Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

Middle East’s “Game of Thrones”

Chrystia Freeland
Aug 26, 2011 15:12 UTC

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” That’s a line from “Game of Thrones,” the new HBO television series that is conquering American popular culture.

But it could just as easily refer to the no-holds-barred battles we are watching in Libya and Syria. What is hardest to grasp is how these regimes are both strong and brittle. Their rulers are ruthless dictators prepared to do whatever it takes to stay in power — and for decades that can work. Until, suddenly, it does not.

We are not very good at understanding the win-or-die dynamic of these sorts of political systems: Not so long ago, everyone from the U.S. State Department, to Harvard, to the London School of Economics, to Vogue magazine, to blue-chip Wall Street money managers treated the Assads and the Qaddafis like rulers capable of gradual liberalization and even democratization.

Part of the problem is that the Cold War habit of mind, with its division of the world into two rival, ideologically cohesive camps, dies hard. Its legacy today is our tendency to look for a new, black-and-white division, this time into democracies and dictatorships. (Remember the axis of evil.) But modern dictatorships come in many different varieties. The ones that are collapsing in the Middle East are examples of what political scientists call “sultanistic” dictatorships.

According to Jack A. Goldstone, a professor at the School of Public Policy at George Mason University in Virginia, the defining characteristic of a sultanistic regime is that it has no purpose apart from maintaining the leader’s personal authority. “A sultanistic regime is one in which the leader of a country has managed to gain control of all the levers of state power,” Mr. Goldstone said. “No one has any secure rights, and the leader rules with absolute authority.”

The case for open-source government

Chrystia Freeland
Aug 18, 2011 21:14 UTC

Maybe we are all thinking too much like Bolsheviks and not enough like Googlers. For Lenin and the Russian revolutionaries, the big question was “Kto kogo?” — essentially, “Who has the upper hand?”

Kto kogo remains the paradigm at the center of the fiscal battles roiling the Western world: young vs. old; rich taxpayers vs. poor welfare beneficiaries; public sector workers vs. private sector ones; wealthy Northern Europe vs. bankrupt Southern Europe; small government conservatives vs. big government liberals.

But a few people — writers, activists, even politicians — are examining the current woes of the Western state through a very different prism. You could call it the Government 2.0 approach, and its fundamental thesis is that the biggest question is not how much to spend and how much to tax, it is how to adapt the state to the information age.

Remedying recession, reducing debt

Chrystia Freeland
Aug 12, 2011 20:46 UTC

We all know there are three important things about real estate: location, location, location. That double repetition, which the late and great word sleuth William Safire traced back to a 1926 Chicago Tribune classified ad, is still with us because it is succinct and true.

You can think about the economic and political woes of the Western world today in the same way. It’s all about jobs, jobs, jobs.

But over the past two weeks the political battles over government debt in Washington and Frankfurt, the street battles in Britain, and the volatility of markets everywhere have obscured that reality. The talk instead has been about share prices, credit ratings, police tactics and political dysfunction.

What happens when citizens lose faith in government?

Chrystia Freeland
Aug 5, 2011 14:32 UTC

Tolstoy thought unhappy families were unique in their unhappiness.

But when it comes to countries, these days the world’s gloomy ones have a lot in common. From Fukushima to Athens, and from Washington to Wenzhou, China, the collective refrain is that government doesn’t work.

“2011 will be the year of distrust in government,” said Richard Edelman, president and chief executive of Edelman, the world’s largest independent public relations firm.

For the past decade, Mr. Edelman has conducted a global survey of which institutions we have confidence in and which ones are in the doghouse. In 2010, the villains were in the private sector — from BP, to Toyota, to Goldman Sachs, corporations and their executives were the ones behaving badly.

The West is getting old

Chrystia Freeland
Jul 28, 2011 22:08 UTC

It’s the demography, stupid.

There are a lot of different reasons this is turning out to be such a politically hot summer in so much of the Western world. But one way to understand this season’s acrimony — from the protests of the indignati in Spain and Greece, to the budget deadlock in Washington and even to the tragedy in Norway — is as diverse symptoms of a shared condition: The West is getting old. That demographic fact is becoming a generational war, and there is every reason to believe that in the coming decades it will get worse.

The heart of the problem is arithmetical: The post-World War II social welfare state, created at a moment when the baby boom was still gestating, is built on a generational Ponzi scheme. As life expectancy increases and fertility declines, that population pyramid is being inverted — and in some countries, that is causing the entire economy to topple.

That’s true in Greece and Spain, where the young are taking to the streets partly because state pension commitments have become so heavy they are suffocating the economy and depriving the seniors’ grandchildren of any chance of a job. Likewise in the United States, where, notwithstanding the national self-image as a laissez-faire land that has eschewed Europe’s lavish social safety net, the budget battle is really a fight about the old: Programs for the elderly constitute almost half of non-interest government spending, about $1.6 trillion in 2010, of a $3.3 trillion total. That figure will swell as the baby boomers retire.

Scenes from the Tea Party

Peter Rudegeair
Jul 11, 2011 22:00 UTC

Theda Skocpol, Vanessa Williamson, and John Coggin’s great paper “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism” formed the basis of Chrystia’s most recent column. As part of their research, Skocpol and her team embedded themselves in the Greater Boston Tea Party, the thirty-third largest Tea Party organization in the country, as measured by membership in the social-networking website MeetUp. The trio of scholars attended the group’s local rallies and conducted an extensive survey with 79 of the group’s members. The portrait of Tea Partiers that emerged from their fact-finding reinforced what many had observed anecdotally: Tea-Party members tend to be older, white males who are avid viewers of Fox News and have a history of political activism.

