Right on Christmas Day, at a press conference held in response to calls for a reduction in the tax on heating oil, Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras said that the cost of the fuel is not responsible for the cloud of smog that has blanketed so many parts of Greece, including central Athens and Thessaloniki.
The finance minister went on to argue that the tax on heating oil – which was raised to the same level as that on vehicle fuel back in 2012 – needs to remain at the current level for another reason as well: to discourage the wealthy owners of heated swimming pools from using cheap heating oil to keep the water in their pools balmy.
The finance minister’s lapse of reason was obviously not caused by any lack of intelligence. This lapse, of course, is not just his alone either as he was speaking on behalf of the government and expressing the administration’s policy line. But what his statements really showed was that the government is simply obstinate when it comes to certain issues. Stournaras displayed a lack of political pragmatism and a limited understanding of the real cost of some of the policies the government is pursuing.
With his mind firmly fixed on achieving a primary surplus next year by increasing tax revenues and continuing to impose ruthless austerity measures, the finance minister is unable to see the side effects and irreversible damage caused by this insistence on certain policies on the entire ecosystem of Greek society – and I do not mean the very real damage done to the environment and public health by the smog, but also damage that cannot be quantified and has a detrimental effect on social mores.
What is most worrying of all about the finance minister’s statement is not what he said but, rather, what he didn’t say. Reading between the lines, it is easy to conclude that Stournaras is willing to abandon millions of citizens who cannot afford to buy heating oil to the cold and the toxic fumes in order to curtail the wasteful practices of a handful of the rich.
Failing to recognize mistakes, to pinpoint the real problem, to adjust to a new and better course when things are wrong, or to find a few simple words of comfort for suffering citizens goes beyond the limits of tough politics and enters the realm of incomprehensible cruelty and even sadism.
Throwing everyone – without discretion – into the toxic cloud of absurdity is not the way to save a battered country. Or rather, it may save the country, but there will be fewer people in it by then.