the TV told me to be happy that we have a government again

I admit it. I’ve been hiding under a Cyclopean rock.  I started this blog because I wanted it to be a positive, upbeat place, and positive and upbeat are not great words to describe me these past few weeks.

Greece has a government now. A government almost identical to the government it has had for the past several years decades. Is there a reason why things should have changed? Is there a logical, common sense reason why voters might have chosen a different party to form a government – a party that has not been the direct and foremost cause of the domestic factors leading to the crisis? Apparently the answer to these questions is “no, we’re happy with those parties. They represent us well. We trust them. Their leaders are honest, ethical, above corruption, and clearly work for the best interests of the Greek people.”

I don’t have the right to vote in Greece, so at least I am spared the additional frustration that voters for other parties feel, of having cast their vote into the black hole of New Pasocracy.

As a permanent resident, tax-payer, and lover of Greece, however, I share in the same frustrations that most people, everywhere on the political spectrum, feel: the quaintness of voting in a political realm when decisions are being made, just up above, in the banking realm.

And so Greece has sworn in a prime minister who has pledged to continue to do everything exactly as before, when everything before failed comically. It’s been reported that his top pick for the all-important Minister of Finance is the president of Greece’s largest private bank. The government was formed by a coalition with (whom else?) PASOK, and with the small Democratic Left party, a party that serves very little purpose except to absorb the anger that voters felt against the government and then collaborating with the government, essentially nullifying the “protest vote” that they campaigned for. What does a coalition with PASOK and Democratic Left mean? That some members of PASOK and Democratic Left will be in cabinet positions… just not any of the members that anyone actually voted for; the members will be unelected party members. Even the ND cabinet members will be – it has been reported – so called “technocrats,” a Greek word that means “rule by experts” (i.e., unelected bankers and the like).

ND and PASOK campaigned, and came to power, on the platform of “renegotiating the agreement with the Troika.” While the campaign was going on, European political leaders and the German press sent constant inappropriate messages toward Greek voters, telling them that they must vote for these parties. (Inappropriate because voting in a national election is a domestic matter.) But as soon as the government was formed, the message changed dramatically: “no renegotiation is possible. You can ask all you want, but the answer is ‘no’.”

The nice thing about the campaign season, despite the annoying ads, is that people say nice things. Candidates make promises that people want to hear. Bad stuff is put on hold. But now the elections are over and, for the first time in two months, they’ve started again with the constant news reports on the new austerity measures starting in July. S is expecting another pay cut. We’ve lost our prescription drug coverage, but the number removed from the paycheck for health insurance hasn’t gone down at all. We just found out how much we owe (yes, owe – for the first time in our entire lives, we owe) for income tax – and it’s a four digit number.  A kind of large four digit number.  Every last one of those four digits is more than we can afford. But we have to pay it, because if we don’t, we get fined even more. And eventually thrown in jail.  [We owe even though we made much less than the year before.  It’s because the standard deduction was reduced to much less than half of what it was before, and pretty much all tax write-offs and credits were eliminated; there are also several new taxes that were added.  Everyone in Greece is dealing with this same thing right now.]

I have nothing but disgust and distrust for the new government. Their campaign tactics repulsed me. The demography of their voters (retirees for the most part) doesn’t impress me. They are proven failures, every one of them. There is no hope for Greece with this government. False hope would have been better than no hope.

It might seem hard to believe that in Greece in 2012, people would actually vote for “politics as usual,” but it isn’t. There are two explanations: 1) the Greek public was the victim of a campaign of terror launched by the old political parties, the European political and banking community, and the mass media (although only the media were really honest about doing it); and 2) old people tend to be conservative. Greece has a lot of old people.

I did, however, see one small glimmer of hope. I have a friend in Thessaloniki who voted (like everyone in my generation) for Syriza. So did his two brothers. His parents – retired now, one from coal mining and one from working in a factory, who went to Germany to find work after the war when Greece was destroyed but Germany was booming, and who have remained illiterate throughout their lives – have voted for ND in every election since ND was formed, for reasons that they themselves cannot articulate. This year, for the first time ever, they didn’t. They couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a different party, but they decided to stay home. “This is your future… you have to decide,” my friend’s father told him. Despite this gesture, Thessaloniki – due to a last-minute terror campaign by a local ND politician – experienced a massive increase in elderly voting, and was the only major city in Greece that voted for ND – even after voting for Syriza in May.

