The effects of fiscal austerity are on full display in Athens, Greece.
It’s three in the morning as the municipal trash truck eases down a car-lined street. For most of the block it has just enough room to get through, but at one point a waiting taxi driver has to be persuaded to move his vehicle out of the way. There is no automated pick up of barrels. Indeed the trash isn’t in barrels; the two assistants pick up bags, empty boxes, cartons and loose trash, and toss them in the back of the truck.
In Athens, Greece, at least on this particular night, the trash is being picked up. It’s one of the most basic — and taken-for-granted — of governmental services. The city would become a very unpleasant place to be in short order if this service fell apart.
The signs of crisis
What does a falling-apart society look like? Can you see it in the early stages of decay? In Athens, it isn’t obvious at first glance. Taxis, many of them Mercedes, are still on the prowl. The pedestrians still cruise the mid- and high-end shops on Ermou street. Businesses are still open, tourist sites still running.
But there are signs of change. There are fewer street vendors than before, and specifically fewer people of color. Greece’s massively long coastline has made it a target for undocumented immigration in recent years, and in Athens many of these workers fell into street vending: walking around with a rack of sunglasses, or sitting on the pavement with children’s toys, or holding a few bottles of water for sale.
Such vending was always illegal, but it used to be tolerated. Now the vendors have mostly vanished, either because it wasn’t profitable any longer, or because of one of the police sweeps aimed at clearing them out. (A third cause — persecution by the far right — is a topic for another article.)
There certainly is an increased police presence. They are all over the tourist areas, riding two-up on motor bikes, going about in little squad cars. Always in groups, they sit or stand at street corners. That might feel intrusive, but the police mostly just chat with each other and are ignored.
There are other signs of life surrendering to despair.
Suicide rates continue to soar
Most of us, most of the time, cannot imagine why someone would want to take their life. We can find it acceptable for those with a terminal, degenerative illness to do so, but in that case there can seem something noble about rejecting a life that isn’t a life. Most cases of suicide we tend to attribute to mental issues.
Greece suicide rates continue to soar. Already elevated in 2009 and 2010 compared with the years before the economic crisis, 2011 brought another increase, by over 25% compared with 2010. The number of women committing suicide is reported to have doubled. (The numbers given by various sources don’t always agree with each other, and Greece’s suicide rate may actually still be lower than the United States. Suicides in the U.S. have also risen, but the trend seems to predate the start of the economic crisis.)
A number of Greeks have taken their lives publicly. The retired pharmacist who shot himself in the city center — within sight of the parliament — in April last year, attracted world attention, at least momentarily. Others, who have jumped onto public streets or left notes intended to be shared beyond their family, attracted less attention.
Such public explosion of pent-up despair is not particularly Greek. There used to be a joke to the effect that there were no psychiatrists anywhere in Greece. What would they do? Greeks never repress anything, goes the conventional wisdom. And indeed, Greeks used to have one of the lowest suicide rates in the developed world.
In the past, the intense social fabric of family and neighbors would have meant that people would know who was suffering, and one could return to the village or find a job with a friend of a friend. But when everyone is suffering, there is no one to turn to.
The austerity program imposed on Greece required the slashing of pensions for people already retired. That was the cause mentioned by the pharmacist in his suicide note. He added:
“Because my age does not give me the possibility for a dynamic reaction (without meaning that if a Greek would grab the Kalashnikov, I wouldn’t be the second one [to grab one]), I see no other solution than the decent end before I start searching in the garbage for food.”
The exact cause of any suicide is difficult to prove, but it is widely reported here that economic destitution is a significant factor behind the growing trend.
Unraveling, selling off, going out of business
It’s almost as though the country has resigned itself to its own dissolution. The figures of 27% unemployment and 55% youth unemployment are often cited. But behind those numbers are stories of workers not being paid and of buildings not being maintained. Two English-language papers have gone under in the last year. And some of the Mercedes taxis are looking rather battered.
“We are selling the country off, floor by floor,” one Greek comments, referring to a company staying in business only by selling pieces of its own organization. “We have to put politics behind us and look ahead,” a nervous businesswoman says when asked how the country is doing; the question has made her uncomfortable. She answers another question about the state of business this year by speaking of how next year will be better.
Any community requires a notion of trust that certain things be done. You can rely on the knowledge that the trash will get picked up, that police will come when called — and that a government promise to protect your bank deposits will be kept.
Cyprus is part of Greek identity. The Cypriot banking crisis, now off the front pages, also threatened to destroy one of the key aspects of the financial safety net: the insurance of small depositors. Guaranteed by the FDIC, this program is widely credited with ending bank runs in the United States. Even though Cypriot small depositors didn’t pay in the end, this near-miss sent a very strong shock, telling people that even the most basic of functions cannot be relied upon.
Perhaps part of the social fabric also involves a respect for one’s own heritage and the image it projects to others. Athens is now covered in graffiti, a new development hated by many. But it’s not gang-related at all. Graffiti is political (with contributions coming from across the spectrum, from the far left to the far right), personal (“I love ____”) and artistic expression. But it is taken as symbolizing a lack of care, a self-indulgence of the individual at the expense of the common good.
Building a future
The papers report on the ongoing struggle to implement reform of the tax code. Tax avoidance is epidemic, and not just by the wealthy. Reform efforts show small successes, but that they show any success at all is a new situation. Volunteerism has also significantly increased over recent years.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman repeatedly warned that an economic crisis is not over when people go back to work. People ran down their assets and postponed key life steps, and it will take years, maybe decades, to get back to where they were. And in the meantime, people got older, and their available options got smaller.
It is possible that the crushing austerity will also be accompanied by beneficial changes: a more universal and fair tax code, a broader civic spirit. But as it stands, the cost is enormous.