The widespread corruption at the heart of Greek culture

From Michael Lewis’s “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds” (Vanity Fair: 1 October 2010):

In just the past decade the wage bill of the Greek public sector has doubled, in real terms—and that number doesn’t take into account the bribes collected by public officials. The average government job pays almost three times the average private-sector job. The national railroad has annual revenues of 100 million euros against an annual wage bill of 400 million, plus 300 million euros in other expenses. The average state railroad employee earns 65,000 euros a year. Twenty years ago a successful businessman turned minister of finance named Stefanos Manos pointed out that it would be cheaper to put all Greece’s rail passengers into taxicabs: it’s still true. “We have a railroad company which is bankrupt beyond comprehension,” Manos put it to me. “And yet there isn’t a single private company in Greece with that kind of average pay.” The Greek public-school system is the site of breathtaking inefficiency: one of the lowest-ranked systems in Europe, it nonetheless employs four times as many teachers per pupil as the highest-ranked, Finland’s. Greeks who send their children to public schools simply assume that they will need to hire private tutors to make sure they actually learn something. There are three government-owned defense companies: together they have billions of euros in debts, and mounting losses. The retirement age for Greek jobs classified as “arduous” is as early as 55 for men and 50 for women. As this is also the moment when the state begins to shovel out generous pensions, more than 600 Greek professions somehow managed to get themselves classified as arduous: hairdressers, radio announcers, waiters, musicians, and on and on and on. The Greek public health-care system spends far more on supplies than the European average—and it is not uncommon, several Greeks tell me, to see nurses and doctors leaving the job with their arms filled with paper towels and diapers and whatever else they can plunder from the supply closets.

A handful of the tax collectors, however, were outraged by the systematic corruption of their business; it further emerged that two of them were willing to meet with me. The problem was that, for reasons neither wished to discuss, they couldn’t stand the sight of each other. This, I’d be told many times by other Greeks, was very Greek.

Tax Collector No. 1—early 60s, business suit, tightly wound but not obviously nervous—arrived with a notebook filled with ideas for fixing the Greek tax-collection agency. He just took it for granted that I knew that the only Greeks who paid their taxes were the ones who could not avoid doing so—the salaried employees of corporations, who had their taxes withheld from their paychecks. The vast economy of self-employed workers—everyone from doctors to the guys who ran the kiosks that sold the International Herald Tribune—cheated (one big reason why Greece has the highest percentage of self-employed workers of any European country). “It’s become a cultural trait,” he said. “The Greek people never learned to pay their taxes. And they never did because no one is punished. No one has ever been punished. It’s a cavalier offense—like a gentleman not opening a door for a lady.”

The scale of Greek tax cheating was at least as incredible as its scope: an estimated two-thirds of Greek doctors reported incomes under 12,000 euros a year—which meant, because incomes below that amount weren’t taxable, that even plastic surgeons making millions a year paid no tax at all. The problem wasn’t the law—there was a law on the books that made it a jailable offense to cheat the government out of more than 150,000 euros—but its enforcement. “If the law was enforced,” the tax collector said, “every doctor in Greece would be in jail.” I laughed, and he gave me a stare. “I am completely serious.” One reason no one is ever prosecuted—apart from the fact that prosecution would seem arbitrary, as everyone is doing it—is that the Greek courts take up to 15 years to resolve tax cases. “The one who does not want to pay, and who gets caught, just goes to court,” he says. Somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the activity in the Greek economy that might be subject to the income tax goes officially unrecorded, he says, compared with an average of about 18 percent in the rest of Europe.

The easiest way to cheat on one’s taxes was to insist on being paid in cash, and fail to provide a receipt for services. The easiest way to launder cash was to buy real estate. Conveniently for the black market—and alone among European countries—Greece has no working national land registry. “You have to know where the guy bought the land—the address—to trace it back to him,” says the collector. “And even then it’s all handwritten and hard to decipher.”

On he went, describing a system that was, in its way, a thing of beauty. It mimicked the tax-collecting systems of an advanced economy—and employed a huge number of tax collectors—while it was in fact rigged to enable an entire society to cheat on their taxes.

