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2005-03-29

[meta] Two posts not published 

Today I have deleted two draft-posts that were almost ready. The first one would have been politically cute and funny, I believe, but it was based on a description of events that was false. The second one was harsh and funny at a moderate level, but it was entirely destructive. Now I feel I've exhausted my time budget.

2005-03-25

Read the Head Heeb on the Future of Lebanon 

Only to remind you that there is nothing in principle that prevents bloggers from writing fantastically sophisticated and well-researched pieces of political analysis:

The Head Heeb, Lebanese Politics for Beginners, Part 5:
Only a fool would try to predict Lebanon's future. Not only is it hard enough to figure out the present, but the political situation is fluid enough that possibilities open and close by the day. Anyone who claims to know who the president of Lebanon will be in 2025, or what the country's electoral law will be, is speaking from clairvoyance rather than extrapolation. This essay will be about possible futures, not probable ones.

I will venture to make only four predictions...
Highly recommended.

2005-03-23

Lack of voter confidence 

So one of the first decisions taken at the EU's spring summit has been to launch a substantial rewrite of the Bolkestein directive. This is not bad, the directive certainly can be improved. The FT comments:
The dispute over the services directive is a symptom of the political resistance to free market solutions to Europe's woes, particularly in countries such as France and Germany where unemployment is close to 10 per cent.
Austrian chancellor Schüssel had this to say [DE] before the meeting (according to DiePresse):
"We know how it should go. We know the right drugs, the prescriptions, and the therapy." The problem was the lack of confidence from the population: "For the citizens, the European institutions are associated with a questionmark."
This lack of confidence seems to be the specific problem of right-wing governments in Europe (the German government has a similar problem for different reasons): a majority of the continental European electorate and apparently even some of their own voters have a suspicion that these right-wing governments do not have the common good and the advancement of the poorest segments of the population in mind when they define liberal economic policies. This is why I think that smaller, less economically populist, reform-oriented parties with a credible, serious commitment to poorer segments of the population could play an important role in upcoming coalition governments.

2005-03-22

«Le libéralisme, ce serait aussi désastreux que le communisme.» 

"Liberalism, that would be just as disasterous as communism." Who said this? But of course, no other than one of the pillars of Europe, French president Jacques Chirac, in a meeting with French MPs at the Elysée last week (according to Le Figaro [FR]).

Chirac, faced with the prospect of losing the French referendum on the European constitution due to a clear No-majority among left-wing voters, has launched a public campaign against the Bolkestein directive on the liberalisation of services [my earlier intro].

In a phone-call with Barroso, he demanded that the commission prevents "la concurrence déloyale" in Europe. This was translated in one Austrian newspaper as a defense of "loyal competition", a contradiction in itself that really puzzled me, but presumably this just means "fair competition" in French, or competition on an even playing-field.

According to his spokesman, reports Le Monde [FR], Chirac resolutely reminded Barroso that
"l'Europe, c'est la protection des droits sociaux, c'est la loyauté des conditions de concurrence, c'est le développement des services publics et c'est le respect de la diversité culturelle".
Social cohesion, fair competitive playing-field, development of public services and respect for cultural diversity. Ok, got that. Does the Bolkestein directive lead to an abandonment of these principles?

I don't think so, if it comes along with the right kind of regulation.

Why is the service sector more regulated in Austria than in the UK? No simple answer, but obviously the history of economic development has run a different course in the two places. I believe that today, a majority of the population in each of the countries would prefer their own country's way of dealing with the service sector to that of the other country. So there is a social choice at play, a social preference. Which means that if consumers can choose (after the country-of-origin principle is implemented in a distant future), a majority should stick with their existing type of services, and somebody who wants (or needs) a court-certified translation of a document in Austria would not go a translation company operating under UK law that would according to my own experience not even know the concept.

Now I am a bit gross with Barroso for having defended the Bolkestein directive with the argument that it was somehow a natural consequence of EU enlargement to Eastern Europe. This provokes all this fuzzy "social-dumping" protectionist rhetoric by all sorts of people, not just the president of the Republique Francaise. I believe the outcome could be similar to what was indicated in the previous paragraph: Every service should come clearly tagged with its country-of-origin, and resulting legal framework. In most cases, this would be deterrent enough! So much for cultural diversity, Mr Chirac.

