Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who’s led a privileged life, has been touting what he calls a burgeoning “success story,” predicting a recovery of the economy from a crushing crisis, with a deep recession in its seventh year.
He points to economic indicators from the Finance Ministry and people who think statistics tell the story. His biggest trump card is a primary surplus that could be anywhere from 1.5-2.9 billion euros ($2.07-$4 billion) although it doesn’t include interest on $430 billion in debt, the cost of running Greek cities and towns, state enterprises, social security and some military expenditures.
Using that criteria, I have a primary surplus too, unless you count my mortgage, credit cards, loans, gas, oil, maintenance, food, utility bills and living expenses, but that doesn’t leave me with anything left to take to the bank.
He also says Greece has a surplus in its current accounts, consisting of the balance of trade, net factor income (earnings on foreign investments minus payments made to foreign investors) and cash transfers, although exports are far off pace.
Still, these are the kind of arguments that appeal to economists, finance ministers and prime ministers who can’t balance a checkbook and have never had a deficit in their lives, unlike workers, pensioners and the poor who pay taxes and know how to save pennies at the end of a pay period so they can buy milk and bread.
Samaras, the New Democracy Capitalist party leader has, like former premier and previous PASOK Anti-Socialist leader George Papandreou, imposed crushing austerity measures on orders of the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) which put up 240 billion euros ($330.7 billion) in bailouts that run out this year.
Emboldened by the primary surplus, he has dug in his heels and refused to admit there may be a gap in the budget and is sticking to his promise of not implementing any more pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions, knowing that if he did, he and New Democracy would go the way of PASOK, which is floundering at 3-5 percent in the polls.
So with crucial elections looming in May for Greek municipalities and the European Parliament, with polls showing New Democracy is behind the anti-austerity major opposition party Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), Samaras is trying to buy the results by pulling out statistics. Like all politicians, he knows people forget what’s said almost as soon as it’s said.
Case in point: he has been saying he would return 70 percent of the primary surplus to low-income pensioners, the military, police and emergency services personnel as austerity victims. They are, of course, key to his core constituency, i.e. voters.
Here’s the rub: 70 percent of 1.5 billion is 1.05 billion euros, but in another chest-beating speech announcing his greatness, Samaras said 500 million euros would be given back and no one pointed out that’s less than half he promised.
Sometimes the numbers work against you too. He said that money would go to five million deserving Greeks – which works out to 500 euros per person, which isn’t going to be such a success story for them, especially when the government is set to give banks another 6.4 billion euros ($8.84 billion) on top of a previous 41 billion ($56.6 billion).
Since when do banks count as people? How many bankers do you know who have to look in the glove compartments of their 14-year-old cars for change to buy a souvlaki?
This is just a tit-for-tat game in which the banks gave New Democracy and PASOK 250 million euros ($345.5 million) in loans they don’t have to repay and the government gives them back 256 times the money in return.
The government says other key indicators are good: consumer confidence is up (it couldn’t go down any more than it was); car sales are growing (from disastrous numbers); building permits are up 70 percent (from essentially a cessation of construction) and the real ace-in-the-hole, a likely second straight year of tourism, no thanks to a government which didn’t promote the country’s best assets.
Here’s some of the numbers he doesn’t talk about because it doesn’t fit his success story, which is pretty good if you’re on a yacht but not if you’re trying to scrape by while politicians and the rich prosper:
The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) says 18 percent of Greeks are living in poverty
The record unemployment rate is at 27.5 percent, 57 percent for those under 25, and 1,363,137 don’t have a job. That doesn’t include people whose one-year benefits of 360 euros, about $500 per month, expired. That’s before taxes because Greece taxes the poor, but not the rich
The OECD estimated that in the last six years, total spending on social protection and health care fell 18 percent in Greece, compared to a 14 percent increase in other European countries
In 2010, families in the 30 percent bracket of the lowest incomes received 34 percent less than average families – while the wealthiest households got 32 percent more
As Burt Lancaster’s character J. J. Hunsecker said in the great film Sweet Smell of Success: “I often wish I were dead and wore a hearing aid. With a simple flick of a switch, I could shut out the greedy murmur of little men.”