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My big fat Greek tax problem

Last week’s blog contained this amazing stop-the-presses Newsflash: Americans don’t like paying taxes!

I know that comes as a shock, but go lie down and put a cold compress on your head, and in a few days, or maybe a week, you’ll get over it.

Besides, there is apparently a country that dislikes paying taxes even more than us. So much so that their officials think we might enjoy turning in their tax evaders.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Greece.

You are probably aware that for some time now, Greece has been in a financial mess, besotted with a huge debt. Other European countries, but especially Germany, are really p.o.’ed about the way Greece has mishandled its money, because the European Community, which includes Greece, has the euro currency in common.

A few years ago, the EU put Greece under a severe austerity program, but it did nothing but anger the Greek citizenry, who then recently elected a left-wing government that promised them a more splendiferous future. Or maybe it was “spend-diferous.”

In any case, that further nettled the prudent Germans, and that’s led to some precipitous deadlines and heated exchanges. They’ve reached a temporary accord, but where this will all shake out is anybody’s guess.

It has come to light, however, that one of the reasons Greece’s coffers are chronically depleted is that its citizenry has trouble coughing up its owed taxes.

This is not an observation made by outsiders. Or not solely by outsiders. Greek authorities themselves note it. A couple weeks ago Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister, appealed to his countrymen to pay their share of taxes—or what they could—by reminding them, “It’s part of our patriotic duty.”

Yup. In Greece, they call it “filing” season because lots of folks are trying to chisel the government!

In the 100% positive chance that Varoufakis’ appeal falls short, the government has a backup plan.

That’s where we come in.

Earlier this month, Varoufakis sent a letter to Eurozone finance ministers containing various proposals for Greece to raise more capital. One of them was a plan to hire foreign tourists, along with housewives, students, and other nonprofessional inspectors, as “casual” tax spies, i.e., as the proposal states “to pose, after some basic training, as customers, on behalf of the tax authorities, while wired for sound and video.”

Supposedly these “amateur inspectors” could infiltrate businesses that “real” tax inspectors have trouble monitoring, like nightclubs and medical facilities. In addition, just the perception that the country was teeming with thousands of tourist tax spies might be enough to cajole the populace to stop skimming.

In other words, the Greek government is of the opinion that although we might not like paying our own taxes, we relish the notion of ratting on folks in another country who don’t pay theirs.

Right there is a fundamental difference between our two countries: In the US, we get the NSA to spy on ourselves. In Greece, they ask tourists to do it!

Most countries do their darndest to keep foreign spies out. Greece is recruiting them to tattle on its people.

It makes for a very unusual entry interview: “What’s the purpose of your trip? Business? Pleasure? Snitching?”

Not to mention some quite uncomfortable bargaining conversations:

American Tourist Spy: How much is this?
Greek Shopkeeper: 95 Euros.
ATS: I’ll give you 65.
GS: 85, with no tax.
ATS: No tax for me?
GS: No.
ATS: What about you?
GS: What?
ATS: No tax for me. Got it. But will you be paying tax?
GS: Why on Earth would you want to know that?
ATS: Oh, just askin’. By the way, can I take a photo of your ledgers?

You’ve got to hand it to Greek officials. They may not have devised a plan to save the economy, but they managed to figure out a way to make American tourists even more unpopular.

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