The timing of democracy and that of finance / I tempi della finanza, i tempi della democrazia

*Written yesterday, this article is partly old. Tsipras, advised or pressured by the European Central Bank, has imposed a week long bank holiday. Tasting a sample of what would happen in case of Grexit, it is hard to imagine that Greek voters will support the No, unless Tsipras can convince voters the bank holiday is Europe’s fault.  Did Tsipras not anticipate this or is he playing a high stake game to overcome the left wing of his party?

*Scritto ieri, questo articolo è in parte superato. Tsipras, su consiglio o pressione della Banca centrale europea, ha deciso la chiusura delle banche per una settimana. Sperimentando ciò che accadrebbe in caso di Grexit, è difficile immaginare che gli elettori greci sosterranno il No, a meno che Tsipras non riesca a convincerli che la chiusura delle banche è colpa di un ricatto dell’Europa. È qualcosa che Tsipras non aveva previsto o è un gioco ad alto rischio per battere l’ala sinistra del suo partito?


Article written for Il Sole 24 Ore

Many years after the Cuban missile crisis, McNamara, the U.S. Secretary of Defense during the crisis, asked Fidel Castro whether in case of attack we he would have fired the nuclear missiles. Amazed by the affirmative answer, McNamara asked Castro if he knew that this would have implied the destruction of his people. The answer was a chilling “yes.”

Fortunately in the Greek crisis, there are not nuclear weapons involved. But this is the only consolation we have in an extremely difficult time. The Cuban crisis teaches us that game theory models, which assume the rationality of all players involved, do not always work. Forced into a corner, some players antepose pride to reason and make choices devastating for them and for everyone involved. This would be the case of Castro if Kennedy had bombed the missiles positions in Cuba, and this is the case today with the decision of Tsipras to hold a referendum on the agreement offered by creditors to Greece.

Many believe that Tsipras’ choice is highly democratic, and it is true. But this is where the timing required by democracy does not coincide with that required by finance. Monday morning the bank run, begun long ago, will turn into a real assault*. The European Central Bank will hardly be in the position to increase its liquidity assistance, especially after June 30, when the non-payment of the loan to the IMF will be official. Restricting capital movements would not be enough. People will get to withdraw cash. If – as in Argentina- there will also be a cap on withdrawals, there will be an assault to shops, paying with credit cards. It is better to purchase goods that do not devalue that keep deposits that are likely to depreciate by 40-50%. In this situation it is easy to imagine a revolt in the streets and a fall of the government Tsipras.

As in a war situation, so in a financial crisis, direct democracy does not work. You have to delegate choices. And who is delegated must make these decisions, even at the cost of making mistakes and then be contradicted by voters. Tsipras pays for his ambiguity during the electoral campaign: he affirmed that he would never give in to ultimatums by creditors but that he would keep Greece in the euro, not specifying what he would do if forced to choose between the two options. And instead of taking responsibility for the choice, he damped it on voters. Probably their answer will come when the game is over.

Is it all Tsipras’s fault? No. Certainly Tsipras has made many mistakes, but so did his European counterparts. They did not understand that Syriza’s victory was an important signal that Greeks had reached the limit. Instead of finding a compromise, they have tried in every way to discredit their counterpart, hoping for a quick fall of Tsipras’ government. Not only is this strategy most undemocratic (can you imagine what would happen if the US president Obama was trying to bring down a Republican governor?), but it is also short-sighted. It ignores the fact that anyone who is cornered can react in a crazy way. This myopia is the result of a lack of leadership. In English there is a saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Europe is run by committees and continues to produce camels. We lack a European leader worthy of this name, with a strong popular mandate. During the Cuban crisis, against the majority opinion of his military advisors, Kennedy took responsibility not to bomb the Soviet missile installations in Cuba. He chose to negotiate. A politically risky choice especially for somebody like Kennedy, who in the previous electoral campaign had criticized Eisenhower for being too soft vis-à-vis Fidel Castro. But thanks to this decision the world avoided a nuclear war. Fortunately, today we do not risk nuclear war. But in this crisis, we risk not only a humanitarian catastrophe in Greece (much worse than it already is), but we risk the destruction of the idea of ​​Europe.

Of this we have to thank the European diplomacy, but also the missing leader.


Molti anni dopo la crisi dei missili a Cuba, l’allora ministro della difesa americana McNamara chiese a Fidel Castro, se – qualora attaccato – avrebbe risposto con i missili nucleari. Stupito della risposta affermativa chiese a Castro se si rendeva conto che questo avrebbe comportato l’annientamento del suo popolo. La risposta fu un agghiacciante «sì». Per fortuna nella crisi greca non ci sono ordigni nucleari di mezzo. Ma questa è l’unica consolazione che abbiamo in un momento estremamente difficile. 

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