Monday, April 09, 2012

my new op-ed in Haaretz

ניצחון הטכנוקרטים
לי-און הדר , וושינגטון 09.04.2012 05:03
מיט רומני הוא כל כך משעמם, שכדור השינה נוטל אותו כשהוא מתקשה להירדם. זוהי אחת הבדיחות שרצות כאן על המועמד הרפובליקאי לנשיאות, שהפרסונה הכמו-רובוטית שלו היתה גורמת אפילו לספוק מ"מסע בין כוכבים" להרגיש אנושי. למבקריו רומני מזכיר בובה מכנית שתוכנתה להיראות ולהתנהג כמו נשיא אמריקאי מהסרטים - פוטוגני, נעים הליכות, איש משפחה ומצליחן - שפולט את כל הקלישאות הפטריוטיות ותמיד מבטיח פתרון לבעיה זו או אחרת.
ייתכן שאחת הבעיות של רומני נעוצה במה שמומחים לרובוטיקה מכנים "תיאוריית עמק המוזרות": אנשים מרגישים לא נוח כשהם מסתכלים ברפליקה כמעט מושלמת של בן אדם. הרובוט הכמעט-אנושי מזמין אמפתיה, אך התחושה שמשהו עדיין חסר, מטרידה.
רומני, המושל לשעבר של מסצ'וסטס, מצטייר כפוליטיקאי לכל עת, אחד שיודע לשחק את התפקיד אך חסרה לו אותנטיות. בעבר הוא תמך בזכות לביצוע הפלות (כאשר רצה לזכות בתמיכתם של הבוחרים הליברלים בניו-אינגלנד), אך כעת, כשהוא מנסה לקנות את לבם של השמרנים הרפובליקאים, הוא סבור שיש להוציאן אל מחוץ לחוק. כמושל, רומני יזם תוכנית לביטוח בריאות ממלכתי במסצ'וסטס אך כעת, כשהנשיא הדמוקרטי ברק אובמה מנסה ליישם את המודל של ביטוח הבריאות ברמה ארצית, רומני מכנה אותו סוציאליסט.
עשו לנו לייק בפייסבוק וקבלו את מיטב הטורים והפרשנויות ישירות אליכם
תומכיו של רומני מנסים להדוף את הביקורת על מועמדם, בטענה שמה שנראה כחוסר עמוד שדרה פוליטי מוכיח שרומני הוא מדינאי פרגמטי שסולד מדוקטרינות פוליטיות, וכן שכמושל ואיש עסקים הוא הוכיח את יכולתו לפתור בעיות קונקרטיות. מזכיר מישהו? למרות מאמציהם של הרפובליקאים לתאר את אובמה כאיש שמאל רדיקלי, המדיניות שלו שיקפה עמדות פוליטיות מרכזיות בנושאי פנים וחוץ, כולל הרפורמה בבריאות, שנשענת על המודל של רומני ושקודמה בצורה פרגמטית ביותר על ידי יועצים המקושרים לוול-סטריט ולפנטגון. זה מסביר מדוע, כפי שהרפובליקאים החלו לחשוד ברומני שהוא לא אחד משלהם, הפרוגרסיבים במפלגה הדמוקרטית התאכזבו מאובמה.
יש בבחינת אנטי-קליימקס בכך ששני המועמדים לנשיאות הם טכנוקרטים, לאחר שכמה שנים של משבר כלכלי קשה הצמיחו תנועות פוליטיות בעלות ממד אידיאולוגי ברור, כמו "מסיבת התה" של הימין ו"לכבוש את וול-סטריט" בשמאל. בבחירות בנובמבר יתמודדו על נשיאות ארצות הברית שני אנשים שהם בוגרי בית הספר למשפטים בהרווארד, פוליטיקאים שמעדיפים לעיין בניירות עמדה ובנתונים סטטיסטיים מאשר לקיים דיונים אידיאולוגיים חובקי עולם.
גם המשברים הכלכליים והחברתיים שעברו על אירופה באחרונה, לא רק שלא גרמו לחיזוק ממשי בכוחן האלקטורלי של תנועות אידיאולוגיות, אלא הביאו למינויים של בנקאים חסרי צבע כראשי ממשלה ביוון ובאיטליה. הם גם עשוייים להביא לבחירתו של טכנוקרט משעמם לנשיא הבא של צרפת. בסין הצליחו האפרטצ'יקים של המפלגה הקומוניסטית לסלק מהשלטון פוליטיקאי עם מסר פופוליסטי, ברוסיה חוזר לשלטון ביורוקרט לשעבר בק-ג-ב, ובישראל קציני צבא ואנשי ביטחון לשעבר ממשיכים לשמש כעתודה המרכזית למנהיגות.
האם ניצחון הטכנוקרטים בארצות הברית ובמדינות אחרות מבשר את מה שהפילוסוף הפוליטי האמריקאי, דניאל בל, כינה בשנות ה-60 "קץ האידיאולוגיה", או שמדובר במעין אינטרמצו בין עידן אידיאולוגי אחד למשנהו? אין לדעת. מה שברור הוא, שמי שסובל מנדודי שינה יכול לפתור זאת כעת ביעילות רבה: הוא יכול לצפות בוויכוחים הטלויזיוניים בין אובמה ורומני. אפילו מיסטר ספוק היה נרדם.
הכותב הוא מנתח בכיר ב-Wikistart, חברה לייעוץ גיאו-אסטרטגי

