Saturday, September 26, 2009

Was it Worth the Time and Money (not to mention media attention)?

I just finished reading Andrew Walker's assessment of the G20 summit on the BBC NEWS Web site. My guess is that any assessment will probably come down to whether the glass is half-empty or half-full without raising any questions about whether or not we are looking at the right glass. This was evident from the headline that framed Walker's report:

Will tough new G20 measures work?

The subtext here is that the summit was all about reforming regulations, accepting without question the premise that reforming relations would reform the financial system itself. The good news is that not everyone is accepting this premise. The media has not given much attention to those who dare to consider other premises, but at least two alternative schools of thought have managed to get beyond total disregard.

Most important is what, in the effort of trying to improve its attention by giving it an easily-remembered name, I would call the Grameen School of thought. This, of course, involves the alternative premise posed by Muhammad Yunus, which is that the financial sector should be based on a non-profit business model. This provocative premise has an equally provocative corollary, which is that solving problems of world-wide poverty is more important than economic growth. It is easy to see why Grameen School thinking was disregarded in Pittsburgh, not only because all of the conferees (the prevailing "economic autarky") were so firmly committed to growth as a metric of success but also because the media are supported by business models for a consciousness industry that maintains that economic autarky.

The other alternative premise arose in the more unlikely setting of an interfaith gathering of religious leaders in Seoul. This was a setting that was more interested in premises about human behavior than about econometric modeling. Put another way, these people were less interested in numbers (and whether or not those numbers were growing) and more interested in the ways in which people act and (to drop down a level) the motives behind those actions. This setting could adopt the premise that any reform in the financial system needed to be predicated on a reform of how we think about moral questions (or, for that matter, a reform aimed at thinking about those questions at all). At the very least such a gathering should have prompted G20 delegates to think about how their respective positions of authority would square off against the authority of the pulpit (regardless of specific beliefs held by those who come before that pulpit). I suppose there are those who might accuse me of disregarding the need to separate Church and State; but constitutionally-guaranteed separation does not rule out the capacity for those of Church and State to communicate in the interests of negotiated understanding. This was, after all, how those who met at this interfaith gathering could communicate in spite of significant differences in religious convictions.

I am reminded of the Camp David summit that Jimmy Carter arranged for Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. Prior to that meeting Begin had cultivated the annoying rhetorical habit of declaring "Everything is negotiable!" whenever presented with questions about Israel's relations with its neighbors. Camp David provided Carter with the opportunity to hold Begin's feet to the fire until he was willing to honor the full extent of the semantics of "everything!" Similarly, the G20 wants to set itself up as the authority that can reason about all possible approaches to reform; but it then proceeds to rule out almost all of those possibilities. Barack Obama could have tried to hold everyone's feet to the fire; but, like it or not, he could not have attempted this from the position of strength that Carter had at Camp David. Yunus has the position of strength of a Nobel Laureate; but among G20 delegates that would not have gotten him the cab fare from the airport to the summit venue. Similarly, the secular world of economics sees no value in any religious leader, even when many such voices commit the rare act of speaking as one. Ultimately, the real conclusion of the summit was the agreement of the G20 to declare itself the authority for future economic planning., which means that we are back in the realm of that proclamation from Tim Dickenson that I cited before the summit officially convened:

We. Are. So. Screwed.

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