Thinking through the Math

IMG_4187 My grandmother would always tell me never to leave change, or any money, where the bread was put. I might have put some change on the table where we ate.

Two of my colleagues were fired today. They were told, as I was told, that this wasn’t the administration’s choice but that there was no choice. This is the kind of doublespeak that’s become part of austerity’s rhetoric. Cutting down on the payroll to get lenders to lend us funds to save a body makes no sense when the method cannibalizes that body. Tsipras is saying all this to the euro group who are getting tired of the Greek tragedy. The lenders, institutions that they are, are thinking of their own meals.

I told myself I would stop blogging about Greece. At least stop writing directly about it, my imagination is in danger of being cannibalized by the austerity of repetitions — teetering, falling, slipping — the gifted ae tells her workshop to try to keep adjectives and adverbs to a minimum, maybe there is too much passivity in adjectives & adverbs when work needs to be done.

The treacherous ride we’re on means we find ourselves holding our breath more often than not. Holding your breath, or forgetting to breathe, is an act of violence the yoga teacher tells us. Gandhi brought down an empire by wearing a loincloth and breathing.

Like the discussions in the euro group it’s a question of what bodies are considered important enough to be saved. You might end up sacrificing the wrong body, or cutting into a column that will bring down the building.

There was an almost-agreement (there have been several of those since the Eurozone meetings in Latvia and Brussels); the VAT tax was going to come down to 7% on medicine and books. But while tentatively agreeing to this the euro group turned around and wanted a 23% tax on electricity.

Stoves, refrigerators, heaters, washing machines will eat up the quality of life: don’t wash your clothes too often so you can afford to buy medicine. Keep cooking to a minimum. No one uses dryers anyway.

One of my colleagues will not get compensation because we were asked to sign on to freelance contracts though we have full time responsibilities. She was asked to sign a monthly contract since it’s the end of the teaching period. She also pays rent and has no money saved.

Standards of living are relative to what people are used to. China burns coal and considers itself an emerging market, economically growing but the first world is concerned about the pollution. The first world keeps borrowing from China so that its most privileged members can maintain a lifestyle that makes me think of Catherine the Great’s all-amber rooms and the small palace built for her shoes. It would be interesting to know what would change in people if some of the first world’s baroque indulgences were harder to come by; if the women in Wednesday Martin’s Primates of Park Avenue were suddenly unable to fund their excesses.

I watch a couple pile up the planters someone in the building has put out on the road. Then I see a Pakistani guy pull up in a three-wheeler and look for metal in the recycling bin.

I’m at the gas station with 20 euros, which is usually what I give for half a tank, but I say “10 euros” and apologize. The woman at the pump who I know as Natasha, says “10, then 10”; “If it’s 5, then 5 – whatever you can give is what you give.” She dismisses my apology.

When Venizelos was the finance minister he took money from the health sector and education to pay the PSI, which was the bond swap that allowed for the second bailout package installment. We have been waiting for a loan tranche that has been withheld because agreements haven’t been reached yet; see John Psaropoulos’ update.

One consequence of all that’s happening is that priorities have been unmasked. When Yanis Yaroufakis brings up the fact of Greece’s humanitarian crisis, a euro zone minister notes that there are countries poorer than Greece, economies that emerged from the Soviet bloc are still struggling; the comparison is really not worth my going into it. I’ve already broken my promise about blogging.

The other disagreements on #s beyond the VAT have to do with pensions & minimum wage; already low pensions of 488 euros would be reduced to 200 euros. In terms of the math again, how does a person pay a 23% VAT tax on electricity with 200 euros a month?

This is all beside the point. For the euro zone it’s about balancing the #s, but it’s more skewed, they don’t want to forgive any of the debt — which is fine, but they don’t want, either, to make it possible for the economy to rebuild itself so it might grow out of the “austerity-for-aide” ditch. It’s more like “infinite servitude-for-food” but people are still starving.

