared, incomes have been slashed, the best and brightest young people are fleeing the country for greater opportunities elsewhere, and popular anger has reached a thundering crescendo. People are in the mood to roll a few heads.
            But whose? Therein lies the question. Unlike other troubled European economies such as Spain or Ireland, the problem, and any solution, go far beyond mere economics. Should they go after the entire Greek political class whose deceit, mismanagement and self-interest over the decades did so much to bring the country to its knees? Should they lash out at the current government that has very reluctantly started a half-hearted reform program? Better yet, should they vent their anger on the usual suspects – the perfidious outsiders who have the nerve to put strict conditions on the billions of Euros they have given Greece?

                That certainly is the position of the main opposition party, the left-tilting Syriza. This is where Aristophanes would have a field day. The main thrust of Syriza’s election campaign is promises to re-negotiate the bail-out agreement, force the creditors to take a bigger hair-cut, give free electricity to certain people, increase pensions, increase spending, do away with the real estate tax, raise the minimum wage, and, by the way, reinstate the €12,000 tax-free threshold. One would love to be in the room when these masters of Greek melodrama meet with the decidedly un-melodramatic German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble to ‘renegotiate’ the terms of the bailout agreement. Good luck to them.

            While Syriza’s mishmash of proposals may sound contradictory and implausible to anyone with minimal financial knowledge they are consistent with the general anti-Western and anti-capitalist dogma of the Greek left that holds everyone except themselves responsible for the country’s problems. Rather than see the State with its old patronage system of politics as the author of many of Greece’s serial catastrophes many of the Greek left see the State – which they want to control – as the country’s salvation. There is not much room for private initiative in this resurrection of a failed system.

            So far the party has been relatively silent on its foreign policy objectives. This is understandable. Generally it has favoured anyone who has loudly resisted ‘Western imperialism’. But where do they turn now? The traditional international icons of the Greek left are fading past. Che Guevara and Hugo Chavez are dead. And the Castro brothers are competing to see who opens the first McDonald’s franchise in Havana. Even Iran is in serious negotiations with the Great Satan. Maybe they can turn to Kim Jong Un of North Korea. Or there’s always Hamas.

            Syriza maintains that it wants to remain in the European Union and the Euro. But it’s difficult to see how this goal is compatible with its demands of restructuring the bail-out package and back-peddling rapidly on even the small reforms that have been taken. What will Syriza do if the so-called Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank, and the IMF) refuse to budge? Will it stamp its feet and threaten to pull Greece out of the Euro? While the destabilizing effects of such a move are less than they were three years ago the thought of a member country leaving the Euro still makes people nervous. The idea of Greece back in the drachma may thrill the zealots. Others view it as collective suicide.
Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras: Backwards to the future?
            One hardened cynic in Athens says maybe it would be a good thing if Syriza wins. “Then,” he adds, “the Greek people will finally see that the Left has absolutely no answers. There is no money, no room for them to manoeuvre. There may be a fig of leaf of some debt rescheduling, but there won’t be any fundamental change in the conditions for further financial aid. Once the Greek people grasp the reality that there is no return to the old days they might just accept some serious reform.”

            Right now the election campaign seems locked in what The Wall Street Journal calls ResponsibleStagnation or Reckless Collapse. If Syriza represents the Collapse part of the headline, the government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras represents the Responsible Stagnation. Indeed, the prime minister has never really pushed the reform agenda demanded by Greece’s creditors. He seems to present a picture of a weak person forced by unreasonable people into something he personally would rather not do. The result is that his opponents have been able to focus on the dreaded austerity instead of the much needed reform.  I haven’t heard anyone make a virtue out of the demands for reforms, and loudly proclaim that Greece has no choice. That the only hope for its young people is to break with the destructive old ways and build a new political and economic system.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras: How much reform does he really want?

            Polls say the election will be very close. Syriza holds a small lead over New Democracy of Prime Minister Samaras, but many voters say they are undecided. The most likely outcome is a narrow victory with the winner forced to form an unstable coalition. There could well be another election this year before a stable government can be formed.