Beware of instant narratives

Business Times - 10 Apr 2012


Beware of instant narratives

They're fickle, dictated by vested interests - and hold far from the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

By LEON HADAR
WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT

NOT so long ago in the pre-Internet era and at a time when print media reigned supreme, members of the chattering class in the West were looking forward to reading the cover story of the new issue of Time magazine to find out how the political and cultural zeitgeist was shaping up.

Today's young readers and the media in general continue to pay some attention to whom Time chooses as its 'Man' - oops! - ' Person of the Year'. But in mid-20th century America, the magazine had an enormous power to shape the nation's agenda - and, by extension, that of the rest of the world - by constructing the Current Narrative.

Not only did Time's cover stories inform Americans and the entire global village about who was 'in' and who was 'out' in the worlds of art and literature (yes, that was a time when people actually read books); the magazine would also devote the occasional cover story to what its editors considered to be mega political-cultural trends - for example, the then rising power of the feminist movement or the growing violence in the inner cities.

In that context, one of the most famous (or infamous) cover stories in the magazine was Is God Dead?, which was published on April 8, 1966 and which focused on the increasing secularisation of Western societies and the responses to that development by religious institutions and theologians.

Revisiting that 1966 story more recently on the occasion of the death of its author, some writers suggested that Time may have misjudged the long-term trends about the fate of religion in America, noting that the majority of Americans continue to profess their belief in God.

So perhaps it was a rush of judgement on the part of Time at that moment in history. But remember - that and other Grand-Narrative cover stories would be a reflection of serious efforts to study a major and complex issue in depth, involving a lot of research and writing (and rewriting, by the magazine's editors) and igniting a lively debate in other media outlets.

Consider now our contemporary media environment in which hundreds (if not thousands) of Internet sites and blogs, Facebook posts and twitters, and even the surviving representatives of the 'old' media (including Time) are competing for our attention. Click this minute on the link to your favourite blogger and you'll find out that he or she have just constructed an Instant Narrative that tries to make sense of the world at exactly this, well, minute.

Recall how many times since the start of the Great Recession the same blogger who insisted again and again that the world-as-we-know-it was coming-to-an-end was also predicting again and again that the recovery was around the corner.

If it was Monday, Sept 5, 2011, then President Barack Obama was 'finished' - end of story; three days later, Mr Obama was on a roll and heading towards victory. In our media universe, God would be dead - and then be back alive - depending on the blog you read and on the time of day.

This kind of rush to judgement by the Internet and the 24/7 cable television news shows came into full view after Trayvon Martin, a black Florida teenager, was shot dead by George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch volunteer. Based on a set of Florida's permissive gun laws (aka Stand Your Ground), Zimmerman claimed he had acted in self-defence and has not been charged by the police with anything. In states where the Stand-Your- Ground type of laws don't exist, Zimmerman would have been arrested and brought before a judge where the prosecutor would have announced his decision on whether to charge Zimmerman with one of various legal gradations that apply to 'homicide'. A trial would have ensued under which the jury and a judge would have had to decide whether Zimmerman was guilty and, if guilty, what type of sentence to impose on him.

Zimmerman argues that he acted in self-defence after Martin attacked and injured him. Martin's family accuses Zimmerman of killing an unarmed young black man in cold blood and being driven by racist animosity.

These and related issues would have been resolved in a trial with judgement being rendered based on the evidence and the testimony of witnesses as they apply to the law. But since Zimmerman wasn't arrested and no trial is planned, what Americans were exposed to was trial by the Internet and cable news - with bloggers, radio talk-show hosts and television pundits serving as judges, juries and executioners.

