Sleepless in Europe – in Huffington Post

merkelSome weeks ago I heard Arianna Huffington deliver a talk, in Austin, on sleep deprivation and the terrible decisions that it leads to. This made me recall that all the awful decisions of our European leaders (and there were so many of them) were reached at around 4.00am. I mentioned that to Arianna and she invited me to write a post for Huffington Post. Here it is… Click here for the Huffington Post site or…

At the height of her political dominance, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher famously portrayed sleep as another form of inefficiency. Given that her political ideology turned on combating inefficiency with the same venom that the Catholic Church had previously reserved for mortal sin, her remark that “sleep is for wimps” possessed the hallmarks of a major political and cultural intervention. Indeed, it did much to establish the ‘hamsters-on-a-treadmill’ environment in government, in the City of London, in the corporations; everywhere men and women strove to prove that they were part of her Brave New Economy and not, to coin another of Mrs. Thatcher’s expressions, “moaning minnies.” Thus, from eager interns to the heads of government departments and the CEOs, the race to prove one’s capacity for burning the midnight oil was on. Quantity came to trump quality on every turn. It would not stretch credulity too far to say that the vast pyramids of bad quality assets, which crashed and burned in 2008, had their origins, at least in some small part, in this cultural shift.

Mrs. Thatcher left her mark not only as a prodigious insomniac but also as a committed Eurosceptic. It is, in this sense, a delicious irony that her attitude to sleep seems to have been adopted and pressed into service by the European Union’s leaders during their inane handling of the inevitable Euro Crisis. Once Greece ignited the haystack (with its early 2010 insolvency), a cascading financial and economic crisis engulfed Europe like a vicious bushfire, scorching one proud nation after the other. In a bid to stem it, Europe’s great and good were forced to convene more than thirty emergency summits. These summits will undoubtedly go down in history as a comedy of errors. Indeed, for those of us who have been observing our leaders’ decision making closely, it feels a lot like watching Othello – wondering how our leaders can be so deluded. One explanation, that is intimately linked to Europe’s political economy, has to do with the time of day when they finalized their decisions: invariably in the early hours of the morning, between 4am and 5am.

Deadline effects are important to all of us. Alas, European leaders seem to have neglected consciously to set time limits for their negotiations. Instead, they allowed deliberations to last for days and nights until a de facto deadline presented itself in the form of the physical exhaustion that usually hits just before sunrise. At that point, in a fog of fatigue, desperate minds settled on the most immediately available position. Would Europe be a better place today had sleeplessness had not been a major determining factor of our leaders’ accords? While the root causes of Europe’s troubles are deep, some of Europe’s shenanigans might have been avoided.

If “sleep is for wimps,” as Mrs. Thatcher said, and a form of inefficiency, Europe should today be the land of efficiency and heroic leadership. It is, of course, neither. Powerful Europeans get less sleep than ever, as the crisis continues to fill their mind with intense worry, while a multitude of Europeans are kept awake at night fearing for their jobs, wondering what they must do to get one, agonizing on how they will succeed in putting food on the table after the sun rises.

(*) The thoughts below were inspired by a talk Arianna Huffington gave at the Headliners’ Club, Austin TX in April 2014.

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  • Great article! This was my worry throughout these inane summits. Thinking, no wonder they come to one decision worse than another when they stay up all night to arrive at them. And there were plenty of totally undignified photos of our leaders stretched out on chairs taking quick uncomfortable naps. And I have to add to the sleeplessness the wines and spirits our leaders imbibe at these meetings too. Hardly the most auspicious conditions for taking such life shattering decisions.Perhaps the sleeplessness and alcohol are stiil what makes them say things like “the worse is over”, “Greece is now recovering” and, above all, the rosy tint makes them see “surpluses” where there are none, and good accounting where there are “Greek” now adopted as “European” statistics. Heaven help us all!..

  • If I recall correctly, the medical effects of sleep deprivation over an extended period are very different from the short-term effects. In other words, the brain is physically altered with an accompanying change in thinking behaviour if it is deprived of its regenerative sleep cycle for a long time. That would also explain why Thatcher transmuted from a simpering housewife type in 1976 into the obscenely intolerant, uncompassionate and dogmatic obsessive that she became.

