From last night’s Piers Morgan, author Michael Lewis, discussing his new book “Boomerang” — which he describes as “financial disaster tourism” — told this thoroughly fascinating story about how a group of monks were responsible for the financial collapse of Greece.
Says Lewis at one point: “Monks historically have not always been well-behaved people.”
Indeed. You can’t make this stuff up.
[Scroll all the way down for the video.]
MORGAN: And what is amazing in this book is the story of Greece. It seems to fall on the shoulders of some monks who are trying to raise money for a monastery end up raising, why, hundreds of millions of dollars and basically bankrupting Greece. Tell me about this.
LEWIS: No, it’s an amazing story because this is actually the — this is the trigger mechanism in Greece. It’s two years ago roughly when Greece acknowledged that its books weren’t what people thought. That they had — their deficits and debts were much greater than had been previously announced.
And the reason that happened is the previous conservative government fell and was replaced by a new government. What caused the previous conservative government to fall was a scandal. And monks at the Vatopaidi monastery in the north of Greece who don’t venture off their peninsula very much. And it’s a gorgeous and strange place.
Mt. Athos, the holy mountain, is a place only for men. They don’t even let female animals on the island except for cats. But these monks had a monastery to — they had a monastery to repair. And it is — I mean it’s — these places are spectacular. They look like — kind of Italian hill towns. And they had this rubble of a monastery. And they needed lots and lots of money to fix it up.
And the way they did it was they went through the old vaults and found they had thousand-year-old deeds to the property in the north of Greece. And they got the government to recognise their rights to a lake in the north of Greece. And then they went to the government and they swapped this pretty worthless lake for lots of valuable commercial real estate.
And the scandal was why the government had done this. They had essentially — nobody — the exact number, I’m not sure, had other people estimate between 100 million and a billion. But what the monks had actually made on these transactions. But that scandal is what caused the government to fall, the new government to come in, and say, oh my god, it’s so much worse than anybody knew. And that’s the beginning of Greece’s problems.
MORGAN: I mean, Michael, Michael, let me just — let me just get in there. I mean when you have monks who are behaving like this, hasn’t the whole world basically lost its entire moral compass?
LEWIS: Well, you know, you probably give monks too much credit just to start with. Monks historically have not always been well-behaved people. And I would say this in defence of the monks because I actually — I went up to the monastery and spent a little time. And I was — became quite fond of them. And I think that they — it’s not as if they were taking the billion dollars to live high on the hog. All they wanted to do was rebuild their place so they could set up there in my view miserably in their selves.
They were living very, very (INAUDIBLE). So it was — so in fact — and in fact the monks, I thought, were a kind of moral example to the rest of Greece because they were well-liked by every other Greek person. They seem to think it was OK to go in and get what they could out of the government regardless of what it cost everybody else. I mean this is a common Greek problem. The Greeks treat their estate just like a pinata filled with goodies that everybody takes a whack at it and gets what they can.
But the monks, unlike the rest of Greeks, had a kind of collaborative spirit. They were doing it for the greater glory of their monastery rather than for their individual greed. And I thought, actually it’s very funny, in the last few days, I’ve had an e-mail from a Harvard Business School professional saying they want to do a case study on the monks because the monks — the monks look like a — compared to the rest of Greece, an extremely well-run enterprise.
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