On "Welfare States Can't Run on Autopilot"


This editorial is a weakly constructed farce. The writers claim that:

"Some American economists argue the United States should temporarily run even bigger deficits. Perhaps that would work, but Europe's experience counsels otherwise. Big deficits there led to higher interest rates, reflecting investors' greater fears of default. Default anxieties in turn weaken banks — large holders of government bonds — and, through them, the broader economy. Although the United States hasn't yet suffered this fate, it might."

Europe is a continent comprising roughly 30 countries and 500 million people. Do the facts bear out their criticisms of "Europe?"

The New York Times ran some nice graphics today comparing the states of different countries' bonds. The most generous welfare state in the world, Switzerland, currently has a 1.5% 10-year bond yield and a AAA rating.

Japan, another very generous welfare state whose citizens have enjoyed the highest life expectancy in the world for the last three decades, has a debt: gdp ratio of 200%, compared to the USA's of 100%. Japan is able to sell its bonds at 1.1% interest, so the markets are not upset by this level of debt in a very wealthy country.

People claiming knowledge of economics should not make clearly false statements. If one looks at facts instead of rhetoric, the rest of the column can be dismissed as ideological garbage. The writers have a duty not to lie to their readers and distract them with myths that "Governments everywhere are striving to protect the old order because they fear and do not understand the new" in order to push their agenda of cuts in social services.

Politicians' Polices vs. Character Issues and the Role of the Media

Last week there is a particularly slurpilicious article on Esquire about Obama:


"While Obama's story is ancient, it is also utterly contemporary, perfectly of the moment. His gift — and it is a gift that makes him emblematic — is that he inhabits all these roles without being limited by them. He has managed, miraculously, to remain something of an outsider while being the president of the United States of America, the most inside man in the world. He's African-American, but he's not African-American. He's from Chicago, but he's from Hawaii. One month he's bailing out the banks, the next he's keeping Gitmo open. He pushes health-care reform through with an unimpeachable heave of will then extends the tax cuts. He walks smiling through the newly opened White House garden on his way to announce renewed efforts at oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, his "balanced" approach to the economy has led to a slower recovery than other industrialized nations and the war in Libya has been half-assed at best, which is exactly what war cannot be. For two years, he seemed disingenuous and defensive, pushed into roles that his predecessors had scripted, alternately playing savior then monster. But no more. We can finally see who he is, we can finally understand the reality: In 2011, it is possible to be a levelheaded, warmhearted, cold-blooded killer who can crack a joke and write a book for his daughters. It is possible to be many things at once. And even more miraculous, it is possible for that man to be the president of the United States. Barack Obama is developing into what Hegel called a "world-historical soul," an embodiment of the spirit of the times. He is what we hope we can be.

We love Obama — even those who claim to despise him — because deep in our hearts and all over our lives, we're the same way — both inside and outside our jobs, our races, our cities, our countries, ourselves. With great artists, often the most irritating feature of their work is the source of their talent. Obama's gift is the same as his curse: He's somehow managed to be like the rest of us, only infinitely more so."

Politicians and their friends in the media focus on character issues (Obama "is all of us," Bush is a Texas farm boy, etc.) to distract people from politicians' policies, which are usually very unpopular. It works for both Republicans and Democrats.

"So I am planning to vote for George W. Bush because he is a nice guy. As a nice guy he will attract and retain the loyalty of outstanding administration officials, and together they will promote policies that are smarter and bolder than we ever would expect, just from looking at Bush himself. As a nice man, he will prove remarkably adept at working with Congress, with Democrats, with the media and with all the other different people you need to handle as president. He will set a tone of bonhomie that will grease the machinery of government; things will actually get done in Washington again....

Look at Al Gore. He is a deeply un-nice man. He was an unpopular senator because no one could penetrate his phoniness. Unlike Bush, he has not been able to attract and retain talented staff. Bush has created a smooth-running campaign team. Gore runs through people at an alarming rate, and many (though not all) of the Gore people are un-nice -- ask the reporters who have to cover the campaign."

- David Brooks


Is Authoritarianism a Necessary Evil?

We're all in agreement that "development" is a good thing. In other words, we all agree that all else being equal, it is better for a nation and its people to be richer rather than poorer. Rich countries are more able to support "human rights," because goods and services that people want will trickle down in richer countries regardless of the structure of the state. Zakaria makes (or cites) this same point, but he retreats from the obvious conclusions and invents a false one, ascribing to poor countries the problems that plague all countries. It is critical to ask how rich countries became so.

The typical answer is given by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas Friedman (2000:102), who argues that the rich countries became so through embracing a form of state capitalism mandating austere property laws, governmental restriction of labor flows, the opening of markets to foreign competition and cuts in social services, policies currently carried out throughout the Third World by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization (Peet and Harwick 2009:85-87). The scholarly literature is similar. In his celebrated work The Bottom Billion (2007), Oxford economist Paul Collier calls for expansion of foreign aid (2007:100) and neoliberal-style markets (2007:88), while dismissing the arguably relevant facts that “aid indeed makes a coup more likely” (2007:105) and “the exodus of capital from the [poorest countries] was only phase one of the global integration of the bottom billion. Phase two will be an exodus of educated people” (2007:94). He claims that practitioners of development should resist the temptation to focus on “photogenic social priorities – health and education” (2007:108) in favor of infrastructure projects like roads and ports and, if citizens resist, “military intervention” (2007:124).

These theories are bald neoliberal lies, used to elide history and support the inequitable status quo.

In reality, “almost all recent cases of collapses into anarchy were preceded by heavy World Bank and IMF involvement” (Easterly 2006:67) and every developed country became so through state protection of industry (Chang 2008:15-16; Peet and Harwick 2009:50-51) with the critical support of colonial violence (Chomsky 1999:7-11).

