In late 2012, my husband and I were packing up our apartment to move.
I hate when he flicks through my books, because I often take private notes on little scraps of paper while reading. So I was a bit horrified to see him produce something from the Communist Manifesto, look at it quizzically and ask me: “Where’d this come from?”
I snatched it from him. It was a business card: George Papandreaou, ex-Prime Minister of Greece.
“Oh, I met him at Google Zeitgeist,” I said.
“Really? What did you talk to him about?”
“I asked him if he knew Yanis Varoufakis.”
“What’d he say?”
I thought about it for a second. “He said, ‘Yeah, Yanis, he thinks he has all the answers. But he doesn’t realize what it’s like when you’re actually in power.’”
At the time, I was closely following the impoverishment of Greece and other marginal Eurozone countries in the wake of the financial crisis. What I knew about Greece, I knew from Varoufakis, an EU-critical editorialist, advocating for the creation of Eurobonds to assure the solvency of the bankrupt periphery.
My husband thought this conversation, coupled with the fact that I’d brought the Communist Manifesto as bedtime reading to Google Zeitgeist, was pretty funny.
In 2015, years after I heckled Papandreou, Varoufakis got appointed finance minister of Greece by the Syriza government, which had run on a platform of standing up to the EU’s punishing austerity policies. Six miserable months of squaring off against the European Central Bank (and once giving Schaeuble the finger) afforded Varoufakis the opportunity to prove Papandreaou right.
After penning numerous explanatory volumes (and one exculpatory) about the violence of market capitalism, Varoufakis softens his edge in Talking to My Daughter About the Economy.
In the Prologue, the author makes it clear it’s a ramble he’s written in his daughter’s absence from his “island home in Aegina, overlooking the Saronic Gulf and the mountains of Peloponnese in the distance.”
From this lofty vantage, he mixes simplified Jared Diamond with a bit of Yanis Varoufakis for Dummies (especially The Global Minotaur, the book he wrote against the U.S. in the wake of the mortgage crisis).
Mythological analogies (including the single worst interpretation of Oedipus Rex ever penned) come naturally given the environment, I suppose, and there’s no shortage of classical erudition, including a comparison of Marlow’s Faust to Goethe’s Faustus and what this tells us about attitudes toward debt, as well as Rousseau’s Stag Hunt presented as Game Theory.
Some of Varoufakis’s reflections are quite serviceable:
…it is not just the state that provides the conditions for wealth…wealth has always been produced collectively – …through a gradual accumulation of knowledge. Workers need entrepreneurs to hire them, who need workers to buy their goods. Entrepreneurs need bankers to lend them, who need entrepreneurs to pay interest. Bankers need governments to protect them, who need bankers to fuel their economy. Inventors cannibalize the inventions of others and plagiarize the ideas of scientists. The economy depends on everyone.
Others, it’s a bit hard to imagine a 14-year-old girl making heads or tails of:
If the economy is the engine of society and debt is its fuel, then labour is the spark, the life-breathing force that animates the engine, while money is the lubricant without which the engine would seize up.
Similarly, the chapter entitled, “The Dangerous Fantasy of Apolitical Money,” and the final pages of “Haunted Machines” about capital re-allocation through a guaranteed minimum income in the wake of robot take-over, topical as they might be, are rather unsuitable for an adolescent reader.
The adult reader notes that Varoufakis’s rejection of economic orthodoxy only goes so far: money, digital or not, cannot be separated from governments. Blade Runner, The Matrix and Star Trek get their usual geek nod as stand-ins for data-driven discussions about automation’s impact on inequality.
Maybe it’s because I have to be around my kids a lot more than Varoufakis (whose daughter, he mentions frequently, lives in Australia) that my household reflections are markedly less epistolary.
My kids like to taunt me, saying things like, “We are poor. We don’t have a TV and we don’t have a car,” to which I reply, “You kids don’t know how g-d damn good you have it.”
Other recent “talks about the economy” include some of the themes raised by Varoufakis, in a tone more New Jersey than from the cliffs of Aegina:
- Taxes suck, but if you like roads, you better pay them. (Although people a lot richer than I am pay nothing… what gives?)
- If you’re gonna study something, make it music and literature. That’s what separates us from animals. But also minor in repairing robots.
- Allow me to teach you about interest. I will pay you 20% a month on the money you find inside the couch pillows and save. What? It’s the 15th? Sorry, I don’t have any cash.
- You think we’re poor cuz we don’t have a car? One day, you’ll be flying around in flying cars. The world will be unrecognizable to me and Dad (provided the French don’t privatize healthcare, and we make it to old age).
When I was my kids’ age, my dad, when he was home, was the kind of guy with a long beard and a joint hanging out of his mouth, walking around in a tank top and threatening to beat us to within an inch of our lives if we rode our bikes on the lawn.
My parents actually experienced being poor and didn’t expound on philosophies of debt, credit, usury or exchange value. They were screwed-up, upwardly mobile baby-boomers.
They told us: you pay taxes because lying is wrong.
Reading this book made me think of two things:
How we should start making our own bread.
How we have changed so much in 300 years.
Something else came to mind for me when I was reading Talking to My Daughter about the Economy: the poem Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold.
Like Varoufakis, Arnold’s speaker in the poem is perched at the edge of an ocean precipice, asking the big questions. This leads him to the Aegean and Sophocles. He laments the retreating “Sea of Faith.” Like Talking to My Daughter About the Economy, it’s a love poem.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
James Dickey called “Dover Beach” the first modern poem, not only because of its formal strangeness, but also for the desperation and isolation of a speaker confronting a world in which his faith is shaken.
For Dickey, Matthew Arnold’s “sadness has a depth that no other era has faced: a certainty of despair based upon our own examination of empirical evidence and the conclusions drawn by our rational faculty.”
Varoufakis’ single mention of the concept of “faith” appears in relation to the belief that ledgers will be honestly kept by intermediaries, that currencies will retain their value.
Perhaps Talking to My Daughter about the Economy is first post-post-modern parenting book, where the speaker embodies the plight of today’s enlightened, liberal parents, doomed to benefit handsomely from an economic order they find fundamentally unjust: parental love haunted by hypocrisy.
The trouble for me in reading such a book is that I’m confronted by my own hypocrisy: like Varoufakis, am I constantly asking my children to question their privilege while conferring it upon them?
Varoufakis summarizes Faustus and Grapes of Wrath and Jared Diamond and Marx and Keynes and Mary Shelley and Rousseau and Sophocles. But is he doing his daughter a favor, providing knowledge shortcuts, endlessly explaining? And these explanations, many clever ones, are full of engines and movies and historical allegories to which moral clarity plays second fiddle.
I thought I wouldn’t have time to write this review, so I paid my daughter 10 bucks to do it for me. I wish I hadn’t because, honestly, I wish she hadn’t read this book. Who am I, and who is Varoufakis, to tell her what to think?
Varoufakis’s Epilogue ends with a few lines of poetry (modernist: Eliot), but they read like a prescribed afterthought. The beauty of poetry is the way it is moving and, at the same time, generously interpretable.
I’m on a business trip right now. But the next time I’m tempted to talk to my daughter about the economy, I think I’ll pay her nothing to read Dover Beach.