Tuesday, December 21, 2010

In Memoriam

I never met Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa. In fact I had never heard of him until last month when I went to hear him talk about Notre Europe, the think tank he directed. From the vitality of his remarks and the respect he elicited I gathered he was a distinguished personnage. Looking him up when I got home I discovered that many regard him as the intellectual force behind the creation of the Eurozone--a large claim. Looking back, I realize that his determined and elegant defense of the European mission--in the face of persistent criticism from questioners responding to the steadily expanding debt crisis within the EMU--was a genial exercise in statesmanship. I hoped to hear more from this eminent man on some other occasion.

Now Padoa-Schioppa is dead, quite suddenly at age 70, of a heart attack, and with him a little piece of the European vision. The death itself was dramatic: having assembled 100 or so guests and led them through a private visit to the Sistine Chapel, he was just welcoming them to dinner at the nearby Palazzo Sachetti when he collapsed and died. The tributes that followed in the European press were effusive. As Romano Prodi's finance minister in the last center-left Italian government Padoa-Schioppa made the notable remark that "taxes are very beautiful and civic-minded, a collective contribution to those indispensable goods that are health, security, education, and the environment." Berlusconi's harsh criticism of his tax policies was another form of tribute, as was Italy's success in weathering the crisis in 2008.

Padoa-Schioppa was above all a banker, an economist, a regulatory official--and only accidentally a politician, as he remarked. A leading player in the Basel Accords that designed banking rules for the EMU, one could argue that (like a lot of other regulators) he placed too much confidence in the existing financial institutions. As a consultant for a global management firm, a recently appointed director of a Fiat subsidiary, a director of the ECB, Padoa-Schioppa was unquestionably an icon of the financial establishment. And yet he was if not a left-wing banker, certainly a social-minded one--an anomaly and perhaps an anachronism in a world of nihilist financiers and bottomless greed.

In my one encounter with him, though, Padoa-Schioppa was wearing not his banker's hat but his Europeanist one. He spoke in a visionary way of collective global problem-sharing, of post-sovereign cooperation, of the ethical imperative to go forward with the European experiment despite all the cross-winds. As the debt crisis proliferated through the Eurozone in the past half-year I can only imagine that this architect of the Euro was heart-sickened by economists who decried the impracticality of "a currency without a nation," his cherished construction. The man I saw exuded confidence, forbearance, a belief in the long-term--but at what cost? Was the effort to maintain that tenacious optimism finally too great a strain for his heart?


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