Opinion

The Great Debate

What Beijing can learn from Wal-Mart

“So, how?”

The question, short for “So, how do you want to handle this?” is a common, subtle way to invite someone to offer you a bribe in Asia. A traffic cop pulls you over for running a yellow light. He’s at your passenger window, a leather strap covering his name tag. He tells you to follow him to the police station so he can process your $100 fine. “So, how?”

If you slip 10 dollars into his ticket book — 20 dollars if you’re a foreigner — he’ll close it, and you’ll both be on your way.

It’s small scale — not like the graft that accompanied China’s high-speed rail system — but it happens all the time in Asia’s developing countries: in traffic, at customs offices, while getting and keeping licenses of all sorts. Nowhere is the bribery problem more severe, and more relevant to the rest of the world, than in China. Three years ago, China’s central bank reported that up to 18,000 officials have fled the country since the 1990s, taking some RMB 800 billion ($128 billion) with them. China lost almost $3 trillion in illicit financial outflows — crooked officials and businesspeople moving their dirty money out of the country — between 2000 and 2009, according to estimates by Global Financial Integrity, a Washington, D.C. financial watchdog. Because China is the world’s largest exporter, bribery in manufacturing and food production — and the related quality control issues — is a global problem.

Wal-Mart is in the news this week for not paying bribes in China — or at least, that’s the underlying premise in the retailer’s three-year-long struggle with Chinese authorities. On April 13 the Wall Street Journal reported that the Chinese government has fined Wal-Mart $9.8 million for infractions ranging from having the words “net weight” in a too-small font ($486) to botching the genus and species on an almond label ($2,323). China’s domestic companies rarely face such scrutiny.

Anyone who has ever run a retailer in a developing country can see how these fines come to be — and how they are often avoided. It’s easy to picture government inspectors in pursuit of extra income, swarming stores across China, finding minor infractions, and asking “So, how?”

Populism? Where are the pitchforks?

Americans are in a surly mood, confronting rules they feel are rigged against them. President Barack Obama captured this populist temper in his re-election campaign.  He then launched his second term declaring that inequality is the “most pressing challenge of our time,” and laying out a popular agenda to raise the federal minimum wage, provide pay equity for women, establish universal pre-school and other initiatives that polls show the public strongly supports.

Republican obstruction, however, has blocked progress on all these — even as the House GOP last week passed Representative Paul Ryan’s budget, which cuts taxes for the rich and corporations, turns Medicare into a voucher program, slashes spending on education and protects subsidies to Big Oil.

Yet it is the president’s popularity that has cratered. Republicans are expected to easily retain control of the House in the November midterm elections — though Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) refuses to move bills on any of the public’s agenda. The Democratic Senate majority appears endangered. Data maestro Nate Silver is making the Republicans favorites to take the Senate in the fall midterms.   The New York Times reports Democrats are “scrambling to avoid disaster.”

Odessa: Ukrainian port that inspired big dreams

Tensions have been rising in many corners of Ukraine as the threat of a Russian intervention looms. Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odessa is one such corner of dispute between Moscow and Kiev, where macro-battles have been transformed into a seemingly endless chain of micro-conflicts.

Supporters of both countries have taken to marching through the streets, ominously threatening each other. The Ukrainian government is trying to wrest control of the local oil refinery — one of the country’s most important — away from a Russian bank. Tension is visible in the smallest aspects of life.

Odessa’s role as a site of unbridled Ukrainian-Russian competition is not surprising. Though within Ukraine, the city is overwhelmingly Russian-speaking. Prominent Russian political figures regularly proclaim their right to take back what was theirs — from Alaska to Finland.

The lost promise of progressive taxes

By midnight on April 15, roughly 140 million Americans will have filed their federal income tax returns and breathed a sigh of relief. Politicians from both parties, however, will spend most of the day criticizing our current tax system.

Conservatives bemoan that not enough people are paying taxes. They insist that a minority of “job creators” and “makers” are underwriting the social benefits that go to the “takers.” Liberals cite the growing concentration of wealth and lament that the rich don’t pay their fair share. In this new Gilded Age, they say, the 1 percent should be paying far more of their annual earnings.

Yet neither party seems willing to reform our tax system dramatically. Both avoid talking about the vital link between taxes and government spending. This was not always the case.

from Stories I’d like to see:

Sealing deadly court files, and Obama and his Cabinet

1. Sealing deadly court files:

In the wake of continuing disclosures about General Motors’ failure to acknowledge critical safety issues related to faulty ignition switches, there’s a looming issue that has not been addressed: How litigation settlements negotiated by private parties can result in court-sanctioned cover-ups that endanger the public.

