What happens when you take on the establishment? In this blistering, personal account, world-famous economist Yanis Varoufakis blows the lid on Europe’s hidden agenda and exposes what actually goes on in its corridors of power.
Varoufakis sparked one of the most spectacular and controversial battles in recent political history when, as finance minister of Greece, he attempted to re-negotiate his country’s relationship with the EU. Despite the mass support of the Greek people and the simple logic of his arguments, he succeeded only in provoking the fury of Europe’s political, financial and media elite. But the true story of what happened is almost entirely unknown not least because so much of the EU’s real business takes place behind closed doors.
In this fearless account, Varoufakis reveals all: an extraordinary tale of brinkmanship, hypocrisy, collusion and betrayal that will shake the deep establishment to its foundations.
As is now clear, the same policies that required the tragic and brutal suppression of Greece’s democratic uprising have led directly to authoritarianism, populist revolt and instability throughout the Western world.
Adults In The Room is an urgent wake-up call to renew European democracy before it is too late.
Yanis Varoufakis is the former finance minister of Greece and now the figurehead of an international grassroots movement, DiEM25, campaigning for the revival of democracy in Europe. He speaks to audiences of thousands worldwide and is the author of the international bestseller And the Weak Suffer What They Must? Born in Athens in 1961, he was for many years a professor of economics in Britain, Australia and the USA before he entered government. He is currently Professor of Economics at the University of Athens.
A Note on Quoted Speech
In a book of this nature, in which so much depends on who said what to whom, I have made every effort to ensure the accuracy of quoted speech. To this end, l have been able to draw on audio recordings that I made on my phone, as well as on notes I made at the time, of many of the official meetings and conversations that appear in this book. Where my own recordings or notes are unavailable, I have relied on memory and, where possible, the corroboration of other witnesses.
The reader should note that many of the discussions reported in this book took place in Greek. This includes all conversations that occurred with my staff at the finance ministry, in parliament, on the streets of Athens, with the prime minister, in cabinet, and between my partner Danae and me. Necessarily, l have translated those conversations into English.
The only discussions I report that took place in neither Greek nor English were those I had with Michel Sapin, the French finance minister. Indeed, Mr Sapin was the only member of the Eurogroup not to address the meetings in English. Either we communicated through translators or, quite often, he would address me in French and I would reply in English, our grasp of the other’s language being good enough to carry on those conversations.
In every instance I have confined my account strictly to exchanges that are in the public interest and have therefore included only those that shed important light on events that affected the lives of millions.
My previous book, And the Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe, Austerity and the Threat to Global Stability, offered an historical explanation of why Europe is now in the process, decades in the making, of losing its integrity and forfeiting its soul. Just as l was finishing it in January 2015 I became finance minister of Greece and found myself thrust into the belly of the beast I had been writing about. By accepting the position of finance minister of a chronically indebted European country in the midst of a tumultuous clash with its creditors, Europe’s most powerful governments and institutions, I witnessed first hand the particular circumstances and immediate causes of our continent’s descent into a morass from which it may not escape for a long, long while.
This new book tells that story. It could be described as the story of an academic who became a government minister for a while before turning whistle-blower. Or as a kissand-tell memoir featuring powerful personages such as Angela Merkel, Mario Draghi, Wolfgang Schauble, Christine Lagarde, Emmanuel Macron, George Osborne and Barack Obama. Or as the tale of a small bankrupt country taking on the Goliaths of Europe in order to escape from debtors’ prison before suffering a crushing if fairly honourable defeat. But none of these descriptions convey my real motivation for writing this book.
Shortly after the ruthless suppression of Greece’s rebellion in 2015, also known as the Greek Spring or the Athens Spring, the leftwing party Podemos lost its momentum in Spain; no doubt many potential voters feared a fate similar to ours at the hands of a ferocious EU. Having observed the EU’s callous disregard for democracy in Greece, many supporters of the Labour Party in Britain then went on to vote for Brexit. Brexit boosted Donald Trump. Donald Trump’s triumph blew fresh wind into the sails of xenophobic nationalists throughout Europe and the world.
Vladimir Putin must be rubbing his eyes in disbelief at the way the West has been undermining itself so fabulously.
The story in this book is not only symbolic of what Europe, Britain and the United States are becoming; it also provides real insights into how and why our polities and social economies have fractured. As the so-called liberal establishment protests at the fake news of the insurgent alt-right, it is salutary to be reminded that in 2015 this same establishment launched a ferociously effective campaign of truth-reversal and character assassination against the pro-European, democratically elected government of a small country in Europe.
But as useful as I hope insights such as this may be, my motivation for writing this book goes deeper. Beneath the specific events that I experienced, I recognised a universal story, the story of what happens when human beings find themselves at the mercy of cruel circumstances that have been generated by an inhuman, mostly unseen network of power relations.
This is why there are no ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’ in this book. Instead, it is populated by people doing their best, as they understand it, under conditions not of their choosing. Each of the persons I encountered and write about in these pages believed they were acting appropriately, but, taken together, their acts produced misfortune on a continental scale. Is this not the stuff of authentic tragedy? Is this not what makes the tragedies of Sophocles and Shakespeare resonate with us today, hundreds of years after the events they relate became old news?
At one point Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, remarked in a state of exasperation that to resolve the drama we needed ‘adults in the room’. She was right. There was a dearth of adults in many of the rooms where this drama unfolded.
As characters, though, they fell into two categories: the banal and the fascinating. The banal went about their business ticking boxes on sheets of instructions handed down to them by their masters. In many cases though, their masters, politicians such as Wolfgang Schauble and functionaries like Christine Lagarde and Mario Draghi were different. They had the ability to reflect on themselves and their role in the drama, and this ability to enter into dialogues with themselves made them fascinatingly susceptible to the trap of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Indeed, watching Greece’s creditors at work was like watching a version of Macbeth unfold in the land of Oedipus. Just as the father of Oedipus, King Laius of Thebes, unwittingly brought about his own murder because he believed the prophecy that he would be killed by his son, so too did the smartest and most powerful players in this drama bring about their own doom because they feared the prophecy that foretold it. Keenly aware of how easily power could slip through their fingers, Greece’s creditors were frequently overpowered by insecurity. Fearing that Greece’s undeclared bankruptcy might cause them to lose political control over Europe, they imposed policies on that country that gradually undermined their political control, not just over Greece but over Europe.
At some point, like Macbeth, sensing their power mutate into insufferable powerlessness, they felt compelled to do their worst. There were moments I could almost hear them say
I am in blood
Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er. Strange things I have in head, that will to hand; Which must be acted ere they may be scann’d.
