Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

Statecraft via Twitter

Chrystia Freeland
Apr 5, 2012 21:36 UTC

It turns out you can govern in 140 characters. Social media is often accused of coarsening our public discourse and of making us stupid. But some innovative public leaders are taking to their keyboards and finding that the payoff is a direct and personal connection with their communities.

To understand how statecraft by Twitter works, I spoke to three avid practitioners, who are spread around the globe and work at different levels of government: Carl Bildt, the foreign minister of Sweden; Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia; and Naheed Nenshi, the mayor of Calgary, Alberta.

Bildt is a veteran blogger, but he was dubious about Web 2.0, as the social-media revolution is sometimes called. “I was rather skeptical on Twitter,” he told me. “I thought, ‘What can you say in 140 characters?’”

But Bildt, who has more than 116,000 followers , soon found Twitter to be “very useful” and also “fun.”

“As a matter of fact, you can say something in 140 characters,” he said. “The restriction isn’t as absolute as I had thought.”

Manufacturing redux

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 29, 2012 20:17 UTC

Chalk one up for continental Europe’s economic architects. For the past several decades, the Anglo-Saxon consensus was that state interference in the private-sector economy was a mistake. Government bureaucrats were in no position to pick economic winners and losers – and if standing aside meant letting the forces of creative destruction sweep away entire industries, so be it.

The continental Europeans, most successfully the Germans, demurred. They were unconvinced that the shift from manufacturing to services was either good or inevitable, and they used the full might of the state to try to hang on to their industrial base. The financial crisis may have briefly felt like a vindication of this model – but the near collapse and continued frailty of the euro brought a quick end to that moment of schadenfreude.

When it comes to manufacturing, though, the European approach is being embraced in the White House. In a speech this week, Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council and assistant to the president for economic policy, laid out the economic rationale for the U.S. shift. When I spoke to him afterward, Sperling was careful to point out that the new approach did not amount to industrial policy, or an attempt by the government to pick winners and losers.

Trickle-down consumption

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 22, 2012 23:29 UTC

We know now that trickle-down economics doesn’t really work – the past decade in the United States has seen incomes at the very top soar, while the earnings of the middle class stagnated or declined. But a growing body of academic research is suggesting that this benign force’s wicked stepsister, a phenomenon two economists have dubbed ‘‘trickle-down consumption,’’ is having a powerful impact on the economy and politics of the United States.

The idea is that income inequality has a significant impact on the 99 percent: It drives the rest of us to consume more, whether we can afford to or not.

Robert H. Frank, an economist at Cornell University, is a pioneering student of this behavior who has been writing about the subject for nearly two decades, long before it became fashionable. Frank, who is the co-author of two economics textbooks with the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, believes that rising income inequality affects the rest of us through what he calls ‘‘expenditure cascades.’’

Loose cultures and free women

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 15, 2012 19:51 UTC

With hindsight, we may find that the 2016 U.S. presidential race began last week, when Hillary Rodham Clinton made a politically electrifying point. ‘‘Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me,’’ she said at the Women in the World conference in New York. ‘‘But they all seem to. It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim. They want to control women.’’

At a time when birth control has re-emerged as a political issue in the United States, 94 years after the first legal ruling to permit it, Clinton’s comments were an inspiring rallying cry for worried American women. But what about the mystery she identified? Why, as the secretary of state asserted, do extremists, from the Taliban to conservative Christians, want to control women?

An intriguing new study by two professors at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto suggests a possible answer. (Disclosure: I am on the school’s Dean’s Advisory Board.) Soo Min Toh and Geoffrey Leonardelli didn’t set out to discover why extremists want to control women. Their question was more familiar: Why aren’t there more female leaders?

The 1 percent recovery

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 8, 2012 23:58 UTC

Forget Roman Catholics and contraception, evangelicals and Mormonism, Newt Gingrich’s three wives and even Mitt Romney’s dog. If you are struggling to understand a roller-coaster U.S. election season, described by one writer as “wackadoodle,” your Rosetta Stone should be a dry academic paper by the economist Emmanuel Saez.

In an age of celebrity scholars, Saez, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, is a shy data jock who does most of his communicating by marshaling vast pools of statistics. But he has probably done more than any pundit or political spinmeister to shape the political narrative of our age — it is the number-crunching of Saez and his longtime collaborator, Thomas Piketty, that gave us the notion of the 1 percent and the evidence that they are pulling away from everyone else.

