Sunday, 24 June 2012


I made these, but feel free to make your own by clicking here. Disclaimer: I am using Uganda as a baseline; I've no idea where Skeptical Third World Kid, now an internet meme, is from. Please submit your own in the comments section below. Best caption wins something or other.

Pls do all your hatin in the comments section where I can ignore it as I fully intend to.

Thursday, 21 June 2012


After months of struggling with crappy internet connections, I've finally managed to get on to RT's Capital Account, produced by my friend Dimitri at @CoveringDelta. The topic was the nuanced political and economic life of Greece that doesn't fit standard ideological frameworks. I must admit, even if you don't know the tremendous amount of internet epic failz that preceded this, it's come out exceedingly well. If you do want to know though, suffice it to say at some point I was working through a bridged connection involving my phone and my laptop.

Without further ado, here is the show for you enjoyment. Please show you appreciation by tuning in to the Capital Account, which also features interviewees much more famous and important than myself:

Thursday, 7 June 2012


Readers will, by now, have read the famous blog post by @sturdyalex in which it is claimed that, far from being lazy, Greeks are the hardest-working people in Europe. Veteran readers will know I have considered the factual basis of this argument here and here. However, not only has the piece gone viral since then, it's also resurfaced in this review on the New Statesman, reaching a whole new, and more opinionated, audience.

To forestall some of the strongest objections, I share Alex's disgust at the stereotypes and pseudo-anecdotes flying around and exploited for populist reasons abroad. I believe, as I've stated elsewhere, that the Greeks are intrinsically no better or worse, harder-working or lazier, than the Swedes, the British, the Germans or the Zimbabweans. I assure you that revisiting the data properly confirms this. Insofar as Alex's argument debunks the myths being peddled about us Greeks, I am fully supportive.

However, people's reading of Alex's data is becoming increasingly warped, and leaves some commentators wondering how such hard-working people are lagging so far behind in unit output. More to the point, it reinforces the wrongheaded view that Greece's labour market is not deeply dysfunctional and in desperate need of reform. Hence I need to revisit my original commentary and aim for a wider audience.

I will, furthermore, not rely on arguments such as 'yeah but look at productivity', which, while valid, essentially only serve to kick the ball into the long grass. I know that an hour spent sitting at a desk playing Spider Solitaire is not the same as an hour spent making stuff people will pay to buy, but I'm not sure one corresponds to Greeks and the other to Germans, and that's not our point right now.

No, my point is that the OECD data Alex relies on are deeply flawed and unsuited to international comparisons. If looked at in detail, they tell a very interesting story, just not the one some of Alex's readers would like.

You see the OECD figures do not compare like for like. They lump part-time and full time employees together without any adjustment so countries with a larger percentage of part-time employees will tend to have fewer average hours to show for it. As this OECD table will show you, part-time employment is very rare in Greece. To take the example most likely to raise eyebrows, 22% of German workers worked part-time in 2008, against 8% in Greece.The OECD also lumps together female and male employees, so any country which manages to get more women into the workforce also has fewer hours worked to show for it because women typically worker fewer hours. For background, only 56% of Greek working age women were economically active in 2008, against 71% of German working age women (source). Account for that, and for all the other ways in which the two labour forces differ, and, well, it gets complicated.

There are many simpler ways of getting the overall picture but the simplest is to compare like-with-like. A full-time male Greek employee to a full-time male German employee, and likewise for women and non-employees (proprietors, the self-employed, family members working for businesses, more or less anyone without an employment contract). I'll stick to German and Greek employees, partly because it's sensational to draw this comparison and partly because comparing Greece to all possible EU countries will make my tables way over-complicated.

I can draw this comparison in particular because the OECD data on European countries are more or less directly comparable as they are derived from the pan-European Labour Force Survey. As a passing glance at the OECD matadata will reveal, comparisons with non-European countries are actually not valid at all and the OECD discourages users from using the data in this way. The reason is that some countries use administrative or workplace-based data as opposed to the LFS' employee-reported data, which tends to underestimate hours worked (read here for a full review).

So, comparing full-time employees with a formal employment contract in 2008 (the reference year Alex uses), Greek men work only 2% more hours than their German counterparts, while Greek women work 1% less than German women (all figures in hours worked weekly below). Full-time non-employees in Greece, both male and female, work 3% fewer hours than their German counterparts. Part-time female employees in Greece only work 7% more hours than their German counterparts. (Data here, or see table below, which you can also download from here)

So that's the whole of the mainstream, more productive, labour market in a nutshell. The difference in hours worked on a weekly basis is nowhere near the staggering 48% implied by the OECD figures that Alex cites.

So what accounts for the difference in hours worked? For the most part it's the structure of the labour market. Fewer women and part-time workers in Greece, and a substantial fringe of workers that don't fit the traditional model of work.

The latter are very important. They are mostly part-time male employees, part-time non-employees of both sexes, and people with second jobs (data on those here). That's precisely the segment of the labour market that is shut out of fully-regulated work, not least by employment regulations. It's the kind of work, may I add, that our unions are, to this date, trying to regulate out of existence. Here, the difference is absolutely huge. A Greek man with a second employee job, for instance, works about twice as long as their German counterpart. Given the lower productivity in Greek workplaces, keeping working hours in mainstream jobs artificially low through employment regulation is not doing anyone any favours. A simple reading of Alex's data would suggest nothing's wrong. But there is plenty wrong.

There is much in this data that the European Left could use, if only they bothered to. The reading above is just one libertarian point of view. Getting to the bottom of why the Greek labour market includes a fringe working its metaphorical hairy knuckles to the bone is essential to understanding our plight. Unfortunately it doesn't play to the preferred narrative of evil neoliberals trying to talk the proud, untamed Greek worker down. Well the data aren't playing ball. What's it going to be, friends? Change the narrative, or manipulate the data? Do you want to win a flamewar, or do you want to understand the shit we're in?  I'm not keeping my fingers crossed.

Bonus for returning readers: funny things happen when you compare like-for-like. Here's the evolution of average weekly working time for male full-time employees in Germany and Greece from 1983 to 2011:

And here is the same graph for full-time female employees: 


I've now finally been able to get the full European Values Survey dataset for all of Europe, which allows me to look exactly at what Greeks (and others) wanted from a job as of 2008. The full table (weighted data of course) can be found here. It shows that a greater share of Greeks than Germans want family-friendly jobs with low pressure and good hours, but a smaller share of Greeks than Germans needs jobs security. These comparisons were consistent even after filtering for only young people (34 or younger) or filtering for only unemployed people. 

Is this conclusive? Well, much depends on what Greeks and Germans respectively call 'low pressure' and 'good hours'. I've partly divided the sample by old and young, employed and unemployed precisely to see if that makes a difference to perceptions. On balance I'd say the figures are a good enough indicator, but feel free to question below. Then there's the question of whether it's the Greeks or the Germans that are an outlier. 

Also note that running figures by 'respondents' as opposed to 'responses' makes a big difference. In some countries, people focus on a few 'important' attributes of a job, while in others they cast a wide net. I will address this in an update soon.