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!

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a new form of contraception in Greece

I wouldn’t have written about this topic, except that I saw it on the TV news this morning so I guess it’s fair game… and anyway, I know that I’m not alone.

We are among the new Greek childless.  A growing group of Greeks in their 30s who are choosing not to have children, because, as I heard on the news this morning, having a child would be catastrophic for their family.  There is no ‘welfare’ to speak of here, so having children is very risky.  What happens to the child if you can’t feed it, clothe it, and house it?

With 29% of Greeks between the ages 25 and 34 unemployed, the cost of supporting a basically healthy pregnancy is out of reach for many.  That’s not even taking into consideration the cost of things the baby would need after its birth, like clothing, or want, like a car seat or toys.

I’ve heard many Americans say “every child is a blessing.”  In Greece, where almost 30% of children already live in poverty, having a baby can be considered irresponsible, if not actually cruel, for many married couples.   The Greek economic crisis has become the new form of contraception in Greece.

From a February 8, 2012 article in the English-language newspaper Athens News:

 In Greece, the percentage of children up to 17 years old living in poverty was 28.7 percent, in the 18-64 age group the poverty rate was 27.7 percent and in the 65-plus age group the poverty rate was 26.7 percent.

However, what the article doesn’t mention, but I think is very important to note:  that statistic reflects the situation in 2010 – before the Greek economic crisis hit most Greeks.  Right now, what is the percentage of children living in poverty?

In 2010, we didn’t hear about children fainting from hunger in their classrooms.  In 2011, we heard about them.  In 2012, they’re not even newsworthy anymore.  So to say that 28.7% of Greek children are living in poverty in 2012 is clearly wishful thinking.  The percentage should be far higher.

How do you contemplate a pregnancy in a situation like that?  Even those who can afford it now can’t be sure they can afford it nine months from now.

Many people like to say that all babies need is love.  I’ve never had one, but don’t they also need food, warmth in the winter, clothing, something to stimulate their brain development, and medical care?  And then there are the babies that might need some kind of special care or special diet for whatever reason.

So I think it makes a lot of sense that Greek families like us are turning away from the idea of having children.

But is this a good long term solution?  On the list of countries by fertility rate, Greece ranked at 1.37 children per woman (i.e., per couple) before the crisis.  That’s clearly below the “replacement rate,” where a man and woman have two children to replace themselves.  (Technically the replacement rate is actually considered to be 2.1, to account for the people who die before they reach reproductive age.)    The United States eeks out a replacement rate at 2.06 children per woman.  It will probably surprise no one that 33 out of the bottom 41 countries are located in Europe.  (The overall world average is 2.55 children per woman, by the way.)

Greece has struggled with the so-called Demographic Problem for years.  Greek women tend to have children later in life, and to have fewer of them.  The sibling experience is becoming rare.   The population is aging – in a country with a traditionally long lifespan – and pensions have been cut dramatically due to the crisis.  Only about 40% of Greeks are employed based on the statistics that came out yesterday, due to severe unemployment across the country – many Greeks of productive age are reliant on their retired parents’ pension to survive.

One of the many times that they cut the education budget, the explanation was given:  “Greeks aren’t having very many children, so there’s no need to have so many schools and teachers.”  That’s the official government line on it:  you’re not having children, so we’re not going to invest in education.  

Already the media has dubbed Greeks in the 20-30 age group as the “Lost Generation.”   What should we call the whole generation of theoretical Greeks who will likely never be conceived at all, because of the crisis?

You can pick your talking points with the Greek crisis:  unemployment, hunger, lack of competitiveness, breakdown in social institutions, whatever you like.  But how to talk about this black hole that is pulling Greece and the Greeks into inexistence?

We can talk about it all we want… but when S and I talk about the future, having our own children isn’t part of that future.

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surviving the new unemployment

As many of you know, half of Greeks under 25 who wish to be employed are unemployed; and general unemployment (official – still receiving Unemployment Benefits) is over 20%.  [Edit March 8, 2012 to add:  the official unemployment statistic for December, 2011 was released today.  21% of Greeks are unemployed, which is a new record.]  That number of course doesn’t include people looking for work for the first time, people who are underemployed, the many, many Greeks who worked for employers who don’t insure them (and who are much, much more likely to be fired, because they have no protection from laws, unions, contracts, or anything else – this is particularly an issue in the construction and tourism industries), or the many Greek small and very small business owners whose businesses have closed; as far as the “true number” goes, it’s anyone’s guess.

