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Friday, December 11th, 2009

1. The Personal Toll TARP Exacted. Laura Blumenfeld profiled Neel Kashkari for the Washington Post – the Treasury employee and Hank Paulson confidante who presided over TARP and assisted with much of the government’s response to the bailout who is now “detoxing” from Washington by working with his hands in an isolated retreat. The piece focuses not on what happened and the enormous impact, but on the personal toll this crisis exacted on Kashkari and those around him: the heart attack by one of his top aides; the emotional breakdowns; the trouble in his marriage as he didn’t come home for days, sleeping on his office couch and showering in the Treasury’s locker room:

Thoughts tended toward the apocalyptic. During midnight negotiations with congressional leaders, Paulson doubled over with dry heaves. A government economist broke into Kashkari’s office sobbing, “Oh my God! The system’s collapsing!” Kashkari counseled her to focus on things they could control. (Minal: “So you offered her a bag of Doritos.”)

“We were terrified the banking system would fail, but the thing that scared us even more was, what would we do the day after? How would we take over 8,000 banks?”

The piece seems to ask us to feel pity for these men and women who toiled under difficult circumstances, but it seems inappropriate to feel pity for those who assume power because they also feel its heavy weight. But the piece acknowledges that Kashkari himself seeks to get back to Washington again, “Because there’s nowhere else you can have such a large impact — for better and for worse.” Lionize them for their heroic sacrifices if you will, but there is no place for pity. Those who choose to take on the burdens of power should not be pitied because it proves too weighty.

2. New Ideas. The New York Times briefly discusses the Year in Ideas. Some of the more interesting entries:

3. Obama’s Afghanistan Decision. Fareed Zakaria and Peter Beinart both tried to place Obama’s Afghanistan decision into perspective last week in important pieces. Both of them saw in Obama’s clear-eyed understanding of America’s power shades of the foreign policy brilliance that was Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Zakaria:

More than any president since Richard Nixon, he has focused on defining American interests carefully, providing the resources to achieve them, and keeping his eyes on the prize.

Beinart:

Nixon stopped treating all communists the same way. Just as Obama sees Iran as a potential partner because it shares a loathing of al-Qaeda, Nixon saw Communist China as a potential partner because it loathed the U.S.S.R. Nixon didn’t stop there. Even as he reached out to China, he also pursued détente with the Soviet Union. This double outreach — to both Moscow and Beijing — gave Nixon more leverage over each, since each communist superpower feared that the U.S. would favor the other, leaving it geopolitically isolated. On a smaller scale, that’s what Obama is trying to do with Iran and Syria today. By reaching out to both regimes simultaneously, he’s making each anxious that the U.S. will cut a deal with the other, leaving it out in the cold. It’s too soon to know whether Obama’s game of divide and conquer will work, but by narrowing the post-9/11 struggle, he’s gained the diplomatic flexibility to play the U.S.’s adversaries against each other rather than unifying them against us.

Perhaps this accounts for Henry Kissinger’s appreciation for Obama’s foreign policy even as neoconservative intellectuals such as Charles Krathammer deride Obama as “so naïve that I am not even sure he’s able to develop a [foreign policy] doctrine“:

“He reminds me of a chess grandmaster who has played his opening in six simultaneous games,” Kissinger said. “But he hasn’t completed a single game and I’d like to see him finish one.”

4. The Unheeded Wisdom of Frum. It seems that almost every week a blog post by David Frum makes this list. This week, he rages at how the Republican’s “No, no, no” policy is forcing the Democrats to adopt more liberal policies (which Frum believes are worse for the country, but in the case of health care, more popular among voters):

I hear a lot of talk about the importance of “principle.” But what’s the principle that obliges us to be stupid?

5. Fiscal Imbalances. Martin Wolf in the Financial Times identifies the imbalance between America’s deficit spending and China’s surplus policy as the root of our financial imbalances in a piece this week:

What would happen if the deficit countries did slash spending relative to incomes while their trading partners were determined to sustain their own excess of output over incomes and export the difference? Answer: a depression. What would happen if deficit countries sustained domestic demand with massive and open-ended fiscal deficits? Answer: a wave of fiscal crises.

