For months and months, we’ve been hearing dire warnings of ‘becoming Greece’ if we don’t correct our course in politics and economics. What’s it like in Greece?
Most news coverage has focused on financial markets and a crashing economy. Broad terms, big concepts, economic models, social unrest over more taxes in a new government austerity package.
But a story on the front page of the Sunday New York Times tells the human story behind it all, and that brings it home better than anything else I’ve heard recently. Starting with the photo at the top of this online version. Take a look at those boxes filled with files. Every file is a person, with a family. And that’s only one shapshot.
The article provides others in some personal accounts.
Many Greeks fear a vicious circle: a death spiral of more austerity measures, further economic contraction and correspondingly lower tax revenues, making it that much harder to make a dent in the debt, pushing the country toward default in spite of the austerity. Unions have called general strikes for Oct. 5 and Oct. 19, and tensions are building.
Economists say the measures are necessary to bring down debt and modernize Greece’s economy. But the cuts have come far faster than the modernization, and the social fabric is starting to fray — if not tear. The unemployment rate, already at 16 percent, and emigration are increasing; the birth rate is dropping; and the rate of suicide is rising. The education minister recently apologized that public schools lack textbooks, and the country’s morale is flagging.
This is the human toll. Devastating.
“The government is increasingly at war with the citizens,” said Jens Bastian, an economist at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy in Athens. “It is taking decisions whose consequences are not only squeezing the middle class, but threatening its very existence.”
Some private-sector workers say they have not been paid in months. “It’s illogical and unfair,” Aphrodite Korogiannaki, 38, a speech pathologist at a center for intellectually disabled youth, said of the property tax as she participated in a peaceful demonstration in Athens last week. “If I haven’t been paid for two months, how can I pay?”
A growing number of Greeks are asking that question, and increasingly their anger is focusing on the proposed property tax, the one that Mrs. Firigou insists she cannot pay…
Last week, the Socialist prime minister, George Papandreou, implored Greeks to accept the measures. “There is no other path. The other path is bankruptcy, which would have heavy repercussions for every household, for every Greek citizen,” he said. “We know it will be difficult, but now is the time for the most decisive battle of all.”
But the rhetoric is failing along with the ideology.
A growing chorus of members of Mr. Papandreou’s Socialist Party is opposed to the tax, and a vote on the measure scheduled to be held in Parliament this week is widely expected to be close.
But here’s the harsh reality…
Some of the short-term unemployed will still be expected to pay the new property tax. Faced with that prospect, a woman who gave her name only as Antonia as she waited in an unemployment center in downtown Athens burst into tears, a day after losing her job as a cleaner for the Ministry of Education.
“My husband is a construction worker, he has hardly had any work this month now due to the collapse of the construction market,” she said. “My son is 20 years old and also unemployed.”
Such stories are common in Greece today. Yet even as the country bleeds, it is not meeting the deficit-reduction targets set as terms for its bailout.
Deficit reduction targets and packages, and terms of bailouts, are big and general and mind-numbingly dull terms. They conceal the human consequences.
Back in her living room, Ms. Firigou said she had not seen it coming. “No one warned us,” she said. “I have no hope, not for myself, not for my children, and I am only 50.”
At this point I’m thinking please don’t give up hope. There’s always hope. And then the writer, who may have thought the same thing, adds this:
But she said some things still make her laugh. “I can’t get it into my mind that my life is such a mess,” she said. “It’s a joke.”
It’s important to laugh. Life gets entangled, but it is precious, and so is family. That is universally true. The global economic calamity will turn on the ability to see crisis as opportunity and build on human strengths and ingenuity. If it takes near-ruin to rebuild, so be it. ‘Be not afraid.’