Game Theory in the Corridors of Power
By J Iddhis Bing, 99GetSmart
Alex Tsipras and ministers of his government – among them, the Alternate Minister for International Economic Relations, Euclid Tsakalotos, and a certain Minister of Finance, name of Varoufakis – were in Paris on Thursday for a wide- ranging series of talks with the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). After the discussions Tsipras gave a short press conference followed by a speech to OECD member nations and the press. The OECD announced a number of joint initiatives with the Greek government in areas such as job creation, public finance and spending, taxation and, intriguingly, “disrupting oligarchies and cartels.” The organization’s Secretary-General, Angel Gurria, was careful to note that “The OECD is not replacing any other institution that the government works with. We are involved because we were asked by one of our founding member countries to offer help and advice on their reform program.”
Regular readers here will pardon the pro-forma above. I snuck in the OECD’s side door and took notes. I looked pretty good, considering that my hands were covered with bloody scratches courtesy of a cat I met the day before. Events at places like the OECD in the opulent 16th are interesting theatre, at least the first time around. They are rigorously controlled affairs, so you have to lean in if you want to glimpse the human beast.
The Greeks need friends in Europe. They’re looking everywhere, and the trip to Paris can be seen as part of the continuing charm offensive. They need public statements of support and not quiet murmurs of assent such as François Hollande dispenses. (Not too loud, Angela might hear.) They have confidence in what looks like a lonely fight but they seem to be still hoping that the tide will turn, that Europe will join them in replacing the Austerity Drones. That’s one explanation for their presence. But it leaves a lot out.
… The plush little theatre where the press conference takes place is crammed with journalists. In the first two rows, a swirling crowd that speaks only Greek and is constantly hopping in and out of their seats, as if they were making policy decisions at the last second. The camera men are set up with their ridiculous foot-long lenses, the facilitators line the aisle, we’re all waiting. Do my co-workers expect anything new to be said? There’s no bar down here in the basement of the OECD – I haven’t found one anyway. Just fruit juice. It’s nice to be healthy but a drink helps when you have to listen to politicians for a few hours, and without a bar there’s no fraternity. Journalists these days are a quiet lot and far too many of them are staring at the portables on their laps like zombies getting the feed.
And then – swoosh. The doors open and one buzz replaces another as Tsipras and cohorts glide in. The photographers order anyone in their way to sit down. What jerks.
Tsipras and Gurria take the platform. Gurria grips the lecturn like he’s maybe going to pull it out of the floor and hurl it at us, or maybe a bit like a sea captain staring off into the mist on a stormy night. Tsipras’s body language is patient, deferential, waiting his cue. He’s willing to play the game. I wonder if he can understand a word Gurria is saying.
He’s a fast talker this Gurria. Six languages or so the official bio claims. Brooklyn is full of guys like him, always on the up and up, everything positive, always shaking people’s hands, aways trying to sell you something – an idea maybe. (People in Brooklyn have ideas.) They come at you fast on the sidewalk and it’s always too late to avoid them. They’re not so bad, it’s just that they’re always brimming. Well, Gurria has the right, he’s head of the OECD, unofficially known as the “world’s club for the richy-rich.” Readers with memories of old columns will recall that Luxembourg is a member too and that they simply choose to “exercise the privilege” of not signing the organization’s tax avoidance mandates, which they had every right to do. It’s called taking care of business properly.
So Gurria is finishing up, he says again and again that “Syriza has only been in power a few weeks,” and underlines that the OECD is not replacing any other organization at least twice. Who could that be refering to, I wonder? Greece will take help anywhere it can. As the poet Roque Dalton observed, “The drowning man doesn’t ask which way the boat is headed.”
Tspiras is not so nice. The Troika is his voodoo doll: if you bring it on stage, you have to stab it – at least twice. And he obliges. Syriza remains committed to its social program in all its aspects, he says, as well as the Memorandum of reform they signed in mid-February. But he stresses that it is reform their way and not what the Central Bank and the IMF think change looks like. Watch a few videos of the Euro group President Jeroen Tijsselbloem, read his body language as he says, “We are still waiting to see evidence of reform by the Greeks.” (My paraphrase.) The two parties are speaking different languages. In a video after Syriza’s election he talks about how much his organization helped Greece with interest delays and other bookkeeping sleights of hand (heroic acts). Tijsselbloem is a human in functionary drag, passenger on a boat going the wrong way. He is the kind of man who says “water” before he lifts the glass to his lips. It’s a policy statement.
Gurria smacks down a journalist who dares to ask a pointed question about Spain and deficits, and the journalist takes it. It’s a regular love-fest in here, Gurria seems to be saying. Let’s not let reality interrupt.
This “only been in power a few weeks” gets on my nerves. Who’s he saying it to? He sounds like he’s trying to convince a judge in some small Texas town that his client shouldn’t hang – right away anyway. He repeats it, staring over our heads into Nowhereland. Is he addressing it to Christine Lagarde at the IMF? Did they have a spat? “Look, Angel, hang with the Greek boys on Thursday. But don’t even dream about pal-ing around over the weekend. What if you give me the disease?”