Tax Collector No. 2—casual in manner and dress, beer-drinking, but terrified that others might discover he had spoken to me—also arrived with a binder full of papers, only his was stuffed with real-world examples not of Greek people but Greek companies that had cheated on their taxes. He then started to rattle off examples (“only the ones I personally witnessed”). The first was an Athenian construction company that had built seven giant apartment buildings and sold off nearly 1,000 condominiums in the heart of the city. Its corporate tax bill honestly computed came to 15 million euros, but the company had paid nothing at all. Zero. To evade taxes it had done several things. First, it never declared itself a corporation; second, it employed one of the dozens of companies that do nothing but create fraudulent receipts for expenses never incurred and then, when the tax collector stumbled upon the situation, offered him a bribe. The tax collector blew the whistle and referred the case to his bosses—whereupon he found himself being tailed by a private investigator, and his phones tapped. In the end the case was resolved, with the construction company paying 2,000 euros. “After that I was taken off all tax investigations,” said the tax collector, “because I was good at it.”

The Greek state was not just corrupt but also corrupting. Once you saw how it worked you could understand a phenomenon which otherwise made no sense at all: the difficulty Greek people have saying a kind word about one another. Individual Greeks are delightful: funny, warm, smart, and good company. I left two dozen interviews saying to myself, “What great people!” They do not share the sentiment about one another: the hardest thing to do in Greece is to get one Greek to compliment another behind his back. No success of any kind is regarded without suspicion. Everyone is pretty sure everyone is cheating on his taxes, or bribing politicians, or taking bribes, or lying about the value of his real estate. And this total absence of faith in one another is self-reinforcing. The epidemic of lying and cheating and stealing makes any sort of civic life impossible; the collapse of civic life only encourages more lying, cheating, and stealing. Lacking faith in one another, they fall back on themselves and their families.

The structure of the Greek economy is collectivist, but the country, in spirit, is the opposite of a collective. Its real structure is every man for himself. Into this system investors had poured hundreds of billions of dollars. And the credit boom had pushed the country over the edge, into total moral collapse.

The Vatopaidi monastery, along with 19 others, was built in the 10th century on a 37-mile-long-by-6-mile-wide peninsula in northeast Greece, called Mount Athos. Mount Athos now is severed from the mainland by a long fence, and so the only way onto it is by boat, which gives the peninsula the flavor of an island. And on this island no women are allowed—no female animals of any kind, in fact, except for cats. The official history ascribes the ban to the desire of the church to honor the Virgin; the unofficial one to the problem of monks hitting on female visitors. The ban has stood for 1,000 years.

The ferry chugs for three hours along a rocky, wooded, but otherwise barren coastline, stopping along the way to drop monks and pilgrims and guest workers at other monasteries. The sight of the first one just takes my breath away. It’s not a building but a spectacle: it’s as if someone had taken Assisi or Todi or one of the other old central-Italian hill towns and plopped it down on the beach, in the middle of nowhere. Unless you know what to expect on Mount Athos—it has been regarded by the Eastern Orthodox Church for more than a millennium as the holiest place on earth, and it enjoyed for much of that time a symbiotic relationship with Byzantine emperors—these places come as a shock. There’s nothing modest about them; they are grand and complicated and ornate and obviously in some sort of competition with one another. In the old days, pirates routinely plundered them, and you can see why: it would be almost shameful not to, for a pirate.

Otherwise the experience was sensational, to be recommended to anyone looking for a taste of 10th-century life. Beneath titanic polished golden chandeliers, and surrounded by freshly cleaned icons, the monks sang; the monks chanted; the monks vanished behind screens to utter strange incantations; the monks shook what sounded like sleigh bells; the monks floated by waving thuribles, leaving in their wake smoke and the ancient odor of incense. Every word that was said and sung and chanted was Biblical Greek (it seemed to have something to do with Jesus Christ), but I nodded right along anyway. I stood when they stood, and sat when they sat: up and down we went like pogos, for hours. The effect of the whole thing was heightened by the monks’ magnificently wild beards. Even when left to nature, beards do not all grow in the same way. There are types: the hopelessly porous mass of fuzz; the Osama bin Laden/Assyrian-king trowel; the Karl Marx bird’s nest. A surprising number of the monks resembled the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercial. (“His beard alone has experienced more than a lesser man’s entire body.”)

