Opinion

The Great Debate

from Breakingviews:

James Hoffa: Let sun shine on corporate donations

By James Hoffa
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews guest columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Companies increasingly are playing an outsized role in U.S. elections. In many cases, they donate money to advocate controversial policies that could antagonize their customers and undermine their businesses. Because so many of these contributions are not disclosed, however, shareholders are left in the dark and unable to evaluate potential conflicts or risks.

Investors are demanding improved corporate disclosures through shareholder resolutions and by urging the Securities and Exchange Commission to adopt new rules. Despite hundreds of thousands of letters from investors urging the agency to take action, it dropped the issue from its list of regulatory priorities earlier this year.

While some companies have done the right thing by making all their political expenditures public, there are still too many publicly listed ones that refuse to raise the veil of secrecy regarding their political giving.

The Teamsters invests more than $100 billion in the capital markets through affiliated pension and benefit funds. In addition, our members trade as individuals and as participants in employer-sponsored plans. We are part of a growing chorus of shareholders concerned about political spending.

Why Egyptians voted for Sisi

sisi55

Former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is set to win the presidential elections in Egypt this week, almost a year after Egypt’s military reasserted formal control following widespread revolts against Mohamed Mursi.

While a popular uprising preceded the military’s intervention last June, the counter-revolutionary crackdown that followed over the past nine months has soured many Egyptians against the current order. So why is Sisi going to be Egypt’s next president, and why would the same Egyptians who ousted Hosni Mubarak now clamor for another authoritarian military man to take power, rather than support a more inclusive democratic process? Is the clock being turned back?

Few observers outside Egypt understand the reason for Sisi’s popularity, which is based largely on the desire for security. Many Egyptians feel that the country has become chaotic: if forced to choose between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, they prefer the military. While both are authoritarian organizations, the military has more experience, national loyalty, and respect for Egypt as a country, rather than part of a wider pan-Islamic region. Its view of Islam is more mainstream.

Afghan elections redefine U.S. role

On Saturday, Afghans will go to the polls to elect a new president, marking a critical turning point in Afghanistan’s history and our role in the country.

This election comes at an important time in U.S.-Afghan relations, which have been hindered by the erratic and often insulting behavior of President Hamid Karzai. The outcome will present an opportunity for the United States to redefine our relationship with Afghanistan in a way that addresses our shared security concerns and the long-term stability and viability of the country.

Make no mistake, the democratic transition to a new president would not be possible without the last 12 years of sacrifices made by the United States. The Afghan people and Americans owe a profound debt of gratitude to our armed forces, diplomats and U.S. Agency for International Development workers who helped transform Afghanistan from a failed state to fledgling democracy.

In Turkey, taking on West wins elections

Is Turkish leader crazy, or crazy like a fox?

Confronted by a series of revelations involving corruption, Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan countered by banning Twitter by court order last Friday. He has now moved onto other social media networks — blocking YouTube on Thursday.

Though another court ordered Erdogan’s Twitter ban to be lifted this week, his repressive regime looks intent on lashing out at social media as part of a broad policy aimed at controlling the important municipal elections on Sunday.

This is all part of Erdogan’s calculated effort, as Amnesty International describes, to “silence and smear those speaking out against the government’s crackdown on the protest movement, including doctors, lawyers and journalists.” This crackdown has, not surprisingly, resulted not only in massive protests within Turkey, but exasperation from Turkey’s allies in the West.

Why ‘anti-European populists’ won’t win big in the European elections

For months EU politicians have been warning us about the upcoming elections for the European Parliament (EP), to be held in May in all 28 member states. European Commission President Jose Barroso recently predicted “a festival of unfounded reproaches against Europe” as a consequence of the EU-wide “rise of extremism from the extreme right and from the extreme left.” The media has mostly followed these political messages, publishing countless articles, editorials and op-eds about the upcoming European apocalypse. Most of these stories refer exclusively to the rise of the right wing French National Front (FN), under new leader Marine Le Pen, arguing that her party’s rising popularity parallels that of other extreme nationalist parties across Europe. In addition, as is often the case in European politics, many articles and op-eds also include references to the Great Depression of the 1930s and a return of fascism.

Most media coverage remains vague on the exact electoral strength of the “anti-European populists”– a political construction by the pro-EU elite that includes far left, far right, populist, and hard Euroskeptic parties. Editorials mainly stress that “rampant right-wing populism” will make significant gains and the anti-Europeans will become important players in the new EP. Most of these commentators believe that the anti-European camp will gain between one-quarter and one-third of all 766 seats in the EP. Whatever the exact number of seats, many fear an American scenario, where the “European Tea Parties” could force a shutdown of the EP and, thereby, the EU.

