Oh lord, if there’s one thing that makes me laugh, it’s my own foolishness.
Just a few days ago I was writing about confirmation bias and last night I realized that I too had fallen into this trap.
Since January 1, as you know, I’ve been undergoing intensive language training in Russian. With all the events ongoing in Ukraine, it’s been a boon for me as now, for the first time, I’m actually starting to be able to understand all sides. Three fourths of my screens last night were on Ukrainian and Russian television, blog and twitter feeds and my brain was overheating (Russian, Surzhyk and Ukrainian are damn difficult languages for me) and so I barely had enough spare neurons to pay attention to the Romanian feeds.
Until a certain smiling face caught my eye and I immediately turned up the volume for Antena 3. Last night on their program Sinteza Zilei, Victor Ponta trotted out several new members of his cabinet, including Ioana Petrescu, the new Minister of Public Finance.
I was laughing so hard that the cat woke up and gave me an angry look.
Plecat putin p’afara
Ioana is relatively young (age 34) but my god, she has the voice of an 80 year old woman. If you close your eyes and listen to her you’d believe it was your elderly neighbor next door harping on about your music being too loud. I honestly have no idea how such a seemingly relaxed and amiable young woman manages to get her voice to sound so shrill but I can see now why she’s never been interviewed before.
Over the years I’ve met plenty of people who have been outside the country for a while and it’s always so weird to hear them speak Romanian. Sometimes their phrasing and pronunciation is perfect and then a moment later you’ll hear them make a huge mistake. It’s like you can almost smell the rust flaking off their language skills. Switching between languages is damn hard and my hat goes off to anybody who can do it.
I understand her situation completely. When you’re gone from your home country for 14 years and speak English all the time, save for maybe a few phone calls to relatives at home, you begin to forget how to speak your native tongue.
I’m in the same boat myself. Occasionally I have to call my bank back in America and authenticate myself and prove once again that I’m not a Romanian hacker using my account but actually me, the real American listed on the account. It takes me five minutes of practice speaking English before I even trust myself to pick up the phone because otherwise I know I’ll slip into my habit of using a Romanian word or two or, far worse, using the kind of pseudo-English that people in this country speak.
Likewise, Ioana’s Romanian is all over the place, which you can see in the comment section on Antena 3′s website. The entire “Sinteza Zilei” broadcast is online behind a paywall but I managed to download a few videos, just for historical purposes. Of course I can’t post a video online myself thanks to the Antena Grup’s hypervigilance in protecting their “copyrighted” material but you can see a snippet for yourself (for free) at the link.
Publish or perish
I was laughing at myself last night because I see now that Ioana will never, ever get anything done. I still stand by what I said about her lunatic economic theories but I realize now that I was quite foolish because I completely forgot who Victor Ponta is. He didn’t pick her to be his new Finance Minister because she’s part of an evil conspiracy to drain Romania’s resources but because he (rightly) thinks that she is weak and easily controlled.
Ponta is an idiot but he’s definitely no fool. He’s had to put up with two PNL Finance Ministers due to the PSD’s previous USL alliance. But now that that’s over (and the PNL kicked to the curb), Ponta’s surrounding himself with sycophants who won’t challenge him or his growing presidential ambitions. A young woman who has no political “juice” fits Ponta’s bill perfectly as she is no threat to him whatsoever.
Over the years I’ve known quite a few professors, some because of personal connections and a lot because I’ve worked with them. Academia is a strange world because scholars are rarely judged by how much money they make (the usual metric in the corporate world) but by how much status they have. One way to judge status is by counting the number of papers you’ve written and then tallying up how many citations those papers earned.
It works like this – you decide on a topic. You then formulate a few thousand words in support of this and then buttress your arguments with citations from other scholars who have written on the subject. Occasionally you do a little original research yourself but most of the time you’re just churning out a new “look” at old topics. If other scholars like your work then they cite you in the next paper they write. You go to a few dozen conferences, get your papers cited a few hundred times, write a book or two and then you’re an academic “expert”.
I’ve never been a professor but I paid plenty of bills by being a fake student. I’ve probably written more papers than Ioana Petresecu herself so I know exactly how it’s done. The only difference between a student and a professor is that the student is writing to please their professor while the professor is trying to please their academic colleagues. Otherwise the formula is the same.
In some academic fields, like chemistry, you actually have to connect your research to reality but when it comes to complete bullshit like “economics”, you can get away with almost anything. All you have to do is throw in some impressive mathematical algorithms, posit their usage in a hypothetical situation based on “rational actors” and voila, now you’re an economist! That’s why there is no Nobel Prize in Economics, only a fake bullshit award that lazy journalists call the Nobel Prize in Economics.
