PITTSBURGH - The G-20 Summit that opens today is unlikely to achieve much when it comes to restructuring the global economic order. That's good news for workers, farmers, consumers and citizens.
What's good about inaction on the part of the leaders of the world's wealthiest nations? While there is no question that a radical restructuring is needed, it must be the right restructuring.
In the midst of the nastiest economic downturn since the Great Depression, and with so many unaddressed social and environmental challenges weighing on the planet, the necessity of finding new ways of organizing and managing the economic affairs of nation states and global trading and regulatory regimes should be evident to even the most nearsighted neo-liberals.
But multinational bankers and corporatists that contributed so mightily to the current crisis are busy peddling more-of-the-same "solutions" that could actually make matters worse. For instance, one of the great debates going into this week's meeting of leaders from wealthy nations such as the U.S., China, Germany, Japan and Great Britain has been over how to develop an international framework for what the powers that be define as "sustainable development."
The thing to remember is that, in the world of the global economic elites, "sustainable" has a different meaning than in does at a Friends of the Earth rally or Madison's "Food for Thought" festival.
The high fliers at the G-20 want to manage international trade and competition in a manner that keeps banks and corporations on steady growth trajectories - no matter what that means for working families, small farmers and the poor of the planet.
In fact, one of the prime debates going into the summit had to do with a plan to set up a new system to manage trade between countries that would have what the Financial Times describes as "a powerful enforcement mechanism … to fine or punish countries that built up the sort of large trade surpluses or deficits that contributed to global trade imbalances."
Reducing trade deficits, like those experienced by the United States since this country bought into the free-trade dogmas of the 1990s - via the North America Free Trade Agreement, our embrace of the World Trade Organization and the enactment of permanent most-favored-nation trading status for China - has great appeal.
But the big problem with NAFTA, the WTO and other existing schemes for managing regional and global trade is that they limit the sovereignty of nation states and thus undermine the ability of citizens to democratically define the direction of their national economies.
A new international program, established by the G-20, to pressure countries with regard to trade surpluses and deficits would further erode democracy at the national level.
For this reason, G-20 officials fretted on the eve of the summit that "no country would cede sovereignty on core economic decisions."
That means that the G-20 won't produce the "new world order" that many mandarins of the old economic order would have preferred.
Instead, what's likely to be agreed to is what British Prime Minister Gordon Brown describes as "a compact" that might develop what G-20 negotiators imagine as "a process of annual peer review overseen by the International Monetary Fund, (which) would nudge countries into pursuing policies that (create) more balanced economic growth."
From a democracy standpoint, nudging is better than the surrender of sovereignty.
But it would be foolish to presume that peer review will, in and of itself, produce more balanced economic growth.
If the IMF uses traditional measures to assess whether the economic growth of a particular country is sound, we're still in trouble.
This summit should be about establishing new standards for measuring growth, and for "nudging" countries to develop along lines that are genuinely sustainable.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy plans to propose that the G-20 consider employing metrics that better measure the well-being of nations. Economic indicators such as the gross domestic product (GDP) of a country would still be considered (along with trade surpluses and deficits). But quality-of-life indicators, including measures of social, democratic and environmental progress, would also be considered in determining whether a country was advancing along sound and sustainable lines.
Nobel Prize-winning economic Joseph Stiglitz refers to "a balance sheet of society" in describing this broader notion of what should be measured.
"In many cases, the GDP statistics seem to suggest that the economy (of a country) is doing far better than most citizens' own perceptions," explains Stiglitz, a key member of the international Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress that Sarkozy established with an eye toward developing broader measures of national progress. "(The) focus on GDP creates conflicts: political leaders are told to maximize it, but citizens also demand that attention be paid to enhancing security, reducing air, water and noise pollution, and so forth - all of which might lower economic growth. The fact that GDP may be a poor measure of well-being, or even of market activity, has, of course, long been recognized. But changes in society and the economy may have heightened the problems, at the same time that advances in economics and statistical techniques may have provided opportunities to improve our metrics."
Stiglitz and the team assembled by Sarkozy have proposed those improved metrics. The extent to which they are discussed and embraced by the G-20 will go a long way toward determining whether this summit will play a role in shaping a genuinely sustainable global economy - one that serves all the world's people, not merely CEOs and speculators - or be one more missed opportunity.