While he says both sides have an interest in an orderly unwinding of this arrangement, both also have the ability to resist:

Unfortunately, as we have also long known, two classes of countries are immune to external pressure to change policies that affect global “imbalances”: one is the issuer of the world’s key currency; and the other consists of the surplus countries. Thus, the present stalemate might continue for some time.

Niall Ferguson and Morris Schularack offered a few suggestions in a New York Times op-ed several weeks ago as to how best unwind this. I had written about it some months ago as well, albeit with a pithier take.

6. War & Peace. Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech was an audacious defense of American power and ideals. If you read nothing else on this list, read this.

7. Song of the week: Pinback’s “Charborg.”

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Posted in Barack Obama, Criticism, Economics, Financial Crisis, Foreign Policy, Politics, The Opinionsphere | 62 Comments »

An Empire or a Just Society?

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Charles Krauthammer wrote a piece for The Weekly Standard that is getting some attention – a piece apparently following up a speech he gave last week. His theme: Decline Is a Choice: The New Liberalism and the end of American ascendancy.

The criticism from liberals has been fast and furious, swatting away at Krauthammer’s many lies and distortions: Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Joe Klein, FireDogLake, Robert Farley.

But from the right, Krauthammer seems to be finding some traction (along with the Cheneys) in creating this narrative about Obama – and his attack has the advantage of being a comprehensive critique of Barack Obama’s administration and its promise. I don’t think the responses from the liberals so far have defused the attack, which I think will gain traction as time goes on.

Krauthammer’s critique is a profound one: that Obama’s New Liberalism – domestically and internationally – makes the conscious choice to let America decline as a global empire. As Krauthammer explains it (updating Niall Ferguson’s more honest description of the choice in his Colossus), America faces a choice between creating a just society at home or maintaining an empire abroad. As a neoconservative, Krauthammer believes we must choose empire because we are the one, special, unique nation, exalted above all others. The declining dollar; the deficits; the withdrawal from Iraq; the rise of China, India, Brazil, and other emerging powers; the scaling back of the panicked urgency in responding to terrorism; the effort to engage in diplomacy; the acclaim for Obama: all of these become points in the Obama narrative being created.

Thus far, the liberal response has been tepid – swatting back the lies and distortions. (For example, most of these dire situations undermining American power are the direct result of Bush administration policies that Krauthammer supported or failed to object to.)

[Image by B MOR Creeeative licensed under Creative Commons.]

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Posted in Barack Obama, Criticism, Domestic issues, Foreign Policy, National Security, Politics, The Opinionsphere | 66 Comments »

Must-Reads: Uighurs, Gay in Middle School, Vidal, Larison, the Public Option, and the End of Pax Americana

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

The Worst of the Worst? Del Quinton Wilber tells the story of two of the “worst of the worst,” the Uighur brothers Bahtiyar Mahnut and Arkin Mahmud. Neither brother was affiliated with the Taliban or Al Qaeda or had any reason to bear ill will towards the United States before their long detention. Bahtiyar, the younger brother, recently turned down an offer from the nation of Palau to leave Guantanamo to stay and look after his older brother, who was captured and turned over to the United States only because he went searching for his brother at their parents’ request. Arkin is the only one of the Uighurs not to be invited to Palau because he has developed serious mental health issues while in American custody.

How Things Change. Benoit Denizet-Lewis in the New York Times wrote on Sunday about a new reality that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago – of gay and lesbian middle schoolers coming out. It’s hard to describe how moving the piece was in how it so clearly suggested progress (reporting on the happy side of the news without focusing on the bad.) Slate’s Culture Gabfest followed up with an excellent discussion of the issues suggested by the piece – and even managed to link it to Fox’s new hit Glee. (Relating to the link to Slate’s Culture Gabfest, I must apologize for the lack of a direct one. The podcast doesn’t seem to be posted anywhere that accessible, but if you search for or subscribe to Slate’s iTunes podcast feed, it will be readily accessible.) Relating to Glee and gay youth, I would also recommend this interview of the creator of Glee by Terry Gross.