On the other hand, the way I understand it, there really is an unfairness element in the directive concerning different salary levels and different costs of living. If a worker receives a low salary for a week-long construction job in a high-wage country, which he then spends in his own low-wage, low cost of living economy, local service providers in the high-wage country will not be able to match this. Therefore it seems to me that minimum wage limits, labour laws, and also environmental regulation should be in conformance with those of the destination country - so in this sense, I'm preliminarily against a substantial component the country-of-origin principle as well. Such a watered-down version of the country-of-origin principle could however still be effective in significantly reducing barriers to entry, and thereby dynamising the growth of the European service sector, which is so important for reducing unemployment.

And finally, those lush public services, as well as health-services, would likely be at least an opt-out that individual member states like France or Austria could invoke.

Communism of the real-existing type just possibly might be worse.

2005-03-21

Just some economic wisdom 

All figured out for the Austrian economy? Karl Aiginger, professor of economics at the university of Linz and newly appointed head of the Austrian Institute for Economic Research WIFO, which provides economic analysis and policy guidelines for the Austrian government and other institutions, presents a kind of policy roadmap in an interview with DiePresse [DE]. Below my summary of his wise words.

Q. What is required to lower unemployment in Austria?
A. More economic growth, > 2.5% p.a. Growth needs to become the single focus of economic policy. (This btw is exactly what Chancellor Schüssel said [DE] when he praised the compromise on the EU's stability and growth pact achieved last night - what is needed now was growth even more than stability.) This includes: better education, better technology transfer, better infrastructure, less bureaucracy, more flexibility. There is no golden bullet.

Q. How can Austria maintain its good position in economic league tables?
A. If Austria is to keep the third-highest per-capita income in the EU, it needs to be among the top three with its R&D expenditure quota - and it is not there by far, just barely above average. There are some indications of progress in the right direction, but it is not yet clear whether that is real.

Q. Can the movement of jobs to the East be stopped?
A. There is an irreversible trend of jobs in industry being lost, around 2% p.a. However, service jobs are being created at the same time that are close to industry - these are important, but require new skills in the economy.

Q. Will the pension reform executed by the government be enough to save the system?
A. Only if economic growth can be raised to 3% p.a. If growth hovers around 2% as now, it will not be enough.

What I find interesting about these answers is that they seem so clearly right. If one is ready to accept mainstream economics discourse as a framework, then these kind of statements would seem to be acceptable as a common ground beyond party-political divisions and disagreement. As such, they are potentially unfit material for a blog post [yes, I can see you yawning over there], but they might still be useful as a reminder to guide the political musings of bloggers like this one.

2005-03-18

[weekend edition] Greens like Neocons? 

New York Times-columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, who claims to have been an 'environmental groupie' in his younger years, is concerned that alarmist environmentalists are driving their cause to the brink:
The fundamental problem, as I see it, is that environmental groups are too often alarmists. They have an awful track record, so they've lost credibility with the public. Some do great work, but others can be the left's equivalents of the neocons: brimming with moral clarity and ideological zeal, but empty of nuance. (via Oxblog)
Green neoconservative empty of nuance, hm, I hope that doesn't remind you of a certain blogger who is celebrating his one-year anniversary today.

On the face of it though, we note that Ulrike Lunacek auf the Austrian Greens has few nice words [DE] for the appointment of Neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz to the top job at the Worldbank. And that inspite of the fact that the latter had a long and engaging phone-call with Bono Vox [DE]. I am not so sure. Wolfowitz seems to be an intelligent man, and he said to the Washington Post:
It's not a secret. I care a lot about the spread of freedom and democracy. But as I've said over and over again, I think there's a political stream and an economic stream, and they flow together and reinforce each other. If I'm president of the World Bank, I know which stream I'm focused on.
Not too bad so far. Potentially the Greens could even agree with Wolfowitz that freedom and democracy are worthy goals, and a Wolfowitz without access to a military, but instead with good access to the wallet of George W. Bush might be a useful ally. Yes I know, I know, there is all that disagreement about the right means. And maybe the similarity between Greens and Neocons comes down to nothing more than the fact that both openly promote a vision in politics, rather than being satisfied with unimaginative realpolitik.

Let me end on an uplifting note and reproduce a snippet from an article on race by Armand Marie Leroi in the New York Times, dug out by Andrew Sullivan:
Happily, most of the Andamans' Negritos seem to have survived December's tsunami. The fate of one tribe, the Sentinelese, remains uncertain, but an Indian coast guard helicopter sent to check up on them came under bow and arrow attack, which is heartening.
Bow and arrow attack, yes. That shall be my trade in the next year too.

