‘Europe is losing its soul, not just its economy’
In recent weeks we have heard many politicians from many countries talking about Greece. But whilst every tweet from a German politician has seemed so important, we have never heard the voices of ordinary Greek citizens. So I asked Athanasios Kagargias, who I got to know on bitcointalk, what he thinks about all these things – and whether bitcoin and blockchain tech could help Greece. Athanasios describes himself as an ‘ordinary Greek guy with a background in IT’.
Hello Athanasios. So, how does it feel to be an ‘ordinary Greek guy’ these days?
Before the crisis the situation felt surreal and unsustainable. There seemed to be plenty of money around, prices were going up, but wages remained stable. Where was all the money coming from? It was something I couldn’t explain. It defied logic, and I was watching my friends and co-workers not sharing that surreal feeling and I kept saying to myself, ‘Ok, something must be wrong with me’. After the crisis hit and politicians dumped it on us, that surreal feeling went away, to be replaced by ‘ok, the world is insane’ and a growing feeling of oppression. Over the last few months with Syriza, that oppressive feeling went away too and I had some hope that sanity would return to my life. Followed by a resounding NO…
How did your lives change during the crisis?
Fortunately my wife and I kept our jobs. I work in the public sector and had 25% cut off my pay, and my wife in the private sector (also IT) about 15%. So we are ‘solvent’ and we are the lucky ones. We also have a son and we are expecting a baby in a matter of days, so our focus was a bit shifted and morale was kept high 😉
How much do you earn each month?
I earn €900.
How much do you pay for a litre of gas?
€1.50-1.60. But I have an old car (almost 20 years old now) which is not very economical. I pay about €50 per week.
What do you think about Germany? (Be honest!)
My opinions differ depending on whether you mean government, policy, elites or ordinary people. I think the German government and the rest of the big countries have not made the transition from ‘Country first’ to ‘Europe first’, and the approach they are using to get there relies on crisis, blackmail and TINA (there is no alternative), which is superficial at best and catastrophic at worst. Europe needs an ‘American Dream’, but we don’t have one and we are moving further away from having one.
However, I tend to believe more and more in the class struggle narrative than in a nationalistic narrative. I believe the European elites, spearheaded by the German elites, are trying to hijack the European project and own it. They are effectively denying the people of Europe any part in the decision-making process.
What do you think is the problem for the Greek economy?
Capitalism is incompatible with Greek culture. In the Orthodox tradition, seeking money and profit is considered sinful. Greek Orthodox as well as Eastern cultures are based not on impersonal currency and its accumulation but more on a personal currency of ‘favour’. That economic model of course does not scale and breaks down in a globalized environment.
Also, Greece missed the empire building and industrialization phase of Europe so we are farmers, traders and engineers, but not capitalists and not an obedient army of workers. We tried to create a capital class after the war but that process was not Darwinian and we ran into the same problems as the Soviets after the collapse. People were ‘made’: it was not their business sense that made them but their connections. So instead of having a political upper class of real businessmen we are left with a bunch of clowns.
All these, of course, were not problems that would necessarily throw the economy out of balance. What threw Greece out of balance was the externalities introduced with the Euro, and that we failed to account for.
What age do people in Greece retire (it’s a hot topic in Germany)?
I don’t really know the age, as it keeps going up all the time… But it’s pure propaganda to paint a picture of ‘lazy Greeks’. Greeks worked and still do work as hard as other Europeans. There are some cases based on social criteria of early retirement (with which I don’t really agree) and uniformed personnel get out early, probably on the logic that you don’t want 60+ men in the army. But in general it’s 62-67 depending on years of declared labour.
Is it possible to live on your pension?
No. You have to have build up assets to live off in your retirement. Greeks have always known that. You can’t rely on social safety nets or the government to survive. The problem with the crisis is that it is eating fast into those assets, and they are the informal private safety net that supports families and unemployed youths.
What do you think are the solutions to these problems?
Well, I know what is not the solution: Austerity. I think we need and Europe needs an escape to sanity.
Electronic currency can help with tax evasion and eliminating indirect taxes that cost so much in bureaucracy. I mean come on, 23% VAT? It’s ridiculous. Make it 0% and have Greece become Europe’s online mall. We are great at logistics, we have the largest port in the Mediterranean, even if it’s already in Chinese hands. All we need is the proper railway connections.
Our legal system must be reformed and digitized. Cases can be left as long as 20 years, and legal files are wheeled around in supermarket trollies. You don’t want to go to court in Greece unless you are into S&M or lost a lot of money.
Taxation needs to be lower so as not to force businesses to choose between paying taxes and surviving. It is surreal – my wife’s income after tax is lower than the property tax we’re required to pay. She is getting further into arrears every year and risking having her assets seized.
What do you think about austerity?
Austerity is household economics applied in the state level. It’s a naive and simplistic approach that is simply wrong. Micro-strategy cannot be applied to Macro and vice versa. The cells in your body follow a different rule-set than you as a whole person. It’s like applying quantum theory at the macrocosmic level and expecting that if you hit your hand on the table enough times there is a probability that it will tunnel through.
