Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins by James Angelos

I like to mix it up here at Reading Matters reading and reviewing history, classics, current affairs, fiction, biographies, mysteries etc and so book 14 in my 50 book reading challenge is The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins  by James Angelos.  Its a book about the Greek debt crisis which has been in the news since 2009. I'm of Greek descent on my father's side and I wanted to know, what were the root causes of the financial crisis in Greece and was there a way forward?  The Full Catastrophe is an informative book that goes a long way in answering these questions.

The author James Angelos is a second generation Greek American and a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.  As he explains, the Greek debt crisis came to light partly due to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the domino effect it created.  But primarily the crisis took off in October 2009 when Greece revised its projected budget.  Turns out their deficit would not be 3.7 percent of their GDP as they told the Eurozone but revised to over 15 percent. Angelos writes that since joining the Eurozone, Greece had made substantial upward revisions to their debt every year.

The European Union was furious but let Greece leave the EU and other countries in Europe with troubled economies might soon follow.  So in exchange for bailouts to Greece in the billions the EU and the IMF demanded that Greece sign on to a strict austerity plan and Angelos writes about how devastating that plan has been particularly towards the poor and the elderly in Greece and unemployment has hit 28%.  The Greek people have not reacted well to the demands of the EU and widespread protests, and strikes have occurred.  Most worrisome has been the rise of the neo fascist group Golden Dawn which thankfully has begun to lose support in Greece and the government has begun to seriously crack down on this group as well.

Greece's financial troubles have been brewing for decades according to Angelos: false disability claims, people working off the books and not paying taxes, people being hired for life, pensions given too early and generously.  Widespread corruption in which the government had turned a blind eye to all of this, particularly around election time.

As to how Greece can recover Angelos points to the city of Thessalonoki run by a forward thinking mayor, Yiannis Boutaris who wants to emphasize Thessalonoki's pluralistic past. Thessalonoki once had a substantial Turkish and Jewish population and everyone lived together for centuries.  The Turkish population left and the Nazis came and murdered almost the entire Jewish population and demolished with the collaboration of Greek authorities one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe possibly thousands of years old.  A terrible part of Greek history.

Thessalonoki today is almost entirely Greek Christian and Boutaris feels that this lack of diversity is a detriment to Greek progress and betrays Thessalonoki's diverse past. He's gone to Israel and Turkey inviting people to visit where their ancestors lived and many Israelis and Turks have come for a visit.  Boutaris has also tried to hold the prior government in Thessalonoki responsible for corruption and instituted new accounting practices. Newspapers from the NYT, the Telegraph, Der Speigel etc have called Boutaris a breath of fresh air.  The citizens of Thessalonoki are grumbling but on the plus side despite the criticism they reelected Boutaris by a two thirds majority so his message might be getting through.

Reading The Full Catastrophe can be a sobering experience and as I read about Golden Dawn I couldn't help but reflect on our own election coming in November. Greece had the good sense to reject Golden Dawn at the voting booth.  Will we have the same good sense and send Donald Trump packing?

At the end of the book realizing that he painted a gloomy picture of Greece Angelos emphasizes the kindness he encountered through his travels and the beauty of Greece, the scenery and urges that people visit.  If you are interested in Greece, its history, psychology, present day struggles this is a good book to pick up.  It doesn't sugarcoat matters but then again change for the better happens when you address your problems directly.

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