Feb 22, 2015

The end of austerity?

So Greece is trying something new. The government swept to power on promises to stop the crippling austerity regime that has not improved Greece's debt or credit rating one bit and has brought the country close to ruin.

After a bit of a stand-off, Greece and the Eurozone and the IMF reached a compromise agreement on Friday which was less than the PM wanted but enough to (just) allow him to save face and present it as the first step in an ongoing campaign to end the austerity regime.

Austerity, in 2010, seemed the natural and only solution. Greece was, in the words of George Papandreou at the time, 'on the edge of the abyss'. Successive governments over the decades had run the economy on a toxic mixture of socialism, neglect and corruption, and the mess had been steadily exacerbated by its inclusion in the Eurozone. (Greece expected a free kick - instead it lost the little control it had over its crappy economy and got pummeled).

The first time I felt angry on behalf of Greece was when some Eurozone countries suggested kicking Greece out of the Eurozone in punishment for obviously cooking the books to get in in the first place. That made me angry because, HELLO, when Greece got into the Eurozone so early and so easily everyone KNEW they had obviously cooked the books, including EVERYONE IN THE EUROZONE. The fact was Europe wanted to get all the major countries in quickly and to build up its base and power and was quite prepared to overlook the fact Greece could not possibly, under any true test, have met the economic conditions required.

The second time was when the IMF advised the UK in 2013 to go easy on austerity measures because, hmm, as it turns out, austerity is damaging; the IMF then admitted to having underestimated the damage the Greek bailout conditions would wreak on the country.

I have also felt angry on behalf of the Greek people, most of whom, like any other people, are hard working and honest and have nothing to do with the crap their governments have created.

Of course, as a non-Greek who has learned Greek, married a Greek, lived in Greece and generally been steeped in Greek culture for many years, my feelings about Greece are complicated.

During the time I lived there, I liked and admired the Greek lifestyle, but find the spontaneity and constant socializing exhausting (what do introverts do in Greece?). I liked how hard working people are in small businesses and at home, but could not fail to notice the bloated incompetence rampant in the public service. (Go to a post office, or any government department, in 1996 and you will see what I saw. Ten people behind every counter smoking cigarettes and ignoring or yelling at the public).

When we visited in 2012, the country was visibly, badly struggling, Closed shop faces were everywhere, even down at prime real estate like on waterfront strips.

But, three anecdotes:

(1) When I broke my arm at Athens Airport I was treated initially at the airport's first aid clinic, a gleaming, impressive facility massively overstaffed and under-medecined. The people were all very nice but didn't seem to have a lot to do. While we waited outside for an ambulance to take us to hospital, two of the paramedics came outside and waited with us, smoking cigarettes and chatting to us the whole time, which was almost an hour.

(2) The ambulance workers and people at the hospital all did a great job. Even the scary bone-setter who I never want to see again. The hospital was terrifying, grimly under-resourced with the air of a third-world clinic. But even so, my treatment there was good - and completely free. Even though I am not a Greek citizen and I had full travel insurance, I wasn't charged anything for the clinic treatment, the ambulance ride or the hospital treatment, nor the follow-up hospital visit one week later.

(3) I still remember the wide-eyed horror on a friend's face when we told her that in offices in Australia we all work eight-hour days. "Like Germany," she said. "You must all fall into your beds exhausted each night!"

Of course, things are not so simple under the surface. Greek office workers might start work at 8 and finish at 2, but they come home and scrub their houses from top to bottom and cook two meals a day. Oh, I mean the women of course. But also, who knows what was going on behind the scenes of the things I could see? I can admit that one day's observation of the Athens Airport clinic is not a good enough basis from which to make any observations at all. And when a country is that far down the plug hole, who's to say that hanging onto too many staff isn't better than adding to the massive unemployment?

But even so, these three things all made me think, Holy shit, Greece, no wonder you're in trouble!

But, like France attempting the 36-hour work week, it is admirable at the same time, isn't it? I love the audacity of resisting the capitalist juggernaut, at least a little. God knows, we all do work too hard and too much, and some changes would be nice.

But the problem is, much as we lament the hamster wheel of working hard to pay for things we suspect we might not quite need, there doesn't seem to be an economically sustainable way to operate otherwise.

Or is there?  In recent times, thanks to the longest, deepest global recession since the 1930s, and thanks in part to poor, poor Greece, the tide has appeared to turn against 'austerity politics'.

It will be very interesting to see what happens in four months time, in the next round of negotiations between Greece and the Eurozone.  I am sure another compromise will be found, that will allow both sides to claim a win to their constituents. And if the compromises continue, as the tide continues to turn against the punishing austerity paradigm, then perhaps we'll start to see, some steady accumulation of relief for Greece as well.

As for the photo below, I don't know where it originally came from but I got it from @Circa on Twitter and it seems just perfect for meme treatment. Caption suggestions, anyone?
I'll start:

View image on Twitter
'How long are we going to play chicken?'
'I don't know, I wasn't thinking past the election.'


  1. Good to hear some personal anecdotes and an almost insiders view. I read a couple of years ago about when a toll booth was installed on a freeway in Greece. People just drove through it and refused to pay and it was removed. Admirable really but it is an example that cuts to the core of why Greece should never have been admitted to the EU. I really feel the ball is in the court of the new PM and I am surprised at the seeming back down.

    Another anecdote from a a Greek acquaintance who recently returned from 'home' after a holiday. 'They have plenty of money in Greece. It is under their mattresses.'

    Caption, "Tell me treasurer, what would The Abbott in Australia do?"

    1. Good caption - hey what would happen if Australia and Greece just swapped governments for awhile?

  2. All very true. There is plenty of wealth in Greece but the govts have never tackled the systemic tax evasion. But working class people are not the problem there.

  3. Each country has positive and negative aspects..



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