Austerity's Long Winter

(Originally published on The Diplomacist)

Winter approaches the Greek capital of Athens. Memories of last year’s cold season haunt citizens as preparations begin. It seems that the economic woes that drove Greeks from all classes to leave heating bills unpaid last year will persist when this year's cold winds whistle through the crisis-stricken metropolis.

The use of wood-burning stoves and fireplaces as a primary heat source has risen sharply since the deepening of the Greek economic crisis, spurred by an energy tax hike that drove the price of heating oil up 40% and, correspondingly, consumption down 70% from 2011-2012. This measure, and its unintended consequence, is characteristic of efforts by consecutive Greek governments to alleviate fiscal pressure through zealous taxation in order to meet IMF and EU bailout stipulations.

The Greek newspaper Kathimerini recently reported that Greek real estate owners and buyers in Greece “have to pay the highest property tax contributions in Europe." Such heightened tax rates on property, as well asincreased income taxes and levies on necessities such as gasoline have driven even wealthy Greeks into belt-tightening measures. The same report by Kathimerini stated that "1 in 3 Greeks say that they will not be able to pay the new Single Property Tax to be imposed in January." The use of wood-burning stoves, a rudimentary form of heating commonly associated with impoverished conditions, is indicative of the resourcefulness that Greeks have employed to navigate this economic harassment. While corrupt institutions of taxation triggered and exacerbated the Greek economic crisis, Greek lawmakers have chosen to pursue an accelerated requisition of burdensome taxes without the provision, in turn, of social services such as pensions and comprehensive healthcare to ease the blow. 

In response to the adverse air quality effects of burning wood en masse, Yiannis Maniatis, a PASOK minister of the environment, has approved legislation banning wood-burning stoves in certain highly polluted areas, likely the areas struggling most with the effects of austerity—unemployment, over-taxation, and lack of proper housing. The practical dilemmas in enforcing such a ban are many. How would the Greek state identify wood-burning “perpetrators” in darkness without impinging on privacy? And what is the feasibility of collecting fines from “offenders” whose very act of incrimination—the use of wood-burning stoves—evinces the economic deficiency that would inhibit payment? Aside from these practical considerations, there is the cycle of humanitarian deprivation perpetuated by discouraging the heating of homes.

While Greece is in desperate need of environmental legislation and enforcement, today’s political and social climate seems a particularly inopportune time to clean up their act. Just last week, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported that average life satisfaction in Greece declined by more than 20% from 2007-2012 along with a 23% decline in real household income during that same period. Policy-makers should be ushering in a phase of alleviation after years of austerity, a sentiment uttered in a well-publicized statement by Prime Minster Antonis Samaras just ahead of the arrival of international creditors in Athens last week. An ironic statement, indeed, as Samaras is perhaps the most prominent Greek architect of austerity. Fulfillment of this statement is unlikely now, as his government is at this moment negotiating with the Greece's primary creditors (the International Monetary Fund, European Union, European Central Bank) towards an agreement that will release one billion dollars in already overdue bailout money in exchange for widespread layoffs, pay cuts, tax increases, and public spending decreases.

Whether this ban passes or not, masses of smog will hang over Athens and especially over the colder northern cities of Larissa, Volos, and Thessaloniki this coming winter, drifting as bleak reminders of the economic harassment resulting from the incongruence between hyper-taxation and economic desperation. As if Greek citizens needed any reminding.

From Flickr, Creative Commons

From Flickr, Creative Commons