Economics is such a farcical “science” that it once used a hilarious water machine to explain its hokum theories. It looks cool but nobody uses it anymore precisely because it doesn’t work. More proof of the bullshit of economic theories came in 1998 with the collapse of LTCM, a hedge fund that was supposedly “bulletproof” because it was based on the theories of not one but two “Nobel Prize winners” in Economics.
In fact, everywhere you look, from Adam Smith right up to John Maynard Keynes to Milton Friedman to Hernando de Soto to Friedrich “von” Hayek to the moronic Alan Greenspan you will find, time and again, that these fools rise to prominence after they promote a new theory that will “finally explain everything” only to find out later that “an unforeseen variable” (the real world) affected the data and that all their fancy talk and math were about as accurate at predicting the (financial) future as a Magic 8-ball. That’s why economists fight amongst each other, each vying for influence and status by denigrating the theories of their rivals.
And it’s really easy for a little fish like Ioana Petrescu to survive in this world, her ideological mentors backing up her libertarian viewpoint as she toes the line of “governments are dumb, banks are good, international banks are awesome sauce”. She’s built an entire career out of publishing papers filled to the brim with tidy math used to justify neoliberal political ideas.
You can taste the bright lights but you won’t get there for free
All that being said, it’s obvious that Ioana Petrescu is dumb as a rock. Again, I was laughing at myself last night because I obviously had fallen into the trap of thinking that a person who can handle some advanced math must be smart. Certainly she can do her own taxes but run a country’s finance ministry? Hardly.
I’ve never worked for a cabinet minister before but I’ve done my fair share of time in the gulags of government departments and I know full well that political savvy counts for far more than any raw intelligence or skill. If you’ve ever seen the old American TV show MASH then you’ll know what it’s like inside any government department – the people who know how to work with other people, who understand the “office politics”, who know which person to lean on and which person’s ass needs kissing, these are the people who succeed in accomplishing their objectives.
Ioana reminds me of a boss I used to have who, while very nice and well-meaning, always found himself short of pencils. That’s because he didn’t have the “juice” with the ladies in charge of supplies and he didn’t have enough leverage with the finance director so that he could pad his department’s office supplies budget. It’s also why he kept losing out on plum assignments and was the last boss in that wing of the building to get his office redecorated. He was plenty smart, and a nice guy, but had no idea whatsoever how to work the system.
Me? I was a cut-throat son of a bitch. I knew exactly who was illegally claiming overtime and whose birthday to remember. I knew exactly which person had an embarrassing drunken outburst that got kept off the books and how to flatter the right person with a gift for their mentally handicapped niece. It was pure and ruthless maneuvering and scheming, which was fun in a “soap opera” kind of way, but definitely not pretty.
Ioana seems like a nice woman but niceness doesn’t get you very far. In her case, I’m glad she will fail because I disagree so vehemently with her ideological masters. She can put forth all the theories or financial reforms that she wants to but it’s obvious that she won’t get so much as a box of pencils without Ponta’s say-so.
I was also laughing last night as I heard her scold Romania for using cash money “too much” and advocating that everyone use bank transfers or electronic payments for their transactions.
Really? That’s actually the IMF’s idea and they floated that idea in February, trying to put a cap on personal cash transactions at 100 million old lei. And all that was fine until Radu Mazare piped up and said that he was quite deeply dissatisfied with that. A couple of weeks later, the whole idea was quietly dropped.
I was dissatisfied with it too. Mazare and his fellow thugs hate limits on cash because they use it to evade taxes. I use cash to avoid government oversight as I’m too poor and too honest to be running a criminal network. The truth is that nobody in Romania has any interest in paying their full share of taxes and fees or letting the government monitor their financial transactions.
That’s why the big Banca Transilvania headquarters here in Cluj looks like a Hollywood movie, where employees use hand carts to wheel around enormous bricks of cash. Romanians love their bani gheata and they always will. Romanian money is some of the best in the world, made out of a durable plastic polymer that lasts nearly forever. It’s portable, it’s untraceable and you don’t need to wait ages at the cash register for it to be approved. It’s almost impossible to counterfeit and it’s conveniently differentiated by size and color so even people with vision difficulties can use it.
And so it’s plain to see that Ioana Petrescu is advocating a “beautiful” theory that doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever coming to fruition because it is so disconnected with reality on the ground here.
In academia, all you need to succeed is to publish a few non-controversial position papers buttressed by elegant math and references to other scholarly works. But in politics, especially in the cutthroat world of Romanian politics, you need to be a ruthless son of a bitch.
So really, there’s nothing to worry about, thank god. Ioana Petrescu can continue to put forth her pet theories for a few months and then when Ponta is done with her she can breathe a sigh of relief and head back to the civilized world where all the grandmas are safely stashed away indoors and out of sight.
If she ever finds this post, Ioana, I dedicate this song to you, dear: