Interview of the Bank of Greece Governor Yannis Stournaras to Country Managing Director of Accenture Greece Kyriacos Sabatakakis
31/07/2017 - Speeches
You can watch the interview here
Good morning, Mr. Governor. Thank you so much for receiving us in your office, in the historical building of the Bank of Greece here on Panepistimiou Avenue. In our interview with you today we hope to go over the past 25 years and, through our conversation, revisit the choices made by a man of your calibre who has achieved high goals.
So, my first question for you is the following: what was your relationship with knowledge as a youngster?
A very strong one. I remember, when I was still in primary school, my father would bring me books, which I devoured. In fact, I could say that this relationship is what has helped me the most in the course of my life and which I have never given up on.
What kind of books did you read? What were you interested in?
Everything you can possibly imagine. Papadiamantis, foreign literature translated into Greek, some first attempts at reading in English, and then, of course, Lucky Luke and the Little Hero magazine. Anything I could get my hands on.
As you were growing up, when did you realise that you wanted to study Economics?
That’s very interesting. I remember one day going to the Danaos movie theatre, in Ampelokipi – this was still during the dictatorship – when I was in the 11th grade, just at the start of the school year. Back then, you could find various books on display in the cinema’s foyer. It was there that I found a book by Michal Kalecki, “Theory of Economic Dynamics”, which I started to leaf through. In fact, I think I even asked to borrow the book. I was just fascinated. This book had everything in it: Political Economy, Mathematics, Economics. The idea of becoming an economist stuck with me ever since.
What was it that attracted you the most? Perhaps the fact that you were discovering something about society and its organisation? What was it exactly?
I think I found everything in Economics: Political Economy, the relation with society, Mathematics, Statistics, History. As Keynes once said in his obituary of Professor Marshall, an economist needs to be a combination of things: a mathematician, historian, diplomat and more, all at once. This is what attracted me.
Who was your idol as you were growing up?
I wouldn’t say that I idolised any one person in particular. There were several. At first, athletes, I guess, given how fond I was of swimming and still am to this day. Later on, probably actors, men and women. Much later, intellectuals. In due course, all those who shaped the modern era. Darwin, Marx, Freud, Einstein, Keynes. These, I believe, are the people who shaped modern civilisation.
Tell us about one of the figures you just mentioned. Darwin, Marx, Keynes... What is it about them that captivated you so?
The extent of their learning. This is why I always tell young people, whether they are studying Economics or some other discipline, to read the classical authors. They were profoundly educated. Take Keynes or Freud, for instance. Take Marx. They had all, even Marx and Freud, studied the classics. They had studied Aristotle, Plato. Their education was profound, and you see this in their work. When you read Freud today, regardless of whether or not you agree with his theories, you can tell what a knowledgeable man he was.
Interesting. This brings me to my next question: Given the extent of your studies in Economics – but also your experience in the field and your professional involvement with economics from a public policy perspective – have you identified ideas, from the teachings you received and from the major debates both then and now in the academic world, that you’ve found to be longer-lasting than others?
In the field of Economics or in general?
In the field of Economics and its impact on everyday life.
First of all, Economics is a social science. It’s not Physics, it is not an exact science conducted in a laboratory. There are so many parameters that come into play. So many models. Every economist has some model to explain the world. What I’ve come to understand, which we didn’t when we were young, is that we must refrain from being dogmatic. We need to choose the best ideas from each school of thought and combine them into a synthesis, with realism and flexibilility, as the Nobel laureate Robert Solow once said. This is a motto I never forget. Turning to more modern research, another relationship that appears to be long-lasting is the one between institutions and economic growth. Countries with strong institutions, with relationships based on trust, are the ones that grow the fastest. This is a factor of production that we didn’t take into consideration in the past. Seriously. Institutions promote science, science promotes innovation, and innovation promotes productivity and growth. But other things as well. As an economist, I would say that the world is Keynesian in the short-term, but neoclassical in the long-term. However, both are useful. We must refrain from clinging to any single theory, and instead choose the best that each theory has to offer. That said, the key point is to stay in touch with reality.
How do you deal with people with set ideas, whichever side of the spectrum they may come from?
