fresh voices from the front lines of change







The IMF has “acknowledged major mistakes” in Greece’s bailout, and admitted to seriously underestimating the severity of Greece’s downturn. Yet the Greek government continues with draconian spending cuts, in order to comply with the austerity measures based upon those  “major mistakes.”  In response, Greeks have again take to the streets, this time to protest an austerity program that threatens their very culture and identity.

Will Europe’s latest backlash against austerity finally turn the tide, or will the forces of austerity roll along with the same indifference as always?

This week, without warning, the Greek government shut down its state-run television broadcaster, ERT. The television anchor registered his outrage even as police rushed to end what would be ERT’s final broadcast.

The television anchor’s last words were flustered.

“The riot police are moving toward the transmitters to switch them off…. This is official information we have,” were the final words he uttered near midnight Tuesday.

Then the screen at Greek public broadcaster ERT went black.

The scene came just five hours after the government’s abrupt announcement that it was shutting down ERT immediately as part of cost-cutting measures.

It may be difficult for Americans to understand such an outcry over the closure of public broadcasting, because there’s no real American equivalent to Greece’s ERT. The budgetary woes of our own public broadcasting institutions hardly raises eyebrows, let alone from causing thousands to take to the streets.

For Greeks, the closure of the ERT is “cultural calamity” on the level of Britain suddenly losing the BBC.  It’s focus was not profit-making, but educating and informing the Greek public, by broadcasting programs private, for-profit networks wouldn’t touch. Founded in 1938, the ERT was also the only channel that broadcasted in remote Greek villages, with branches covering local news. It also served as a cultural lifeline to Greeks around the world.

Alas, no more.

The dramatic shutdown of ERT is the first in a series of impending closures of more public institutions, which will leave more than 2,000 public employees without jobs (ERT alone employed 2,565) by the end of the year, and 15,000 by the end of 2014.

Just this week, Greece’s unemployment rate hit a record high of 27.4 percent. That’s the highest it’s been since the 1998, which is as far back as recorded data goes. And Greece’s unemployment rate will probably break that record if current trends continue. The current rate is up from 26 percent at the end of last year, and 22.6 percent a year ago. The unemployment rate for Greek youth now stands about about 77 percent.

The closure of ERT and other Greek public institutions will not only increase the likelihood of the country’s unemployment rate going up, as former civil servants join the ranks of the unemployed. It will also add to the misery of the Greek tragedy that is austerity, as the closures and layoffs mean more Greek citizens will suffer the lack of services those public institutions and public employees have provided.

In late November 2011, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreous infuriated IMF negotiators by proposing that austerity measure be put to a popular referendum, thus giving Greek citizen’s a voice in their fate. Papandrous was quickly shown the door. Greece, the cradle of democracy, was denied a vote, and the new government agreed to a series of desperate measures to comply with the IMF’s bailout demands; among them, a 22 percent cut in the minimum wage, wage reductions, and cuts to pensions.

Within a year, those desperate measures turned Greece into a country where unemployment reached Depression-era levels, and the unemployment rate for Greek youth stood at 55 percent. Greece’s health care system was brought to its knees by a 25 percent cut in health care funding. Greek doctors reported more sick children, as HIV/AIDS and malaria made a comeback. In some cities, more than 60% of the population was unemployed, parents found themselves too poor to care for their children. Greeks faced a crime wave in their streets, as the economic crisis left many out of work, reduced available social services, and cut the number of police officers.

For all the misery it cause, austerity didn’t reduce Greece’s deficit. The latest round of bone-deep cuts, indicates that austerity still hasn’t made a dent in Greece’s deficit. Yet the Greek government has prescribed more pain, because that’s precisely what it was put in place to do by the financial elites who’ve called the shots since exercising veto power against Greek democracy.

It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that an estimated 5,000 to 13,000 Greeks gathered to protest the ERT shutdown, and thousands more joined in a general strike that reportedly threatens to bring down the conservative, austerity-backing government.

As Mariam Tabatadze wrote, we’ve been here before.

Despite overwhelming evidence, politicians and economists alike are still convinced that austerity works. Historical examples like the austerity policies put in place before Roosevelt’s famous New Deal leave little doubt that “expansionary contraction” is not beneficial during economic downturns. Even so-called austerity success stories with supposed applicability to the eurozone have been called into question: Australia and Denmark, regarded as model austerity countries, fell into crises after two years of implementing austerity policies. The only real success stories of reductions in debt have not been during downturns, but during periods of economic growth. The United States, for example, succeeded in reducing the deficit significantly under Bill Clinton, and Sweden reduced its fiscal deficit from 1994-1998 during a period of rapid GDP growth.

The bottom line is simple: none of what is going on in Europe after adopting austerity policies should be a surprise. It is just inexplicable that we have to keep reinventing the wheel and rediscovering the adverse effects of austerity in a struggle to recover from a crisis. Why can’t we tell austerity (in the words of Kelis), “might trick me once, I won’t let you trick me twice”?

Greece has seen such protests against austerity before, as has the rest of Europe, and governments have responded with indifference — and more austerity.

Will this time be different? Or will Greece continue its slow fade to black under austerity.

Stay tuned.

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