Innocents Abroad?

Innocents abroad? Photo:

The next American presidential election is only 13 months away, and the campaign season is getting close to full-swing.  Last night in Hanover, New Hampshire, the candidates for the Republican nomination met for what is already their seventh debate, and there are signs, in his energetic push for the Jobs Bill, that  ‘campaign Obama’ may be about to emerge from his presidential shell.   At this stage, all eyes are understandably focused on the economy, as it is widely believed that the election will be decided by what happens with unemployment.  In September, the economy created 103,000 non-farm jobs, edging the official rate up to 9.1 percent.  Looming ever more ominously on the horizon, however, is the much bigger problem of the national debt.  At last count, total outstanding public debt is now at 99 pct of GDP, the highest level since the heyday of the Marshall Plan.

As  James Traub, for Foreign Policy, has pointed out, this focus on economic matters has meant less direct attention to foreign affairs, particularly by the Republican candidates. 

Pirating Lessons

A pirate flag
Full speed ahead. Photo: Scott Vandehey/flickr.

Nomen est omen; the pirates have taken Berlin by storm. Although SPD’s Klaus Wowereit was comfortably re-elected as Berlin’s mayor, the strong showing of Germany’s newest addition to a state parliament has taken many by surprise. The pirate party, dedicated to free information and privacy protection, has won 8.9% of the votes. By comparison, the FDP – a junior partner in Angela Merkel’s government – has been completely kicked out.

Though concerned about the results, most established parties shrug the events off as a form of political protest, and describe the party as anything from ‘non-serious’ to ‘meaningless’. Unfortunately, they’re missing what Berlin’s youth has been trying to say.

Freedom of information and privacy issues on the net affect many voters directly. For a long time, Germany’s elite has been ignoring the important role of the internet in many of its citizens’ lives. When they finally touched upon the issue, it made ‘Generation Net’ worry even more. To internet activists, the prospects of telecommunications data retention felt like a 2.0 version of 1984.

Of course some of the party’s demands seem extreme, and their leaders still have to prove that they are committed to playing a constructive role in day-to-day politics. But whatever the future holds: instead of belittling the pirates, the bigger parties had better work out their own positions on a complex issue that concerns far more than 8.9% of the electorate.

Trying to Play Chicken with Everybody’s Money

A slow and painful battle over America's financial future, photo: Benjamin Reed/flickr

The bumbling US Tea Party has issued its latest ultimatum: cut public expenditures or risk defaulting on the national debt. And how? By stopping lawmakers from raising the country’s legal debt ceiling, currently set at $14.3 trillion. The US Treasury reckons it will hit and inevitably exceed the limit sometime between late March and May.

The Obama White House has deemed the issue non-negotiable. Is it an idle threat?

Strictly speaking, the Tea Party doesn’t have the votes in Congress. Mainstream Republicans would all have to vote no. Mainstream Republicans, however, primarily serve the interests of the corporate and financial elite; overt attempts to undermine US economic power typically receive a cold reception with this crowd.

As discussed in my ISN Blog post last week, the instance of disagreement nevertheless puts the spotlight on the growing rift in the American Right. It also exposes the ignorance of the frustrated Tea Partiers. Nuking your economy is no solution to your economic woes.

The American Right: A Marriage on the Rocks

It's all about the taxes, photo: Chuck Simmins/flickr

Your humble blogger would have appreciated an invitation to this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF). Unfortunately, no such letter landed in my mailbox. No matter, I probably couldn’t have accepted anyhow.

The entry-level $71,000 price tag, it turns out, – travel, room, board and entertainment excluded – is a smidgen out of my league. Good thing that the WEF publication Global Risks 2011 calls attention to economic disparity (aka income and wealth inequality), both within and between countries, as the most pressing risk out there today. Are the plutocrats beginning to feel the heat?

In America, home to the highest economic inequality in the developed world today, the winds of change may have started to blow.

The American Right has for the past 30 years effectively existed as an alliance of convenience between middle-class social conservatives from the American heartland on the one hand, and members of the corporate and financial elite intent on hoarding cash on the other. The informal arrangement has proved remarkably durable, at least up until the Great Recession.*

The social conservatives got politicians who extolled the virtues of American family values, promoted constitutional bans on gay marriage and abortion, and never missed an occasion to exalt America’s exceptionalism. The corporate and financial elite got ‘Benjamins’, lots of them. To make the economics attractive, the corporate and financial elite promised what George H W Bush in 1980 mocked as ‘voodoo economics:’ tax cuts, tax cuts and just when you though there couldn’t be any more, tax cuts. This all coincided nicely with America’s unipolar moment in the post-Cold War period.

The perception was that tax cuts would pay for themselves and would only work to make everyone wealthier. In the short term they did, but over time they led to the bifurcation of American society. Legislators with the help of lobbyist  disproportionately targeted the tax cuts to benefit the top income brackets, and massively so. The socially conservative wing, blinded by its reactionary ideals, got duped. Its followers have effectively voted time and again against their own economic interests.

Too Many Presidents Spoil the Political Stew

Playing with a stacked deck, photo: Inna Moody/flickr

Two days ago, the leader of the National Union (NU), Gabon‘s main opposition party, Andre Mba Obame, sought refuge at the United Nations compound in the country’s capital Libreville. The move followed the disbanding of the NU party on Tuesday by the Gabonese government after Obame declared himself the only legitimate President of the central African country and named a parallel Cabinet of 19 Ministers.

From the safety of the UN offices, Mba Obame, a man who turned from being Gabon’s former foreign minister to becoming the main challenger of President Ali Bongo, informed the world press that he would not leave until the United Nations recognized his claim to the presidency. Immediately, the Gabonese government reacted by dissolving the NU, accusing Obame and his supporters of high treason, and firing tear gas at anti-government protesters, thereby injuring dozens.

The usually calm central African oil exporter has been in turmoil since a 2009 election won by Ali Bongo Odimba, but which Mba Obame is insisting was rigged. The election was called to replace the late President Omar Bongo Odimba who held power for more than four decades before his death two months before the poll. His son Ali was declared the winner with 41.8 percent of the vote, but the vote was denounced as an “electoral coup” by the opposition and led to rioting in Gabon’s oil capital Port Gentil which left several people dead. Obame and the country’s other three opposition leaders went into hiding after the elections, saying they feared security forces were trying to kill them.