2005-03-17

The Blue Knight and the Red Cloak 

Once upon a time, a blue knight lived in a country behind seven mountains. He was strong but dumb, and that made the blue knight angry. So he decided that he would destroy everything that he could not understand with his sword and ventured out into the world. After some time had passed, as the blue knight proceeded through a thick forest, he encountered an old fox. The knight straightened his figure, pulled back his hugely broad shoulders as he had taught himself in front of his mirror, and in a menacing voice asked the fox: “Tell me, old fox, who is more powerful, you or me?” The old fox tilted his head to one side and replied with an ugly snarl that the blue knight was stronger, but he, the fox was the more powerful of the two.
How dare you, thundered the knight, how could you ever have more power than I?
Instead of a reply, the fox started to laugh, and would not stop laughing.
So the blue knight took his sword and hacked off the fox’s head. The head rolled a few feet until it lay still and then continued its laughter, while blood came gushing out at the neck. Only when the shadows grew long in the afternoon the laughter ceased, and the eyes of the fox broke. The blue knight cut off the tail of the fox, fastened it to his belt, and marched away. When he rested for the night he dreamt badly. During daytime he travelled further and further and told of his deed and boasted how from now on he would kill all foxes in his way. Yet every night, his bad dreams returned.
After some time had passed, the blue knight reached a village that had a school, and he boasted to the headmaster with his story, how he had killed the fox who claimed to be more powerful than he. The headmaster shook his head and said, you are a dumb and uneducated man, you should come to my school so that I teach you. As he heard this, the blue knight went into a rage and screamed that rather the headmaster should come to him, so that he would show him how to use a sword to fight. The headmaster turned around on his heels and left, and kept his reply for later. If there had not been so many villagers standing around and listening, the blue knight might have cut off the headmaster’s head as well.
The next morning, when the blue knight walked by the school, he saw what the headmaster had done to answer him: the schoolhouse was covered over and over in red cloaks, small and big, hundreds of them fastened to the window frames, the roof, the walls, there were even some flying from the chimney like flags. The blue knight got angrier than he had ever been. He did not understand what he saw, but he recognised the red cloak: he saw it every night in his dream. He pulled out his sword and attacked. He sliced the red cloaks in all directions, tried to rip them off the building, climbed up and down the walls to reach all of them. The whole village was soon standing in the square, looking on in disbelief. The headmaster stood among them and smiled. And as hard as the blue knight would try, he never managed to remove all the red cloaks – when he finished at one window and turned to the next, red cloaks would reappear in the places where he had rampaged before. Slowly, the villagers started to laugh quietly, then louder and louder at the sight of this spectacle. And soon the blue knight’s head was ringing with their laughter. Oh well.

2005-03-15

Barroso defends country-of-origin principle 

AFP reports on a speech by Commission president JMD Barroso yesterday in Brussels, in which he confirmed that the Commission would not abandon the country-of-origin principle envisaged in the beleaguered Bolkestein-directive for the liberalisation of services (via L'Europe pour les nuls [FR]).

Whether this means that Barroso really believes he will be able to push this cornerstone of the directive through is anybody's guess, but at least this provides us with a provisional assumption about what is and what is not subject for open discussion at this point.

It seems clear that there are significant potentials for economic disruption in the service sector in the directive, which will lead to both positive and negative effects. The discussion should focus on how the positive effects (growth, efficiency) can be achieved without sacrificing too much (consumer protection, environmental regulation, labour markets in high-wage member states). Yes, this will require a fair amount of new regulation.

2005-03-11

A revolution abandoned? 

I know that I'm terribly late to this party, but I've suddenly developed a huge, probably unhealthy appetite to get to the bottom of that doomed piece of EU legislation, the Bolkestein-directive on the liberalisation of services. Here is a summary of recent events in this matter with links to the original document as well as some recent newspaper commentary. Anti-Bolkestein initiatives seem to be countless, here is a multilingual example. And here is a Guardian article by George Monbiot from this week. Advocates are a bit harder to find. Since all the opponents seem to indulge in examples involving Lithuanian companies doing business in Western Europe, here is the - favourable - comment of the Lithuanian Free Market Institute, a libertarian think-tank.

I'm far from having made up my mind yet, so please, dear potential commenters, try to influence this naive blogger. Somehow the revolutionary in me loves the main provocation in the directive, the country-of-origin principle: according to the directive, companies offering services in other EU countries would have to adhere only to the laws of their own country, not to those of the destination country. This should make it easier for SMEs to provide services across intra-EU-borders, thereby increasing competition and consumer choice in the whole EU. The opponents of the directive say that this is bound to lead to a spiral of ever lower standards in environmental and labour laws as member countries would try to improve the competitiveness of their local export-oriented service businesses. Unsatisfied consumers would have to sue a service provider in another country, which could be tough. On the other hand, if there was transparency on the applicable laws in each transaction, wouldn't it be great to shop for your preferred legal framework and resulting cost-base every time you go to a hairdresser? It all sounds pretty exciting. Is that alone enough reason to be completely, resolutely against?

