Friday, May 20, 2016

The Social Disease

“Thanks Hugo Chavez for showing that the poor matter and wealth can be shared. He made massive contributions to Venezuela & a very wide world.”
—Future leader of the UK’s Labour Party Jeremy Corbin, tweeting his eulogy for the recently deceased Venezuelan president in 2013

“If we were to have two parties in Cuba, Fidel would head one and I the other.”
—Raúl Castro, joking with American officials in April, as quoted by The Economist
It is hard to miss the irony. At the moment when socialism is attracting a whole new generation of willing adherents in the United States and western Europe, that very same economic system is melting down in a devastating way in Venezuela.

The IMF recently reported that Venezuela’s inflation rate, the highest in the world, was headed toward 720 percent. Shop shelves are empty, with shortages in everything, including electricity. Crime, already high, has skyrocketed. The country’s currency, the Bolivar, is so worthless that even armed robbers refuse to take it. They break into houses looking for dollars and other foreign currency. With President Nicolás Maduro stonewalling every way he can the huge majority of opposition representatives elected to the National Assembly in December, it is hard to see how a military coup is avoided. Not that a coup would solve much, since the military was thoroughly staffed with loyalists by Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez. A replacement president could hardly be less competent than Maduro, but the fact is his cluelessness only hastened what was inevitable anyway.

One of the excuses regularly trotted out for economic failures in the developing world is that the global system is inherently unfair. Certain countries were lucky enough to be sitting on valuable natural resources and others were not, thereby explaining the wealth gaps between countries. But Venezuela is sitting on top of huge oil reserves. The Chávez and Maduro governments rode high on their revenues but obviously did not make the best us of them. The recent drop in oil prices was all it took to send the whole country into a tailspin. Other excuses we can expect to hear for Venezuela’s demise is sabotage by the United States and other crimes of imperialism dating all the way back to the Spanish conquistadors.

We may also hear that what was being implemented in Venezuela was not true socialism. That is always the problem with testing economic theories with real world examples. Human societies are never going to practice pure forms of economic systems. The most hard-core socialist country will always have elements of capitalism, and the most free-market liberal economy will have elements of socialism. All you can do is look at specific economic policies in specific countries and judge how well they worked.

Meanwhile in Brazil, former Marxist guerrilla (and successor to the Workers’ Party’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) Dilma Rousseff was suspended from her presidential duties last week, pending an impeachment. Corruption is so prevalent in Brazil, you might well ask, what does one have to do there to actually get impeached for corruption? The answer is to be presiding over a disaster of an economy. Apparently, President Rousseff was cooking the books to hide how much money from the state oil company has gone astray. That’s the problem when the government is so involved in the economy. When large sums of money are passed around, there is always the temptation to pocket some of it or to pay someone off. When corruption happens in the private sector, there is at least some hope that the government will keep people honest. When it is the government itself moving the large sums around, there is virtually no hope.

What about Cuba, the one full-blown surviving Communist country in the Americas? Does its recent rapprochement with the U.S. represent a victory for the island nation or a capitulation? For nearly six decades Cubans have been frozen in a time warp that many left-leaning North Americans find quaint and even admirable but which has not tempted any that I know of to actually emigrate there. The U.S. embargo has always been blamed for the island’s lack of economic progress—even after it had long become ineffective. President Obama was not the first U.S. leader to make back-channel overtures to the Castro brothers about ending an estrangement that had gone on way too long. He was merely the first to agree to the Castros’ demands, i.e. lifting its designation as a supporter of terrorism (specifically, Colombia’s FARC and the North Korea regime) and releasing Cuban prisoners in the U.S. (Many of the dissidents released in Cuba in exchange have since be re-arrested.) I guess Fidel and Raúl just had to live long enough until there was a U.S. president young enough to have grown up with a Che Guevara poster on his wall.

Will the expected influx of western companies and tourists eventually bring Cuba into the modern economic world? Probably not as long as the Castro brothers are alive. But after that, who knows? Assuming those two don’t outlive us all.

Personally, I am more interested in seeing what happens as these young enthusiastic supporters of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbin mature and become more prevalent in U.S and British politics. Maybe Fidel and Raúl will decide to retire in Florida.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Taken for a Ride

“Show business is like a bumpy bus ride. Sometimes you find yourself temporarily juggled out of your seat and holding onto a strap. But the main idea is to hang in there and not be shoved out the door.”
—Actor Cliff Robertson
I like my bus analogy from two weeks ago so much that I have decided to keep going with it.