I like people with set ideas and opinions, so long as they are not dogmatic. I want people to be good listeners, just as I try to be. And when we make a mistake, it’s our duty to rectify it. Trying to cover it up and considering it “Too late to be corrected” is just not right. No matter what position we hold, we all make mistakes. Only super-beings are flawless. Human beings make mistakes. When you strive to accomplish things, you inevitably make mistakes. We are not infallible. The important thing though, when we realise what we’ve done wrong, is to correct it as soon as possible. And, also, not to offend others. Just because someone has a different opinion doesn’t mean that they are necessarily wrong. And, even if they are, there’s no need to tell them in an offensive manner. You need to persuade them. I am a firm believer in the power of argument.
Indeed. From the experience you’ve gathered over the years, do you feel that you’ve formed a different view of things, through such discussions and debates?
Definitely. In fact, I feel I’ve changed views a number of times. Ideologically, politically, socially and economically. As we get on in years and accumulate experiences, we change. Let me remind you that when someone once pointed out to Keynes that he had changed his view from a few years earlier, he famously retorted: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
The truth is that in recent years, not only in Greece but elsewhere too, people have to some extent all become economists, due to the fact that macroeconomics, which used to be the domain of academics and politicians, has penetrated our daily lives so much that even the average citizen now realises that it influences him. Are there, in your opinion, any basic principles with which the average citizen should familiarise himself as to how the economy works? Simply put, what must the average citizen watch out for, in order to understand whether something at the macroeconomic level is on the right or the wrong track?
There has to be a minimum level of economic literacy. People need to learn some basic economics. You don’t need to be an economist to understand certain basics, most of which are a matter of common sense. We, on our part, have a duty to tell people the truth. This is essential. A basic finding is that man needs incentives in order to function. Sure, we have our virtues and we have our flaws. But we need incentives, this is something that we must never overlook. Thus, for economic policy to work properly, we need to understand how the public, businesses and individuals, are likely to respond. I once asked a man of great wisdom of left-wing persuasion why the Soviet Union had collapsed. To which I received the wise response: “Because no one had understood that human nature and incentives go hand in hand”. This is something you cannot suppress. If you do, you’ve done something wrong.
So, incentives are the driving force of the economy. Now tell me, when did you realise that you wanted to participate in public affairs? Because, in one way or another, you’ve been involved in public affairs most of your life?
Your question takes me years back, when I made the decision to return to Greece, despite a promising academic career at Oxford. I was around thirty, I was already an academic, as I had completed my doctorate fairly quickly and already had some years of academic experience at the University of Oxford. That is when I decided to return to Greece.
What brought you back? This is something I want to talk about, because we, in our line of work, see so many people – Greeks who live abroad, who retain their passion for Greece and who long to return to the homeland, to make a life for themselves here and play their part. This seems to be a recurring trend, irrespective of the ongoing crisis. So, what led you to this decision?
Our land has something, something that in the end lures us back. There’s the unparalleled beauty, but it’s also a question of what one feels deep down. At some point, I just began to feel this way, even though I spent truly wonderful years at Oxford. Years which I will never forget. In fact, I probably owe the greater part of my career to those years. However, I wanted to come back. It was like an impulse urging me to return. And I never regretted it. This is the important thing. Even though I had no complaints about my life in England.
On the one hand, the fact that you came back and never regretted your decision tells us a lot. But this story also illustrates how a leading university can help a young individual, full of ideas, to think, broaden his horizons and make an impact on the world.
Oxford was unique. It offered endless opportunities. The possibility to attend lectures on anything you could imagine. From the most Advanced Mathematics, Topology to Philosophy, Sociology and History. During the first two years of my MPhil, I attended lectures just about everywhere. Then, in my DPhil years, my finances as a student were a little tight, so I had to graduate before my scholarship ended. Therefore, I focused all of my energy on Economics and Mathematics, differential equation theories, as my doctoral thesis was on Mathematical Macroeconomics. At that time, everyone was trying to explain Keynes using microeconomic foundations.
After returning to Greece, you eventually entered Greek academia as well. Did you miss the environment of Oxford?