Gore Vidal. I’m not sure I agree with anything Gore Vidal said in his interview with Tim Teeman for the Times of London, but he proved interesting time and again, speaking of his long series of supportive letters to Timothy McVeigh, his disappointment with Obama, and his conviction that America is “rotting away at a funereal pace” and that a military dictatorship is coming. His opinions carry a unique weight given his proximity to so many centers of power in his time – from presidents to Hollywood to the media, and his series of perspectives on the matter, as historian, intellectual, novelist, activist.

A Hawk versus a Sane Person. Daniel Larison demonstrates once again thatThe American Conservative is one of the few magazines out there providing a coherent conservative worldview instead of mere anti-Obama bile with his post comparing Obama’s and Bush’s foreign policies:

What conservative critics ignore and what Andrew only touches on towards the end is that the Bush administration oversaw setback after failure after defeat for American influence and power. Iran has become a far more influential regional power thanks to the folly of Bush’s invasion of Iraq, democracy fetishists helped to strengthen the hold of Hamas in Gaza to the detriment of Palestinians and Israelis, and Russophobes helped to encourage Saakashvili’s recklessness with talk of NATO membershop and provoked Russian ire with the recognition of Kosovo that led to thede facto permanent partition of an American ally. Hawks have routinely unleashed forces they do not understand, cannot control and are unwilling to contain, and they still have the gall to shout “Appeasement!” when someone else tries to repair some small measure of the damage they have done. Compared to this partial list of Bush’s major failures, Obama has done reasonably well simply by not persisting in some of his predecessor’s errors, but it is far too early to speak of success or payoff and it is a mistake to measure Obama’s success in the way that his supporters wish to do. [my emphasis]

The secret to understanding where so many conservative and right wing publications have failed is their failure to acknowledge – as Jesse Walker of the libertarian Reason magazine does that “Obama is no radical.”

The Dearth of Support for the Very Popular Public Option. Ezra Klein continues his excellent health care blogging with a post describing the problem of the distribution of support for the public option. Klein explains:

It’s not a coincidence that the chamber representing the American people will pass a bill including the public option while the chamber representing American acreage is likely to delete it. The public option has majority support. But a lot of that popularity comes because a lot of people live in liberal centers like California and New York. It actually doesn’t have a majority in Nebraska, where not very many people live, or, I’d guess, in North Dakota, where even fewer people live. In the American political system, it’s not enough to be popular among the voters. You also have to be popular among wide swaths of land. Didn’t you watch “Schoolhouse Rock”?

The political answer this suggests is to allow individual states (or states banding together) to create a public option within their borders – which not coincidentally is exactly where the debate is now headed.

Pax Americana. Michael Lind at Salon describes the end of Pax Americana. Lind gives short shrift however to defenders of American empire – never clearly articulating their point of view as he attempts to debunk it. For a rather effective defense of the alternate point of view, I would look to Niall Ferguson’s excellent Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire. (Ferguson is rather influential among conservative circles, and was one of McCain’s advisors in the 2008 election.)

[Image not subject to copyright.]

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Posted in Barack Obama, Criticism, Foreign Policy, Health care, National Security, Politics, The Bush Legacy, The Opinionsphere, The War on Terrorism | 100 Comments »

Theories of the Financial Crisis: The Chinese-American economic imbalance

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]John P. Judis summarized this theory of the crisis in The New Republic, “Economists know the fatal flaw in our system – but they can’t agree how to fix it.” Judis described how America has relied for decades on a “tortuous financial arrangement that knits together its economy with those of China and Japan”:

This informal system has allowed Asian countries to run huge export surpluses with the United States, while allowing the United States to run huge budget deficits without having to raise interest rates or taxes, and to run huge trade deficits without abruptly depreciating its currency. I couldn’t find a single instance of Obama discussing this issue, but it has been an obsession of bankers, international economists, and high officials like Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. They think this informal system contributed to today’s financial crisis. Worse, they fear that its breakdown could turn the looming downturn into something resembling the global depression of the 1930s…

China depends on exports to the United States, and the United States depends on capital from China. If that special economic relationship breaks down, as it seems to be doing, it could lead to a global recession that could morph into the first depression since the 1930s.