For most of the 1980s and 1990s, Greek interest rates had run a full 10 percent higher than German ones, as Greeks were regarded as far less likely to repay a loan. There was no consumer credit in Greece: Greeks didn’t have credit cards. Greeks didn’t usually have mortgage loans either.

But this question of whether Greece will repay its debts is really a question of whether Greece will change its culture, and that will happen only if Greeks want to change. I am told 50 times if I am told once that what Greeks care about is “justice” and what really boils the Greek blood is the feeling of unfairness. Obviously this distinguishes them from no human being on the planet, and ignores what’s interesting: exactly what a Greek finds unfair. It’s clearly not the corruption of their political system. It’s not cheating on their taxes, or taking small bribes in their service to the state. No: what bothers them is when some outside party—someone clearly different from themselves, with motives apart from narrow and easily understood self-interest—comes in and exploits the corruption of their system.

Various confidence scams, tricks, & frauds

From “List of confidence tricks” (Wikipedia: 3 July 2009):

Get-rich-quick schemes

Get-rich-quick schemes are extremely varied. For example, fake franchises, real estate “sure things”, get-rich-quick books, wealth-building seminars, self-help gurus, sure-fire inventions, useless products, chain letters, fortune tellers, quack doctors, miracle pharmaceuticals, Nigerian money scams, charms and talismans are all used to separate the mark from his money. Variations include the pyramid scheme, Ponzi scheme and Matrix sale.

Count Victor Lustig sold the “money-printing machine” which could copy $100 bills. The client, sensing huge profits, would buy the machines for a high price (usually over $30,000). Over the next twelve hours, the machine would produce just two more $100 bills, but after that it produced only blank paper, as its supply of hidden $100 bills would have become exhausted. This type of scheme is also called the “money box” scheme.

The wire game, as depicted in the movie The Sting, trades on the promise of insider knowledge to beat a gamble, stock trade or other monetary action. In the wire game, a “mob” composed of dozens of grifters simulates a “wire store”, i.e., a place where results from horse races are received by telegram and posted on a large board, while also being read aloud by an announcer. The griftee is given secret foreknowledge of the race results minutes before the race is broadcast, and is therefore able to place a sure bet at the wire store. In reality, of course, the con artists who set up the wire store are the providers of the inside information, and the mark eventually is led to place a large bet, thinking it to be a sure win. At this point, some mistake is made, which actually makes the bet a loss. …

Salting or to salt the mine are terms for a scam in which gems or gold ore are planted in a mine or on the landscape, duping the greedy mark into purchasing shares in a worthless or non-existent mining company.[2] During the Gold Rush, scammers would load shotguns with gold dust and shoot into the sides of the mine to give the appearance of a rich ore, thus “salting the mine”. …

The Spanish Prisoner scam – and its modern variant, the advance fee fraud or Nigerian scam – take advantage of the victim’s greed. The basic premise involves enlisting the mark to aid in retrieving some stolen money from its hiding place. The victim sometimes believes he can cheat the con artists out of their money, but anyone trying this has already fallen for the essential con by believing that the money is there to steal (see also Black money scam). …

Many conmen employ extra tricks to keep the victim from going to the police. A common ploy of investment scammers is to encourage a mark to use money concealed from tax authorities. The mark cannot go to the authorities without revealing that he or she has committed tax fraud. Many swindles involve a minor element of crime or some other misdeed. The mark is made to think that he or she will gain money by helping fraudsters get huge sums out of a country (the classic Nigerian scam); hence marks cannot go to the police without revealing that they planned to commit a crime themselves.

Gold brick scams

Gold brick scams involve selling a tangible item for more than it is worth; named after selling the victim an allegedly golden ingot which turns out to be gold-coated lead.

