The honest truth about dishonesty… and tax evasion

I recently watched this short animated video on Dishonesty.

I immediately started drawing parallelisms between the video and the whole Greek tax-evasion story. In many discussions with foreign journalists I have been asked to give my opinion on tax-evasion in Greece. It’s true that Greek citizens were inclined to evading as many taxes as they could and, to tell you the truth, they were feeling pretty fine with that. Why? Because the model was coming from above, from the political establishment and the business elite. They were and still are setting the example. The international press has only recently discovered the laters’ responsibility, hence the amount of articles and features on the lives of rich Greeks.

The RSA video gives an example of how the overall damage by numerous small cheaters can sometimes be bigger than the total damage of a handful of big cheaters. I sincerely believe that this is not the case for Greece. Credible data are not available to demonstrate that the amounts lost by the political establishment and the business elite’s practices are much bigger than the amounts lost by buying something without a receipt. And, in addition, many of the cases are much more complicated and at some point we are talking about a sort of a “double entry” to our tax-evasion database. For example, where do you categorize the damage of a lost public income from an unpaid tax fine? Under the citizen who did all he could to avoid paying (small cheater)? Under the tax officer who accepted the bribe (medium cheater)? Or under the politician who intervened to the local tax office so that the citizen, a friend (i.e. a potential voter) gets treated with preference (and yes, he is a big cheater because he is hoping for thousands of votes to get re-elected)?

In September 2010, the then vice-chairman of the Greek government, Theodoros Pangalos, has given the following speech at the Parliament.

Translation: The answer to the people’s angry question that is directed against the politicians of the country “how did you eat [spend] the money?” is this: We hired you. We ate [spent] them all together. In the framework of a relationship of political clientelism, corruption, buying and ridiculing the very sense of Politics itself.

Speaking about the responsibility of political clientelism in the Greek crisis, though true, he unashamedly blamed the small cheaters (i.e. voters) in order to cover the big cheaters’ (i.e. politicians) damage. Paradoxically he fell in his own trap by admitting that he is a big cheater. It was such an unashamed statement that he even created a website where people would input their own stories. And in the end he turned the whole story in a book which is sold on the website.

In what society do leaders depend on individuals to set a prudent example for the politicians?

It’s this unanswered puzzle, that will never be answered in consensus, that has prevented any move forward to be fully legitimised, especially when the move forward is driven by the same people who brought us here. Society was, is and will be strongly divided among these things, left or right, cheater or honest, public sector employees or private sector employees, clean or dirty means of accumulating wealth, what did you or your father do during the good years, etc (the duos’ list is almost infinte).

It seems that these divisions are here to stay. There are few attempts, and certainly not from the politicians’ side, to ease them (see the recent strike of the Athens Metro employees where it was attempted to turn passengers against strikers). They actually take advantage of these natural and artificial divisions, turning one part of society against another, which explains why the traditionally angry rioting Greeks have not been able to form a common front in order to create a “new page” as the video suggests. And we so desperately need a “new page” in order to re-start writing our history. Looking at some international examples, nations with a dirty past opened a “new page” with the creation of a Truth Commission (e.g. South Africa). We, in Greece, haven’t even dared to launch an independent audit about our public debt. The former-communist countries had another tactic. A process that was called “lustration“, i.e. a cleansing.

Well, we need one too in order to inspire people to become honest again. Like their politicians.

PS. Funnily the RSA video refers to the financial crisis at the end too.

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