Macbeth, iii. iv.
An account by any one of the protagonists in a cut-throat drama such as this cannot escape bias nor the desire for vindication. So, in order to be as fair and impartial as possible, I have tried to see their actions and my own through the lens of an authentic ancient Greek or Shakespearean tragedy in which characters, neither good nor bad, are overtaken by the unintended consequences of their conception of what they ought to do. I suspect that l have come closer to succeeding in this task in the case of those people whom I found fascinating and rather less so in the case of those whose banality numbed my senses. For this I find it hard to apologize, not least because to present them otherwise would be to diminish the historical accuracy of this account.
Winters of our discontent
The only colour piercing the dimness of the hotel bar was the amber liquid flickering in the glass before him. As I approached, he raised his eyes to greet me with a nod before staring back down into his tumbler of whiskey. I sank onto the plush sofa, exhausted.
On cue, his familiar voice sounded imposingly morose. ‘Yanis,’ he said, ‘you made a big mistake.’
In the deep of a spring night a gentleness descends on Washington, DC that is unimaginable during the day. As the politicos, the lobbyists and the hangers-on melt away, the air empties of tension and the bars are abandoned to the few with no reason to be up at dawn and to the even fewer whose burdens trump sleep. That night, as on the previous eighty-one nights, or indeed the eighty-one nights that were to follow, I was one of the latter.
It had taken me fifteen minutes to walk, shrouded in darkness, from 700 19th Street NW, the International Monetary Fund’s building, to the hotel bar where l was to meet him. I had never imagined that a short solitary stroll in nondescript DC could be so restorative. The prospect of meeting the great man added to my sense of relief: after fifteen hours across the table from powerful people too banal or too frightened to speak their minds, l was about to meet a figure of great influence in Washington and beyond, a man no one can accuse of either banality or timidity.
All that changed with his acerbic opening statement, made more chilling by the dim light and shifting shadows.
Faking steeliness, I replied, ‘And what mistake was that, Larry?’
‘You won the election!’ came his answer.
It was 16 April 2015, the very middle of my brief tenure as finance minister of Greece. Less than six months earlier I had been living the life of an academic, teaching at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin while on leave from the University of Athens. But in January my life had changed utterly when l was elected a member of the Greek parliament. I had made only one campaign promise: that I would do everything I could to rescue my country from the debt bondage and crushing austerity being imposed on it by its European neighbours and the IMF. It was that promise that had brought me to this city and with the assistance of my close team member Elena Paraniti, who had brokered the meeting and accompanied me that night to this bar.
Smiling at his dry humour and to hide my trepidation, my immediate thought was, Is this how he intends to stiffen my resolve against an empire of foes? I took solace from the recollection that the seventy-first secretary of the United States Treasury and twenty-seventh president of Harvard is not known for his soothing style.
Determined to delay the serious business ahead of us a few moments more, I signalled to the bartender for a whiskey of my own and said, ‘Before you tell me about my “mistake”, let me say, Larry, how important your messages of support and advice have been in the past weeks. I am truly grateful. Especially as for years I have been referring to you as the Prince of Darkness.’
Unperturbed, Larry Summers replied, ‘At least you called me a prince. l have been called worse.’
For the next couple of hours the conversation turned serious. We talked about technical issues: debt swaps, fiscal policy, market reforms, ‘bad’ banks. On the political front he warned me that I was losing the propaganda war and that the ‘Europeans’, as he called Europe’s powers that be, were out to get me. He suggested, and I agreed, that any new deal for my long-suffering country should be one that Germany’s chancellor could present to her voters as her idea, her personal legacy.
Things were proceeding better than I had hoped, with broad agreement on everything that mattered. It was no mean feat to secure the support of the formidable Larry Summers in the struggle against the powerful institutions, governments and media conglomerates demanding my government’s surrender and my head on a silver platter. Finally, after agreeing our next steps, and before the combined effects of fatigue and alcohol forced us to call it a night, Summers looked at me intensely and asked a question so well rehearsed that I suspected he had used it to test others before me.
‘There are two kinds of politicians,’ he said: ‘insiders and outsiders. The outsiders prioritize their freedom to speak their version of the truth. The price of their freedom is that they are ignored by the insiders, who make the important decisions. The insiders, for their part, follow a sacrosanct rule: never turn against other insiders and never talk to outsiders about what insiders say or do. Their reward? Access to inside information and a chance, though no guarantee, of influencing powerful people and outcomes.’ With that Summers arrived at his question. ‘So, Yanis,’ he said, ‘which of the two are you?’
Instinct urged me to respond with a single word; instead I used quite a few.
‘By character I am a natural outsider,’ I began, ‘but,’ I hastened to add, ‘I am prepared to strangle my character if it would help strike a new deal for Greece that gets our people out of debt prison. Have no doubt about this, Larry: I shall behave like a natural insider for as long as it takes to get a viable agreement on the table for Greece, indeed for Europe. But if the insiders I am dealing with prove unwilling to release Greece from its eternal debt bondage, I will not hesitate to turn whistleblower on them to return to the outside, which is my natural habitat anyway.’
‘Fair enough,’ he said after a thoughtful pause.
We stood up to leave. The heavens had opened while we were talking. As I saw him to a taxi, the downpour soaked my spring clothes in seconds. With his taxi speeding away, I had the opportunity to realize a wild dream of mine, one that had kept me going during the interminable meetings of the previous days and weeks: to walk alone, unnoticed, in the rain.
Powering through the watery curtain in pristine solitude, I took stock of the encounter. Summers was an ally, albeit a reluctant one. He had no time for my government’s left-wing politics, but he understood that our defeat was not in America’s interest. He knew that the eurozone’s economic policies were not just atrocious for Greece but terrible for Europe and, by extension, for the United States too. And he knew that Greece was merely the laboratory where these failed policies were being tested and developed before their implementation everywhere across Europe.
This is why Summers offered a helping hand. We spoke the same economic language, despite different political ideologies, and had no difficulty reaching a quick agreement on what our aims and tactics ought to be. Nevertheless, my answer had clearly bothered him, even if he did not show it. He would have got into his taxi a much happier man, I felt, had I demonstrated some interest in becoming an insider. As this book’s publication confirms, that was never likely to happen.
Back at my hotel, getting dry and with two hours to go before the alarm clock would summon me back to the front line, I pondered a great anxiety: how would my comrades back home, the inner circle of our government, answer Summers’s question in their hearts? On that night l was determined to believe that they would answer it as I had done.
Less than two weeks later I began to have my first real doubts.
