With Fists in Their Pockets

By Jonathan Wiltshire29.05.2013Global Policy

In Greece, news of a return to economic growth is more or less meaningless to those thoroughly affected and thoroughly angered. Politicians should focus on repairing people’s lives, not on GDP growth.

‘Grecovery’! Did you hear about the “Grecovery”:https://twitter.com/search?q=%23grecovery? Maybe you’ve seen it, maybe you haven’t. ‘Grecovery’ is a trendy word signalling the apparent end of the Greek economic crisis; the dawning of a new age of recovery, growth, prosperity, jobs, and so on and so forth.

Really, it’s a stupid term that symbolizes little. What worth it has is as an indicator of the growing chasm between two perceptions of Greece. On one hand, the bird’s eye perception: racy newswires’ numerate take on the rather fickle machinations of international finance. On the other, the street view: austerity’s steady, long-term malaise often covered by left-of-center magazines and blogs.

From a distance, mainstream financial news gives the wrong impression. Earlier this month, you could read about Fitch Ratings “upgrading Greece’s credit status”:http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/16/fitch-upgrades-greek-banks-after-recapit-idUSFit65782920130516 from junk to B minus, a boon for Antonis Samaras, Greece’s Prime Minister, “on his recent investment-seeking trip”:http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-05-17/samaras-tells-china-to-see-greece-as-europe-s-investment-gateway.html to China. You could read about Yannis Stournaras, Greece’s Finance Minister, “brandishing predictions”:http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/12/15/us-greece-economy-idUSBRE8BE06U20121215 of a 2014 of quarter-by-quarter economic growth, backed up by the European Commission’s “own forecasts”:http://ec.europa.eu/economy_finance/eu/forecasts/2013_spring/el_en.pdf.

Daily life lags far behind financial news

But on the ground in Athens, things aren’t so rosy. Greece’s austerity experiment has been devastating for some, and difficult for most. I don’t wish to add to the reams of emotive and somewhat exaggerated ‘crisis porn’ out there (in Athens there are heartening, successful grassroots and neighborhood-based responses to the crisis: solidarity kitchens, free medical care, free psychiatry, free tutoring and so on), but the dire statistics really do relate to the real world: around 64% of those under 25 years old are unemployed (compared with, for instance, around 8% in Germany); there’s a “near-unanimous perception of increased poverty”:http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/flash/fl_338_en.pdf; around “a quarter of the population say”:http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2013/05/Pew-Global-Attitudes-Economic-Report-FINAL-May-23-2013.pdf they have trouble putting food on the table; as well as other immeasurable personal stresses.

I encourage you not to doubt the veracity of these statistics. They reflect my observations living in Athens. And I encourage you not to doubt that Greece’s gross domestic product will be positive next year. But the point is, does it matter? Abstract gross domestic product forecasts mean little in today’s Greece because a return to economic growth (“a change from the last five years”:http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG?page=1) won’t remedy austerity’s long-term effects. If other high-income countries are anything to go by, any recovery “will likely be jobless”:http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/employment_and_growth/the_world_at_work, heightening the precariousness of future employment. ‘Grecovery’ won’t repair persistent unemployment’s “scarring effects”:http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_202326.pdf; and it won’t untangle smouldering grudges against the political class, the EU, the German Government, immigrants, and employers who continually fail to pay wages. “The people are with their fists in their pockets, waiting,” as Yiannis Zouganelis, a Greek composer, recently said. The promise of growth in 2014, with no short-term tangible results, no immediacy, means very little to these indignant people.

Don’t succumb to hype

The whimsical excitement of ‘Grecovery’ thus seems misplaced, and reporting the numbers with little reference to the long-term effects of Greece’s austerity experiment, heartless. I believe readers and journalists alike know this, yet why do changes in financial and economic indicators dominate the headlines? Why did I start reading about ‘Grecovery’? Why does short-term hyperbole rule? Explaining this might require another column. Or an entire book. But whatever the reason, as a reader, from a distance, it’s easy to succumb to the hyped importance of financial news. The nuanced social implications of Greece’s austerity are hard to convey when reporting tempestuous market fluctuations. So ‘Grecovery’ makes sense to the reader who’s outside Greece. But the reality is that news of a return to economic growth, with no promise of repairing people’s lives, is more or less meaningless to those thoroughly affected and thoroughly angered.

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