These predictions, however, are highly unrealistic and seldom substantiated by logic. My own predictions, based largely on the results of the last national elections and adjusted on the basis of recent opinion polls, show rather small gains. Far right parties will probably only gain around 40 seats, which is less than the 44 they won in the 2009 European elections. I exclude some parties that other commentators wrongly include in the far right category, like The Finns and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which I include in the amorphous group of “anti-European populists.” All together these latter parties, which often oppose each other even stronger than they oppose the EU, are estimated to win some 125 seats (approximately 16 percent), against the 92 they hold now. That looks like a significant increase, of roughly one-third, but almost 20 seats are gained by just one party, the Italian Five Star Movement (M5S), which is among the least Euroskeptic of this motley crew.

Let’s make candidates pledge not to use bots

Bots — chunks of computer code that generate messages and replicate themselves — have been infecting political discourse around the world. They have been spotted try to influence elections in the United Kingdom, Mexico and just recently, South Korea. Politicians there have been using bots to torment their opponents, muddle political conversations, and misdirect debate. We need political leaders to pledge not to use them.

In Canada’s last election, one-fifth of the Twitter followers of the country’s leading political figures were bots. Even Mitt Romney had a bot problem, though it’s not clear whether exaggerating the number of Twitter followers he had was a deliberate strategy or an attempt by outsiders to make him look bad. We know that authoritarian governments in Azerbaijan, Russia, and Venezuela use bots. The governments of Bahrain, Syria and Iran have used bots as part of their counter-insurgency strategies. The Chinese government uses bots to shape public opinion around the world and at home, especially on sensitive topics like the status of Tibet.

Bots are becoming more and more prevalent. And social media is becoming a more and more important source of political news and information, especially for young people, and especially for people living in countries where the main journalistic outlets are deficient. Sophisticated technology users can sometimes spot a bot, but the best bots can be quite successful at poisoning a political conversation. Would political campaign managers in a democracy like the United States actually use them?

Fighting for democracy in South Asia

For the first time in post-colonial history, all of the countries of South Asia are democracies.

From Bhutan to Bangladesh, Kabul to Kathmandu, democratic institutions are taking hold and giving people a voice in how they are governed. But these historic gains could be short-lived if troubling trends in some impending political transitions go unchecked.

Over the next six months, more than one billion voters across South Asia will choose leaders of some of the most diverse and vibrant countries in the world. Coming elections in India and Afghanistan and successful recent elections in Pakistan and Bhutan illustrate the depth of passion voters across the region have shown for electoral democracy.

Seeking ‘good-enough-governance’ — not democracy

Only rarely have American leaders been able to reconcile the nation’s democratic values, material interest and national security.

Despite these tensions, promoting democracy has always been a lodestone for American foreign policy. Sometimes its attraction has been weak, very weak, overshadowed by more immediate national security concerns. During the Cold, War, for example, the United States backed many autocratic leaders in exchange for their support against the Soviet Union — or at least for pretending to be democrats. Sometimes, very rarely, as in the case of Germany and Japan after World War Two or Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union, all good things — freedom, security, economic prosperity — have gone together. But these moments are exceptional.

Often the most effective way to increase the chances of freedom in the long run is to improve the prospects for security and economic growth in the short run — rather than pressing for direct democratic reforms.

When political compromise is suspect

The odds are that the extremely close national election wasn’t close at all in the place where you live.

And that’s a problem.

For the past four decades, Americans have been self-segregating into communities where they are increasingly likely to vote with their neighbors in overwhelming majorities. In 1976, only a quarter of voters lived in a county where either Jimmy Carter or Gerald Ford won by 20 points or more. By 2008, 46.7 percent of voters lived in one of these landslide counties.

This year, the national margins narrowed still further. But more than half of all voters (52 percent) lived in a county where either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney won by 20 percentage points or more.

Obama should raise taxes on the middle class

It won’t be easy for President Obama to do big things in his second term, with Congress still divided. Yet one legacy-caliber goal is easily within reach: Obama can restore fiscal balance without deep spending cuts by doing, well, nothing. By simply letting the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of this year, for everyone, and vetoing all future tax cuts, the president would leave office in four years with America’s fiscal house largely in order while ensuring a strong federal government for years to come.

Economists predict that allowing the U.S. to go over the “fiscal cliff” would produce a mild recession, and they are probably right. But with signs pointing to a slow yet steady recovery, that downturn would likely be short-lived and worth the longer term gain of achieving fiscal stability without taking a meat clever to key government programs.

Obama promised on the campaign trail that he wouldn’t raise taxes on the middle class and implied that repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy would yield enough revenue. In fact, more than three-quarters of all revenue lost by the U.S. Treasury because of the Bush tax cuts is due to cuts that benefit households making under $250,000, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Simple math suggests that as long as the vast majority of earners are paying the lowest tax rates in half a century, it will be hard to tame the deficit without deep spending cuts.

  •