Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Explaining Yesterday's Election Results to a Greek

I had coffee with a young Greek university student this morning, and he said, “I see Obama”s Party won.”  I said, “Well, Obama won, but his party didn’t.”  We then went through the following:

Q:  How could Obama’s Party lose and he still be the leader of the government?
A:  Well, the President is elected separately from our Congress.  He won the Presidential vote, but his party did not lose as such, it just didn't  gain a majority of both Houses of Congress.

Q:  But isn’t the President the leader of the ruling party?
A:  Our Constitution doesn’t provide for a leader of any party.  If anything, it’s an honorary position and need not even be a serving elected official.

Q:  So parties are lead by whoever the party wants?
A:  Yes

Q:  If Obama's party didn't win the Congress, then the opposition party won?
A:  No.

Q:  Then if neither party won the majority of Congress, is it a coalition Congress?
A:  Obama’s party won a majority in one House, and the opposition won a majority in the other?  The two Houses are separate in this manner.

Q:  Then is there a coalition leader of all Congress?
A:  No.  Each House has a leader elected by the house members of the party with the majority in that house.

Q:  How do you have coalitions if there are two leaders in Congress?
A:  Our system of government does not provide for coalitions.

Q:  So, you now have a President from one party, who isn’t the party leader, party leaders who are not necessarily part of the official government, one House ruled by one party and the other House ruled by the other?
A:  Yes.

Q;  If the Houses are from different parties than the president, how are Cabinet Ministers apportioned?
A:  Cabinet Ministers are not members of Congress and do not work for Congress.    They are appointed by the President, with the approval of the Senate and work for the President.

Q:  What if the President’s choice for ministers are not approved by the Senate?  Does the Senate then pick the minister.
A:  No.  All ministers must be picked by the President.  If the Senate won’t approve one, then the President must make another pick or wait until the Congress is in recess and make a limited term appointment.

The discussion went on to cover House and Senate rules, filibusters (not covered by the Constitution), vetoes and overriding vetoes and the like.  I was able to provide answers to all his questions, until his final one:

Q:  Based on what you have told me, how does your government manage to get anything done?


  1. Al -

    Now you have me intrigued. Does the Greek Parliament have two houses, bicameral if you will, whether similar to the UK's aristo system or a more federal system such as Germany or the EU? Or do they have s single House as in Cuba?

    If two, how is a coalition leader of both houses elected in Greece? Can I assume that is automatically the PM?

  2. Good to hear from you again, Al. Fun story, especially the ending. I've got a question I've been wanting to ask for a while now.

    How's life in Greece these days? I've been following the international reports but they are heavily biased towards a Euro (currency) or US (political) point of view.

  3. Mike

    The Greek Parliament is a unicameral body. There are 300 seats, 50 of which are non-elected granted to the party with the greatest number of elected reps. This was instituted to minimize the necessity for coalition governments. If the leading party gains at least 101 seats (40.4% of the elected seats), then they have a ruling majority via the 50 additional seats. If a party has 151 seats, that party's elected leader is PM.

    All Cabinet Ministers (equivalent to our Secretary of....) are serving members of Parliament, either elected or appointed.

    With a coalition government, as we have now, parties with a collective total of 151 or more seats agree to a basic compromise platform, agree to one of the party's leader as PM and apportion Cabinet Minister appointments among the parties of the coalition. As long as the said parties remain in agreement to coalesce, we have a "government". If one pulls out, then we have new elections. The 50 "bonus seats" exist primarily to minimize the risk of a fragile, short term coalition and repeated elections.

  4. Pluto

    The wife and I are in reasonable shape, as our income is US pensions. Paying a bit more taxes, but from our viewpoint, we get, at least on our island, reasonable government services - police, fire, roads, trash pickup and we have access to National Health Care.

    Our neighbors are hurting, as many have had their pensions cut or their salaries cut, and having to pay the new taxes at the same time. Tourism was off significantly due to uncertainty and fear arising from media coverage of "riots" in Athens. Might mention that all "rioting" was confined to the square in front of Parliament, an area smaller than the Typical US pro football stadium. However, with island tourism down, local income suffered as a result.

    As far as demonstrations and strikes, we have had a few peaceful demonstrations for a couple of additional doctors at our local health center, for example. The national general strikes are partially observed on the island, but not to the point of being disruptive, and one "three day strike" was only observed the first day. Too boring to stay away from the job longer.

    As to getting the country onto a more responsible track, I personally feel we are being subjected to "Too much, too fast", especially in light of the prolonged recession. There are absolutely no similarities between Greece's sovereign debt problems and the US. Further, household debt here is a drop in the bucket as compared to the US. 70% of homes are owned without mortgage, for example. A 5,000 Euro credit card limit, for those who even have one, is considered HUGE.

