Being Greek and an Economist While Greece Burns: An intimate account – MGSA Keynote 2013 | Yanis Varoufakis

Being Greek and an Economist While Greece Burns: An intimate account – MGSA Keynote 2013 | Yanis Varoufakis.


As an economist that, atypically, looks up to historians, philologists, anthropologists as species higher up the evolutionary chain than us economists, I am chuffed to be here tonight. Especially in a humanities audience afflicted, either by choice or circumstance, by the same condition as I: an inescapable Greek-ness.  

I shall try to repay your trust with an intimate story of a most peculiar condition. A story that unfolds at the intersection of multiple failures of which the Greek implosion is just one.

Let me begin at the beginning. At the moment I arrived in Britain as a green-behind-the-ears Athenian radical, to study mathematical economics at Essex University. The year was 1978. A few weeks later I was to experience my first life-changing failure.

It occurred when I realised that my plan to read economics, so as to become fluent in the language of the powerful, could not be carried out. I found it such a morose subject, so bonecrushingly boring, so much reliant on third rate mathematics, that after Week 2 of Semester 1 of Year 1 I thought to myself: Why study inane metamorphoses of third-rate mathematics when I could study first rate, aesthetically pleasing, ideologically unproblematic, mathematics? So, I immediately transferred to the School of Mathematics.

Several years later, well on my way to a masters’ degree in mathematical statistics, I thought that my escape from economics had been complete. That, ladies and gentlemen, was my second failure of perception! For while looking for a thesis topic, I stumbled upon a piece of mathematical economics that angered me so much, with its gross conceptual sloppiness hiding behind mathematically sophisticated tools, that I set out to demolish it. That was the trap. And I fell right into it!

From that moment onwards, a series of anti-economic treatises followed, a Phd in… Economics was awarded and, naturally, job offers from Economics Departments started coming. In every one of the Economics Departments I served, in England, in Scotland, in Australia, later in Athens, now here in the United States, I enjoyed debunking that which my colleagues considered to be legitimate ‘science’. At the price of a life which can only be compared to that of an atheist theologian ensconced in a Middle Ages monastery.

Many more failures followed, forming a tapestry on which the usual mélange of life, career, calamities, hopes, family and fears were laid out year in year out. Put together, these failures contributed to a certain clarity of vision, I hope. As Claude Levi-Strauss once put it, our only chance of genuine insight is when our analytical reason fails, is tensed by failure, and is roused to action so that it can transcend itself.

But who am I kidding? Whatever stories I am telling myself in lieu of self-consolation, the truth is that I would not be here, as your honoured guest, if it were not for Greece’s hideous economic failure in 2010. Without it, without our leaders’ inane handling of an inevitable economic crisis, no Greek economist would be delivering a keynote speech at the MGSA.

Speaking of “Greek economist”, let me say that, ever since I ended up an accidental economist back in the 1980s, I always thought of myself as Greek and as an economist. Never as a “Greek economist”! Indeed, before Greece’s 2010 collapse, never had I published a single page on Greece’s economy. I found the topic too sad and of little interest. My research was either utterly abstract, somewhere along the frontier of game theory and economic philosophy, or focused on almost every other country except Greece. But when Greece proved the canary in the European mine, whose near death propelled it onto the front pages of the world’s leading newspapers, the global media spontaneously created a new species of commentator: the ‘Greek economist’. Meanwhile, I had a message for the media that they found intriguing. So, suddenly, I was on the BBC, on CNN etc. with a running subtitle reading: “Greek economist”. Thus I was treated to the dubious promotion from a decent, second rate economist to a top… Greek economist.

In a better, more rational world, little inconsequential Greece would not be a permanent feature in the nightmares of peoples and policy-makers world-wide; I would remain a decent second rater within my profession, and unheard of beyond it; and you would be enjoying a keynote from someone else. An historian. A sociologist. A novelist perhaps. As it happens, Greece remains in the eye of an economic and social calamity; and you are about to be treated to a talk about the tragedy of being Greek and an Economist by one who still refuses to think of himself as a “Greek Economist” and who, despite his portrayal by the global media as an ‘expert’, has never stopped saying that we economists, independently of our intelligence or personal ethics, are no experts but that we belong to a sinister priesthood purveying thinly disguised, heavily mathematised superstition as… scientific economics.


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