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Game Over: The Inside Story of the Greek Crisis Paperback – May 26, 2016
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About the Author
George Papaconstantinou was the point man in the Greek economic and financial crisis. When he became Finance Minister in October 2009, he uncovered the true extent of Greece’s fiscal troubles, went on to participate in all the European discussions and efforts to create a support mechanism for Greece, and negotiated the 110 billion Euro loan agreement with the EU and the IMF, together with the package of fiscal, structural and financial policies which went along with the largest loan ever received by a country.
During his tenure as Finance Minister in this critical period for Greece and Europe, he overhauled the budget process, put in place expenditure monitoring and assessment mechanisms, and created an independent statistical authority; embarked on tax reform, with legislative and organizational changes to combat tax evasion; implemented wide-ranging structural reforms in product, service and financial markets; and designed a large-scale privatization program. When he left office, the public deficit was 6 percentage points of GDP lower, Greece had recovered half the competitiveness lost since Eurozone entry and was the fastest reforming OECD country – a huge adjustment effort with however an equally large economic and social cost. In the process, he also became the perfect scapegoat for all the troubles of the country, ending up in a trial by a special court for his handling of the so-called Lagarde list – a gruelling personal ordeal which he powerfully describes in the book.
George was born in Athens in 1961, and studied economics in the UK and the US. After obtaining a Ph.D from the London School of Economics, he went on to work for 10 years as an international civil servant at the OECD in Paris. In 1997, he returned to Greece to serve in a policy advisory capacity for the Greek government under Prime Minister Kostas Simitis. He ran for parliament for the first time in 2000, was elected in 2007, became party spokesman, and in 2009 headed the PASOK list for the June European Parliament elections. He resigned as an MEP a few months after being elected, upon being appointed Finance Minister in the government formed by George Papandreou following the October 2009 elections.
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My political connections have always been with the nemesis of the Socialists, the New Democracy party. Five and a half years before the author accepted the poisoned chalice that is the Greek Finance Ministry, I had found myself in a similar position: Entirely through political connection, I was offered to run the debt office.
It was a summary process. The final decision maker was the chief of staff of the Finance Ministry, a man generally acknowledged to be honest and hard-working and whom my father (a keen follower of late-night political debate on TV) thought highly of. By the time him and I were talking turkey, it was the position of deputy we were discussing, but the process was the same. His name was George.
I visited him at his modest office and in no time I was perusing the file of the infamous Goldman swap. “Nice little gift from the previous government,” George said. “First payment not due till after we took over.” And then the bombshell: “I’m letting them stew on it. I’m in arrears! What are you going to do with this?” “Nothing,” I suggested. “This is so enormous, they can’t exactly tell anyone we’re quietly defaulting, it would be material. Let them come to you with a suggestion.” Other than remind me it was pari passu, he did not give me any indication of what he thought of my answer, but the conversation moved on.
Eventually I asked the question: “My real job. What is it? Is it to minimize the NPV of our national debt?”
George’s jaw dropped. Clearly, for all the 16 years I’d spent in Greece, I must have been some type of ingenu foreigner. To make sure we’re on the same page, to set me straight, to adjust the wavelength, the man switched to English, better to get his message across to the not-really-Greek idiot he had in front of him: “your job is to minimize the cost of debt service over the next four years.”
Now, this was (and remains) a good guy. There have always been bad people in Greek politics. People who do it strictly for self-enrichment. Nay, people who will do anything to get the job so they can steal from the public purse. George was not one of those people. He was as good a guy as you can possibly be and survive in Greek politics; this I knew. But my job under him would be to freeze the ball.
Clearly, then, I was staying put in London.
The author of the book, another George, inherited what my George (and his many predecessors) begat. This is the book of his travails.
I read this in Greek, thinking I’d be reading the original, but the original is the English version. The translation into Greek is rather gauche. Funnily enough, that was the norm in Greek politics during the reign of the third generation of the Papandreou clan, with English expressions often transliterated into stilted neologisms. In that respect, the book captures the zeitgeist very well.
It is a remarkable book both for what it has to say and for what it leaves unsaid.
The story of a new government inheriting in the middle of the worldwide crisis a 15.4% budget deficit (that had weeks before been expected to barely surpass 6.5%) is told well. You really feel the shock. If it’s the evolution of the numbers you want to follow, or the series of relentless negotiations with my country’s European partners, look no further. This will be the definitive account. The buck genuinely stops with George Papaconstantinou.
You also get to find out a lot about the attitudes of people like Trichet, Strauss-Kahn, Merkel, Sarkozy, Schaeuble, Lagarde, Barroso and how their personalities shaped the European response to the crisis. The politics of all the emergency weekend meetings, the walk down the quay in Deauville, the emergency measures and half-measures, it really is all there. You could have skipped five years of reading the FT and this book will make up for it. It is a tremendous companion book for Martin Sandbu’s book about the EU, for example.
Also, George Papaconstantinou truly comes across as modest, honest, well-meaning, moderate and suicidally selfless.
On the other hand, if it’s Greece you want to find out about, look elsewhere. This is a book about a European process. In the eyes of the public, the author was (and probably remains) the personification of the sundry memoranda that were foisted upon the country by self-serving debt collectors. His angle, of course, is that he fought like a lion. You can read the book and make up your mind.
What you will learn nothing about (zilch, zero, nada) is Greece.
