Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Two More Critiques of the RSA

Here and here. (Hat tip to Pierre Maura.)

Georgia On My Mind

The EU has taken a relatively mild stand on Georgia--delay in negotiations on "partnership" until Russian troops have withdrawn to their pre-invasion positions (a vague criterion, given their pre-invasion presence in South Ossetia), no sanctions--a stand manifestly in line with the wishes of current EU council president Nicolas Sarkozy. Vladimir Putin has expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the special EU summit--something of a mixed blessing for Sarkozy, who is no doubt pleased that his leadership prevailed but who must nevertheless fend off allegations of appeasement.

In a very interesting exchange with Libé Europe correspondent Jean Quatremer, Sarkozy expanded a bit on his thinking. (For Quatremer's original post and Sarko's response, see here and here.) The Georgian events have precipitated a variety of responses. There has been moral outrage in the name of defense of human rights, and there has been anti-imperial outrage on the part of those who see Russia as an inveterate oppressor of small nations rather than a great power asserting its interests and drawing lines around its sphere of influence. There has also been a realist reaction, of which Quatremer's article represents one line: Europe's dependence on Russian oil and gas is a potential vulnerability, so that for the sake of European security the EU must pursue a diplomatic accommodation with Russia, the terms of which will be unfavorable to Europe unless the EU can also muster a credible military force to raise the cost of Russian non-compliance.

Sarkozy, who can do a passable imitation of an outraged defender of human rights or denouncer of imperial depredations when it suits his purposes, as in Burma or Tibet, is nevertheless fundamentally a realist, though by no means a cynic. Although he has counted up the divisions under the command of the Pope, as it were, he remembers quite well that all of Russia's divisions were not equal to the Pope's influence in Poland, for example, or in other countries of the East. He remembers, too, that all of America's divisions were not enough to ward off debacle in Vietnam and Iraq. It's interesting that in his response to Quatremer he chose to emphasize the costs of cold war, the negative consequences of flexing biceps and indulging in loud but ineffective bluster. "Give peace a chance," he seems to be saying, but with his eyes open. There are other ways to deal with the Russians than by threatening them with a war that no one, including the United States, is actually willing to fight or capable of waging. This is not tantamount to surrender, he says. The Russians want things from us as well. Let's see what we can get by threatening to withhold some of what they want.

Is this a naïve position? The answer depends on how you interpret Russian behavior, on how you judge Putin's motives, on how you assess the various factions beyond Putin and Medvedev that influence Russian decisions. I personally think Sarkozy is right to try to explore these imponderables further before taking irrevocable steps. I think his course is far more mature and far more "realist" than the Bush administration's precipitate conclusion of an antimissile deal with Poland, a deal contrived to push those Russian factions further in the wrong direction, compounding previous errors of American policy with respect to Russia. The Russians, it must be recognized, have shown restraint in Georgia. For one thing, they have not pushed their advantage to try to topple Saakashvili. They are content to bide their time and let the mounting internal opposition to his rash provocation run its course. They did not, as far as I can see, inflict nearly as much damage as they might have done. And they have pulled back, even if they have also encouraged the two separatist regions to declare their independence from Georgia. Have they done less than they promised Sarkozy? Only he and they know for sure, but his actions in reining in anti-Russian sentiment in the EU suggest that, as far as he is concerned, they've kept their part of the bargain, and now he is keeping his, waiting to see where things go from here. I think he's handled the crisis rather well, but perhaps I'm allowing my judgment to be clouded by my dislike of the bellicose rhetoric out of Washington.

UPDATE: Hubert Védrine's take: he agrees with me, so of course he's right.

Edvige

What is Edvige? A database in which the government plans to store personal information about "individuals who have sought or exercised or are currently exercising a political, union, or economic mandate or who play a significant institutional, economic, social, or religious role." The constitution of this database has given rise to a huge hue and cry, which is not surprising given the breathtakingly broad criteria for inclusion and the ambiguity of the stated purpose(s) for which this information is allegedly needed. Some of the allegations against Edvige strike me as hyperbolic, but there is genuine reason for concern, as today's Le Monde editorial recognizes.

Corsican Police Chief Fired

The Corsican villa of the actor Christian Clavier, a friend of Sarkozy's, was occupied for an hour by Corsican separatists. Dominique Rossi, the coordinator of the island's police forces, has been fired, according to various reports at the behest of the Elysée.

After Ségolène Royal's apartment was burglarized for the third time, no policemen were fired. Instead it was suggested that Mme Royal might have staged the robbery herself, or that she should have locked her door more securely.

Apparently, to borrow a phrase from George Bush, "either you're with us or you're against us."

Piketty Attacks the RSA

Economist Thomas Piketty is strongly critical of the Revenu de Solidarité Active (RSA). He ignores the new tax proposed to finance the RSA and goes straight for the heart of the measure itself. It will, he argues, reduce the incentive to move from part-time to full-time employment. But his central criticism is that it will not eliminate the complexity and "illegibility" of the current hodge-podge of assistance to the working poor and unemployed.

Piketty couples his critique to a call on the Left to seize on this issue as the centerpiece of an ambitious program of tax overhaul and welfare reform. Politically, we are through the looking glass. The RSA originated in the Socialist camp. Sarkozy co-opted Martin Hirsch, one of its sponsors, and made the idea his own. Now that it seems likely to be extended to the entire country--a move that many Socialists, such as François Hollande, are calling a success--a leading Socialist economist has gone on the attack to say that it was always the wrong idea, and that what is really needed is a comprehensive new tax and incomes policy.

It's probably a good idea to pitch the future economic policy of the PS toward comprehensive reform, but, if so, a critique of the RSA strikes me as rather too small a peg to hang it on. It's also tactically unwise to undermine the RSA on the point of implementation, since it was a part of the PS platform in the last election. Still, Piketty deserves credit for trying to move the debate in a more productive direction.