Alexis Tsipras wants to know: “Here in the United States, why do you not have this phenomenon of passing money under the table?”
It is Saturday morning, and New York City is under a sheet of fresh snow. Mr. Tsipras, the leader of Greece’s Coalition of the Radical Left, or Syriza, is on a brief visit to the States to meet with think-tank scholars, journalists and International Monetary Fund officials, and to be dined at the State Department.
There’s a reason the 38-year-old former civil engineer is being taken seriously. His is the second-largest party in parliament. He wants to throw out the austerity diet that is the IMF-Brussels-Berlin precondition for continued financial life support for Greece. And he could one day be prime minister.
Mr. Tsipras is pondering the subject of bribery while talking about health care in Greece. Like most in Europe, the Greek state is the primary deliverer of medical care through a national health service, and—on paper, at least—it does a great job. The World Health Organization puts Greece in 14th place in its global rankings, though per capita health spending is relatively low. By contrast, the U.S., which spends the most per capita, comes in 38th place in terms of overall quality, behind such health-care paragons as Morocco and Dominica.
From such statistics was the case for ObamaCare made. But Mr. Tsipras takes a dimmer view of health delivery in his native land. “Why in a public hospital, in order to have an operation, do [patients] have to slip [doctors] an envelope with a certain amount of money?” he asks. Why indeed? I ask back. “Because the state gives low wages to doctors thinking it’s completely natural for them to add to their salary” by accepting those cash-stuffed envelopes.
I suggest to Mr. Tsipras that maybe the difference between Greek and American doctors is that the latter have so far operated in a mainly private market, though that’s about to change. He demurs and instead says something about the need to have a “revolution in conscience” by Greek citizens, plus “the will of the state” by Greek leaders. It sounds like the sort of thing you’d expect from someone who names Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci as sources of intellectual inspiration—romantic in its impulses, repressive in its implications.
But I don’t think Mr. Tsipras is the budding totalitarian or demagogue his detractors say he is. He talks of the “deep sense of injustice” that pervades Greek society, the sense that they have been systematically used and betrayed by their own economic elites and elected officials.
“Why should taxes only be paid by honest low-income citizens while those that have the financial means don’t pay taxes at all?” he asks. “Why should we have so much bureaucracy and so much inefficiency within the public sector?”
Those are good questions, and they cut through a lot of the gobbledygook that pervades most discussions of the Greek economy: bond spreads, debt-to-GDP ratio, tier-one capital, and so on. Greece, Mr. Tsipras says, has a “twisted productive base” and wouldn’t emerge from the crisis even if all its debts were forgiven tomorrow. “We would just create debts and deficits anew.”
As for the bailout plans imposed by outsiders, he notes, accurately, that they benefit nobody. Not the Greek people, who must pay for them in the form of higher taxes. And not Greece’s creditors, either: “It is unfair,” he says, “to ask German taxpayers to throw their money into the bottomless barrel that is Greek banks.”
So what’s the alternative? I ask Mr. Tsipras about the Argentine model—devalue the currency and renounce the debt—but he’s skeptical. Athens can’t rely on a commodity boom the way Buenos Aires did in the last decade, and anyway he wants Greece to keep the euro. Nor does he want Greece to default, though he does advocate something along the model of the London Conference of 1953, which forgave about half of Germany’s debts and put the rest on a 30-year repayment schedule. Greece, he says, needs an agenda “to make our tax system more effective, to fight bureaucracy and to fight corruption.”
Greeks who know Mr. Tsipras better than I say he has a habit of saying whatever he thinks his audiences want to hear. He wouldn’t be the first politician guilty of that. It definitely amused me to meet him in the breakfast room of his hotel, the Helmsley Park Lane on Central Park South. Not exactly the cafeteria of the proletariat.
But scoffers and skeptics should pay attention to Mr. Tsipras all the same. Modern European politics has too often become a kind of collusion between incompetent European Union technocrats and opportunistic national politicians. Here’s one guy calling attention to the human misery this combination has wrought. If the “radical” in Syriza means a party capable of thinking for itself and posing the right questions, maybe the right answers won’t be far behind.