I have read a lot of Michael Lewis over the years — at least five of his books that I can remember, not to mention countless articles. His real gift as journalist is a knack for pure, unadulterated readability. The fact he’s able to write about esoteric subjects such as baseball statistics and credit default swaps and make them both understandable and wildly popular is no mean feat. Believe me, I’m envious.
I guess that’s why I’m so let down by his most recent Vanity Fair piece on Greece’s financial meltdown. Ever since his first book, Liar’s Poker, about bond traders on Wall Street coincided nicely with the Savings and Loan scandal twenty years ago, Lewis has been the go-to guy for autopsy reports on fiscal calamities. His latest book The Big Short explains how credit default swaps and an overheated real estate market got America into its current fiscal mess. Vanity Fair has previously sent him to Iceland to report on that country’s meltdown. Predictably, now we have Lewis parachuting into Greece to cover the country’s debt crisis.
But the interesting thing about Greece’s recent financial trouble, is it’s really just a symptom of the country’s profound cultural problems and political unrest. Lewis gets this, and much of the scene-setting in this piece is very good. He talks to various people in and out of the Greek government who basically admit that much of the country is totally corrupt:
Greeks who send their children to public schools simply assume that they will need to hire private tutors to make sure they actually learn something. There are three government-owned defense companies: together they have billions of euros in debts, and mounting losses. The retirement age for Greek jobs classified as “arduous” is as early as 55 for men and 50 for women. As this is also the moment when the state begins to shovel out generous pensions, more than 600 Greek professions somehow managed to get themselves classified as arduous: hairdressers, radio announcers, waiters, musicians, and on and on and on. The Greek public health-care system spends far more on supplies than the European average — and it is not uncommon, several Greeks tell me, to see nurses and doctors leaving the job with their arms filled with paper towels and diapers and whatever else they can plunder from the supply closets.
This is contrasted with the theme that one of the few aspects of Greek society that is more or less dependable is the banking system:
Oddly enough, the financiers in Greece remain more or less beyond reproach. They never ceased to be anything but sleepy old commercial bankers. Virtually alone among Europe’s bankers, they did not buy U.S. subprime-backed bonds, or leverage themselves to the hilt, or pay themselves huge sums of money. The biggest problem the banks had was that they had lent roughly 30 billion euros to the Greek government — where it was stolen or squandered. In Greece the banks didn’t sink the country. The country sank the banks.
Now all that said, it seems weirdly ironic that the focal point of Lewis’ piece is a Greek Orthodox monastery that has raised a lot of ire among Greeks because “in a perfectly corrupt society, it had somehow been identified as the soul of corruption.” The tale that unfolds is indeed interesting — monks at the Vatopaidi monastery had somehow convinced the Greek government to recognize land deeds given to the church centuries prior, and from there the monks parlayed this into a billion-dollar real estate empire. By all accounts, there’s no concrete evidence the monks did anything illegal and they appear to be living in austerity. There is, however, a lot of suspicion that the monks’ dealmaking and ensuing profits were the result of having some sort of undue influence inside various offices in the Greek government. To that end, Lewis includes this anecdote:
Not long after Doukas began his new job, two monks showed up unannounced in his Finance Ministry office. One was Father Ephraim, of whom Doukas had heard; the other, unknown to Doukas but clearly the sharp end of the operation, a fellow named Father Arsenios. They owned this lake, they said, and they wanted the Ministry of Finance to pay them cash for it. “Someone had given them full title to the lake,” says Doukas. “What they wanted now was to monetize it. They came to me and said, ‘Can you buy us out?’” Before the meeting, Doukas sensed, they had done a great deal of homework. “Before they come to you they know a lot about you — your wife, your parents, the extent of your religious beliefs,” he said. “The first thing they asked me was if I wanted them to take my confession.” Doukas decided that it would be unwise to tell the monks his secrets. Instead he told them he would not give them money for their lake — which he still didn’t see how exactly they had come to own. “They seemed to think I had all this money to spend,” says Doukas. “I said, ‘Listen, contrary to popular opinion, there is no money in the Finance Ministry.’ And they said, ‘O.K., if you cannot buy us out, why can’t you give us some of your pieces of land?’”
[I]t seemed to Doukas, had some kind of hold on the prime minister’s chief of staff. That fellow, Giannis Angelou, had come to know the monks a few years before, just after he had been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. The monks prayed for him; he didn’t die, but instead made a miraculous recovery. He had, however, given them his confession.
By now Doukas thought of these monks less as simple con men than the savviest businessmen he had ever dealt with.
Again, there’s really no evidence that the monks have done anything wrong here, but twice we have the suggestion that the monks are getting people to confess their secrets and then using that against them. That’s quite a charge, but after it’s brought up it’s left unexplored and simply dropped. Why?
In fact, I generally get the feeling that for his incredible knack for rendering financial and statistical information understandable, Lewis is rather uninterested in the religious dimension to this story — which seems like one heck of an oversight. This Greek Orthodox monastery is identified as the “soul of corruption” for an entire country that’s foundering and we get almost no historical or religious perspective on the church’s relation to the state or the Greek people.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Greek Orthodox church was making major news for major fraud and sex scandals. This goes unmentioned. If the Greek people have vilified this monastery, I’d think looking at how other scandals related to the church affected the country would be a no-brainer.
Part of me wonders if this isn’t all a bit crafty on Lewis’ part. Raising the suggestion of the this monastery’s peculiar influence and possible corruption without putting it in the context of the Greek Orthodox church’s other scandals tends to lend an added air of mystery to this particular scandal and monastery.
I can’t fault this article for being breezy and informative, as per Lewis’ usual standards. But total lack of religion in a story about a monastery enmeshed in a government scandal in country where the church has had profound impact shaping the politics for millenia seems egregious. I don’t know whether to blame Lewis or Vanity Fair’s editors, but here’s to hoping Lewis does some backfill if he incorporates this article into his (probably) inevitable book on the global financial meltdown.
I recognize that this is a complicated topic on many different levels. Perhaps our resident Orthodox expert TMatt has additional thoughts on what this story got right or wrong.