Yanis Varoufakis, Stuart Holland, and James K. Galbraith, "A Modest Proposal for Resolving the Eurozone Crisis", 2013:
Europe is fragmenting. While in the past year the European Central Bank has managed to stabilise the bond markets, the economies of the European core and its periphery are drifting apart. As this happens, human costs mount and disintegration becomes an increasing threat.
It is not just a matter for the Eurozone. The fallout from a Eurozone breakup would destroy the European Union, except perhaps in name. And Europe’s fragmentation poses a global danger.
Following a sequence of errors and avoidable delays Europe’s leadership remains in denial about the nature of the crisis, and continues to pose the false choice between draconian austerity and a federal Europe.
By contrast, we propose immediate solutions, feasible within current European law and treaties.
There are in this crisis four sub-crises: a banking crisis, a public debt crisis, a crisis of under-investment, and now a social crisis – the result of five years of policy failure. Our Modest Proposal therefore now has four elements. They deploy existing institutions and require none of the moves that many Europeans oppose, such as national guarantees or fiscal transfers. Nor do they require treaty changes, which many electorates anyway could reject. Thus we propose a European New Deal which, like its American forebear would lead to progress within months, yet through measures that fall entirely within the constitutional framework to which European governments have already agreed.
I have no opinion on the substantive proposals in this paper. But the title — or rather, the combination of the title and the contents — took me aback.
To explain why, let me offer a comparable passage from the start of an earlier economic policy paper with a similar title — Jonathan Swift, "A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick", 1729:
It is a melancholy Object to those, who walk through this great Town, or travel in the Country, when they see the Streets , the Roads and Cabbin-Doors crowded with Beggars of the Female Sex, followed by three, four, or six Children, all in Rags , and importuning every Passenger for an Alms. These Mothers , instead of being able to work for their honest livelyhood, are forced to employ all their time in Stroling to beg Sustenance for their helpless Infants , who, as they grow up, either turn Thieves for want of Work, or leave their dear Native Country, to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes. [...]
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own Thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least Objection.
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my Acquaintance in London , that a young healthy Child well Nursed, is, at a Year Old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome Food, whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked , or Boiled ; and I doubt, that it will equally serve in a Fricasie , or a Ragoust .
I do therefore humbly offer it to publick confideration, that of the Hundred and twenty thousand Children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for Breed, whereof only one fourth Part to be Males; which is more than we allow to Sheep, black Cattle , or Swine , and my Reason is, that these Children are seldom the Fruits of Marriage, a Circumstance not much regarded by our Savages , therefore, one Male will be sufficient to serve four Females. That the remaining Hundred thousand may, at a Year Old, be offered in Sale to the Persons of Quality and Fortune , through the Kingdom, always advising the Mother to let them suck plentifully in the last Month, so as to render them Plump, and Fat for a good Table. A Child will make two Dishes at an Entertainment for Friends, and when the Family dines alone, the fore or hind Quarter will make a reasonable Dish, and seasoned with a little Pepper or Salt, will be very good Boiled on the fourth Day, especially in Winter .
As Wikipedia explains,
In English writing, the phrase "a modest proposal" is now conventionally an allusion to this style of straight-faced satire.
So I expected Varoufakis et al. to suggest that the unemployed youth of Greece, Portugal, and Ireland should be sold into slavery, or perhaps converted into sausages for sale to China. Instead, they tell us plainly and sincerely that
Any solution to the crisis must respect realistic constraints on political action. This is why grand schemes should be shunned. It is why we need a modest proposal.
Mikhail Bakhtin warned that
Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker's intentions; it is populated – overpopulated – with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one's own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process.
But the process is easier if you can erase cultural history. Maybe (some) economists no longer read Swift?
Or have I failed to grasp their meta-ironic transcendence of irony?