The Personal Cost and Lifestyle Adjustments of the Greek Financial Crisis

Thessaloniki     Reading the headlines about the fiscal crisis in Greece and following the protests by hundreds of thousands of people in Athens and other cities, it was hard to feel like we were all getting the whole story.  We were sold headlines about profligate governmental spending and debt and a population unwilling to pay taxes.  As Andrea Merkel and the Germans led hard bargaining by the European Union over the Greek fiscal crisis, the prevailing storyline painted them as hard, but not heartless, saviors of Europe.  Not surprisingly, the facts on the ground don’t match the headlines when I started talking to people in Thessaloniki.

The impact of the austerity program is the equivalent of the Great Depression in the United States in the 1930s.  An estimated 700,000 people have left the country, almost 7% of the total population, seeing no hope for recovery.  Rents have fallen by half, but, if anything, wages have fallen even farther.  I heard a story about a university pension that fell from 3600 euros per month to only 1200, and another from a tenured professor whose pay had fallen from close to 4000 euros per month to hardly 1500 per month.  Watching smokers, it was more common to see cigarettes rolled than pulled from the pack.  It was carnival season while I was in Greece, because the Greek Orthodox calendar is one week behind the Roman Catholic calendars, and young people, as always, were adapting and seemed to be crowding the city squares and the waterfront, but friends told me their numbers were small compared to before the crisis.  Spending time at the city’s bus stations and on the streets, it was easy to see the impact.  I could see cartoneros picking up cardboard from street dumpsters, like I remembered from Argentina after their crisis, that Greeks told me they had never seen until recent years.

Those kinds of lifestyle adjustments are also attitude adjustments.  The resistance crops up in different ways everywhere.  One new friend described to me the lengths he goes to keep from supporting the austerity plan and its taxes.  Buying a couple of pieces of pizza on the street, he gave the receipt back to the shop owner, so it could be passed on later and the more than 20% tax not paid.  Anarchists have stepped up, organizing several social centers and food coops, where people of the left shop and socialize.  We went to one that housed a kitchen and bar, a library, a food coop and other services in a 4-story building in the city center that they were renting for only 2000 euros per month.  We could see “squats” near the city center that were left unmolested.

People adapt in their own ways, but the opposition and unhappiness are deep, and the recovery, when – and if – it comes, could take a generation or more to realize.


Job Training for Workers in the Gig Economy Era

New Orleans    An interesting question came from the audience after watching “The Organizer” in Santa Fe.  A gentleman asked what ACORN was doing and what was our thinking about job training programs these days.  I basically answered that federal monies were being cutback in job training, but for the most part there seemed to be a sense that job training programs were lost and ineffective, out of tune with both the modern economy and with the decreased mobility of workers in post-Great Recession period.  I threw something back that was glibber than well thought out bringing the question back to the problem of what exactly constitutes job training in the gig-economy and the coming age of mass scale automation.

The question clearly deserves a better answer than I offered, but it also got me thinking about exactly what kind of job training is appropriate in the second decade of the 21st century?  How does one train workers in the gig economy?  And, to what degree do many of these workers need job training at all, compared to support and assistance in running what amounts to a small business in self-employment?

One of the core characteristics of gig workers is the mobility and adaptability of their job skills and employment assets.  Whether they are employees of companies like Uber or independent contractors, under either definition at the heart of the business model for companies like Uber, AirBnb and so many other app-based employers are their hope and prayer that workers do not fully understand their self-interest and that they can pass off the normal costs of  business to the workers themselves.  There are no employment costs and workers are ill-trained to evaluate everything from house and car depreciation, insurance of all kinds including health, auto, home, and workman’s compensation, taxes and social security, and the list goes on.  It may not be a job training program in the way my questioner imagined, but to protect and advance gig economy workers, there should be government sponsored training programs that assist workers in how to navigate these shoals.

We all know men and women in these potentially exploitative situations.  The number of Uber and Lyft drivers who are barely making minimum wage for their hours worked is legion, and the number that realize that when they first enroll in the program is minuscule.  The number of short term rental people who are unprepared for making the decisions in handling city licensing and personal tax planning is also astronomical.

Perhaps if the government – and others – stepped up to this issue and offered the kind of financial education and support needed, these employers would have to get right with their workers, whatever they are called.  Perhaps if the government – and others – did that they should and also start to understand the long term social and individual impacts that will accrue for payment later, like social security and health care payments, they will step up to the task as well.

All of these questions need better answers.