Pig-in-a-poke originated in the late Middle Ages. The con entails a sale of a (suckling) “pig” in a “poke” (bag). The bag ostensibly contains a live healthy little pig, but actually contains a cat (not particularly prized as a source of meat, and at any rate, quite unlikely to grow to be a large hog). If one buys a “pig in a poke” without looking in the bag (a colloquial expression in the English language, meaning “to be a sucker”), the person has bought something of less value than was assumed, and has learned firsthand the lesson caveat emptor.

The Thai gem scam involves layers of con men and helpers who tell a tourist in Bangkok of an opportunity to earn money by buying duty-free jewelry and having it shipped back to the tourist’s home country. The mark is driven around the city in a tuk-tuk operated by one of the con men, who ensures that the mark meets one helper after another, until the mark is persuaded to buy the jewelry from a store also operated by the swindlers. The gems are real but significantly overpriced. This scam has been operating for 20 years in Bangkok, and is said to be protected by Thai police and politicians. A similar scam usually runs in parallel for custom-made suits.

Extortion or false-injury tricks

The badger game extortion is often perpetrated on married men. The mark is deliberately coerced into a compromising position, a supposed affair for example, then threatened with public exposure of his acts unless blackmail money is paid.

The Melon Drop is a scam in which the scammer will intentionally bump into the mark and drop a package containing (already broken) glass. He will blame the damage on the clumsiness of the mark, and demand money in compensation. This con arose when artists discovered that the Japanese paid large sums of money for watermelons. The scammer would go to a supermarket to buy a cheap watermelon, then bump into a Japanese tourist and set a high price.

Gambling tricks

Three-card Monte, ‘Find The Queen’, the “Three-card Trick”, or “Follow The Lady”, is (except for the props) essentially the same as the probably centuries-older shell game or thimblerig. The trickster shows three playing cards to the audience, one of which is a queen (the “lady”), then places the cards face-down, shuffles them around and invites the audience to bet on which one is the queen. At first the audience is skeptical, so the shill places a bet and the scammer allows him to win. In one variation of the game, the shill will (apparently surreptitiously) peek at the lady, ensuring that the mark also sees the card. This is sometimes enough to entice the audience to place bets, but the trickster uses sleight of hand to ensure that they always lose, unless the conman decides to let them win, hoping to lure them into betting much more. The mark loses whenever the dealer chooses to make him lose. This con appears in the Eric Garcia novel Matchstick Men and is featured in the movie Edmond.

A variation on this scam exists in Barcelona, Spain, but with the addition of a pickpocket. The dealer and shill behave in an overtly obvious manner, attracting a larger audience. When the pickpocket succeeds in stealing from a member of the audience, he signals the dealer. The dealer then shouts the word “aqua”, and the three split up. The audience is left believing that “aqua” is a code word indicating the police are coming, and that the performance was a failed scam.

In the Football Picks Scam the scammer sends out tip sheet stating a game will go one way to 100 potential victims and the other way to another 100. The next week, the 100 or so who received the correct answer are divided into two groups and fed another pick. This is repeated until a small population have (apparently) received a series of supernaturally perfect picks, then the final pick is offered for sale. Despite being well-known (it was even described completely on an episode of The Simpsons and used by Derren Brown in “The System”), this scam is run almost continuously in different forms by different operators. The sports picks can also be replaced with securities, or any other random process, in an alternative form. This scam has also been called the inverted pyramid scheme, because of the steadily decreasing population of victims at each stage.

Visitors to Las Vegas or other gambling towns often encounter the Barred Winner scam, a form of advance fee fraud performed in person. The artist will approach his mark outside a casino with a stack or bag of high-value casino chips and say that he just won big, but the casino accused him of cheating and threw him out without letting him redeem the chips. The artist asks the mark to go in and cash the chips for him. The artist will often offer a percentage of the winnings to the mark for his trouble. But, when the mark agrees, the artist feigns suspicion and asks the mark to put up something of value “for insurance”. The mark agrees, hands over jewelry, a credit card or their wallet, then goes in to cash the chips. When the mark arrives at the cashier, they are informed the chips are fake. The artist, by this time, is long gone with the mark’s valuables.

