Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

Obama makes his case amidst Reagan’s shadow

Chrystia Freeland
Sep 6, 2012 17:07 UTC

If there had been an empty chair at the Democratic convention this week, its ghostly occupant would have been Ronald Reagan.

Barack Obama admiringly referred to Reagan’s transformational presidency during the 2008 election campaign. That enraged the Clintonites, but then-Senator Obama’s take on the historical shifts in American politics was absolutely right. If you doubt that, just think back one week to the Republican convention, which was above all a coming-out party for Reagan’s 21st-century heirs.

Reagan’s legacy is so powerful because he identified the state as the central issue in American politics. That is still true today. Both in Tampa, Florida, where the Republican promise was to shrink the state, and in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the Democrats’ promise is to transform the state into a more effective servant of the middle class, the big question is what government should do, and how big it should be.

In 2008, Mr. Obama identified the force of Reagan’s leadership because he aspired to have the same impact. But the problem for him — and for American liberals in this century more broadly — is that the task they have set for themselves is both harder to do and, crucially, harder to explain.

That argument is made eloquently in a newly published essay on the Obama presidency by Theda Skocpol, a Harvard professor and one of the country’s foremost political theorists. If you read only one book about Mr. Obama this electoral season, read “Obama and America’s Political Future,” the slim volume that includes Dr. Skocpol’s essay and three smart responses. Together, they rise above the tick-tocks and polemics that characterize too much of the United States’ political writing.

The U.S. election and living in the economic past

Chrystia Freeland
Aug 30, 2012 15:57 UTC

This U.S. election campaign is being billed as a battle of big ideas. That is a good thing. But it is a shame that the fight is not being waged in the 21st century.

In choosing Representative Paul D. Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney swapped his Massachusetts pragmatism for a proudly ideological commitment to limited government. The Democrats, by contrast, believe in the essential role government plays, and are willing to raise taxes, at least on the rich, to pay for it.

This a clear and important battle line in the United States. But the argument over the size of the state comes with little regard for the very particular economic realities of this era. Like generals fighting the last war, U.S. politicians are solving the economic challenges of the past century.

R. Glenn Hubbard and the Republican-Democratic fiscal divide

Chrystia Freeland
Aug 23, 2012 15:55 UTC

If you aren’t American, the possibility that this election could hinge on abortion rights may seem absurd. Surely the stagnant world economy, the relative decline of U.S. power and climate change, just to name three, all trump reproductive freedom as issues that should be at the top of the national agenda.

But up close the focus on abortion is less bewildering. If, like Todd Akin, the Missouri congressman whose comments about rape focused the United States’ attention on the subject of abortion this week, you believe embryos are full-fledged human beings, no issue is as important as what you view as the continuing and legal murder of these innocents. If, on the other hand, you are a woman of childbearing age who happens not to share Akin’s beliefs, no issue is as important as the right to control your own body, which the congressman’s view threatens.

Having said all of that, the spotlight on abortion rights is also the product of a family feud inside the Republican Party. Republican grass-roots activists are desperate to propel the issue to the top of the national agenda, while the party’s elders — and their presidential nominee — are equally desperate to stop us all from talking about it.

Hong Kong thriller, globalization and the campaign

Chrystia Freeland
Aug 16, 2012 15:58 UTC

We all know it would be virtuous to spend more time pondering the implications of globalization and the intricacies of high finance. But these aren’t always the most enticing subjects to study, especially in the languid, fading days of August. For an easy-listening approach to two of the most important themes of our time, you could do worse than devote an evening to the film “Supercapitalist,” a new financial thriller set in Hong Kong.

The most immediately striking take-away from “Supercapitalist” is the moral hierarchy it imposes on business. The only truly virtuous capitalists are the technologists – hard-working, creative and focused on innovations that will help ordinary people as well as the bottom line. Next best are the makers of real things, in this case a logistics company. Worst of all are the financiers, a treacherous, murderous bunch who care only about making money even if the price is human lives.

