Last summer (an aeon it seems before my recent sojourn into politics&government) I spent ten days writing a short book in Greek on economics. The idea was to write it as if it were addressed to my young daughter, so as to keep complex ideas simple and to test my capacity to home in on what matters while discarding unnecessary complication. Now, a German edition of that book is about to be published and I was asked to author a preface for my German readers. Here is the result:
PREFACE TO THE GERMAN EDITION
One of the enduring memories from my early childhood is the crackling sound of Deutsche Welle radio transmissions. Those were the bleak years of our dictatorship (1967-1974) when Deutsche Welle was the Greeks’ most precious ally against the crushing power of state propaganda. Mum and dad would huddle together next to the wireless, sometimes covered by a blanket to make sure that nosy neighbours would not get a chance to call the secret police. Night after night these ‘forbidden’ radio programs brought into our home a breath of fresh air from a country, Germany, that was standing firm on the side of Greek democrats. While I was too young to understand what the radio was telling my mesmerised parents, my child’s imagination identified Germany as a source of hope.
As I am writing this preface to the German edition of a book aimed at another child, my daughter, I feel the urgent need to recount that memory. To turn it into a small homage to the idea of Europe as a realm of shared democratic ideals. A small gesture of defiance against the recent tendency for European peoples, who were hitherto coming closer and closer together, to be set apart by a… common currency.
Our European Union began life under the presumption that to achieve political and social union we must first bind together our economic interests; that economics would lead the way to a united European polity. It was a good idea except that, as the years and the decades went by, a problem emerged: our collective understanding of ‘economics’ became increasingly crude. We slipped into a simplistic mindset according to which the sphere of the economy began decoupling, separating itself from that of politics, of philosophy, of culture. As it did so, the economic sphere acquired massive discursive and social power for itself, thus causing democracy, politics and culture to fade out, to become shadows of their former selves.
We economists were, I confess, responsible for this steady erosion of our collective understanding of the economic sphere. Before we knew it, markets were no longer means to be placed in the service of social ends but emerged surreptitiously as ends in themselves. Under the influence of, on the one hand, financialisation and, on the other, economic theory, we began to resemble Oscar Wilde’s definition of the cynic: one who knows everything about prices and nothing about values. Naturally, our European Union’s institutions also tended towards the conviction that the large decisions should be taken by technocratic committees that constitute ‘politics-free zones’. In an ironic twist the language of economists helped usher in a mindset that jettisoned from the corridors of power and the halls of decision making not only politics and culture but also …economics.
But enough of this now! This book is not intended as a diatribe on Europe, on Germany, on Greece or indeed on anything that would bore… my daughter. It was written in order to test the author’s ability to convince a recalcitrant teenager that economics is too important to be left to the economists. That it can also be too much fun to be ignored by those interested in things other than money and finance. That, looked at through a piercing eye, behind every economic notion, every theory, there lurks a fascinating debate about human anxieties that only poets, dramatists and musicians have managed to address with any degree of efficiency.
Did I truly write this book for my daughter’s sake? Not really. I wrote it mainly to test the limits of my own understanding. For if I failed to explain to a teenager the fundamental issues of economics, my failure would reflect badly on my own grasp of them. Indeed, the failure to inspire youngsters to care about the nature of wealth, poverty, of economic power (and its distribution in society), reveals one’s own lack of appreciation of what makes our social world tick. As for my daughter, it is true to say that she played a major role. Being my worst critic, every time I completed a section or chapter I wondered whether she would look at me with disgust upon reading it. Nothing motivates an author better than such terror!
And there you have it. This book strives to inspire readers normally disassociated from economic narratives to care about economic ideas and economic processes by revealing their power over our imagination, beliefs and passions. It does this by asking: How did economic power emerge from the shadows of political and military might, before gradually taking over human societies? How was the modern world formed? And why are the economists’ theories part of the problems that this world is constantly producing, rather than of the solutions?
Thanks are due to Elena Pataki, my Greek publisher, whose idea this book was. I also wish to thank authors and creative geniuses from whom I heavily borrowed. Those include: Jared Diamond whose Guns, Steel and Germs underpins part of my chapter on the roots of grave inequalities; R.A. Radford, whose account of a Prisoners of War Camp is a splendid source of insights regarding money markets; Marlow, Goethe and Dickens, whose takes on Faust and Ebenezer Scrooge informed my narrative on debt and interest rates; Sophocles, whose power of prophecy is central to my arguments on the two markets (the labour and the money market) at the root of economic crises; and, of course, the Wachowski brothers for their splendid The Matrix, a film packed with pertinent economic, ecological and ethical anxieties.
Last but certainly not least, I must thank my daughter for her acerbic denouncement of all I do, without which this book would lack its driving force. Finally, harking back to my opening lines above, I wish to dedicate the following pages to my German friends who keep the memories of those DW’s crackling sounds alive, pertinent and permanently inspiring.