The University of Oxford dates back to the 12th century. Very few universities in the world can provide the kind of facilities, libraries and environment that Oxford has. But here too, we have made a serious effort to improve the Department of Economics at the University of Athens. We set up a Postgraduate studies programme, plus the atmosphere was really nice and remains so. That said, I do miss the University of Oxford. I miss Oxford academically, but here too we’ve tried to make the most of our more limited resources.
This brings me to my next question: What must we do with our education system here in Greece in order to foster such a free circulation and flourishing of ideas?
The main thing, I think, is to insist on excellence and evaluation. Finland, for instance, where practically everything is publicly funded, has one of the best education systems in the world. Why? Because of evaluation and excellence, competition in schools and universities alike to attract the best students, but also to attract the best teachers. In Finland, to be a teacher is very highly regarded.
In your opinion, why is it that such a system of values works in Finland, whereas we here in Greece are still struggling to set one up?
We used to have one here too. But we made the mistake, at some point, of introducing measures that undermined excellence. That was wrong. Education is the asset of the poor. We need to re-embrace traditional values in the field of education and stress the importance of excellence, especially in state schools. And instead of seeking to destroy whatever advantages private schools have to offer, we should seek to introduce them into our state school system as well.
Upon your return to Greece and being much younger then, you obviously had a vision. Looking back now some 25 years later, would you say that your vision has been fulfilled? Are you happy with the direction Greek society has moved in? What have we seen in the past quarter of a century?
There have been negative changes, as well as positive ones. Despite the economic crisis, we are clearly far better off today than we were 25 years ago. Both materially speaking, for instance, in terms of per capita income, but also in terms of its institutions, Greece has made progress. Our country is more extroverted now. Quite richer, too. Unfortunately, we failed to avoid some major pitfalls. And I mean all of us. This should be a lesson for us. What conclusion do I draw? That we must avoid repeating the same mistakes. We can’t go on letting our society believe that everyone has rights, but not obligations. Rights go hand in hand with obligations. This, I think, was our biggest mistake. After the dictatorship collapsed, whereas our transition to democracy was smooth -compared to other countries like Portugal and Spain- when it comes to the economy, we made mistakes. When it comes to the political economy, we also made mistakes. These mistakes must not be repeated. Today, we are part of the eurozone. This is a great weapon. The euro is a protective shield, in the strange world we live in, following recent events. We are witnesses to populism, to a decline of values globally. The euro protects us. And it isn’t just a shield for Greece, it’s a shield for Europe also. So, we must resist any Sirens’ song claiming the contrary.
So, what you’re really saying is that the existence of the euro is a cornerstone to Europe’s existence as an idea.
Precisely. Today, it is Europe’s identity.
Tell me now, looking at the events unfolding in Greece, Europe and the world, how could this identity be further reinforced in the future so as to strengthen the ties within Europe and avert a situation with each country scrambling to preserve its own interests?
Europe, or should I say the eurozone, needs to understand one thing: that certain changes will be necessary for the euro to survive. Changes that will bring us closer together. Today, no one believes in the possibility of a strong federal state, although I would have wanted one, but right now this simply isn’t possible. What we can do, however, is promote what is realistically feasible. Economic adjustment, for instance, must not only be expected from the member states with current account deficits but also from those with surpluses. There are prescriptions readily available today, like the Five Presidents’ Report, which, two years ago, outlined the steps to a stronger eurozone. My view, especially in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, is that we need more, not less, Europe. More Europe when it comes to the big issues, like strategy and general orientations, perhaps less Europe when it comes to bureaucracy, which could be decentralised among the member states. Solutions do exist. Everyone is now waiting for France and Germany, the two countries that essentially built the euro, to sit down together again, once their respective elections are over, and examine with clearheadedness where the eurozone is headed.
Beyond the eurozone, looking at the broader picture in Europe, and in the light of recent developments in the UK, what exactly is this European identity and does it even exist? As a man who has lived in Europe and converses daily with Europeans, tell me, is there really a European identity to fight for?
There are countries where the majority of citizens believes that, yes, a European identity does exist. That there’s far more that unites us than divides us. That, united, we will achieve a lot more in terms of prosperity, stability and social justice. I, too, am one of them.
