When Colorado State University faculty member Dimitris Stevis spent two months in Greece this summer, it wasn’t a vacation — it was an opportunity for him to see firsthand how the country was dealing with its debt crisis.
After all, Stevis’ expertise is political economy. But this trip went beyond the professional and into the personal: Stevis was born and raised in Greece, he holds Greek and U.S. citizenships, and his family and friends who still live there have been feeling the direct effects of the political and economic strife.
Stevis, a political science professor who has worked at CSU for 25 years, extended his stay an extra month to be with his aging parents, who were increasingly emotionally overwhelmed by the country’s financial crisis. Young people and retirees are the two groups feeling the crisis most intensely, both financially and psychologically.
The Greek economy has been rocked by overwhelming deficits in recent years, prompting a series of international bailouts and severe austerity measures. Stevis was in the country this summer during the dramatic weeks when a deadline for restructuring Greece’s debt loomed and citizens were preparing to vote on a plan for additional austerity measures, which have already resulted in cuts to his own parents’ pensions.
“I saw the demonstrations; my friends were divided,” Stevis said of the experience, adding that the Greeks were surprisingly civil to each other during the tumultuous time. “That was incredible to me, to see that people were not fighting or arguing with each other and not cutting in front of each other in lines while waiting day after day to get the daily maximum of 60 euros from the banks. It is intense when you realize you cannot withdraw enough money for your basic needs, and perhaps next week all your savings will be gone.”
He helped elderly Greek citizens who were unfamiliar with ATM machines use their newly issued debit cards to withdraw their limit from the cash-strapped banks. He witnessed the social and psychological effects that come from an exodus of young people looking for jobs in other countries, elevated suicide rates and families selling off all their gold and silver.
Lessons for the classroom
Stevis said the experience has given him lots of firsthand accounts that he plans to share with his students when he teaches his next International Political Economy course.
“Seemingly impersonal global processes always affect specific places and people. This is something I routinely talk about in my classes,” he said. “The austerity measures rarely affect those most responsible for economic problems but harm, instead, those less able to protect themselves.”
Stevis said lessons learned from his homeland’s financial struggles include a recognition that the measures that can lead the country out of the crisis should be put in place by people who know the country well.
“You cannot just leave it in the hands of technocratic economists with a punitive approach to austerity,” he said, explaining that the effect of cutting retirees’ pensions trickles down to the younger generations in ways that require an intimate understanding of the country’s culture and political economy.
That does not mean that domestic reforms are not necessary, Stevis added.
“We clearly need a better, more efficient tax system that doesn’t allow people to park their money abroad,” he said.
In addition, Stevis said the Greek government needs to be more streamlined, including putting more processes online to reduce inefficiencies, such as the long lines that are common at government offices.
If there was a silver lining to the debt crisis, he said, it succeeded in pushing Greece to put more banking operations online, increasing transparency and efficiency.
“Greece was forced to jump ahead into the virtual money era,” Stevis explained.
He also said the crisis was a wake-up call for the country to do a better job of linking its educational system to its economy, making sure students emerge from school with skills needed to power a more diversified economy. Stevis said Greece has relied on a limited number of economic drivers in the past, such as tourism, and should expand into other areas, such as renewable energy.
“Greece needs to diversify its economy,” he said. “Some of the old sectors are still important but they cannot remain the only ones.”
In that vein, one aspect he plans to research more closely is the challenges of the transition to a more diversified and green economy on workers and the environment.
However, he feels that unless the lenders, who are already profiting significantly from the debt, abandon their demands for austerity measures that harm the most vulnerable and those least responsible for the crisis, no amount of internal reforms will be sufficient.
“Let us hope that the lenders are willing to negotiate less onerous terms over the repayment of the debt with the new government that was just elected,” he said.
The Department of Political Science is in CSU’s College of Liberal Arts.