End the European Blame Game! Keynote at the British Foreign Press Association's 2011 Awards Night

24/11/2011 by

The Foreign Press Association, London, paid me the compliment of inviting me to deliver a keynote speech at its 2011 Annual Awards Night. Here is the text of my talk (kindly transcribed by a journalist that wishes to remain anonymous).

Ladies and Gentlemen,

You can tell from my wide smile that it is a distinct honour and a great pleasure to be part of this celebration of fine journalism – even if  my role tonight is to serve as a living reminder of our world’s steady descent into generalised austerity.

I knew that this would be my sad role the moment I read the list of recent after-dinner speakers:

The Prince of Asturias

The Prince of Wales

The Mayor of London

A Greek economist!!!

A sharp drop of standards that a cynic would interpret as the Foreign Press Association’s fall from grace. However, I am quite convinced, that my invitation to be a keynote speaker tonight is a deliberate ploy by the Foreign Press Association to educate the public to, and to remind its members of, the sad and deteriorating state of our world.

Until two years ago, ladies and gentlemen, I was just a second rate economist. Now, I am considered a first rate Greek economist. A most dubious promotion, allow me to say.

Nevertheless, I must tell you that I do not mind at all appearing in front of you as the personification of failure. After all yours is a country that knows how to appreciate grand failure – a nation that has cherished Eddie the Eagle, developed a soft spot for Paul Gascoigne, even tolerated Nick Clegg was always quite likely to lend me an ear.

Truth be told, I would not be here now if my country, Greece, had not imploded and if Europe had not indulged in its current reverse alchemy, turning gold into lead – daily.

The curious thing about Crises, especially when afflicting foreigners, is that they can be a great boon for those in need of self-confirmation.

·         When the City of London imploded, along with Wall Street, we on the continent smiled smugly: The anglo-celts had gotten their comeuppance, we thought.

·         When Greece went belly up, soon to be followed by the popping corn kernels of Ireland, Portugal and then Italy and Spain, you Brits congratulated yourselves for having kept the Queen on your banknotes, rather than trade her for the non-existent bridges and gates of our euro notes.

·         Leftie economists saw the whole debacle as confirmation that free market capitalism cannot be civilised and, indeed, that it does not work.

·         Based on precisely the same facts, free marketeers concluded that it was all the fault of government getting in the markets’ otherwise brilliant ways.

In short, Crises confirm everyone’s prejudices, locking us ever more firmly into the same mindset that produced them in the first place.

Meanwhile, the human cost is piling up.

The result is that in my native Athens, in Dublin and in Cork, in Oporto and in Valencia, in mighty Germany and lovely Italy, countless people will go to bed tonight anxious, terrified – worried about how they will make ends meet in the morning. Speaking about Greece, the earthquake’s epicentre, I shall not bother you with standard macro statistics. Suffice to mention in passing the 50% increase in suicides, the quadrupling of the number of babies left at orphanages by despairing parents, the stories of young men who try to infect themselves with HIV in order to qualify for a small social security benefit, the old age pensioners who flock to the Electricity Company not in order to pay their bills but to request that their electricity supply be terminated, unable to pay for it.

In short, ladies and gentlemen, the lights are literally going out in our cities.

And those who initially thought this was a Greek problem are realising now that it is no such thing. That we are all embroiled in a systemic crisis that began in 2008 and which has been mutating and migrating ever since, picking out the weak links first before proceeding to the stronger.

This is of course not the time to dwell into causes and remedies. I am so relieved that, tonight, I can take a break from outlining proposals for dealing with the Crisis. And to be able to relate my experience with the countless journalists with whom I have spoken over the past two years – visitors in Greece trying to make sense, on behalf of their audience, of the mess that used to be a proud country.

To begin with, let me say that the quality of most foreign journalists I encountered surpassed my, admittedly, low expectations. In sharp contrast to Greek journalists, you were thoughtful, sensitive and had a keen eye trained on the reality on the ground. We Greeks may deserve our politicians but, at the same time, we do not deserve our appalling journalism.

Having praised you, I would like to present you with two pieces of advice, if I may. When trying to make sense of this Crisis, especially when abroad, you must avoid the fallacy of aggregation and the error of generalisation:

·         First, the fallacy of aggregation: Things rarely add up! What may work for one household, one firm, one sector, usually does not work for a large economy. If I tighten my belt during hard times, I shall overcome. If we all do likewise, throughout Europe, we shall all descend into greater debt and deeper misery.

·         Secondly, the error of generalisation: There is, ladies and gentlemen, no such thing as The Greeks or The Germans or, for that matter, The Brits. We are all individuals, as Brian famously struggled to convince his self appointed disciples. And we have more diversity among our people than we have differences across our nations.

1929 should have taught us two things:

·         First, that unless governments coordinate action effectively and create new institutions for integrating their societies further, a banking-cum-debt-cum-real economy crisis destroys the common currency of the era. The Gold Standard then, the euro today.

·         Secondly, that such a deep crisis engenders a Hobbesian war of all against all that starts when we utter sentences beginning with “The Greeks do this” or “The Germans think that”.

Our very own crisis, that started in 2008 and is continuing with a vengeance, must teach us a fresh lesson:

Rather than play the blame-game, we might as well accept that everyone is to blame. If you want, it is time to acknowledge that We Are All Greeks Now. Including the Germans!

This is not to say that some do not bear a larger share of the responsibility than others. We Greeks paid ourselves more than we could afford. Tried to avoid paying taxes. Over-borrowed. And produced little to account for our life-style. A whole nation tried to behave like the City of London’s bankers! Only the Greek state could not give its citizens knighthoods and could not stop many of them from actually moving to the greatest tax haven there is: London.

Seriously now, the blame-game is the worst legacy of this crisis. It dulls our reason and does to us that which hyper-activity inflicts upon those caught in quicksand.

Lastly, I note with satisfaction that the organisers invited tonight a Greek and a German. I submit to you that if we manage to drop the penchant for the blame-game, and instead shine the bright light of reason on the true causes of our crisis, we shall soon see that the problematic euro coin has two sides that are equally problematic. A Greek side but also a German one. For in the same way that Greece cannot seriously expect to be perpetually in deficit, Germany cannot seriously believe that it can escape the global crisis by expanding its surpluses vis-á-vis the deficit countries while insisting that the deficit countries eliminate cut their deficits.

It is time, ladies and gentlemen, to do something that Europeans have never done before – and I include you Brits in this. To look into each others’ eyes in the midst of a continental, a global crisis, and stop searching for someone to blame, to belittle, to despise. To look into each others’ eyes and, suddenly, recognise a partner with whom to plot a course out of our collective mess.

Hopefully, you will be around when this happens to report it in full technicolour and with words that warm the heart and inspire the mind.

Thank you.

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