Father Arsenios and Father Ephraim — whom Lewis compares to Enron execs Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay — managed to acquire ownership rights to a lake and somehow swapped it for much more valuable government land in a murky deal that, once revealed in the national press, outraged the public. (Lewis’s description of the monks negotiating with a Citigroup exec turned Finance Ministry official is alone worth the book’s $25.95 price tag.) Thanks in part to cozy ties with the prime minister’s chief of staff — they heard his confession, after all — the monks ended up building a commercial real estate empire worth about $1 billion in an effort to restore Vatopaidi to its former glory.
Greece’s innate corruption is corroborated by anonymous interviews with two whistleblowing tax collectors (cheating on your taxes is a “cultural trait” in Greece, one lamented) and by Lewis’s account of how Greek officials lied their way into the European Union by doctoring their economic data. “Government statisticians did things like remove (high-priced) tomatoes from the consumer price index on the day inflation was measured,” as well as move stuff such as pensions and defense spending off the books. That’s how a deficit greater than 10 percent of GDP came in under 3 percent — and how the Greeks joined the E.U. club.
(Norton) - ‘Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World’ by Michael Lewis
For Lewis, these episodes get to the heart of the country’s character: Greeks are selfish. Greeks are insular. Greeks can’t say anything nice about each other. “The epidemic of lying and cheating and stealing makes any sort of civic life impossible,” he writes. As for whether Greece will pay its debts, or will default and pull Europe deeper into crisis, it is “really a question of whether Greece will change its culture” — and he’s not optimistic about that.
Why jet around the world and pass judgment on nations and populations after short stays here and there? Because, Lewis says, the crisis created a unique occasion for international psychoanalysis. “The tsunami of cheap credit that rolled across the planet from 2002 to 2007 . . . wasn’t just money, it was temptation,” he explains. “It offered entire societies the chance to reveal aspects of their characters they could not normally afford to indulge. Entire countries were told, ‘The lights are out, you can do whatever you want to do and no one will ever know.’ ”
The moment the money is taken away is equally revealing, Lewis writes. After Ireland’s economic boom of the 2000s — when the chronically pessimistic Irish people “discovered optimism” — a precipitous collapse and massive bank bailout did not lead to Greek-style protests or American-style town halls or Wall Street marches. Ireland was the first European nation to watch its banking system crumble, but its business-friendly conservative party stayed in power until early this year. Also, Lewis marvels, aside from an egg-thrower at a shareholders meeting of the Irish bank AIB, and a property developer who adorned his cement mixer with anti-banker slogans and left it at the gates of Parliament, there was not much protest.