Super black boxes
Yiorgos Chatzis went missing on 29 August 2012. He was last sighted at the social security office in the small northern Greek town of Siatista, where he was told that his monthly disability allowance of €280 had been suspended. Eyewitnesses reported that he did not utter a word of complaint. ‘He seemed stunned and remained speechless,’ a newspaper said. Soon after, he used his mobile phone for the last time to call his wife. No one was at home, so he left a message: ‘I feel useless. I have nothing to offer you any more. Look after the children.’ A few days later his body was found in a remote wooded area, suspended by the neck over a cliff, his mobile phone lying on the ground nearby.
The wave of suicides triggered by the great Greek depression had caught the attention of the international press a few months earlier after Dimitris Christoulas, a seventy-seven-year-old retired pharmacist, shot himself dead by a tree in the middle of Athens’s Syntagma Square, leaving behind a heart-wrenching political manifesto against austerity. Once upon a time the silent, dignified grief of Christoulas’s and Chatzis’s loved ones would have shamed into silence even the most hardened bailiff, except that in Bailoutistan, my satirical term for post-2010 Greece, our bailiffs keep their distance from their victims, barricading themselves in five-star hotels, whizzing around in motorcades and steadying their occasionally flagging nerves with baseless statistical projections of economic recovery.
During that same year, 2012, three long years before Larry Summers was to lecture me on insiders and outsiders, my partner Danae Stratou presented an art installation at a downtown Athens gallery. She called it, It is time to open the black boxes! The work comprised one hundred black metal boxes laid out geometrically on the floor. Each contained a word selected by Danae from the thousands that Athenians had contributed through social media in response to her question, ‘In a single word, what are you most afraid of, or what is the one thing you want to preserve?’
Danae’s idea was that unlike, say, the black box of a downed aircraft, these boxes would be opened before it was too late. The word that Athenians had chosen more than any other was not jobs, pensions or savings. What they feared losing most was dignity. The island of Crete, whose inhabitants are renowned for their pride, experienced the highest number of suicides once the crisis hit. When a depression deepens and the grapes of wrath grow ‘heavy for the vintage’, it is the loss of dignity that brings on the greatest despair.
In the catalogue entry I wrote for the exhibition I drew a comparison with another kind of black box. In engineering terms, I wrote, a black box is a device or system whose inner workings are opaque to us but whose capacity to turn inputs into outputs we understand and use fluently. A mobile phone, for instance, reliably converts finger movements into a telephone call or the arrival of a taxi, but to most of us, though not to electrical engineers, what goes on within a smartphone is a mystery. As philosophers have noted, other people’s minds are the quintessential black boxes: ultimately we can have no idea of precisely what goes on inside another’s head. (During the 162 days that this book chronicles I often caught myself wishing that the people around me, my comrades-in-arms in particular, were less like black boxes in this regard.)
But then there are what I called ‘super black boxes’, whose size and import is so great that even those who created and control them cannot fully understand their inner workings: for example, financial derivatives whose effects are not truly understood even by the financial engineers who designed them, global banks and multinational corporations whose activities are seldom grasped by their CEOs, and of course governments and supranational institutions like the International Monetary Fund, led by politicians and influential bureaucrats who may be in office but are rarely in power. They too convert inputs money, debt, taxes, votes into outputs profit, more complicated forms of debt, reductions in welfare payments, health and education policies. The difference between these super black boxes and the humble smartphone or even other humans is that while most of us have barely any control over their inputs, their outputs shape all our lives.
This difference is encapsulated in a single word: power. Not the type of power associated with electricity or the crushing force of the ocean’s waves, but another, subtler, more sinister power: the power held by the ‘insiders’ that Larry Summers referred to but which he feared I would not have the disposition to embrace, the power of hidden information.
During and after my ministry days people constantly asked me, ‘What did the IMF want from Greece? Did those who resisted debt relief do so because of some illicit hidden agenda? Were they working on behalf of corporations interested in plundering Greece’s infrastructure its airports, seaside resorts, telephone companies and so on?’ If only matters were that straightforward.
When a large-scale crisis hits, it is tempting to attribute it to a conspiracy between the powerful. Images spring to mind of smoke-filled rooms with cunning men (and the occasional woman) plotting how to profit at the expense of the common good and the weak. These images are, however, delusions. If our sharply diminished circumstances can be blamed on a conspiracy, then it is one whose members do not even know that they are part of it. That which feels to many like a conspiracy of the powerful is simply the emergent property of any network of super black boxes.
The keys to such power networks are exclusion and opacity. Recall the ‘Greed is great’ ethos of Wall Street and the City of London in the years before the 2008 implosion. Many decent bank employees were worried sick by what they were observing and doing. But when they got their hands on evidence or information foreshadowing terrible developments, they faced Summers’s dilemma: leak it to outsiders and become irrelevant; keep it to themselves and become complicit; or embrace their power by exchanging it for other information held by someone else in the know, resulting in an impromptu two-person alliance that turbocharges both individuals’ power within the broader network of insiders. As further sensitive information is exchanged, this two-person alliance forges links with other such alliances. The result is a network of power within other pre-existing networks, involving participants who conspire de facto without being conscious conspirators.
Whenever a politician in the know gives a journalist an exclusive in exchange for a particular spin that is in the politician’s interest, the journalist is appended, however unconsciously, to a network of insiders. Whenever a journalist refuses to slant their story in the politician’s favour, they risk losing a valuable source and being excluded from that network. This is how networks of power control the flow of information: through co-opting outsiders and excluding those who refuse to play ball. They evolve organically and are guided by a supraintentional drive that no individual can control, not even the president of the United States, the CEO of Barclays or those manning the pivotal nodes in the IMF or national governments.
Once caught in this web of power it takes an heroic disposition to turn whistle-blower, especially when one cannot hear oneself think amid the cacophony of so much money-making. And those few who do break ranks end up like shooting stars, quickly forgotten by a distracted world.
Fascinatingly, many insiders, especially those only loosely attached to the network, are oblivious to the web that they reinforce, courtesy of having relatively few contacts with it. Similarly, those embedded in the very heart of the network are usually too far inside to notice that there is an outside at all. Rare are those astute enough to notice the black box when they live and work inside one. Larry Summers is one such rare insider. His question to me was in fact an invocation to reject the lure of the outside. Underpinning his belief system was the conviction that the world can only be made better from within the black box.
But this was where, I thought, he was very wrong.
Theseus before the labyrinth
Before 2008, while the super black boxes functioned stably, we lived in a world that seemed balanced and self-healing. Those were the times when the British chancellor Gordon Brown was celebrating the end of ‘boom and bust’ and the soon-to-be-chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke was heralding the Great Moderation. Of course it was all an illusion generated by the super black boxes whose function no one understood, especially not the insiders running them. And then, in 2008, they broke down spectacularly, generating our generation’s 1929, not to mention little Greece’s fall.
