Colombia: A Bright Light is Extinguished

Commentary No. 435, October 15, 2016

The global scene has been miserable for the last decade at least, if not longer. The world is inundated by wars, big and small, that seem both unending and unendable; by horrendous cruelties about which their perpetrators boast; and by deliberate attacks on so-called safe zones. In this hell on earth, there has been only one bright light. What was called since 1948 la violencia in Colombia seemed to be coming to an end.

The struggle has taken the form since 1964 of an attempt by a peasant guerilla group called the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC), to overthrow the government. The guerilla movement faced the fierce opposition of the government, with the active support of the United States. In addition, there were unofficial murderous right-wing paramilitary forces, which had the unavowed backing of the government.

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How Can Political Shift to the Right Be Stopped?

Commentary No. 434, October 1, 2016

 

This is the question people left of center have been asking for some time now. In different ways, it is being posed in Latin America, in much of Europe, in Arab and Islamic countries, in southern Africa, and in northeast Asia. The question is all the more dramatic because, in so many of these countries, this follows a period when there were significant shifts leftward.

The problem for the left is priorities. We live in a world in which the geopolitical power of the United States is in constant decline. And we live in a world in which the world-economy is seriously reducing state and personal incomes, so that the living standard of most of the world’s population is falling. These are the constraints of any political activity by the left, constraints the left can do little to affect.

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Secular Stagnation, or is it worse?

Commentary No. 433, September 15, 2016

The world’s economists have been wrestling with something they have found difficult to explain. Why is it that stock market prices have continued to go up despite the fact that something called growth seems to be stagnant? In mainstream economic theory, it’s not supposed to work that way. If there’s no growth, market prices should decline, thereby stimulating growth. And when growth recovers, then market prices go up again.

Those who are faithful to this theorizing say that the anomaly is a momentary aberration. Some even deny it is true. But there are others who consider the anomaly to be an important challenge to the mainstream theorizing. They seek to revise the theorizing to take into account what many are now calling “secular stagnation.” The critics include various prominent persons, some of them Nobel Prize laureates. They include such different thinkers as Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, and Stephen Roach.

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Trump vs. Clinton: Predictions Have Consequences

September 1, 2016, Commentary No. 432

The world media, and especially U.S. media, are following with intense interest and concern the November presidential elections in the United States. Almost all the stories discuss which of the two principal candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, is likely to win and by what margin. The media also are filled with explanations of the polling results, which of course vary over time.

However, almost none of the coverage of the election poses the question, who does the respondent expect to win regardless of the respondent’s own preferences? We do not know how many persons feel certain about their prediction. Whatever the number today, it is likely to grow as we approach the final moment of choice. My guess, and it is really only that, is that perhaps at most one-third of the electorate will feel they know what the results will be. Please keep in mind that feeling sure about the victor is quite distinct from feeling sure about one’s own preferences.

The most obvious consequence of advance certainty affects those voters who are sure that their preferred candidate is certain to win. It is one that the candidates themselves always fear. Voters who feel sure that their preferred candidate will win may think it unnecessary to make the effort of actually voting. This is why candidates engage in elaborate efforts to get their pledged voters to actually vote.

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South Africa’s ANC Is Slipping Away

Commentary No. 431, August 15, 2016

After a long struggle, the system of apartheid in South Africa was overcome. Elections based on universal suffrage were held. The chief architect of this transformation was the African National Congress (ANC). And the principal hero of the struggle was the leader of the ANC, Nelson Mandela. Mandela was elected the first president of a post-apartheid government in 1994 by an overwhelming margin. The ANC won a commanding majority in the National Assembly.

Mandela declined to run for reelection in 1999 and he was succeeded for two terms by Thabo Mbeki. Two terms is the maximum allowable. Jacob Zuma was first elected in 2009 and re-elected in 2014. The first two presidents were Xhosa, one of the two major ethnic groups in South Africa. Zuma however was Zulu, and he reflected and enjoyed ethnic pride.

The major opposition party was the Democratic Alliance (DA). It was a party derived from the White liberal groups that existed during the apartheid regime. Initially, it received little support outside the White community, still about 20% of the population. It sought however to attract Black middle class voters and in recent years chose Black politicians as their leaders.

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Turkey and Erdoğan: Rise and Fall?

Commentary No. 430, August 1, 2016

Turkey is presently governed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP in its Turkish initials). The AKP was co-founded in 2001 by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He became Prime Minister in 2003 and served until 2014, when he became Turkey’s 12th president.

The stories of Turkey, Erdoğan, and the AKP were closely linked during the past fifteen years. They all remarkably strengthened their position in every possible way for the first ten of these past fifteen years. Then they all ran into increasing difficulty, culminating in an attempted coup d’état that began on the evening of July 15, 2016. Although the coup was crushed within two days, it is not clear that Turkey, the AKP, and Erdoğan have been able to stem their growing difficulties.

To understand what has risen and fallen we need to look first at Turkey’s situation in 2001. Turkey had become a republic in 1923 with Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) as its first president. He was the leader of a military group that sought to replace the long-declining Ottoman Empire with a modern republic.

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Bastille Day: France’s Ultra-Confused Present

Commentary No. 429, July 15, 2016

Every year, France celebrates on July 14 the fall in 1789 of the Bastille, then the main prison in Paris. The celebration is meant to mark the end of the so-called Ancien Régime. It unifies the country around what are referred to today as Republican values.

The first time there was such a celebration was the very next year in 1790, one that was dedicated to peace and national unity. Bastille Day, however, did not become an annual celebration until 1880, when the legislature of the Third Republic proclaimed July 14 the fête nationale (national festivity), which it has remained up to today. But this year, the Republic is anything but unified, its immediate future could not be more uncertain, and there is much debate about exactly what constitute Republican values.

The present constitution is quasi-presidential, making the choice of a president politically crucial. However, at the same time, it establishes a system in which there are two rounds of voting, unless someone gets a clear majority on the first round. In the second round there are only two candidates, the two with the highest votes on the first round.

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Brexit: Symptom, Not Cause, of Turmoil

Commentary No. 428, July 1, 2016

On June 23, the referendum on a British withdrawal from the European Union (EU) won by a clear margin. Politicians and pundits have treated this as an unprecedented and earth-shaking decision. They have been giving various and quite contradictory explanations about the causes of this event and the consequences of this event for Great Britain and the rest of the world.

The first thing to note is that no legal decision to exit the EU has yet been taken. The referendum was, in legal terms, merely advisory. In order to withdraw from the EU, the British government must formally inform the EU that it is invoking Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, which is what provides the right and the mode of withdrawal. No one has ever invoked Article 50, so yes, it would be unprecedented. No one therefore can be sure how it would work in practice. While it seems most unlikely that any British government would ignore the referendum, strangely there has been no major British politician who seemed in a hurry to invoke Article 50, an action that would be irreversible.

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