Saturday, November 22, 2008

Rocard on the RMI

As the RMI (revenu minimum d'insertion) gives way to the RSA (revenu de solidarité active), Michel Rocard, who as prime minister secured passage of the RMI, reflects on its history. His ruminations prompt three comments. First, he seems to have been motivated by genuine compassion for the plight of the long-term unemployed, indeed by horror at the thought that there were people dying of starvation in the heart of France. Second, his weaknesses as a politician are highlighted by his response to the question about whether the RMI is the political achievement of which he is most proud. No, he says, because the RMI was a consensual policy; across the political spectrum everyone agreed that something needed to be done. His proudest achievement--in terms of pure governmental technique--was rather the CSG (contribution sociale généralisée), the tax that paid for it, which he says cost him ten percent of his support, but he got it through. It will come as no surprise that a politician who boasts of levying a new tax as his proudest achievement failed to win the presidency that he coveted.

But my third comment gets at a deeper reason for this failure. Rocard's compassion does him credit, as does his candor in recognizing that compassion has to be paid for, and paying for it is, politically, the tough part, which rarely commands consensus. What is puzzling, however, is that while he recognizes that the need for a compassionate measure like the RMI stemmed from the persistence of a high-level of unemployment, and in particular of long-term unemployment, the question of what caused that condition never comes up. It's as though Rocard simply accepted as an unalterable fact a structural unemployment rate above 10 percent, although he governed at a time when other economies were doing much better.

To be sure, the economic meltdown now has everyone questioning how much of this past divergence in economic performance was real and how much a product of unnoticed systemic flaws. But however illusory neoliberal gains will turn out to have been, the fact remains that the high-unemployment equilibrium of the French social model should have been attacked more vigorously than it was and not merely palliated with innovative welfare measures such as the RMI and its doppelgänger, the CSG. It is troubling that the deep economic issue does not even come up in Rocard's retrospective. True, the focus of the interview was the RMI, and this may have turned his thoughts in a certain direction, but still I would have thought that a man as attuned to economic thinking as Rocard would have been led naturally to a question that looms so large behind the entire discussion, especially since the reason for the RMI's replacement by the RSA is that the latter is supposed to eliminate a "structural rigidity" that has tended to turn the former into a poverty trap. Rocard cannot be unaware of all this, but his success with the RMI seems to have become a "screen memory" that shields him from the repressed horror of intolerable levels of long-term unemployment, which destroyed lives just as surely as the death by starvation that he evokes in his discussion.


Anonymous said...

Very stimulating remarks that seem to finger the core problems of the PS today. Thanks once again for your insight.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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