Tuesday, September 8, 2009
[I]f critical political thinking requires not only analysis of what’s wrong, but visions of what could be right, this book represents a tremendous achievement. Critical republicanism, as Laborde imagines it, allows us to interrogate “the republican credentials of existing institutions and norms.” Taking republican norms at their word, provides a tremendously useful vantage for those seeking to change existing practices. They become the standard against which social ills can be diagnosed and the need for reform justified. From this perspective, headscarves become not the measure of Muslim intransigence, but of the shortcomings of the French political system. They reveal that France is not – as some of its critics have maintained – too republican, but “not republican enough.” (p. 257)
But Simon Johnson is having none of it:
This is a sophisticated delaying action and you are seeing masters of economic policy spin at work. When something goes wrong on a colossal, global scale, here’s the playbook (e.g., as applied to capital requirements).
- Agree that there is a problem, but be very vague about it. “It’s complicated” is a good watch phrase.
- State some completely bland principles to which no can object.
- By all means, have a spat with the French or Germans. But then patch it up amicably at the big summit; agree to do a bit of everything, in principle. People are wowed by your leadership.
- Send the job of formulating technical details to a committee of experts, asking them to report at the end of 2009 – and then make adjustments through the end of 2010.
- Rely on the experts to produce a report of mind-numbing detail, which few really understand. The experts know their job and will deliver.
- Provide leaks of this work and your “true feelings” to sympathetic reporters. They will help declare victory against great, albeit vaguely specified, odds.
- At this point, it’s 2011 and either (a) new people are in power, or (b) other things have gone sufficiently well that everyone has forgotten about the financial fiasco of 2008-09.
The brilliance of this approach is that you can say, whenever someone objects that capital requirements are not being increased as much: “we are doing that, but the details are not yet fully settled,” or “but we agree with that principle; of course the details are complicated.”
And, in this context, the point of a G20 or IMF meeting is to have the world’s economic policymakers show mutual support. After all, our opinion leaders reckon, if everyone is on board, then this must be the right way to go.
There will be some minor changes, and these will be much trumpeted. But what will really change in or around the power structure of global finance – as it plays out in the United States, Western Europe, or anywhere else?
Nothing – and you know this because otherwise the CEOs of all our top financial institutions would be mounting massive PR campaigns against the proposals, with op eds, Internet ads, innumerable cable appearances, and a virtually constant presence at Treasury. Just think back to how active they were earlier this year, when FDIC-type resolution for big banks was on the table.
I might add that I don't find M. Mitterrand as charming as do the UMP youngsters. I can't quite put my finger on why. Normally I appreciate irony, and M. Mitterrand is nothing if not ironic, but there's a certain lack of frankness in his character, a pleasure in the wearing of veils, a bit too much ostentation in the display of cultivation, and a demeanor that I find retors. But I judge from a distance and could be quite wrong.
For a stinging critique of the whole idea of competitiveness rankings, see here.
This issue is a special one in honor of Stanley Hoffmann, le doyen of French studies in the U.S., who celebrated his 80th birthday this year. Stanley himself contributes the introduction to the issue, which was ably edited by Cheryl Welch (to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for valuable suggestions that greatly improved my piece).