Reflecting the political polarisation that dominates the online political exchange, bloggers and media types who identify themselves with the political left drew up an instant Grand Narrative which helped transform the killing in Florida into another case of race-based violence perpetrated by a white racist and tolerated by a racist white community and the police force.

At the same time, conservative Web news sites and pundits portrayed Martin as a young black thug and drug dealer and Zimmerman as a law-abiding citizen protecting his community, and accused African American activists of exploiting the issue to advance their political interests and of engaging in an Internet 'lynching' of Zimmerman.

The reality, however, didn't seem to fit into either instant narrative. Zimmerman turned out to be a Hispanic man who lived in an integrated community and maintained close social ties with many blacks but who may have uttered anti-black epithets before the shooting. Martin was a high-school student with no police record who had hoped to go to college. What happened, or so it seems, is that Zimmerman (a wannabe cop who was trigger-happy) operated in a permissive legal environment that encouraged him to shoot at a young black man wearing a hood whom he perceived as a 'threat'. Â

In any case, only a trial - or, short of that, a long and exhaustive research of the incident by a serious media organisation committed to the standards of objectivity - could be relied on to come up with a fair judgement on what really happened.

Don't expect the same kind of performance by your favourite blogger who might provide you with an exciting and biased storyline - but not with the hard facts.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Election fever grips America

Business Times - 06 Apr 2012

PERSPECTIVE
Election fever grips America

Romney's latest primaries victories and Obama's admonition for Republicans make it clear general election campaign is underway, if not in full swing

By LEON HADAR
WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT

IT'S War! Just a few hours before Mitt Romney captured the Republican presidential primaries in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Wisconsin - and was clearly on his way to clenching his party's nomination as its presidential candidate - Democratic President Barack Obama unleashed an overwhelming election-year assault on the Republicans and their presumptive presidential nominee.

He accused the Republicans and the man who would challenge him for control of the White House in November of promoting a 'radical agenda' for America's future.

Mr Romney's primaries victories on Tuesday and Mr Obama's harsh admonition for the Republicans - and for Mr Romney's vision of the nation - made it clear that although Election Day is seven months away, the general election campaign is under way, if not in full swing.

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, a social-cultural conservative who has emerged as the main Republican challenger to Mr Romney's presidential aspirations, made it clear on Tuesday that he was planning to remain in the race despite his electoral defeat in Wisconsin where he could not even count on the support of his base of blue-collar and Evangelical Christian voters.

Mr Santorum and his aides have suggested that they would still be able to slow down Mr Romney's electoral momentum by beating him in the Republican primaries in Mr Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania and in several southern states.

But despite the refusal by Mr Santorum, as well as by Texas Representative Ron Paul and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, to withdraw from the race, the general consensus in Washington is that Mr Romney will be crowned as his party's presidential nominee in the convention in Tampa, Florida in June.

But if Mr Santorum continues to attack Mr Romney from the right, forcing the former Massachusetts governor to continue discussing social-cultural issues such as abortion, Mr Romney would be deprived of the opportunity of concentrating the focus of his campaign on the issue that seems to matter to the majority of the voters - and, in particular, the critical electoral bloc of independent voters - the economy.

There is no doubt that the perception that Mr Romney is a member of the wealthiest one per cent of Americans - enhanced by the Republican candidate's numerous disclosures and gaffes about his wealth during the campaign (the recent one was a report that Mr Romney was planning to add a 'car elevator' to his mansion in California) - is not helping Mr Romney win the support of the financially distressed middle-class voters.

Moreover, Mr Romney's tough stand on illegal immigration - he has called for the 'self deportation' of illegal Mexican immigrants - has sunk his support among Hispanic voters to single digit, while the Republicans' continuing obsession with whether women should have access to contraception explains why a majority of women voters are planning to vote for Mr Obama in November.

Public opinion polls are indicating that the long and bruising Republican presidential primaries have hurt the presumptive Republicans nominee with more voters telling pollsters that they were having 'unfavourable' impression of Mr Romney who seems to be falling behind Mr Obama in the daily tracking polls in swing states such as Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Same policies

Indeed, Mr Obama demonstrated on Tuesday that while Mr Romney continued to be distracted by the Republican primaries, he was able to start setting the terms and the agenda of this year's general presidential campaign. He portrayed the Republicans and Mr Romney as being out of touch with the concerns of America's middle class and accused them of embracing economic policies that favour the wealthiest one per cent of Americans. He said there seemed to be an attempt to return to the same policies - reducing taxes on the rich and lessening regulation on the big corporation - that created the conditions for the Great Recession. These policies were bound to devastate the middle class by expanding social-economic inequalities in America.