In light of the public attitude toward bankers, those who work for Mitt Romney should watch this film and talk to its star and screenwriter, Derek Ting. That’s because Ting has made a film that raises some provocative political questions, but his personal agenda is entirely artistic: He set out to tell “a universal, human story.” His ethical ranking of business, with the money changers emphatically at the bottom, is an instinctive choice, not an intellectual one. That says a lot about current views on the subject, even on one of the world’s most energetic capitalist frontiers.

The coming glut in oil – and its impact

Chrystia Freeland
Aug 9, 2012 21:10 UTC

Forget America’s fiscal cliff, Europe’s currency troubles or the emerging-markets slowdown. The most important story in the global economy today may well be some good news that isn’t yet making as many headlines – the coming surge in oil production around the world.

Until very recently, our collective assumption was that oil was running out. That was partly a matter of what seemed like geological common sense. It took millions of years for the earth to crush plankton into fossil fuels; it is logical to think that it would take millions of years to create more. The rise of the emerging markets, with their energy-hungry billions, was a further reason it seemed obvious we would have less oil and gas in 2020 than we do today.

Obvious – but wrong. Thanks in part to technologies like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracking, we are entering a new age of abundant oil. As the energy expert Leonardo Maugeri contends in a recent report published by the Belfer Center at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, “contrary to what most people believe, oil supply capacity is growing worldwide at such an unprecedented level that it might outpace consumption.”

Russian investor’s $3 million prize for physics

Chrystia Freeland
Aug 2, 2012 21:10 UTC

Do you think cutting-edge scientists should earn as much as star athletes, celebrity artists or Wall Street bankers? The Russian billionaire investor Yuri Milner does, and this week he put his money where his heart is.

Milner deposited $3 million in the bank accounts of each of the nine theoretical physicists he judged to be doing the most brilliant work in their field. They are the first recipients of the Fundamental Physics Prize, a new honor created by Milner. It is the most lucrative academic award in the world, and will henceforth be given to one winner each year.

Milner, who studied physics for a decade before making his fortune in prescient Internet investments, said he decided to create such a rich prize because he thinks the compensation of top scientists is out of whack in 21st-century society.

The 1 percent vs. President Obama

Chrystia Freeland
Jul 12, 2012 23:46 UTC

Why have the rich turned against President Barack Obama?

That has been a persistent theme of this campaign: We were reminded of it at the beginning of this week, when Mitt Romney’s team raised more money than the president’s for the second month running, and more colorfully in weekend reports of the Republican candidate’s lavish fund-raisers in the Hamptons.

If you were a Martian, or even a European, the animosity of America’s 1 percent toward the president might be rather mysterious. Although those at the bottom and in the middle are still suffering from the downturn that began in 2008, with unemployment above 8 percent, the affluent economy has bounced back quite smartly. The stock market has recovered, corporate coffers are overflowing with cash, and the luxury goods market is booming.

Even Wall Street, where hostility toward the White House is especially acid, has reason to be grateful. Bankers got the biggest government bailout of all – much more than laid-off workers or beleaguered homeowners received from this Democratic administration – and the president resisted calls from the left to nationalize the banks he rescued, as did the British.

U.S. moderates aren’t in the middle

Chrystia Freeland
Jul 6, 2012 15:12 UTC

Go to the Aspen Ideas Festival – or to any similar confab of affluent elites gathered to solve the problems of the world in luxurious, remote hamlets – and you can be sure that a dominant theme will be a lament for the vanishing political center.

Where, panel after panel will ask, are the wise moderates, able to seek compromise and rise above partisanship in pursuit of the public good? America’s biggest problems, and its inability to tackle them head-on, will usually be cited as the consequence of this lack of a sensible middle.

Most of the wealthy and well-positioned people in the rooms where these sorts of discussions are conducted see themselves as members of that sadly disempowered middle, so reflections along these lines are generally well received.

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.”

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.

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