Talking with the taxi driver about economics

taxi_harry“Good evening and thank you in advance for the generous tip you’re going to leave me.” As welcomes from Athenian taxi drivers go, it was a fairly original and disarming one. I’m not a regular cab customer but have used them enough over the last couple of years to see a change in their attitude. Where they were surly, they now seem resigned. Passengers were once taken for granted; now they’re a rarity.

Take a look at any taxi rank and you will see the yellow-colored cars lining up around the block. At Athens International Airport, where I caught my ride, things are even more dramatic. “I waited seven hours in the queue,” the driver tells me.

Greek taxi drivers say their takings have dropped by more than 50 percent since the crisis began. In the meantime, their costs have skyrocketed: The cost of gasoline has risen, as has the consumption tax on fuel, while social security contributions also shot up. A cabbie needs to make about 15 euros a day profit just to pay for his healthcare and pension cover. This is far from a given in Athens and other cities.
“If I get four fares during a shift, it’s been a good day,” he informs me. “I need to clear about 50 euros a day to cover my costs. If I can walk away each day with a few euros profit, I’m thankful,” he adds.

He doesn’t even bother to ponder that the license he bought a few years ago to operate the taxi cost him about 200,000 euros but is now worth probably a quarter of that. The objective is just to make it from one day to the next, to survive. It is the anguish born of the basic human need for survival that takes our conversation into darker territory.

His wife gave birth to twins six months ago, his brother has been unemployed for five years and his father’s pension has been reduced to a few hundred euros per month. It begins to sound like the conversations you now hear in supermarket aisles, at post office counters and at bus stops: stories of jobs lost and bills that haven’t been paid are now part of Greece’s daily soundtrack.

Sometimes, perhaps to preserve sanity and shield yourself from further pain, you switch off. You’re sure you have heard some variant of the tale and don’t need to hear it again to appreciate the storyteller’s anxiety.

“Some days, I don’t make anything at all. How are we going to survive?”

Deep breath. Exhale. Silence. What is there to say?

“You were in Brussels: What news can you tell me from there that gives me hope things will get better?”

What can I tell him? About the economist who told me that the Greek economy would probably see a recovery in about a decade? About the MEP who told me that Greece would need four or five generations to fully overcome the range of problems it faces today?

“I need someone to explain to me why I should keep doing this, why I should continue living like this,” he says.

All I can offer him is understanding and the perverse comfort that comes from the fact that he is not alone in being enveloped by doubts about his future. After all, there are 1.3 million unemployed – more than half of whom have been out of work for more than 12 months – and some 400,000 Greeks who have jobs but have not been paid by their employers for the past few months.

“You know, everyone…” I begin.

“No, not everyone,” he responds. “Don’t start a sentence with ‘everyone’ because then there’s no point in us having a conversation.”

“You’re right. A lot of people…”

“OK. I’ll accept ‘a lot of people.’”

And so, I try to express my sympathy for the cabbie’s difficulties and assure him that there are few people in Greece who do not share his misgivings or at least who do not have a loved one whose patience and faith is being tested to breaking point. Consolation? Not in the least.

“You still haven’t answered my question,” he says. “I’m 38, I’ve lived well in the past, I can’t deny that, but what can I believe in now? Tell me what I should be doing.”

Silence, again. How can you tell someone to keep persevering when you’re no longer sure yourself that the rewards will come? How can you console a person trapped in a vise whose jaws are clamped tighter each day by inept leaders and seemingly indifferent partners?

How can you point to others who are succeeding despite the terrible conditions when you know that not everyone has the same opportunities or reserves of boundless optimism and energy? What comfort can you offer when the past is not sustainable but the future is also impossible?

“You know, I’m only able to be out here driving because I’ve received hours of psychological help,” he reveals.

The mental effects of Greece’s economic collapse and the constant uncertainty of the last three years are the onerous secret of the crisis. Yes, there are statistics showing a rise in suicides and indications of deterioration in mental health. Heart attacks are also in the ascendancy. Ultimately, though, it’s impossible to know what pain each person is carrying. When this invisible force reveals itself, it’s traumatizing.

“Driving one night, I thought about what my life might be like when I reach 70,” he confides. “Then, it crossed my mind to turn the steering wheel and end it all.”

It was at this point it became clear he was not looking for words of wisdom but was in search of just words. He simply wanted to have a conversation in the hope that by the morning when he finished his shift, his problem might appear to have been halved rather than doubled.

We continued talking well after arriving at our destination, exchanging words that would, hopefully, hold greater value and last for longer than any tip I could leave.

A couple of days later, not far from where the cab driver revealed his deepest, darkest thoughts, a 50-year-old set fire to himself in the middle of the street. He had reportedly been unemployed for three years.

I thought of the man who drove me home, knowing many others would be wondering whether the person who attempted to commit suicide was someone they knew or someone they’d come across as part of routines that become less normal by the day.

