Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Pension (Σύνταξη)

When governments face a financial crisis, they need to find ways to cut back on spending, and one of the first ways to do this is to cut back on money being paid out in pensions and benefits, especially the ones being paid fradulently. For example, a while ago, it was discovered that blindness seemed to be contagious on one small Greek island; it turned out that the local opthalmologist(s) were signing out free blindness benefits, granting favours to the residents, no doubt for a cut in the takings.

It was recently revealed that at least 18,228 pensions were being paid out in Greece fradulently. The Greek word for 'pension' is σύνταξη, which can actually mean 'pension' in the classic old-age payment, or 'benefit', making it difficult to work out what kind of pensions are being paid without further analysis. But the state had conducted another clear-up of pension/benefit claims only just recently, which sorted out (or so it seems) the fraudulent beneficiaries (as in the above-mentioned cases of μεταδοτική στραβομάρα). So I'm assuming that the 18,228 pensions recently cited as being paid out illegally must be of the old-age retirement type (let's put aside the fact that many Greek state employees take early retirement, anytime from their mid-40s to their early 50s; they don't wait till they're in their 60s, as one would be assuming when they hear the words 'old' and 'retirement'). This decrease in payouts will surely help the state coffers. But that figure accounts for just a mere 0.4% of the total pensions/subsidies being paid out - in other words, that's hardly anything.

The figures are even more worrying when the total figure for pensions being paid out is taken into account: 4.41 million pensioners were registered in Greece. Subtracting the number of pensions whose payments have stopped, that makes approximately 4.39 million continuing to be paid. The population of Greece according to the 2011 census is slighly less than 11 million (it probably does not include illegal immigrant, who aren't recorded in pension/benefit schemes in the first place), which means that nearly 40% of the population is receiving a pension. Not forgetting that this figure does not take into account people who receive more than one pension (they may have worked in different sectors, which makes them entitiled to state handouts from various sources, which has laways made tracking who is getting what even murkier), it creates a dismal picture: more than one Grek citizen (and they don't necessarily live in Greece, as reitred Greeks can take their pension to another country) is receiving a benefit which has to be paid for by the taxes of at least two working people in the Greek state.

The greatest fraudsters were, unsurprisingly, those receiving public service pension funds, as well as IKA, the Greek equivalent of the United Kingdom's NHS, because they are the largest social insurance institutions in Greece. But there were also two more groups of fraudsters that stuck out like sore thumbs - the farmers' pension fund, OGA, and the doctors', ETEAM. Sadly, it's the usual suspects that are milking the system.

On a happier note, the Greek economy showed a surplus for the first two months of this year, which sounds like good news. Our finance minister is very pleased about the way things are going at the moment. But this surplus was created simply by making cutbacks, not by profiting from any investment. In other words, Greek state spending went on a diet and lost some weight. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Sharing your junk food over some television is the best way to enjoy a comedy spot in the evening. In my search for something different for my Greek eaters to experiment with, during today's supermarket trip, I found a combination of Europe's extremities: some (expensive) Burts' crisps (€2.96 a packet) some (cheap) made-in-Greece green cola (€0.60 per can - there was also a special going: buy 5, get 1 free). When choosing a junk food treat, we allow a budget cost of up to €2 per person because that's how much a filling souvlaki costs. I can still supplement this meal with another €4. In the same way, we've tried a whole host of 'exotic' treats, including Bundaberg ginger beer, Ocean spray craisins and cranberry juice, pecan nuts, among other treats now being made available temproarily at the local supermarkets: 'all in moderation' follows.  

On a more global scale, cutbacks are being planned in all European economies, and pensions/benefits are the main target. One need look no further than Europe's extremities to see how bad things are in the pensions/benefits sector: Greece and the UK, with their completely different politicial systems, different transparency levels and different social structure, are both in the same boat, wading through choppy waters. They make an interesting comparison: for completely different reasons, they are now faced with the same dilemma. They greatest losers will not be the tiny number of fraudsters: it will be the suckers who have to keep paying into the system to ensure that there will be enough for them when they leave the workforce. For there to be anything left, we will have to face cutbacks in both the health and education systems, the last two bastions of state intervention. When these are lost, it's each for his own.

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