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Greece's debt crisis: The impact on the middle class

High school students protest in front of the Greek Parliament during a march against the austerity measures, loss of jobs, and the lack of books and teachers due to the crisis.

Kai Ryssdal: We've seen the Greek riots on TV. We've read about austerity budgets and economic malaise. Paul Mason sees it a little bit differently. He's been in and out of Athens for most of the past year in his job as an economics editor at BBC. We've reached him in London. Paul, good to have you with us.

Paul Mason: Hi Kai.

Ryssdal: We wanted to get some sense from you of the difference between dissatisfaction and anger in Athens, and what's happening in the streets.

Mason: I think there's certainly a lot of anger, but you're starting to see a different thing though. It's been called anomie after a famous term used by the sociologist Durkheim. The sort of low-level listlessness of people in the street -- people getting out of their cars and lifting the toll booth barrier and saying I'm not paying, stuff like that.

Ryssdal: What happens when that happens, when there is this anomie as you say?

Mason: Well, suicides have gone up. Suicides are up 40 percent in the year. You have a big rise in violent crime. The other thing that people tell me is that they're switching off the TV, they can't stand any more. I've talked to a number of social theorists who think that there might come a moment where people just snap, and who knows what they'll do.

Ryssdal: Have you been following the Occupy Wall Street protests happening over here?

Mason: I certainly have, yes.

Ryssdal: What do you think?

Mason: The interesting thing is that what you've now got in your country are... We've had the Tea Party, who were very exercised by the bailout of Wall Street and quite similar to some of the people I've met in Athens. Because remember in Athens it's not just left-wing protesters, there are right-wing, religious, and nationalist protesters as well. And in Athens they came together. This hasn't happened in America yet. But I would imagine one wants to keep an eye on Occupy Wall Street in case that dynamic does begin to, as it were, resonate, were originally out there for Tea Party events.

Ryssdal: When the government comes out in Athens and says, listen, 'We don't have the money. We've been not collecting taxes for too long and there's waste and corruption and we have to fix it and it's going to be bad.' Does that carry any weight?

Mason: Well it does carry weight, but remember that everybody has always got their own excuse for this. The small business people are saying, look, the problem we've got is that the tax environment is not predictable, every few weeks brings a new tax. The $2 billion euro tax they slapped on only last week will be collected through electricity bills, so there is no way of avoiding is. There is anecdotal evidence that the super-rich of Greece have left the country. And I think that a lot of the Greek people think, hold on a minute, we're not all in this together, the super-rich seem to have an outlet.

Ryssdal: The ones who are tuning out, who can't bear it any more and who are lifting up those toll gates to bypass the toll booths, are they what used to be the middle class, I guess?

Mason: I think they are the middle class. When I was there, I saw the protesters who went to sabotage the sale of repossessed homes. And when I started asking well what do you do, it was -- I'm an an IT professional, I'm an advertising executive, and these are not the people I would normally associate with direct-action protests.

Ryssdal: Where does this go -- if as you have said in some of your pieces -- there is only more pain ahead.

Mason: A lot of people secretly believe Greece will default on its debts. Then it will go on life support from the European Union, but what it might get then is a little bit of breathing space to do the structural reforms it needs to do. So what some of the Greek politicians say in background is look, Europe needs to give us time to do this because really what we're going through a sort of post-1989 Soviet Union-style change in our economy. But we can't do it in an atmosphere of constant crisis.

Ryssdal: Paul Mason, covering Athens for the BBC and their program "Newsnight." Paul, thanks so much.

Mason: Thank you.

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