Economists. They’re the new “rock stars”, apparently. And, no, this doesn’t mean you should expect to find a sex tape featuring Joe Stiglitz any time soon. If you want to see the Nobel laureate hot and live, watch him screw the policies and governance of the IMF.
By “screw”, I mean “interrogate by recourse to reason”. And by “rock star”, the press can only really mean “commanding audience of an unexpected size”. If you’ve heard or read Thomas Piketty, arguably the west’s most famous economist, you will know that equating him with, say, Tommy Lee makes about as much sense as equating capital with wealth. He may be a million-selling author, but, unless the term is now broadly used to mean “the application of questionable formulae over 600 barely readable pages”, he is not a rock star.
Paul Krugman, economics professor and op-ed writer with the New York Times, sold out the concert hall at the Opera House this year, but he’s really not a rock star. Robert Reich, economics professor and former US Secretary of Labor, may have starred in a well-regarded documentary, but he’s really not a rock star. Although, Yanis Varoufakis, economics professor and former finance minister for Greece, may be a bit of a rock star.
This is not because he is wont to dress in leathers. This is not because he is widely presumed to be partnered with the subject of a popular ’90s song. This is not even because The Guardian featured him last weekend in interview with an actual rock star—an act of cutesy literalism diminished by the disclosure he once attended a U2 concert. Bono rocks neither on stage nor in his other job as an amateur economist and I am genuinely distressed to learn that Yanis is a fan of the vacant turds this band dumps on the culture.
Still. As far as the era’s economists go, Varoufakis, who has just concluded a short national speaking tour, is a rock star. If a perspicuous account of the Eurozone crisis can be said to “rock”, then this one does.
Varoufakis, whose Melbourne talk with Mary Kostakidis I attended last Saturday, is distinct from Stiglitz, Piketty, Krugman and those other critics of economic neoliberalism whose books now fill our shopping carts and whose speeches form part of our entertainment calendar. This difference is not down to the Varoufakis leather nor even to his recent proximity to real financial disaster. Stiglitz, former chief economist with the World Bank, has lived just as fully in the hell of neoliberal consensus, but did not begin — his great gift of a slogan to the Occupy movement notwithstanding — to mesmerise audiences in the way Varoufakis now does.
Varoufakis has something that his best peers don’t and the best rock stars do: a sense that his chosen endeavour can’t last forever. Pete Townshend destroyed guitars; Varoufakis destroys the tools of the dismal science. “We are damned if we know” he said of economic forecasts on Saturday. He says this often, and with no little authority.
This is not to say that Varoufakis offers the best or the most readable account of a post-2008 world — for my macroeconomics dollar, Brown professor Mark Blyth lifts us ordinary people to a much clearer view of the way the world’s most “developed” nations just keep on developing. And this is not to say that Varoufakis offered, in office or now, a particularly revolutionary solution to the crushing problem of debt — and, there were Trotskyists in attendance to remind him of his Keynesian “betrayal”.
The thing about Varoufakis is that he “betrays” everyone. Of course, he betrays the right and the bullshit growth formulae to which it has held fast in the face of crashing failure for decades. He betrays the shiny-eyed guys of the Fifth International who still believe in “scientific” socialism. He betrays his centrist fellows who try to turn Keynes into science. He doesn’t betray an undecided audience who is grateful and surprised to hear that no one, not even a game theorist, can precisely gear the economy.
Of course, this is an easy fancy. When Varoufakis says, as he did again on Saturday, “If you want to understand the Great Depression, read Steinbeck”, he feeds the liberal humanist appetite for paralysing sentiment. It annoys me that a man who is far more capable than most of describing just how Greece was rogered by the trident of the IMF, the Eurogroup and the European Central Bank tells us all to go and read some Steinbeck. The western world is already full of people who genuinely believe that all they need to cultivate is understanding kindness and, FFS, I didn’t pay thirty bucks to hear an economics professor who likes U2 give me advice on novels.
There is a difference between dismissing the influential ideas of economists and bypassing them altogether in favour of an afternoon with American realist authors. Sure, Steinbeck describes the prison of poverty well, but this doesn’t mean we should follow Varoufakis’ new advice to ignore the architects of that prison. He is at his best and most useful, for mine, when explaining the legacy of Malthus, of Adam Smith or Locke. It is an unusual talent that he has to explain how household austerity produces a vastly different result from national austerity (“Belt tightening works individually. Individuals are blessed by independence between income and expenditure. At the macro-level, this is not the case. For example when a large private sector company lays off workers, we cannot reduce unemployment benefits and expect anything but a deepening of the debt crisis”). I do wish he wouldn’t squander this gift on fiction.
But, Varoufakis is relatively new to the rock star stage so perhaps we can expect to see him bust out some new techniques for engagement. It’s understandable that he is, when speaking to general audiences only newly enamoured of “rock star” economics, prone to flights of humanism. It’s one way to convince of us of the likely “truth” that there is no absolute truth to economic theory and modelling. But, we can’t dismiss these powerful fictions confident that the power of Steinbeck will trump them. We need a Varoufakis to tell us exactly why the history of all hitherto existing economic theories is the history of bullshit. We don’t need a sticky end at a U2 concert.