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news bites from Greece

Have you been keeping up with the news in Greece?  I’ll fill you in on some of the stories that are playing big here.

– This morning on a TV talk show, the representatives of several political parties were debating/discussing, as happens constantly on Greek TV.  All very unremarkable, until the representative of the fascist/neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, Mr. Ilias Kasidiaris, started cursing Ms. Liana Kanelli, the representative of the Communist Party; then Ms. Rena Dourou, the representative of Syriza, made a reference to the pending criminal charges (robbery, illegal weapons possession, etc.) against Mr. Kasidiaris – he reacted by throwing water at Ms. Dourou.  When Ms. Kanelli objected, saying “get out of here,” he turned on her and beat her up – literally – punching her multiple times in the face, all on camera.  Then he took off.

The police are looking for him, with a warrant for his arrest for assault.   The news reports are repeating that Mr. Kasidiaris can be arrested, because he is only a candidate for Parliament at the moment, and is not currently covered by Parliamentary Asylum.  (However, it should be noted that Parliamentary Asylum protects members of Parliament from being charged with white collar crime, not assault, so the media is being irresponsible on this point.)

You can see the video here.  The Golden Dawn representative is the man in the lower left who is talking at the beginning.

Unemployment numbers were just announced for March 2012:  21.9%, a new record.

– A new movement has started in Greece.  If you have a relative who has recently died of cancer, turn in their leftover chemotherapy drugs because there are a lot of cancer patients who can’t get chemotherapy anymore.   Many sick people – chronically and acutely – are unable to find the drugs they were prescribed at any pharmacy or hospital – they simply aren’t available at any price.  And those who can locate them, despite those drugs being covered by the insurance that they have paid for, must pay cash in full, on the spot – “or die,” as they remind us on the news.

– The new tax laws require that any homeless person, living on the street, with €0.00 income for tax year 2011, eating from trash cans, handouts, and free Church soup kitchens, and no personal possessions (property, automobile, etc.), will owe €116.25 for income taxes for 2011.  If that money is not paid, the tax evader can go to prison.  In Greece, income taxes are determined based on what it costs to live in Greece – and only secondarily on what your employer reports that you made.  If you make less than what the government thinks it costs to live in Greece, you are charged the tax rate for the “cost of living,” not your actual income. This has the effect of taxing the very, very poorest people at a higher percentage rate than the wealthiest Greeks – in fact, at a rate far over 100% of their income.

– 70% of Greeks will owe taxes this year, instead of getting a tax refund – but even so, there is a rumor circulating that those who are owed a tax refund won’t be receiving it.  Time will tell….

– One of the new parties, Creativity Again, recently joined up with Action, a like-minded party led by a long-time politician.  Creativity Again sought votes under the slogan “Politics Without Politicians.”  The party is starting to implode as members are turning on each other. It was considered almost certain that Creativity Again-Action would get the 3% minimum vote to get into Greek Parliament but that is now looking unlikely.

– Remember the HIV-positive prostitute scandal that was used by the government to try to deflect attention from the economy?  It has been reported that 15 of the men who were their customers and asked to be tested have been found HIV positive.  Furthermore, several of the illegal brothels that were closed down during that scandal have reopened.

– A political commercial for New Democracy has caused a huge stir throughout the country.  The ad is here:

In the ad, a 4th grade (my guess) teacher is sitting at his desk while a student is standing at the blackboard with a pointer.  The teacher has written the names of several European countries on the board.  He reads off the names while the student points to them.  “Portugal, Spain, France… these countries are in the Eurozone.”  A wise and world-weary little girl asks, “And Greece?  Why isn’t Greece in the Eurozone?”  The teacher can’t answer as he struggles with his internal feelings of guilt and despair.  The girl insists.  The camera shows the accusatory faces of other children.  The ad ends with script reading “We don’t play with our children’s future.  Greece needs a responsible proposal.  We move forward – Responsibly – Determined.  New Democracy.”