False reward tricks

The glim-dropper requires several accomplices, one of whom must be a one-eyed man. One grifter goes into a store and pretends he has lost his glass eye. Everyone looks around, but the eye cannot be found. He declares that he will pay a thousand-dollar reward for the return of his eye, leaving contact information. The next day, an accomplice enters the store and pretends to find the eye. The storekeeper (the intended griftee), thinking of the reward, offers to take it and return it to its owner. The finder insists he will return it himself, and demands the owner’s address. Thinking he will lose all chance of the reward, the storekeeper offers a hundred dollars for the eye. The finder bargains him up to $250, and departs.…

The fiddle game uses the pigeon drop technique. A pair of con men work together, one going into an expensive restaurant in shabby clothes, eating, and claiming to have left his wallet at home, which is nearby. As collateral, the con man leaves his only worldly possession, the violin that provides his livelihood. After he leaves, the second con man swoops in, offers an outrageously large amount (for example $50,000) for such a rare instrument, then looks at his watch and runs off to an appointment, leaving his card for the mark to call him when the fiddle-owner returns. The mark’s greed comes into play when the “poor man” comes back, having gotten the money to pay for his meal and redeem his violin. The mark, thinking he has an offer on the table, then buys the violin from the fiddle player (who “reluctantly” sells it eventually for, say, $5,000). The result is the two conmen are $5,000 richer (less the cost of the violin), and the mark is left with a cheap instrument.

Other confidence tricks and techniques

The Landlord Scam advertises an apartment for rent at an attractive price. The con artist, usually someone who is house-sitting or has a short-term sublet at the unit, takes a deposit and first/last month’s rent from every person who views the suite. When move-in day arrives, the con artist is of course gone, and the apartment belongs to none of the angry people carrying boxes.

Change raising is a common short con and involves an offer to change an amount of money with someone, while at the same time taking change or bills back and forth to confuse the person as to how much money is actually being changed. The most common form, “the Short Count”, has been featured prominently in several movies about grifting, notably Nueve Reinas, The Grifters and Paper Moon. A con artist shopping at, say a gas station, is given 80 cents in change because he lacks two dimes to complete the sale (say the sale cost is $19.20 and the con man has a 20 dollar bill). He goes out to his car and returns a short time later, with 20 cents. He returns them, saying that he found the rest of the change to make a dollar, and asking for a bill so he will not have to carry coins. The confused store clerk agrees, exchanging a dollar for the 20 cents the conman returned. In essence, the mark makes change twice.

Beijing tea scam is a famous scam in and around Beijing. The artists (usually female and working in pairs) will approach tourists and try to make friends. After chatting, they will suggest a trip to see a tea ceremony, claiming that they have never been to one before. The tourist is never shown a menu, but assumes that this is how things are done in China. After the ceremony, the bill is presented to the tourist, charging upwards of $100 per head. The artists will then hand over their bills, and the tourists are obliged to follow suit.

Should states track cars with GPS?

From Glen Johnson’s “Massachusetts may consider a mileage charge” (AP: 17 February 2009):

A tentative plan to overhaul Massachusetts’ transportation system by using GPS chips to charge motorists a quarter-cent for every mile behind the wheel has angered some drivers.

But a “Vehicle Miles Traveled” program like the one the governor may unveil this week has already been tested — with positive results — in Oregon.

Governors in Idaho and Rhode Island, as well as the federal government, also are talking about such programs. And in North Carolina, a panel suggested in December the state start charging motorists a quarter-cent for every mile as a substitute for the gas tax.

“The Big Brother issue was identified during the first meeting of the task force that developed our program,” said Jim Whitty, who oversees innovation projects for the Oregon Department of Transportation. “Everything we did from that point forward, even though we used electronics, was to eliminate those concerns.”