Simple stuff that should be here simply isn’t. What does the private sector contribute to Greek GDP? What’s the breakdown between tourism, shipping, manufacturing, agriculture, services, importers, retail etc? Which forms of tax bring in what? Corporate tax, employment tax, VAT, income tax, property tax, stamp duty, customs? Where does it go? What goes to defense, what goes to education, what goes to healthcare, what goes to transportation, what goes to services, what goes to pensions, what goes to the other multiple entitlements? What remittances arrive from all Greeks abroad? How has all this changed in the past decade?
What parts of the economy have been growing? What’s been shrinking? What’s the best use of the marginal dollar? Which sector exports the most? To where? What’s it exporting to Europe? What sector can best be re-oriented? Who will find it easiest to move abroad if he has to contribute more tax than before? Who’s stuck? How much energy do we use? How much of it do we import?
Supposing we were to move to our own currency, what is our self-sufficiency in food, energy and medicine for which foreigners will refuse to be paid in our own scrip?
Supposing we were pardoned all our debt (or, more likely, supposing we stopped servicing our debt) what working capital would the economy need to survive a lockout from the world’s financial markets?
I would have hoped that in a 400 page opus I’d see, dunno, five pages on the above. There isn’t five sentences, really. You get some crumbs about the re-orientation of tourism and maybe a couple stats about the total tax burden. And a few throwaway words about oil imports from Iran. E basta.
The question you have to ask, then, is “was this guy really the finance minister?” Did he have the authority and power to bring about the necessary changes? Was he in a position to effect a transformation? It does not take an insider to conclude that no, he was an honest broker and not much else. And I guess he had the keys to the safe, or else he would not have been the bete noir of his party’s old guard that totally went way out its way to throw him under the bus.
So, from my angle at least, the finance minister flunks economics.
On the other hand he gets an “A” when it comes to incisive political commentary. Three issues stand out:
1. He correctly identifies Samaras as the most sinister and most tragic character in this play. The leader of the opposition fought a totally irresponsible rearguard action against the Troika’s program from 2010 to 2012, not only (i) sabotaging the country’s credibility in front of our European lenders, not only (ii) dictating domestically the anti-reform tone that still reigns supreme, but also (iii) paving the way for Tsipras to turn that exact strategy against him two short years later. It is a tale of hubris and nemesis straight out of Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides.
2. He unmasks the sundry do-gooders who flocked from across the world to “defend” Greece, the Stiglitzes and the Krugmans, as well as the more nebulously-referred-to British media (Martin Wolf is a friend, you see), for what they really are: doctrinaires who were happy to fight their proxy war against “austerity” on the Greek battlefield. Who cares if their doctrine is in principle the right doctrine? In practice, they egged us on to enter a fight against our European paymasters that, politically, Germany’s Schaeuble could only be seen to win. So he did. And we lost. Our natural allies (Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Italy) cheered for the other side, besides, precisely because they had adopted the orthodoxy.
3. He spends the minimum number of words on Varoufakis (precisely because that’s what would displease Varoufakis the most, one presumes) but enough to parry the most pertinent accusation: the man is all about vanity.
The author also comes out of this as a tragic figure: he does not have the full picture of how to turn things around, but he knows we’ve done wrong. He can point to a million ways we got on the wrong path and he recounts with massive pride a series of changes he effected on institutions that will hopefully help Greece in twenty years’ time: He made the statistical office independent. He finally got around to getting a headcount for the number of people the Greek state employed (900,000, unbelievably), an exercise that had never been attempted before. He attempted to create a… land registry (yes, we don’t have one). And so on. Sweden-on-the-Aegean, here we come.
Thing is, when the patient is admitted to the hospital with lung cancer, first you get out the tumor. Then you have the conversation with him about smoking. And the timing is rather wrong to bring up smoking with his family. They need to know about the operation.
So I’m extremely annoyed with the author, because not once in this book does he turn his guns to those within his party that refused to consider the scalpel. Tell us about Katseli, dude. Talk to us about Ragoussis. The people who were happy to see you carry the can for the memoranda, but would not allow you to truly make the necessary changes. The people who chose their political careers over the country’s interests and eventually lost both. What’s stopping you, George? If you can see it in Samaras, if you could see it in our current president, you could sure see it in pretty much all of Pasok.
So the man is dead-honest about everything he discusses, but is rather disingenuous through omission: Greece is a failed state because both the socialists of Pasok and the “liberals” of New Democracy made the conscious decision to avoid firing public employees, avoid confronting the labor unions (e.g. those of the power company and the train company) and decided to balance out the numbers by putting most of the load on the hitherto semi-healthy private sector, the Atlas of the Greek economy.
When, under the weight of the “brave” measures that brought down the deficit from 15.4% to 4.5%, the private side of the economy literally vanished, there was nobody left to pay for the unreconstructed public sector. The blood-out-of-stone math whereby to employ somebody privately I must pay for two public employees to scratch themselves all day morphed into “no more blood left in the stone” and that’s what our political leadership has wrought: an economy where EU-subsidised pensions are the main driver for consumption.
There cannot possibly be a 400 page account of the past Greek history that does not expose this basic truth. Not one you’d want to take seriously.
I hate to say it, because I grew to really appreciate the author as I was reading his book, but “Game Over” is a missed opportunity. On the other hand, if you care about Greece you can’t not read it.