Archive for the 'Politics' Category

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Oh cry, the beloved country

The truly criminal destruction by the Troika of the Greek economy and Greek society that we have witnessed these last five years may have one good outcome: it may bring down at least one of the organizations responsible, according to this scathing indictment by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the London Telegraph today. An excerpt:

The International Monetary Fund is in very serious trouble. Events have reached a point in Greece where the Fund’s own credibility and long-term survival are at stake.

The Greeks are not withholding a €300m payment to the IMF because they have run out of money, though they soon will do.

Five key players in the radical-Left Syriza movement – meeting in the Maximus Mansion in Athens yesterday – took an ice-cold, calculated, and carefully-considered decision not to pay.
They knew exactly what they were doing. The IMF’s Christine Lagarde was caught badly off guard. Staff officials in Washington were stunned.

On one level, the “bundling” of €1.6bn of payments due to the IMF in June is just a technical shuffle, albeit invoking a procedure last used by Zambia for different reasons in the 1980s. In reality it is a warning shot, and a dangerous escalation for all parties.

Syriza’s leaders are letting it be known that they are so angry, and so driven by a sense of injustice, that they may indeed default to the IMF on June 30 and in so doing place the institution in the invidious position of explaining to its 188 member countries why it has lost their money so carelessly, and why it has made such a colossal hash of its affairs.

The Greeks accuse the IMF of colluding in an EMU-imposed austerity regime that breaches the Fund’s own rules and is in open contradiction with five years of analysis by its own excellent research department and chief economist, Olivier Blanchard.

Greece’s public debt is 180pc of GDP. The loans are in a currency that the country does not control. It is therefore foreign currency debt. The IMF knows that Greece cannot possibly pay this down by draconian austerity – the policy already implemented for five years with such self-defeating effects – and the longer it pretends otherwise, the more its authority drains away.

It is has pushed for debt relief behind closed doors but only half-heartedly, unwilling to confront the EMU creditor powers head on. Objectively, it is acting as an imperialist lackey – as Greek Marxists might say.

Indeed, it has brought about the worst possible outcome. The Fund’s man on the ground in Athens – Poul Thomsen – has pushed the austerity agenda with a curious passion that shocks even officials in the European Commission, pussy cats by comparison.

This would be justifiable (sort of) if the other side of the usual IMF bargain were available: debt relief and devaluation. This how IMF programmes normally work: impose tough reforms but also wipe the slate clean on debt and restore crippled countries to external viability.

It is a very successful formula. On the rare occasion when the IMF goes wrong it is usually because it tries to prop up a fixed-exchange rate long past its sell-by date.

All of this went out of the window in Greece. The IMF enforced brute liquidation without compensating stimulus or relief. It claimed that its policies would lead to a 2.6pc contraction of GDP in 2010 followed by brisk recovery.

What in fact happened was six years of depression, a deflationary spiral, a 26pc fall in GDP, 60pc youth unemployment, mass exodus of the young and the brightest, chronic hysteresis that will blight Greece’s prospects for a decade to come, and to cap it all the debt ratio exploded because of the mathematical – and predictable – denominator effect of shrinking nominal GDP.

It is a public policy scandal of the first order. One part of the IMF has issued a mea culpa admitting that its own analysts misjudged the fiscal multiplier badly. Plaudits to them.

Another part of the Fund continues to push new variants of the same indefensible policies, demanding a combined fiscal squeeze from pension cuts and VAT rises equal to 1pc of GDP this year and 2pc next year even as the economy lurches back into recession.

Ashoka Mody, former chief of the IMF’s bail-out in Ireland, refuses to criticise his former colleagues on the European desk, but the meaning of the words I quoted last night are clear enough.
“Everything that we have learned over the last five years is that it is stunningly bad economics to enforce austerity on a country when it is in a deflationary cycle. Trauma patients have to heal their wounds before they can train for the 10K.”

“I am frankly shocked that we are even having a discussion about raising VAT at all in these circumstances. We have just seen a premature rise in VAT knock the wind out of a country as strong as Japan.”

“Syriza should recruit the IMF’s research department to be their spokesman because they are saying almost exactly the same thing as Syriza on the economics of this. The entire strategy of the creditors is wrong and the longer this goes on, the more is its going to cost them.”

The IMF’s Original Sin in Greece was to allow the urbane Parisian Dominique Strauss-Kahn to hijack the institution to prop up Europe’s monetary union and the European banking system when the crisis erupted in 2010.

The Fund’s mission is to save countries, not currencies or banks, and it certainly should not be doing dirty work for a rich currency union that is fully capable of sorting out its own affairs, but refuses to do so for political reasons.

It was of course a difficult moment in May 2010. The eurozone was spinning out of control. There were no backstop defences – due to the criminal negligence of Europe’s leaders and banking regulators – and fears of a euro-Lehman were all too real.

Yet leaked minutes from the IMF board meetings showed that all the emerging market members (and Switzerland) opposed the terms of the first loan package for Greece. They protested that it was intended to save the euro, not Greece.

It loaded yet more debt onto the crushed shoulders of an already bankrupt country, and further complicated the picture by allowing one large French bank and one German bank – no names please – to offload much of their €25bn combined exposure onto EMU taxpayers.

“Debt restructuring should have been on the table,” said Brazil’s member. The loans “may be seen not as a rescue of Greece, which will have to undergo a wrenching adjustment, but as a bailout of Greece’s private debt holders, mainly European financial institutions”.

Arvind Virmani, India’s member, was prophetic. “The scale of the fiscal reduction without any monetary policy offset is unprecedented. It is a mammoth burden that the economy could hardly bear,” he said.

“Even if, arguably, the programme is successfully implemented, it could trigger a deflationary spiral of falling prices, falling employment and falling fiscal revenues that could eventually undermine the programme itself.” This is exactly what has happened.

The Fund might have atoned later by acknowledging its special duty of care towards Greece and softening the terms. It did not do so. We should hardly be surprised if Syriza is now on the warpath.
The IMF needs to be careful. It has itself become an emblem of bad governance. Mr Strauss-Kahn was caught in flagrante delicto, only to be replaced instantly in a political stitch-up by another French finance minister (of quality and integrity – but that is not the point). Mr Strauss-Kahn’s predecessor was recently indicted in Spain for fraud.

The institution cries out for reform. There is no justifiable reason why the job of managing-director should go by divine right to a European, nor why the Europeans still control eight seats on the IMF board.

. . .

These anomalies should have been sorted out at the time of the Strauss-Kahn debacle – along with quota reform blocked by the US Congress – all the more so since China and a host of rising reserve powers were already bursting onto the scene by then.

Leadership failed. The West disgraced itself. No wonder Asia is now going its own way with a rival set of bodies.

Greece’s firebrand government is bringing matters to a head for an institution already in trouble, but one with a superb staff and still worth saving.

Mrs Lagarde must stop playing the role of a diplomat. She must take off her European hat and speak instead for the organisation she leads and for the world.

She must confront the EMU creditors head on and in public. She must tell them, in blunt language, that they share much of the blame for the current impasse.

She must make it clear to them that Greece needs sweeping debt relief – as a matter of economic science, whatever the morality – and that the refusal of the creditors to face up to this elemental fact is now the chief impediment to a solution. And she should tell them that the IMF will no longer play any part in their deceitful charade.

If she does not do so, and if the lack of leadership by Europe’s political class leads to a catastrophic denouement on every level, then let it be on her head too.




The second time as tragedy

Yanis Varoufakis, Greek Minister for Finance, speaking at a press conference in Berlin on 5 February 2015:

“As finance minister in a government facing from day one emergency circumstances caused by a savage debt deflationary crisis, I feel that the German nation is the one nation in Europe that can understand us better than anyone else.

No-one understands better than the people of this land how a severely depressed economy, combined with a ritual national humiliation and unending hopelessness can hatch the serpent’s egg within its society.

When I return home tonight, I will find myself in a parliament in which the third-largest party is not a neo-Nazi party, it is a Nazi party.”

West Germany received debt relief in 1953, yet now deny it to the rest of Europe. The hypocrisy and economic negligence of the German government of Mrs Merkel reminds me of the British Government’s hypocrisy in the Great Depression: insisting that Australian Federal and State Governments continue to pay all interest and loans owed to British lenders, while at the same time seeking debt relief for British loans from American creditors. Every Australian economist, including no doubt the very impressive former Sydney University academic Dr Varoufakis, knows the name of Sir Otto Niemeyer, bullying representative of colonial rapacity. The unspeakable Mrs Merkel and her condescending ilk will, like Niemeyer, live long in the memory of Greeks.

Niemeyer came first in the 1906 British Civil Service entrance examination in which John Maynard Keynes came second, according to Richard Davenport-Hines’ fine new biography of Keynes.




Chickens, roosting, home

Re-reading Ian Hancock’s fine history of liberal white politics in Rhodesia reminds me that the first politician in that sad country to harass and intimidate his political opponents was not Robert Gabriel Mugabe, but Ian Douglas Smith. Smith and his Rhodesian Front party arrested, tortured, silenced, detained, and killed black opponents of white rule.  As far as I know, no white opponents were murdered, but they were arrested, deported, silenced, shouted-down in public meetings, made the victims of malicious innuendo, traduction, and defamation, and otherwise intimidated if they dared oppose RF rule.  I know at least one opponent who committed suicide rather than kill his fellow citizens in defence of white privilege.  These actions, Smith insisted, were for the maintenance of Western, Christian, values. Bah, humbug! As early as May 1965, in Smith’s first election as an incumbent prime minister, he prevented any white or black opposition politician from gaining access to state-owned media.  In contrast, Smith himself was treated with great deference and respect, despite continuing to hold racist views that would have shamed a Klansman, after Mugabe came to power in 1980.  He should have been tried as a war criminal.  In a more just world, he would have been.

The terror that Robert Mugabe has unleashed on his homeland is different in scale, perhaps, but not in kind from that of Ian Smith.  The evil that men do may well outlive them.

Reference:

Ian Hancock [1984]: White Liberals, Moderates and Radicals in Rhodesia 1953-1980. New York: St Martin’s Press.




London life

Speakers’ Corner, Hyde Park, London.

HP-SC-London-2012




Remembering Tiananmen

Yellowbird

Last week was the 25th anniversary of the violent suppression by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army of the non-violent protest in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on 4 June 1989.  How distant now is that spirit of hope and confidence that existed in the Spring of that year, a spirit slaughtered on the Square?

In the years since, we have learnt that not all the senior leadership of the Chinese Communist Party were among the butchers of Tiananmen.   In particular, the brave Zhao Zhiyang (1919-2005), at the time the General-Secretary of the Central Committee of the CCP, opposed the action and suffered  politically and personally  for his views.  It seems that Zhao was not alone.  A New York Times investigation reports that Major-General Xu Qinxian, leader of the 38th Group Army, refused to execute an order to participate  in the action, a refusal for which he was court-martialed, imprisoned, and expelled from the CCP.   Other military officers, possibly including the Defence Minister himself, Qin Jiwei (1914-1997), also opposed the action and/or refused to shoot civilians.

By this post, I wish to remember all those who struggled for freedom and democracy across China that spring, and especially all those who died in that struggle. Those, like Zhao and Xu, who bravely refused to join the action are also remembered.

A Luta Continua!




The end of Catholicism in Ireland

It is hard to see how Catholicism can survive in Ireland, given that the Church seems to have been involved in maltreatment, starvation, and mass burial of innocent children in septic tanks, and within living memory. Who could belong to such an organization?  The church apologists have already started arguing that we should not judge the past with the criteria of the present, but when was it ever morally acceptable to murder children?  Like the Communist Party of the USSR, the Roman Catholic church in Ireland was a criminal conspiracy that captured the State, and as with the CPSU, it needs to be outlawed.  Only by closing down the whole shebang and starting afresh can any moral worth be retrieved from this evil, shameful, despicable organization.




Kriegsspiel 1914

Kriegsspiel 1914:   A war game re-enactment of the battles between German and Allied (French, Belgian, BEF) forces on the Western Front between late August and late September 1914, organized by Philip Sabin of the War Studies Department at King’s College London.   Our team comprised Evan Sterling, Nicholas Reynolds and myself, and played as Germany.  We beat the Allies, capturing more territory than Germany had captured in actuality in 1914.  In other words, we not only beat the Allies, we beat History.

The photo shows the final placement of German forces (black boxes) after 6 rounds of fighting, with the yellow boxes showing territory held by Germany.     Cells without yellow boxes are held by the Allies.  This was immense fun.   (Photo credit:  Nicholas Reynolds.)

Kriegsspiel1914-30May2014




Just do it, already, Mr Prez!

Norm Ornstein in The Atlantic on criticisms of Bam that he’s not as good at cajoling and arm-twisting as was LBJ, not as good at shooting-the-breeze as was Clinton, and not as good at hard-ball negotiation as was Reagan.   An excerpt:

But there was one downside: the reactivation of one of the most enduring memes and myths about the presidency, and especially the Obama presidency. Like Rasputin (or Whac-A-Mole,) it keeps coming back even after it has been bludgeoned and obliterated by facts and logic. I feel compelled to whack this mole once more.

The meme is what Matthew Yglesias, writing in 2006, referred to as “the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics,” and has been refined by Greg Sargent and Brendan Nyhan into the Green Lantern Theory of the presidency. In a nutshell, it attributes heroic powers to a president—if only he would use them. And the holders of this theory have turned it into the meme that if only Obama used his power of persuasion, he could have the kind of success that LBJ enjoyed with the Great Society, that Bill Clinton enjoyed in his alliance with Newt Gingrich that gave us welfare reform and fiscal success, that Ronald Reagan had with Dan Rostenkowski and Bill Bradley to get tax reform, and so on.

If only Obama had dealt with Congress the way LBJ did—persuading, cajoling, threatening, and sweet-talking members to attain his goals—his presidency would not be on the ropes and he would be a hero. If only Obama would schmooze with lawmakers the way Bill Clinton did, he would have much greater success. If only Obama would work with Republicans and not try to steamroll them, he could be a hero and have a fiscal deal that would solve the long-term debt problem.

If only the proponents of this theory would step back and look at the realities of all these presidencies (or would read or reread the Richard Neustadt classic, Presidential Power.)

I do understand the sentiment here and the frustration over the deep dysfunction that has taken over our politics. It is tempting to believe that a president could overcome the tribalism, polarization, and challenges of the permanent campaign, by doing what other presidents did to overcome their challenges. It is not as if passing legislation and making policy was easy in the old days.

But here is the reality, starting with the Johnson presidency. I do not want to denigrate LBJ or downplay his remarkable accomplishments and the courage he displayed in taking on his own base, Southern Democrats, to enact landmark civil-rights and voting-rights laws that have done more to transform America in a positive way than almost anything else in our lifetimes. And it is a fact that the 89th Congress, that of the Great Society, can make the case for having more sweeping accomplishments, from voting rights to Medicare to elementary and secondary education reform, than any other.

LBJ had a lot to do with the agenda, and the accomplishments. But his drive for civil rights was aided in 1964 by having the momentum following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the partnership of Republicans Everett Dirksen and Bill McCullough, detailed beautifully in new books by Clay Risen and Todd Purdum. And Johnson was aided substantially in 1965-66 by having swollen majorities of his own party in both chambers of Congress—68 of 100 senators, and 295 House members, more than 2-to-1 margins. While Johnson needed, and got, substantial Republican support on civil rights and voting rights to overcome Southern Democrats’ opposition, he did not get a lot of Republicans supporting the rest of his domestic agenda. He had enough Democrats supporting those policies to ensure passage, and he got enough GOP votes on final passage of key bills to ensure the legitimacy of the actions.

Johnson deserves credit for horse-trading (for example, finding concessions to give to Democrat Wilbur Mills, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, to get his support for Medicare), but it was the numbers that made the difference. Consider what happened in the next two years, after the 1966 midterm elections depleted Democratic ranks and enlarged Republican ones. LBJ was still the great master of Congress—but without the votes, the record was anything but robust. All the cajoling and persuading and horse-trading in the world did not matter.

Now briefly consider other presidents. Ronald Reagan was a master negotiator, and he has the distinction of having two major pieces of legislation, tax reform and immigration reform, enacted in his second term, without the overwhelming numbers that Johnson enjoyed in 1965-66. What Reagan did have, just like Johnson had on civil rights, was active and eager partners from the other party. The drive for tax reform did not start with Reagan, but with Democrats Bill Bradley and Dick Gephardt, whose reform bill became the template for the law that ultimately passed. They, and Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, were delighted to make their mark in history (and for Bradley and Gephardt, to advance their presidential ambitions) by working with the lame-duck Republican president. The same desire to craft transformative policy was there for both Alan Simpson and Ron Mazzoli, a Senate Republican and a House Democrat, who put together immigration legislation with limited involvement by the White House.

As for Bill Clinton, he was as politically adept as any president in modern times, and as charismatic and compelling as anyone. But the reality is that these great talents did not convince a single Republican to support his economic plan in 1993, nor enough Democrats to pass the plan for a crucial seven-plus months; did not stop the Republicans under Speaker Newt Gingrich from shutting down the government twice; and did not stop the House toward the end of his presidency from impeaching him on shaky grounds, with no chance of conviction in the Senate. The brief windows of close cooperation in 1996, after Gingrich’s humiliation following the second shutdown, were opened for pragmatic, tactical reasons by Republicans eager to win a second consecutive term in the majority, and ended shortly after they had accomplished that goal.

When Obama had the numbers, not as robust as LBJ’s but robust enough, he had a terrific record of legislative accomplishments. The 111th Congress ranks just below the 89th in terms of significant and far-reaching enactments, from the components of the economic stimulus plan to the health care bill to Dodd/Frank and credit-card reform. But all were done with either no or minimal Republican support. LBJ and Reagan had willing partners from the opposite party; Obama has had none. Nothing that he could have done would have changed the clear, deliberate policy of Republicans uniting to oppose and obstruct his agenda, that altered long-standing Senate norms to use the filibuster in ways it had never been employed before, including in the LBJ, Reagan, and Clinton eras, that drew sharp lines of total opposition on policies like health reform and raising taxes as part of a broad budget deal.

Could Obama have done more to bond with lawmakers? Sure, especially with members of his own party, which would help more now, when he is in the throes of second-term blues, than it would have when he achieved remarkable party unity in his first two years. But the brutal reality, in today’s politics, is that LBJ, if he were here now, could not be the LBJ of the Great Society years in this environment. Nobody can, and to demand otherwise is both futile and foolish.”

 

(HT: SP)




Dissident graffiti in Czechoslovakia

MustekStationPrague

In August 1984, I saw a display of cartoons by Jan Bernat, at the Mustek Metro Station in Prague, CSSR.   One cartoon showed a crowd of Western Europeans of various nationalities saying “No”, “Non”, “Nien”, etc, to nuclear weapons, with Ronald Reagan in front of them all and holding a placard saying “YES.

However, some graffitist had scribbled over Reagan’s “YES” and written “NO.