We don’t need no explanations

As politicians iterate many words, nothing new gets put on the table

The G20 members stand for a group photo at the G20 summit in China on September 4, 2016.

We know that growth of the global economy is not as it was in earlier eras – and International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Christine Lagarde last month warned explicitly of a “low-growth trap” or the danger of disappointing growth being with us for a long time. “Forceful policy actions are needed to reinvigorate growth and share its benefits more widely,” she said in a blog at the beginning of September.

Linking her message to the then impending G20 Summit meeting in China, she pointed out that “2016 will be the fifth consecutive year with global GDP growth below its long-term average of 3.7 percent (1990-2007), and 2017 may well be the sixth”. And it is not the first time this year that the club of central bank governors is ringing the alarm bells. In the World Economic Outlook update in July, the IMF said that “Growth in most advanced economies remained lackluster,” with limited potential.

How did the G20 respond? Our growth must be “shored up by well-designed and coordinated policies,” the G20 communicated in its closing statement published on September 5. What we didn’t already know, one assumes. Not only that, but the leaders of the most powerful nations in the world informed us that “our growth, to be dynamic and create more jobs, must be powered by new driving forces”. No shit. And “to be resilient, [it] must be underpinned by effective and efficient global economic and financial architecture”. You don’t say.

Going even further, the statement affirmed, “to be strong, [the growth] must be reinforced by inclusive, robust and sustainable trade and investment growth”. Oh yes, and it must be “innovation-driven”. And last but not least, a final section leader in the communique again combines the g-word with an archaic but grave sounding syntax: “Our growth, to be strong, sustainable and balanced, must also be inclusive.”

The more one lends her or his mind to it, it is indeed a “narrative” that the G20 have “forged” in their “Hangzhou Consensus”, as the communique reads fairly high up, in point six (of 48). A narrative, according to one definition, is any story, whether true or fictitious. While it is an alluring term, it has an undertone of fairy tale. And that is what the G20 seems to be serving us. A story to put us to sleep by its sheer verbosity. The press statement, which elaborated on each growth parameter, contains almost 7,200 words, or (as German journalist Henrik Müller has pointed out) six times more than the first Group of Six communique in 1975 – and repeats, ad nauseam, tired phrases and terms such as inclusiveness and innovation.

Notably, last month was, in developed nations, a month for existential concerns. European leaders of the EU 27 – for the first time without the UK – met on September 16 in Bratislava and reviewed “the European project” at what they called “a critical” time. The resultant Bratislava declaration and road map were refreshingly concise when compared with the G20 communique, but still contained outpourings of artificial unity and unrealistic theories. Just to give one example of the theoretical nature of the “road map”, it set as top objectives to never allow the uncontrolled flow of migrants as in 2015, and “to ensure full control of our external borders” – as if Europe’s borders were going to stop the larger world from falling into crises.   

If the world economy wasn’t in jeopardy, the meetings in Bratislava and Hangzhou would be something to interpret as signs that “world leaders” are infinitely more busy these days than they were in the middle of the Cold War – but given the simply bad status quo one can take them as proof that the big players of today are as lost for answers to global questions as people in smaller countries are.

Taking a local perspective, the G20 meeting reminds us of two things: a) that Lebanese politicians are of the same ilk as the leaders of much bigger nations; and b) that the Lebanese economy is in a difficult state for reasons of its own – not because of a systemic crisis. It thus is perhaps easier to rescue than other economies.

We are used to the not-entirely-elected Lebanese officials saying little to nothing whenever they open their mouths. Yet what can politicians say about crises that are too large or too complex for anyone to solve? Only a politician’s wisdom comes to mind, often exhausted in statements such as the one reported from one Lebanese government official – the foreign minister – last month: “The current period is tough and it needs big minds and we will not respond to those who have small souls.” Such insights are not enlightening.

This publication is the last institution to blow the horn for brevity if a complex issue needs elaboration. We stand for exactitude and thoroughness. But when a press statement turns into a narrative of a dozen pages, we sense a smoke screen. We need to go back to the beginning, to decisive policy and to action in the face of weak output growth and low productivity growth. We don’t need explanations that are more than 23 times wordier than the Ten Commandments.

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.

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