I was never good at math, maybe because there was nothing particularly interesting to me in numbers in and of themselves. #s are cold & factually objective though they have their contexts too. On plasma TVs in different metro stops – the Patissia metro station, the Monasteraki station – there are black & white images of the German occupation, there are #s too. Zoe Konstantopoulou heads the debt truth committee but also the committee investigating the German war reparations controversy.

They’ve come up with the staggering figure of 350 billion owed in reparations. Many think this belongs to the past. The contexts are certainly different. As the country sinks into further despair because of these impossible choices, i.e. “austerity-for-aide” vs “infinite servitude-for-food,” people are still starving.

We could do with less “punitive” drives. 300 million euros was due last Friday to the IMF and Greece skipped the payment. Not because they won’t, or don’t want to, pay, but they are simply doing exactly what was done on the part of the euro zone who (still) have not given the debt relief installment that was due in early June; they’re still hoping to negotiate the terms.

Unlike George Papandreou who buckled under the pressure to come to a decision with the IMF in April 2010 — told he had to make the decision before the Japanese markets opened, and had 10 minutes left to decide — this government is refusing to buckle.

It’s a Saturday night and I get together with a handful of friends from the neighborhood. I call them the Saturday night anarchists. We eat and drink too much but we also talk a lot. Sometimes the conversation goes on into the next morning. Lefki says “No one can do the math anymore. It’s just too much. All of it.” Kostas is not happy with Syriza’s defiant stand. Lefki says that the govt is going through the infamous Lagarde list of names, & giving them ultimatums to pay up on their taxes. One “wife of a former prime minister” owed 400 thousand euros in taxes. Lefki says, “I guess some people never get tired of eating.”

The math doesn’t add up because it’s not meant to. Monsanto sells seeds to villages in India so they will become dependent on GM seeds, and Monsanto, who will make a profit by selling them. It is a rape of what is indigenous. The same is true of Nestlé’s bottling fresh water in places where it is (or was) free to drink; but according to Nestlé’s CEO water isn’t a human right but a commodity.

Some of the things that move me in Athens are very small moments. In the midst of so much visible pain these are reminders that we are not commodities. I had to have a foot X-ray & went early to a clinic, paid 10 euros and was told to come back in the evening for the results. An hour or so later a call from the clinic asked if I was close enough to come back because the doctor wanted a second X-ray to properly diagnose what was wrong, I was quickly told it wouldn’t cost me anything; he just wanted a second look to make sure of the diagnosis.

My grandmother never wanted us to leave money where she put bread because what fed us was very different from the cost of managing it, costs being by definition vulgar, the baser value to nurture. Math is not about generosity. Sometimes it’s convenient to ignore the context.

If Germany wasn’t shown some generosity in 1946, if it had only been about the math they may never have achieved the kind of economic recovery they did.

Varoufakis points out: “By 1946, the Allies had reduced Germany’s steel output to 75% of its pre-war level. Car production plummeted to around 10% of pre-war output. By the end of the decade, 706 industrial plants were destroyed. Byrnes’ speech signaled to the German people a reversal of that punitive de-industrialization drive. Of course, Germany owes its post-war recovery and wealth to its people and their hard work, innovation, and devotion to a united, democratic Europe. But Germans could not have staged their magnificent post-war renaissance without the support signified by the ‘Speech of Hope.'”

I’m doing some translations of Kiki Dimoula’s poems, and a prose piece of the poet Katerina Iliopoulou’s; here are some lines Katerina has after the verb “Meet” in a piece called “Collect”:

“If you cannot construct it, you cannot devise it, in some way, somehow, you cannot enter it. Of course the procedure goes both ways.

The place also constructs you and gives you its characteristics. The meeting highlights the possibilities of my being here, or of becoming something else.”

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About akalfopoulou

Author of two poetry collections, and most recently, a book of essays, Ruin, Essays in Exilic Living.
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One Response to Thinking through the Math

  1. Across the Pond says:

    That’s it! My money is in the warm refrigerator with no bread in sight. Thanks for blogging AGAIN xxx

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