Judis’s article seems to rely heavily on the analysis of Nouriel Roubini wrote most prolifically on this subject and predicted this system was approaching a crisis point in 2006. In a paper written with another prescient economist Brad Setser, Roubini pointed out the instability inherent in a system in which:

The US absorbs at least 80% of the savings that the rest of the world does not invest at home….[And] Social peace in China comes at the expense of political peace in the US.

Historian Niall Ferguson pointed the historical anomaly this represents as:

Usually it’s the rich country lending to the poor. This time, it’s the poor country lending to the rich.

Mark Landler explained the dynamic at work – and how it led to the current crisis – in a New York Times piece that was part of that newspaper’s “The Reckoning” series looking in depth at issues that led to the crisis:

In the past decade, China has invested upward of $1 trillion, mostly earnings from manufacturing exports, into American government bonds and government-backed mortgage debt. That has lowered interest rates and helped fuel a historic consumption binge and housing bubble in the United States…

By itself, money from China is not a bad thing. As American officials like to note, it speaks to the attractiveness of the United States as a destination for foreign investment. In the 19th century, the United States built its railroads with capital borrowed from the British.

In the past decade, China arguably enabled an American boom. Low-cost Chinese goods helped keep a lid on inflation, while the flood of Chinese investment helped the government finance mortgages and a public debt of close to $11 trillion.

But Americans did not use the lower-cost money afforded by Chinese investment to build a 21st-century equivalent of the railroads. Instead, the government engaged in a costly war in Iraq, and consumers used loose credit to buy sport utility vehicles and larger homes. Banks and investors, eagerly seeking higher interest rates in this easy-money environment, created risky new securities like collateralized debt obligations.

“Nobody wanted to get off this drug,” said Senator Lindsey Graham…

As Chinese money flooded into the American market, it created bubbles in which prices were inflated.

The primary beneficiaries of these bubbles were the economic elite whose jobs were not being outsourced or undercut by Chinese manufacturing and who owned stock, housing, or other assets which increased in value due to the added funds sloshing around in the financial system.

The American government similarly benefited from this Bretton Woods II as they were able to engage in wars, increase domestic spending, and lower taxes all at the same time – all without paying a higher interest rate on their deficit spending.

Financial firms made huge amounts of money as the inflow of the world’s savings bid up the prices of the assets they were buying and selling – and of course, they took the first cut of any profits from the sales – and assessed numerous fees for whatever it was they were doing. With an excess of capital, borrowing is cheap – which allows firms to make massive leveraged bets – also increasing their profits as well as their risk of being wiped out.

Lower wage workers benefited to a lesser extent as cheap Chinese goods – especially as sold by Wal-Mart – increased their buying power even as their wages stagnated over the past decade. Coupled with the easy credit resulting from the excess of money in the financial markets, the majority of workers were able to approximate a rising standard of living even as their wages stagnated – undercut by competition from abroad.

Until now – as this whole house of cards is falling apart. 

China is hoping the solution is to jump start it’s own domestic consumption – which might be difficult due to a wariness on the part of many Chinese about their future prospects: 

China kicked off its own campaign to encourage domestic consumption, which it hoped would provide a new source. But Chinese save with the same zeal that, until recently, Americans spent. Shorn of the social safety net of the old Communist state, they squirrel away money to pay for hospital visits, housing or retirement.

This accounts for the savings glut identified by Mr. Bernanke.

The way things are going now – it seems we’re screwed unless the Chinese people stop being so responsible thrifty and start spending like drunken American sailors. A paradox of thrift indeed.

—–

It should be noted that while I – and most of the authors I cite – specifically talk about the Chinese-American relationship, the points being made apply to East Asia in general – especially Japan which has contributed to the imbalance nearly as much as China.

