In The New York Review of Books, Alain Minc launches an exasperated attack on what he calls "My Friends, the Financiers of America." Now Minc, 63, is a French businessman. Jack Welch, for all his off-the-cuff tweeting and punditry (see his column in yesterday's Wall Street Journal defending his attack on the job numbers) is an American businessman. There's a difference. Minc, in that very French way, occupies a higher sphere. He boasts a classically elite French technocratic education: École nationale supérieure des mines de Paris, Science Po (Paris) and the École nationale d'administration. He ran that French glassmaking treasure, Compagnie de Saint-Gobain, started his own consulting firm, sits on the boards of a half-a-dozen companies, including Yves St. Laurent, and has been on the supervisory board of La Monde. He has advised many top-shelf French politicians including former president Nicolas Sarkozy. And -- this nails it -- he has written some 14 books, including the most recent L'âme des nations. Beat that, Jack.
Minc is apparently not happy with American attitudes toward Europe and the eurozone crisis. This is a little odd, given that most Americans are only vaguely aware that there is an economic problem; it's barely even a throwaway line in the presidential campaign. (Besides, Americans, broadly speaking, like to visit Europe but always assume something is wrong with the place.) So who is Minc talking to? This has to be deduced. He refers to "financiers of America." But in the text, Minc starts off with the familiar, if imprecise, "you" and a scattering of references that will drive even educated Americans to fire up Wikipedia:
It is neither as an enemy of free-market capitalism, nor as a French devotee of Colbertism, much less as an American European that I take the liberty to address you. Rather, I write to you as a militant supporter of the euro, driven by both passion and reason, and annoyed at having been obliged to read over the years such a mass of prophecy, including The New York Review, concerning the imminent death of the euro...
This is wonderful, in a very Gallic way. It has the cadences of operatic speech. It has reason and passion. It is "militant." But financiers? At The New York Review of Books? There is no evidence in this letter to suggest that he's talking about Jamie Dimon or Lloyd Blankfein, or even Timothy Geithner and Barack Obama. Instead, he seems to be buzzed off by -- well, pundits. There are swipes at "economists" (he singles out Nouriel Roubini) and those with bylines (meaning, presumably, journalists). But except for the shot at Roubini, Minc takes refuge in the intimate "you." Being French, it may well be that he assumes that readers of The New York Review constitute an opinion elite, perhaps the elite itself. You know who you are: financiers, with a literary bent and political juice.
Of course America is not like that. It's no knock on The New York Review to suggest that the ruling elite and the cultural elite are not exactly the same here.
Minc, in a wandering way, makes a number of indisputable points. Americans that care -- the few -- have long been skeptical of the euro. There is a certain level of schadenfreude, a term U.S. columnists love to deploy, in their reaction to the crisis, following the schadenfreude of Europeans toward America when Lehman Brothers imploded. (And no, Minc himself does not subscribe "to the illusory belief, far too common in Europe, that there is a conspiracy of some kind among the Anglo-Saxon economies to the detriment of Europe." He's our friend!) American punditry does treat European technocrats and politicians as bumblers, taking too long to fix something that's not that difficult. This is hypocritical and stupid given America's gridlocked and often lunatic politics, including the debt ceiling debacle. Some pundits do not understand the complexity of eurozone politics, do not grasp the technical complexities of the economics or understand the stakes. But then I get the sense that many Europeans don't either. And Minc is right: Progress has been made. There are stability funds, stability mechanisms and the European Central Bank has shrugged off the Germans to buy government bonds in an attempt to save Spain. Hope persists.
However, it takes Minc some ten fat paragraphs to arrive at the key misconception of Americans about the euro. "Every time a public opinion poll highlights the disillusionment of this or that sector of the European populace, especially in Germany, we are treated to articles under your bylines proclaiming that, caught between lack of market confidence and public disapproval, the euro is doomed. In so doing, you show a failure to understand that, even though public opinion may differ, the governing establishment has made its choices." This resembles Geithner's public statements during the debt ceiling talks last summer. An agreement would be reached, he insisted, because it had to. He waved his pocket Constitution. It says so here.
Minc then spends the rest of his letter making that argument. He is, in one sense, absolutely correct:The technocratic establishment in Europe has decided and has taken painful steps to hold the eurozone together. It may even succeed. But Angela Merkel shows up in Greece and folks flock angrily into the streets. Establishment parties fracture under the strain. Unemployment mounts; the debt deepens; growth flags. And even before the crisis, polls and referenda suggested little popular support for reducing sovereignties further; and that's not just a sentiment in rich nations like Germany, the Netherlands or Finland. These, Minc declares, are "minor vicissitudes to which you attribute excessive importance, because you fail to understand the ins and outs of European politics." That may be true, but Minc also seems to suggest that national democracies in Europe are shams; the reality occurs in the summits and consultations of the European establishment. One would think that a Frenchman, of all peoples, would be more sensitive to the sudden eruption of popular anger. But, of course, Americans don't understand European history either.
Then there are the economics. You don't have to be an economic determinist to see the strain austerity is putting on economic growth and the populations of Europe. In yesterday's Financial Times, Martin Wolf almost wearily examines the austerity question as presented in the IMF's recent World Economic Outlook. Wolf has long been eager for the euro to succeed and skeptical of the steps taken to get there. But he can see no good end to the combination of reduced government spending and high interest rates -- "fiscal famine and monetary necrophilia" -- that is wracking the periphery nations. Like the IMF he sees the disaster of the interwar years in the U.K. repeating itself.
Wolf, of course, is British not American. He certainly understands the economics as well as anyone, which is not always a comfort. Perhaps he is overly pessimistic. But these are not matters that anyone can declare with utter confidence, unless, of course, you're a French businessman with a literary bent.