Thinking Aloud: “Landslide”

Sept. 29,  2014 by Darius 

Today, I attended talk by US political reporter Jonathan Darman about his new book Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America.

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson won one of the most lopsided elections in history, absolutely crushing Republican candidate Barry Goldwater and carrying all but six states.  In 1966, though, just 1000 days later, the Democratic Party suffered severe losses in midterm elections, losses that saw the effective end of LBJ’s sweeping legislative program.  It was also in 1966 that Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California and became the national standard bearer for the conservative movement.

Though the two men ended up completely different, both in terms of personal style and politics, LBJ and Reagan came from similar origins.  They were born only three years apart, both lived in small towns, and both had similar family situations.  Franklin Roosevelt was a hero to both when they were young.  Critically, both LBJ and Reagan, from an early age, had a need to be in the public eye, playing the hero and adored.

In 1963, though, both LBJ and Reagan faced middle age and dim prospects for the future.  LBJ was languishing in the vice presidency, cut off from President Kennedy’s inner circle of advisors and facing whispers that he might be replaced on the ticket in 1964.  Reagan’s career as an actor was largely behind him, and after losing his job as host of TV’s General Electric Theater, he could only get work in Hollywood in roles he hated.

Fortunes changed for LBJ first.  After Kennedy’s assassination, LBJ became president and quickly harnessed himself to JFK’s legacy, creating a groundswell of popular and political support.  Soon, though, LBJ found he wanted to come out of JFK’s shadow.  Largely to that end, LBJ embarked on his incredibly ambitious Great Society program.  Until the middle of 1965, he succeeded, passing civil rights bills, creating Medicare and Medicaid, providing federal funding for education, and others.  But LBJ also began making promises that government would be able to solve all the most important problems in a fairly short time.

Then reality intervened.  In 1965, the war in far-off Vietnam moved to center stage with the arrival of US combat troops, a deployment that would swell to 200,000 troops before the year was done.   According to Darman, LBJ felt he needed to prosecute the war in Vietnam aggressively because he needed to balance his very progressive domestic policy with a foreign policy that was tough on Communism.  In 1966, LBJ weighed the greatest political risk from the Vietnam War as coming from the segment of America that felt he wasn’t fighting hard enough, not the antiwar left.  Several American cities exploded with rioting, especially in the Watts area of Los Angeles in August 1965.  People began to doubt whether government could indeed solve the major problems American society faced.  Millions of Americans became receptive to alternative messages.

One of these messages was Ronald Reagan’s: that government is not the solution but the problem.  Reagan started the 1966 California governor’s race in such a weak position that the Democratic incumbent actually supported Reagan in the Republican primary, thinking Reagan would be the easier candidate to beat.  Ultimately, though, Reagan beat the Democratic incumbent by nearly a million votes.  Reagan declared the election to be a repudiation of LBJ’s Great Society and, when he was elected president in 1980, immediately set about rolling back as much of the Great Society as he could.

Darman’s book seems to be an interesting juxtaposition of two different men with two fundamentally different views of the capabilities of government – views that continue to echo in public debate today – seen in the political crucible of 1964-66.

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News You Really Need To See: “Hong Kong Protesters: Students See a ‘Chance to Set People Free'”

“Hong Kong Protesters: Students See a ‘Chance to Set People Free'”

The Christian Science Monitor, September 29, 2014

But the fourth straight day of unrest – the bluntest challenge to China’s ruling Communist Party since the Tiananmen protests in 1989 – was peaceful.  There was no sign of the riot police who had fired tear gas at protesters over the weekend.  The Hong Kong government appeared to be reflecting on its next move in the stand-off, aware that the use of gas on the students had angered ordinary citizens and swelled the ranks of protesters. But the central government in Beijing has made it clear that it has no intention of giving in to demands by students and other protesters in the ‘Occupy Central’ movement who are calling for greater democratization. … The Hong Kong protests have forced Beijing into a difficult political balancing act.  Hong Kong, handed back to China by the British in 1997, enjoys a degree of autonomy that gives the territory the rule of law and a free press, among other benefits unknown on the mainland.  The handover deal, and the Constitution, specify that the chief executive should eventually be chosen by universal suffrage.  The Chinese government’s proposal for the chief executive elections in 2017 offers universal suffrage to Hong Kong citizens for the first time; but it would allow only three candidates for the post, all of whom would need prior approval from a committee that Beijing controls.  ‘Occupy Central,’ a group of reformists led by middle-aged academics and intellectuals, had been demanding without success for months that the government allow truly competitive elections, open to the ‘pan-democrat’ politicians who oppose Beijing.  The movement was forced to bring forward its campaign to occupy Central – Hong Kong’s central business and administrative district – by several days when students stormed the plaza outside city hall on Friday.  The Chinese government and the Hong Kong authorities have branded the demonstrations, now in their fourth day, as illegal.  But there is clearly nothing the police can do, as the protesters’ numbers swell, to break them up without the use of force, which would be politically disastrous.”