The ad was panned from every direction.  Terrorizing people for votes.  Exploiting innocent children to play a political game.  Showing the teacher – who, under austerity, would have lost about half his income – as feeling guilty for his vote, presumably for Syriza (all of this is implied of course).  Saying nothing about the New Democracy program at all.  It is widely believed that this ad will work against New Democracy in the upcoming election.  New Democracy seems to suffer from very poor judgment, or poor ‘market research’ at least, in this election.

… and that’s what’s happening here in Greece these days!  I don’t know how much of this made it onto the international news, so… maybe you heard it here first!

supermarket politicians

Tonight I stayed up late to watch a program on TV that I was very much anticipating.  Alpha channel, which is one of the less serious channels, but has recently in the past month or so tried to realign itself as a serious/newsy channel, has in so doing chosen to focus on the more “populist” issues.  At this point, the most populist issue in Greece is probably the high cost of food in the supermarket.  It’s easy to talk about the euro currency, illegal immigration, and unemployment, but what really matters to people is if they can get spaghetti on the table for dinner tonight.  With that in mind, they came up with the idea to ask two average moms to share their experiences at the supermarket: how much they have to spend, what they need to buy to get through the week – and then ask the representatives of four political parties – four candidates for Parliament – to shop for those items with €50.

So we meet Liana, a mom of an 8 year old and an 12 year old, who makes €360 per month as a cleaner; her rent and utilities alone are over €400/month; and Anna Georganta, a mom of three who has been unemployed for some time (and no longer receiving benefits but continuing to search for work) and whose husband is, like mine, an employee of the Greek government; he was making €160 per month for the past six months but recently started making €400 per month.  They don’t have €50/week to spend on food – Anna says she goes to the supermarket once per month and spends about €70 – but they decided to give the politicians a break and give them the €50 that studies say the “average Greek” has to spend on food and household goods for a family of four, per week.  Anna got teary-eyed when she talked about how lucky she felt that her children went to a school that provided snacks to the children, a new and very rare concept in a country where schools don’t serve meals – in Anna’s children’s school, they started serving snacks after they had problems with hungry children passing out in class.

The list was not luxurious.  There were no eggs, meat, or fruit – items well out of reach of the average Greek, if that €50 figure is correct.  It included basics like potatoes, pasta, tomatoes, cucumbers, condensed milk, flour, oil, and soap.   (Why condensed milk?  Apparently they water it way down for their kids.  I didn’t know about this trick.  I don’t drink milk myself or I would try it!)

New Democracy was represented by the weepy Adonis Georgiadis, who mentioned several times that he felt personally ashamed for the state of these moms.  At one point he told Liana that she, and others like her, were today’s heroes.   Her bitter response was “I don’t know if we’re heroes… or if you’ve turned us into this.”  He seemed – was it real? or just an act? – to be deeply affected by the exercise.  He seemed overwhelmed by the supermarket itself, as if shopping while mentally keeping a budget was too much for him.

PASOK was represented by Katerina Batseli, former Minister of Agriculture, a frowning woman who made it clear from the first moment that this would be very easy for her, because she does the shopping for her family and this is all a load of propaganda anyway.  She was the only one who ignored the directions to buy the things on the list, and just bought the stuff that she wanted to buy.  The moms were not impressed – they estimated that her shopping would feed their families for three days, when the assignment was for seven days.  She seemed shocked when the moms said that they needed to be completely vegetarian; she seemed to think that a chicken, at the very least, was necessary.  She came off as having absolutely no clue, and was immensely unlikeable.  She was a very bad choice; even Georgiadis, who is practically a caricature of himself, was much more likeable.

The Ecologist Greens were represented by Ioanna Kontouli, who appears to be the only member of that party who ever appears in public, and who mentioned several times that her own monthly salary is €1300, but that any day that could be reduced to the amount that Anna and Liana live on.  She ended up in tears, group-hugging the moms and promising to exchange phone numbers so that they could set up a currency-free barter system to feed the moms and kids of Greece.  The look on Anna’s face seemed to say “how do I tell her that we don’t have a telephone number to give her?”

