Have I got a monastery to sell you

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?’”

Eventually the finance minister acquiesces to a deal due to pressure from above:

[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.

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  • http://orrologion.blogspot.com Christopher Orr

    Vatopaidi is one of the twenty ‘ruling monasteries’ of Mount Athos, the all-male, monastic republic in northeastern Greece under the spiritual authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). As of 1999, it was inhabited by 80 monks and is second in hierarchical rank among the monasteries of the mountain. The monastery was founded in 972 AD.

    There has been a great deal of back and forth regarding the investigations surrounding the Vatopaidi land deals between supporters of the monastery and those in the government. Part of the other side of the story can be found here (in a less than objective source: vatopaidi.wordpress.com):

    A Document By the Institute of Chartered Accountants Reveals the Plot Set Up By PASOK Around the So-called “Vatopaidi Scandal”

    They will be getting rid of one, fifty will come after him.

    The PASOK [?????????? ???????????? ??????, Panhellenic Socialist Movement], government is in power for almost ten months and no one is yet able to tell us objectively how the state was hurt by the land exchanges with the Great and Holy Monastery of Vatopaidi. Is this a coincidence? I do not think so, since the only body accredited worldwide for its objective property valuations is the Institute of Chartered Accountants (ICA). That is the reason why in cases of discrepancy between the valuations of a citizen and the state, the law gives the former the right to apply to the ICA, because its valuation is binding on the Inland Revenue!

    Yesterday, it was revealed that not one, not two, but four valuations have been carried out by the ICA which indicate the same thing: The state did not undervalue the land to be exchanged so that the monastery would benefit! The only case where excessive value may have been achieved concerns the few pieces of exchanged land which underwent a change of use from forest land to a building plot. But this is another matter.

    Since PASOK did not like the ICA valuations, the Ministry of Finance, under the instructions of Papakonstantinou, sent a letter to the ICA trying to negate their conclusions because they show nothing reprehensible. The ICA’s reply was a catapult!

    The state instructed ICA to carry out two valuations before March 2009. They showed nothing inappropriate. As soon as the ‘scandal’ was in full swing, the ICA at its own initiative requested a foreign, rival Institution to carry out its own valuation: The result was the same. Nothing reprehensible.

    At the same time the monastery instructed the biggest foreign institution worldwide to value the land. The result was exactly the same: Nothing inappropriate!

    Therefore, even though four objective valuations exist from the proper authorities, PASOK continues to ignore them. In order to blow up the value of the exchanged pieces, it takes into account the valuations of DOY (Deparment of Financial Services), which according to the ICA only take into account the ‘objective’ as opposed to the ‘real value’ of the land. It is well known that the two values are not comparable especially in relation to forest land, whose ‘objective’ value is up to six times the ‘real’!

    Here is the reply given by ICA to the last PASOK attempt to nullify its conclusions:

    Notice that in the correspondence between the Ministry of Finance and the ICA, the Ministry talks about the Vatopedi scandal, while the ICA, which is not ‘everyone’s coffee shop’, uses inverted commas around the word ‘scandal’!

    One wonders what is the real purpose behind the investigation when the Ministry ( i.e. the state) agrees with PASOK and calls the case a ‘scandal’? Whom are they kidding?

    Source: DEXI EXTREM/ OLYMPIA

    An additional part of the back story should include information on the way in which the Orthodox Church in Greece became identified with right-wing politics in the country (perhaps especially during the military junta of 1967–1974) and the understandable backlash against the Church from the country Left (perhaps especially the Socialists, i.e., PASOK).

    In 1981 PASOK formed the first socialist government in Greece’s history, and subsequently governed the country for most of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. PASOK served as the main opposition party between 2004 and 2009. It is a member of the Party of European Socialists and the Socialist International. In the European Parliament it has 8 out of 22 Greek MEPs. On 31 January 2006, the party’s president, George Papandreou, was elected President of the Socialist International, the worldwide organisation of social democratic, socialist and labour parties. Following the 2009 legislative election, PASOK became the majority party and Papandreou became Prime Minister.

  • http://None Fr. Alexander

    In general terms – Holy Confession as practiced by the Orthodox Church is a listing of sins (word, deed or thought) and an examination of conscience to identify the causes of these sins (the passions).

    e.g. I might lie to make myself appear better in the eyes of my fellowman. The sin = lying, the underlying passion = pride and vainglory.

    A spiritual father would seek to absolve the sins of the penitent as a short-term goal, but would always strive to alleviate the underlying passion that causes the sin.

    Matthew 5:48
    Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

    In this context, whether the Ministery Office confessed or not, shouldn’t be relevant as “sins” and “passions” do not typically involve business information (unless there was some sinful impropriety)

    Additionally – Orthodox priests are forbidden to discuss confessions under threat of ban or dismissal from the Holy Priesthood. If these monks were revealing confessions then the appropriate Spiritual Court should be called to investigate and exercise their authority.

  • Julia

    When I read this article in Vanity Fair, the mention twice of confessions and then . . . nothing further, seemed very strange. It seems the author was hinting for his presumed readership to assume the worst without actually saying it in print.

  • Les

    The point should be asking where’s the morality here in this country for allowing our bankers to swindle a country like Greece in buying our toxic assets and then selling short against the same assets they just sold the Greeks. Don’t take seriously this kind of narrow reporting blaming the Greeks for having to sell off religious treasures to pay down their debt.

    Sure, Greece shouldn’t have been so gullible, but Americans were just as gullible but we got to bail ourselves out (at least bailed out the bankers) by putting the bill on the taxpayers tab (ringing up the deficit).

    So we can borrow more the Greece, but we are not any different than the Greeks – we’re just a gullible. The difference is that we could hold the bankers responsible, we could take moral responsibility for our crooks, or we could have let the downsides of risk hit these crooked bankers. We ended up bailing out our banks with the prospect that the banking crisis could collapse the world economy. Well, it did anyway but not as bad as it could have been.

    Too bad the Greeks gambled with more than they have, but the swindlers who convinced them to gamble recklessly bear some responsibility.

    Maybe we ought to fine Goldman Sacks the cost of a monastery to repay the victims of their flimflam.


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