Opinion

The Great Debate

Putin projects Russia’s unreal reality

In the summer of 1787, Catherine the Great of Russia set out to inspect the recent additions to her far-flung czardom, including the Crimean peninsula, annexed from the Ottoman Empire four years earlier.

Catherine’s lover, Prince Grigory Potemkin, the governor-general of these new southern provinces, knew shabby landscapes wouldn’t satisfy the German-born empress, who set high standards for order. So he lined her route with wooden boards painted with cheerful housing façades, to hide the squalor of the serfs’ lives. On her return to St. Petersburg, Catherine announced she was pleased with her new territory’s bucolic riches.

Thus the Potemkin village was born, giving definition to most of Russia’s actions. In today’s Crimean tug of war between Ukraine and Russia, Catherine’s level of delusion about her surroundings helps explain Russian President Vladimir Putin’s view of the world he lives in. In trying to create his own reality on the ground, Putin imagines life not as it is, but as he wants it to be.

Putin’s promise to restore Russian self-respect, for example, which had been shattered by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the bitter loss of superpower status, has centered on bullying Europe. He is intent on cowing the continent into submissively accepting Russia’s sphere of “privileged interest” in all the “near abroad” states of the former Soviet Union.

He did this when he flexed his military muscle in Georgia in 2008, and also when he manipulated oil and gas prices and supplies in Ukraine in 2009. By invading Crimea to parade his power on the world stage, Putin has now convinced many people that Russia is back.

The Republican war cuts through CPAC

The 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference has ended but the harsh debate between the Republican establishment and the Tea Party goes on. Though nothing remains static indefinitely. Things do change.

The venerated conference, for example, begun years ago in a room at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel, has more of a corporate, insider feel than in the Reagan days. During the 70s and 80s, this meeting possessed a revolutionary “up the establishment” flair.

Some in the Tea Party complained that this year’s conference favored establishment incumbents, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senator John Cornyn (R-Tex.), rather than offering a platform to their conservative challengers.

Why regulation — on yogurt and more — is blocking Greece’s recovery

The news that Greek-style yogurt maker Chobani is looking to sell a minority stake that would value the company at around $2.5 billion should in theory be a big boost for Greece’s beleaguered dairy industry.

But instead, the main beneficiary will be Chobani’s Turkish founder, who operates the company in upstate New York, and who has proved to be innovative in a way that Greek dairy farmers are not. In fact, they are so stuck in their traditional ways that it’s actually illegal in Greece to call low-fat yogurt “yogurt.” Any variant that contains additives of any sort must be labeled “dessert of yogurt,” which is akin to waving a warning flag at consumers.

That sort of rigid regulation is the norm in Greece, and not just in agriculture. Examples abound. There’s a rule dating back to the 1970s that prohibits producers of apple vinegar from packaging it in anything other than one liter bottles. Another set of regulations, this time from the 1980s, outlaws bulk sales of mayonnaise and the import of some types of cloves. Supermarkets are prohibited from selling aspirin. Fresh milk is required by law to have a shelf life of just five days. As for olive oil, one of the staples of the Mediterranean diet and an important source of revenue for the Greek economy, producers are strictly forbidden from blending it with vegetable oil for domestic consumption. The rationale: olive oil is at the core of the Greek diet, and the health of the population is at stake.

Plutocrat manipulates stock? Old news!

On Monday, the New York Times detailed William A. Ackman’s “extraordinary attempt to leverage the corridors of power” in order to to drive down Herbalife stock prices. Ackman, who runs the hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management, has gone short on Herbalife.

He stands to make a great deal of money if the stock price declines — and he is not about to leave its decline to chance. So, the Times reports, Ackman has enlisted congressional representatives to solicit an investigation. He has organized news conferences and letter-writing campaigns. He is trying to make his attack on Herbalife’s stock seem a grassroots, civil rights issue.

The only thing extraordinary about all of this, however, is that the New York Times finds it extraordinary. These are some of the hoariest practices in American capitalism. Indeed, in 1886, Isaac Bromley, who was both a journalist and a lobbyist, accused the Times of being a tool of Wall Street bears in driving down Union Pacific stock. Bulls were using two other papers, the Indicator and the Graphic, to boost the stock.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

European leaders show their weakness

 

The European Union, at the forefront of the hostilities between Russia and the West, is in a bind.