Like their fellow Tea Partiers across the United States, those in Massachusetts are older, white, and predominately male. 97 percent are white; 57 percent are males; and 83 percent are over forty-six years old (with more than half are older than age fifty-six). In addition, Bay State Tea Party activists envelop themselves with the same conservative news sources used by other Tea Party participants. When we asked Massachusetts Tea Party activists an open-ended question about their preferred news sources, 51 out of 69 respondents reported being Fox News watchers. As has also been found in national studies, few Massachusetts Tea Partiers are seeking out neutral or left-leaning sources of information. Only 11 of 69 respondents claim to read the Boston Globe, and only seven Massachusetts Tea Party activists report getting their news from ABC, NBC or CBS News. Like Tea Partiers nationally, many in Massachusetts are campaign veterans. In our Boston sample, 37 out of 79 respondents claimed to have previously volunteered on behalf of a candidate or political organization.

Fox News viewership in particular seemed to be an animating force for the Party and a prime topic of their conversation:

The winner-take-all economy

Peter Rudegeair
Jul 8, 2011 20:10 UTC

Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank sat down with Chrystia at the Aspen Ideas Festival to chat about the earnings potential of superstar dentists and world-class sopranos, the unlikelihood of an Atlas Shrugged-esque strike of the elites and Charles Darwin’s contributions to economic thought. Here’s a transcript of some of the highlights of their conversation.

On the upsides and downsides of the winner-take-all phenomenon

CHRYSTIA FREELAND: If the super-talented are getting super rewards, maybe in the past they were not getting the appropriate rewards. I mean, maybe this is really American capitalism working the way most Americans want it to work.

ROBERT H. FRANK: Well there are two things in your question. One is the upside of the whole phenomenon is that we now get to listen to the best soprano rather than the hundredth best.  In 1890 there were 1,300 opera houses in the state of Iowa alone. You had to listen to music live and in-person. You couldn’t hear the best soprano because she couldn’t be everywhere at once. Now there’s a contest to see who the best soprano is.  That winner then records the master disc and get’s stamped out onto CD’s at virtually no cost so we could all listen to the best soprano.

Only hard-working Americans need apply

Chrystia Freeland
Jul 8, 2011 14:16 UTC

What does the Tea Party want? As the debt ceiling debate rages in Washington, that should be the central question in U.S. political discourse. After all, it is the rise of the Tea Party that revitalized the Republican Party in 2009 and gave it the muscle to deliver a “shellacking” to the Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections. And it is the radicalism of the Tea Party and the freshman legislators it elected that is often blamed for the uncompromising stance of the Republicans in the current budget negotiations.

That’s why “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” a recent study of the Tea Party by Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist, and Vanessa Williamson and John Coggin, two graduate students, is so important. An expanded version of the paper, which appeared this spring in the journal Perspectives on Politics, will be published as a book by the Oxford University Press later this year.

Ms. Skocpol is an unashamed progressive, but what is striking about her team’s work is its respect for the Tea Party and its members. “Commentators have sometimes noted the irony that these same Tea Partiers who oppose ‘government spending’ are themselves recipients of Social Security,” the paper notes. “Don’t they know these are ‘big government’ programs?”

The future of power

Peter Rudegeair
Jul 6, 2011 18:48 UTC

 

At the Aspen Ideas Festival last week, Chrystia’s discussion of war, economics and America’s role in the world featured a who’s who of leading voices: Robert Hormats, the Undersecretary of State for Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs; Joseph Nye, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; and Liaquat Ahamed, the Pulitzer-prize winning author of Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World. Here’s a transcript of some of the highlights of their conversation.

How the deficit debate affects U.S. diplomacy:

JOSEPH NYE: In congressional discussions we get the short-, the medium-, and long-term mixed up. Here we have a problem often estimated as a $2 trillion problem about getting the debt under control, or the deficit under control, related to the debt. And what did Congress do in April when they were trying to balance the budget? They cut $8 billion out of the State Department budget and thought that that was doing something about the deficit. That is absolute nonsense. It’s like a drop in the wind that’s gone immediately. But from the point of view of the State Department where you have a $50 billion budget, that’s a huge hit.

CHRYSTIA FREELAND: Did Bob take you out to supper last night to ask you to say that?

Guns vs. butter, Afghanistan edition

Peter Rudegeair
Jul 6, 2011 18:48 UTC

Steve Clemons, Washington editor at large for The Atlantic, chatted with Chrystia at the Aspen Ideas Festival about the politics of the deficit debate, the 2012 presidential race, and whether the U.S. is in a trap in Afghanistan. Here’s a transcript of some of the highlights of their conversation:

STEVE CLEMONS: When you’re in a country whose GDP is $14 billion, and we are in this next fiscal year spending $119 billion in Afghanistan — that’s only our dollars; that’s not our allies; that’s not non-military aid.  This is the military expenditure for what we’re doing. You can buy and sell Afghanistan eight times over for what we’re spending. So I’ve been, with Afghanistan Study Group which I helped create, putting on the table that there are better ways to chase al-Qaeda and to keep it from becoming a safe haven–

CHRYSTIA FREELAND: Well, hasn’t the hunt for al-Qaeda worked? Osama bin Laden has been killed, so there you go.

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