Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Nicolas Sarkozy Casts the First Stone

The delegates at this year's World Economic Forum may still be circling the wagons to guard against voices of social responsibility that might reflect Archbishop Desmond Tutu's closing address at last year's gathering, but they apparently overlooked the possibility that political leaders may see some relevance in such messages. Thus, there is a good chance that the rich and mighty did not expect that the opening address by Nicolas Sarkozy might pursue the objective of reform to the level of a complete overhaul. Here is how the BBC News Web site reported his address:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for a fundamental rethink of capitalism in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

"We need deep profound change," he said in his keynote speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

His comments came as bankers and regulators clashed over proposals to break up banks that threaten the whole financial system.

Mr Sarkozy said he wished to restore a "moral dimension" to free trade.

"Were we not to change, we would be showing tremendous irresponsibility," he told the bankers and politicians that gather annually in the Swiss alpine resort.

Apparently, Sarkozy has decided to lift a page from Barack Obama's playbook and develop his own theme of "change we can believe in;" and what better place to talk about that change than in front of all those who created the circumstances that now necessitate it?

As might be imagined, those who most need to heed his message are putting up the greatest resistance to it. The BBC described the audience response as "scattered applause." Fortunately, they continued their account of his remarks for the benefit of the rest of us:

"We are not asking ourselves what we will replace capitalism with, but what kind of capitalism we want?" he said.

"We must re-engineer capitalism to restore its moral dimension, its conscience," he said. "By placing free trade above all else, what we have is a weakening of democracy.

While saying that those who ran companies that made money deserved to be compensated well, Mr Sarkozy hit out at huge bank bonuses that have caused public outcry in the US and UK.

"There are remuneration packages that will no longer be tolerated because they bear no relation to merit," he said.

The good news is that Sarkozy is not alone. Having already made his case through the bully pulpit of the Financial Times, George Soros continued his variation of Sarkozy's theme at a private lunch in Davos prior to the opening session of the World Economic Forum. The question is whether or not a few clear voices of reform can eventually prevail over an establishment that sustains itself by denying any evidence that runs contrary to the massive inertia of its business-as-usual. It is hard to be optimistic, because we have witnessed too many examples of the power of that inertia, whether it involves health care in our own country or threats to the environment around the world. Nevertheless, Sarkozy should be credited for using his opening remarks to suggest that business-as-usual doesn't work any more. He let the camel's nose of change under the tent. Now it is up to the defenders of the status quo to try to chase away that camel!

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