Economist Elena Panaritis is steering a new course


Elena Panaritis, a Greek institutional economist who has worked at the World Bank, is mobilizing some of the world’s top economic minds to help the government solve Greece’s debt crisis.

Panaritis has had her finger on the pulse of what needs fixing ever since she entered politics in Greece, serving as a socialist Pasok MP from 1999 until last month (April) when the parliament was dissolved. She was also one of the top economic advisors to former Prime Minister George Papandreou, who had personally called her in 2009 to request she serve as one of his state-wide deputies.
Free from the confines of party politics, Panaritis is putting her extensive experience as an economist (and 18 years at the World Bank) behind a new initiative she has coined “Thought for Action”. It’s a non-partisan action tank aimed at pushing the agenda and steering the debate towards a workable solution to Greece’s economic crisis.
“The mission is to provide an action policy base so we can start sharing knowledge of practical experience and lessons learned by other countries that have faced a similar crisis,” she says. “Greece is not the first country that has fallen into crisis. It’s not a difficult problem to solve if we have all the information and know what others have done and what mistakes they made. This is how we will know what we should and shouldn’t do.”
Many mistakes have already been made and much time has been lost.
“It’s unfortunate that even though I kept discussing and requesting and promoting such actions during the past two and a half years [as MP], it seemed that the political system was so rigid that it could not collect and build on this idea. So now this is what we are doing,” she says.
According to Panaritis, it is imperative to sit Greek policymakers at the same table with practitioners and experts from around the world so they can compare and exchange notes and put forward a new national strategy – one that will ultimately reinvent Greece and steer a course for a better future.
This is what she hopes to do with her new action tank. She’s already got some of the world’s top names backing her new initiative. The list includes Cyrus Ardalan (Vice Chairman and Head of Investment Banking, Russia, the Middle East and Africa of Barclays Capital), Willem Buiter (the chief economist at Citigroup), Francis Fukuyama (a well-known American political economist) and Carl Munana (President of Ashoka in Spain and International Advisor to the MicroVest Fund), as well as Christopher Pissarides (Nobel Prize Laureate who currently holds the Norman Sosnow Chair in Economics at the London School of Economics) and Susan Wachter (professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania).
Short of reinventing the wheel, Panaritis is confident a solution to Greece’s economic crisis can be found by drawing from the knowledge of others and the experience gained by countries around the world.
The bigger question
With a new round of elections scheduled on June 17, Greece is once again at the epicenter of Europe’s deepening economic crisis. And there is growing talk about the country’s doomed marriage with the Eurozone.
According to Panaritis, however, the question whether Greece will leave the Eurozone is not so important anymore.
Speaking as an economist, she says the bigger question we should all be asking is how Greece – a small economy – can spur long-run economic growth through improvements in productivity. Greece’s future hinges on its productive capacity, she says.
It’s a question Panaritis repeatedly asked from her seat in the parliament. She had preached for the removal of the impediments to economic growth in Greece. These include the country’s over-regulated economy – a dire situation that stems from the creation of new regulations before the existing ones are tidied up and harmonized.
Failing to do so has come with a cost – both financial and economic, direct and indirect.
“It is not a simple economic crisis,” says Panaritis, who was one of the first mainstream politicians in Greece to publicly speak of a default and the country’s exit from the Eurozone.
“This crisis is a crisis of knowledge – of a situation in which people have chosen to live and work in a system that was not open,” she explains. “So, Greece was a closed economy within an open economy. This is why we now need to adjust and reform and open the way we make policy decisions.
“Greeks are fed up and want change. They feel they have been cheated,” adds Panaritis. “This is why no party received enough votes to form a government on May 6.”
It remains to be seen whether the June 17 elections will be a real turning point.