The Public policies analysis Thesis Award was awarded to Benjamin Lemoine by the French Association of Political science on July 10, 2013, during the association’s 12th annual Congress, at a ceremony organized at the National Assembly. The Thesis Prize is awarded every other year by the AFSP thanks to the financial support of the Mattei Dogan Foundation to the best PhD theses in political sciences. Benjamin Lemoine was chosen for the quality of his research work led at the CSI under the joint supervision of Michel Callon and Yannick Barthe, Les valeurs de la dette. L’état à l’épreuve de la dette publique (The Values of the Debt. When the State Stands the Test of the National Debt). Benjamin Lemoine gives the following summary of the thesis.
How did the State become the subject of a minute scrutiny of its “liabilities”, its financial burdens and its limits?
The thesis clears up this enigma by following the various tests in the construction of the debt as a public issue. We show through which mediations and after which tests a certain form of accounting, of calculation and of supervision of the debt has become prevalent and has attached the State’s moral-, technical- and political value to its national debt.
The first part describes the slow decline of a technical and political arrangement in which the State‘s contribution via its Treasury Department to the monetary creation was one of the components of a project focused on the growth of economic activity. The inflation was tacitly accepted by the administration as a cursed but necessary step. Progressively, some senior officials allied to financial actors identify these financing modalities as the essential cause of the current public “issue”: inflation. Resorting to using “outside” money, that is using constituted savings in the form of the development of a market dedicated to the medium and long-term government bond, is conceived as a “solution” to the problem of “excessive” monetary creation and is understood as “inflationist”. The new public servants become the translators of an international movement, they import models in France and attack the defenders of “the ancient order”. This is how the administrative and political de-legitimization of the “monetary” option contributes to the erosion of an international system that was geared towards monetary cooperation and the control of finance. This configuration was followed by a competition between States to maintain their position in the international loan market.
In order to serve the cause of the bond market development, the innovations in financial loan techniques promoted by the senior officials and supported by ministerial offices converge on common objectives: financing on the markets at the best price. Rather than being the symbol of the derailment of public finances, it appears as the jewel of the French financial technique. Obtaining a good price for the debt and protecting its stability are tokens of the State’s greatness, of the public power and of the senior officials’ accomplishment. Developed in strategic sectors of the State, this technical and political project combined with this market financing method progressively becomes natural and erases the tracks of its origins. From the 1990s on, this financial history of the State is being replaced by a budgetary history: now the origin of the debt tends to reside in the increasing public deficit and expenditure that need to be contained. This process, which today causes controversies, has long been excluded from public discussion.
The second part thus analyzes the making of a collective concern about the debt. The European construction has focused the public attention on the financial values of the States. A range of various actors – including national accountants, European senior officials, private market actors, journalists and professional politicians – have made of the level of the public finances an indicator of the preservation of the State’s value. The public of the debt has widened beyond the restricted circle of the market operators who are interested in the subscription of secure loans, and the successive political representatives have made of the control of these accounting indicators a constant concern.
Gradually a government of public finances and economy by figures and accounting ratios sets in. The concern about the control of the State’s implicit burdens and about the destiny of future generations becomes imperative. But if national accounting becomes a strategic sector of public policies again, its role is no longer that of an authority allowing the “piloting” of economy but rather that of the main agent in the monitoring of the bulk of public finances and in the maintenance of discipline in the area of the State. The instruments used for an accounting examination of the debt, meant to alert the politicians and bureaucratic officials to the risks incurred by the budgetary slippages, are aligned to the business accounting and recompose the modes of valuation of the State. The State has become a common and fallible being. From being a “solution” to the inflation, the “modern” debt has progressively become a constraint political decisions have to learn to deal with. The political consensus appearing on the report made by the committee chaired by Michel Pébereau sets before the 2007 election campaign the objective of handling the national debt as a matter of priority. But devoting a policy exclusively to the reduction of the “figures” of the national debt and to the “structural” decrease of the expenses has amounted to dry runs and successive “failures”. In the end, the study of these processes that are currently the subject of intense debates informs about the modalities linking political decision and technical devices.
Sociology of the sovereign financial risk evaluation
In December 2011, Benjamin Lemoine had his viva at the CSI, École des Mines de Paris. Jury members were Philippe Bezes, Eve Chiapello, Alain Desrosières and Brigitte Gaïti. From January 2012 on, he spent two-years as a post-doctoral research fellow at the Centre de Sociologie des Organizations (Sciences Po), and at the IFRIS, under the supervision of Olivier Borraz. Benjamin carried on his works within the framework of a research project entitled “Rating the State. Sociology of the sovereign financial risk evaluation”. The objectives of the project focused on STS and political sociology of risk are to analyze on one hand, the increasing importance of the role played by the rating agencies in the definition of the sovereign risk in the economic policies and decisions, on the other hand, the evolution of these instruments and how they contribute to specify various “natures” of risk: financial, accounting, economic and political.
On October 1, 2013 Benjamin Lemoine was recruited as a researcher by the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research). At the beginning of the 2013 academic year, he joined the Institut de Recherche Interdisciplinaire en Sciences Sociales (IRISSO – Interdisciplinary Research Institute in Social Sciences) UMR 7170, Paris Dauphine University.
Benjamin Lemoine’s PhD dissertation Les valeurs de la dette. L’état à l’épreuve de la dette publique is available online.