CBS’s 60 Minutes program on An Imperfect Union: Europe’s Debt Crisis. An ‘eyewitness’ assessment

On 8th of April, CBS’s 60 Minutes featured a section on the Euro Crisis in which I appeared. Here is my account, and assessment, of it.

Last month I was invited to participate in CBS’s 60 Minutes piece on the euro crisis. First came a meeting with one of the program’s producers, Coleman Cowan. Coleman explained that he had seen my Channel 4 mini documentary on the Euro Crisis, was impressed by the ‘human angle’ that it portrayed, and wanted to involve me in their own attempt at presenting the Euro Crisis to an American audience. Then, a couple of days later, came an hour long interview with Steve Kroft, plus a walk around the meat and fish markets of downtown Athens, the purpose of which was to relate a ‘feel’ of the situation on the ground, along the lines of my Channel 4 piece.

The interview with Steve Kroft was highly pleasurable. He was well briefed (quite obviously by Coleman), asked interesting questions, and engaged with me in a manner that many other leading journalists had failed to do over the past two years. In particular, Steve gave me a platform to explain, in some detail, my analysis of what really caused the Euro Crisis; of the fact that debt is a symptom, as opposed to a cause; of my main criticism of bailouts-plus-austerity (i.e. that they inflict a hideous cost not only on the deficit countries but, eventually, on the surplus nations as well). Nevertheless, knowing how these programs are edited, I was wary of what would make it through the final cut.

Prior to watching the final product, my worst fear was that I would appear as some Greek economist who pleads on behalf of his suffering compatriots, devoid of any serious counter-analysis to that offered by the German Finance Minister, whom I knew the program featured. Thankfully, I was ‘allowed’ a brief window of an opportunity to make an analytical point when Steve asked me: “Most people would say Greece got itself into this by borrowing way too much money, by being a fairly unproductive society, by not paying its taxes. All those things are true.” It was my cue to reply: “All those things are precisely true, but have no capacity to explain the crisis that Greece finds itself in today. All these things have always been true, but we haven’t had a crisis like this. We are now going through what the United States of America went between 1929 and 1932. Only, we are part of a currency union which was never designed to sustain such a crisis.”

While appreciative of this (brief) opportunity to issue an analytical statement on such a popular program, I very much fear that the viewer was, in the end, short-changed. Yet again the Euro Crisis was reported in a manner that leads the audience to the conclusion that the problem with the eurozone is that some countries accumulated too much debt and that, now, Germany has the unenviable task of bailing them out; a task that puts it in the difficult position of having to impose strict conditions before it dispenses its citizens’ hard earned money. While the program was sympathetic to the suffering Greeks, the underlying analytical message was simple: Bitter medicine must be dispensed, Germany is dispensing it (courtesy of being the only country that has the funds to bail the rest out) and, alas, Greeks and assorted southerners (plus the Irish) are unhappy about the loss of sovereignty involved (an unhappiness that is heightened by the memory of the Nazi occupation).

This analysis is precisely wrong. During my long interview with Steve Kroft (out of which came the snippets that you see in the piece) I put all my energy into offering what I consider to be the true causes and nature of the Euro Crisis; the way that eurozone was constructed, the prior flow of rivers of private (bank created money into the Periphery, the internal imbalances which have been growing in Europe, its dependence on the US deficit etc. Of these, only the statement “we are part of a currency union which was never designed to sustain such a crisis” made it. But disconnected from any explanation of what I meant, and how it pertains to the failure that is the current bailout-austerity policy mix, I suspect that the viewer had no chance of understanding my point, or using my narrative as a counterweight to those of Mr Schauble and Ms Lagarde.

All in all, CBS did as good a job as I ought to expect. Perhaps it was too much to expect a more nuanced program from a US channel, when Europe’s own media are far cruder and less analytical. Nevertheless, while fearing a worse piece than the one that transpired, I was hoping that my own Channel 4 effort (which brought me to CBS’ attention) would have inspired CBS to aim slightly higher.

Postscript: To all journalists reading this, and who may be interested in some advice on how to report (and how not to report) the Euro Crisis, see this article (which was commissioned by the British Journalism Review, and appeared in its March 2012 issue).