'It's nothing but thinly veiled Social Darwinism', is the way Mr Obama portrayed the Republican policies during a 40-minute address before editors and reporters on Tuesday.

'It's antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everyone who's willing to work hard for it, a place where prosperity doesn't trickle down from the top, but grows outward from the heart of the middle class,' Mr Obama stressed. He added: 'It is a prescription for decline.'

Mr Obama blamed the rising deficit on the economic policies pursued under his predecessor, George W Bush, pointing out to 'two wars, two massive tax cuts and an unprecedented financial crisis'.

Faulting Republican policies, including tax cuts for the wealthy and lax financial regulation, for leading the country into the Great Recession, Mr Obama said: 'You would think that after the results of this experiment in trickle-down economics, after the results were made painfully clear, that the proponents of this theory might show some humility, might moderate their views a bit.'

But 'that's exactly the opposite of what they've done. Instead of moderating their views even slightly, the Republicans running Congress right now have doubled down'.

After spending most of his term in office trying to bridge the differences with his Republican opponents and strive to come up with bipartisan solutions to the major economic problems, including the swelling federal deficit - with the Republicans dismissing his many proposals as 'radical' and 'socialist' - Mr Obama has decided to embrace now the more populist approach favoured by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

And, indeed, during his speech on Tuesday, Mr Obama went out of his way to link Mr Romney to the set of deficit-cutting proposals advanced by the Representative Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, and that have been adopted by the Republicans in the House, and which call for drastic cuts in the major government-backed retirement and health-insurance programmes, including the privatisation of one that provides assistance to elderly Americans.

Budget blueprint

At the same time that it advocated slashing these social-economic programmes, the same Republican budget blueprint also calls for preserving and in, some cases, expanding tax-reduction schemes for the wealthy and for the big corporations.

'One of my potential opponents, Governor Romney, has said that he hoped a similar version of this plan from last year would be introduced as a bill on day one of his presidency,' Mr Obama said. 'He said that he's very supportive of this new budget,' he noted, adding sarcastically that Mr Romney 'even called it marvellous, which is a word you don't often hear when it comes to describing a budget'.

Mr Ryan is from Wisconsin where he was campaigning for Mr Romney on the eve of the Republican primaries there and pundits speculated that he was one of the Republicans that Mr Romney was considering as a possible vice-presidential nominee. Mr Ryan responded to Mr Obama's attack by suggesting that the president chose 'tired and cynical political attacks'. History would 'not be kind to a president who, when it came time to confront our generation's defining challenge, chose to duck and run', Mr Ryan insisted.

But Mr Ryan refrained from responding to Mr Obama's detailed critique of his budget proposals. Hence, listing the consequences of the Ryan budget were implemented - 10 million college students with higher loan payments; 200,000 children denied early-education programmes; 4,500 fewer federal grants to fight crime - Mr Obama argued that the coming election posed fundamental choice for the American people on what kind of future their country should have.

In tough times, Mr Obama insisted, 'the debate gets sharper; it gets more vigorous'. And that was 'a good thing', he said.

In November, we will find out whether it was, indeed, a good thing for him - or for the Republicans.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Latest example of a success story

Business Times - 03 Apr 2012


Latest example of a success story

Korea-born doctor's nomination as World Bank chief highlights Asian-Americans' contributions in various fields in the US

By LEON HADAR
WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT

THE unexpected nomination of Jim Yong Kim as the next president of the World Bank has been hailed as a welcome departure by the White House from the tradition of appointing professional economists or American political figures to the prestigious position.

Dr Kim is neither an economist nor a politician, but a medical doctor and an anthropologist who is clearly qualified for the job of managing the world's leading development organisation.

A former head of the World Health Organization's HIV/Aids department, Dr Kim will be able to utilise his experience in providing healthcare to developing countries as he tries to promote new thinking on development work in poor countries.

And Dr Kim, who was born in Seoul in 1959 and moved with his family to the United States when he was a child, who was educated at Harvard and who has served as president of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire for several years, is also the most recent example of the success story of the rising Asian-American community.

Comprising around 5 per cent of the American population (about 15 million) - and considered to be the fastest-growing immigrant group in the US - Asian-Americans have been making extraordinary contributions to their adopted country in science and technology (in 2009, two Asia-Americans were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics and Chemistry) as well as in education, arts and entertainment, and are now occupying leading positions in business and public life and of course in sports, as demonstrated by the continuing media fascination with basketball player Jeremy Lin.