    While the US can "print money", Greece, as an EU member cannot. Thus our debt is totally different in operation and nature from US debt. In fact, I would offer that much of the US, including Congresscritters really don't understand the dynamics of debt in the US. Thus, I have to chuckle when Mitt the Twitt threatened a fate such as Greece if he weren't elected. I would be willing to bet he had nothing but misconceptions of why we are where we are today in Greece.

  5. Al -

    What are your thoughts on the new austerity bill passed by the Greek parliament today?

    Greek austerity bill

    Sounds like pretty drastic cuts. What will it do to Greek national health care? At least they put in tax increases, but are those tax increases in the bill equitable with the cuts?

  6. Mike

    Some details of the cuts are here
    . Pretty rigorous. For example, the Chief of Staff of the Army is now set at 1,873 euros/mo – that is 1,000 euros more than a second lieutenant..

    National Health Care and Education are priority items, but NHC will still be making some cuts. It's hard for me to address what the outcome will be, since I have found NHC to be quite good, and actually better than the US for access as well as treatment. (Note that the per capita health care spending here is about $2,800/yr vs $8,000 in the US). Of course, the curtains and waiting room furnishings are much more elegant in the US.

    The "walk-in" wait to see a primary care Dr for routine issues at our island NHC center typically runs 45 - 60 mins. Emergency and urgent care are virtually immediate. Since austerity, you might have to wait a few days for a routine blood work appointment. Toilet paper and paper towels are not stocked in the rest rooms any more, but replaced as needed as a reminder to not waste. To be honest, while the locals are clamoring for a couple of additional doctors and staff, the actual care they receive for a 5 Euro/ "routine issue" visit (Emergency is free) charge still gives them better access to and delivery of HEALTH CARE than the norm in the US.

    We have 6 NHC and 15 private practice physicians on the island. Three of the private practice MD's are GP, the rest specialists. Private practice care costs about 1/4 to 1/3 of what you pay in the US. The private blood lab is operated by an MD specializing in "microbiology". A complete blood panel, with PSA is about 82 Euro, and that includes the consultation with the Dr.

    Taxes are a whole other issue. Many Greeks are becoming "real estate poor" as newly instituted property taxes are levied on inherited homes, and "standard deduction" on income taxes is reduced by 50%. Since both major parties pandered for votes by allowing poor enforcement of the tax laws, the increases are really a "double whammy".

    IMHO, a significant negative factor is the rest of the world, especially Germany, using an "accountant's mentality" to a problem that involves a significant social and cultural dimension. It's easy to change taxation formulas, but there are 11 million people effected by this. People are not as easily manipulated as numbers in a ledger.

    Google "German mini-jobs". This is one idea Ms Merkel and Co suggest for Greece. However, most competent analysts say it is nothing but "creative accounting" and not really socially responsible nor sustainable. It does, however, offer a back door system of government subsidy to industrial firms. Further, it offers little or no "benefit" to agricultural and tourism based business, which is a major part of the Greek economy.

  7. While I am ranting, let me mention the brilliant idea from a Brit economist to "quickly stimulate" the Greek economy with jobs and export income. He noted that on his holidays on the Peloponnesian Peninsula, he saw that many olive farms used only a small part of the land for trees. He suggested two steps:

    1) Reduce the sale of olive oil for domestic consumption and sell it in export. "Greece could flood the market with excellent oil".

    2) Put more land under cultivation with trees to make even more oil available for sale via export.

    Now, here are simple responses to that:

    1) Olive oil is a vital element of the Greek diet. The Brit acts as if it is a luxury, wasted on the people. We would still have to buy something to replace what we grow for ourselves.

    2) There are many reasons why only portions of private farm lands are devoted to olive trees. One is the irrigation needs. The other is that many of these "farms" are actually more like what we would call "gardens" in the US. There are basically the number of trees the extended family and friends can harvest and afford to process into oil. Commercial operations hire people to harvest. And, of course, olive trees do not "quickly" become bearers of copious olives. And, what would all those people that harvesting employed do the other 49 weeks of the year?

    It's a complex situation here, and it won't be solved without understanding Greece.

  8. Aviator,

    But I have no time for understanding...I need stump-speech ready actions to quickly heal deep wounds. Anyone know a miracle worker?

  9. My personal suspicion is that the U.S. system was set up to work in the very specific circumstances of its creation; a nonpartisan agricultural oligarchy. Once parties emerged and factions formed we've been working our way towards dysfunction. All we needed was a) a nation where both parties were functional, b) a degree of social and economic polarization similar to the late 19th Century, and c) one faction that wanted victory more than it wanted functioning democracy.