(more…)

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Posted in China, Economics, Financial Crisis | 5 Comments »

A Typically Wrong-headed Krauthammer Column

Monday, April 6th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Charles Krauthammer in a typically insightful yet wrong-headed article carries out an intriguing thought experiment:

Five minutes of explanation to James Madison, and he’ll have a pretty good idea what a motorcar is (basically a steamboat on wheels; the internal combustion engine might take a few minutes more). Then try to explain to Madison how the Constitution he fathered allows the president to unilaterally guarantee the repair or replacement of every component of millions of such contraptions sold in the several states, and you will leave him slack-jawed.

I’m somewhat surprised that Krauthammer knows who James Madison is – given his reluctance to acknowledge the Constitution places any limits on executive power in the realm of national security in direct contravention of Madison’s understanding of his Constitution. But I suppose Krauthammer rationalizes that away by explaining that the Constitution is not a “suicide pact” and thus in times of physical danger can be safely stored away – but in an economic emergency, it must constrict the president as much as possible to preserve the status quo. But by exclaiming how shocked Madison would be at power politics, Krauthammer manages to make Madison out to be a naif – rather than the student of human nature and power that he was.

Still, one can rightly imagine Madison questioning how we got here. So, I will answer Madison’s hypothetical question, namely – “How is it that the limited government he constructed in his Constitution can allow the president to unilaterally guarantee the repair or replacement of every component of millions of such contraptions sold in the several states?”

Because, Mr. Madison, in 1929, with a small percentage of Americans gaining control of a large chunk of the nation’s economy, the market broke down and the government was forced to assume some partial responsibility for the well-being of it’s its citizens and to curb the excesses of the markets.

Then, in 1980, the government began reducing it’s its responsibility for the well-being of its citizens and removing the safeguards put in place to prevent another disasterous market breakdown. This led to another thoroughly undemocratic concentation of power – which the public accepted in return for the assurance that their standard of living would constantly improve. And so it was under Ronald Reagan that the government became responsible for assuring constant economic growth that would benefit all classes of society, at least a bit.

And now, that arrangement has come to a screeching halt. 

Obama is proposing a new social bargain – a fact which Krauthammer recognizes. But Krauthammer sees this bargain in terms that were relevant in the 1980s – as a resurgence of the Great Society liberalism he grew to hate. But instead, Obama proposes a new market-state liberalism – in which the government accepts a responsibility to referee and more actively maintain the markets and to provide investments that are too capital-intensive and long term for corporations with their limited time horizons to finance. Obama also believes it is the government’s role to reduce the disruption and instability that the creative destruction of capitalism wreaks. The end goal is to create a more level playing field and mainly through soft government pressure prevent destabilizing concentrations of power.

Krauthammer though only sees Lyndon Johnson reborn intent on “leveling” society and reducing the inequities between the rich and the rest of us. Krauthammer explains that for Obama the “ultimate social value is fairness” – and Krauthammer means this as a bad thing. The subtlety that Krauthammer sidesteps is that Obama is in favor of fair processes rather than enforcing some pre-determined fair ends. This was the traditional position of the conservative – but it is position that conservatives have long since abdicated. Presumably when he criticizes fairness, Krauthammer believes that markets should strive for efficiency rather than fairness – but he neglects to make any case that our current market structure is efficient. 

Michael Osinski described in New York magazine the logic of how money is awarded on Wall Street:

I was very good at programming a computer. And that computer, with my software, touched billions of dollars of the firm’s money. Every week. That justified it. When you’re close to the money, you get the first cut. Oyster farmers eat lots of oysters, don’t they?

This describes neither a fair nor an efficient way of distributing resources. What “conservatives” such as Krauthammer do not realize is that capitalism, like democracy, is merely the least-worst system of managing the market – and that just as democracy’s excesses must be managed, so must capitalism’s. Krauthammer does not seem to accept that the structure of governance is changing with globalization – as the nations of the world are evolving into market-states. It was the beginning of this shift that led to Ronald Reagan’s and Margaret Thatcher’s success. Although some conservatives saw these successes as a return to a pre-Great Society or a pre-New Deal America, they represented instead a shift forward, an evolution from nation to market-state. Liberals lost elections because their solutions no longer spoke to this evolved America – and they could not see the sand shifting beneath themselves. They were stuck in the past.

