Unraveling the meaning of the G-20 summit will be the work of months, if not years. Many of the announced measures are vague, and the ones that are less vague are not encouraging. The promise to continue “expansionary policies for as long as needed” is an open-ended invitation to tax, borrow, and spend, while the pledge to “support sustainable compensation schemes and the corporate social responsibility of all firms” is foolhardy. The responsibility of firms is to obey the law and make profits for their shareholders, not to be subject to the vague, arbitrary, politically-motivated dictates of ‘social responsibility.’
But there is another side to the G-20 summit: what did not get done, or said. This was supposedly a summit held in response to the world financial crisis. Yet many of the measures – whether sensible or not – were about preventing another crisis in the future, not about dealing with the current one. This makes as much sense as the captain and the first mate of the Titanic discussing the principles behind iceberg-resistant hulls as they sink into the North Atlantic.
The only policies that were even justified as being about today were the pledge to avoid protectionism (which all the attending nations made last fall, and have already broken), the pledge to spend lots of money (which many of them have sensibly refused to do), and the pledge to give the IMF more resources (which will amount to only a drop in the bucket, compared to the scale of the losses in the financial sector).
So what didn’t get done, or said, at the summit? First, a naming and shaming of all violators – including the U.S. and the EU – of the no-protectionism pledge, coupled with a firm commitment to conclude the Doha Round of the WTO, no matter how loudly the EU’s protected farmers howl. Second, a firm statement to China that its reliance on exports, not domestic consumption, to drive growth is unsustainable. And third, any serious effort to address the fundamental problem that many of the world’s banks have lots of assets on their books that are worth far less – or thought to be worth far less – than they were a year ago.
True, the summit did not completely ignore this problem: the communiqué does refer to the (asserted) fact that all the G-20 nations have “provided significant and comprehensive support to our banking systems to provide liquidity, recapitalize financial institutions, and address decisively the problem of impaired assets.” But the communiqué puts the entire issue in the past tense: it’s as though the summit did not want to talk about it as an ongoing problem.
Perhaps that was a deliberate strategy: don’t talk about the problem for fear of making it worse. In any case, perhaps we should be grateful for the summit’s relative silence on the subject: given the drift of the rest of their measures, it’s not likely that their solution would have been anything other than centralizing and supranational. But it is remarkable that the world could hold a summit to deal with a credit crunch and then deal so off-handedly with the crunched credit.