2018 Favourite Readings: Values, Identity, and Growth in the Global Economy

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Editor’s note: Continuing a tradition started by Isabel Feichtner a few years ago, EJIL’s Review Editor, Christian J. Tams, invited members of the EJIL board to offer short reflections on their favourite books of the year 2018. In the following days we will present some selections here on EJIL:Talk! They comprise a wide range of books, from (a few) doctrinal legal texts, to (many more) historical accounts and works of fiction. Unlike in many official book prize competitions, 2018 does not necessarily stand for the year of publication; rather, board members were asked to list books they read or re-read this year, and found inspiring or enjoyable. Today we give you Diane Desierto’s favourites.

Why do we have a global economy, what is it for, what comprises it, and to what ends and purposes do we regulate it?  Somewhat unconsciously, my favourite books for 2018 directly or indirectly related to these questions. Throughout 2018, I relished reading (or rereading, in some of these) Hersch Lauterpacht’s classic International Law and Human Rights (F.A. Praeger Press, 1950), followed by Louis Meuleman’s Metagovernance for Sustainability: A Framework for Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (Routledge, 2018); David Pilling’s The Growth Delusion: Wealth, Poverty, and the Well-Being of Nations (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018), Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy (Penguin Random House UK, 2018), and Francis Fukuyama’s Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2018).  These books proved illuminating this year in my ongoing thematic and granular search for answers to the above questions.

Hersch Lauterpacht’s International Law and Human Rights is an apt reminder of how modern international law, at its inception, fundamentally serves the ends and aims of human rights in free and just societies. Lauterpacht makes his argument in three parts – showing in The Rights of Man and the Law of Nations that the concept of international peace is inseparable from the vindication of human dignity through human rights; elaborating human rights provisions central to the UN Charter in Human Rights under the Charter of the United Nations; and concluding with a detailed set of recommendations (recall, this was long before the development of the major human rights treaties today) for the International Bill of the Rights of Man.  For Lauterpacht at the dawn of the Charter era, it was crucial that international law direct its mission towards individuals, out of “the realization of dangers besetting international peace as the result of the denial of fundamental human rights”, “the acknowledgment of the worth of the human personality as the ultimate unit of all law”, and the insight that “the interdependence of States which requires regulation is the interdependence of all individuals who compose them.” (Lauterpacht, at pp. 62 and 63).   Any legal, political, economic, or social arrangements we design in the international system, therefore, have to begin from the premise of what cannot be traded off: the fundamental worth and dignity of the human person recognized through his or her international legal human rights.

Economist Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy provokes needed insight into the current design of the international economic system as a system for rewarding “value extraction” rather than actual “value creation”.  Mazzucato equates “value” with “the production of new goods and services”; “value creation” as “the ways in which different types of resources (human, physical, and intangible) are established and interact to produce new goods and services”; and “value extraction” as “activities focused on moving around existing resources and outputs, and gaining disproportionately from the ensuing trade.” (Mazzucato, p. 25).  Mazzucato makes the sharp argument that current neoclassical economic theory privileges certain entities to just pose as “value creators” even as they are either just transferring value or destroying value, as seen in case studies about the defective assumptions behind measuring the wealth of nations through GDP, pathologies in the international banking and financial system arising from a strategy of “sustaining economic growth through household borrowing…[where] instead of governments taking on debt to stimulate the economy, individuals did so.  But it was an unsustainable solution to the lack of wage-led demand growth.  Aided and abetted by government policy, central banks, instead of being the lenders of last resort, became the lenders of first resort to the financial sector, cutting interest rates to avert financial crises.  But this policy drove up the price of assets such as shares and houses and further encouraged households to borrow…[leaving] many ever more impoverished and indebted.” (Mazzucato, p. 141).  This book made me think twice about the current design of the international economic system, and where it unjustly rewards “value extraction” versus “value creation” based on traditional neoclassical premises of efficiency and welfare. 

David Pilling’s The Growth Delusion: Wealth, Poverty, and the Well-Being of Nations, is a short, nifty book about challenging the construct of the “economy” and its measurement using Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from an international journalist’s attempt at historical analysis.  What I found anecdotally engaging from Pilling’s account was the ultimate construction of GDP as part of the ongoing debate between Simon Kuznets and John Maynard Keynes – two titanic economists, but also two men who easily disregarded the contributions of women then (e.g. housework, child-rearing, supplemental income, material support for the men who “produced”) in the calculations of a country’s wealth through national income.  Not only does Pilling’s account explicitly discuss domestic rivalries and imperialist assumptions behind the global adoption of GDP, but implicitly he attempts to show that Kuznets had a more “humanist” view of national income – even if it still fell far short of measuring the ‘informal economy’ created by those traditionally marginalized or vulnerable under international human rights law: women, children, the disabled, migrants, displaced, and stateless persons, among others.  Both Mazzucato and Pillings valuably challenge the historical and theoretical premises under which our international economic system was built, consolidated, and normalized – one, from the privileging of efficiency and notions of welfare (“utility”) at the expense of actual “value creation”, and the other, from the artificial construct for the intangible concept of the “national economy” and tracking its performance narrowly based on measures of income that still exclude informal economy drivers such as women, children, disabled, migrants and displaced persons. (Of course, NOT counting unlawful economic activities, such as corruption, arms trafficking, drug trafficking, human trafficking and sexual slavery.)

