How far should economists engage in day-to-day politics?
“Researchers have an obligation to society to take positions on questions on which they have acquired professional competence,” says French economist Jean Tirole. But how does an academic do this when media are not, in Tirole’s words, his ‘natural habitat’?
Yanis Varoufakis, in his recent incarnation as visiting professor at the University of Texas, Austin’s School of Public Affairs, took more than a position. He became a politician. He doesn’t share Tirole’s constraints: “…my resignation of 6 June 2015 [as Greek finance minister] was due precisely to my peculiar commitment not to sign any agreement I could not defend as an economist, politician, an intellectual and as a Greek.”
The step into politics was a big one. But Greece, after 2008, was, and remains, in crisis. No country has a more acute sense of its own sovereignty and identity, as the troika of the Eurogroup (of finance ministers), the European Central Bank and the IMF were reminded in January 2015, when Syriza, the radical left party, took power, and the Greek public once again took to demonstrating in Syntagma Square.
“Adults in the Room” (a phrase coined by Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF) is Varoufakis’s highly personal account of his brief tenure as Greek finance minister: six months of negotiations between January and June 2015, during which time he initially had the backing of his prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, for a radical stance which held out the threat of leaving the euro, and a full Grexit, if the EU and the IMF didn’t agree to renegotiate the debt.
Friends who discussed the book in a reading group were divided: some were exasperated by the repetition as negotiations inched forward. Others saw it as an epic tale. Varoufakis is a skilled storyteller who allows the events to speak for themselves.
Meeting Jeroen Dijsselbloem, president of the Eurogroup and finance minister of the Netherlands, on 30th January, Varoufakis told him that there were only three options available (he recorded meetings on his phone):
“One was a third bailout to cover up the failure of the second [in March 2012], whose purpose was to cover up the failure of the first [(May 2010]. Another was the new deal for Greece I was proposing: a new type of agreement between the EU, the IMF and Greece, based on debt restructuring, that diminished our reliance on new debt and replaced an ineffective reform agenda with one that the people of Greece could own. The third option was mutually disadvantageous impasse.
You do not understand, Jeroen told me, his voice dripping with condescension. ‘The current programme must be completed or there is nothing else.’”
There is also Thomas Wieser, Dijsselbloem’s deputy, to take into account. As president of the working group of officials behind the Eurogroup meetings he was, in Varoufakis’s words, ‘the most powerful man in Brussels’. Wieser circulated an unsigned ‘non-paper’ (a nice Orwellian touch) which made it clear that Greece should expect to receive no money owed to it by the European Central Bank, nor any loans agreed under the previous government… but it was still expected to meet its debt obligations in full. There might be an extension of the existing bailout agreement, a temporary appeasement, “but this would be conditional upon Greece taking a ‘cooperative approach’”.
The hidden agenda, the obstacle that ultimately overpowered all Varoufakis’s proposals, however clever, was that the French and German banks, which had invested so heavily in Greece, would always be given priority. Their governments had invested too much political capital to allow otherwise.
No bailouts, no haircuts, no debt renegotiation.
We’re down to the roots of the ‘deep establishment’, beyond prime ministers or presidents, finance ministers, EU commissioners, the Eurogroup of ministers (Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker doesn’t even have a walk-on part), down to the level of a working group which, taking its lead from the two most powerful EU governments, sets the mood and calls the tune.
Varoufakis in his account of the 30th January meeting with Dijsselbloem uses the phrase, ‘an agenda which the Greek people must own’. Sovereignty is not an issue he addresses directly in ‘Adults in the Room’, but in his 2016 book, ‘And the Weak Suffer What They Must’ he argues that the dismantling of sovereignty could ultimately lead to the dismantling of Europe. Varoufakis is a passionate European: his Democracy in Europe Movement, launched in autumn 2015, focuses on a much more open exercise of power within the EU.
But even the closed structures of the EU can be overridden. When Prime Minister Tsipras loses faith in the Brussels negotiating process he begins direct discussions with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and is quickly impressed ‘by her diligence and mastery of the Greek programme’. They should, she suggests, sideline their finance ministers Wolfgang Schäuble (a supporter of Grexit) and Varoufakis. Their discussions led in July 2015 to a third bailout agreement.
As for other participants in the skirmishes, Christine Lagarde is let off lightly on a personal level, with her integrity and goodwill just about intact. But not the IMF itself, which backed the third bailout against its own better judgment. Emmanuel Macron as French economy minister is peripheral to the negotiations, but always supportive of Varoufakis.
There are many who argue that Varoufakis’s confrontational approach made the ultimate settlement between the Syriza government and the EU worse. And, had debt renegotiation been taken seriously by the EU, another issue would have come to the fore: how far Varoufakis and the Syriza government would have voluntarily accepted privatisations, cuts in pensions, labour reforms etc.
Varoufakis not only had to contend with practised stone-wallers and the deep establishment, he also had to deal with a press that portrayed him as a dilettante. To quote The Economist (25 March 2015):
‘Mr Varoufakis’ lifestyle … is embarrassingly close to that of the rich Greeks he castigates for avoiding taxes by stashing cash abroad …he lectures his euro-zone colleagues and shows little interest in the detail of reforms demanded by Greece’s creditors…. as a fellow professor puts it: “Unlike his predecessors Yanis isn’t interested in managing the economy. What he really enjoys is brinkmanship.”’
Varoufakis had a conversation in 2012 with Larry Summers (former US Treasury Secretary), who argued that there were “two kinds of politicians, insiders and outsiders. The outsiders prioritise 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.” And the insiders? – they “never turn against other insiders and never talk to outsiders about what the insiders say and do.” Varoufakis replied to Summers that he would behave “like a natural insider for as long as it takes to get a viable agreement on the table.”
In the end Varoufakis never stood a chance. To be a fully accredited insider he would have had to accede to the insiders’ working methods and conclusions. The Syriza party were self-designated outsiders until their leader and prime minister brought them in. Tsipras to the surprise of many ultimately had the insider mentality. Varoufakis did not.
 Economics for the Common Good, Princeton UP, 2017