One reason for the serious tension in Europe, but also in the US and across the globe, seems to be the widespread sense that globalisation has worked in favour of the rich and against the poor. In fact, it is well-documented by several studies, which you are probably aware of, that the gap has in fact widened, despite an improvement in the global standard of living. This was also one of the main issues discussed at the last Davos Forum. Is capitalism at a turning point?
My answer is yes and you do have a point. Globalisation and technological advance may have increased global wealth, but they have also increased inequalities in the western world. China and India handle this issue in a different and more effective way than we do in Europe, in terms of reducing inequalities. Clearly so. So much so that if you factor in China and India, inequalities at a global level may, in fact, have not increased, but decreased. If I recall correctly, there was a World Bank study last year on the subject. However, as far as the western world is concerned, the answer is definitely yes. Inequalities have increased significantly. And why, you may ask, has this happened? What do Trade Theory and Welfare Economics teach us? That free trade and technological advance increase global wealth. But this does not necessarily mean that this wealth is fairly distributed. Far from it. The distribution may have become even more unfair. So, how does one address such a situation? Through income redistribution, by taking from the winners and giving to the losers of globalisation. This wasn’t achieved in the western world. Why? Because it’s difficult to tax the rich. There are offshore companies and a lot of hypocrisy. There are countries that talk of co-operating on this matter, when in fact they are tax havens for offshore activities. So long as there is offshore activity, it is not easy for a country to tax the very rich operating within its borders, because the very rich find ways to take their money out of the country. Thus, they gain from globalisation, without contributing to a fairer welfare state. Addressing this problem therefore calls for international cooperation. We need to limit the scope for legal tax avoidance. There’s no difference of opinion, of course, when it comes to (illegal) tax evasion. Everyone is against that. But the question remains: “what is each of our respective countries doing to reduce offshore activity within its borders?”
Elon Musk, who founded Tesla and, if I’m not mistaken, had previously launched PayPal, claims that technological developments will be so rapid in the years ahead that, sooner or later, we will have to provide a minimum guaranteed income to citizens in every country, a large share of activities and jobs are replaced by automation. Do you consider this likely?
I do. Most European countries have already set up a minimum guaranteed income. And we, too, in Greece have also been trying to. The first steps started in 2013 and considerable progress has been made. However, we have fallen behind on this matter on account of the economic crisis. The welfare state should target those in need more. In Greece, the welfare state focuses more on the elderly than on the younger generations. Yet, the future lies with our children.
Does this mean that we aren’t focusing on the productive sector of our society?
Precisely. We need allowances, so that our children can study. We need allowances to support labour mobility across sectors and jobs. We need training. We need financial resources. If you allocate all your financial resources to covering the pension expenditure, then you won’t have any resources left for your labour market.
Taking a closer look at the Greek context again, would you say that we’ve developed a globalisation phobia in Greece? Is there any room for us as a country to play our part in the globalised economy that we may have overlooked until now?
We are already playing a part. One of the positive impacts of the economic crisis is that it has made Greece much more extroverted. The tradable goods and services sectors have grown at the expense of the non-tradable ones. This, in itself, is a good thing and the way it should be. Our competitiveness has also improved. Plus, we have one of the most highly skilled workforces in the world. If you look at scientific publications per capita for instance, Greece has one of the highest ratios worldwide. Where we lag is when it comes to transforming these scientific ideas into innovation. This is what we should focus our attention on, linking entrepreneurship more closely with the universities, the centres of excellence and the research centres. And there is ample scope for doing this, from the primary sector to the secondary sector and services. Greece has such rich natural biodiversity, we can produce herbs in the agricultural sector, we can produce cosmetics. Then, in the secondary sector, we could connect the food industry to the primary sector. As for the services sector, as you know, Greece has some of the best healthcare professionals in the world. Thus, instead of exporting doctors we could import medical tourism. These are just some ideas as to how we can shift to a new growth model, step by step.
What is keeping us from shifting to this model faster?