    Indeed, I recall in the early 1980s a colleague commenting on Thatcher’s proud declaration of only 5 hours’ sleep — “perhaps if she slept a little more, the country would not be in such a mess”. Yet no journalists or political commentators adopted such a line. In fact, much of Europe’s long-term crisis is linked with the very low quality (not to mention corruption) of the mass media and their inability or reluctance to hold politicians and their actions to account.

    Specifically here, a comment on the 4 am political agreements/conclusions. Although the late hour surely is unlikely to enhance brain capacity, it may be the case that this is indeed the reason for these successes at such an hour. It is more or less inconceivable that important new analyses or implications will emerge in such political talks: everything should have been explored in detail well in advance by each country’s technocrats. What these meetings are doing is breaking down small-scale opposition to the EU mainstream views, although they will rarely concede such a description. Therefore, tremendous personal pressure is put on individuals representing their small country; with sleep deprivation, they will likely lose the ability to resist mainstream views, and will just give in. In that sense, the individual veto looks to be mostly symbolic. I do not think that any new strategic alliances or complete turnarounds by the major players ever occur in these meetings.

    So, although it is an important point that you are raising, it may be rather more than poor judgement through lack of sleep. The EU’s reliance on such a structure probably indicates that there is no political consensus possible amongst 28 countries, so the only way to reach agreement is by physically tiring everyone. We could suggest a more speedy resolution — that our political leaders engage in some physical competition to decide European policies. Perhaps semi-professional boxing tournaments would be quicker than the current system.

  • Similar thoughts arise as members of the Greek Parliament ‘invariably” vote for the most important of issues in the early hours of the morning. To add the the travesty of this practice most of them showcase it as proof of their commitment.

    As you so accurately point out it is not commitment or passion that drives solutions at 5 am. It is ” in a fog of fatigue, desperate minds settled on the most immediately available position”

    And here is an idea for Mr. Samaras Grand Revision of the Greek Constitution. No parliamentary votes after 7 pm.

  • You cannot be fucking serious.
    The European experiment has always been about reducing the purchasing power of local people involved in local exchange since day bloody 1.
    Its at the very heart of the globalization experiment.
    Deflation (lack of local purchasing power) in Europe = inflation or further globalization of Asia and the rest of them.

    This is the best yet Yanis – keep it up
    Every descision made in Europe has been structured in that deep Masonic fashion that we have all grown to live with over these 100s of years of lies.

  • Dear Yanis, I take this opportunity to make a comment that does not relate to this article but to an article you wrote on May 22 last year, under the title “Greek Success Story: The latest Orwellian Turn of the Greek Crisis”.
    I came across the article by a coincident and when I read it, at first I didn’t notice that it was from last year but thought it was new material, since most of it applies to the present situation in an almost ghostlike way. The epilogue to your article reads: “For three years now, Greece’s establishment regime is attempting to convince the world, and the Greek people, that all is well in the best of all possible worlds. The difference now is that the international press seems to be buying this propaganda. Speaking personally, I am tired of having to counter ‘good news’ stories with analyses like the above for four long years now. I wish I could also rejoice in the ‘good news’. Alas, it remains our moral duty to knock down ‘good news’ stories the purpose of which is to propagate narratives the explicit purpose of which is to impede policy changes that may bring us genuinely good news”. I find what you say very sad. I agree with you about the moral duty to enlighten the world about what is going on. The same moral duty has brought me to the brink of total exhaustion in that I have become something of a private lobbyist, who is constantly delivering messages to the foreign press and foreign politicans and NGO’s about what is taking place in Greece. It is indeed a very ungrateful task but you must not give up. I also find it noteworthy that a few years ago on television you stated that first and foremost you were an economist who wanted to stay out of politics (I can’t remember the exact wording and in which context). Now I can see that your message is becoming increasingly political and that arouses my deepest sympathies.
    Thank you.

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