Greece’s agony: A call to entrepreneurial action

By Aris Melissaratos
This article can also be seen in the Hellenic News of America here.

International dramas are seldom what they seem to be at the time they unfold. Fast-changing news reports generally focus on politicians performing for the cameras. This theater of geopolitics makes for absorbing television and gripping headlines but often masks deeper realities. So it is with the Greek debt crisis, which contains much food for thought for everyone concerned with the nature of national prosperity.

While it’s true that the road to Greece’s problems was paved with fiscal mistakes by multiple parties, there’s a good deal more to the story than fiscal mismanagement. Economic well-being doesn’t depend only on sound accounting. It’s also shaped by political agendas and psychological climates which influence national and regional productivity strategies. Although money must of course be managed wisely, countries and regions need not only skilled wealth managers to prosper, but creative wealth generators whose innovative ideas are encouraged and nurtured by civic leaders with the political will to create new eras of prosperity by challenging the status quo even if this means upsetting entrenched power groups.

These truths, explained in a book I’ve co-authored, INNOVATION, were demonstrated to me by a long career at Westinghouse, one of America’s biggest and most creative technology corporations. I then saw them reaffirmed during my tenure as Maryland’s Business and Economic Development Secretary and my years as director of Johns Hopkins University’s intellectual capital commercialization. These environments showed me repeatedly that while there are often overlaps between managing wealth and creating it, the two tasks are qualitatively different.

As economist Aristos Doxiadis has observed, Greece’s economic development has been handicapped by over-regulation, bureaucracy, the protection of power groups, and an unwillingess to transcend a small-business mentality. These obstacles have been exacerbated by a lack of political will, and a political culture devoted to squabbling rather than bold initiatives. Instead of a determined national mission to chart a new era of prosperity for the country, there has been a sense of entitlement and an expectation that prosperity and economic health must somehow appear on demand without cultivation. In short, Greece has been crippled by a lack of entrepreneurial action, an aversion to innovation, and an apparent inertia which has tragically prevented this land of historically majestic creative imagination from thinking big about its 21st-century future.

It’s important to be clear about one thing: there is no lack of Greek entrepreneurial vision per se. Hellenes are major entrepreneurial players throughout the world. But the time may have come for A Great Return of this diaspora of Greek business talent, in which successful Greeks in the US and elsewhere outside Greece come together to make a contribution to putting their native country on a new entrepreneurial path. I say these things not as a hostile critic of those millions of Greeks who continue to live and work in Greece. On the contrary, I speak as a Greek-American proud of both of the countries that made me. I came to America as a child in the aftermath of World War 2, during which Greece was devastated by German aggression. Many Germans understandably don’t like to talk about this but it forms a very real backdrop to today’s relationship between Greece and Germany which can’t be wished away. However, Germany’s unpaid war debt to Greece is a subject for another discussion. Despite its importance it shouldn’t be confused with the separate problem posed by the fact that if Greece is to embark on a road of reconstruction. Greeks must recognize that not all their woes can be blamed on World War 2, and that the current financial anguish is inextricable from Greece’s politics and contemporary intellectual culture. It is very relevant, for example, that Greece’s present ruling political group is a radical leftist coalition that includes significant Marxist and anti-capitalist elements. In view of this it’s hardly surprising that the country is weak in the kinds of leadership required for prosperity-generating entrepreneurial business and instead feeds on a bailout mentality.

Nor can Americans afford to feel any smug superiority in contemplating these aspects of the Greek plight: the United States has experienced its own share of bailout malaise and entrepreneurial failure in recent times, as readers of INNOVATION know, and although it is unpalatable for Americans to see a small country’s economic difficulties as plausibly reflecting features of the American economic powerhouse, there are indeed troubling parallels between Greece and the failure of vision that has characterized much of the US’s entry into the 21st century. America has much to learn from both the sources of Greece’s problems and the opportunities that offer it a fresh beginning. Both countries have strayed from the boldness they once knew and each has as much to do if is to recapture any degree of its former grandeur.

In Greece’s case, what is needed is not an endless series of financial band-aids but a drastic re-think of its economic vision. It needs to accept that anti-business philosophy will not create lasting prosperity and that if Greeks are to avoid lurching from bailout to bailout they should appoint an international panel of proven Hellenic capitalists to devise and implement a new national strategy to make Greece a European powerhouse of entrepreneurial energy. Skeptics may smile patronizingly at the suggestion that there might be a major Greek economic turnaround in our lifetime but they will eat their words if Greece acts on the suggestion I’ve just made. Contrary to the belief of some that Greece’s greatness belongs only to antiquity, the Greek people today remain the same people whose ancestors revolutionized human thought and invented the pillars of western civilization. If their historic genius is combined with fresh entrepreneurial insights and leadership, Greece’s 21st century may yet yield accomplishments worthy of the land that gave the world western philosophy, science, an immortal treasury of art, and an endless vista of human possibilities.

July 2015