It is my view that the 2008 financial crisis, which is still with us almost a decade later, is due to the terminal breakdown of the world’s super black boxes of the networks of power, the conspiracies without conspirators, that fashion our lives. Summers’s blind faith that the remedies to this crisis will spring from those same broken down networks, through the normal operations of insiders, struck me even at the time as touchingly naive. Perhaps that is not surprising. After all, three years earlier I had written in Danae’s catalogue that ‘opening these super black boxes has now become a prerequisite to the survival of decency, of whole strata of our fellow humans, of our planet even. Put simply, we have run out of excuses. It is, therefore, time to open the black boxes!’ But in real terms, what would this entail?
First, we need to acquire a readiness to recognize that we may very well, each one of us, already be a node in the network; an ignorant de facto conspirator. Secondly, and this is the genius of Wikileaks, if we can get inside the network, like Theseus entering the labyrinth, and disrupt the information flow; if we can put the fear of uncontrollable information leaking in the mind of as many of its members as possible, then the unaccountable, malfunctioning networks of power will collapse under their own weight and irrelevance. Thirdly, by resisting any tendency to substitute old closed networks with new ones.
By the time I entered that Washington bar three years later I had tempered my stance. My priority was not to leak information to outsiders but to do whatever it took to get Greece out of debtors’ prison. If that meant pretending to be an insider, so be it. But the instant the price of admission to the insiders’ circle became acceptance of Greece’s permanent incarceration, I would leave. Laying down an Ariadne’s thread inside the insiders’ labyrinth and being ready to follow it to the exit is, I believe, a prerequisite for the dignity on which the Greek people’s happiness relies.
The day after my meeting with Larry Summers I met Jack Lew, the incumbent US Treasury secretary. After our meeting at the Treasury, an official seeing me out startled me with a friendly aside: ‘Minister, I feel the urge to warn you that within a week you will face a character assassination campaign emanating from Brussels.’ Larry’s pep talk about the importance of staying inside the proverbial tent, along with his warning that we were losing the media war, suddenly came into sharp focus.
Of course, it was no great surprise. Insiders, I had written in 2012, would react aggressively to anyone who dared open up their super black box to the outsiders’ gaze: ‘None of this will be easy. The networks will respond violently, as they are already doing. They will turn more authoritarian, more closed, more fragmented. They will become increasingly preoccupied with their own “security” and monopoly of information, less trusting of common people.
The following chapters relate the networks’ violent reaction to my stubborn refusal to trade Greece’s emancipation for a privileged spot inside one of their black boxes.
It all boiled down to one small doodle on a piece of paper whether I was prepared to sign on the dotted line of a fresh bailout loan agreement that would push Greece further into its labyrinthine jail of debt.
The reason why my signature mattered so much was that, curiously, it is not presidents or prime ministers of fallen countries that sign bailout loan agreements with the IMF or with the European Union. That poisoned privilege falls to the hapless finance minister. It is why it was crucial to Greece’s creditors that I be bent to their will, that I should be co-opted or, failing that, crushed and replaced by a more pliant successor. Had I signed, another outsider would have turned insider and praise would have been heaped upon me. The torrent of foul adjectives directed at me by the international press, arriving right on cue only a little more than a week after that Washington visit, just as the US official had warned me it would, would never have descended onto my head. I would have been ‘responsible’, a ‘trustworthy partner’, a ‘reformed maverick’ who had put his nation’s interests above his ‘narcissism’.
Judging by his expression as we walked out of the hotel and into the pouring rain, Larry Summers seemed to understand. He understood that the ‘Europeans’ were not interested in an honourable deal with me or with the Greek government. He understood that, in the end, I would be pressurised inordinately to sign a surrender document as the price of becoming a bona fide insider. He understood that l was not willing to do this. And he believed that this would be a pity, for me at least.
For my part I understood that he wanted to help me secure a viable deal. I understood too that he would do what he could to help us, provided it did not violate his golden rule: insiders never turn against other insiders and never talk to outsiders about what insiders do or say. What I was not sure about was whether he would ever understand why there was no chance in heaven or hell for that matter that I would sign a non-viable new bailout loan agreement. It would have taken too long to explain my reasons, but even if there had been time I feared that our backgrounds were too different for my explanation to make any sense to him.
My explanation, had I offered it, would have come in the form of a story or two.
The first would have probably begun inside an Athenian police station in the autumn of 1946, when Greece was on the brink of a communist insurgency and the second phase of its catastrophic civil war. A twenty-year-old chemistry student at Athens University named Yiorgos had been arrested by the secret police, roughed up and left in a cold cell for a few hours until a higher-ranking officer took him to his office ostensibly to apologize. I am sorry for the rough treatment, he said. You are a good boy and did not deserve this. But you know these are treacherous times and my men are on edge.
Forgive them. Just sign this and off you go. With my apologies.
The police officer seemed sincere and Yiorgos was relieved that his earlier ordeal at the hands of the thugs was at an end. But then, as he read the typewritten statement the officer was asking him to sign, a cold chill ran down his spine. The page read, I hereby denounce, truly and in all sincerity, communism, those who promote it, and their various fellow travellers.
Trembling with fear, he put the pen down, summoned all the gentleness that his mother Anna had instilled in him over the years, and said, Sir, I am no Buddhist but I would never sign a state document denouncing Buddhism. I am not a Muslim but I do not think the state has the right to ask me to denounce Islam. Similarly, I am not a communist but I see no reason why I should be asked to denounce communism.
Yiorgos’s civil liberty argument stood no chance. Sign or look forward to systematic torture and indefinite detention the choice is yours! shouted the enraged officer. The officer’s ire was based on perfectly reasonable expectations. Yiorgos had all the makings of a good boy, a natural insider. He had been born in Cairo to a middle-class family within the large Greek community, itself embedded in a cosmopolitan European enclave of French, Italian and British expats, and raised alongside sophisticated Armenians, Jews and Arabs. French was spoken at home, courtesy of his mother, Greek at school, English at work, Arabic on the street and Italian at the opera.
At the age of twenty, determined to connect with his roots, Yiorgos had given up a cushy job in a Cairo bank and moved to Greece to study chemistry. He had arrived in Athens in January 1945 on the ship Corinthia only a month after the conclusion of the first phase of Greece’s civil war, the first episode of the Cold War. A fragile détente was in the air, and so it had seemed reasonable to Yiorgos when student activists of both the Left and the Right had approached him as a compromise candidate for president of his school’s students’ association.
