Greece isn't panicking about capital controls because millions of people are already too poor for it to matter

Greece ATMREUTERS/Alkis KonstantinidisA man (L) puts money in his wallet as people line up to withdraw cash from an ATM outside a Eurobank branch in Athens, Greece June 28, 2015.

ATHENS, Greece — Capital controls and bank closures have made headlines around the world this week — but there actually seems to be relatively little panic on the streets in Greece.

In fact, the lines for banks seem to be getting shorter, if anything. But what’s going on?

One reason is that they have been here already, to some extent, for years. People seem far less inclined to panic since this is now the fifth year of a semi-permanent crisis.

I spoke to Syriza activist Mihalis Panayiotakis, a member of the governing party’s digital policy committee, and he gave his view on what’s been going on: “A lot of the money that left the banks in 2010-2012 went out the country, also companies relocated. That money never came back.”

It’s certainly true that the actually amount deposited in Greek banks has gone through the floor. The stock of deposits is now less than half what it was at the peak in 2009, at the end of Greece’s post-euro entrance boom.

Money flooded out of Greek banks during the crisis, between 2010 and 2012. When that was put on hold — partly through a second, larger bailout for the country, and partly through Mario Draghi’s “whatever it takes” speech, it never really came back to a significant extent.

And since late last year, the outflows have begun again. Many people have already withdrawn the money they wanted to, and so shuttering the banks is a bit like locking the door after the horse has bolted. Some literally are putting their cash under the mattress,

And many millions people are just too poor for the capital controls to be much more than an annoyance. The rules limit withdrawals to €60 ($US66.46 or £42.52) from a cash point per day. As of 2013, the average Greek salary for people in full time employment was just €54.66.

“The withdrawal limit — €60 per day? Most people don’t have that much to withdraw in the first place! A lot of people don’t have bank accounts any more, or they have been drawing on them throughout the crisis,” Panayiotakis added.

The queues, still clearly present, have been significantly smaller in recent days than they were when I got here on Sunday. Then, the lines were palpably tense. Now, a lot of them are hard to distinguish from short queues for the bank anywhere. In the centre of the city, some have an almost a 1:1 ration of international journalists to Greek queue-rs.

Panayiotakis added that there are more alternative ways of paying than ever: “The banking situation isn’t what it would have been if this happened 15 or 20 years ago. There are pensioners who rely on cash, but for others they have cash cards, you can use that in the supermarket and it isn’t capped.”

That shouldn’t detract from what’s happening — there’s no doubt that some people are genuinely struggling, particularly pensioners whose normal routines have been severely disrupted. Anyone who, for whatever reason, needed a large amount of cash this week will have had problems.

But the situation here is abnormally normal in many ways — there are not (yet) any visible shortages of food or basic life necessities, despite reports. Shops and restaurants still seem to be humming, in Athens at least.

It’s tense though — people I spoke to at the rallies both in favour and against the bailout deal often had conspiratorial angles to their complaints about the other side — for the pro-euro crowd, that the government could be engineering an exit from the eurozone, perhaps on purpose. For the anti-austerity group, Greece’s bankers, media and the other European nations were targets of complaints.

It doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of trust here — but so far, a lot of people are just too jaded, and some too poor, for the current crisis to have hit home yet.

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