All the rich countries I have studied (I can't speak to Iceland, Norway or Finland) were colonizers or the offshoots of colonizers (N. Zealand, etc.). Although natural resources within the current national boundaries are indeed important (US), imperial countries like England and Japan did not get their wealth because of their access to strategic fishing habitats, but because they stole their capital (human and natural) from other countries, like India and China. (Colonialism was much more brutal in India than it was in China, which explains their current levels of wealth much more than their citizens' abilities to vote). So the options available to the United States - enslave some 15 million people and conquer every land you can through genocide - are not really available to poor countries trying to become rich these days, at least not realistically or to the extent that they were in the past. My point in saying all this is that the development of the rich countries makes the crimes carried out in Uzbekistan look like a summer stroll. Genocide and slavery have led to development, political "democracy" never has yet. Give people in poor countries a right to vote and what can they do (Bolivia is uber-democratic but remains the poorest country in South America)?

This is not the same thing as saying genocide and slavery are necessary for development, nor is it the same thing as saying political participation ("democracy") never helps the masses. S. Korea (and Israel) are very important examples in this respect. S. Korea was dissimilar from the reconstructed European and Japanese powers, because it did not have an educated workforce. In 1960 S. Korea was an extremely poor country, lacking much of a resource base to "develop," but after thirty years, "Korea ’s progress is as if Haiti had turned into Switzerland" (Chang 2008: 12). How did this happen? The domino theory could be given credit for doing some good in this respect. Unlike S. Vietnam, which was mostly destroyed by military excursions to deter "communism," S. Korea was mostly developed through economic clientelism to do so. In other words, it was a showcase for "capitalism," developing an entire country to demonstrate to the world that "freedom" triumphs over "authoritarianism." This should give pause to the claim that there is current "nation building" going on Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else, rather than support of puppet regimes in America's interests, because the United States government actually does know how to develop countries: through state protectionism (tariffs, gov't investment in start-up companies, subsidies, gov't planning of industry, but capitalist [market] control of smaller decision making. Think US economy in 1930s-World War II or now (can you think of an American industry that doesn't benefit from government handouts?). As an aside, FDRoosevelt was probably the most popular president in US history, but he was also the most authoritarian of the 20th century. There was minimal dissent in the country at this time and almost all Americans would have agreed with the logic of your Uzbek friend, although they probably would have used different terms ("freedom," "democracy," "capitalism," etc.) to describe what was happening.). The US-installed strongman in S. Korea, General Chun, kept things in line with brutal force:

"Consider the response when General Chun’s military dictatorship in South Korea crushed the democracy movement in Kwangju in May 1980. Paratroopers ‘carried out three days of barbarity with the zeal of Nazi storm troopers,’ an Asia Watch investigative mission reported, ‘beating, stabbing, and mutilating unarmed civilians, including children, young girls, and aged grandmothers.’ Two thousand people were killed in this rampage, they estimate. The US received two requests for assistance: the citizens committee that had called for democracy requested help in negotiations; General Chun requested the release of 20,000 troops under US command to join the storm troopers. The latter request was honored, and US naval and air units were deployed in a further show of US support. ‘Koreans who had expected help from Carter were dumbfounded,’ Tim Shorrock writes, as ‘the news of direct support from the US was broadcast to the people of Kwangju from helicopters and proclaim throughout the nation in blazing newspaper headlines.’ A few days later Carter sent the head of the Export-Import Bank to Seoul to assure the military junta of US economic support, approving a $600 million loan. As Chun took over the presidency by force, Carter said that while we would prefer democracy, ‘The Koreans are not ready for that, according to their own judgment.’" (Chomsky 1999:99-100).

I would agree with the argument that there are two strands of human rights: political/civic and social/economic (Peck 2011). These would follow a conventional capitalist/American and communist/Soviet breakdown: America has strong freedom of speech, and to a lesser extent assembly and political participation, compared with the Soviet Union, which had strong social/economic rights (in 1989 the poverty rate was 1-2% and there were no millionaires in the country (Klein 2008:231)).

I think that mentioning China as the classic case of authoritarianism falls victim to the mythology of the cold war; the Chinese government is very popular among its people, despite news accounts in this country. The Chinese revolution was actually very democratic, unlike the American revolution, which contained the fruits and seeds of horrendous ethnocide. There has been a lot of violence in China during and since, but far less than in the history of our own country. So I would reject the standard definitions of democracy, authoritarianism and human rights, and instead reach for a broader definition encompassing material rights even more so than political rights. I would reject the dichotomy between authoritarianism and democracy, because the two have many overlapping facets and are not as universally repressive or liberatory as is often fantasized.

As to the ultimate question, "Is authoritarianism a necessary evil?" I think the answer is, we can only hope that someday development and all of our society will proceed without violence, but I think that hope is an impossible goal. Until then, maybe we can do something to mitigate the suffering heretofore inherent to all development.


Chang, Ha-Joon. 2008. Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism. Bloomsbury.

Chomsky, Noam. 1999. Year 501: The Conquest Continues. South End.

Collier, Paul. 2007. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done about It. Oxford University.

Easterly, William. 2006. The White Man’s Burden. Penguin.

Friedman, Thomas. 2000. The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Macmillan.

Klein, Naomi. 2008. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Picador.

Peck, James. 2011. Ideal Illusions: How the US Government Co-opted Human Rights. Metropolitan.

Peet, Richard and Elaine Hartwick. 2009. Theories of Development: Contentions, Arguments, Alternatives. 2nd ed. Guilford.

Our American Lexicon

4th of July observation on political discourse:

"Patriotism" = support American violence; hate services to children, sick, poor, etc.

"Anti-Americanism" = hate American violence; support services to children, sick, poor, etc.