It may be considered a stereotype, but based on overwhelming evidence of their high household income (and low incarceration rate) and educational and professional achievements by comparison to other minorities and the declining white majority, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that Asian-Americans are, indeed, a 'model minority'.

Hence, the large majority of Americans of Chinese, Japanese and Korean descent between the ages of 20-21 are in college (compared to about a third of whites in the same age).

In California, for example, the majority of undergraduate schools in prestigious public universities such as UC Berkeley are Asian-Americans.

Indeed, according to the available statistics, nearly three out of five employed Asian-Americans aged 25 and above have earned a bachelor's degree or higher; this is 60 per cent greater than whites and more than double and triple the proportions of blacks and Hispanics, respectively.

And the high education rates among Asian-Americans translate also into higher rates of income. Hence, the median income for Asian-American households is around US$70,000 compared with US$52,000 for all households.

It's not surprising that a study issued by the US Department of Labor in 2011 pointed out that one reason the median wages are higher for Asian-Americans is a much larger number of Asian-Americans are college graduates: 57.5 per cent of employed Asian-Americans who are 25 or older have a degree. This proportion is 60 per cent higher than among whites, and more than twice that of blacks.

The study, The Asian-American Labor Force in the Recovery, provided some interesting data on the relative success with which Asian-Americans have adjusted to the recent economic recession.

The study noted that Asian-Americans have the lowest unemployment rate compared with other groups.

In 2007, the year in which the recession started, the unemployment rate for Asian-Americans was 3.2 per cent which was lower than the figure of 4.1 per cent among whites, 5.6 per cent among Hispanics and 8.3 per cent among blacks.

Three years into the recession in 2010, the Asian-American unemployment rate averaged 7.5 per cent (and has been falling since then), with the lowest unemployment rate among Japanese-Americans (4.6 per cent), Korean-Americans (6.4 per cent), Chinese-Americans (6.5 per cent) and Indian-Americans (6.6 per cent).

In comparison, unemployment rates were 8.7, 12.5 and 16 per cent for whites, Hispanics and blacks, respectively.

The study also found that Asian-Americans are more likely than either whites or blacks to be employed in the private sector, with more than 8 to 10 per cent of employed Asian-Americans working for private companies.

At the same time, according to the most recent survey of business owners, the number of Asian-owned businesses expanded at the rate of 40.4 per cent, a rate that more than doubled the national average between 2002 and 2007.

Similarly, the median wage of Asian-Americans is higher than any other racial group. Half of Asian-Americans working full-time earned US$855 per week in 2010. This median weekly wage exceeds that earned by whites by nearly 12 per cent for every dollar.

In fact, Asian-Americans' median weekly earnings have been greater than those earned by whites during the last decade; the difference reached a high of 16 per cent in 2008 and 2009 before declining in 2010.

The Labor Department study concluded that with the economic recovery accelerating, the professional, scientific and technical industry is expected to grow the that fastest, and that is clearly good news for Asian-Americans.

Indeed, in 2012, 7.8 per cent of jobs in this high-growth industry went to Asian-American workers, making them well-represented there compared with their overall representations in the labour force (5 per cent).

Asian-Americans are similarly well represented in science, technology, engineering and math (Stem) occupations, accounting for more than 9 per cent of jobs there.

Asian-Americans occupy more than 16 per cent of the jobs in math and science-related occupations, such as computer and mathematical occupations, 11 per cent of the jobs in life, physical and social science occupations, and 9 per cent of the jobs in architecture and engineering occupations.

Overall, Asian-Americans are expected to be in a strong position to see a major growth in their representations in the good and high-wage professions of the future in the US.

Much has been said and written about the reasons for the Asian-American success story, with most explanation centring on the value that Asian-Americans attach to family, tradition and education, the kind of traits that helped American Jews in the past to make major contributions in science, technology, education and the arts.

More recently, a book written by Asian-American academic Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which purported to explain 'Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior' in raising children, with her emphasis placed traditional, strict 'Chinese' upbringing, has helped ignite public debate on whether American education should adopt some of the methods that prove to be successful in encouraging Asian-American children to excel in school.

Whatever the reasons for this Asian-American success story, it should come good news not only to members of this community but to all Americans who have been expressing growing concerns in recent years about the erosion in the nation's educational standards and in its ability to maintain its global economic competitive age vis-a -vis the emerging markets of China, India, Korea and the rest of Asia.

