What Greece Really Needs From Us Right Now

An article I read on CNN.com prompted me to take stylus to iPad and begin writing this commentary. The article talked about Greek Americans to the rescue -- organizing to help the homeland in her time of need.

 The headline was intriguing enough to warrant a click through from my Facebook newsfeed. Unfortunately, the story itself was not. Instead of a story about Greek American innovators, investors, entrepreneurs and old fashioned business people organizing to use their knowledge, resources and skills to help, I read about people planning their summer holidays to "go and spend their dollars in Greece" and not elsewhere. 

That's just baloney. Or in the spirit of this story, loukaniko.

 A couple of thousand Greek Americans flying USAirways, Continental or worse yet Lufthansa... Staying with yiayia or Theia Marika in the village outside Tripoli, and dropping a few hundred euros (and later complaining about the cost) for a bottle of whiskey at the bouzoukia isn't going to help Greece. 

No. Greece needs more than that right now.

 For starters, you can stop feeding the stereotype beast. And we are all guilty. Your cousin Niko might be lazy and sit in coffee shops all day drinking his frappe (or freddo if he's hip) -- but this is not a fair description of the vast, vast majority of Greeks.

In fact, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranks the Greeks second in the world -- that's right, the entire world and that includes the USA in it -- as the second hardest working people after the South Koreans. If you don't believe me, take it from Forbes.

 That would make your cousin Mitso in Astoria or on Halsted Street much lazier than cousin Niko -- the one in the village back in Greece.

 Secondly, I've heard over and over again that the "coffee shops are full and the bouzoukia are jammed." Yes, they very well might be -- and no one's saying that everyone in Greece is suffering and that some people can't afford a cup of coffee or a night out, but the simple truth of the matter is there are less coffee shops today than there were a year ago. 

And with regards to the ubiquitous bouzoukia... At one time in Greece's recent memory, a night out on the town could have meant a weekday. Today, you're lucky to find open bouzoukia even on a Friday night, making the few clubs that are still operating full and "jamming" on a Saturday -- the only night of the week they are probably working.

 Finally, enough with the jokes about Greeks not paying taxes. The truth is (and statistics prove it) that it's the richest of the rich Greeks who don't pay their taxes, not the average citizen. Unfortunately, the violations of these doctors, lawyers, nightclub singers and others in high society are so egregious that it's their antics that make the front pages of the New York Times and soon -- we all start fanning the rumors and start to believe that no Greeks pay taxes.

 Besides, let's see what happens when the role of the IRS is diminished in this country. Watch -- just watch -- how law-abiding taxpayers quickly become tax-evading lawbreakers.

And how about all those Greek-owned cash businesses... Diners in New Jersey, restaurants in Chicago, donut shops in Boston... Are we naive enough to believe that all (Greek) Americans pay all of their (our) taxes? Who are we kidding?

Furthermore -- remove highway patrol from America's roads and see how quickly they turn into the autobahn. It's human nature, folks -- Greeks are breaking the law because they can. They are evading taxes, and driving like madmen, and parking on sidewalks, and smoking in no-smoking areas -- because they can. Because they know there is no fear of prosecution.

I'm not becoming an apologist for Greece and Greeks. There are definitely problems and I'll be the first to admit that Andreas Papandreou started a huge party that is now coming to an end and someone's got to pay for it. Napoleon Linardatos talks about the party eloquently here. It's definitely worth a read.

And yes -- the public sector is out of control, the entitlements, pensions, retirement age requirements are insane -- to the point that an entire generation of people have been indoctrinated (brainwashed) into believing that this is normal that the government is there to take care of its citizens from cradle to grave.

But again -- I don't blame the average citizenry. I blame the corrupt politicians vying for votes and the corrupt union bosses who lobbied for more, more, more to fuel their populist flames and increase their own unions' membership ranks and power.

It's a sick and vicious cycle that ensnared common people by feeding them a sweet tasting fruit that was too good to say no to. That fruit was a job for life -- stability for a son or daughter in exchange for a vote in an uncertain world. It's a fruit that any vulnerable person would taste -- Greek or non-Greek.

 What Greece really needs right now from the Diaspora -- (and I'm tugging at your philotimo strings right now) -- is a series of serious initiatives that are both possible (given our ingenuity and success), and realistic.

