In the last few years, a single word has dominated public discussion regarding the financial crisis: and the word is debt. As such, we characterize public debt, which is defined as the accumulative sum of all (at one point or another) annual deficits in the State’s budgets. In turn, deficits are no more than the differences between the State’s income and expenditures every year.
At the moment, Greece’s public debt is estimated at approximately 344 billion euros; which means that every Greek owes 31,200 euros – and that amount increases by 715 euros per second. This debt corresponds to 196% of the country’s Gross National Product (GNP), meaning the value of all goods and services produced by the Greek economy per year (in this case, 2014).
To the reader’s partial relief, we should note that Greece is not the sole country in the world with a huge debt. The USA owe 105% of their GNP; Japan 199%; Italy 140%; Spain 86%; Germany 69%.
The biggest part of this debt has been turned into bonds (meaning loans of a pre-set duration), which are issued by the State and can be bought by anyone (a natural or legal person in Greece or abroad, nations, banks, financial institutions, speculators, etc.), who, upon buying them becomes a shareholder of part of the public debt.
The Maastricht Treaty (1992), which gradually brought the euro into the EU, set five criteria for a country’s incorporation in the Euro-zone; among them, one required that the country’s debt in relation to its GNP should not be above 60%. But, in 2000, when EU countries were judged on whether or not they fulfilled the criteria, Italy and Belgium both had a debt that surpassed 100% of their GNP; and it was decreed that, without these two countries, the new currency would not have the necessary political and historical gravitas – nor the necessary symbolism. Therefore, the application of that particular criterion regarding debt became rather flexible and it was decided that, in order for a country to adopt the euro, it did not need to have a 60% debt of its GNP in 2000 (the year of judgement); instead, it would suffice that the country was leaning systematically towards that percentage.
And, since Italy and Belgium entered the monetary union, Greece got the opportunity to tag along: with a debt that, in 2001, was 104.7% of its GNP; then, in 2002, it went down to 102.6% and, in 2003, it fell to 98.3%. However, from 2004 and onward, its course reversed: in 2009, it reached 129.7%; in 2010, it skyrocketed to 148.3%; and, in 2011, it surpassed 170%. Despite ongoing austerity policy, the debt remains high, proving that paying its installments is still an extremely overwhelming obligation for this country. As long as the debt continues to be accepted at its present size, there are practically scarce choices left to Greek governments: either its prolongation, with postponing the paying of bonds that gradually expire to the future; or (and) the securing of annual high primary surpluses (as such, are defined the annual surpluses in budget, if expenditures for debt obligation are not taken into account). But primary surpluses are secured with at least one of the two obvious ways: increase of income (taxes, etc.) or decrease of expenses (salaries, pensions, other public expenses for health, education, infrastructure, etc.).
So debt is created by high deficits. However, the provocative logic of our partner-lenders’ that the private loans of Greek households create the megalith of public debt is over-simplifying. Greeks’ debts in the form of loans are recorded as banks’ insecurities; instead, it is only the non-payment of taxes that burdens the public sector. We are mentioning this as a counter-argument to the myth of Greeks who don’t pay. It is only indirectly that private debts are affecting the public one but this is small letters in the financial world and completely off the point of this article.
In my opinion, the debt constitutes the most important cause of our current financial crisis. Regardless of the currency, which has been agreed on and is in effect, the rhythm of the debt’s enlargement seems to be beyond society’s tolerance for survival. Of course, the issue is not to denounce in a “so what” manner the obligation of paying, in the same way some people refuse to pay the common bills of their building while at the same time using all the privileges at the other tenants’ expense. It would be more useful to determine once and for all its exact origins with a responsible logistics control; to denounce whichever part is proved to be onerous (meaning re-adapted in a loan-shark manner to the secondary markets of producers of stock market commodities – which is nothing more than pure speculation on the basis of expectations in a preposterous range of bets starting from the price of cocoa to the debt of the Republic of Vanuatu); and to adjust its scaling in terms of social survival. This last bit is reminiscent of what our current government seems to aim at with its “growth clause”, meaning the term to pay off our debt from the surplus of the growth we can achieve – not by devouring the flesh of a devastated society with 26% (official) unemployment and 30% living under relative poverty (defined as 60% of average income).
The fact that the whole world is in debt (to an unspecified direction, since financial circles are not necessarily named) does not refute the obligation to survive as a society. Yet, once we get past the inexorability of numbers, there is an underlying tendency in Greek society: the familiarization with the notion of debt, both public and private, as something normal and inevitable – something for which we are not responsible but always someone else (from Schäuble to the vultures of the market); and, this way, we are addicted to the breaking of our de facto obligations, financial or other. To demonstrate this, we need only mention the I Don’t Pay Movement, which started out at the toll stations (to end up participating in the May 2012 elections and gather 0.88% or 55,590 votes, with its second greatest percentage in the Municipality of Chios – where the number of toll stations is… zero). This movement reflects a mentality that has unfortunately flourished in financial crisis Greece next to the justified outrage for whatever has happened and continues to happen: in this mentality, the crisis is used as an alibi for the breaking of any kind of obligations. And then you have people claiming that they haven’t paid the electricity bill because it includes the latest emergency tax, while carrying a Louis Vuitton handbag to the eight wedding ceremony this summer.
If we, as a nation, are to recuperate effectively from the vicious circle of debtocracy (as it is described in relevant anti-liberal international bibliography), it is through the dignity and honor of the consistent and the law-abiding in every aspect of our lives – from the common bills of our block of flats in Patisia to the Eurogroup negotiations. When used as an alibi, financial crisis turns debt into a culture. And this is simply not a solution.