Sunday, September 25, 2005

Jacek Kuroń debate

I apologize for this temporary excess of postings about European politics. It won't last long.

On Saturday night, they convinced me to attend a Jacek Kuroń debate at Boston University
  • Values and Social Policy

I have also met Vladimír Špidla, the (only) Czech commissioner in the EU and a former Czech prime minister (who was one of the special guests in the audience, sitting in front of me). He was telling me that the commissioners from the older & newer member countries as well as the large & small countries are treated as equal - which I believe. This is his second visit to the U.S. - and Boston is really a kind of European city as he correctly pointed out.

The panel was composed of 4 panelists (politicians) plus one moderator (an academician) in the middle: Charles Taylor who has not said too much. If you looked at the panelists starting from the left, you would have obtained the following list:

  • Giuliano Amato
  • Danuta Hübner
  • Charles Taylor
  • Stanley Greenberg
  • John H. Sununu

Incidentally, the same list also orders the debaters from the Left to the Right on the political spectrum. The first two panelists were European; the remaining ones were Americans. Yes, indeed: all Europeans in this small group are on the left side from all Americans (including Stanley Greenberg who is an American progressive who even does not want to call himself a liberal because it is not progressive enough but it is still enough to be on the right from the European guys). And yes, the U.S. academia seems to be on the left from the Democratic Party, but it is still on the right side from the European politicians. And yes, Amato is on the left side from everyone else, including the former communist Hübner. ;-)

And yes, the last one - John Sununu - was the only one whose comments made a lot of sense to me. I forgot most of the ideas of the other panelists (except some painful ones described below); they seemed to be combining various generally known stereotypes that should not insult anyone. All of them except for Sununu seemed to misunderstand the "big" ideas about the mechanisms that are necessary for a modern U.S.-like society to work properly.

For example, Giuliano Amato, a former Italian prime minister (from the socialist party), was explaining some "advantages" of the European political, economic, and social model. He believes that one of the "advantages" of Europe is that "everyone" agrees with the concept of the "social market economy" and the emphasis on the adjective "social". Amato said that this is true for all parties; the only exception was Margaret Thatcher and Amato apparently believes that Thatcher was not too important so that she can be neglected (and he also neglects the Civic Democratic Party that I support in Czechia). Amato also argued that it is enough to have one shadow finance minister who does not agree with the concept of socialism and you will lose a lot of votes like Angela Merkel.

Whenever I listen to these comments about the "consensus about socialism", the virtual knife is opening in my pocket. We've had a much stronger consensus about socialism in Czechoslovakia between 1948 and 1989 and I hope that it will never be repeated. Mr. Amato should know that there are many European citizens who consider his opinion about the power of the word "social" disgraceful.

Amato was a representative of the Old Europe; Danuta Hübner represented the New Europe. She's a European commissioner from Poland, she is a former communist, and as far as I can say, it is pretty obvious from her opinions as I will explain later. Both Amato and Hübner were analyzing how the "smart" European politicians are trying to find the right balance between the social values & solidarity on one side and the growth and high employment on the other side. (Hübner admitted that the search for the ideal system may involve some learning from the U.S. experience, too.) Random unimpressive sentences that have taught me absolutely nothing.

John Sununu, a former governor of New Hampshire (and an engineer by profession), pointed out that this European approach is not an example how a functioning (and democratic) mechanism may be designed. Amato and Hübner are essentially trying to find some "ideal and permanent equilibrium" between some quantities. Sununu argued that it was much like the idea that there exists an ideal position of the steering wheel that should be set before you drive from one place to another.

His description of this non-democratic and typically European tendency is spot on, and I believe that this is a similar example that Feynman used to choose for these political questions, too. It is also very related to the idea of the "pre-conception science" or "consensus science". On the other hand, it is essential for modern science as well as modern politics that we admit that we don't know the right answers in advance and that the answers can't be right permanently.

Incidentally, the idea of finding the ideal compromise for the social, tax, and other systems that won't need any corrections in the future was one of the pillars underlying the EU constitution - and it's one of the main reasons why we should be happy that the constitution is dead. No doubt, Václav Klaus would agree with Sununu most of the time, too.

Of course, the correct answer - as clarified by Sununu - is that you only get to your destination if you have a flexible system - or if you (or someone else) can regulate the steering wheel - and if there are various checks and balances that have the ability to fix the mistakes (which is why the mistakes are not disasters) and direct the system in the correct direction if a new situation requires a left turn or a right turn. Also, a working system is one in which radical changes can't be done efficiently.