Quickie Analysis:  A reminder that people who enjoy democracy tend to prefer to keep it.

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Thinking Aloud: Poised For the Future, Mauritius

Sept. 28,  2014 by Darius 

[A month ago, I introduced my Poised for the Future Index, a metric which combines improvements in a country’s levels of educational attainment, its corruption levels, and its political stability to identify countries that seem positioned for strong economic growth in the future.  See for more information.]

Mauritius, one of the countries that does quite well on the Poised for the Future Index, does not get much attention.  In fact, I would wager that most people don’t know where it is or confuse it with Mauritania.

Mauritius is a small island nation in the Indian Ocean, lying to the east of Madagascar and considered to be part of Africa.  It has a small population of about 1.3 million people.  Since 2005, according to the UN Education Index, Mauritius’s education system has improved by a respectable 14%.  

Mauritius’s economy is based on textile manufacturing, tourism, and offshore finance.  It has won “best beach” awards and is rated by the World Bank as 19th in the world in “ease of doing business.”  Transparency International ranks Mauritius as the 52nd least corrupt country in the world, better than Italy, for example.

Politically, Mauritius is rated by Freedom House as “free,” is considered “stable” on the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index, and is a part of the British Commonwealth.  It is a parliamentary democracy and considered by many to be the most democratic nation in Africa.

If Mauritius is still here in 50 years as sea levels rise, it sounds like a sure winner for the future. :)

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News You Really Need To See: “Trapped in Violence and Forgotten”

“Trapped in Violence and Forgotten”

The Washington Post, September 28, 2014, p.A1

It is a war that has claimed an estimated 5 million lives, many from starvation, disease and other conflict-related causes, since 1998 — more casualties than the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq combined, and more than any conflict since World War II.  It is a war that the world’s largest and most expensive U.N. peacekeeping mission has failed to quell.  The peacekeepers, heavily financed by Washington, are now engaged in their most ambitious effort in years to end the fighting.  And yet the war remains invisible to most outsiders, who have grown weary of the unending cycle of violence.  Today, relief groups have trouble raising money to help Congo as more publicized upheavals in Syria, South Sudan and elsewhere grab the world’s attention.  The story of Kivuye over a few months this year offers a glimpse into why the conflict seems so complex and in­trac­table, and the solutions to Congo’s misery so elusive.  Even during brief periods of calm, when hope begins to grow, residents still grapple with the forces the war has wrought.  On the day the market reopened in Kivuye, the most liberating day in years, villagers didn’t know that the militia had retreated only to the forest, waiting for a chance to return.  They didn’t know that in a few days another warlord who once ruled the village would come back.  They didn’t know that in a few weeks, Congolese army soldiers sent to protect them would commit mass rapes nearby.  And they didn’t know that the U.N. peacekeepers based less than five miles away would soon depart.”

Quickie Analysis:  An excellent, in-depth look at Congo’s forgotten wars.

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Thinking Aloud: “Jihad 3.0″

Sept. 27,  2014 by Darius 

A few days ago, I saw a panel discussion entitled “Jihad 3.0” detailing the current situation with ISIS.  Overall, the panel didn’t break any new ground, but there were a few interesting comments.

Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, thought that US efforts against ISIS weren’t very effective.  As he said, airstrikes and bombings are only a matter of physics and chemistry.  Changing the political situation on the ground, though, is much more complicated.  US intervention hasn’t scratched the surface of the latter necessity.

Juan Zarate, a former Treasury Department official under George W. Bush, took a more hawkish line.  He said the Obama administration has been caught up in its own narrative.  According to Zarate, the Obama administration is so obsessed with showing that it has “learned the lessons of Iraq” and the lessons from the Bush administration that it has tied its own hands in terms of actions.