But now – as Niall Ferguson has admitted – it is only the liberals who are providing a coherent answer to the challenges we face.

Krauthammer – like far too many conservatives today – is stuck pretending we face the challenges of the 1980s all over again. Until conservatives like him notice the sand shifting beneath them, they will have little to offer. As a well-functioning democracy requires at least two functioning political parties, I hope they get their heads our of the sand sooner rather than later.

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Posted in Barack Obama, Financial Crisis, Politics, The Opinionsphere | 2 Comments »

The Only Credible Response to Globalization

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

Niall Ferguson in The Telegraph:

Underlying this tremendous growth in financial markets was a fourfold liberalisation of international markets for goods, services, capital and labour. This was not, of course, peculiar to the English-speaking world: globalisation, as its name suggests, is ubiquitous. But its implications for those on the Anglophone Right were distinctive. Unremarked by conservatives in Britain, America and even Australia, these great shifts created a new and much greater trilemma.

Suppose that a government can have any two of the following things, but not all three: globalisation, in the sense of openness to international flows of goods, services, capital and labour; social stability; and a small state. Or, to put it differently, conservatives can pick any two from an open economy, a stable society and political power – but not all three.

Ferguson is extremely articulate (and credible) in his explanation of why conservatives have no “articulate” answers to globalization. He believes that conservatism will be able to once again thrive once it chooses to sacrifice social stability, which he links to social mobility. Although the two concepts certainly are related, it’s hard for me to accept the re-branding of one as the other – and it seems a bit too pat on Ferguson’s part. On the other hand, Ferguson describes the other side of the argument:

Only the Left appears to have a credible response [so far]: globalisation, plus social stability, plus a strong, interventionist state.

The set-up Ferguson proposes then would be:

The Left

In favor of:

Accepting as necessary evils:

Conservatives

In favor of:

Accepting as necessary evils:

Ferguson avoids all the tough questions – such as what “smart” means – and how this would relate to regulation – and just presumes that governmental actions, inequality and social mobility are directly related – and that somehow, more inequality leads to more social mobility. I think perhaps Ferguson is attempting to create a scenario when he can plausibly oppose the man he describes as “the most Left-wing Democrat ever elected to be President of the United States.” This seems to me to be a rather implausible description of the pragmatist that Obama is. But this points to what is distorting Ferguson’s extremely interesting and insightful view of political ideologies and the current world trends. 

Let me propose an alternate party – one that it seems Barack Obama is already leading:

Liberals

In favor of:

Accepting as necessary evils:

The idea is to maximize certain goods while balancing against the evils that are their side effects. Extreme inequality can decrease social mobility at least as much as government distortions. A social safety net of the right type can act both a great equalizer and as an incentive for individuals to pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions. 

My problem with Ferguson’s critique is that he seems to view the debate between the Left and conservatives as an either/or proposition – which it often is – but given the situation he describes, it’s more an argument of degree rather than kind. The Left that Ferguson is arguing against may favor social equality over social mobility but both sides agree that both goals are worthy. It’s a question of what the right balance is.

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Posted in Conservativism, Economics, Financial Crisis, Political Philosophy, Politics, The Opinionsphere | 3 Comments »

An Age of Upheaval? – Instability, Legitimacy, and the Economic Crisis

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]

[Source, page 19 of the “Global Employment Trends 2009” [pdf report by the United Nations International Labor Organization.]

Niall Ferguson, writing for Foreign Policy with foreboding sees the current economic crisis as the final element needed for “an age of upheaval”:

Economic volatility, plus ethnic disintegration, plus an empire in decline: That combination is about the most lethal in geopolitics. We now have all three. The age of upheaval starts now.

Certainly, around the world, the economic crisis is causing instability – as the legitimacy of many governments around the world is called into question. The constitutional legitimacy of most governments, the bargain they have made with their people, is based on a growing economy that provides for the people’s needs, and increasingly, also provides individual economic opportunity. While this “deal” was often discussed with regards to authoritarian capitalist systems such as China’s, it is also true of governments in democratic capitalist systems. Thus it makes sense that this economic crisis is a serious threat to the stability of nations throughout the world.

