I have drunk the Pimms

By , 6 March, 2009, 5 Comments

Larry Smith, one of my favorite political bloggers, has held my interest this year because he’s a liberal who has refused to drink the Obama Kool-Aid, and as a Brit, has risen above ideology by being able to critique his own Labour Party. But he has a ghastly post this week detailing all the reasons he’s ga-ga over President Obama’s first month in office, for which I took him to task in his comments section.

To be honest, I’m not in a great place to point fingers. Because while I am still pretty irked by President Obama, I have gone ga-ga for Gordon Brown. It’s been coming on for some time–for a while I was able to separate my admiration for his intelligence and his principles from his lack of political savvy and charisma. That division shattered when he addressed Congress on Wednesday–it was a personal, eloquent and yet forceful policy address the likes of which, as the British papers were quick to point out, Brown has never made in Westminister.

So in part, I just swooned to see Brown succeed on both political and policy fronts. But I was also bowled over by the content of his argument:

1. “that markets should be free but they should never be values-free.” This is the institutionalist approach to economics–the market IS an institution that works in tandem with other institutions like regulatory agencies and the state; the market is NOT, in this conceptualization, just the aggregate of individuals making rational choices, it’s something we set up.

2. that “we conquer our fear of the future by building the future.” This is the active government thesis that says the state can change culture and advance social causes. In Brown’s case, he was speaking about climate change and using the crisis to implement new regulatory frameworks.

3. “the new frontier is that there is no frontier…[European leadership] wants to cooperate more closely together in order to cooperate more closely with you. There is no old Europe, no new Europe, there is only your friend Europe. So we should seize this moment…” The crisis might finally bring Britain more closely into the European economy and create a willingness to sacrifice a little autonomy to the institution in exchange for recovery.

4. that we should strive for “rising demand in all of our countries creating jobs in each of our countries,” by more international trade agreements (salvaging Doha, anyone?), international banking standards, and more power to the IMF to do more aid. Again, what he has in mind is social and economic change from the top, via government fiat, which I like to hear, but others probably don’t.

Here’s what impressed me most: In Britain, where the Head of State and the Head of Government are different functions, electoral politics is less grounded in identity and personal anecdote. The pomp and drama adheres to the monarchy. On balance, it’s a set-up I prefer to our own, because I find personality politics distracting.  There were some commentators who said the rhetorical flourish Brown suddenly acquired on Wednesday came from his ability to be more “American” in style, but actually this speech was all about policy. It was very “Gordon Brown” in style. He was a better version of himself; I only hope he can take some of this coherence with him to London.

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5 Responses {+}
  • The Fast Talker

    You zing me good Atal;) Will respond in detail to the stuff about Brown a bit later, promise…

  • Matt G. (mgcsinc)

    I got sucked into this post by the Cambridge-approved title 🙂

  • jsk

    How exactly is this take on markets:

    “that markets should be free but they should never be values-free.”

    dramatically different from this one:

    “Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill… [A] nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.”

    or this one:

    “It is time to put in place tough, new common-sense rules of the road so that our financial market rewards drive and innovation, and punishes short-cuts and abuse.”

    How has what Brown showed you here an appreciable departure from what we’ve heard from Obama?

  • Preppy McPrepperson

    JSK,
    You make a good point–the rhetoric is similar. Jon Stewart did a bit splicing the two together the other night that you should look up.

    However, the policy implications are not the same. Obama is talking about the domestic social safety net; Brown is talking about the international market–he’s not talking about what makes nations prosper but what makes the world prosper.

    So if Obama’s “middle way” is education and health care at home and some mild protectionism to support his political constituencies among labor, Brown’s middle way is

    –total universal free trade (reviving Doha talks) but with rich countries partially subsidizing poor countries at a government aid level, through the IMF, to make that trade possible. He wants America to give more to the IMF to facilitate that.
    –global regulation of interest rates and monetary supply, also through the IMF, with the national central banks of each country operating as its subsidiaries
    –massive education funding to the developing world, bankrolled by the US and the UK

    It’s capitalism via global governance–I assure you that is not part of Obama’s, or any US pol’s–agenda.

  • jsk

    Hey, I thought we were just playing a game of “parse the rhetoric” and not talking about actual policy. No fair.

    Is it really surprising that a European (sorry, British folks, it’s true) leader would adopt a significantly more internationalist stance than this or any other President?

    For that matter, can you fault Obama for not embracing a politically untenable foreign policy as the companion piece to a domestic program that is already a tall order in its scope and ambition?

    “My fellow Americans, we are going to expand the government’s roles in education, healthcare, and research to unprecedented levels. We’re also going surrender the autonomy over monetary policy (and a whole bunch of cash!) to the IMF because those cats in Brussels think it’s a good idea.”

    Stalin didn’t have that much political capital.

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