Shortly after his election, however, the university authorities had increased tuition fees at a time when students wallowed in absolute poverty. Yiorgos had paid the dean a visit, arguing as best as he could against the fee hike. As he left, secret policemen had manhandled him down the school’s marble steps and into a waiting van. and he had ended up with a choice that makes Summers’s dilemma seem like a walk in the park.
Given the young man’s bourgeois background, the police had every expectation that Yiorgos would either sign gladly or break quickly once torture began. However, with every beating Yiorgos felt less able to sign, end the pain and go home. As a result, he ended up in a variety of cells and prison camps that he could have escaped at any point simply by putting his signature on a single sheet of paper. Four years later, a shadow of his former self, Yiorgos emerged from prison into a grim society that neither knew of his peculiar choice nor really cared.
Meanwhile, during the period of Yiorgos’s incarceration, a young woman four years his junior had become the first female student to gain admittance to the University of Athens Chemistry School, despite their best efforts to keep her out. Eleni, for that was her name, began university as a rebellious proto-feminist but nevertheless felt a powerful dislike for the Left: during the years of the Nazi occupation she had been abducted as a very young girl by left-wing partisans who mistook her for a relative of a Nazi collaborator. Upon enrolling at the University of Athens, a fascist organization called X recruited her on the strength of her anticommunist feelings. Her first and, as it would turn out, her last mission for them was to follow a fellow chemistry student who had just been released from the prison camps.
This, in a nutshell, is the story of how I came about. For Yiorgos is my father, and Eleni, who ended up a leading member of the 1970s feminist movement, was my mother. Blessed with this history, signing on the dotted line in return for the mercy shown to insiders was never on the cards for me. Would Larry Summers have understood? I don’t think so.
Not for me
The other story is as follows. I met Lambros in the Athens apartment I share with Danae a week or so before the January 2015 election that brought me to office. It was a mild winter’s day, the campaign was in full swing, and I had agreed to give an interview to lrene, a Spanish journalist. She came to the apartment accompanied by a photographer and by Lambros, an Athens-based Greek-Spanish translator. On that occasion Lambros’s services were unnecessary as lrene and I talked in English. But he stayed, watching and listening intensely. After the interview, as Irene and the photographer were packing up their gear and heading for the door, Lambros approached me. He shook my hand, refusing to let go while addressing me with the concentration of a man whose life depends on getting his message across: ‘I hope you did not notice it from my appearance. I do my best to cover it up, but in fact I am a homeless person.’ He then told me his story as briefly as he could.
Lambros used to have a flat, a job teaching foreign languages and a family. In 2010, when the Greek economy tanked, he lost his job, and when they were evicted from their flat he lost his family. For the past year he had lived on the street. His only income came from providing translation services to visiting foreign journalists drawn to Athens by yet another demonstration in Syntagma Square which turned ugly and thus newsworthy. His greatest concern was finding a few euros to recharge his cheap mobile phone so that the foreign news crews could contact him.
Feeling he needed to wrap up his soliloquy, he rushed to the one thing he wanted from me:
I want to implore you to promise me something. l know you will win the election. I talk to people on the street and there is no doubt that you will. Please, when you win, when you are in office, remember those people. Do something for them. Not for me! I am finished. Those of us whom the crisis felled, we cannot come back. It is too late for us. But, please, please do something for those who are still on the verge. Who are clinging by their fingernails. Who have not fallen yet. Do it for them. Don’t let them fall. Don’t turn your back to them. Don’t sign what they give you like the previous ones did. Swear that you won’t. Do you swear?
‘I swear,’ was my two-word answer to him.
A week later I was taking my oath of office as the country’s finance minister. During the months that followed, every time my resolve weakened I had only to think back to that moment. Lambros will never know of his influence during the bleakest hours of those 162 days.
By early 2010, some five years before I took office, the Greek state was bankrupt. A few months later the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the Greek government organized the world’s greatest bankruptcy cover-up. How do you cover up a bankruptcy? By throwing good money after bad. And who financed this cover-up? Common people, ‘outsiders’ from all over the globe.
The rescue deal, as the cover-up was euphemistically known, was signed and sealed in early May 2010. The European Union and the IMF extended to the broke Greek government around €110 billion, the largest loan in history. Simultaneously a group of enforcers known as the troika so called because they represent three institutions: the European Commission (EC), which is the EU’s executive body, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was dispatched to Athens to impose measures guaranteed to reduce Greece’s national income and place most of the burden of the debt upon the weakest Greeks. A bright eight-year-old would have known that this couldn’t end well. Forcing new loans upon the bankrupt on condition that they shrink their income is nothing short of cruel and unusual punishment.
Greece was never bailed out. With their ‘rescue’ loan and their troika of bailiffs enthusiastically slashing incomes, the EU and lMF effectively condemned Greece to a modern version of the Dickensian debtors’ prison and then threw away the key.
Debtors’ prisons were ultimately abandoned because, despite their cruelty, they neither deterred the accumulation of new bad debts nor helped creditors get their money back. For capitalism to advance in the nineteenth century, the absurd notion that all debts are sacred had to be ditched and replaced with the notion of limited liability. After all, if all debts are guaranteed, why should lenders lend responsibly? And why should some debts carry a higher interest rate than other debts, reflecting the higher risk of going bad?
Bankruptcy and debt write-downs became for capitalism what hell had always been for Christian dogma unpleasant yet essential but curiously bankruptcy denial was revived in the twenty-first century to deal with the Greek state’s insolvency. Why? Did the EU and the IMF not realize what they were doing?
They knew exactly what they were doing. Despite their meticulous propaganda, in which they insisted that they were trying to save Greece, to grant the Greek people a second chance, to help reform Greece’s chronically crooked state and so on, the world’s most powerful institutions and governments were under no illusions. They appreciated that you could squeeze blood out of a stone more easily than make a bankrupt entity repay its loans by lending it more money, especially if you shrink its income as part of the deal. They could see that the troika, even if it managed to confiscate the fallen state’s silverware, would fail to recoup the money used to refinance Greece’s public debt. They knew that the celebrated ‘rescue’ or ‘bailout’ package was nothing more than a one-way ticket to debtors’ prison.
How do I know that they knew? Because they told me.
Prisoners of their own device
As finance minister five years later, I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth. From top IMF officials, from Germany’s finance minister, from leading figures in the ECB and the European Commission they all admitted, each in their own way, that it was true: they had dealt Greece an impossible hand. But having done so, they could see no way back.