Ironically, the immigrants arriving to America from these same countries are going to serve as a powerful engine for a new American scientific, technological and economic renaissance in this new Pacific Century.



Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Two wonks and a right to become US President

Business Times - 30 Mar 2012

THE BOTTOM LINE
Two wonks and a right to become US President

By LEON HADAR
WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT

AMERICAN comedian Bill Maher describes the presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as 'the most boring man in the world'. Romney is so boring, he quips, that 'the paint on the wall looks at him when it dries' and 'Ambien (a drug for the treatment of insomnia) takes him when it cannot fall asleep'.

Well, the comedian may be exaggerating a bit. Mr Romney is probably not the most boring man in the world but he certainly could compete for the title. Indeed, there is something about his robotic persona that makes human beings feel uncomfortable about him. He does look and sound like an automaton that has been programmed to look and talk like an American president who reiterates his love for family, country and God, and promotes this or that plan to solve this or that problem.

In fact, during his long career in public service, Mr Romney seems to have been all over the place when it comes to his policy ideas, at times sounding like a liberal (he once supported the women's right to abortion) and at other times repackaging himself as a conservative (he now wants to criminalise abortion) or is somewhere in between (perhaps the states and not the federal government should decide on the abortion issue).

Mr Romney is, after all, attacking President Barack Obama now for adopting the same government-backed healthcare programme on the federal level that he himself helped pass as Governor in Massachusetts. And he pledged, if he becomes president, to repeal Obamacare - something that only Congress can do anyway.

So no one is shocked when some of his critics accuse him of being a 'flip flopper', or of pandering to voters and interest groups, of lacking an 'ideological underpinning' and a 'political backbone'. But then this same kind of criticism can be turned on its head and be applied to suggest that Mr Romney is 'pragmatic' and 'open minded', a 'non-ideologue' and 'problem fixer'.

'Do we really need a moral crusader in the White House?' ask supporters of the former governor and financial business executive. Which is exactly how he likes to paint himself - someone with experience in state government and in the private sector who would be able to come up with 'solutions' to US economic problems. He even has a Power Point presentation that details those policy solutions - just right for those who suffer from insomnia.

And the irony is that much of the criticism and the praise directed against Mr Obama as a president and as a candidate is that, like Mr Romney, the present president has been a man for all political seasons, sounding at times as the man of the political left (let's get out of Iraq and regulate the financial system) or the political right (let's expand our military presence in Afghanistan and refrain from nationalising the banks). He uses populist rhetoric - but gets his economic advice from free marketers; he won the Nobel Peace Prize - but has expanded the use of drones to attack suspected terrorists.

Indeed, even his Obamacare plan that conservatives like to hate was modelled after the healthcare programme that the Republican Romney implemented in Massachusetts - under which private insurance companies remain in control. And unlike his Republican predecessor, he ended-up killing Osama bin Laden as well as other leading terrorist figures around the world.

Mr Obama is younger than Mr Romney and may be more attuned to contemporary popular culture and, therefore, scores higher than his Republican challenger on the 'cool' barometer. But in many ways, if you forget that Mr Obama is bi-racial and has an exotic name, the current White House occupant is not so different from the former Massachusetts governor in terms of Ivy League education and of their non-ideological and pragmatic modus operandi, if not technocratic approach to policy issues.

Notwithstanding all the talk about his charisma and his being a transformational president, Mr Obama is not really a very inspiring president. He is not a bad orator who knows how to read his prepared speeches that sound as 'wonky' and robotic as those of Mr Romney with their emphasis on the management of policies as opposed to rousing the people with new ideas.

It may be a paradox. But at a time of ideological polarisation in US politics, dominated by the rhetoric of the likes of the Tea Party and 'Occupy Wall Street', America's two major political parties will be running for the president in the coming election two political figures who are not driven by any grand ideology. Both are detached policy intellectuals who like to build coalitions and manage things.

Indeed, Barack Obama is not FDR - and Mitt Romney is not Ronald Reagan. The two remind us of the men and women who run for the Prime Ministership of governments in Europe. So don't be surprise if the televised debate between these two wonks will be very, well, boring.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bernanke out to prevent repeat of Great Depression

Business Times - 28 Mar 2012


Bernanke out to prevent repeat of Great Depression

By LEON HADAR
WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT

IT is one of the decisions made by the US Federal Reserve in the past that has intrigued contemporary economic historians. The tightening of credit by Marriner Eccles, the head of the Fed in 1936-37 has been blamed for the collapse of the US stock market in 1937 and the ensuing return of the Great Depression - after several years during which the New Deal policies pursued by President Franklin D Roosevelt had been leading the economy towards recovery.