Alterman disagreed with Zarate.  He made the point that even though US policies might appear to have failed, or at least not be successful, that doesn’t mean that another course of action could have yielded any better results.  He felt that the Obama administration was on the right path.  As Alterman said, “We’re doing what we can but not what we need to.”

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News You Really Need To See: “Russia at U.N. Accuses U.S., Allies of Bossing World Around”

“Russia at U.N. Accuses U.S., Allies of Bossing World Around”

Reuters, September 27, 2014

Russia used its annual appearance at the U.N. General Assembly on Saturday to accuse the United States and its Western allies of bossing the world around, complaining they were attempting to dictate to everyone ‘what is good and evil.’ … ‘The U.S.-led Western alliance that portrays itself as a champion of democracy, rule of law and human rights within individual countries … (is) rejecting the democratic principle of sovereign equality of states enshrined in the U.N. Charter and trying to decide for everyone what is good or evil,’ he said.  ‘Washington has openly declared its right to unilateral use of force anywhere to uphold its own interests,’  Lavrov added.  ‘Military interference has become a norm – even despite the dismal outcome of all power operations that the U.S. has carried out over the recent years.’  Lavrov cited the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo war, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, and the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya that led to the toppling and death of longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi as examples of U.S. failures. … Separately, Lavrov demanded information about the state of Libya’s chemical weapons arsenals after the Libyan government asked the global chemical weapons watchdog to draw up plans to ship a stockpile of 850 metric tons of chemicals overseas because of deteriorating security.  ‘We understand that our NATO colleagues after they bombed out this country in violation of (U.N. Security Council) resolution would not like to stir up the mayhem they created,’ Lavrov said.  ‘However, the problem of uncontrolled Libyan chemical arsenals is too serious to turn a blind eye.'”

Quickie Analysis:  Though undoubtedly self-serving, there is much truth to Lavrov’s words.

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Thinking Aloud: “The Tyranny of Experts”

Sept. 26,  2014 by Darius 

I just read The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor by William Easterly.  The book is a serious critique of the standard approach to development of poor nations.

The crux of Easterly’s argument centers around three interlocking debates on development that never happened.  The first debate is whether economic development requires political freedom or whether a “benevolent autocrat” is the best vehicle to achieve development.  Easterly’s second debate is whether poor countries are capable of finding spontaneous solutions that lead to economic development or whether they require experts from rich countries to offer technocratic “solutions” to their problems.  The final debate is whether countries should look to their history, and the history of more successful countries, to learn lessons or whether each developing country should be treated as a “blank slate.”  The standard development paradigm since World War II takes the second side of each debate.  Easterly argues that the first side results in a wealthier, freer, and fairer world.

The most interesting parts of The Tyranny of Experts are Easterly’s trips into history.  For instance, he details the racism inherent in the idea that natives of poor countries are incapable of solving their own development problems back to the days of the British Empire.  Around World War II, the British reached an informal accord with the US that the US wouldn’t shine a light on racist practices in the British Empire, while the British wouldn’t make noise about the treatment of blacks in America itself.  This attitude carried over into development, where it persists to this day.

Easterly also explores the infamous non-political clause in the charter of the World Bank, the world’s leading development institution.  The clause, which stipulates that the World Bank cannot take a country’s political situation into consideration when contemplating economic aid programs, goes back to the founding of the Bank itself in 1944.  Originally, it was inserted by economists working for US interests to ensure that the Bank could be used to finance the rebuilding of the Soviet Union, which was at the time a wartime ally.  Soon after, though, as the Cold War began, the World Bank was used to funnel “development funds” to pro-US dictators, especially in Latin America. (Easterly chooses Colombia as a case study.)  The Cold War may be over, but the Bank’s role is largely the same – it’s just that the US is now fighting the War on Terror.

If I had to sum up The Tyranny of Experts in one sentence, it would be something along the lines of, “Policies that result in greater political freedom inevitably lead to greater economic freedom  and greater economic output.”  It’s a simple enough thought, but one that has been roundly ignored by just about the entire development community for decades.

The Tyranny of Experts has its flaws, but it is a very well-thought out, well-researched, and well-written book.  It should be required reading for anyone interested in economics, international development, and the history of the world.

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