Economists are fond of speaking about second best solutions so it was perhaps not surprising that my friend and former colleague Shahrokh Fardoust, one of three editors of a new World Bank volume on the G-20 development agenda, invoked this familiar idea in the face of a friendly but pointed critique of the G-20 by CGD/Peterson joint fellow Arvind Subramanian. The occasion was yesterday’s  launch of Post Crisis Growth and Development: A Development Agenda for the G-20, the conference volume from a June 2010 gathering in Busan, South Korea, jointly organized by Korea’s Presidential Committee on the Seoul Summit and the World Bank. I kicked off and chaired the session, drawing on CGD work, including my own reporting and analysis of the Seoul Summit. 

Arvind and fellow panelist Moises Naim, a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace perhaps best known as the visionary former editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy, both pushed hard on the idea that the G-20 development agenda is wrong to devote so much time and space to what are mostly national policy issues (i.e. financial inclusion, social safety nets, infrastructure). Better, they said, for the G-20 to focus on increasing the provision of scarce global public goods. Moises calls this approach “Minilateralism” and invoked the 80-20 rule in urging that small groups of powerful countries, more or less like the current G-20, get on with solving the world’s problems.

Shahrokh responded that there is much that those who organized the conference and compiled the volume would have liked to task the G-20 with accomplishing. The conference organizers felt constrained, he said, by a keen sense of the need to focus on what was politically feasible. The G-20, he said, is merely a second best solution, but it’s all we’ve got.

Having recently seen Mary Zimmerman’s great new production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, it was all I could do to keep from breaking into a chorus of “The Best of All Possible Worlds.”  Sadly, of course, we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds, but merely in the world of second bests.

Update: Shahrokh has responded to Arvind and Moise’s critiques in a post called Growth and Development Nuts and Bolts for the G-20.