The analogy likened the U.S. political situation and the country’s two-party system to a major city where there are only two buses to carry people where they want to go. If a bunch of people want to go to a place where neither bus is going, then the only alternative is for that group of people to take over one of the buses and change its route.

Let’s try to imagine these buses more vividly. Currently Hillary Clinton is at the wheel of the Democratic bus. Bernie Sanders is sitting next to her, and he has a steering wheel too, but his doesn’t actually do anything. Rachel Maddow is sitting behind Clinton and, when Maddow asks her a hypothetical question about where she would be driving if her wheel were the one that is actually steering the bus, the exasperated Clinton yells back, “But my wheel is the one that’s working!” On the front of the bus in the panel that displays the destination, it says, “A Progressive America.” Wait, no, that’s the panel that Sanders put up there. Clinton has papered over that destination with several paragraphs of intricate policy details, which no one can actually read because there are two many words and the bus is moving too fast. Oh yeah, and on the rear fender there is an “Arms Are for Hugging” bumper sticker.

What about the Republican bus? That’s the one that has been careening from one side of the road to the other as if a drunken madman were at the wheel. Actually, it was a dozen and a half madmen and one woman, but some of them have glumly gone to the back of the bus, a couple have taken seats right behind the driver, and the rest have gotten off the bus altogether and decided to walk. Some of those are actually thinking about trying to acquire a third bus, but they probably won’t. This is all because Donald Trump is now firmly ensconced behind the wheel. If he hears a peep out of any of the passengers, he screams, “I’m warning you! Don’t make me stop this bus!” He also keeps yelling obscenities out the window at drivers who are in his way or who he imagines are in his way. On the front panel there is a clear and simple destination: “America First.” On the rear bumper “Jesus Is My Co-Pilot” has been covered up by “Neither Marx nor Jesus.”

For people standing on the side of the road watching, there is absolutely no way to tell where the two buses are really headed.

Who are the passengers on these buses? On the Democratic bus, you have a fair number of people who liked Sanders’s destination of Progressive America. Some of them keep hoping against hope that he will somehow get control of the bus. Others are keeping an eye on Clinton to make sure she doesn’t make any wrong turns. The rest of the passengers are just along for the ride. They chose this bus because the only other choice was the Republican bus and they didn’t want to ride on that bus because, after all, everyone knows that bus is only for racists, misogynists and homophobes. (Even though the field of potential Republican drivers included two Hispanics and an African-American. And the same number of potential female drivers as the Democratic bus.)

Who is on the Republican bus? That’s a very interesting question. It used to be mainly business people, folks who took their religion seriously, people who wanted a strong military and citizens who preferred that the government did as little as possible. Some of those people may still be on the bus or are thinking about getting back on. Mostly, though, through the bus’s windows we see a lot of people who didn’t use to ride buses or even some who used to ride the Democratic bus. They are working people who used to think their place was on the Democratic but now feel crowded out by environmentalists, academics bent on social engineering, affluent people who “just want to help,” and a collection of what usually get referred to as special interest constituencies. The working people used to not see the Republican bus as going anywhere much different than the Democratic bus, but now they think that this Trump guy might be someone who is finally going their way.

Okay, enough with the bus analogy. Except to say that I keep hearing journalists talk about the buses, I mean, parties as if passengers never get off the bus they are on. Television analysts keep going on about how many electoral votes Trump would have to “flip” because, as we all know, people just keep voting the same way election after election. Besides, surely most voters know that Trump would be a disaster for economic policy and foreign policy, right?

Two things I’ve heard lately should probably make us rethink that. Yesterday on National Public Radio I heard Mara Liasson cheerfully report that polls show voters trust Clinton more than Trump in all areas except one. Then she added that the exception was the economy and, guess what, the economy is the area voters care about most. Maybe that is why some polls already show the general election tightening.

The other thing I heard had to do with foreign policy. That was a week and a half ago on NBC’s Meet the Press. Host Chuck Todd and his panel of journalist experts were having a good laugh at how incoherent Trump’s foreign policy ideas are. Then The New York Times’s Tom Friedman, of all people, said this about Trump’s recently delivered foreign policy address: “Well, it was everything the critics said. It was kind of a Mad Libs version of all his ideas put into different sentences and, as you exposed, utterly contradictory. But at the same time, you have to say, Chuck, contradictory in foreign policy, is that like supporting Saudi Arabia even though we know they were behind 9/11? Is that like supporting Pakistan, even though they support the Taliban? … Is that like telling me Libya was wonderful and then saying it was the president’s decision? So I think to try to find consistency in foreign is very difficult right now.”