51 Comments

  • (Quote)But to Greeks, it’s more than tough medicine when an outside entity suggests interfering with their government. At one point, Schaeuble thought it might be a good idea to postpone elections so a new government wouldn’t vote down the austerity conditions. It was a big mistake says Yanis Varoufakis, an economist at the University of Athens. He says Greeks are to blame for their financial problems but “you cannot tell a people when they’re going to hold elections. You cannot tell a sovereign parliament when it should be dissolving itself or not,” he tells Kroft. “You can express a wish, but you cannot issue, especially if you’re speaking with a German accent…what to do.” (End Quote)

    http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-57409497/german-finance-minister-were-greeces-scapegoat/

    Yanis, I suppose you would consider the above as a crafty distortion of your views about the crisis and the collective ‘guilt’ or the ‘sensitivities’ of the ‘Greeks’, by those wily CBS editors.

    On the other hand, your vast experience with TV interviewers should have taught you NEVER to answer a question with a tongue-in-cheek “Yes, but…” especially if your “Yes” is so damning for all the “Greeks”, while your “but” is so weak as to go unnoticed by an uninformed US audience looking for the perennial scapegoat:

    (a) BUT “you cannot tell a people when they’re going to hold elections”

    or (b) BUT [“all about how Greeks got themselves into this mess”] “have no capacity to explain the crisis that Greece finds itself in today”.

    If you cannot reply with an emphatic and well-documented NO!! to the propaganda that blames the events of 2009-10 on the “Greeks” themselves, how do you expect your interviewers to take seriously any Modest Proposal authored by a Greek?

    • “how do you expect your interviewers to take seriously any Modest Proposal authored by a Greek?”
      This only indicates signs of prejudice,lack of critical thinking and lack of common sense.As a matter of fact all it would take in order to take ANY proposal seriously,is common sense,open mindedness and abandonment of any nationalistic blinders,either Greek or German or whatever.Its always the message that matters and not the messenger

    • Very good points. “Yes, but…” leaves room for even the most absurd premises of a false argument.

    • I guess we need a modest proposal authored by a Swiss, or even better from Singapore.

  • Yani, I agree that you offered an opening for in-depth analysis which 60 minutes did not take.

    The most disturbing part about the 60 minutes interview was allowing a British lady to narrate and frame the euro crisis debate. Obviously the Brits as non EuroZone members have a much different and in most cases non-complimentary views about the euro.

    So the entire interview was based on the Greek, German and British perspective. Greece as the jailed, Germany as the jailor and Britain as the disinterested third party dispensing FALSE perspective on the whole matter.

    Nowhere to be found the French, Spanish and Italian perspectives. This was one of the most biased pieces 60 Minutes ever did.

    • Outsiders like Britain (in this case) most of the time have a much clearer view. It is similar to the advantages a consultant has over someone who has more experience in a field, but lacks the neutrality & bigger picture.

  • I found it digusting to see Christine Lagarde carrying a $6,000 handbag while she asserted that for Greeks it is like racking up too much debt on your credit card and it is not time to repay. The German finance minister was even more disgusting.
    I would like to see 500,000 young Greeks travel to Occupy Germany.
    Media like 60 Minutes, and our own national Canadian broadcaster, the CBC, do all they can to support the false impressions created by Lagarde and Germany’s finance minister.
    Here in Ottawa, the national capital of Canada, even workers at the local hair salon believe Greeks have just over-extended their credit cards and now they are being required to repay. It is something Canadians, who are grossly overextended on their own credit cards can relate too. But that is not what is going on in Greece. What is going on is the whole sale dismantling of the social institutions and the disenfranchisement of the Greek people, whilst the fat cats responsible for creating the banking crises, including the German banks, live to feast and consume and enjoy their luxury items.

  • The worst part of it was that i implied the crisis was a result of relaxed about work Southerners versus the industrious Germans, coupled with images of gondolas, a couple holding hands and sunbathing Greeks …

    • Of course wikipedia is wrong… saying greeks work more hours in EU than northern europeans.

    • Look at the McK report, it says the same And it says that the issue is efficiency, not hours. East Germany had fewer unemployed, similar working hours and the result was crap compared with the West.

      In addition you have to look at the available industries. If there are only cotton picking and knitting jobs than the wealth will only be that of India. If you live the lifestyle of Norwegians and finance the delta with debt, you default.

  • Sir, that 60 Minutes report was an embarrassment. They never explained how the Greek “bailout” is really a bailout of the creditors, and not of Greece. Unfortunately, by not sticking to your main points, you gave them quotes that they could use to prove their main point–that Greece is taking advantage of Germany, and the Germans are victims, rather than the real point, which is that Greece is suffering so Germans that made poor investments can be made whole.

    • Nick:

      You can’t blame Yani for this. He said a ton of things and 60 Minutes by definition frame issues any which way they want. They probably edited out 99.9% of what Yanis said and only chose some phrases out of context to fit the script.