Today, the government announced that the new Unemployment Benefit is 359 euros per month.

The explanation for the reduction was that, because the minimum wage and non-minimum wage scales were both reduced by 22%, it was only fair that unemployment be reduced by 22% as well.  The logic was that if unemployment and minimum wage were the same, there would be no motivation for someone to look for work in an economy with 20%+ unemployment.

Although there was much discussion about making exceptions for some people who were in high ‘at-risk’ categories (like people with several children or whatever), ultimately they decided not to make any exceptions.

So, 359 euros…

It’s comforting to me to know that if S loses his job (they have agreed to fire 150,000 public sector workers in the next couple of years), with his unemployment, he could pay our rent and have nine whole euros left over for utilities and food!  With that, we wouldn’t be able to have electricity or running water, but we could buy a gallon of whole milk (3.40), two kilos of white pasta (1.80), ten medium eggs (1.41), and five kilos of potatoes (2.40).  Actually, I’d be one penny over, but I’m sure the supermarket would look the other way.  Of course, I wouldn’t be able to cook the pasta or the potatoes.  This is why a solar cooker is so important.  It means eating on cold or overcast days would not be possible but, at least outside the winter months, most days are sunny enough to get a solar cooker to boil water, which is all you need for potatoes and pasta.  Eggs can be eaten raw.  You might say – what about fresh vegetables?  You can pick edible weeds – although, living in the city, we’d have to walk at least an hour for those, and there’s no guarantee that you’d find any.  They should be boiled as well, to be safe.

The foods listed above (milk, pasta, eggs, and potatoes) come to a total of 14,473 calories, or 241 calories per day for each of us.  That’s about 10% of what we need to stay the same weight, but a good 25% of what we need to stay alive.

Without running water, and without money for water, and in a country with very low rainfall, you could collect water from a city fountain, a river, pond, lake, etc.  If you live close to the sea, you could collect sea water and distill it using solar power alone.

(Of course, most unemployed people move in with relatives to stretch their money further.  If your parents are living and can take you in, that’s an option; or maybe you have a sibling, cousin, aunt or uncle, or friend who has extra space and is willing to take you in.  But it’s important to note that not everyone has that option – especially when so many people are out of work already.)

This is why it’s so important – while you have a job – to stockpile food, water, medicine, and household supplies.  It’s good to have solar solutions for various things (cooking, water distillation) and know how to use them.  It’s a good idea to learn how to use drugs and medical paraphenalia yourself so you don’t have to rely on doctors or hospitals if they’re not accessible to you at your income level.  This is also why it’s so important not to have debt:  most people agree that credit card debt is for suckers, but many people think a mortgage is ‘safe debt’ because laws are in place to prevent people from immediately losing their homes to foreclosure if they miss a few payments – but those laws are changing.  In Greece, laws protecting struggling homeowners expired and were not renewed.  Unemployed people with mortgages are at extreme risk of homelessness.  I predict that we will see a new spike in homelessness in Greece with the expiration of foreclosure protection laws.

Do I think S will lose his job?  It’s hard to say.  I believe that he’s the best, of course (I’m his wife, after all) – and luckily his work superiors enthusiastically agree with this – one of his superiors told me that a teacher like S comes along “once in a lifetime.”  But, and this is a really big ‘but,’ public sector firings have not been based – at any point – on productivity or the quality of a worker, but only on ‘horizontal’ criteria like ‘the birthdate of a worker.’  He works in a field – teaching – that can be eliminated if the government needs to cut expenses further.  After all, a teacher in every classroom – and schools altogether – can be replaced by a television channel for each grade level, with the students staying home and only one teacher needed for each grade level and subject, for the entire country.    (This is not my idea, by the way!)

And we don’t even have to go that far.  It would only take the stroke of a pen to eliminate over half the teaching jobs in Greece by eliminating entire courses and fields from the curriculum.  Who needs classes in health & physical education, art, music, environmental science & geology, advanced math, foreign languages, computers & technology, ….  You get the idea.  A school that only teaches Greek, basic math and science, history, and religion (lest the Church get upset) and sends the kids home by 11am – what a huge discount for the government!

Do I believe it will happen?  No, I don’t.  But I didn’t believe a lot of the other things that have already happened, so I eat humble pie and prepare for the worst.  If you live in Greece, I urge you to consider doing the same.  Remember:  death is 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water, 3 weeks without food (3 months if you sleep the whole time):  secure your water and food security as soon as you are able to.

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Water:  please just trust me on this one…
Frugality, eclipsed