This was a rare instance of an entrenched establishment commentator having a flash of insight into how a lot of regular people see things. To them what Trump is saying doesn’t sound any crazier than what is already happening.

Where are Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock when you need them?

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Irish Spring

“Millions and millions and millions and millions of people look at that pretty picture of America he painted and they cannot find themselves in it to save their lives. People are upset, frankly; they’re anxiety-ridden, they’re disoriented, because they don’t see themselves in that picture.”
—Bill Clinton, speaking in March about President Obama’s assessment of the U.S. economy
If you are for some reason relying solely on this blog for news on Irish politics, then the last thing you read about it was that there was election back in February. You might even be assuming there has been a government up and running and conducting business during these past nine or ten weeks.

If, on the other hand, you follow Irish politics through real news sources, then you know the recently elected parliamentarians (Teachtaí Dála, or house deputies) only managed to get past the step of electing a new head of government (Taoiseach, or chieftain or leader) yesterday. Why did it take so long? Because no party received a majority of votes and, moreover, there was no combination of parties or individual TDs who were easily amenable to coalition and whose numbers amounted to a working plurality. The two largest parties—remnants of the two sides in the 1922-23 civil war—did some tentative exploration of a so-called grand coalition, but the ideological and/or legacy hurdles were just too much to surmount.

In the end the Fine Gael party worked out a way to form a minority government. This entailed making commitments to the Fianna Fáil party on what actions it would and would not undertake in order for Fianna Fáil not to bring down the government. It also involved bringing non-party-affiliated TDs on board with promises of funding special projects in their constituencies and, in some cases, giving them ministerial posts. The good news for Fine Gael is that its leader, Enda Kenny, becomes the first Taoiseach of his party ever to be returned for a second consecutive term. The bad news is that he goes from having a commanding number of votes at his beck and call in the last government to being dependent on all kinds of politicians with different priorities and agendas in this one. No one expects this government to last a full five-year term.

Here’s something to think about. By design of the European-style parliamentary system, Ireland was without a fully functioning government for ten weeks. This is the kind of pause that an obstructionist like Ted Cruz could only dream of. And, yes, things kept functioning just fine without a government. This is because government functionaries—the people who actually carry out government services—were still on the job. The annual budget was still in place and they were still getting paid. The Irish government doesn’t have to keep passing emergency spending bills all the time, as the U.S. government has gotten in the habit of doing.

You might think a country going more than two months without a government would be an extraordinary occurrence, but it isn’t—at least not in a parliamentary system. Spain has had not functioning government since its elections in December. On Tuesday King Felipe VI called for new elections to be held on June 26, i.e. a half-year after the last ones. In the voting four months ago, the Spanish electorate split its votes over so many different ideologically opposed parties that no amount of negotiation was able to result in a viable government. The question now is whether the result in June will be much different.

Even the current Spanish deadlock, though, is not the worst case scenario in terms of endless caretaker government. A half-decade ago Belgium went 589 days (yes, more than a year a half) without an elected government. This was because the Belgians elected eleven different parties to the Chamber of Representatives with none of them winning more than 20 percent of the seats. Things were made no easier by the fact that the Belgian political landscape runs the gamut from Flemish separatists to French-speaking Socialists.

Given its two-party system—not in the Constitution but rigidly upheld by tradition and myriad laws—hung congressional elections are not something the United States needs to worry about. But political fragmentation manifests itself in other ways in the U.S., as we are currently seeing. Washington-based commentators keep insisting on describing the factors that have led to Donald Trump becoming the presumptive GOP nominee as something going on internally within the Republican Party. This way of looking at it is misleading and not particularly insightful. Party “membership” is self-selecting and fluid, and these days fewer people than ever see themselves as belonging to a political party.

In America, the traditional party structures, as seen at the top level, tend to mask what is roiling down below among actual voters. A sea change does not become apparent to the so-called expert political watchers until something happens they never saw coming, like Trump’s nomination. Only then do the unimaginative pundits get an inkling of what is a lot clearer for all to see in European countries with parliamentary systems.