Next week leaders of the world’s 20 leading nations will come together in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to take stock of the global situation and shed some light on the path ahead.
The exercise started as G-7, a French initiative, in the 1970s with the participation of the seven biggest economic powers: the United States, Japan, West Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy and Canada. In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Empire, it was expanded into the G-8 to include Russia as associate member. More recently, the annual gathering has been enlarged further to bring in 12 other nations representing Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
Those who covered the annual summit for decades would remember that, from the start, the exercise was declared to be doomed to fail. Some pundits made a habit of branding every summit as “possibly the last one.”
Yet, the annual show has continued to get bigger and bigger.
The question, however, is whether the show we are going to witness in Pittsburgh next week is the same or a different kind of exercise.
The original gatherings were organized as small conclaves in which leaders compared notes and made deals in secret. Every effort was made to keep the media at some distance and project a kind of mystique.
Since the 1990s, however, the summit has been transformed into a public relations jamboree designed to present the participants in the best light possible. Each summit is given a theme, discussed and debated at all levels for a whole year. All key decisions are taken long in advance by the so-called “sherpas” and ministers weeks or months before the event.
This year the summit’s principal theme is the global recessions, ways of shortening it, and policies to prevent it from recurring.
If the worked done by “sherpas”, including the meeting of finance ministers in London earlier this month, is an indication the summit at Pittsburgh is unlikely to produce anything of substance.
To start with, the principal participants cannot even agree on a diagnosis of the sickness that has produced the current recession or the gravity of the global crisis.
Some, like French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel believe that the recession is a product of what, speaking in private, they describe as “the Anglo-Saxon” economic model.
The “Anglo-Saxon” model supposedly marginalizes the function of the state, and allows “speculators and economic adventurers” every opportunity to make money with little regard for the interests of society as a whole.
In contrast, the “European social market” model is supposed to put society’s interest first, with the state imposing tough regulatory mechanisms.
Over the past few moths, both US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have made a number of statements that sound like an implicit endorsement of the European “social market” model.
Using bonuses paid to traders in major investment banks as a symbolic issue, both have warned against “the excesses of the market”. A week before Pittsburgh, President Obama went to the Wall Street in New York to plead with the bankers to temper their “appetite for quick kills and bloated bonuses.”
As usual with Obama, the words sound fine. However, when it comes to action all we get is a set of vague generalities. At Pittsburgh, Obama will present a 100-page document containing his administration’s proposals for coping with the recession. However, once we get beyond the rhetoric, designed to make Obama sound like Merkel and Sarkozy, the document contains little of substance.
The inevitable conclusion is that the new administration has no idea why the recession happened let alone what to do to prevent it from recurring.
Both Obama and Brown appear to have allowed themselves to be carried by the tide of events.
Under Obama, thanks to trillions of dollars of “stimulus” packages, the US government has become the country’s biggest banker, insurer, car manufacturer and mortgage lender. Today, government spending accounts for almost 27 per cent of the US economy, the biggest share ever since the Second World War. The US government is providing nine out of every 10 mortgages and guaranteeing all investors against the risk of failure.
As if that were not enough, Obama’s proposed health care plan is aimed at extending the public sector to a further 16 per cent of the US economy.
The situation is no better in Britain where public debt is an historic peak with the prime minister refusing even to hint at cuts in the spiraling cost of public services.
In terms of crude figures, both the US and Britain are now as attached to the “European social market” model as Germany and France. And, yet, there are no signs that they are doing any better than they did under the “Anglo-Saxon” model. Unemployment is still rising in both countries at a pace unknown for more than four decades, and, despite some growth at the stock exchanges in New York and London, there are no signs of a sustainable upturn.
At the same time, Germany and France appear to be working their ways out of the recession with two consecutive trimesters of growth without having had recourse to the kind of “stimulus” used in the United States and Britain.
In other words, there is no evidence that the so-called “stimulus” would or could produce the desired effects.
At the same time, one could never know whether Germany and France would have returned to faster growth had they used the same level of “stimulus” as introduced in Britain and the US.
At Pittsburgh, Obama and Brown, whose personal relationship is rock bottom, are expected to continue defending an economic model that they have set aside in practice.
For their parts, Sarkozy and Merkel will press for global regulations of the kind that, if introduced, could prevent future shocks but would also condemn the global economy to a prolonged period of stagnation.
The bad news is that Pittsburgh is unlikely to produce the magic potion needed to restore the global economy to robust health.
The good news is that the global economy may not need such a potion, after all.
A growing chorus of economists is already telling the world that the dreaded recession, presented as a repeat of the 1929 collapse, was not as sever as predicted. A few courageous souls are even claiming that what when have experienced was little more than a bump on the road and an inevitable part of the economic cycle.
Top 20 at Pittsburgh is certain to be a good show, a demonstration of global solidarity and an occasion for bonding among leaders from the four corners of the world. As such, and provided it does no deliberate harm, there is no reason why it should not be repeated next year.