Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

The pope’s divisions

Nicholas Wapshott
Dec 30, 2013 15:29 UTC

The political roundups of 2013 make little mention of perhaps the most important event to alter the political landscape in the last 12 months. It was not the incompetence of the Obamacare rollout — though that will resonate beyond the November midterms. Nor was it House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) finally snapping at the Tea Party hounds who have been nipping at his heels.

No, it was the March 13 election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a cardinal from Argentina, as pope of the Roman Catholic Church.

It is significant the new pope chose as his name Francis, after Francis of Assisi, the 12th century saint who shunned comfort and wealth, and devoted his life to helping the poor and treating animals humanely. Pope Francis said he was inspired by a Brazilian colleague, who whispered to him, “Don’t forget the poor.” Since then he has rarely missed the chance to reprimand the rich and embrace the poor, as shown by his refusal to adopt the palatial papal lifestyle in favor of more modest accommodation.

The conservative saint Margaret Thatcher also embraced Francis of Assisi on being elected British prime minister in 1979. On the doorstep of 10 Downing Street, she quoted the verse attributed to St. Francis (though not written by him), “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.”

Thatcher, incapable of irony, plainly meant what she said. Though few who lived through her reign would recognize the spirit of reconciliation in her divisive policies.

The end of budget scare politics

Nicholas Wapshott
Dec 23, 2013 15:57 UTC

“Are you kidding me!” The cry of anguished disbelief from House Speaker John Boehner has brought down the curtain on a five-year-long battle over public debt that will not be lifted until the presidential election of November 2016.

There may be scuffles and there will be a good deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth, but members of the Republican leadership have concluded their attempts to pay down the massive federal government borrowing will be put on hold until they have control of the presidency and both houses of Congress.

This has been a long journey. America already owed a great deal when the financial freeze of 2008 sent the economy over a cliff. To save the nation — and the world — from penury not seen since the Great Depression 80 years before, George W. Bush’s Treasury team ignored the advice of many of their fiscally conservative supporters and proposed that $800 billion more be borrowed and spent without delay.

Obama, Castro, and the perversity of the Cuban embargo

Nicholas Wapshott
Dec 16, 2013 16:50 UTC

There has been a lot of clucking about President Barack Obama shaking hands with Raúl Castro at the funeral of Nelson Mandela. For some it was bad enough that a president the Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin accused of “palling around with terrorists” should extend his hand to a Cuban communist tyrant, while mourning a world hero that former Vice President Dick Cheney still thinks was a terrorist.

Whether Obama was entering into Mandela’s contagious spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness, or following in the footsteps of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in reaching out to communist enemies, or merely being good-mannered is not clear. What seems plain, however, is that nothing much will come of it. The trade and travel embargo imposed upon Cuba by the United States in 1960 after the communist revolution nationalized American-owned property will remain in force.  

But is maintaining the Cuban freeze a good thing for America? For the world? For Cubans? No, no, and no.

Healthcare.gov: Private shame, public blame

Nicholas Wapshott
Dec 10, 2013 05:24 UTC

The glitches that have dogged the government’s universal healthcare site have cast a dark shadow over the presidency and over the Democratic Party as they enter an election year when they could easily lose the Senate. The failure of anyone within the Obama administration to notice in the three long years of preparation that something was seriously amiss is an abject failure of management that has led to a self-inflicted political catastrophe.

The inept rollout has allowed the president’s enemies to claim that that is what comes of allowing the government to interfere in the healthcare market. Obamacare’s troubled birth is cited as irrefutable evidence that the public sector is particularly ill-fitted to deal with something as important as healthcare. Had the process been left to the private sector, they argue, the website would have worked and Americans been better served.

But hold on. Obamacare may be a government-run enterprise, but the profound errors in building the site were overwhelmingly due to the incompetence of the private sector.

What Mandela meant

Nicholas Wapshott
Dec 5, 2013 22:04 UTC

Nelson Mandela will be remembered as the person who, more than any other, brought an end to apartheid, the heartless policy of “separate development” in which white, black and South Asian South Africans were obliged to live apart. It is part of his towering achievement that the very notion of racial segregation is anathema to democrats throughout the civilized world. He will be mourned as a freedom fighter and the father of his nation, whose wisdom, patience and courage tormented his oppressors and finally drove them to accept that racial discrimination should have no place in a system of government.

Along with eight other conspirators, in 1964 Mandela was accused of sabotage and armed insurrection against the apartheid state. (He admitted sabotage but denied conspiring to violently overthrow the government.) He spent the next 18 years caged in primitive conditions on Robben Island and a further six in Pollsmoor Prison. Outside the prison walls, the government insisted on “grand apartheid,” the creed that insisted that whites, “natives,” “Asians” and “coloreds” should live in separate areas. Education, medicine, public services, and public spaces and buildings were similarly apportioned by race.

The genius of Mandela lay in the power of his extraordinary character. From his lone prison cell, where he was allowed a single outside visitor and one heavily censored letter every six months, his example was used to undermine the legitimacy of apartheid. Outside of South Africa, his imprisonment became a symbol of racial oppression. His release from prison in October 1989 led directly to the collapse of white rule. His election as president concluded a dark and bitter chapter in the African continent’s history.

Does Japan show us the way out of secular stagnation?

Nicholas Wapshott
Dec 2, 2013 16:46 UTC

Is America’s economy adrift in the doldrums? Lawrence Summers, perhaps the nation’s most inventive applied economist, thinks so. Speaking to an IMF forum last month, he described America’s current condition as “secular stagnation” in which we are stuck in a rut of weak demand, low growth, and low employment. This is the “L-shaped” recovery, or — strictly speaking, non-recovery — some warned about after the financial freeze of 2008. It is also sometimes dubbed “the new normal.”

“We may well need in the years ahead to think about how we manage an economy in which the zero nominal interest rate is a chronic and systemic inhibitor of economic activities, holding our economies back below their potential,” Summers said. The phenomenon is not new; after all, before 2008, when Alan Greenspan had ensured endless cheap money through low interest rates, leading to asset bubbles, the real economy did not respond.

“Even a great bubble wasn’t enough to produce any excess of aggregate demand,” Summers said. “Even with artificial stimulus to demand, coming from all this financial imprudence, you wouldn’t see any excess.”

  •