    We could have had that in the First Gilded Age, but the Democrats were still reeling from the Civil War debacle, and by the time they re-emerged in the Teens and Twenties we had the Depression come along the knock the props out from under the GOP.

    When you think about it, the times when both political parties had a genuine chance at power in this country - the Jacksonian period, the Teens and early Twenties, and today - have been marked by pretty brutal politics and either gridlock or really ugly political streetfights.

    We've had some moments of relative political peace, but (and I know I've said this before but I think it still bears repeating) most of us grew up in the Great Political Peace of the 1945-1965 period. That was a historical anomaly and after the civil rights era it was gone. We're back to the norm today...except the modern GOP would rather be in power through brute force than accept minority status in a functioning democracy.

    I think the implications for this political generation are, frankly, pretty scary.

  10. FDC

    A significant number of Americans, predominantly on the Right, do not really want a democracy, as they are totally unwilling to accept the outcome of same.

    Mitch McConnell, Oct 2010: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." If that's the principle objective the framers of the Constitution envisioned our legislators be paid tax dollars to do, then my reading comprehension is gone.

  11. Hey, we're not the ones having riots in our streets...

    Not that that would be a bad thing.

  12. "The billionaire donors I hear are livid," one GOP operative told The Huffington Post. "There is some holy hell to pay. Karl Rove has a lot of explaining to do … I don't know how you tell your donors that we spent $390 million and got nothing."

    Frightening notion, isn't it. Perhaps the 2016 election should just be put on eBay? Sure would save the cost of all those voting machines.

  13. What gets me, Al, is that none of these fecking regressive nutjobs seem to be asking themselves "Gee...why do they seem to hate us so much?"

    Could it be...your Gilded Age policies?

    Fallows has a nice illustration of the sort of hissy your HuffPost GOP billionaires seem to be having:

    I spent yesterday riding down to Coos Bay in a small commuter plane with a whole load of Massachusetts white boys out for a golfing trip, and to hear them whine and bellyache made my little liberal heart smile. But in a larger sense, it's not healthy for the U.S. when it's most entitled and connected citizens associate Rockefeller Republican politics - which is what Obama and the Dems are pushing - with "socialism" and "losing our liberties".

    I can't see how you govern when 20-30% of your population, and the wealthiest and most privileged quarter, at that - refuse to accept anything more liberal than Gilded Age plutocracy as the national norm.

  14. Chief -

    Coos Bay? Hope you are not going to Jordan Cove?

    Bandon Dunes is a great course. Three courses actually. And not one tenth as expensive as Pebble Beach though, and better views. But if folks from the east coast are now going there the green fees are going to go up considerably. Especially if those junketeers you flew with are some of Romney's Boston Bain wannabees.

  15. Nope. Had a job of work above Coalbank Slough; one of our clients dropped a soil fill embankment into the slough. Careless, that...

    I've heard that the links there at Bandon are world-class. Don't play, myself, but my father does, and he has always wanted to play out there...

  16. "While the US can "print money", Greece, as an EU member cannot."

    That's not because of the EU; it is because of the common Euro currency.
    Besides, Greece can print money; just not Euro bills unless on order for the ECB.

  17. Sven-

    By "print", I am using the common lay term for devaluing their currency by simply putting more into circulation. Greece chose to be part of the EU, and as such, must observe one principal limitation of a common currency that the US need not.

    All too many parallels to other non-Euro Zone countries made about the Greek debt crisis are fundamentally and generally profoundly off target. Greece could indeed default and return to the Drachma. However, using Argentina and Iceland as "successful examples" are ludicrous, primarily because neither country had to make a currency change to do so. I have only seen one pundit address this issue. It can be done, but the method would be dramatically different from what any country has been able to do in the past. The "firewalls" required to make such a currency change are significant, and would effect all of Europe. As was the case in Russia in the early 1990's, outside currency would have to be effectively barred from circulation to minimize Black Marketeering. Further, to prevent problems outside Greece, the Drachma would be artificially set at par with the Euro for an extended period, much like the freezing of exchange rates within the Euro Zone for three years ("Virtual Euro") before the first Euro coin or note was ever circulated. The very fact that the Drachma could not be responsibly "devalued" instantly, as was the case in Argentina and Iceland, makes it a whole new ballgame - never before played in any country.

    My point is that when someone says' "Just like Greece", they typically haven't a clue as to the actual underlying causes of our fiasco. Similarly, when someone says the problem can be solved just like it was in "......", they typically haven't a clue as to why the Euro Zone is profoundly unlike other monetary systems.