Greek Finance Minister Gets A Chance To Fix Beleaguered Economy

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Greece has been renegotiating its bailout deal with the European Union. The man guiding the country is new finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. A few years ago he was working for a video game company.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: There is a high-stakes international battle going on right now. On one side is Greece, on the other side, basically the rest of Europe. Greece is trying to renegotiate the bailout deal it agreed to after the financial crisis. There have been high-level meetings, lots of back and forth, temporary extensions. In the middle of this is an unusual man, Greece's new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. Varoufakis doesn't talk like a politician. In fact, a few years ago, he was working for a video game company. Here is David Kestenbaum with our Planet Money team.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: I first heard about Varoufakis in a kind of funny way a couple years ago. My colleague, Chana Joffe Walt, was interviewing this Greek couple. The woman hadn't been paid in months and the guy, Elias Teelegadas, mentioned that he had a kind of economic hero, a guy who shared his view that the bailout, with all its austerity measures, was killing the economy, not helping it, though Elias couldn't immediately remember the guy's name.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ELIAS TEELEGADAS: Oh, that half-baldy guy, the economist, Varoufakis, the half-baldy one. Yeah, about 40 years old, 45 years old, right?

CHANA JOFFE WALT, BYLINE: Wait, what are you calling him, half-baldy?

TEELEGADAS: A half-baldy has a receding hairline.

WALT: (Laughter).

KESTENBAUM: We called Yanis Varoufakis back then before he became the country's finance minister. He was in Seattle doing some work with a video game company studying virtual economies. We asked him to do a mic check, say Peter Piper picked. Sometimes, Ps are a problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FINANCE MINISTER YANIS VAROUFAKIS: Peter Piper picked a pickle, and I don't know what else.

KESTENBAUM: Is there a Greek tongue twister you could do?

VAROUFAKIS: OK. (Speaking Greek). Try that one.

KESTENBAUM: Is that she - seashells she sells seashells...

VAROUFAKIS: Something like that. It's a white stone, which is whiter than the sun.

KESTENBAUM: Varoufakis calls himself an erratic Marxist. I'm not really sure what that means, but he was very clear about Greece back then. The bailout and the imposed austerity, he said, were a disaster.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

VAROUFAKIS: We are experiencing in Greece, not just a recession and not just a downturn but a complete economic and social implosion. This is a long, long winter of discontent. It's our Great Depression.

KESTENBAUM: Varoufakis has famously called the bailout fiscal waterboarding. It was the classic austerity debate. Europe was saying, your government has to fix things, cut its budget and pay us back. Varoufakis was saying, how can we pay you back with all these strings you've attached to the money?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

VAROUFAKIS: I cannot use it to stimulate my economy so as to revive it, so as to produce income for which I'm going to repay you.

KESTENBAUM: Back then, Varoufakis was just an economist with a blog and some ideas. Last month, everything changed. A new anti-austerity political party came to power. Suddenly, Mr. Half-Baldy, Yanus Varoufakis, was finance minister. It seemed to amaze even him. Just after he was appointed, he made time for an interview on an Australian public radio show called "Late Night Live."

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "LATE NIGHT LIVE")

PHILLIP ADAMS: Mate, it is extraordinary. From comparative obscurity, you're now one of the most influential politicians on the bloody planet.

VAROUFAKIS: Just goes to show what the kind of topsy world that we are in.

ADAMS: (Laughter).

VAROUFAKIS: Doesn't it? I mean, this is what happens when you have an implosion. When you have an implosion in the economic sphere, then suddenly, the political sphere follows suit and then all sorts of riffraff, like me, come out to play.

ADAMS: (Laughter).

KESTENBAUM: Varoufakis is now out there trying to make his case. It's been a hard sell so far. David Kestenbaum, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.