The Independent Greeks party were represented by the actor Pavlos Kontogiannidis, the only one who seemed to find humor in the situation of nice people whose children were obviously going hungry.  Anna had mentioned during the intro that she can’t shop with her children, because she doesn’t want them to see all the food they can’t have, and she can’t get them the things they want, like chocolate, because that means she can’t afford pasta, and chocolate won’t keep them full.  So Kontogiannidis bought some chocolate bars for her kids, saying that he would pay for them out of his own pocket.  Anna had the grace not to say anything, but I wanted to reach through the television screen and choke him.

After the shopping trip, where they all made it through spending €50 plus or minus €10, they all convened for a typical political discussion panel back at the studio with, surprise, Anna the mom in attendance.

The journalist leading the panel asked the politicians why, when salaries have been reduced sometimes to a quarter or a fifth of what they were before, when we haven’t had an increase in sales tax in the past year, prices on food and household goods – supermarket stuff – have gone up, not down.  Only Ms. Batseli tried to answer – she tried to give an economic explanation, blaming increases in the price of fuel, various taxes, including business and sales tax, and other “factors.”  When she was called out on the issue of cartels, which have a long history of price fixing in Greece, she – as former minister of agriculture and therefore the person in charge of breaking up the cartels – didn’t have anything to say.

While the politicians bickered, Anna the mom came across as the most balanced individual in the room – she was dignified and remarkably articulate, staying on topic while appearing knowledgeable on political and economic issues.  She wasn’t angry, desperate, or even irritated with the politicians – even when talking about the pain involved in paying her income taxes this year.  One almost got the feeling that she was used to listening to a bunch of people arguing with each other – maybe her three children prepared her for the panel.

Ms. Kontouli brought up the idea of barter again on the panel, suggesting that she as an engineer could offer her services in exchange for, say, Anna to clean her house.  Ms. Batseli cut her off to suggest that if that happened, sales tax would have to be extremely high to cover the fact that fewer goods would be taxed, and tax revenue would be extremely low.

Of course, the discussion fell apart into the usual bickering and yelling over each other that characterizes every political panel on Greek television since the beginning of time.  Anna sat quietly on the end and watched, head cocked to the side, while they argued over ideological minutiae, blameshifting, off-topic issues like the rate that Spain was able to borrow money today, and lines like “you dare to point your finger at me?”

Anna, mom of three, had the last word, when asked what she expected for the future:  “I’d like to live like a human being.”

Greek election and the IMF

Greece is still reeling from the recent interview of Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, published in the Guardian on Friday.  In the interview, Lagarde is asked if she’s telling Greece that it’s “payback time,” to which she replies “that’s right.”  She now famously compares crisis-stricken Greece to villages in Niger where children only get two hours of school per day and share “one chair for the three of them.”  In her comparison, she says she has more sympathy for Niger because “I think they need even more help than the people in Athens.”

Fair enough.  It would be hard to argue that point – after all, who can forget the food crisis in Niger a few years ago which killed thousands, and again in 2010?  But Lagarde’s statement about Niger, “I have them in my mind all the time,” begs the question:  what does Lagarde’s organization, the International Monetary Fund, have to do with Niger anyway?

Although it can be hard to find good information about the food crises in Niger, the BBC reported (and it is generally agreed) that the main cause of the 2005 food crisis (I think we’re not supposed to use the loaded word “famine”) was not crop failure, locusts, or drought, but rather the high cost of food.  Niger is the poorest country in the world, so when neighboring Nigeria pays higher prices for food, Niger exports its food, reducing local food supply and driving up prices.  If it didn’t export food, Niger – even at the worst of the crisis – would have been able to feed its people without international aid.

But why would Nigeria pay higher prices for food?  Nigeria itself was also under the IMF and due to IMF imposed structural reforms, their food prices had skyrocketed.  Although this affected Niger the most, other countries, including Cameroon and the Ivory Coast exported more food than usual to Nigeria.

Niger, like Greece, had a corrupt public health care system which provided doctors, nurses, and hospital care for children and adults.  The IMF required Niger to change to a privatized health care system under the austerity measures program.  Now, according to the BBC:

It has a policy, encouraged by the Western world, of privatised health care so that it costs $14 (£8) for a mother to get a baby a medical consultation. That means almost no-one in the country can afford to see a nurse or a doctor.