If I were a professor of institutional semantics, I’d roll it out like this: the OECD is a parallel international organization that wields power behind the scenes. Corporations are always knocking on their door demanding special privileges and they (the OECD) hold sway within the different national bureaucracies, within the mindset. Greece needs breathing room and if the OECD isn’t offering cash, it’s access, which may be more valuable. Of course they’re “enterprise-oriented.” National salvation isn’t in their tool kit. It will be up to Syriza to resist. In any case, the OECD isn’t issuing diktats.
More interesting to speculate on Gurria’s motives. Why has he so forcefully interposed the OECD between Greece and the Troika? Clearly not “replacing any other organization,” but it’s as if that Brooklyn glad-hander stepped between the bully and his victim and yelled, “Hands Off!” Whose side is he on? Impossible to say. His face is a mask, he speaks in soundbites. (Is there a school for that?) Greece in any case will be able to say to Tijsselbloem et Co., “We’re playing by OECD rules. Good enough for you?” when that all-but-inevitable departure from the Euro threatens again. Greece is playing for time. Syriza has to both implement reforms and see some positive results. In four months. Pasok had ten years to shoot their wad and blow the treasury. I don’t remember the European fright wigs complaining then.
But what! – Hey!- What’s that noise! – breaking glass – in this soft little amphitheatre. Here? It can’t be. But it is. Reality is not so nice. Reality is the Syriza snarl. Here they are showing the OECD what attentive fellows they can be – but just a day before – a bit of mayhem before they arrived in Paris. They went before the world and accused Germany of the systemic pillage of their country.
In December 2014 the Greek finance ministry published a report which calculated that Germany “owed” Greece €9.2bn for the first world war, €322bn for the second and €10bn for money Greece was forced to lend the Nazi regime in 1942.
On Wednesday Alex Tsipras weighed in before the Greek Parliament. “After the reunification of Germany in 1990, the legal and political conditions were created for this issue to be resolved. But since then, German governments chose silence, legal tricks and delay.”
Now we get to the good part of the drama, when the upstart Southerners confront the Northern behemouth. They prick them where it hurts. The worst part of it, for the Germans, is that the Greeks are trying to steal their role, that of the Great Reproover, the Clean Liver, the Prosperous. You’re thieves, the Greeks bellow. And the Greeks were being nice about it. They didn’t even mention the gold bricks the Germans took with them at the end of the Second World War, a theft that William Pfaff, the dean of American foreign policy writing, calls “a legitimate issue.”
To their immense credit there are numerous Germans, individuals and political groups, who have stood up and publicly backed the Greeks in raising the issue.
No one can seriously believe that the Syriza-led government is naïve about what the OECD represents. At the same time the fly on the conference room wall knows more than we do about the OECD’s real strategy for Greece. OECD assistance may help to cauterize the wound; looked at another way it brings Greece closer to the business establishment.
There was more to the afternoon. Tspiras had yet to give his speech. His English is nearly incomprehensible and it got worse as the speech went on. He was saying something, it was the kind of speech the OECD likes to hear, full of initiatives and targets. He did say, “We don’t want to reform Greece, we want to transform it.” For that dream, he will meet obstacles on all sides, international and domestic, not least that part of the Greek left who have already decided he’s a sellout.
In the corridors close to the centers of power, where Power takes the shape of human figures gliding down a passageway surrounded by body guards, Sub-Ministers for various offices, journo-hangers-on desperate for a quote, everything is rumor, opinion, hand-held devices pumping out new info, distraction – buzz. Very little is really known and what is known can change instantly into its opposite. That’s what Syriza is banking on.
What’s the probability that the sea of hemmed-in, shoulder to shoulder journalists, administrators and facilitators would somehow part to allow an awkward young German reporter, tall and a little stiff like he was new on the beat, to step forward and block Varoufakis’s path? Not likely in that crowd – but it happened. He had a question. Not about reparations. “Is it true, Mr. Minister, that Greece will run out of money in seven days?” A short freeze in the crowd surge. Varoufakis gives him a quick look up and down. It’s provocation with a German accent. “Can’t Buy Me Love,” Varoufakis replies softly. “Good song. Do you know it?” The crowd moves on, out of the room.
The journalist looks verklempt, augestorben – overcome, lost. Varoufakis played him. That’s game theory: change the terms of the debate. The reporter hobbles back to his computer. He didn’t get his quote, or so he thinks. Humiliated, he looks around for help.
The OECD is an interesting faction of the elite to have on your side. They can’t say you don’t play by the rules, even if you have to bend them. Everybody does, just look at Luxembourg. But I think we are nearly at the end of the epoch when Greece can be regarded as a pariah. What happened there happened with the full knowledge of the EU, the ECB and the IMF, and therefore, one could argue, with their consent. The OECD plans, I suspect, to play the role of mediator, with or without the blessing of the Troika. So far Syriza has shown that it’s one step ahead of the functionaries of Reality As Such.