Adults in the Room : Book Review

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Till a couple of years ago, all I knew about Greece was some bits and pieces related to her Yaniscivilisation, philosophers, the Olympics, and the island of Corfu which was made famous by the books of Gerald Durrell.  In 2015, news reports on the Greek Debt Crisis started appearing with regularity. This led to discussions with a Greek colleague on the state of affairs in Greece and incited more than a passing interest in understanding what was happening.  In February 2016,  Yanis Varoufakis the Greek Finance Minister and the man at the centre of all the 2015 debt crisis controversy, answered questions during a session on Quora.  What he wrote was riveting. I have read his blogs and articles on and off since that time. Earlier this year, when his book “Adults in the Room” came out, I resolved to read it. And oh boy I am glad I did.

The book is, naturally, about 6 tumultuous months that Yanis spent in office as the Finance Minister in the Syriza government. The man in the eye of the storm. It has not been an easy read. I am no economist and when economic theory and big numbers are being discussed, my eyes glaze over. Not for a moment will I claim that I understood the economic arguments that Yanis was making and why his strategy would have been better for Greece. So what have I taken from this book?

  • Politics trumps economics every time.  Angela Merkel wanted to make an example of Greece just to ensure that everyone else in the Eurozone stayed in line, and she was willing to sacrifice Greece and exacerbate the misery of ordinary Greeks in the process. A number of others, including Emmanuel Macron the French President now, were involved but Merkel was the most powerful and hence I name her.  Official after official, some of them very very powerful in their own right, accepted that the troika imposed plan was not sustainable and would not help Greece. They accepted that the Greek government’s counter proposal was better. BUT – they would not change anything. Because of considerations other than economics. The number of times one reads about “Yes, but..” is depressing. This is not surprising. As far back as August 1997, Milton Friedman wrote “The drive for the Euro has been motivated by politics not economics.”
  • Campaign promises, even from an ideologically driven political party, are just that – promises. Syriza, an extreme left wing party, that rode to power on the back of fighting off the European Troika and ending austerity that had been imposed on Greece, wilted under pressure. Rather the Prime Minister Tsipras, wilted under the onslaught of his own extreme left, Merkel and the Greek bureaucrats who were more interested in towing the troika line. These are the realities of office I suppose but disappointing nevertheless. Especially disappointing that they went against an overwhelming referendum opinion too thereby showing lack of respect for democracy.
  • The Eurozone is very fragile, whatever the appearances. One crisis and it could well topple over like a house of cards. Especially if Germany (Merkel) is weakened in anyway.
  • Media can be used easily by those in power to create any image they want. Yanis cites numerous instances when media published stories that were based on deliberate misinterpretations and outright falsehoods. His was a voice in wilderness, too weak to matter. That he represented the extreme left did not help. I remember someone asking me “Isn’t he pretty much a left loony?”. This was someone who did not know much about him but had made up their mind based on what they had read. Ah the power of media to make or break reputations.

All through the book, Yanis reminisces about some very personal interactions he has had – the homeless man, the aged pensioner who exhorts him not to give up, the bike gang which accosts him. It gives a human touch to the narrative. I also got a feeling as events unfolded, that Yanis was always meant to be the sacrificial lamb. The man who was not an old time party member, a technocrat who could be wasted if need arose. I wonder if he ever saw himself thus.

Even as I read this heavily annotated book (nearly 18% of it is notes and comments and references), I could not throw away the feeling that it would be great to hear about this from some other angle. If Alexis Tsipras or Wolfgang Schäuble ever write about this crisis, I am buying that book.

Makarand