One of the economists who have studied the ramification of that Eccles decision has been former Princeton professor Ben Bernanke who, in his current job as the Fed chairman, seemed to be trying to apply the lessons of his academic research.

Mr Bernanke has stated in the past that he considered Mr Eccles' decision to tighten monetary policy - at the time when the US economy was showing signs of getting out of the depression - to be a colossal mistake and insisted that as the head of the US central bank he was not planning to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor.

Mr Eccles and his colleagues at the Fed were worried that rising wages of American workers by more than 10 per cent at the time were igniting inflationary pressures and responded by tightening monetary policy (by doubling reserve requirements by banks).

The Fed policies were mirrored by the fiscal approach embraced by the federal government in 1936-37 which concluded that against the backdrop of an economic recovery it was time to bring an end to the policy of deficit spending and take steps to balance the budget.

'The war against the Depression had required deficit spending,' then treasury secretary Robert Morgenthau said. 'But the emergency is ending, and the domestic problems we face today are essentially different from those which faced us four years ago,' he stated. 'We want private business to expand. We believe that one of the most important ways of achieving these ends is to continue toward a balance in the federal budget.'

Economists continue to debate whether the stock market crash of 1937 and the Great Depression II were the result of the Fed's tightening monetary policy or the attempt by the Roosevelt Administration to balance the budget. Or perhaps both were to be blamed for what happened.

What is becoming clear, however, is that history seems to be repeating itself. As the American economy is starting to recover from the Great Recession much of the debate in Washington seems to be focusing now not on whether to start cutting the federal deficit - but on how big that cut should be (with Republicans demanding a big cut as opposed to the Democrats who are pressing for a small one).

No leading Republicans or Democrat is calling for more deficit spending in the form of a new economic stimulus. They are all sounding like Mr Morgenthau did in 1936.

So that may explain why Mr Bernanke doesn't want to sound like Mr Eccles did in that year and be blamed for creating tightened monetary conditions that would exacerbate the effects of the deficit contraction policies of Washington which, in turn, could bring about a Great Recession II. It is from that perspective that one needed to examine Mr Bernanke's comment on Monday that improvement in the US labour market might not be able to be sustained - a clear indication that inflation doves were in charge in the Fed and would continue to maintain an expansionary monetary policy.

And Mr Bernanke may be right. The slight improvement in the nation's labour market last month could be temporary and may not be a sign that the American economy was entering into a sustainable recovery. Wages are certainly not rising. That could happen in the future, he said, but 'we have not seen that in a persuasive way yet'. 'And I think it remains important for us to remain cautious and see how the economy develops.'

In fact, Mr Bernanke was sending a message to investors who may have been confused by the recent rhetoric coming from the inflation hawks in the Fed and was hinting that the central bank would be even open to a new round of quantitative easing (QE3). It was certainly not ready to put its foot on the monetary brakes.

But what if much of the recent economic growth has been driven by fiscal policy and that the Fed's loose monetary policy would have very little effect on the economic recovery - and may actually ignite some inflationary pressures? In that case, the conditions of the American economy would look less like that of the 1930s and more like that of the 1970s when the explosive mix of economic recession and inflation brought us the dreaded 'stagflation'. That would certainly be a case study that would intrigue future economic historians.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Disseminating American ideals

http://www.businesstimes.com.sg/sub/storyprintfriendly/0,4582,483334,00.html?
Business Times - 24 Mar 2012


Disseminating American ideals

The US should know that the best way to spread its ideals is not by forcing them on other nations, but by perfecting its own political and economic model

By LEON HADAR
WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT

AMERICANS are once again surprised to learn that the rest of humanity doesn't always share their hopes and dreams - or even their basic set of values. Hence, in the aftermath of the massacre in Afghanistan of 16 people in the hands of an American soldier, some pundits have been trying to resolve what they consider to be a paradox of sorts.

While the accidental burning of Qurans by US government employees in Afghanistan last month triggered violent protests outside Nato (North Atlantic Treating Organisation) that took at least 29 lives, the intentional mass murder of Afghan civilians, including nine children in Kandahar on March 11 have led to a few and mostly peaceful anti-American demonstrations.

