Thursday, April 25, 2013

Is 2013 like 1981?

It’s hard to think of two politicians as diametrically opposed in terms of politics and world outlook as Barrack Obama and the recently departed Margaret Thatcher. But in at least one odd way, they appear to be strangely similar.

Prime Minister Thatcher was a strict monetarist who cut back on the size of government, thereby freeing up more capital to be used by the private sector. By contrast, President Obama has benefited—at least in terms of short-term politics—from a central bank that has propped up a weak economy with an ever-expanding money supply and he has overseen a massive growth in federal spending (cut back slightly by the sequester) while expressing the opinion that the current record deficits are not really a problem.

Could there possibly be any common ground between two such dissimilar political leaders? Well, if we strain a bit, we can point to one place where they would seem to be on the same page.

Thatcher is remembered in Ireland for her hard line with imprisoned members of the Irish Republican Army and the Irish National Liberation Army. They were in prison for having been convicted of various offenses, including murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, stealing firearms or possessing stolen firearms. In light of the current debate over gun legislation in the U.S., it is interesting to note that some of them were imprisoned for nothing more than the mere possession of a handgun or other firearm or weapon.

In the summer of 1981, ten of the prisoners died as a result of a hunger strike. The nub of the protest was that the IRA and INLA members wanted to be treated differently from other prisoners. Among other things, they did not want to be required to wear prison uniforms or to do usual prison work. The UK government refused to give them status as political prisoners and insisted on treating them as common criminals. The aim of this policy was to deny them any degree of political or legal legitimacy. Generally speaking, the refusal to acknowledge legitimacy of insurgent groups has been seen as an arrow in the conservative quiver.

But in post-9/11 America this approach has been turned on its head. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the Bush administration immediately took the approach that the perpetrators were soldiers fighting the United States in a war. This provided justification for measures that would not have been legal for run-of-the-mill crime-fighting.

The Obama administration has been more inclined to treat terrorist attacks and attempted terrorist attacks as criminal matters—or at least that’s the perception. At lot of this probably has to do with the fact that during Bush’s time most of the action was abroad. Since then President Obama has wound down the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and the government has relied more on assassination by drone instead of taking prisoners abroad and bringing them to the prison in Guantanamo. So during Obama’s time we have heard more about attacks and attempted attacks on U.S. soil.

It is not clear to me that there would have been much discernible difference between the way the previous administration would have handled these as opposed to the way the current one has. Having said that, I suspect that Bush, unlike Obama, would have labeled the 2009 killing of 13 people and wounding of more than 30 at Fort Hood, Texas, as a terrorist act.

Not surprisingly, the pundits’ debate over criminal-versus-terrorist has flared up again in the wake of last week’s bomb attack in Boston. Some Republicans insisted that the surviving bomber be declared an enemy combatant. The administration declared that, as a U.S. citizen arrested on U.S. soil, he would be charged and tried in a criminal court.

To get back to my original point, wouldn’t Margaret Thatcher be doing what Obama is doing? Wouldn’t she be refusing to confer legitimacy on the two bombers by identifying them with some greater movement and instead treating them as common criminals who should be treated no differently than any other kind of murderers? Wouldn’t she be sending a message of reassurance to the public that the police and courts are up to the task of dealing with this atrocity?

Of course, we don’t know for sure what she would do because the world has changed. Also, in 1981 the IRA prisoners were very vocal about who they were and what their aims were. As far as we know, the Boston bombers provided no clarifying statement, nor has any group claimed responsibility for their actions.

So let’s ask this question. Why are so many Republicans anxious to have the Boston culprits publicly identified as “jihadists” or “Islamic extremists”? It’s because they are invoking a different aspect of Thatcher’s legacy. They remember her as one of a trio of world leaders (along with Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II) who openly engaged a major opposing ideology (Soviet communism) and defeated it. They see the extremist movement within the world Islamic community, which works to confront and undermine the West, as a similar kind of foe that needs to be acknowledged and confronted.

The problem is that we still don’t know enough about the Boston duo. Were they, as I heard at least one pundit describe them, more like the two who perpetrated the Columbine massacre? Or were they genuinely politically motivated but acting totally alone? Or were they actively working with others in terms of training and planning?

For the time being, the president is left with a dilemma. If he cannot or does not want to link the Boston bombers to an international network of terrorism, is the country being blinded to the extent of a real and serious threat? And, if he were to make such a link, would it only be building up the profile and reputation of two losers who deserve to be forgotten?

