A Citizen’s Guide to Greece 2015


January 10, 2015

We don’t get to choose these things

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Written by: DW

By David Wisner

Armchair expert on the Greek sovereign debt crisis that I have portrayed myself to be, you can imagine my relative despondency having read Pavlos Eleftheriadis’ article on Greece’s oligarchs in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs. Reading Eleftheriadis’ account of recent Greek history, it appears that one should have given up the cause of reform  before it began.

We don’t change these things, is the underlying message of the argument.

Strange. I had heard a variation of this argument some weeks prior when I petitioned the principal of the elementary school my daughter attends for her to change classes. It flew in the face of my own experience as a young boy.

When I was in sixth grade the parents of my best friend managed to have their son change from another class into mine. While I have to admit that this was the only time I remember such a thing happening in elementary school, and I never learned the rationale behind the change (my friend’s parents were not necessarily affluent and were not involved in local politics at all, so I doubt that there was any particular favoritism), I always thought it to be the most normal thing in the world. (I once changed English teachers in high school at the simple request of my mother, who likewise was not especially influential among school administrators.)

This anecdote came back to me after my encounter with our local principal. For reasons I thought justifiable, I requested that my daughter move from one section to another before the beginning of the new school year.

My request met with tacit resistance of all sorts. The principal, I was told, appeared not to want to authorize the request (possibly because no one had the nerve to give him my petition).

I pressed on nonetheless. Was this against regulations? What reason could be given, formally?

Finally, the principal, widely reputed in these parts, consented to see me. Citing regulations (indeed) and appearing not to want to be bothered, he finally suggested that one does not get to choose such things, not even in the private sector.

Now I was really intrigued, and slightly miffed, at this expression of what I took to be the public servant’s worldview. Choice — and change — were not part of this man’s active terminology. But for the fact that I have long defended and supported the notion of a common, public education for all children, I would have removed my daughter then and there. I stayed, and persisted, and got my change, which some of the parents of my daughter’s former classmates subsequently interpreted, with resentment, as a special privilege.

I have taken the following, essentially political, messages from this new experience. With elections coming later this month, I have wondered what significance casting a ballot could possibly have in such an environment. What does it mean to vote for a candidate or a party?

Moreover, it has struck me occasionally that a government and administration made up of and catering to public sector employees will never comprehend the dynamics of the private sector, never understand the market, never build a more productive economy. It will furthermore never find an argument to win over this same private sector, let alone conceptualize meaningful reform.

Alas, the problem of understanding the mechanisms of choice and change does extend beyond the confines of the public sector.

When I first moved permanently to Greece an acquaintance, a worldly lawyer who had studied abroad, scoffed at me when I inquired about the relative advantages of  different insurance companies. “We don’t shop for insurance in Greece. Things do not work that way.”

The problem is that the essence of competition seems to elude a good many people, even though they compete with each other in myriad ways without perhaps realizing it.

“Don’t worry, I know someone I can recommend,” my friend had added, seeking to be helpful, and maybe to help himself.


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