Francis Fukuyama’s Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment gives sharp contours to the rise of identity politics in liberal democracies around the world, largely fueled by job losses, rising poverty, and heightening inequality in the international economic system.  He recalls that in his previous works, he had argued how “contemporary liberal democracies had not fully solved the problem of thymos.  Thymos is the part of the soul that craves recognition of dignity; isothymia is the demand to be respected on an equal basis with other people; while megalothymia is the desire to be recognized as superior.  Modern liberal democracies promise and largely deliver a minimal degree of equal respect, embodied in individual rights, the rule of law, and the franchise.  What this does not guarantee is that people in a democracy will be equally respected in practice, particularly members of groups with a history of marginalization.” (Fukuyama, pp. 9-10) While political theorist Fukuyama’s latest opus is thought-provoking in its thematic and historical approach to human dignity and the burgeoning controversies of today on vindicating human dignity, I noted that the book’s 14 chapters did not equate human dignity strictly with the canon of international human rights law.  Fukuyama’s historical approach traces the “forking” of human dignity between the concept of “liberal individualism that came to be embedded in the political rights of modern liberal democracies”, and the concept of “collective identities that could be defined by either nation or religion”.  (Fukuyama, p. 88)  In his view, both these conceptions of human dignity are threatened by rapid economic and social changes that “have become far more diverse as a result of globalization.  This has created demands for recognition on the part of groups who were previously invisible to the mainstream society…leading to a politics of resentment and backlash.  The retreat on both sides into ever-narrower identities threatens the possibility of deliberation and collective action by the society as a whole.  Down this road lies, ultimately, state breakdown and failure.” (Fukuyama, p. 144)  My instinctive response to Fukuyama’s portents about human dignity and identity politics is again to emphasize the urgency of full implementation of international human rights law, which – if fully observed and internalized today by all States and non-State actors in all of its integrated, interdependent, and indivisible civil, political, economic, social, cultural, developmental, and environmental dimensions – would minimize, if not eliminate, the creation of caste structures of “invisibles” from our democratic societies to begin with. Identity politics (at least from my own understanding reinforced by comparison and contrast with Fukuyama’s opus) remains part and parcel of our inevitable impulses, policy advocacies, and individual and collective clamor to be truly seen and treated equally as human beings with full dignity before law. The failures of the international economic system – whether through the economic crises, stagnation, or poverty – only magnify our basic, inherent, and constant reach and search for that human dignity, whatever the human condition may be.

Finally, Louis Meuleman’s Metagovernance for Sustainability: A Framework for Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) proved to be a constructive and refreshing read, especially after all the (unintended or deliberate) cynicism from Mazzucato, Pilling, and Fukuyama.  A policy and governance advisor at the United Nations who had served as one of its Experts on the Committee of Experts on Public Administration, Meuleman traces the failures of sustainability attempts using any of the three different governance models (hierarchical, network, and market governance), and focuses on a practical policy lens for achieving full SDG implementation.  Meuleman candidly admits that sustainable development “is one of the best examples of a complex policy field that is multi-level, multi-scalar, multi-sector, and multi-actor at the same time, and requires governance frameworks which are up to dealing with this complexity.” (Meuleman, p. 7).  At the same time, he rightly points out that there is no one-size-fits-all blueprint to realize the SDGs, and what is more often of strategic importance is adopting a method for governance, or “metagovernance” as the “art of combining different available approaches into a feasible way to reach the desired results, which could help in preventing and mitigating the effects of governance failures and open avenues for new breakthroughs.” (Meuleman, p. 16) Chapter 5 of this book (“Fifty shades of governance: A Toolbox”) examines the variable alchemies of network, hierarchical, and market governance, and how they impact on vision, strategy, orientation, structure, processes, people, and results.  While a traditional international lawyer might ultimately be dissatisfied with the fair degree of normative nebulousness in this book, other international lawyers accustomed to interdisciplinary approaches would welcome the insights from policy experience in Meuleman’s opus, and start exploring where international human rights law complements policymaking in sustainable governance. 

At this point with the close of 2018 and the end of my own institutional and professional transitions reaching home at the University of Notre Dame, I am glad to thoughtfully circle back to my well-worn copy of Lauterpacht’s International Law and Human Rights, heed caution from Mazzucato, Pilling, and Fukuyama, take practical insights from Meuleman, and continue my explorations about international law, international human rights law, and the global economy in 2019. Quia veritas et sapientia.

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