  1. A trust fund for our cultural heritage.
Let's gather the wealthiest Greeks in America and the world and the financial whiz kids that populate Wall Street -- there are about a dozen billionaires I can name off the top of my head right now -- and engage their expertise to create a revenue-generating fund to serve both as collateral and support for the Parthenon, the Palace of Knossos, the Akrotiri settlement on Santorini and other sites critical to Greece's cultural heritage. A $100 million fund (owned and managed by the donors) per site could generate $5 million annually at 5% interest -- enough to preserve the sites, keep them open with experienced, private staff -- and out of the grasp of the public sector that is often subject to civil strife, strikes and shortages in staff and resources.
  • A venture capital fund to support Greek entrepreneurs.
  • Israel does it. India does it. And their diaspora communities are nothing compared to ours and the passion, love and dedication we have for our homeland. Let's gather some of the nation's top Greek American venture capitalists--and here too, I can name a dozen or so -- to create a fund called Greece Future -- because we believe in the future of Greece and we want to invest in the future of Greece. This fund could seek out the great Greek innovators and encourage them to stay and build their businesses in Greece and not be forced to re-locate to Silicon Valley or London.
  • A real Diaspora Bond mechanism for low and high level investors to support the future of Greece
  • Again, other diaspora communities of nations like Israel and India have a bond mechanism that allows average citizens to support their homelands with shares as low as $1,000. Why can't we do this? The truth is, it was proposed already -- by the Greek Government. The problem is that it's the same, corrupt Greek government bureaucrats that got the country into this mess in the first place that want to the run this proposed "Diaspora Bond." Message to the Ministers who propose this: When hell freezes over I'll give you my hard-earned money to build your villa and buy your apartment overlooking the Acropolis. (You know who you are).

    What I propose is something like Israel Bonds. Supported primarily from U.S.-based Jews, the Development Corporation for Israel/State of Israel Bonds is one of the world's most dependable economic financial vehicles with 60 years of success. Worldwide sales have exceeded $30 billion and proceeds have played a vital role in transforming Israel into a regional superpower with unparalleled infrastructure. The key to the success of this proposal: diaspora involvement in the investment and management of the fund.


    These are but three ideas -- and certainly there are others.

    Of course, in order for any of these ideas to materialize, you need stability in Greece and a government willing to support the change that is necessary. Although I have a lot of faith in the conviction and dedication of the country's current Prime Minister George Papandreou, it is those around him who I fear will be most resistant to change.

    What I know about Papandreou is that he cares about his country deeply. When he speaks, his passion for Greece is evident. Unlike his father, he appears not to have a corrupt bone in his body. I may be wrong -- or I don't know enough to offer a valid opinion. Of course, it's easy for me to speak (or write this) from my apartment on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, where I look out the window and see the streets bustling with traffic, people on their way to work.

It's easy for me to speak about Papandreou -- without feeling the pain that so many Greeks have felt from the austerity measures that his government has passed; or to feel the burning of the tear gas that his police forces have lobbed at crowds who were merely there expressing their inalienable democratic rights.

    And I do apologize to the Greeks who might be offended by my simplistic opinion of their Prime Minister, which is based solely on what I see and read -- primarily in the international media -- that he is a forward-thinker, an internationalist and a product of a global upbringing who has a big picture approach to Greece and is making important decisions today, that will be written about in the history books a century from now. I want to believe that his decisions will be right for Greece -- albeit a difficult pill for many already impoverished citizens to swallow.

    I should also note that my opinion is not one that is supporting the political party Pasok, or its socialist tendencies and policies, which I believe were the cause of Greece's demise. My opinion is in support of an individual who I believe is "big" enough to realize that it was his own father's policies that resulted in the Greece of 2011 and that he must stare the ghosts of the past in the face, tell them he is no longer afraid of them and create the new Greece.

    Something else I believe in is the spirit of Greece and the ultimate force that brings her people together in times of crisis and need. Anyone who doubts me need only read the last hundred years of this tiny nation's history and its ability to not only reinvent itself, but to play an important role in the history of the entire world.

    Furthermore, I do believe that what Greece faces today is child's play compared to the trials and tribulations of the earth-shattering events of 1922 when the humanitarian crisis in Asia Minor spilled into the Greek islands and mainland and millions of impoverished Greeks who fled war were sleeping amidst the ruins of the Parthenon and housed temporarily in theaters and other public buildings.

    Furthermore, Greece was again tested a few decades later during the German occupation and ensuing Civil War during which time one eighth of the entire population perished and over 3000 towns and villages were burned to the ground.

    Mark Mazower, the Columbia University historian and expert on Modern Greece said it much more eloquently than I ever will in his New York Times editorial.

    Yes, these are trying times, but Greece will prevail.