A draft overhaul transport plan prepared for Gov. Deval Patrick says implementing a Vehicle Miles Traveled system to replace the gas tax makes sense. “A user-based system, collected electronically, is a fair way to pay for our transportation needs in the future,” it says.

The idea behind the program is simple: As cars become more fuel efficient or powered by electricity, gas tax revenues decline. Yet the cost of building and maintaining roads and bridges is increasing. A state could cover that gap by charging drivers precisely for the mileage their vehicles put on public roads.

In Oregon, the state paid volunteers who let the transportation department install GPS receivers in 300 vehicles. The device did not transmit a signal — which would allow real-time tracking of a driver’s movements — but instead passively received satellite pings telling the receiver where it was in terms of latitude and longitude coordinates.

The state used those coordinates to determine when the vehicle was driving both within Oregon and outside the state. And it measured the respective distances through a connection with the vehicle’s odometer.

When a driver pulled into a predetermined service station, the pump linked electronically with the receiver, downloaded the number of miles driven in Oregon and then charged the driver a fee based on the distance. The gas tax they would have paid was reduced by the amount of the user fee. Drivers continued to be charged gas tax for miles driven outside Oregon.

Under such systems, one of which is already used in London, drivers are charged more for entering a crowded area during rush hour than off-peak periods.

China’s increasing control over American dollars

From James Fallows’ “The $1.4 Trillion Question” (The Atlantic: January/February 2008):

Through the quarter-century in which China has been opening to world trade, Chinese leaders have deliberately held down living standards for their own people and propped them up in the United States. This is the real meaning of the vast trade surplus—$1.4 trillion and counting, going up by about $1 billion per day—that the Chinese government has mostly parked in U.S. Treasury notes. In effect, every person in the (rich) United States has over the past 10 years or so borrowed about $4,000 from someone in the (poor) People’s Republic of China. Like so many imbalances in economics, this one can’t go on indefinitely, and therefore won’t. But the way it ends—suddenly versus gradually, for predictable reasons versus during a panic—will make an enormous difference to the U.S. and Chinese economies over the next few years, to say nothing of bystanders in Europe and elsewhere.

When the dollar is strong, the following (good) things happen: the price of food, fuel, imports, manufactured goods, and just about everything else (vacations in Europe!) goes down. The value of the stock market, real estate, and just about all other American assets goes up. Interest rates go down—for mortgage loans, credit-card debt, and commercial borrowing. Tax rates can be lower, since foreign lenders hold down the cost of financing the national debt. The only problem is that American-made goods become more expensive for foreigners, so the country’s exports are hurt.

When the dollar is weak, the following (bad) things happen: the price of food, fuel, imports, and so on (no more vacations in Europe) goes up. The value of the stock market, real estate, and just about all other American assets goes down. Interest rates are higher. Tax rates can be higher, to cover the increased cost of financing the national debt. The only benefit is that American-made goods become cheaper for foreigners, which helps create new jobs and can raise the value of export-oriented American firms (winemakers in California, producers of medical devices in New England).

Americans sometimes debate (though not often) whether in principle it is good to rely so heavily on money controlled by a foreign government. The debate has never been more relevant, because America has never before been so deeply in debt to one country. Meanwhile, the Chinese are having a debate of their own—about whether the deal makes sense for them. Certainly China’s officials are aware that their stock purchases prop up 401(k) values, their money-market holdings keep down American interest rates, and their bond purchases do the same thing—plus allow our government to spend money without raising taxes.

The inevitability of taxation

From Giampaolo Garzarelli’s Open Source Software and the Economics of Organization:

Whenever organizational forms present rapid change because of their strong ties to technology, public policy issues are always thornier than usual. Indeed, historically, it seems that every time that there’s the development of a new technology or production process, the government has to intervene in some fashion to regulate it or to extract rents from it. This point is well- encapsulated in the well-known catch-phrase attributed to Faraday. After Faraday was asked by a politician the purpose of his recently discovered principle of magnetic induction in 1831, he replied: “Sir, I do not know what it is good for. However, of one thing I am quite certain, some day you will tax it”.