ATHENS – Not content with taxing the poor to protect the rich, Greece is putting the arm on the penniless, starting with the arrest of an unemployed Cretan father of seven, whose wife was also jobless. He owed the government 5,000 euros, or $6,130 in back taxes – because former Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos, who now has apparently joined the Mission Impossible team and is trying to disavow himself of his actions – doubled income and property taxes and taxed the poor.
The shameless arrest came the same day that Prime Minister Antonis “Mr. Bean Counter” Samaras bullied his coalition partners – PASOK Socialist leader Venizelos and Democratic Left flunky Fotis Kouvelis – to back down on their demands that the government not impose more pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions to satisfy international lenders who want to make sure foreign banks get paid back before starving Greeks get fed. You could forgive forked tongue Samaras for going back on his word – repeatedly – because he’s been chasing his snake’s tail since he first opposed austerity, then supported it, then opposed it, then supported it and is apparently dizzy.
But Venizelos and Kouvelis, who folded up like a Chinese-built tent, are alleged Leftists and what they’ve done in supporting the Capitalist leader is akin to President Obama handing Newt Gingrich a sword to slice off the heads of the poor because they’re taking up breathing space in the land of the free and the home of the rich. Republicans, after all, don’t mind putting the poor on ice floes and letting them drift out to sea, where they make swell target practice and now Venizelos and Kouvelis – as former Prime Minister and previous PASOK leader George Papandreou before them – have betrayed their own principles, if that’s the right word to use about a politician.
Greece is just picking up on an old tradition because debt bondage was common in ancient Mediterranean societies, including Greek City States, so maybe not much has changed. You can be sure that Eurobank, one of Greece’s big four private banks which makes people who’ve paid off their loans if they didn’t get a letter of discharge pay them again, would have had a branch in ancient Athens.
By around 600 B.C., economic crises resulted in so many Athenians being sold into slavery that the lawmaker Solon enacted seisachtheia, banning debt bondage and letting debtors return to their lands as free men. But Greeks today have Samaras, who’s buddy-buddy with the banks and stood by while the jobless man on Crete was arrested while tax evaders owing the country $70 billion are walking around free and laughing at the government. And seisachtheia has apparently run out because the poor soul was told he could have a “job” with the municipality where he lives, but with no salary, and had to be an indentured servant – slave – to pay off the debt he never really accumulated but was imposed on him.
Maybe it’s not such a bad idea though because PASOK and New Democracy cajoled Greek banks into “lending” them $304.8 million – while at the same time Greece’s political parties were giving themselves $670 million in taxpayer funding over the previous decade, which explains why party leaders live in pink mansions. The bank loans are not being paid back, of course, and never will be because the banks know that unless they “loan” the politicians money that the government might suddenly decide they need to be nationalized or face onerous laws.
ATEbank, founded as an agricultural bank in 1929, and now being acquired by the private Bank of Piraeus because it was losing money faster than politicians could spend it, didn’t mind “lending” the political parties $31.6 million last year, knowing it wouldn’t be paid back. Its new owners, alone with Eurobank, Marfin, and Attica Bank, are also being investigated for letting themselves be used as a kind of slush fund for political parties, but no one’s shown up at Venizelos’ door or the Prime Minister’s mansion and arresting them for not paying back hundreds of millions of dollars because the police are too busy arresting the poor.
BOOK ‘EM, SOLON-O
Greece is $460 billion in debt because PASOK and New Democracy took turns hiring hundreds of thousands of unneeded non-workers for generations in return for votes, which makes the ruling political parties the biggest debtors in Greece, but don’t count on any arrests. Wouldn’t it be sweet to see Samaras and Venizelos in a debtor’s prison instead, and, as was the custom in Olde England, forced to pay for their stay in their cells, although they have so much money they could just buy the prison and turn it into the kind of country club they prefer.
The United States, where the rich 1% own the country, used to have debtors’ prisons until the practice was outlawed in 1833 because people could be thrown in jail for owing as much as 60 cents to somebody. Owing the government is almost as bad as owing the late Tony Soprano and his ilk, but at least their loan sharking business was unlawful while government-imposed poverty is not. Greeks have been protesting, striking and rioting for two years to no avail over the pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions that the likes of Samaras and Venizelos – and now Kouvelis, his crocodile tears notwithstanding – have imposed on people while letting tax evaders, the rich and politicians escape. Poor Greeks wouldn’t owe the government as much as they do if the tax burdens were fair, but rich Greeks don’t pay taxes.
Many Greeks ran up their credit cards during the easy money days after Greece got into the Eurozone of the countries using the euro a decade ago but can try to renegotiate with the banks. Until 2008, Greeks could still be imprisoned for debt, whether they owed the tax office or banks, before the law was declared unconstitutional after 173 years in practice, and just in time because there’s really not enough cells to jail nine million people who are up to their eyes in debt and being forced to pay back 100 percent of what they owe although their pay has been cut 30 percent or more.
But debtors in Greece could still yet find themselves handcuffed because the courts still have the power to put them away in some circumstances under the vague notion of prosōpokrάtēsē for debts to the government if it’s a criminal act, although tax evasion apparently isn’t. The real crime is that the people who caused people to be in debt to the state aren’t being arrested and being forced to work free for the people they allegedly represent until the debt is paid off. But that’s justice, another ancient Greek notion that doesn’t really exist in the country that created it.