Our lagging institutions. Greeks are such great achievers once they go abroad, because of the supportive institutional environment they enjoy. Greece has of course made a lot of progress on this front, but there is still strong resistance to excellence. This is seriously wrong. There are people in Greece, for instance, who don’t want an independent justice system. This is a major mistake. Others want our universities, even our schools, to be without evaluation. Another major mistake. There are people who fear competition. This is wrong. Even people who are against opening up closed professions and increasing operating hours. Greece’s economy is largely based on tourism. Thus, we stand much to gain, not lose, from longer opening hours. Remember how much the country benefited from the deregulation of the cruise sector. This is just an example.
How can we reconcile the different trends in Greek society, where on one hand there is opposition to some of the measures you mentioned, yet these measures seem to be the only way forward?
The political system in general, in my opinion, needs to tell people the truth. And not support views that serve its short-term interests, but are harmful to society in the medium and long-term.
One of the institutions that has performed rather well throughout the course of the economic crisis, without this being evident at the onset, is our democracy as a whole. As Greek citizens, we feel that our democracy, as a government system, has broadly worked. Yet, during the crisis there were instances where we saw, and you too at some stage experienced as a Cabinet Minister, where Europe itself and the euro support mechanisms were not necessarily prepared to absorb the various shocks, whether related to Greece or the global economy. And this raises a question, given that even European institutions were not able to keep up with the incredible speed of the markets, with the spreads or bond prices going up and down all the time, that unpleasant situation. And this question is: how can democracy keep up with the frenzy of the markets?
Indeed, you have a point. The most serious problem, as I see it, is populism. Populism doesn’t exist only in Greece or in the European South, it exists in the European North, too. Today, there are member states in the eurozone that for 7-8 consecutive years have been posting current account surpluses that exceed the limits imposed by the Macroeconomic Imbalances Procedure (MIP). Just a few words of explanation here, the MIP states that, in order for monetary union to function properly, current account balances must stay within a range from -3% of GDP to +5% of GDP. Yet there are countries that have had a surplus of 7% of GDP for several years and have not taken action to reduce it. This makes it harder for the deficit countries and we, and by “we” I mean mainly Greece, have tried to reduce it. Why has this been so difficult? Because in these countries too there is a rampant populism with the people being fed the line that “The people in the European South are eating up your money”. This is a lie. We’ve been given loans, not gifts. All we’ve been given are loans that we are in the process of repaying in the best possible manner, which also means through sacrifices. Basically, what I’m saying is that we need convergence. We need politicians bold enough to speak their mind and tell the truth to the people of the European South, in Greece, in Italy, in Portugal. But also, to tell Germany and the Netherlands. Because continuing to cultivate myths and chimeric delusions is harmful and the euro won’t be able to survive. This is why I said before, once the elections are over in France and in Germany, the political leaders will need to sit down together, just as Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl did when they discussed what kind of Europe we wanted in the wake of German reunification. And they reached an agreement, but only because they both made concessions. A successful negotiation means that all parties leave the table partly unsatisfied. If one party comes away overly satisfied, that means that some other party has lost. Of course, there are situations that are non-zero-sum games, where everyone wins. Like the situation we are currently in, where we all stand to gain from a better eurozone. There is no shortage of proposals, as I said. We need to advance to a more integrated federation of some form. I wouldn’t say that we are ready, as yet, to become a “United States of Europe”, but we obviously can take steps forward. As the Greek author Petros Markaris recently stated: “Europe started out as a beauty, we do not want it to end up a beast”.
Speaking of more federation and looking at the Fed, are there any elements of the Fed and its functioning that would be nice to have in the Eurosystem?
Of course, there are. I wish we had the flexibility that the U.S. Federal Reserve System has. For instance, the Fed bought shares, it bought non-performing loans. Such interventions are not easy for the European Central Bank to make, given the constraints arising from its Statute, despite the fact that since 2010, during the crisis, it has assumed a far greater burden than it was supposed to. Yes, I would have preferred to have had the Fed’s flexibility at the European Central Bank to buy non-performing loans, subject to certain requirements, of course. Things would have been different for the banks, today. This, of course, is a more advanced model, because, as I said, when you are asking to share risks with others, you have to be ready to share the relevant obligations as well. Perhaps this is why some countries still oppose this model. Perhaps, when we reach the point where we’re politically ready to share risks as well as obligations, then Europe will truly be a better place.
