False picture

Parliament begun discussing the budget yesterday. As usual, the verbal clashes between officials of rival political factions will focus on details and subordinate issues while the substance of the grim economic reality, as citizens experience it, will remain off the agenda. «No one can claim that the economy is not doing well. Anyone who says that the economy is collapsing, is talking hogwash,» the prime minister said during a press conference yesterday, adding that Greece’s growth rate in 2002 will hover at 3.5 percent while the EU average is down to 1 percent. Costas Simitis avoided referring to other macroeconomic indicators, such as the 10.5 increase in the balance of payments deficit from January to October this year or the decline in exports by 11.3 percent over the same period, a figure which reflects the sliding popularity of Greek products in foreign markets and the lagging competitiveness of our economy. However, comparing economic indices is not enough. The most fundamental question concerns how – and if – the fruits of macroeconomic growth are distributed to the greatest possible number of citizens. This is where the problem lies. People have not sensed the economic boom that Simitis describes. On the contrary, the launch of the euro and the government’s economic policies have sparked a hike in prices while wages have stagnated and pensions or other forms of income such as savings have shrunk. Most people find it hard to get by, while the broader economic malaise is putting a heavy strain on medium-sized firms. Aware of this dire picture, Simitis suggested yesterday that «public expectations are not a criterion about the actual state of the economy.» In other words, the point is not how people live. The point is the figures. Such a bureaucratic mentality inevitably brings to mind the words of the late George Papandreou: «Greece is the only country where numbers prosper while people suffer.» People are not suffering, of course. It’s clear, though, that their living standards are falling while the competitiveness of the Greek economy subsides. The growth Simitis invoked is largely artificial, for it is based on big public projects that do little to diffuse wealth. The Simitis administration should seek to improve people’s living standards rather than brag about a growth which is a stranger to most of the people.