The stakes are huge, especially for the young generation of Greeks who would much prefer to remain in their native country rather than be forced to take their talents all over the world. There is no shortage of brilliant people in Greece. The real tragedy, suitable for Euripides, is that the existing political system does its best to reduce that brilliance to a weak candle glow. Time for things to change

Friday, 26 December 2014

So You Want To Be An Expat

Stuck in a rut, craving a little excitement, something different and more glamorous than school runs in a small town, a chance perhaps to move up the corporate ladder, expand your horizons, intrigued by how others live on this increasingly crowded planet? Those pictures of the sophisticated café life in Paris or picturesque villages nestled in the sun-baked hills of Tuscany beginning to look better and better? Starting to ask yourself what you’re missing? Have you started, secretly at first, collecting a pile of information about life overseas?

If so, then you’re a good candidate to join the more than 7.5 million Americans whose home address doesn’t include a U.S. zip code. This, however, is the moment to sit down and think again, very carefully. While an expat life can undoubtedly be very fulfilling and fascinating, it is not for everyone. No matter how attractive the brochures, no matter how often you’re told ‘You don’t really need to speak the language. Everyone speaks English’ it will certainly be very, very different. For many people that is the very essence, the satisfaction, of an expat life. For others, it can be a nightmare.

            Like many things it is a much easier decision when you’re young, just out of college. You have time to live for a while in many different countries, learn languages, you don’t need that much money, you’re generally more flexible. Beware, though. Once you gain that experience at an early age it is very hard to get it completely out of your system. It will always be there as a temptation, an alternative. On a rainy, miserable day back home you will stare pensively out the window and think longingly about those days in Malaysia, India, or Chile. Add a family, a decent job, a dog or two and it becomes a much more difficult choice. Still possible, but it can be difficult to convince everyone around you that disrupting their lives and moving abroad is the best choice.

            My older daughter, then on a research trip for several weeks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, recalled what may be the extreme example of commitment to an expat life. She met an American missionary family with two children living deep in the bush far from any town that could remotely be called large. After a while she politely brought up the question of exactly how they came to find themselves deep in the African bush. They had been living quite happily somewhere in the Midwestern United States when the husband came down to breakfast one day and said he had been called to do missionary work in Africa. Fair enough. But if I had been his wife I just might have had him sit down, have a cup of coffee, maybe a couple of aspirin and double check that the call wasn’t a wrong number.

            Before you grab your boarding passes and head to the airport there are couple of things to think about.

1.      Be careful about people who tell you how easy it is to transplant your lifestyle to another continent. Closer examination may reveal they have a few advantages you don’t. Such as, a) already having dual citizenship and fluency in the language, b) having family members with invaluable connections in the host country, c) being married to a native of the country in question, or d) already having job open only to citizens of that particular country.

2.      Be careful also of rushing into foreign assignments for your company. They can be the springboard to more responsibility and promotion or they can equally be the slide into oblivion. Out of sight, out of mind. Make sure the country of your assignment is critical to the company’s overall success. Otherwise you are in a sideshow that doesn’t even have the benefit of useful gossip around the water-cooler. You can get into a position where a number of previously junior colleagues are promoted ahead of you at home simply because you are not there. When it comes time to go home, you may well find your bosses hemming and hawing about ‘difficult times’ or ‘it might be hard to slot you back into your old position’, etc. etc. Without iron-clad guarantees you might well be stuck overseas for a much longer period than you anticipated. Few things are sadder than an aging expat who hangs on by the skin of his teeth with marginal jobs in a foreign country simply because there are even fewer opportunities at home.

3.      Be especially careful of taking a job for a foreign company regardless of how much they offer you up front. You may be coming in over a number of local executives who could resent your presence and undermine everything you try to do. When trouble comes it is a lot easier for your new employer to get rid of you than them.

4.      Check the procedure for obtaining tricky things like resident permits and work permits. You never had to give either of those a second thought at home. Overseas they are crucial. Without them you will be floundering around. Countries are very careful about giving jobs to foreigners ahead of their own citizens unless you have some special skill. Don’t assume you can pitch up anywhere you like, find a place to live and start looking for a job without jumping through a lot of hoops.

5.      In cross-cultural situations the words ‘why’ and ‘should’ are the worst words in the English language. You can go nuts constantly asking ‘why’ things are done in a certain way that seems totally weird. Your life will be a lot less frustrating if you can restrain that impulse and take the time to appreciate that maybe, just maybe, there is a good reason that is not obvious at first. Also, no one wants to hear your opinion about what ‘should’ be done. Most people are well aware of their national problems and don’t appreciate constantly being reminded of them. Wait until you are asked. Things may take a little longer than you would like, but you will earn a great deal of good will by not constantly informing everyone within earshot that ‘We do it differently at home.’

