Multiplying our troubles

A few months ago, the International Monetary Fund’s admission that it had underestimated the depth of the recession that would follow Greece’s economic austerity program was the hot conversation topic. The IMF conceded that its “fiscal multiplier” of the impact of austerity on economic growth was wrong. The multiplier – like so many new aspects of our lives in the crisis – suddenly became a flag of convenience, an excuse, an argument. And then it was forgotten.

But the concept of a multiplier which can predict, measure or explain the consequences of an action would be an invaluable tool in estimating the consequences of a number of actions. When someone who knows nothing about plumbing starts wrestling with a pipe and floods his apartment, which multiplier will we consider: the one of foolishness or the man’s misguided attempt to cut costs? When a politician promises things that cannot be delivered, is he calculating on the basis of the multiplier of cynicism, of rashness or of custom?

Nowhere, though, is the proof of the danger stemming from the (not so) unpredictable consequences of an action so evident as in the state of parking in Athens after the scrapping of the municipal police. Where after many years of chaos we had a semblance of order, the city is once again sliding into chaos. Every unscrupulous or desperate driver parks wherever he or she likes, without a care as to whether it is a legal spot, whether it is reserved for local residents or whether it is for motorcycles. No one buys parking cards because no one enforces the law.

This followed the sudden decision to place municipal police, as well as thousands of other employees across Greece, in the “labor reserve,” thus scrapping the institution. The government’s panic is understandable, as it had to find a suitable number of “heads” to satisfy our creditors after years of stringing them along with promises that it would cut down the public sector. We also know the government’s preference for across-the-board actions, which are easier than undertaking the responsibility of setting priorities and evaluating employees, discerning between those who are worth keeping and those who are not. It is also likely that most citizens probably care less about the municipal police being scrapped than if a hospital were to close down. But from the results it is evident that removing the municipal police from the streets, without replacing them immediately by another body, was a rash act. The mistake will have a significant economic impact, as the 1,027 municipal police officers were responsible for more than half a million fines each year (each ranging from 40 euros to 150 euros) and the value of parking cards came to between 4.5 and 5 million euros annually. From all their activities, the municipal police paid for their wages and pensions and left another 8 million or so euros in the city’s coffers.

Above all, however, the issue is one of civilization. Athens had achieved a satisfactory parking system and suddenly we have chaos. Everyone loses. Which multiplier can explain, predict or avert such rashness?

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