Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

What if Russia and China don’t become more liberal?

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 28, 2012 22:10 UTC

Liberal democracy faces a new and decisive challenge – figuring out how to deal with the “post-Communist oligarchies” of Russia and China. These regimes – authoritarian, capitalist and eagerly integrated into the global economy – are without precedent. Figuring out how to deal with them is the greatest strategic and moral question the West faces today. How we answer it will determine the shape of the 21st century, much as the struggle with communism and fascism shaped the 20th.

This is the assertion Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian intellectual and a former leader of the Liberal Party, made in a powerful lecture in the Latvian capital, Riga, at the beginning of this month. Ignatieff’s thesis came to mind during the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, held last week as the gracious former imperial capital for which the forum is named glowed in the pure white light of the summer solstice.

Central to Ignatieff’s argument is his insistence that “history has no libretto.” It isn’t marching toward any particular destination, including liberal democracy, he said: “As late as Benedetto Croce, liberals still thought of their creed as being the wave of the future and thought of history as the story of liberty.”

When it comes to Russia and China today, we still hope we will all eventually sing along to this seductive libretto. “It is a cliché of optimistic Western discourse on Russia and China that they must evolve toward democratic liberty,” Ignatieff argued. Sadly, though, we’re wrong: “we should not assume there is any historical inevitability to liberal society.”

As Ignatieff explained to me in a telephone conversation this week: “The simple point is that we thought they were coming towards us. What if they are not?”

What the family farm can teach America about surviving global change

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 27, 2012 23:30 UTC

This column originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of The Atlantic.

We buried my grandfather last spring. He had died in his sleep in his own bed at 95, so, as funerals go, it wasn’t a grim occasion. But it was a historic one for our small rural community. My great-grandparents were early settlers, arriving in 1913 and farming the land throughout their lives. My grandfather continued that tradition, and now rests next to them on a hillside overlooking the family homestead.

If you’re a part of the roughly 99 percent of the North American population that doesn’t work on a farm, you might guess at what comes next – many a lament has been written about the passing of the good old days in rural areas, the family farm’s decline, and the inevitable loss of the homestead. But in many respects, that narrative itself is obsolete. That’s certainly true in my family’s case: The Freeland farm is still being cultivated by my father. And it is bigger and more prosperous than ever.

My dad farms 3,200 acres of his own, and rents 2,400 more – all told, a territory seven times the size of Central Park. Last year, he produced 3,900 tonnes (or metric tons) of wheat, 2,500 tonnes of canola, and 1,400 tonnes of barley. (That’s enough to produce 13 million loaves of bread, 1.2 million liters of vegetable oil, and 40,000 barrels of beer.) His revenue last year was more than $2 million, and he admits to having made “a good profit,” but won’t reveal more than that. The farm has just three workers, my dad and his two hired men, who farm with him nine months of the year. For the two or three weeks of seeding and harvest, my dad usually hires a few friends to help out, too.

The three questions of global importance

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 21, 2012 20:49 UTC

Tolstoy may have been right about families – “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – but the opposite of his famous first line is true when it comes to countries: The world’s disparate unhappy nations are very much alike when it comes to the causes of their unhappiness.

That’s not immediately apparent – austerity-strangled Greece, cheap-money America and military-ruled Egypt are all exhibiting quite different symptoms. But it is no accident that so many of the world’s economies are sputtering at the same time, or that so many people around the globe are angry.

One reason for the synchronized gloom, of course, is the synchronization of the global economy. But the world is suffering from more than a shared summer cold. Rather, we are all, both together and apart, trying to figure out three big questions. Our answers to them will shape the 21st century.

Close families, closed labor markets

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 15, 2012 14:44 UTC

Close families and flexible labor markets don’t go together. That’s the conclusion of a fascinating paper by a quartet of transatlantic economists. Their work should be required reading for all European politicians and for the economists and pundits around the world who seek to advise them.

One truth universally acknowledged in Europe today is that the countries of the south need to overhaul their labor markets: Rigid rules on hiring and firing and on the minimum wage are blamed for the high unemployment and subpar economic growth in these states.

Economists are right to point out that inflexible labor markets exact a high economic toll. So why has there been such resistance in countries like Spain and Italy to changes that would create more jobs and stronger growth? One classic answer is the ability of vested interests – workers who do have protected jobs – to defend their own cushy deal at the expense of everyone else. Another is political dysfunction.

The euro zone, slow-motion crashes and Latvia

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 7, 2012 21:30 UTC

Spending time with top European policymakers at the moment is scary and slightly nauseating, like the final, slow-motion moments before a car accident, when you can see precisely both how you will probably crash and what it would take, if only you could force your paralyzed muscles into action, to swerve to safety.

That’s why Christine Lagarde, the formidable French chief of the International Monetary Fund, told me this week that she wants to lock Europe’s dithering leaders in a room and leave them there until they figure things out.

“If I was able to do one thing, I would lock them in a room, take the key and let them come up with a comprehensive plan,” Lagarde said, when I asked what her fantasy scenario was for Europe. “I’m sure they can make it. I know the fundamentals are solid. The numbers on an aggregate basis are good. And, as I said, we have to take the key because they cannot escape unless and until they’ve firmed up the plan. But they can do it.”

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