If, as the chart above suggests, the worst is yet to come, the current unrest is but a preview. Already though, this crisis has provoked significant concerns and serious riots. Nelson D. Schwartz described the worldwide destabilizing effects of this crisis in his New York Times piece entitled “Job Losses Pose a Threat to Stability Worldwide.” Schwartz saw the crisis as potentially more destabilizing for countries in the former Soviet bloc:

Many newer workers, especially those in countries that moved from communism to capitalism in the 1990s, have known only boom times since then. For them, the shift is especially jarring, a main reason for the violence that exploded recently in countries like Latvia, a former Soviet republic.

Meanwhile, Niall Ferguson described how the crisis is undermining one of the key stabilizing elements in Pakistan, it’s middle class:

Pakistan’s small but politically powerful middle class has been slammed by the collapse of the country’s stock market. Meanwhile, a rising proportion of the country’s huge population of young men are staring unemployment in the face. It is not a recipe for political stability.

Patrick Hosking in The Times of London predicts that Great Britain will be hit by social unrest as well, though it certainly is not as vulnerable to collapse as Pakistan which is simultaneously fighting a civil war:

[I]t may already be too late to prevent social unrest, especially in Britain, which is tipped to be one of the worst-hit countries economically.

The spectacle of bankers continuing to award themselves bonuses while taking taxpayer support is feeding an extraordinary public rage and a fierce sense of injustice. With 40,000 people losing their jobs each month, it is a recipe for trouble, come the traditional rioting months of the summer.

Despite the fact that we have yet to come to the “traditional rioting months of the summer,” there have been large riots in Latvia, Bulgaria, Iceland, Greece,1 and Russia. Russia has proven to be especially vulnerable – and as Arkady Ostrovsky of Foreign Policy explained, “The Kremlin is acutely aware that civil unrest in Russia could trigger the country’s disintegration.” He describes Putin, however, as the best of bad options:

Putin’s social contract has been based on co-opting Russia’s elites, bribing the population, and repressing the disobedient. A mixture of nationalistic rhetoric, rising incomes, and pride in Russia’s resurgence won public support. Until now, money has been Putin’s most powerful weapon. Rising incomes and a strong ruble (due to high commodity prices) have enabled Russians to enjoy imported food, holidays abroad, and foreign cars and technology. But even if the lives of ordinary people have not improved dramatically (49 percent say they have enough money for basic needs but struggle to buy much else), Russians at least felt that they had stopped sliding backward. Now things are looking bleak again…

But the chances of a liberal renaissance as a result of Putin’s social contract unraveling are highly unlikely. There is nothing more misleading than to portray Russia as a liberal-minded society suppressed by a nasty bunch of former KGB agents. The uncomfortable truth is, as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed boss of the Yukos oil company destroyed by the Kremlin, put it: Putin “is more liberal and more democratic than 70 percent of the population.” And unlike late Soviet leaders who inspired the contempt of the population, Putin even now remains authentically popular.2

What this seems to add up to – short of some economic miracle – is an increasingly unstable world – as long as this economic crisis lasts. At the same time, the trend towards the decentralization of power from the United States to corporations, individuals, non-governmental organizations, and other nations – the trend from unipolarity to nonpolarity, as Richard Haas describes it – could potentially make this problem harder to solve. Regardless, it seems certain that this crisis will reshape international politics – and that America’s power to effect the shape of what is to come is significant though limited.

  1. Greece’s riots were of course triggered by a police shooting, but it is hard to imagine they would be as intense without the instability caused by the financial crisis. []
  2. A side note: Ostrovsky also describes “Putin’s most damaging and possibly longest-lasting legacy…that he has played to Russia’s worst instincts. Rather than develop a sense of pride in Russia’s victory over the Soviet Union in 1991, Putin has fostered feelings of past humiliation and defeat, and subsequently a longing for retribution.” []

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Posted in Economics, Financial Crisis, Foreign Policy, Great Britain, Pakistan, Politics, Russia | 48 Comments »

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