It’s hard to think of a more effective way of reducing health care costs for the country – with international aid organizations picking up the tab for what health care there is, the government would no longer have direct health costs to pay for.  This is one of the policies that the IMF uses in Niger that it has been trying to get in place in Greece.  This week, one of the biggest news stories in Greece is the flow of Greek doctors – trained at Greek taxpayer expense at Greek universities where they didn’t pay tuition – to work in Germany, where there aren’t enough doctors.

Since the start of the crisis in Greece, the sales tax (VAT) has been increased several times, with goods such as milk and flour being taxed higher than ever before.  The price of electricity has gone up sharply, and I’m not even talking about the new taxes added to the electricity bill.

Johanne Sekkenes… believes that the IMF and EU pressed too hard to implement a structural adjustment programme. … Under the letter of intent signed between the IMF and the government, [they] agreed to extend VAT to milk, sugar and wheat flour, and reduce VAT exemptions on water and electricity consumption.

The quote above isn’t about Greece – it’s about Niger.  Niger – despite having reserves of uranium and gold – owed a lot of money, so they called in the IMF, which, in exchange for agreeing to lend them money, forced them to sign on to a raft of austerity measures.  Included in these was a measure against allowing the distribution of free food aid to starving people, in order to keep food prices high and not “flood the market” so to speak, which would cause food prices to come down.  The same logic was applied to sell off the government’s food reserves.  (At the time, the IMF claimed that these reports are overstated and/or misleading.)

The strongly anti-IMF WSWS says:

After he was elected to a second term last December [2004], President Mamadou Tandja imposed a 19 percent VAT on basic foodstuffs at the behest of the IMF. Part of the same economic package involved the abolition of emergency grain reserves. The tax was imposed despite the fact that the price of basic foods has risen between 75 and 89 percent over the last five years. At the same time, the sale price of livestock—the main income of the country’s nomadic herders—has fallen by 25 percent.

Traditionally, the IMF has pushed governments to privatize – i.e., to sell things owned by the people as a whole, and force the government to give the money from the sale to the IMF to pay down loans.  That’s because the IMF works in countries that are cash-strapped, and their austerity philosophy leads to the destitution of the people.  Once the people are destitute, there is not much tax revenue, so the best way for the government to pay back IMF loans is to sell off public services, land, and resources.  This month, Greek tax revenues are 30% below what they’re “supposed to be.”  While it’s easy for Lagarde to say

“Do you know what? As far as Athens is concerned, I also think about all those people who are trying to escape tax all the time. All these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax.”

Even more than she thinks about all those now struggling to survive without jobs or public services?

“I think of them equally. And I think they should also help themselves collectively.” How? “By all paying their tax. Yeah.”

it sounds as if she doesn’t see the connection between massive salary cuts, five years of recession, and high inflation on food on the one side, and lower tax revenue on the other side.  When 60% of the shops have gone out of business in a town, business tax revenue will go down.  When a person who used to have a job now is unemployed, income tax revenue will go down.  When 90% of a person’s income goes to pay rent, electricity, and heat, sales tax revenue on food and goods will go down.

(I also wonder if she knows that Greeks’ taxes are withheld from their salaries, just like everywhere else.  S and I filed our obscene 2011 taxes yesterday.  On the news they’ve said that anyone who is owed a tax refund will be unlikely to receive it.  Does she really want to talk about the Greek tax payer right now?)

When the IMF told the government of Malawi to sell part of its grain reserve in 2002, and then thousands of Malawians died of starvation, the IMF’s response was that the Malawi government didn’t give the IMF an accurate report of how much grain they really needed.

According to the Guardian, the same media outlet that interviewed Lagarde on Friday, Malawi spent 20% of its GDP in 2002 servicing its debt – “more than it will spend on health, education and agriculture combined.”

The new agreement that Greece signed with the IMF and the EU this spring guarantees that service on its debt is Greece’s first priority – before spending money on public health, education, defense, or anything else.  It’s been reported that Greece has already used all the money they had put aside for natural disasters – we were shaken awake at 3am a few nights ago to be reminded that Greece is a very seismically active place; and who can forget the forest fires in Greece in 2007?  Not to mention the several very active volcanoes.