Less than a month after my election, on 11 February 2015, in one of those spirit-numbing, windowless, neon-lit meeting rooms that litter the EU’s Brussels buildings, I found myself sitting opposite Christine Lagarde, the lMF’s managing director, France’s ex-finance minister and a former Washington-based high-flying lawyer. She had waltzed into the building earlier that day in a glamorous leather jacket, making me look drab and conventionally attired. This being our first encounter, we chatted amicably in the corridor before moving into the meeting room for the serious discussion.
Behind closed doors, with a couple of aides on each side, the conversation turned serious but remained just as friendly. She afforded me the opportunity to present my basic analysis of the causes and nature of the Greek situation as well as my proposals for dealing with it, and nodded in agreement for much of the time. We seemed to share a common language and were both keen to establish a good rapport. At the meeting’s end, walking towards the door, we got a chance for a short, relaxed but telling téte-a-téte. Taking her cue from the points I had made, Christine seconded my appeals for debt relief and lower tax rates as prerequisites for a Greek recovery. Then she addressed me with calm and gentle honesty: You are of course right, Yanis. These targets that they insist on can’t work. But, you must understand that we have put too much into this programme. We cannot go back on it. Your credibility depends on accepting and working within this programme.
So, there I had it. The head of the IMF was telling the finance minister of a bankrupt government that the policies imposed upon his country couldn’t work. Not that it would be hard to make them work. Not that the probability of them working was low. No, she was acknowledging that, come hell or high water, they couldn’t work.
With every meeting, especially with the troika’s smarter and less insecure officials, the impression grew on me that this was not a simple tale of us versus them, good versus bad. Rather, an authentic drama was afoot reminiscent of a play by Aeschylus or Shakespeare in which powerful schemers end up caught in a trap of their own making. In the real-life drama I was witnessing, Summers’s sacred rule of insiders kicked in the moment they recognized their powerlessness. The hatches were battened down, official denial prevailed, and the consequences of the tragic impasse they’d created were left to unfold on autopilot, imprisoning them yet further in a situation they detested for weakening their hold over events.
Because they, the heads of the IMF, of the EU, of the German and French governments, had invested inordinate political capital in a programme that deepened Greece’s bankruptcy, spread untold misery and led our young to emigrate in droves, there was no alternative: the people of Greece would simply have to continue to suffer.
As for me, the political upstart, my credibility depended on accepting these policies, which insiders knew would fail, and helping to sell them to the outsiders who had elected me on the precise basis that I would break with those same failed policies.
It’s hard to explain, but not once did I feel animosity towards Christine Lagarde. I found her intelligent, cordial, respectful. My view of humanity would not be thrown into turmoil were it to be shown that she actually had a strong preference for a humane Greek deal. But that is not relevant. As a leading insider, her top priority was the preservation of the insiders’ political capital and the minimization of any challenge to their collective authority.
Yet credibility, like spending, comes with tradeoffs. Every purchase means an alternative opportunity lost. Boosting my standing with Christine and the other figures of power meant sacrificing my credibility with Lambros, the homeless interpreter who had sworn me to the cause of those people who, unlike him, had not yet been drowned in the torrent of bankruptcy ravaging our land. This trade-off never came close to becoming a personal dilemma. And the powers that be realized this early on, making my removal from the scene essential.
A little more than a year later, in the run-up to the UK referendum on 23 June 2016, I was travelling across Britain giving speeches in support of a radical remain platform, the argument that the UK ought to stay within the EU to oppose this EU, to save it from collapse and to reform it. It was a tough sell. Convincing Britain’s outsiders to vote remain was proving an uphill struggle, especially in England’s north, because even my own supporters in Britain, women and men closer in spirit and position to Lambros than to Christine, were telling me they felt compelled to deliver a drubbing to the global establishment. One evening I heard on the BBC that Christine Lagarde had joined the heads of the world’s other top financial institutions (the World Bank, the OECD, the ECB, the Bank of England and so on) to warn Britain’s outsiders against the lure of Brexit. I immediately texted Danae from Leeds, where l was speaking that night, ‘With such allies, who needs Brexiteers?’
Brexit won because the insiders went beyond the pale. After decades of treating people like me as credible in proportion to our readiness to betray the outsiders who had voted for us, they still confused outsiders with people who gave a damn about their counsel. Up and down America, in Britain, in France and in Germany everywhere the insiders are feeling their authority slip away. Prisoners of their own device, slaves to the Summers dilemma, they are condemned, like Macbeth, to add error upon error until they realize that their crown no longer symbolizes the power they have but the power that has slipped away. In the few months I spent dealing with them, I caught glimpses of that tragic realization.
It was the (French and German) banks, stupid!
Friends and journalists often ask me to describe the worst aspect of my negotiations with Greece’s creditors. Not being able to shout from the rooftops what the high and mighty were telling me in private was certainly frustrating, but worse was dealing with creditors who did not really want their money back. Negotiating with them, trying to reason with them, was like negotiating a peace treaty with generals hell-bent on continuing a war safe in the knowledge that they, their sons and their daughters are out of harm’s way.
What was the nature of that war? Why did Greece’s creditors behave as if they did not want their money back? What led them to devise the trap in which they now found themselves? The riddle can be answered in seconds if one takes a look at the state of France’s and Germany’s banks after 2008.
Greece’s endemic underdevelopment, mismanagement and corruption explain its permanent economic weakness. But its recent insolvency is due to the fundamental design faults of the EU and its monetary union, the euro.
The EU began as a cartel of big business limiting competition between central European heavy industries and securing export markets for them in peripheral countries such as Italy and, later, Greece. The deficits of countries like Greece were the reflection of the surpluses of countries like Germany. While the drachma devalued, these deficits were kept in check. But when it was replaced by the euro, loans from German and French banks propelled Greek deficits into the stratosphere.
The Credit Crunch of 2008 that followed Wall Street’s collapse bankrupted Europe’s bankers who ceased all lending by 2009. Unable to roll over its debts, Greece fell into its insolvency hole later that year.
Suddenly three French banks faced losses from peripheral debt at least twice the size of the French economy. Numbers provided by the Bank of International Settlements reveal a truly scary picture: for every thirty euros they were exposed to, they had access to only one. This meant that if only 3 per cent of that exposure went bad that is, if €106 billion of the loans they had given to the periphery’s governments, households and firms could not be repaid then France’s top three banks would need a French government bailout.
The same three French banks’ loans to the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese governments alone came to 34 per cent of France’s total economy, €627 billion to be exact. For good measure, these banks had in previous years also lent up to €102 billion to the Greek state. If the Greek government could not meet its repayments, money men around the globe would get spooked and stop lending to the Portuguese, possibly to the Italian and Spanish states as well, fearing that they would be the next to go into arrears.
