Imagine: someone has a Big Idea that Explains Everything. But which poses a Big Problem. So he passes the Big Idea around, and other people come up with Big Solutions to the Big Problem. So soon you have experts who are expert in finding Solutions to the Big Problem, politicians who are itching to put those Solutions into effect, and journalists eager to explain what a Big Problem it is to the masses and bask in the glory of their own borrowed expertise.
Then one day it all goes horribly wrong.
I’m not talking about climate change and renewable energy here, but about European Union and the Euro. The problem was rebuilding a wartorn continent without reigniting old rivalries, and the solution was the European Economic Community and eventually the European Union, to be cemented by a common currency. And it went horribly wrong in the 2008 crash, first for Cyprus, then for Greece. The European Union was saved, at the price of a level of youth unemployment in some of the world’s once great powers (Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy) normally associated with impoverished African dictatorships.
[If there’s one thing which keeps me resolutely on the left and stops me from becoming a Spectator-reading Delingpole fan it’s youth unemployment. It means mass migration to London of the most adventurous to serve sandwiches in Subway, while millions of other twenty somethings live at home with their parents. It means I can pop across the border to Catalonia and have a superb cheap meal served by a charming young person who speaks three languages. It means a soaring rate of suicides, murders and alcoholism among middle aged males in around 2030. Unless someone gives them hope by waving a flag. Which brings us back to Catalonia.]
There are a lot of similarities between the dream of a conflict-free Europe and a carbon-free economy, between an unworkable currency and an unworkable energy policy. Except that – so far – it hasn’t gone horribly wrong for energy policy. Gas prices are due to rise 6% or more per year for ever in France, and diesel even more, thanks to our ecology minister, the most popular politician in France. How long can that last? How long can Merkel square the circle between the pro-business FDP and the Greens and the SDP? When will the Poles’ carbonophilia cause the patience of the Commission to crack? In which country will the lights go out when a malfunctioning nuclear plant or a crack in a gas pipeline causes a rupture in supplies that renewable energy can’t cope with? We don’t know.
But we do know what happened when Greece nearly brought the Euro to the point of explosion. And we know thanks to a book by the Greek Economy Minister, Yannis Varoufakis.
I can’t recommend Adults in the Room enough. It’s funny because it’s so serious, like a Stoppard play. It’s riveting like a John le Carré novel, combining the structure of a chess game with the psychology of common mortals, who just happen to be the most powerful people in the richest continent on the planet. And it’s true, because he recorded everything on his phone, which neither Thucydides nor Alan Clark thought to do.
Varoufakis is known as one of those lefty role models who are regularly paraded in our media as a kind of sop to the idea of breadth of opinion, like Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara, or our own dear Ken Livingstone. We all love his leather jacket and his motorbike. Shame about the politics.
He was never a member of Syriza, but agreed to join the government out of personal sympathy for the courage of Alexis Tsipras. He describes himself as a Marxist, and counts Bernie Sanders among his fans, but he is also close to George Soros, the left liberal economist James Galbraith, and our own dear Norman Lamont. He prefers the company of intelligent rightwing economists to leftwing idiots. Like Trotsky, he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. (And look where that got him.) Varoufakis has got off lightly, so far.
Near the beginning of the book he recounts a conversation with former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers in a Washington bar, in which Summers says:
There are two kinds of politicians, the insiders and the outsiders. The second kind value their freedom to expose their version of the truth. The price of their freedom is to be ignored by the insiders, who make all the important decisions. The insiders have one Golden Rule: never to criticise their colleagues, and never to repeat what they say or do to others. What’s their advantage? Their access to confidential information, and the possibility, not guaranteed, of having an influence on important people and events. So, Yannis, what kind are you?
[I’ve translated back from the rather poor French translation I’m reading. Not a bad policy, actually, since most of the conversations Varouvakis recounts are in English, but between actors for whom English is not their first language. So my painful retranslation replicates the painful experience of the actors. Varouvakis’s knowledge of English is excellent, by the way, and he peppers his account with quotations from Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas]
Summers’ insight, which he’s repeated elsewhere, applies perfectly to the climate scientists, the scientific functionaries,and the rare scientifically literate politicians who are no doubt faced daily with the same dilemma. Imagine for a moment if you will a young, leather jacketed Peter Lilley promoted to Environment Minister in a Conservative government, having made a pact with a young inexperienced Conservative PM to never cede to absurd international demands to ban the petrol engine and cover the country with windfarms. How long would he have lasted? Varoufakis lasted five months, not because he was weak, but because he refused to give in.
There are other interesting parallels, like the section on the war of the economic models. The models provided by the troika of the IMF, the EU and European Central Bank were economically absurd, which the modelers admitted. But what did that matter, as long as they produced the required results?
But the really interesting parallel is the account of what happens when the entire system is shown to be based on false premisses, when the European economy is faced with possible collapse due to its inherent absurdity. Does reason prevail? Do politicians and experts admit past errors? Of course not.
They double down. They lie, to themselves, to each other, and to us. And they exercise power – illegitimate power. In the case of the Euro crisis, it’s the Eurogroup, the council of ministers of the economy of the Eurozone, a body with no official existence, which effectively governs the economy of the richest continent on the planet. (Chinese Communist Party anybody?) And they crush anyone, like Varoufakis, who proves to be their intellectual equal and sufficiently courageous to remain an outsider to the end. And they exercise their power by lying about him, by lying to him, by tapping his phone, and by not bothering to hide the fact that they’re tapping his phone. Tapping his phone was the one thing they didn’t need to lie about. They had the power.
Varoufakis has reacted to his spectacular defeat by forming a party, resolutely leftwing, resolutely pro-European (to resist the rise of a neo-fascist nationalism, much more probable in Europe than we Brits can imagine) and resolutely Green.
Which is why I’ll continue to read dear old Delingpole, and why I can’t be bothered to open the mails from Varoufakis’s party, which I’ve supposedly joined.
Still, read his book. It’s about power, and power is what it’s all about.