            But most of all work hard to get the most out of your total experience. Don’t be afraid to jump in the deep end and immerse yourself totally. Moving overseas, even for a few years, can be one of the most memorable things you have ever done. Enjoy the difference. 

Friday, 19 December 2014

Welcome To America! Brace Yourself For Contrasts.

Visitors to the United States use many adjectives to describe the country. Subtle is not one of them. To many, the U.S. seems much more the lethal, cumbersome 70-ton Abrams tank thundering down the road than the nimble, fleet-footed forest creature relying on cunning and camouflage to escape capture.

My native country can often seem an incredibly jarring mixture of loud noise, blaring commercial assaults to buy something – anything, constant change coupled with in-your-face innovation, and a near-total disdain for anything that happened the day before. Europeans steeped in centuries-old traditions -- along with their assorted vicious religious and political feuds -- are often shocked that history in America is what you had for breakfast. Ancient history is last night’s TV schedule. Culture buffs are horrified that classical opera is reduced to elevator music and works by giants like Michelangelo can be reduced to hastily-created digital images on hand-held tablets.

On a recent visit home I was struck once again by the stark differences between the United States and Europe. Even in New England, considered by many to have close cultural and social ties to Europe, it was clear that the U.S. really is an ‘all bets are off, anything goes’ country.

American TV ads are one of my favourite examples of this. Other than the ban on cigarettes and alcohol there don’t appear to be any standards at all. The airways are filled with ads for prescription medicines that are supposed to cure all sorts of horrible diseases. A deep, authoritative voice assures you that this particular pill will reverse your downward slide and return you to sparkling shape in no time at all. Then the last half of the ad mentions, very rapidly, all the equally horrible side effects of this drug that could send you to an early grave.

Best of all, though, are the ads aimed at older men suffering from what is politely called erectile dysfunction. These ads all feature an attractive woman saying how much she likes older men, but, unfortunately, so many of them seem to have difficulty between the sheets. This little pill, however, can cure all of that and have them prancing around like randy teenagers in no time at all. Then the sonorous voice comes on listing all the adverse side effects, and says that if you have an erection lasting more than four hours you should call your doctor. Doctor, hell! It’s time to notify the Guinness Book of World Records.

These are just part of the stark contrasts that seem to define America. Awe-inspiring natural beauty and some man-made horrors; world leading universities stuffed with Nobel prizes coexist with some stupefying, almost wilful (I-don’t-know-nuthin’-and-I’m-proud-of- it)ignorance; cutting edge medical industry that leaves many with no care at all; dynamic economy that offers great opportunities but no guarantees.

Then, of course, there is the American love affair with ice. It can -15 degrees with a howling blizzard outside and the waiter will invariably serve you water in a glass filled with ice cubes. As you glance at the snow outside and politely ask if it would be possible to have the water without ice cubes the waiter gives you a look that says you are seconds away from being reported to Homeland Security. That threat level goes to orange when you mention to the same waiter that the portion size of the meal is perhaps better suited to a small town than just one individual.

Maybe it was the impact of the holiday season, but no effort is spared to part the consumer and his money. You are constantly bludgeoned with your patriotic duty to shop – on the internet or in real stores. One famous retailer specialising in outdoor gear is open 24/7 all year with no exceptions. I was jet lagged the day after arriving and decided to experiment with a bit of browsing at 4 am. Interesting people go shopping in a rural town at 4 o’clock in the morning. You want to watch out for the genetically-challenged guy with the glassy-eyed stare going over to the gun rack at that time of day. “Boy, that sure is a real nice looking shot gun you got there,” he gushes as he lovingly strokes the barrel. Others were just taking advantage of a warm place to sit and get some free coffee.

Personal freedom is cherished above all else. There are no thought police, no taste police in the form of not-so-subtle community pressure that dictates what you do. You want to wear orange bib overalls with a loud green shirt, go right ahead. You want to put enough reindeer and Christmas lights on your house and lawn so it can be seen from the planet Mars, go right ahead. People will congratulate you. Same for cars. You want what Europeans would consider an environmental disaster of car, go right ahead. Again, no one is going to stop you.

Perhaps most of all it is the sheer energy level, the drive to innovate, to change, to renew that make America an exciting place. Sometimes exhausting, frustrating and hypocritical, but seldom dull. All that went before -- your lineage, your achievements, your sense of proper social order -- means absolutely nothing. You are what you did today. Perhaps this is why the people who appreciate America the most are those who arrived with the least.