2005-03-09

normblog on Iraq 

Norman Geras has written a wonderful 4000-word post defending the Iraq war. This latest installment in his "The argument over Iraq" series addresses a wide variety of possible objections, including my own ones that I last discussed here some days ago.

Geras's post is so valuable because it lays out many distinctions that need to be considered for a full version of the debate - so many of them are usually collapsed or glossed over for the sake of brevity (and laziness). For myself I have to say, I cannot object to the way in which Geras structures his presentation and his distinctions. Where I disagree with his final judgement - and I still do - is on issues that he lists, but on which he does not fully elaborate his own beliefs.

My position falls under his 'HW' group of objections: The preferred way for removal of a dictator should be self-emancipation of the people. In the case of Iraq, Geras calls this hand-waving (hence the unflattering acronym), because in 2002/2003 such self-emancipation was not a realistic scenario in the short term. Geras then mentions the historical examples of Nazi concentration and death camps, the target population of the Rwandan genocide, and the people of Darfur - it would be immoral to demand 'self-emancipation' of the victims in these situations. Does Iraq in 2002 pattern with these situations? Geras argues that while the situation in Iraq was not quite as bad as in these cases, it still passes the test of his two criteria for human intervention established earlier (see discussion in an update below). Geras also points out that other people believe Iraq did not pass appropriate thresholds for humanitarian intervention.

In my own opinion, there is a qualitative difference that is rather obvious: in the three extreme examples, no human-possible effort of the victims could have changed their collective predicament decisively. [UPDATE2 after comment by Jabotinsky: Therefore, humanitarian intervention is legitimate and even called for in these and similar situations. They are also characterised by support from a part of the population for atrocities against another part of the population, so that the struggle is not simply that of the collective 'people' against a tyranny exercised by a tiny minority. END OF UPDATE2] However, I do have a strong gut belief that a people can bring any unpopular dictator to the brink, even a violent one. True, this hardly ever happens in the worst of dictatorships with a strong security and suppression apparatus - but then it does. The case of Romania in 1989 comes to mind (and Eastern Germany to a lesser extent). The Hungarians in 1956 and the Czechs and Slovaks in 1968 almost managed. If a few percent more of the population would have participated actively in these revolutions, they might have succeeded - and even if they hadn't, without the Cold War support for a fledgling revolution would be available in today's geopolitical environment. This, of course, is armchair politics, and nothing to be proud of. But to call in the bombs is armchair politics as well for everybody except the supreme commander (and he, in this case, unfortunately seems to have been psychologically incapable of any significant empathy with the likely victims on the other side of the confrontation - another lesson from Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack). The fact is, there was no insurgency that could have been supported in Iraq, as the CIA for example was painfully aware.

One objection to the preceding paragraph could be that it ignores the different levels of 'human development' or the different strength-levels of civil society in Europe and in Iraq. Such differences surely would have to be considered, and less broad participation in an insurgency should be required in less developed nations before the international community would jump in to support the insurgents. Yet I am afraid that the situation in Iraq would have failed also under such a revised test.

---
UPDATE: In an earlier post, Norman Geras had stipulated two criteria that call for humanitarian intervention:
(1) Where a state is on the point of committing (or permitting), or is actually committing (or permitting), or has recently committed (or permitted) massacres and other atrocities against its own population of genocidal, or tendentially genocidal, scope.

(2) Where, even short of this, a state commits, supports or overlooks murders, tortures and other extreme brutalities such as to result in a regular flow of thousands upon thousands of victims.
I consider these criteria acceptable, at least for provisional use as they are intended by Geras. However, to make the point of this post clear, I contend that they are not sufficient. If the people is the source of sovereignty, as democrats believe, then the people should condone the imminent infringement of the sovereignty of its nation before humanitarian intervention from outside takes place. In an undemocratic regime, the best way to convey the desire for intervention is if the people rises against the regime, in a scale and intensity that passes appropriate minimum thresholds that reflect the circumstances. This insurgency, which is carried by citizens putting their own personal security at stake, then has some moral legitimacy in calling for intervention by force from outside to overthrow the regime. Where such an insurgency does not exist, the criteria for humanitarian intervention would have to be applied in the strictest manner possible, and after particularly painstaking scrutiny of expected casualties of an invasion, to avoid a misinterpretation by outsiders of the preferences of the population itself.

