Societal bankruptcy: Part 1, the fall of order

December 10, 2012 | Bankruptcy, Economics, Euro, Global news, Greece, Sovereign bankruptcy, Speculation

By:David A. Smith


Regimes that do not end because of war end because of money: either there is too much (hyperinflation) or there is none – and that, to judge by this Associated Press (November 1, 2012) portrait, is Greece, a society on the verge of collapse:


Greek doctors who occupied a hospital: February, 2012


Athens, Greece –  A sign taped to a wall in an Athens hospital appealed for civility from patients. “The doctors on duty have been unpaid since May,” it read, “Please respect their work.”


Five months without pay.  Why do you keep working?


Not working to protest lack of work: anti-austerity strike in Greece, November, 2012


Patients and their relatives glanced up briefly and moved on, hardened to such messages of gloom. In a country where about 1,000 people lose their jobs each day, legions more are still employed but haven’t seen a paycheck in months.


When it happens to one person, it’s a tragedy; to one thousand, it’s a statistic.  When it happens through inadvertence, it’s a tragedy; when imposed from without, it’s an outrage.


Healthcare spending has been slashed as the country struggles to reduce its debt. Public hospitals complain of shortages of everything from gauzes to surgical equipment. Pharmacies regularly go on strike or refuse to fill subsidized social security prescriptions because government funds haven’t paid them for the drugs already bought. Benefits have been slashed and hospital workers often go unpaid for months.


A frustrated Greek patient who failed to get her medication


Greek society cannot pay for all the benefits and services the Greeks have voted themselves.  In a normal society, the Greeks would vote the benefits out of existence, or would inflate their currency to devalue those benefits and revive the economy.


What used to be an anomaly has become commonplace, and those who have jobs that pay on time consider themselves the exception to the rule.


Regimes that do not end in war end in money: either there is too much, hyperinflation, or there is none.


To the casual observer, all might appear well in Athens. Traffic still hums by, restaurants and bars are open, people sip iced coffees at sunny sidewalk cafes. But scratch the surface and you find a society in free-fall, ripped apart by the most vicious financial crisis the country has seen in half a century.


Nor is the crisis done.


It has been three years since Greece’s government informed its fellow members in the 17-country group that uses the euro that its deficit was far higher than originally reported.


Of course Greece lied its way into the Euro; so did Italy, Spain, and probably France.  The currency has always been beset by prevarication.


It was the fuse that sparked financial turmoil still weighing heavily on Eurozone countries. Countless rounds of negotiations ensued as European countries and the International Monetary Fund struggled to determine how best to put a lid on the crisis and stop it spreading.


Which they have not: the crisis is worsening.


The result: Greece had to introduce stringent austerity measures in return for two international rescue loan packages worth a total of €240 billion ($313 billion), slashing salaries and pensions and hiking taxes.


Spain is being put through the same wringer, and Spain is much, much larger.


It’s for your own good


The reforms have been painful, and the country faces a sixth year of recession.


When a country must massively de-lever its obligations, inflation is the solution that doesn’t kill the economy.  This has been so throughout history.


In 1960, this became 1 new French franc


Life in Athens is often punctuated by demonstrations big and small, sometimes on a daily basis.


As in Paris, November, 2005, there is a rising level of ‘background noise,’ that dulls the populace and prepares the way for greater violence to come.


Not a stuntman: Greek riot cop on fire


Rows of shuttered shops stand between the restaurants that have managed to stay open. Vigilantes roam inner city neighborhoods, vowing to “clean up” what they claim the demoralized police have failed to do. Right-wing extremists beat migrants, anarchists beat the right-wing thugs and desperate local residents quietly cheer one side or the other as society grows increasingly polarized.


Polarized?  Or frightened and fractured?


When protesters become professional, society is in trouble


Vassilis Tsiknopoulos runs a stall at Athens’ central fish market and has been working since age 15. He used to make a tidy profit, he says, pausing to wrap red mullet in a paper cone for a customer. But families can’t afford to spend much anymore, and many restaurants have shut down.


The 38-year-old fishmonger now barely breaks even.


The fish market’s president, Spyros Korakis, says there has been a 70% drop in business over the past three years. Above the din of fish sellers shouting out prices and customers jostling for a better deal, Korakis explained how the days of big spenders were gone, with people buying ever smaller quantities and choosing cheaper fish.


Ordinarily, a nation inflates its way out of this situation.  Inflation is the young’s eternal revenge on the old for their overspending. 



An independent nation of Greece could inflate its currency, but Greece is tied to the euro, and it cannot inflate the Euro.  So Greece is now a vassal state of Brussels.


Private businesses have closed down in the thousands. Unemployment stands at a record 25%, with more than half of Greece’s young people out of work.


Unemployed people riot.  It’s something to do with one’s anger.


Caught between plunging incomes and ever increasing taxes, families are finding it hard to make ends meet. Higher heating fuel prices have meant many apartment tenants have opted not to buy heating fuel this year. Instead, they’ll make do with blankets, gas heaters and firewood to get through the winter. Lines at soup kitchens have grown longer.


Waiting line at Greek soup kitchen


At the end of the day, as the fish market gradually packed up, a beggar crawled around the stalls, picking up the fish discarded onto the floor and into the gutters.


“I’ve been here since 1968. My father, my grandfather ran this business,” Korakis said. “We’ve never seen things so bad.”


The law goes bankrupt too.


A society in breakdown: Greek rioters


On a recent morning in a crowded civil cases court in the northern city of Thessaloniki, frustration simmered. Plaintiffs, defendants and lawyers all waited for the inevitable — yet another postponement, yet another court date.


Greece’s sclerotic justice system has been hit by a protracted strike that has left courts only functioning for an hour a day as judges and prosecutors protest salary cuts.


When a government can no longer provide security, it loses legitimacy.  When it can no longer provide police protection of people and property, it loses legitimacy.  When it no longer serves as the arbiter of law, it loses legitimacy.


Anarchist riot, Greece


For Giorgos Vacharelis, it means his long quest for justice has grown longer. Vacharelis’ younger brother was beaten to death in a fairground in 2003. The attacker was convicted of causing a fatal injury and jailed. The family felt the reasons behind the 24-year-old’s death had never been fully explained, and filed a civil suit for damages. Nearly 10 years later, Vacharelis and his parents had hoped the case would finally be over.


But the court date they were given in late September got caught up the strike. Now they have a new date: Feb. 28, 2014.


That’s fifteen months from now!  How can this be any semblance of justice?


“This means more costs for them, but above all more psychological damage because each time they go through the murder of their relative again,” said Nikos Dialynas, the family’s lawyer.

Vacharelis and his family are in despair.


“If a foreigner saw how the justice system works in Greece, he would say we’re crazy,” said the 35-year-old.  “Each time we come to court we get even more outraged,” he said. “We see a theater of the absurd.”


Who’s the fascist here?


[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]