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Third person spells trouble in politicians

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nixonOUKTP-UK-ITALY-BERLUSCONIBeware of politicians who speak about themselves in the third person. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are paranoid. But it is usually an indicator of some kind of trouble.

More than a decade before he was forced out of the White House for lying, destroying evidence, bugging his political opponents and covering up a crime in the Watergate affair, Richard Nixon (right) famously told journalists at what he said was his last press conference: “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more.”

Now Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (left) has taken to referring to himself in the third person as the victim of left-wing judges and the media (at least the parts of it that he doesn’t own or control). His response to the Italian Constitutional Court’s ruling on Wednesday overturning a law that granted the prime minister immunity from prosecution during his term in office was to declare:

Without Silvio, the country would be in the hands of the left and you all know what would happen. The trials that they are going to throw against me are a farce. Long live Italy! Long live Berlusconi! 

West raises stakes over Iran nuclear programme

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big-3President Obama and the leaders of France and Britain have deliberately raised the stakes in the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear programme by dramatising the disclosure that it is building a second uranium enrichment plant. Their shoulder-to-shoulder statements of resolve, less than a week before Iran opens talks with six major powers in Geneva, raised more questions than they answer.

It turns out that the United States has known for a long time (how long?) that Iran had been building the still incomplete plant near Qom. Did it share that intelligence with the U.N. nuclear watchdog, and if not, why not? Why did it wait until now, in the middle of a G20 summit in Pittsburgh, to make the announcement — after Iran had notified the International Atomic Energy Authority of the plant’s existence on Monday, after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had delivered a defiant speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday and after the Security Council had adopted a unanimous resolution calling for an end to the spread of nuclear weapons on Thursday?

Rethinking carbon diplomacy

Climate change was initially billed in a leading role at the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh. Now it looks set to make the briefest of cameo appearances.

Nonetheless, the gathering offers a crucial chance to recast the talks. The United Nations carbon process is in deep trouble and desperately needs help from the top. If the G20 heads of government want to avoid embarrassment at the Copenhagen Summit, they need to start to steer the talks in a new direction.

A chance for real change at the G20

For years, policy makers were able to cut and paste statements on global imbalances from one communique to the next. The words were never backed by action. This G20 meeting could very well be different.

Most commentators are not expecting much. Such cynicism is easy to understand. When the IMF tried to bang heads together in 2006 the result was a series of empty pledges. It now makes for comic reading.

Why Russia needs America

In the wake of President Obama’s decision to scrap the U.S. missile defence shield in eastern Europe, many are pondering Russia’s response. The relationship will remain in the spotlight this week, when President Medvedev heads to the U.S. for the G20 summit. Although the precise nature of Russia’s reaction remains to be seen, it has a big incentive to improve relations. It badly needs American investment and co-operation to help solve serious economic problems at home.

Critics of Obama’s decision worry that it will “embolden” Russia, causing more aggressive behaviour abroad. Yet they forget that the Bush administration’s antagonistic policies failed to provide security to Russia’s neighbours. These policies didn’t prevent Russia’s war with Georgia, the repeated gas disputes with Ukraine, and a serious cooling of relations with countries such as Poland. Far from being restrained, Russia’s confrontational attitude had a lot to do with its perception that the U.S. was busy encircling the country with missile bases and alliances.

“Tobin tax” gaining ground in Europe

No longer just a hopeless cause for anti-capitalist activists, the idea of a global tax on financial transactions is gaining ground in Europe.

European Union leaders could not agree to put it on the agenda of this week’s G20 summit on reforming the financial system in Pittsburgh, but the leaders of France, Germany and the European Commission endorsed the concept.
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Shelved missile shield tests NATO unity

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foghAfter just six weeks as NATO secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen has his first crisis. The alliance may be slowly bleeding in an intractable war in Afghanistan, but the immediate cause is the U.S. administration’s decision to shelve a planned missile shield due to have been built in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The shield, energetically promoted by former President George W. Bush, was designed to intercept a small number of missiles fired by Iran or some other ”rogue state”. But Russia saw it as a threat to its own nuclear deterrent and NATO’s new east European members saw it as a useful deterrent against Russian bullying, by putting U.S. strategic assets on their soil.

Free-trade advocates need to get real

President Barack Obama’s decision to impose safeguard tariffs on imported tyres from China has drawn predictable howls of outrage from economists, think tank staff and editorial writers — none of whom has seen their job exported to China. It would be more constructive if they devoted the same effort to devising ways to compensate losers from globalisation in order to shore up waning public support for trade liberalisation.
Between 2000 and 2008, almost 4 million jobs were lost in U.S. manufacturing (22 percent of the total), many as the result of offshoring and increasing competition from lower-cost manufacturers in China and elsewhere in Asia.

Over the same period, the federal government provided just $1 billion per year in extended unemployment benefits and retraining under the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) programme. In the fiscal year ending September 2008, TAA helped fewer than 100,000 workers who had lost jobs as a result of changing trade patterns.

Banking? Keep it simple stupid

In 1873, Walter Bagehot wrote that “the business of banking ought to be simple; if it is hard it is wrong.” He would have struggled to recognize today’s banking system.

It is not just ever more ornate derivatives that bend the mind. Financial firms themselves have become fabulously complicated. Citigroup lists 2,061 subsidiaries and affiliates while the institutional chart of JPMorgan Chase is 267 pages long.

Scavenging for good news in the jobs data

Interpreting the employment numbers has become an exercise in scavenging for good news. After a year of beefy job losses, any sign that the pace of deterioration is slowing is certainly welcome. Were it not for the Obama stimulus package, we would probably be continuing to see job declines of closer to half a million a month.

Even so, the data still don’t offer much hope of a vigorous recovery.

While layoffs are declining, there are precious few signs that companies are hiring. As a result the number of people without work for more than six months has reached an alarming 5 million.

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