It has belatedly adopted Ukraine as one of its own. Yet the EU economy is so frail,  thanks to its beggar-thy-neighbor economic policies, that it is reluctant to use financial and trade sanctions to punish Russia for occupying Crimea and threatening to occupy the eastern part of Ukraine.

Even if the EU appeases Russian President Vladimir Putin’s territorial expansionism and allows Crimea to be annexed, it is going to pay a heavy political and economic price. Had German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who drives the European enlargement project, and the International Monetary Fund been more clear about wanting Ukraine to eventually join the European Union, and more generous in their dealings with the nascent democracy there, they would have saved the Ukrainian people a lot of suffering, the world a deal of agony -- and the EU a lot of money.

from Reihan Salam:

In search of ‘Mr. Republican’

Who will be the next “Mr. Republican”? While the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination gets underway, there is another, more informal race going on as well. Since the Second World War, there have been a handful of elected Republicans who have distinguished themselves not by winning the White House, but rather by setting the party’s ideological direction.

The first Mr. Republican was Robert A. Taft, the Ohio senator who served as the most scathing conservative critic of FDR and the New Deal, and who later warned that America’s Cold War entanglements threatened freedom at home. His successor was Barry Goldwater, who called for rolling back the frontiers of the welfare state at home and communism abroad, and through his crushing defeat paved the way for the Great Society and a vast expansion of federal power. Goldwater inspired a generation of conservatives, including Ronald Reagan, who eventually overpowered the moderates and liberals who once played a central role in the party.

Jack Kemp crafted a less hard-edged and more optimistic “bleeding-heart conservatism,” which celebrated economic growth as a painless way to finance rising social expenditures. And Newt Gingrich, as architect of the first Republican House majority in a generation, offered a combustible mix of high-minded techno-utopianism and scorched-earth partisanship that transformed American politics.

from Lawrence Summers:

Ukraine: Don’t repeat past mistakes

The events in Ukraine have now made effective external support for successful economic and political reform there even more crucial. The world community is rising to the occasion, with concrete indications of aid coming not just from the International Monetary Fund and other international financial institutions but also the United States, the European Union and the G20.

At one level, the Ukraine situation is unique -- particularly the geopolitical aspects associated with Russia’s presence in Crimea and the issues raised by Ukraine’s strategically sensitive location between Russia and Europe.

At a broader level, the world community has seen many examples over the last generation where an illegitimate, or at least highly problematic, government was brought down and the world community sought to support economic reform and a new, presumably more democratic and legitimate one. Think of the transitions after the Berlin Wall fell or the Arab Spring.

For Bibi, time for talk is past

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to last week’s National Conference of the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was another rhetorical tour-de-force by this most silvered-tongued of Israeli leaders.

Netanyahu again promised to defend Israel against an Iranian nuclear threat and to be beholden to no other nation in his zeal to protect his people. There were applause lines for almost everyone.

He attacked efforts to orchestrate boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions against Israel in withering terms. He extolled Israeli medical advances and water conservation achievements, highlighted Israel’s role in treating victims of the Syrian civil war and envisaged Israeli strategic and economic cooperation with Arab Gulf States.

The nuclear option for emerging markets

Last year, greenhouse gas emissions reached a record high of 39 billion tons. Emissions actually dropped in the United States and Europe, but substantial increases in China and India more than erased this bit of good news.

That is all the more reason to focus on innovative solutions that slow the growth in emissions from emerging markets.

The U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal is one such solution.

The key principles of this agreement were signed by President George W. Bush and Prime Minster Manmohan Singh eight years ago this week. The deal brought India’s civilian nuclear program under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspection regime. In return, Washington removed sanctions and permitted India to build nuclear power plants with foreign help. Most of the discussion leading up to the deal has focused on its potential effect on non-proliferation treaties and on the partnership between the U.S. and India.

Cold War warmed over

Can we have a new Cold War without a communist threat?  Some important political players seem to think so.

One of them is Russian President Vladimir Putin. At his surreal press conference, Putin depicted the protest that overthrew the pro-Russian government in Ukraine as a plot by the West to undermine Russia. He even accused the United States of training the Kiev protesters: “I have a feeling that they sit somewhere in a lab in America . . . and conduct experiments, as if with rats, without understanding the consequences of what they are doing.”

Then there’s Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who seemed thrilled over the prospect of a new Cold War.  “We are all Ukrainians now!” McCain declared in what sounded like a call to arms. He even dragged out an article President Barack Obama wrote for a college publication more than 30 years ago. Obama had argued that “President Reagan’s defense buildup” had “distorted national priorities.

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