That’s an interesting point and it will be interesting to see how things, as you said, develop after the elections in France and Germany.
I would say that we now have an opportunity to give the euro, currently under attack from several sides, a stronger voice. This could be an opportunity. As I see it, every cloud has a silver lining. Europe could, after all the criticism received in the context of the Brexit vote and with the developments on the other side of the Atlantic, emerge more powerful and respond to this criticism. By responding though, Europe will also have to assume the accompanying responsibilities.
How do you envision Greece, I am tempted to ask, in the next 25 years? But since 25 years is an entire lifetime, let me just ask how you envision the nearer future.
History has been shown to be 80% shaped by fundamental relationships, and 20% by accidents. Ruling out the accidents as far as possible and focusing on the trend, then the next 25 years will clearly be much better than the present. Just as we are better off today than we were 25 years ago, despite our mistakes and omissions. But most importantly, we must learn from the mistakes of the past 5-6 years. This is a lesson we need to learn from and analyse. And pass on to our children.
What should we be telling our children concerning the next 25 years?
That you cannot have rights without obligations. That the person opposite you has rights and that one person’s freedom ends where another’s begins.
You hold a very important position. What factor, in your opinion, was key to your personal success?
Well, I’m not sure how you define success. Perhaps, what we said at the start of the interview, my relationship with knowledge and the fact that I was always reading some book or other, without neglecting sports or having a good time. This is another valuable lesson we need to tell our children. School comes first, but we mustn’t sacrifice our other interests, especially sports. Sports and swimming, in particular, have helped me a lot in the course of my life. Another factor was my ability to remain focused on my targets. My tenacity to succeed. This I would probably attribute to my father’s political path, which fed my determination to succeed and to believe that, if he was able to accomplish so much under such adverse circumstances, then so could I.
When did you first experience this tenacity? At what age?
When I started to mature. I must have been in the 9th grade or perhaps a bit older when I realised that I was getting better at the things that interested me. Whatever I was most interested in, I would excel at. This is another lesson for our children: not to be disappointed if they don’t achieve excellence as soon as they start school. The best way to look at education and schooling is as if it were a marathon. Don’t sprint too soon or you won’t have any kick left in the later stages. I have numerous examples of people I know, some of them former classmates of mine, who started out as excellent students, but then fell behind, whereas others, with poorer performances at the start, found what interested them and then excelled. It’s never too late. My advice is to keep reading. Knowledge is ever evolving, so we need to make time for it. For instance, whenever I’m on the plane or during the weekend, I make it a point to read.
This would mark a major step in Greek society’s awareness, i.e. that things evolve and no one can rely indefinitely on what they learned in the past.
Even we economists need to read more history and social sciences, and not just limit ourselves to the current trend in Economics, which is increasingly based on mathematics and overlooks the fact that economics is a social science, that history tends to repeat itself and has so much to teach us. Take, for instance, the history of fixed exchange rates, from the Gold Standard to this day. One lesson is that the participating member states must abide by common rules. If a member state starts to violate them, then it precipitates its own exit and the downfall of the monetary system. Thus, if we want the eurozone to prosper, we need to comply with the rules entailed by the common currency. Today, the economic and monetary union, i.e. the eurozone, is more of a monetary union than an economic one. Progress needs to be made on its other elements as well.
If I recall correctly, this matter drew severe criticism from the Americans when the euro was first launched. Criticism that we tended to dismiss as serving American interests. But maybe there was some truth to their criticism after all.
This criticism wasn’t voiced only by the Americans, but by European economists too. That, when things are going well and you’re in the upward phase of the business cycle, being part of a monetary union alone may be sufficient, but you are not preparing yourself for the rainy days. This is what we have to do now: prepare for the rainy days, because there could be another crisis ahead. We need to prepare for it, and the time is now. First, we need a “first aid’’ kit. Then, we need to determine what our next steps will be in the medium-term. And even though the time may not be right to change the Treaty, with all the rampant populism across Europe, if we want the euro to survive, we will eventually have to move in that direction.
I have another question for you. Which contemporary figure do you admire? We have spoken about some of the people who influenced you when you were younger, but is there a contemporary figure you admire?
