Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Attali Report

It would be easy to poke fun at the report of the Attali Commission on Growth. For instance, "Find ways to ensure that by the end of the sixth grade every pupil will have mastered reading, writing, arithmetic, working in groups, and computer literacy" (my italics). Indeed. And why not pick up the Holy Grail and the Golden Fleece while you're at it. Ditto for the ten "major centers of higher education and research" and the ten "Ecopolises." Why only ten? Why not go for all 50 top places in the Shanghai rankings? But there are a few good ideas in there, I'm sure. Removing the precautionary principle from the constitution, for one, and eliminating the départements, for another--but of course Sarkozy has already shot those two down.

Nevertheless, Attali has his idolators. If you can stand to watch one of the ambulatory editorials of the insufferable Christophe Barbier, the editor of L'Express, you'll hear a choice paean to Son Eminence Grise, ou Grisaille. Others are less enthusiastic.


Anonymous said...

Hmmm... of all the things to poke fun at in the report, why the Ecopolises? Green technology is a field in which no other country has really taken the lead, so France wouldn't have to play catch-up. Also, in new technological domains, one sometimes learns best by doing, and if the project succeeded, it wouldn't be the first time that government spending has helped start a major industry. (In my field, computers, the Internet itself was originally a U.S. government project; it began as the "Arpanet", named for the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency. Before that, the SAGE and Stretch projects really helped IBM figure out how to make computers; before that, the ENIAC was an Army secret weapon).

As to the number --- well, having only one or two might be too few to explore diverse approaches to some of the problems, but 50 would be impossible to manage. I don't know how Attali justifies ten (the thinness of the rationale, here as elsewhere, is the worst thing about the report), but it's not obviously a bad idea.

(Then again, there is some genuinely silly stuff in there, starting with the notion, right up front, that the report is somehow above politics. What it's about is choosing ways to allocate the social costs and benefits for a program of necessary change, and as American political writer Matthew Yglesias has pointed out, that is politics.)

Unknown said...

Thanks for your comment. I agree that the idea is a good one, as is the idea of creating major research universities, but the second part of your comment gets at the problem I was trying to expose. These are expensive undertakings. Creating an ecological model city from scratch will require enormous resources and effort. Grandiose projects are set-ups for grandiose failures. Your own example, the Internet, demonstrates the fallacy. The government did not set out to create the Internet as we know it today. It set out to solve specific problems and developed the appropriate means to do so. Arpanet was intended to provide redundant communication routes in case of nuclear attack, not to enable Amazon to sell books, pornographers to deliver their wares, and bloggers to undermine newspaper pundits. HTML originated with the need of physicists to communicate among themselves. I'm not advocating bottom-up over top-down but rather middle-out: a government that is too ambitious is a government that is avoiding the problem that Yglesias defines as the essence of the political.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, as I might have said, that's the other really strange claim at the start of the report --- that this bricolage of every good idea that anyone on the commission ever heard (and some, perhaps, not so good) are an integrated program, in which each element is the key to the success of all the others. (A low cost airline without a neuroscience institute? Ridiculous!) In reality, they'll have to choose.

But it looks like, on both these points, the legislature is going to start correcting them pretty quick...