People wait to withdraw cash from an ATM in downtown Athens. Photo: Iakovos Hatzistavrou/AFP/Getty
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From taxi drivers to surgeons, everyone in Greece is now an expert on the country’s debt

The strange thing has been how few Greeks, whether politicians, business people, journalists or whoever, took the idea that their country might leave the euro seriously.

Greece is at the centre of the economic crisis: the worst-hit and longest-suffering part of the dev­eloped world. Five (or, depending on how you count it, seven) years of crisis have produced a country inured to grim financial news and plugged in to repercussions in the eurozone.

Social media – and especially Twitter – is everywhere. Hour by hour over the past few weeks, people have been following the latest developments in Brussels and Frankfurt in real time. Recently, I interviewed a neurosurgeon just after he’d removed a benign tumour. In between operations, he and his colleagues chatted about what the blogs were saying and showed each other tweets from eastern European finance ministers. A taxi driver, in broken English and with no prompting, recommended that I follow the FT’s Brussels bureau chief, Peter Spiegel, on Twitter. “He points out [Jean-Claude] Juncker’s lies,” he told me.

I could very happily make a Newsnight film in Athens speaking only to local taxi drivers. I’ve met former centre-right New Democracy voters who went for Syriza – “They promised ten things but if they do only two, I’ll be happy” – and taxi drivers with a better understanding of debt dynamics (the relationship between debt, interest rates and growth) than many politicians. I have also been reminded of the scale of the disaster that has hit the country. When someone tells you that they’re just glad they don’t have any children growing up in Greece, it’s hard to know how to respond.


Protest politics

Protests, demonstrations and marches have been near-nightly events in central Athens. I’ve seen Syntagma Square filled with anti-austerity campaigners, communists and pro-Europeans.

The last of these aren’t your usual demo-going suspects. Better-dressed and slightly older, they occasionally seem at a loss what to do with their hours in the square. Some of them choose to fill the time by offering “helpful” advice on the piece to camera I’ve just recorded, in order to “better reflect” what has been happening.

The crowds got very big some nights in the week, enough to overwhelm the mobile-phone networks. But they were never large enough to pass a good friend’s definition of a “huge” Greek rally: the McDonald’s in Syntagma has always stayed open.


Interesting times

While I’ve been here, I have spoken to a lot of Greek businesses, large and small. I’ve heard a huge list of everything that is wrong with the economy, from broken, illiquid (and now closed) banks, to over-regulation, plus the shortage of demand and spending power. Not a single business has mentioned the issue the government has made its main red line – the level of government debt.

That sort of makes sense. The level of Greece’s government debt is very high, yet the burden of servicing it is very low. Interest payments as a share of GDP are among the lowest in Europe. The debt has already been rescheduled, restructured and reduced. It’s still far too high and another write-down will be needed in the future, but on the ground it doesn’t feel like a pressing short-term problem.


The final countdown

Each day after filming and editing, the finished package had to be sent back to London before I headed to the BBC “live point” to appear on the show. The broadcast packages are sent via the internet and the BBC’s system provides a helpful timer showing how long it will take to send each file.

I noticed over this past week that the timer has an unhelpful habit of resetting itself. It will say there are four minutes to go – and then suddenly jump back up to nine. That is what this crisis has felt like over these few months: a timetable that keeps getting reset, with “final” deadlines that keep slipping.

As long as both sides are talking, a way will always be found to keep the clock running. Most of the supposed “hard” deadlines have been based around dates when payment is due on Greece’s debts, but to take that seriously is to impose a financial logic on a political problem. The debt is now almost entirely to “official creditors” – the IMF, the ECB, and other eurozone governments – so missing a payment is as much about international relations as economics.


Wolf at the door

The strange thing has been how few Greeks, whether politicians, business people, journalists or whoever, took the idea that their country might leave the euro seriously. Most seemed to expect a deal at some point and thought that any talk of a Grexit was scaremongering. The Yes campaign argued that a No vote could lead to exit, but many No voters just didn’t believe them. Perhaps this is because they’ve been here before. There is an element of “the boy who cried wolf” at play. But it is often forgotten that the fable did end with the arrival of a wolf.


Wrong call

The referendum was a huge moment for Greece, for the eurozone and for the EU. But there is still some debate, in Greece and outside, over why it happened and what it represents. Was it a strategic masterstroke from Syriza which united the Greek people and bought concessions from Europe? Or a desperate gamble by a government that had run out of options?

Syriza’s negotiating strategy with Europe since January had sought to win concessions based on three assumptions: that a Greek threat to leave the euro would cause severe market jitters and pressure Europe into a deal; that the Greek economy was in a strong enough position to weather uncertainty while the European Central Bank would keep funding the banks; and that left-leaning governments in Italy and France would provide support.

All three of these assumptions were reasonable. All three turned out to be wrong.

Duncan Weldon is economics correspondent for BBC2’s “Newsnight”. @DuncanWeldon

Duncan Weldon is a senior policy officer at the Trades Union Congress. He blogs for them at Touchstone.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.