Sunday, June 5, 2011

Mélenchon Accepts PCF's Designation

He attacks the "absurd liberal dogmas" that blind the world and condemn it to the "folly of productivism."

conference de presse Jean-Luc Mélenchon 5 juin... by lepartidegauche

Meanwhile, In the Center ...

Thierry Desjardins evokes the several overtures, or rumors of overture, that have emerged in recent days about possible alliances in the center of the political spectrum. Borloo reaches out to Villepin and Hulot, etc. Of course this is an exceedingly amorphous political space. Desjardins is right that there are a lot of votes here, but it's hard to see any way to bring those votes together on a single candidate. And a lot depends on what the PS does. If, in line with my previous post, Aubry is tempted to run hard to her left, rejecting the social-democratic wing of the party, there will be even more voters who might be tempted by a centrist candidacy of some sort. But I doubt that any of these three men can fill the bill. Hulot is an amateur, as his handling of the Borloo overture revealed. Borloo himself is a novice in this high-stakes game. And Villepin hasn't much of a base and has a gift for alienating potential allies with his quixotic sallies. For the moment, all I see is turmoil without motion.

If Ségolène Royal had run a better campaign in 2007, she might have a shot at rallying center-left, center-right, and greens. Although she comes in for more criticism than she deserves, I think she deserves enough of it that it will be hard for her to build a credible candidacy in the center, particularly since she has committed herself to the Socialist primary.

What about Bayrou? Perhaps my friend Frédéric L-N will give us an insider's view. We need one, because if there is a "media wall," as someone suggested the other day, Bayrou hasn't broken through it. I'm not sure why he hasn't emerged with a higher profile in this year's presidential sweepstakes. His showing in 2007 should entitle him to a certain consideration. To be sure, his party has suffered setbacks since then, and he did himself no good by striking a low blow at Cohn-Bendit in a televised debate. But presidential politics are very different from politics in regional and European elections, because in the end the race has to converge on two candidates. In 2007, there were some who anticipated a swing to Bayrou as "the anybody but Sarkozy" candidate as Ségolène faltered. In the end, it didn't quite happen, but "anybody but Sarko" is again a leading contender, and if the Socialists cannot overcome their post-DSK disarray, ABS could be even stronger in 2012 than it was five years ago.

The Drumbeat against Social Democracy

"Social democracy," like "neoliberalism," is a vexed term, because one of its more frequent uses is to serve as a bludgeon in the hands of its enemies. Its flaws are assumed to be so manifest that the non-existence of any compensatory virtues may be taken for granted. Two articles in Mediapart exemplify the genre: in one, Bruno Julliard, the former student leader who first came to prominence in the anti-CPE demonstrations, points to Spain as a place where Spanish students are rejecting a Socialist government that made the fatal error of succumbing to the sirens of social democracy: "Les indignés espagnols pointent du doigt l'échec de la social-démocratie," is the headline. In the other, Laurent Mauduit uses the "secret" (de polichinelle? or non-existent?) Marrakech pact to place Martine Aubry on the horns of a dilemma: Will she honor her (supposed) compromise with the social democracy once personified by DSK and therefore condemn her party to defeat, or will she reject what Mauduit considers to be the disastrous record of PS surrender to social democracy (a term in which one cannot help but hear echoes of "social traitor")?

Mauduit deserves credit for describing specific "social-democratic" policies that he considers to have been failures: special tax treatment of stock options, certain features of the wealth tax favored by DSK, the floating of a balanced budget as a policy goal by DSK, and reduction of the interest rate on savings under the Livret A.

Now, these policies are indeed contestable. Some I wouldn't have supported at the time, and others have disadvantages that are perhaps more apparent in retrospect than they were when they were proposed. But I don't want to discuss policy details today. I want instead to look at what is common to these anti-social-democratic critiques. For Mauduit, what makes the policies that DSK once advocated obviously wrong, and what makes it eminently clear, in his view, that Martine Aubry should today cut whatever ties to the social-democratic wing of her party she may have assented to in the Marrakech pact, is that the distributive consequences are "un-socialist." In short, concessions were, or would have been, granted to the rich, instead of increasing transfers to the poor.

Now, in each case, the concessions to the rich were undoubtedly justified as incentives, whose ultimate purpose would have been to increase the growth rate of the French economy, whether by enticing some of the business of the financial sector away from the City of London, encouraging high-tech entrepreneurship, or spurring consumption at a time when the savings rate was arguably too high. These arguments have strengths and weaknesses as economics, but what really gives them their force is the moral premise that anything done to enhance the well-being of the comfortable and rich while many others  remain struggling and poor is ipso facto unjustifiable.

The philosopher John Rawls tried to counter this view from his liberal perspective with the argument that favoring the relatively well-to-do may be justifiable if it results in improving the lot of the least well off. Growth, if it is large enough and its fruits are adequately distributed, can accomplish that trick. To my mind, however, the Rawlsian argument doesn't quite let social democrats off the hook if its consequence is to fracture society into two groups between which movement becomes rare or impossible. So even if the lot of the worse-off improves steadily, as Rawls would hope, they will not be content if the better-off use their advantages to close off the avenues of social mobility.

To some extent, I believe that this fracturing of society is what accounts for the scorn that some pour on social democracy today. The problem is not simply that many advocates of social democracy live well. This is of course true, and some French critics have made much of DSK's wealth as an argument against his ideas. But that is not the heart of the problem. If upward mobility is greatly diminished, then the worse-off, though grateful for improvements in their standard of living made possible by incentives to growth, will nevertheless come to feel that they constitute a permanently disadvantaged class, or even caste, and will therefore refuse to grant any legitimacy to measures that, while they may improve the well-being of society as a whole, nevertheless also reinforce the advantages that enable the better-off to transmit their standing to their children (the wealth to pay for private education, acquire cultural advantages, travel with ease and mingle readily with cosmpolitan elites, etc.). This is what gives the critique of social democracy its moral edge, even if the argument usually goes unstated. And a sharp cutting edge it is.

Of course the rejection of morally objectionable incentives may have unstated consequences as well. Indeed, exclusive concentration on distribution at the expense of growth may leave everyone worse off. But such arguments can become frustratingly abstract and theoretical and often rely on dubious assumptions. And they are not easily encapsulated in the brief exchanges that constitute much of today's public debate. This is a dilemma for the left in the first instance and ultimately for everyone.

Facebook and Twitter Banned from French Airwaves

The CSA has banned the mention of Facebook and Twitter on the grounds that to pronounce these words constitutes "product placement" advertising for private firms. (h/t Arun)