Unable to refinance their combined debt of nearly €1.76 trillion at affordable interest rates, the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese governments would be hard pressed to service their loans to France’s top three banks, leaving a black hole in their books. Overnight, France’s main banks would be facing a loss of 19 per cent of their ‘assets’ when a mere 3 per cent loss would make them insolvent.
To plug that gap the French government would need a cool €562 billion overnight. But unlike the United States federal government, which can shift such losses to its central bank (the Fed), France had dismantled its central bank in 2000 when it joined the common currency and had to rely instead on the kindness of Europe’s shared central bank, the European Central Bank. Alas, the ECB was created with an express prohibition: no shifting of Graeco-Latin bad debts, private or public, onto the ECB’s books. Full stop. That had been Germany’s condition for sharing its cherished Deutschmark with Europe’s riff-raff, renaming it the euro.
It’s not hard to imagine the panic enveloping President Sarkozy of France and his finance minister, Christine Lagarde, as they realized that they might have to conjure up €562 billion from thin air. And it’s not difficult to picture the angst of one of Lagarde’s predecessors in France’s finance ministry, the notorious Dominic Strauss-Kahn, who was then managing director of the IMF and intent on using that position to launch his campaign for France’s presidency in two years’ time.
France’s top officials knew that Greece’s bankruptcy would force the French state to borrow six times its total annual tax revenues just to hand it over to three idiotic banks.
It was simply impossible. Had the markets caught a whiff that this was on the cards, interest rates on France’s own public debt would have been propelled into the stratosphere, and in seconds €1.29 trillion of French government debt would have gone bad. In a country which had given up its capacity to print banknotes the only remaining means of generating money from nothing that would mean destitution, which in turn would bring down the whole of the European Union, its common currency, everything.
In Germany, meanwhile, the chancellor’s predicament was no less taxing. In 2008, as banks in Wall Street and the City of London crumbled, Angela Merkel was still fostering her image as the tight-fisted, financially prudent Iron Chancellor. Pointing a moralizing finger at the Anglosphere’s profligate bankers, she made headlines in a speech she gave in Stuttgart when she suggested that America’s bankers should have consulted a Swabian housewife, who would have taught them a thing or two about managing their finances. Imagine her horror when, shortly afterwards, she received a barrage of anxious phone calls from her finance ministry, her central bank, her own economic advisers, all of them conveying an unfathomable message:
“Chancellor, our banks are bust too! To keep the ATMs going, we need an injection of €406 billion of those Swabian housewives’ money by yesterday!”
It was the definition of political poison. How could she appear in front of those same members of parliament whom she had for years lectured on the virtues of penny-pinching when it came to hospitals, schools, infrastructure, social security, the environment, to implore them to write such a colossal cheque to bankers who until seconds before had been swimming in rivers of cash? Necessity being the mother of enforced humbleness, Chancellor Merkel took a deep breath, entered the splendid Norman Foster designed federal parliament in Berlin known as the Bundestag, conveyed to her dumbfounded parliamentarians the bad news and left with the requested cheque. At least it’s done, she must have thought. Except that it wasn’t. A few months later another barrage of phone calls demanded a similar number of billions for the same banks.
Why did Deutsche Bank, Finanzbank and the other Frankfurt-based towers of financial incompetence need more? Because the €406 billion cheque they had received from Mrs Merkel in 2009 was barely enough to cover their trades in USbased toxic derivatives. It was certainly not enough to cover what they had lent to the governments of Italy, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Greece a total of €477 billion, of which a hefty €102 billion had been lent to Athens. lf Greece lost its capacity to meet its repayments? German banks faced another loss that would require of Mrs Merkel another cheque for anything between €340 billion and €406 billion, but consummate politician that she is, the chancellor knew she would be committing political suicide were she to return to the Bundestag to request such an amount.
Between them, the leaders of France and Germany had a stake of around €1 trillion in not allowing the Greek government to tell the truth; that is, to confess to its bankruptcy.
Yet they still had to find a way to bail out their bankers a second time without telling their parliaments that this was what they were doing. As Jean-Claude Juncker, then prime minister of Luxembourg and later president of the European Commission, once said, ‘When it becomes serious, you have to lie.’
After a few weeks they figured out their fib: they would portray the second bailout of their banks as an act of solidarity with the profligate and lazy Greeks, who while unworthy and intolerable were still members of the European family and would therefore have to be rescued. Conveniently, this necessitated providing them with a further gargantuan loan with which to pay off their French and German creditors, the failing banks.
There was, however, a technical hitch that would have to be overcome first: the clause in the eurozone’s founding treaty that banned the financing of government debt by the EU. How could they get round it? The conundrum was solved by a typical Brussels fudge, that unappetizing dish that the Europeans, especially the British, have learned to loathe.
First, the new loans would not be European but international, courtesy of cutting the IMF into the deal. To do this would require the IMF to bend its most sacred rule: never lend to a bankrupt government before its debt has had a ‘haircut’, been restructured. But the lMF’s then managing director, Dominic Strauss-Kahn, desperate to save the banks of the nation he planned to lead two years down the track, was on hand to persuade the IMF’s internal bureaucracy to turn a blind eye. With the IMF on board, Europeans could be told that it was the international community, not just the EU, lending to the Greeks for the higher purpose of underpinning the global financial system. Perish the thought that this was an EU bailout for an EU member state, let alone for German and French banks!
Second, the largest portion of the loans, to be sourced in Europe, would not come from the EU per se; they would be packaged as a series of bilateral loans that is to say, from Germany to Greece, from Ireland to Greece, from Slovenia to Greece, and so on with each bilateral loan of a size reflecting the lender’s relative economic strength, a curious application of Karl Marx’s maxim ‘from each according to his capacity to each according to his need’.
So, of every €1000 handed over to Athens to be passed on to the French and German banks, Germany would guarantee €270, France €200, with the remaining €530 guaranteed by the smaller and poorer countries.
This was the beauty of the Greek bailout, at least for France and Germany: it dumped most of the burden of bailing out the French and German banks onto taxpayers from nations even poorer than Greece, such as Portugal and Slovakia. They, together with unsuspecting taxpayers from the lMF’s co-funders such as Brazil and Indonesia, would be forced to wire money to the Paris and Frankfurt banks.
Unaware of the fact that they were actually paying for the mistakes of French and German bankers, the Slovaks and the Finns, like the Germans and the French, believed they were having to shoulder another country’s debts. Thus, in the name of solidarity with the insufferable Greeks, the Franco-German axis planted the seeds of loathing between proud peoples.