Austerity regards the citizen not as a consumer-producer but only as a producer. It has outsourced consumption to generate trade surpluses. That means that effectively the citizen is denied any feedback into the economy. Austerians will seek to further the isolation of the citizen from the decision-making process by a) demanding a less powerful State (less state, less regulation), b) having less citizen participation in the State by lobbying, collusion and corruption, and c) market labour deregulation (worker unions disband, etc.). Effectively Austerians don’t really care; rather, they remove wealth from the citizens so as to deny them any power. These are the reasons why Austerity is incompatible with Democracy.
Is it possible that Bitcoin might be the solution to the Greek crisis?
Bitcoin or any other global currency is like a globalized Euro. Behind every currency lies an ideology of how the economy should work. Imposing from the top down a single idea with no chance of ever revising it creates a one-size-fits-all solution, applying global information to local situations and creating a moral hazard as the choice of one man in the past determines decisions in the global future.
And with Bitcoin, this choice would be to build a currency on long-term deflation. In the current economic system deflation is economic contraction. We live with some degree of deflation in Greece, and it feels like dying step by step. The only reason I can tolerate or even consider the narrative of a deflationary economy as sound is for reasons of environmental sustainability. That means we are actively trying to change the economic paradigm, with our guiding principle the efficient use of resources. That, of course, requires many, many paradigm shifts and changes that the evangelists of deflation will never agree to. Blockchain technology, on the other hand, can usher the world into a more connected, frictionless market but intermarket impedance-matching adaptors and automatic price stabilizers must be built in too.
Do you think it’s good that Bitcoin helps to circumvent capital controls and enables companies to import products?
Of course, if I had not been so ideologically predisposed against it and more utilitarian I could have converted some of my Euros to bitcoin. But still, it wouldn’t help me much as I would simply have to convert them back to Euros in an account outside Greece to use for imports.
Bitcoin use is not what it should be because of its high volatility that exposes merchants to huge exchange risk. Price stability is no joke when it comes to trade and bitcoin performs poorly by design.
Do you think blockchain technology could solve the problems?
Of course, the blockchain solves the technological problems of a currency, but has yet to solve the political. At the rate the ECB is destroying trust we are going to need alternative means of managing our currency pretty soon.
The agreement – what do you think about it?
It was specifically engineered this time to discredit and break Syriza and Tsipras. It will fail, of course, because it is insane. Greece is not as healthy as it was in 2010, and those measures will take their toll much faster.
What do you think about Tsipras? How could he turn an oxi into an nai?
He was cornered. He misjudged the time the endgame would begin and held the referendum prematurely. He should have held a referendum on the final deal, but he was outmanoeuvred. He decided to bide his time until he has more support from like-minded parties in Europe. The fight, though, had to be fought regardless of the outcome. People who think that if we had capitulated earlier the deal would be better are fools. Exposing EU flaws is critical and I think he achieved that. After all, the way out of the crisis comes through Europe.
What do you think about Varoufakis?
He is a single sane man battling against insanity. He should have his way, but Tsipras felt that his responsibilities did not allow him the risk that Varoufakis was willing to take.
What do you think about Schäuble?
He has a vision of Europe that we don’t sign up to. Germany always had second thoughts about allowing the south to enter, the concept of a two-speed Europe. He needs to stop worrying and to accept the fact that Germany too must lose its sovereignty, not just everyone else. He wants to ‘Stop the Wheel’ as Tyrion would say.
What do you think about Hollande?
He is torn, as I think France is. They were the one country that did everything by the book, and they realized that they were on the losing side whatever the outcome. Grexit would kill the project so dear to their hearts, but Austerity will hurt them in the wallet. Either they step up and take responsibilities and play hardball, or they go with the flow and regret the outcome.
What do you think about Europe?
Europe is becoming irrelevant. In its pursue for fiscal orthodoxy, all other traits that made Europe truly Europe fade. It fails on the global level to provide solutions. Greece derails, prudence and solidarity demand it crashes off the tracks, burns extra fuel for a decade, because it didn’t brake before the turn. And if they rightly object that it isn’t working, the EU punishes them with more insanity.
Europe is losing its soul, it’s not just the economy. Nobody expected Europe to fight ISIS, that’s ok, that’s the US’s job, but what about the humanitarian front? Navel-gazing on whether to restrict freedom of movement, in order to avoid giving aid to immigrants, because it is fiscally and racially damaging. They even considered taking military action on the Libyan coast to destroy the property of foreign citizens (sinking fishermen’s boats)! This was the solution to a humanitarian crisis!
I saw Merkel with that Palestinian girl talking about… rules, blah blah blah! Did she forget that the cost of past crimes and the resulting guilt of the west was taken on by her people? Likewise the prime cause for the blow up in the middle east was the west’s actions, and now we are shirking our responsibility. The UK is bombing Syria, creating refugees and looking the other way when they reach her shores.
Empires need the glamour of culture to exist. Europe’s way, ‘the multicultural treasure’, is resolving towards a new Soviet regime, because it is inefficient. to summarise, Europe is losing its Soul, Economy and Reason to exist. In all, I think Europe is exiting history.