Anyway, I’m not here to criticize the IMF’s policies in Africa – and I’m not accusing Lagarde of lying when she claims to lose sleep over Nigerien children.  I’m just mystified that she would say those things just three weeks before the Greek election.

In the last Greek election, on May 6, the major issues were “more of the same vs. change” and “illegal immigration.”  The party in power received 13% of the vote, answering the first question, and the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party got into Parliament for the first time ever with 21 seats, answering the second.

In the new election, coming up on June 17, the major issues are shaping up to be “austerity vs. growth” and “toeing the EU/IMF line vs. national sovereignty.”  The two old parties, PASOK and New Democracy, represent the austerity and EU/IMF side, and the Syriza and Independent Greeks parties, represent growth and national sovereignty.

Recent polls are all over the place.  Some put ND ahead of Syriza, others put Syriza in front of ND.  The only thing they all have in common is that it will be a very close race.  The IMF and the EU have gone way out of their way over the past week to send the message to Greek voters that New Democracy, Syriza, and PASOK are all lying when they all say that Greece can renegotiate its terms with the EU and the IMF.  PASOK claims it can get the IMF/EU to agree to extend the terms of the pay-back by a year.  New Democracy claims it can get the IMF/EU to agree to “renegotiation of terms.”  Syriza claims it will simply trash the entire agreement.

The question for Greek voters obviously isn’t which of those three they want.  The question is which party they trust to do what the voters want.  Clearly PASOK and New Democracy know that they can’t win by saying “we want to stick to the terms of the agreement,” because that was roundly rejected in the May 6 election.  However, voters should pay attention to the voices coming from the EU and IMF.  They are claiming that they will not allow any renegotiation of any terms.  That means that PASOK and New Democracy won’t be able to do what they claim they will do.  Syriza may well do what it says – who knows.  But New Democracy, if it wins, will have to follow the terms of the agreement – that’s what Lagarde is saying.

And that’s why, I think, New Democracy and PASOK protested so loudly when Lagarde said those things.  They need for the EU/IMF to shut up for three more weeks so they can get elected and continue the austerity path.   With interviews like that, not only does she undermine the parties she wants us to vote for, but she pushes voters toward Syriza.

What on earth was Lagarde thinking?

PASOK president Evangelos Venizelos:  “Nobody should humiliate a people during a crisis and I call on Mrs Lagarde, who insulted the Greek people with her attitude, to rethink what she wanted to say.”

Lagarde’s response was heartwarming:  she clarified that when she said “all these people in Greece who are trying to escape tax” when asked about how she “demands measures she knows may mean women won’t have access to a midwife when they give birth, and patients won’t get life-saving drugs, and the elderly will die alone for lack of care,” what she really meant were rich people.

All those rich people who don’t have access to a midwife when they give birth.

 

the calm before…

It’s midnight in Greece, 24 hours before Election Day.  Finally, no more politicians, political speeches, political ads on TV.  For 24 hours before Election Day, it’s illegal in Greece for politicians to campaign, and that includes ads.

Polls have been illegal for the past 2 weeks.

It’s also illegal to sell alcohol the day before Election Day.

The point of all this is to create a day of National Quiet Thought, a day where everyone can sit down by himself, think things over, sleep on it, and then vote.

This is being called the most important Greek election since the reestablishment of democracy.  Everyone will be glued to their televisions on Sunday night to see the first exit polls and estimates.

I’m glad to see the other side of this group of political ads.  Although Greek campaign ads are never mudslinging and never attack other candidates, they can still be depressing or infuriating.  PASOK, the party in power, ran an ad up until the last minute tonight with a kindergarten teacher who has children, talking about how her salary has been reduced repeatedly and she can’t make ends meet; and with an engineer (I think) who has been out of work for two years but his mother doesn’t want him to emigrate – and these two stories are being used to support the party in power.  It’s hard to believe but it’s true.  The other parties aren’t much better:  the major opposition party, New Democracy, casts its leader in a Christlike role.

Good luck to all of us!