I must continue to think about this inspiring idea; it's not obvious whether I quite agree with this one; but probably I do because it fits my understanding of a "robust structure" and moreover it agrees with Franziska Michor's description of the difference between "good" and "bad" mutations.

Sununu also argued that lobbying is very important for the U.S. system to be functioning properly because it is an efficient way to communicate opinions and illuminate interests that various groups of the people have; on the other hand, lobbying is a pejorative word in Europe.

Sununu argued that it is essential for the U.S. political system - that has shown its muscles in many cases which includes slavery - that there is a debate going on. You turn on your TV and you see a debate about the role of personal responsibility for communities. Today, television plays an important role in stimulating the debate.

Stanley Greenberg argued that the main political conflict is between self-reliance and community. Sanunu argued that this was a mistake - a better description is that there is one debate about the role of personal responsibility of individual members of communities.

Danuta Hübner protested against Sanunu's "anti-European insult" by saying that there was actually much more political dialogue going on in Europe than in America; people started to laugh to her unbelievable statement when she began to explain how this assertion agrees with the fact that there are not so many political TV duels in Europe. She said that in Europe, we don't use TV to talk to the people. Instead, we talk directly to them. How does such a direct talk look like, Sununu asked? Hübner answered that she spent 6 months on tours through Poland by explaining the farmers why everything must be done exactly in the way that her party proposes. This story illustrates that a former member of a totalitarian communist party is usually guaranteed to think like a totalitarian communist until the end of her life.

Sununu's point was, on the contrary, that the political system should be such that it is able to learn what the actual people need, want, and think; it must be affected by those things; and it must self-regulate itself and use all sorts of feedback mechanisms to make adjustments. This democracy or self-regulation is more important than some particular questions about the size of the welfare system and other detailed topics, Sununu argued, and the Europeans should try to see this important fact.

Hübner's alternative to the self-regulating system is that the people in the whole country should be explained why the opinion of the governing political party is permanently the right one. Well, there are indeed certain differences between the European and the American political system, and I personally find it worrisome that the folks with the opinions about democracy that are similar to Mrs. Hübner's are included in the "European government", namely the EU commission. Too bad that Hübner's opinion is apparently mainstream in Poland and there is no one in that country who would attack her for similar statements.

Sununu is also convinced that it is incorrect for Europe to try to copy the U.S. system that involves 50 states whose social, tax, legal, and immigration rules - among other things - have been homogenized (although there exists a lot of diversity in the ethnicity, race, and other characteristics that are not so important for the functioning of the system). In Europe, there exists not only national diversity but also a lot of diversity in the social, tax, immigration, and other issues, and it requires a very different approach. He agreed with one attendant that Airbus is a good example how Europe can surpass America while it only relies on the integration of those things whose unification is beneficial (business and exchange of know-how in this case).

Sununu answered a question about the election systems. The proportional systems found in most of Europe seem to be inefficient as a method to figure out what is the opinion of the majority because the smaller political parties often acquire crucial influence in the coalitions.

It should not be too surprising that Sununu also defended his colleagues from the G.O.P. He explained that the local (Democratic) authorities are fully responsible for the mess in Louisiana during the hurricane Katrina. He told us that Lousiana is the most corrupt U.S. state and New Orleans is its most corrupt city - something I did not know before but something that seems to be the case. Well, this is not the only thing I learned from this guy; without Sununu, however, this panel discussion would have been useless.

If you watch the news, you will certainly notice that there is something special going on in Louisiana - something that would happen neither in Mississippi (where Katrina was stronger) nor in TeXas (pun intended). Even the hurricane Rita - that The Reference Frame correctly predicted to be a non-event - has shown the incompetence of the officials in Louisiana.

Too bad that Václav Klaus seems to be the only current leader in Europe who is capable to think independently and differently than the "official left-wing euro-optimistic consensus". There are indeed noticeable differences between the American and the European understanding of democracy. For example, virtually everyone agrees that the American "debate" involves a creative fight and competition while it tends to be replaced by a "consensus dialogue" in Europe. One can say many things about advantages of both approaches. But The Reference Frame certainly believes that the American approach is more correct.

1 comment:

  1. The European "consensus" you cite re. a socialist component to their system strikes me as confusing success in spite of with success because of that plank.

    Nice blog, btw. I love the Kyoto counter!