That most Afghans seemed to have supported the February 2006 decision by a judge to execute an Afghan aid worker for converting to Christianity or that many Pakistanis refused to condemn the assassination of leading politician Salman Taseer by his own security guard who disagreed with Mr Taseer's opposition to Pakistan's blasphemy law, are two other examples of incidents that have dramatised the wide gap between what we tend to regard as the American secular tradition and the continuing powerful role that religion tends to play in the lives of Afghans, Pakistanis and other people who, on paper at least, are considered to be America's allies in the war against terrorism.

Indeed, it is difficult for Americans to understand that the so-called Enlightenment Project of the 18th Century - with its rejection of the received truth of religion and faith, of church and traditional authorities and its emphasis on individual rights and the liberating power of reason - which sparked a major philosophical and political revolution in the West and provided the ideological foundations for the establishment of the United States - has never become a unified and universal undertaking.

In fact, the growing power of the theocratic political right in the Republican Party, represented by presidential candidate Rick Santorum and his supporters among Christian Evangelists, conservative Catholics, and ultra-Orthodox Jews - who have expressed strong opposition to abortion, homosexual relations and even contraception - is a sign that even in the American Republic that enshrined the separation of religion and state in its Constitution, religious faith and traditions continue to play a major role in public life.

At best, even in the US, in the Anglosphere and in much of Europe, the Enlightenment Project and the philosophical traditions, political movements and social and economic systems it sparked (secularism; liberalism; democracy; capitalism; socialism) has been a work in progress, adapted in different ways by different national and cultural traditions.

Hence, advancing women's rights, religious freedom, racial equality, political rights, and free markets has certainly not been uniform process in the West. For example, Catholic nations like Italy and Ireland had banned abortion and divorce and blacks had suffered discrimination in the US until the 1960s.

And the American version of democracy and capitalism have not been cloned in the rest of the West, including in Canada that with its government-controlled health care programme and European-like parliamentary system is probably regarded as 'socialist' by the leading Republican presidential candidates, while Canadians and west Europeans believe that the continuing American practice of executing convicts is not very, well, enlightened.

At the same tine, non-Western nations such as Japan, China or India have embraced some elements of the Enlightenment Project that seem to respond to their history and traditions as well as their current needs - while rejecting others. Call it Enlightenment a la carte.

Yet since the end of the Cold War, members of the American political and intellectual elites have been operating under the illusion that the rest of the world should and wants to be like them.

Promoting the free-market economic model aka Washington Consensus in the emerging markets; celebrating the so-called Colour Revolutions in Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet empire; and pressing the Freedom Agenda based on liberal-democratic values in Afghanistan, Iraq and the entire Middle East were all part of an American-led ideological crusade that seemed to recall in its ferocity - including through the use of military power - the global revolutionary campaigns launched by the Soviet Union not so long ago.

But the fact is that many non-Western societies are either not ready or are not interested - or both - in being 'like us'. The notion that Afghanistan - a society where the family, the tribe, and religion dominate the lives of most individuals - recalling Europe on the eve of modern age - was going to transform itself into a Western nation thanks to American assistance and guidance - helped create the high expectations that were never going to be fulfilled.

Moreover, Americans have deluded themselves into thinking that if non-Western nations adopt some of the instruments that were employed in the West as part of the process of democratisation and liberalisation - for example, free elections in Iraq and free markets in China - they are signalling their intentions to embrace the Enlightenment Project - and become, indeed, exactly like us. But democracy and free elections in Iraq was seen by Iraqis as a means to empower the majority religious sect (Shiite) and dispossess the ruling minority group (Sunnis), a process that would be mirror imaged in Syria if and when free elections there would allow the majority Sunnis to come into power and repress the minority Alawaites who run the country now.

And, if anything, much of the celebrated Arab Spring in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East is strengthening political Islamist groups whose commitment to respect the rights of women and religious minorities is questionable.

Similarly, pursuing the capitalist road to creating wealth and strengthening the economic base of the country is not a reflection of the commitment on the part of political elites in East Asia and elsewhere to the ideals of Adam Smith. It is, in many cases, part of a national economic strategy that helps China and other countries to compete more effectively with the US.

It is true that free markets and free elections can help create the foundations of a middle class whose members challenge the old ruling elites. But as events in Russia demonstrate, that process can be slow and uneven, or like in the case of Turkey, it could even set back secularisation and other forms of Western-style liberalisation.

Americans are free to celebrate, cherish and preserve their values of democracy and liberalism that have helped attract millions of immigrants to their country and make their nation economically prosperous and politically stable.

But they should recognise that the most effective way to spread their ideals worldwide is not by forcing them on other nations, but by perfecting their own political and economic model and making it more attractive to other nations.

btworld@sph.com.sg