We now know that there were several cases in which the families of people who died in crashes after ignition switches failed quietly received cash settlements from GM.

In return for the cash, the plaintiffs not only promised to withhold the settlement details but also agreed with GM that the court files would be sealed. In some cases, those sealed records included documents and transcripts of pre-trial deposition testimony that contained evidence gathered about the dangers of the faulty switches.

Post Rwanda: Invest in atrocity prevention

In the 20 years since the horrific 1994 genocide in Rwanda and its terrible spillover into the Congo, it has been clear that the global community remains ill-equipped to address such human-made catastrophic tragedies.

While many have worked to heal Rwanda, crises of unfathomable mass violence have continued to unfold in places like Sierra Leone, the former Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Syria. In each case, the international community has failed to live up to a global commitment to prevention, protection and accountability for mass crimes.

War and mass violence not only halts development, it reverses it — scarring the lives and memories of new generations.  This creates traumatized societies — one of the biggest factors contributing to conflict.

America: The anecdotal nation

In America today, anecdotes have become the new facts.

Consider Obamacare. Opponents have produced ads featuring apparently ordinary Americans telling stories about the travails forced upon them by the Affordable Care Act. One ad, financed by the Koch brothers, highlighted a leukemia sufferer named Julie Boonstra, who claimed that Obamacare had raised the cost of her medications so much that she was faced with death! Pretty dramatic stuff — except that numerous fact-checkers found she would actually save $1,200 under Obamacare.

But what are you going to believe — a sob story or a raft of statistics about the 7.5 million Americans who have signed up and the paltry 1 million folks who had policies canceled?

Or take global warming. Anecdotally speaking, conservatives have insisted that global warming must be a hoax because we have had such cold winters — never mind the scientists who have documented the Earth’s rising temperature. But what are you going to believe — the seasonal chill or the consensus of thousands of climate scientists whose data overwhelmingly support global warming?

from Nicholas Wapshott:

The EU-U.S. love-hate relationship

The elaborate gavotte between the American and European economies continues.

While the Federal Reserve has begun to wind down its controversial quantitative easing (QE) program, the European Central Bank (ECB) the federal reserve of the eurozone, has announced it is considering a QE program of its own.

It is a belated acknowledgement, if not an outright admission, from Mario Draghi, president of the ECB, that five years of the European Union’s austerity policy has failed to lift the eurozone nations out of the economic mire. The ECB has presided over a wholly unnecessary triple-dip recession in the eurozone and sparked a bitter rift between the German-dominated European Union bureaucracy and the Mediterranean nations that must endure the rigors imposed from Brussels. All to little avail.

If there are any “austerians” left standing, let them explain this. Ignoring the cries of the unemployed and those pressing for urgent measures to promote growth in Europe, the ECB blithely imposed its punishing creed, arguing that there would be no gain without pain. The result? Little gain, endless pain.

Liberals are winning the language war

Are conservatives linguistically challenged? Or are they just naïve enough to think they can win the battle of ideas with — ideas?

Okay, and money.

Conservatives, like liberals, will spend huge amounts of money this year to get their ideas across to voters. But what they fail to do is bundle their thoughts into a bright, shiny linguistic package that explodes in the face of their enemies when opened.

The left has assembled a rich lexicon of phrases that serve either as stilettos that can be turned again and again in the guts of their opponents, or shields that obscure their true intentions.

Ryan and the code words of race

It’s official. The House of Representatives has passed the federal budget for fiscal years 2015 through 2023 that was submitted by the House Budget Committee — a.k.a. the Ryan budget, after the Budget Committee’s chairman, Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — and the troops are on the march.

The subject line of one e-mail from the Democratic Campaign Committee’s rapid response team is: “1,000,000 Strong Against the Ryan Budget.” They are soliciting signatures to demand rejection of “any Paul Ryan budget” that “puts Big Oil and billionaire tax breaks before the 47 percent.”  There will be an “important debate,” says Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), ranking member on the Budget Committee, about the Ryan budget’s “lopsided set of priorities.”

Van Hollen is right — there will be a debate. But as we saw in the recent eruption over Ryan’s remarks about the absence of a work ethic in the nation’s inner cities, the debate will be obscured and twisted by the issue of race — as it has been for the past 50 years. The conversation will be marked by familiar code words and formulas.  It will do nothing to heal the endlessly searing wound that the Ryan controversy exposed in the individuals who bear it or make the wound more real to those who don’t.

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