From Operation Offload to bankruptocracy
As soon as the bailout loans gushed into the Greek finance ministry, ‘Operation Offload’ began: the process of immediately siphoning the money off back to the French and German banks. By October 2011, the German banks’ exposure to Greek public debt had been reduced by a whopping €27.8 billion to €91.4 billion. Five months later, by March 2012, it was down to less than €795 million. Meanwhile the French banks were offloading even faster: by September 2011 they had unburdened themselves of €63.6 billion of Greek government bonds, before totally eliminating them from their books in December 2012. The operation was thus completed within less than two years. This was what the Greek bailout had been all about.
Were Christine Lagarde, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel naive enough to expect the bankrupt Greek state to return this money with interest? Of course not. They saw it precisely as it was: a cynical transfer of losses from the books of the FrancoGerman banks to the shoulders of Europe’s weakest taxpayers. And therein lies the rub:
The EU creditors I negotiated with did not prioritize getting their money back because, in reality, it wasn’t their money. Socialists, Margaret Thatcher liked to say, are bound to make a mess of finance because at some point they run out of other people’s money. How would the iron Lady have felt if she’d known that her dictum would prove so fitting a description of her own self-proclaimed disciples, the neoliberal apparatchiks managing Greece’s bankruptcy? Did their Greek bailout amount to anything other than the socialization of the French and German banks’ losses, paid for with other people’s money?
In my book The Global Minotaur, which I was writing in 2010 while Greece was imploding, I argued that free-market capitalist ideology expired in 2008, seventeen years after communism kicked the bucket.
Before 2008 free-market enthusiasts portrayed capitalism as a Darwinian jungle that selects for success among heroic entrepreneurs. But in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse, the Darwinian natural selection process was stood on its head: the more insolvent a banker was, especially in Europe, the greater his chances of appropriating large chunks of income from everyone else: from the hard-working, the innovative, the poor and of course the politically powerless.
Bankruptocracy is the name I gave to this novel regime.
Most Europeans like to think that American bankruptocracy is worse than its European cousin, thanks to the power of Wall Street and the infamous revolving door between the US banks and the US government. They are very, very wrong. Europe’s banks were managed so atrociously in the years preceding 2008 that the inane bankers of Wall Street almost look good by comparison. When the crisis hit, the banks of France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK had exposure in excess of $30 trillion, more than twice the United States national income, eight times the national income of Germany, and almost three times the national incomes of Britain, Germany, France and Holland put together.
A Greek bankruptcy in 2010 would have immediately necessitated a bank bailout by the German, French, Dutch and British governments amounting to approximately $10,000 per child, woman and man living in those four countries. By comparison, a similar market turn against Wall Street would have required a relatively tiny bailout of no more than $258 per US citizen.
If Wall Street deserved the wrath of the American public, Europe’s banks deserved 38.8 times that wrath.
But that’s not all. Washington could park Wall Street’s bad assets on the Federal Reserve’s books and leave them there until either they started performing again or were eventually forgotten, to be discovered by the archaeologists of the future. Put simply, Americans did not need to pay even that relatively measly $258 per head out of their taxes. But in Europe, where countries like France and Greece had given up their central banks in 2000 and the ECB was banned from absorbing bad debts, the cash needed to bail out the banks had to be taken from the citizenry.
If you have ever wondered why Europe’s establishment is so much keener on austerity than America’s or Japan’s, this is why. It is because the ECB is not allowed to bury the banks’ sins in its own books, meaning European governments have no choice but to fund bank bailouts through benefits cuts and tax hikes.
Was Greek’s unholy treatment a conspiracy? If so, it was one without conscious conspirators, at least at the outset. Christine Lagarde and her ilk never set out to found Europe’s bankruptocracy. When the French banks faced certain death, what choice did she have as France’s finance minister, alongside her European counterparts and the IMF, but to do whatever it took to save them even if this entailed lying to nineteen European parliaments at once about the purpose of the Greek loans? But having lied once and on such a grand scale, they were soon forced to compound the deceit in an attempt to hide it beneath fresh layers of subterfuge. Coming clean would have been professional suicide. Before they knew it, bankruptocracy had enveloped them too, just as surely as it had enveloped Europe’s outsiders.
This is what Christine was signalling to me when she confided that ‘they’ had invested too much in the failed Greek programme to go back on it. She might as well have used Lady Macbeth’s more graceful words: ‘What’s done cannot be undone.’
‘National traitor’ the origins of a quaint charge
My career as ‘national traitor’ has its roots in December 2006. In a public debate organized by a former prime minister’s think tank I was asked to comment on the 2007 Greek national budget. Looking at the figures, something compelled me to dismiss them as the pathetic window-dressing exercise that they were:
“Today we are threatened by the bubble in American real estate and in the derivatives market If this bubble bursts, and it is certain it will, no reduction in interest rates is going to energize investment in this country to take up the slack, and so none of this budget’s figures will have a leg to stand on. The question is not whether this will happen but how quickly it will result in our next Great Depression.”
My fellow panellists, who included two former finance ministers, looked at me the way one looks at an inconvenient fool.
Over the next two years I would encounter that look time and again. Even after Lehman Brothers went belly up, Wall Street crumpled, the credit crunch hit and a great recession engulfed the West, Greece’s elites were living in a bubble of self-deluded bliss. At dinner parties, in academic seminars, at art galleries they would harp on about Greece’s invulnerability to the ‘Anglo disease’, secure in the conviction that our banks were sufficiently conservative and the Greek economy fully insulated from the storm.
In pointing out that nothing could have been further from the truth I sounded a jarring dissonance, but it would only get worse.
In reality, states never repay their debt. They roll it over, meaning they defer repayment endlessly, paying only the interest on the loans. As long as they can keep doing this, they remain solvent.
It helps to think of public debt as a hole in the ground next to a mountain representing the nation’s total income. Day by day the hole gets steadily deeper as interest accrues on the debt, even if the state does not borrow more. But during the good times, as the economy grows, the income mountain is steadily getting taller. As long as the mountain rises faster than the debt hole deepens, the extra income added to the mountain’s summit can be shovelled into the adjacent hole, keeping its depth stable and the state solvent. Insolvency beckons when the economy stops growing or starts to contract: recession then eats into a country’s income mountain, doing nothing to slow the pace at which the debt hole continues to grow. At this point alarmed money men will demand higher interest rates on their loans as the price for continuing to refinance the state, but increased rates operate like overzealous excavators, digging yet faster and making the debt hole even deeper.
Adults in the room. My battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment
by Yanis Varoufakis
get it at Amazon.com