The president’s position is further complicated by the fact that he ran for and won re-election, in part, by crediting his administration with decimating Al Qaeda. But he continues to be criticized for misleading the country about the true nature of the attack of the embassy in Benghazi to protect that narrative. Remember when he spent two weeks blaming it on a YouTube video?

Will he let this limit him in how he ultimately characterizes the Boston bombs? In time it will matter much more how the public characterizes them. And that will be determined by any additional information that comes out about the bombers.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Iron Lady Passes

When the news flashed across my computer screen that Baroness Thatcher had died, I knew what to expect from the local media.

Her very name seems to evoke a visceral negative response in Ireland. That is largely because of the extremely tough line she took against republican paramilitaries during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Branding them as terrorists, she refused to regard them as anything other than criminals with no status and not representative of anybody or anything. “Crime is crime is crime; it is not political,” she said. She tends to get blamed for the deaths of Bobby Sands and nine other hunger strikers in prison because she steadfastly refused to give in to any of their demands.

To the extent that there was a balance in the Irish media’s assessment of her legacy, it probably came from the commentator who said that Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness probably owe their current seats—in the Irish republic’s Dáil Éireann and the Northern Ireland Assembly, respectively—to her. This is because her hard line had the ultimate effect of marginalizing the North’s more moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party and strengthening Sinn Féin (the political arm of the Irish Republican Army) at the ballot box.

Much more interesting to me was to hear the talking heads on BBC radio discuss her legacy at length. Mostly, this consisted of giving time to someone who liked her and then to someone who hated her. It was all very predictable, which is why I waited for the Beeb’s daily business program, where the discussion would be more focused on the effectiveness of her economic policies.

Unfortunately for those wanting to paint her legacy as one of utter failure, the record is pretty clear. When she became prime minister in 1979, Britain was a complete basket case. It is difficult to remember now, but back then the UK was spoken of the same way Greece and Portugal are now. It had only recently gone hat in hand to the IMF for a loan. Thatcher’s remedy was to cut public spending, raise interest rates and start selling off government-run entities like the phone company and British Airways. Many sectors of the economy, especially unionized labor, screamed bloody murder. Unemployment rose. Her first couple of years in office were very rough, and her opponents denounced her as a failure.

And then things began to improve. The country’s high inflation rate came down and the UK became a magnet for foreign investment. Productivity increased and unemployment came back down. After a few years of pain, the economy improved and the downward spiral of the 1970s had been broken. Was it worth it? I suppose that depends on who you were. If you had a good union job in the 1970s or depended on public money for your living, then you were probably worse off under Thatcher. But over time, an awful lot of people were better off. Certainly today Britain is much better off than it was before.

It was sort of a backhanded tribute to Thatcher that her critics on the radio had to rhetorically contort themselves so much in their attempts to darken her economic legacy. Interestingly, they kept pointing out that she had no experience or training as an economist. Many would actually consider that to be a plus, especially when 1970s Britain was essentially following the prescriptions currently promoted by Nobel economics winner Paul Krugman.

These seemed to the main points of criticism:

  • She decimated Britain’s industrial base. The changing world was already doing away with Britain’s and other countries’ industrial bases. She accelerated the process and moved her country into the globalizing economy. And not without a lot of pain. But it’s silly to argue that all the old jobs that went away would still exist without her.

  • In her wake there was more inequality. Well, yes, there probably was. I always find it interesting when people argue that policies that make everyone better off in general are bad and should be avoided because a side effect is that the wealthy get even wealthier.

  • Her policies were ultimately responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown. This one is my favorite. It echoes the notion in the U.S. that Ronald Reagan was somehow responsible for the 2008 financial crisis. In fact, much of the blame properly belongs with deregulation that happened in the 1990s when Reagan and Thatcher were both out of office—notably with the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in the U.S., which had required banks to keep their regular banking and investment arms separate. There was a similar loosening of regulations in the UK under Gordon Brown. Another big contributor to the meltdown was loose monetary policies in the U.S. and Europe—something Thatcher abhorred. Central banks are currently printing money like crazy. Thatcher constricted the UK’s money supply.

    For good or ill, I don’t know if we will ever see the like of Baroness Thatcher again. She was an unabashed conservative in the true sense of the word. While the label “conservative” is alive and well in America and Europe, it seems increasingly to be applied to politicians who, in another time, would have been labeled “liberal” in the classic sense of seeing liberty defined as freedom from government control. With her tough lines on Northern Ireland and the Falkland Islands, Thatcher harkened back to a time when the nub of conservatism was defense of an empire.

    As for her economic policies, it is hard to imagine such a strict monetarist coming to power again in the western world anytime soon. And it remains to be seen if any other approach can improve the kind of economy we are living through now.