A contemporary figure? That’s difficult to say. We tend to admire people who’ve passed away. One person who died recently and whom I admired was the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who must have experienced just about everything. He died aged nearly 100, and I think he said it all. He started off a member of Germany’s Communist Party, if I’m not mistaken, and was of Jewish descent. Fleeing persecution, he went to England, where he would write the history of capitalism, from the industrial revolution until the end of the 20th century. It would be useful to draw on his conclusions.
What conclusions did he reach?
That we cannot do without a state, but an efficient one, governed by the rule of law. Even though he started out a communist, he spoke out for individual freedom. A man highly self-critical.
If you hadn’t become an economist, what else would you have liked to become?
Good question. A historian perhaps. I am also fascinated by Mathematical Physicists, like Hawking and Penrose, who try to understand the origin of the universe. It’s a fascinating science. Something of that order. Either History or Mathematical Physics.
Who knows? These fields may even be interrelated.
Biology, too. You read modern biology theories that also relate to the origin of the universe and you can’t help but be captivated. These sciences fascinate me. History does too. I started reading history as a hobby, some twenty years ago, mainly modern European history.
Modern European history? Do you mean 20th century history?
No, I mean from the French Revolution onwards.
Tell us a few things that impressed you?
First of all, why Europe? Earlier you mentioned the eurozone and the European identity. This continent was ravaged by successive wars. Over the centuries, rivers of blood have been shed. Now with the euro as its identity, it has become a continent of peace and cooperation, when it once was a continent of constant warfare and bloodshed. This is a definite lesson.
In your long career, is there a time that stands out as particularly difficult, and if so, which one?
I’ve been through several difficult times, but if there’s one lesson I’ve learned over the years from the positions of responsibility I’ve held, it’s that there will always be difficulties, just as there will always be hits above and below the belt. The important thing is to get back on your feet. None of us is made of steel. We all falter at some point. What matters is to be able to get back up. One of the other lessons I’ve learned is to set priorities, by that I mean mainly objectives, and to listen and learn from my mistakes. Setting priorities is essential. In positions like the ones I’ve held, one has to deal with dozens of things a day. So it’s crucial to prioritise and know what to focus on, what is worth fighting for and what is not. Being Minister of Finance in 2012 or Governor of the Bank of Greece after that hasn’t been easy at all. Retaining one’s calm and focus is important. I’ve come to realise that there will always be sound forces willing to offer support. These forces are usually scattered and this is precisely the problem. Instead of letting irrationality get the better of us, it’s at moments like these that we need to stand tall.
You’ve been a very active and leading public figure for many years. How would you motivate young people to get involved in public affairs? Why should they in the first place?
Before getting actively involved in public affairs, people should first excel in their respective field. As Keynes wrote in his obituary of Marshall, education is above all. So only once they’ve succeeded in their field should they participate in public affairs. We need educated people to be involved in public affairs. Otherwise, public policy will fall into inappropriate hands.
Speaking of motivation, why should someone of professional repute in Greece today get involved in public affairs?
In order to make a difference. This is a great incentive for people who have fulfilled their ambitions, not only materially speaking, but also intellectually and socially.
Are there any particular proverbs or sayings that you are fond of?
Several in fact, as the ancient Greeks had sayings for everything. The ones that have guided in my life so far are: “All in good measure” and “Nothing in excess”. However, there are also modern day mottos, from everyday life, to learn from.
Do you have any regrets?
I’ve had regrets about a number of things, but nothing that important that it could have changed my life. The important thing is to look ahead. Naturally, whoever gets things done will inevitably make mistakes and have regrets. However, I don’t think that I’ve ever hurt anyone intentionally. And whenever I have unintentionally, I am quick to apologise and make amends. When you hold a position like mine and your decisions affect the lives of millions, you try not to make mistakes. However, no one is infallible or made of steel. When you do make a mistake, what’s important is to take stock of what you’ve done and to rectify it. And to keep looking ahead.
Since you mention “looking ahead”, one last question. What do you want people to remember you for, 25 years from now?
For my contribution to Greece’s European course. This, I think, is what matters most.
Mr Governor, thank you so much for your time and for all the interesting things you’ve shared with us.
It was my pleasure.