      I am not even sure if a prior signed contract before speaking to 60 Minutes could cure such.

      As for the Germans, we all know that Germany is the only country in the EZ profiting from this at the expense of all others. This part is well established.

      The US concern at the moment is not who is a winner or a loser of the EU situation. The American concern is whether Merkel’s amateurism will frustrate and nullify American attempts to turn the US economy around and in the process decide who the next president of the US will be.

      It’s simply absurd to allow an obscure German decide the fate of US politics.

    • To be honest only the tense is wrong. “Greece” was taking advantage advantage of everyone else while having the party. Now all citizens are screwed, because the banks were stupid enough to lend to Greece. And the politicians are even worse, they lent even more money to Greece instead of letting it default.

  • If someone was askig me this question or was making this statement “Greeks had a good life borrowing money and and not paying taxis” I would answer to him with those 2 questions “maybe you are right but why the big countries since they new it let that happened? Why Greece is still forced to be the second larget byer in the millitary market and since the big coutries want to save Greece why they do not so sympathy and bit our bad neighbors? ” .

  • “Any credible plan to end the Euro crisis must address three issues. First, it has to end the panic. Second, it has to help southern Europe regain competitiveness, preferably without forcing them into mass bankruptcy. And third, it needs to revamp Europe’s institutions so this doesn’t happen again.

    So far, Europe’s leaders have done the first and called it a day.”

    http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/04/the-euro-crisis-is-back-actually-it-never-really-left/255686/

    • The second issue “regain competitiveness” is not what political leaders will do for Southern Europe. They have to do it it themselves by addressing 3 levers: Work more efficient, work more, work for less money. The order and combination should be the choice of those with the issue, not the dictate of others.

    • Out of 52.000 patents in 2009 only 24 went to Portugal and 24 to Greece!

      Switzerland with a similar population had 2.420!

    • @No EU
      Work more efficient, work more, work for less money.

      You must think that China is a paradise.

    • In some ways yes! I have been to China for supplier visits about 20 times.

      The Chinese do not work very efficient, but they balance that deficit with low cost.

    • What is the alternative Estrangeiro?

      Ask for more money, borrow more, default more often. Grow up!

    • @Pedro

      I knew I would get a TINA argument. As for growing up, sure, if my health allows it and if my pension is not stolen I might have a few years of life to offer to the neoliberal gods that convinced you that there are no alternatives.

    • You have to add: “If Greek hospitals pay their bills from the pharmaceutical companies”. There was a report on German TV abou the first companies stopping to deliver or only against advance payment. Guess they learned after they got “paid” with Greek government bonds in 2010..

    • btw: my alternative is what will happen sooner or later anyways, the sooner, the cheaper: NATIONAL currencies

  • As always the narrative that dominated this and other stories: “the lazy southerners, the industrious northerners”. I was hoping that your voice in the story would have countered the narrative. The ant and the grasshopper stereotype sadly colored the story and you counter argument was edited out.

    • What the article missed: 2011 German workers had (again) negative real income growth. Real estate in good locations is going up like never before +7% in 2 years. Let alone the other asset bubbles and energy cost…

    • Pedro, you can blame the beggar-thy-neighbor policy for the negative real income growth that has been going on for the last decade in Germany,at least y’all guys are happy because thats what makes your bosses richer and your gdp and trade surplus bigger.
      I have no insight about real estate prices in these good locations,but out of curiosity,is real income negative in these locations too ?

    • I do not have data on such a detailed level. However, I do not see that people make 5% more money in Stuttgart Frankfurt or Munich yoy. Maybe 2 out of 10, but not 5 out of 10.

    • I wasnt aware that you were talking about whole cities.Pretty big too,it would seem a little ‘too much” if that is the case for their whole metropolitan areas.Nevetheless the article is treating the whole EZ as a single economy,obviously certain areas may show different data from those of other areas and also from EZ as a whole but this doesnt changes the results of the current policyat a EZ level.

    • That is the problem. We have a one size fits none currency.

      But you asked for specific locations. Pedros data looks like German average data. I have some top location (city) data on real estate: Munich +28%, Stuttgart +15% from 2011 to 2012.

      I do not think it is a bad thing, it is mostly the result German savings being invested in Germany and not flowing out anymore. A return back to normality like before we had the one size fits none currency.

