Why Zingales is so “soft” on Greece

English translation of my blog post “Perché Zingales è così “morbido” nei confronti della Grecia” (published last July 5)

A dear friend asked me a question that I think has come up in many places: why am I so “soft” on Greece? I’m tempted to answer that others are just too rigid, but that would not be a real answer. Positions are always relative, and for better or for worse my position on Greece has been much softer than most Italian economists, even those on the left. Seeing as how I now have more time on my hands (☺), it seems fair to answer this question seriously. And it seems fair to do so now, with the polls open, and with the media having given the “yes” side in the referendum the advantage.

I’d like to begin with an introduction. As much as I have my own ideas, I try to look at the facts and issues in a non-ideological way. This does not mean that my ideas don’t help me to interpret the facts, but I make an effort to not interpret them in line with ideological categories. Ideologically, Syriza and I are about as far apart as I can possibly imagine. Nevertheless, I don’t assume that because of this everything Syriza does and says is wrong. On the other hand, I think that the future of Italy is in Europe, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t see huge problems in this Europe. This is the approach I have tried to follow in my book Europa o no*, and that I try to follow on this site and in everything that I write. Obviously I am not exempt from making errors, but I hope to be free from Manichaeism.

With that being said, I will now try to summarize my reasons

  1. The Greeks’ faults

The Greeks’ main fault is that of having for decades elected governments that are spendthrifts and corrupt. It is not a small crime, but as an Italian I don’t feel quite able to judge them so harshly. Their second fault is to have a corporate society that is not open to change. The English say that those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. So, as an Italian, I can’t allow myself to throw stones at corporatism: we invented it ourselves. The third fault is that of wasting the large dividend they received from entry into the euro area, which brought them a very low interest rate. On this point also, I feel that as an Italian I can’t criticize them. As I explain in Europa o no*, Italy also badly wasted this enormous benefit. The ultimate fault is in having too much debt. In debt as in marriage it takes two, and fault never lies with just one side. For every debtor that borrows excessively, there is a lender that allows him to do so. Why should the debtor be the only one that has to pay?

  1. Original sin

The original sin of the Greek crisis is the way in which the adjustment costs were distributed. When a debtor becomes insolvent, creditors must assume part of the cost of restructuring. In 2010 Greece was insolvent. Today, I am not the only one saying this (the IMF has admitted to the same), and I am not only saying this now, I also said it in 2010. Why then was the full cost of the crisis imposed only on Greece? Because Greece had no alternative, and Europe took advantage of this, doing a favor for the French and German banks. Again, I am not the only one saying this, it has been said by the former president of the Bundesbank, Karl Otto Pohl, who can’t be accused of being either communist or anti-German. Why is it that this fact is constantly ignored in all discussions on Greece?

  1. The faults of Varoufakis & co.

Many organizations suffer from a problem well-known in Social Psychology called groupthink. I talk about it in my book Manifesto Capitalista. It is the tendency of very cohesive organizations to radicalize and reject any outside person, who thinks in a different way, as a foreign entity. I fear that this is the problem with Europe and Varoufakis & co. For what it’s worth, as an academic economist Varoufakis is not inferior to his current European counterparts. He can be found unpleasant, but for example, even Tremonti has said the same thing. Why then was he treated in a manner in which no other finance minister of a European country has ever been treated? I think the reason is because he spoke an unpleasant truth: that Europe had made a mistake and should take responsibility to fix it. We have a saying, “don’t shoot the messenger.” The reason is that there’s a temptation to blame the messenger for the message they bring. That’s what happened in Europe. Did Varoufakis then facilitate his lynching with his arrogant behavior and unusual style (he was even reprimanded for wearing excessive fragrance!), certainly, yes. But if all arrogant people were lynched by the media, there would be very few politicians still alive.
Despite the ideological differences, in my eyes Syriza had a great advantage: it had not been part of the previous system. If the first fault of the Greeks was to have voted for too long for the same corrupt governments, should we not look sympathetically at their attempt to change?

  1. The Germans’ reasons

In my book Europa o no*, I have already denounced bad stereotypes: Germans call Greeks lazy (when data in hand the Greeks work longer hours per week than the Germans) and the Greeks call the Germans Nazis (when data in hand neo-Nazi movements have more followers in Greece than in Germany).
Another stereotype is that in Europe the Germans follow the rules and all the rest (Greeks in particular) do not. Although it is true that the Germans are more ideologically inclined to follow rules, in Europe the Germans have used the rules mainly to promote their own interests. As I wrote in Europa o no*, the ECB’s monetary policy (at least until Draghi) was deflationary, with great benefit to German industry that has more downward wage flexibility.
However, when rules damage German interests, they are not enforced or changed. Remember when Germany violated the 3% deficit limit? Was it sanctioned? No, an exception was made.
And the rule against state aid to businesses and the banks? When, in 2008, Chancellor Merkel wanted to help her banks, an exception was made.
And what about the rule that no country should accumulate too high of a trade surplus? Germany has been violating that for years. But no one says anything. Is this a love for rules or simply the pursuit of national interest at any cost?

  1. Europe’s problems

The reason why I wrote Europa o no* and why I created this blog is simply to spread a critical message about Europe’s problems, without, however, making it an anti-European message. When Syriza won the January elections it was because the other parties were too blindly pro-European. All except for Golden Dawn. If Syriza fails, there’s a risk that leadership will pass to Golden Dawn. While rejecting the political ideas of both, I would say that Golden Dawn is worse than Syriza.
My hope is that a serious debate on the vices of Europe at the center of the political spectrum will reduce approval for the opposite extremes. Today, the best spokesperson for Syriza in Greece is European commissioner Junker. Every time he opens his mouth, Tsipras gains more support.

It’s necessary to change the European institutions, which are too little democratic. If we leave the monopoly of criticism to the anti-Europeans, Europe will not change, it will be destroyed.

  1. Are we next?

In my elementary school there was a story of two parents who badly treated the elderly grandmother in front of their son. He, picking up the pieces of a cup, admonished them, saying: “I’ll keep them for when you are old.” It’s the old saying, “what goes around comes around.”
The last reason why I am so soft on Greece is that I fear we will be next.
There are two main differences between Greece and Italy. Greece had lied shamelessly on its balance sheets and had squandered billions for the Olympics. As I understand it, on its balance sheets, Italy has only lied (not shamelessly), but there’s still a risk that we will find out otherwise. And since we don’t want to miss out on anything, we are also in contention to host the Olympics in Rome. In case we don’t sink ourselves, the Olympics will take care of it. Then Northern Europe will begin to say that Italy and Greece are “one face-one race” and that the Italians also have to pay the consequences that they deserve.

At that point, everyone will regret not having been a little softer.

*I know that it’s not tasteful to self-cite, but I’m doing so to emphasize that I’m not saying anything that I haven’t already written, a year ago, in my book.