Nick Malkoutzis

5 responses to “Talking with the taxi driver about economics

  1. The effect of liberalising taxi services (that is, the Troika’s insistence on granting licences easily and cheaply) has been a disaster. First of all, with no transitional measures for the expensive traded licences that people had to invest (up to 250,000 euros) their money was essentially stolen from them by the policies of the Troika and Greek puppet government. Secondly, the result of allowing more taxis on the streets (at least, in Athens) has been to populate the roads with unused taxicabs (as this article states) at a time of economic collapse.

    Thirdly, another result has been higher prices for taxi-fares with even worse problems than before with getting receipts. In previous years, I was always able to get a hand-written receipt; now, with the printed receipts the drivers are in such a financial mess that they issue multiple receipts with incorrect amounts on them. Moreover, there are no longer any instructions (in Greek or English) inside the cabs on what are the rules for fares to and from the airport.

    Overall, the result of deregulation is similar to, or worse than, the experiences of the rest of Europe. Uncontrolled market forces are damaging to most businesses (SMEs), to workers, to society as consumers — the principal beneficiaries are large businesses and multinationals. The idea that the Troika has initiated successful reforms is such a transparent fraud, that the media who repeat it are guilty of professional incompetence and fraud. Another case in Greece is that of pharmacies: how have the reforms benefited anyone at all?

    The problem is that we have right wing neoliberal politicians and economists in power. Their ideological obsession with theoretical economic ideas that are now clearly disproved puts them in a category known as religious zealots: they have no link with the real world and will continue to damage the lives of the population of Europe for every second that they are allowed to remain in power. This is not to say that their political opposition (such as Hollande) is any better: again, the lack of intellectual grasp and any sort of political vision is terrifying to observe. Europe is bereft of competent political leaders.

  2. Perspectives.
    I read your article as a big huge question for future perspectives for Greece.
    Maybe I am biased but I also think the search (and developement) of perspectives for afflicted countries is the main challenge of Greece, of the Greece society, but also of the European Society at its all, more important that the game blame.
    (And I got the impression that neither Greece and its elites or parties, governing or opposing, nor Europe, the Troika and countries like Germany did invest enough brains for rebuilding Perspectives.)

    If I correctly remind a further discussion with Dean, he saw the main chances of the Greece economy in a development of these three branches:
    – Tourism
    – Services & Finance
    – Shipping & transportation
    Even if I basically doubt on finance business as a stable base of an economy (as an engineer I dont see it adding that much real value), this list may offer a base for further thoughts.

    If I correctly understand Klaus Kastner in his blog, he sees big potential in special ecomic zones with a lean, flexible reliable and non corrupt administration as growth zones, that may develop a high attractivity for international companies to invest money and develop industry and job. If that experiment works it should be expanded to further greece – a little bit as we see it in china, a little bit as he experienced it in Chile.
    Even if I am much less open for chicago-boys liberalism as he seems to be I think it is really worth a try.

    I ask both to comment if I understood them correctly and to expand it. (Yes, Dean, I also explicitely ask you to participate – I know that we were able to discuss contructively.)

    And I ask all the other readers to offer their ideas how to rebuild a better future for greece, for the greece population. A future that offers sustainable, fair payed jobs and a society that is not dependent of foreign subsidies or credits.

    Last but not least I ask all readers just to forget the “blame game”, the “foreign troll” or the “greek nationalist troll” accusations. It has been played quite offen, but it will not help anybody – at least it will not offer a perspective for the taxi driver, its family and its new born child.

    • Roger, this is the only approach that would help Greece to overcome the current crisis. You got no answer within one day and this is not your fault, but shows the core of the problem:

      The blame game is much easier and many commentators and journalists are not capable of constructive suggestions…

      My 5 cents: It can only change if the state and its bureaucracy is radically improved and this will only happen if a Greek Lech Walensa or military force stops the current political theater.

      • Guest (xenos)

        There was no answer because the question is redundant. It has been asked repeatedly in various forums and we have all given our answers, in different ways.

  3. Dear Nick,

    I want to start by saying how happy I am that you started this website, and that you offer a Greek insight from a broader perspective than the usual Greek reports I come across (I also love that you write in English) and all this is great.

    Having read a few of your articles, I would like to ask you to write a little good news as well. For example, Pol Thomsen recently said “the fiscal consolidation is exceptional by any standard”. This is the guy who was calling us all useless lazy idiots not so long ago. Please write something about that, even if there is some politicking going on. You can tell us about the politicking too.

    Another thing I would like to see, is a regular progress update on all the things that have been promised (and are or are not being carried out). E.g. where are we with the opening of all the closed shop professions? Which ones are still completely closed? Which ones are now completely open? Which islands are on track to be leased? What happened to project Helios? What will happen to the old Helliniko airport? Etc etc.

    There should be a website keeping track of every promise that has been made at a high level. Is there anyway you can help?

    Thanks as ever and keep up the good work.

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