  • Merkel can’t solve the crisis, Merkel can’t solve the crisis..na-na, na-na, na-na (with nose thumbing)

    The European “crisis” is back. Actually, it never went away — and won’t for many years. The problems are so deep and pervasive that there is no easy or obvious solution. Government debt and deficits in many countries are not sustainable, but the usual remedies of cutting spending and raising taxes — a.k.a. “austerity” — may make matters worse by deepening already severe recessions. Europe is caught in a trap that promises more political and social unrest.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/europes-financial-crisis-never-really-went-away/2012/04/12/gIQAsZrwCT_story.html

    • Not exactly free,if you consider the implications following a refusal AND also Merkel’s rush to put certain people on key spots in other countries (Papademos,Monti) and also attempts to provoke a “good” result in elections in countries like Greece and France.Too many constraints to call it free.

    • Well if you accept to be basically bribed, then you have to do what the person bribing you wants. Otherwise you do not get money.

      I am not saying that what happens is what should happen, but that is the game…

    • You are correct No EU T but im merely saying that even if Greece didnt want to “get bribed”,Merkel did anything in her powers to avoid/diminish this possibility…my main argument is that there isnt such thing as free will,freedom of choice etc

    • After decasdes of mismanagement you run out of options. In a longer perspective there is freedom of choice.

      The socialist East Germany collapsed exactly when they ran out of options. No more support from Russia, urising of the people, too much foreign debt…

    • Either way you seem to agree “Every country is free to chose not to comply to the criteria of these silly bailouts.” is not literally true.

  • Yani:

    I watched your INET presentation thanks to the link your provided.

    One thing you should have done after your presentation was to walk towards your fellow panelists and shake their hands while still on stage. You missed a fantastic opportunity to connect with Soros that way (first he acknowledged your proposal and you needed to return the favor) who stood up and started walking towards your but you had already turned your back and started dissenting the staircase.

    We have all established here that your ideas are on the right path, but if you want to become a serious player(for your own good and that of your country) you need to start networking and win all other important players by virtue of your personal charm and leadership.

    Having the right idea is not enough. Selling it is the much bigger part.

    This critique is meant in good spirit.

  • Professor Varoufakis,
    Thank you so much for clarifying your interview with 60 minutes. I was a tad bit annoyed when I saw your initial response was to agree with the framing of bad debts (as too much borrowing- which i understand, and the more egregious terminology of “unproductive” – I cant speak to the not paying taxes) as being true. Although I know you were trying to get at a larger issue, I still must disagree with your accepting – even partially- the terms by which they set the basis for the euro’s problems.

    There is something problematic about structuring these discussions within old, destructive stereotypes. As someone who studies American history, these comments leaped off the television for me. And, as far as I’m concerned, the rhetoric referenced as “old” Germany, is in fact, the same language. Hierarchy, paternalism, and the general tone of those interviews implied that Northern Europe (and let’s be honest— what we mean to say is the “better” Europeans — I won’t get into the how these underlining characterizations point to old rhetoric regarding “Aryan” nation and supremacy) has had to take responsibility for the lazy southerners and Ireland. But of course, Ireland would be included, they are all drunks. (read sarcasm)

    However, as an American historian I was profoundly annoyed by this show. It is not just bad journalism. There is not one person who does not know that these distinctions of Europeans became an issue in the late 19th century and early 20th century development of United States history. It became the basis for discrimination and political and economic inequality. As such, from my perspective, to give even an inch in that direction (even if it were true), allows too much room for people to skip over the core issues of what made the crisis.

    More importantly, it sets a stage where people are not seen as suffering persons in a larger structure of banks, governments, etc., but as people who are trying to avoid taking individual responsibility- as if individual responsibility were the deciding factors in changing Greece’s or any other country’s circumstances.

    At any rate, I was happy to see your blog. And, of course, when it comes to doing interviews — we can all criticize but not necessarily do better. I hope, however, that as these discussions continue, you will challenge the stereotypical parameters by which they debate Greece’s crisis and instead set your own.

    • Tis true as well. I really look forward to seeing you on Christine Amanpour. She is a much better interviewer. Also thank you for the link. I will watch it most certainly. Unfortunately, I have felt the news on Greece to be rather lopsided, plus American news can be limited anyway…while the other outlets, BBC, etc. not anymore helpful or illuminating. It’s refreshing to get a broader picture. So, please carry on the good fight professor!

    • Before Amanpour interviews you, you need to let her know of your displeasure with the 60M and why.

      If you discover after her interview that CNN finished the job that 60M started, then it would be too late and the damage will be compounding.

      Interviews lacking competent media coaching are as dangerous and inflamatory as the propaganda of the enemy. Foreign crews keep pouring in Greece for “scenes of the accident” and walk away with the foolish notion that Greeks did it to themselves when in fact this is a premeditated EU/Merkel crime on the backs of innocent citizens.

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