That’s why, in the community where economics and politics intersect, a new Saez paper is hot news. And his latest, which set Twitter abuzz this week, is a humdinger. Saez has come up with a killer fact: In the 2010 recovery, 93 percent of the gains were captured by the top 1 percent. That’s because top incomes grew 11.6 percent in 2010, while the incomes of the 99 percent increased only 0.2 percent.

Prosperity, autocracy and democracy

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 2, 2012 00:00 UTC

To understand the significance of the presidential election this weekend in Russia, read a book by two U.S.-based academics that is being published this month. Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, respectively, is a wildly ambitious work that hopscotches through history and around the world to answer the very big question of why some countries get rich and others don’t.

Their one-word answer, as Acemoglu summed it up for me, is ‘‘politics.’’ Acemoglu and Robinson divide the world into countries governed by ‘‘inclusive’’ institutions and those ruled by ‘‘extractive’’ ones. Inclusive societies, with England and its Glorious Revolution of 1688 in the vanguard, deliver sustainable growth and technological innovation. Extractive ones can have spurts of prosperity, but because they are ruled by a narrow elite guided by its own self-interest, their economic vigor eventually fades.

‘‘It is really about societies that have a more equitable distribution of political power versus those that don’t,’’ Acemoglu told me. ‘‘It is about societies where the elite, the rich, can do what they want and those where they cannot.’’

China’s ‘Apple authoritarianism’

Chrystia Freeland
Feb 24, 2012 02:15 UTC

Are we outsourcing repression to China? That is the fear driving stepped-up scrutiny of labor conditions at Foxconn, the consumer electronics maker that assembles products for a number of Western technology companies, most prominently Apple.

As one blogger put it before watching the latest high-profile investigation, aired this week on the ABC news program Nightline: ‘‘I had been worried that after I watched the report, I’d feel angst-ridden and guilty about using my iPad, iPhone, or MacBook Pro.’’ An independent assessor working with the Fair Labor Association, a non-profit group that Apple has hired to audit conditions at the plants, said the California company was facing its ‘‘Nike moment,’’ a reference to the 1990s, when the sporting goods maker was accused of using Asian sweatshops to manufacture its iconic sneakers.

The conditions at Foxconn are indeed grim: 12-hour shifts doing boring, repetitive work; dorms that pack seven workers into each room; commands issued by a disembodied fembot. And the ABC cameras and FLA auditors surely didn’t see the worst of it: Foxconn first came to international attention in the spring of 2010, when 18 workers killed themselves, or tried to.

Former Senator Alan Simpson on Freeland File

Chrystia Freeland
Feb 17, 2012 15:42 UTC

Today at 11am, Chrystia will interview Alan Simpson live on YouTube. She and the former senator will discuss the Obama administration’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year as well as his new memoir, Shooting from the Lip: The Life of Senator Al Simpson. You can watch the whole thing here:

Rich shouldn’t have to pay taxes, Santorum backer says

Chrystia Freeland
Feb 17, 2012 14:54 UTC

In an age of rising income inequality, one of the big questions is what impact the growing gap will have on democracy. Francis Fukuyama worries about it in this month’s Foreign Affairs, in an essay that bears the worrying subtitle, “Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class?” President Barack Obama, as he signaled again with his budget this week, is putting the issue at the center of his re-election campaign.

The powerful connection between money and politics is also on vivid display in the roller-coaster Republican race, where Rick Santorum owes his surge in part to the generosity of the Wyoming multimillionaire Foster Friess, whose “super PAC” helped keep Santorum’s candidacy alive by running TV ads on his behalf.

I interviewed Friess a few days ago, before he made his headline-grabbing remark about women using aspirin as contraceptives in his earlier days (“The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn’t that costly.”) He’s a folksy, white-haired, septuagenarian charmer whose Web site features a photo of him astride a horse and “Foster’s Campfire Blog.” He also has unequivocal views about the proper relationships among the wealthy, the state and politics.

Rise of the machines

Chrystia Freeland
Feb 9, 2012 22:57 UTC

If you want to get a finger-tip feel for one of the most important transformations in our world today, read The Fear Index, Robert Harris’s new thriller.

Harris has been widely praised for his adept portrayal of the hedge fund universe in which his novel is set. “The greatest pleasure of this book is that it gets the finance right,” cooed Felix Salmon, the Reuters finance blogger whose keyboard often oozes acid.

He is right that Harris’s hedgies are a welcome and realistic departure from the Masters of the Universe of most popular fiction. For one thing, these are the alpha geeks, the nerdy doctorate-holders whose testosterone is channeled into equations instead of frat-house swagger.

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