END OF UPDATE
---

Geras further discusses the necessary distinctions between premedidated murder and unintended killing, as well as distinctions of killing civilians and of killing combatants. These distinctions are valid. My own view, considering the Iraq case, is that economic hardship will have driven many people into the army for employment. Many of these soldiers would not have chosen to risk their lives for the defense of a mass-murderer in another social and economic system. And I admit that the refusal of leading politicians of the coalition to express what I would consider adequate grief for the Iraqi victims of the invasion may bias me against their case in this matter - something that is not relevant for the argument as such.

Yet, Geras is right when he emphasises that leaving Saddam in place would also have cost lives, namely those of Iraqi citizens that the regime would have tortured and killed in the future. The opponents of the war have to acknowledge this responsibility, which is by no means an easy thing to do.

2005-03-08

Out with the Right of the Right 

Fulfilling our obligation to international readers, this blog is in newscasting mode today, dutifully on the heels of the mass media:

The far-right FPÖ, junior party in the current coalition government, is once again undergoing serious upheavals, after yet another stunning electoral defeat (3% in municipal elections in Lower Austria province). At a board meeting last night, the most prominent proponents of the far-right wing of this far-right party were removed from the party's highest decision-making bodies, namely Mr Strache (chairman of the Vienna branch organisation, and until yesterday vice-chairman of the national party), Mr Mölzer (the FPÖ's only MEP), Mr Stadler, and several other lesser figures. It is noteworthy that the expelled group claims [DE] it left on its own will in an effort to dump the rotten party-structure with its debts on the remaining core group of people loyal to Jörg Haider.

Mr Haider meanwhile has announced [DE] to provincial journalists that the FPÖ will be re-founded, so as to be able to exclude unwelcome members in a comfortable manner, as well as, presumably, for efficient disposal of the party-debts. Whether this announcement will be implemented is, as always, completely unpredictable and will largely depend on Mr Haider's emotional ups and downs in the coming weeks. [UPDATE: Did I say in the coming WEEKS? 24 hours later, Mr Haider has disassociated himself from his plan to re-found the party.]

What is interesting here is that the FPÖ now seems to enter uncharted territory in terms of political constituency. So far, the dominant prediction for the FPÖ was that after having lost its mass appeal, its vote would shrink further until it became a 2%-5% party of perennial die-hard right-extremists. If it loses this constituency, in theory a re-founded FPÖ should start to look like a much inferior copy of the ÖVP, the conservative party that won 40% at the last general election and dominates the current government. Whether such a nondescript FPÖ-light will have a chance to clear the 4% threshold required for representation in parliament is anyone's guess.

2005-03-07

British elections explained 

It is widely expected that elections will be held this spring in the distant Workers Party kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, referred to as 'UK' in the local language. The country's longtime ruler, PM Tony Blair, has declared openly that he will not allow any attempts to copy the recent Rose, Orange, Cedar or other cozy little revolutions in his nation, and the Soros Foundation has been put on notice accordingly. Blair has made it clear that no challenge to Workers Party rule will be tolerated, and the military influence of the big neighbour USA on the country will not be called into question. The European Commission has expressed its hopes that the elections will be free and fair, and that candidates in favour of the European model will be treated with respect in the electoral process.

The UK's political model is known for its decade-long periods of monistic rule and hegemony of a single party. In the present period, the Workers Party singlehandedly covers all ends of the political spectrum and overshadows its undistinguished opposition, mainly the Conservatives and Liberaldemocrats. The Workers Party simultaneously advocates economic liberalism, state interventionism, social liberalism, and law-and-order. This ideology is also referred to as the Third Way. As an aside, several of our own European politicians have been inspired by this ideology, but consistently failed to kick it alive. Their failure is due to two reasons. First, the lack in other countries of the death of princess Diana. Explaining the need for a monarchy in the UK, this event etched the charismatic aura of PM Tony Blair in marble. In this ecstatic moment of national grief, the Workers Party leader did not hesitate to put his feet there in the cathedral and act as the nation's priest in the funeral service. Secondly, the architectural ingenuity of Downing Street, which allows for an almost equal bipolarity at the top of the government, where number 10 stands for symbolism, nation, and prosperity, and number 11 stands for solidarity, intellectualism, and vision. Drawing on these elements, the Workers Party today operates an almost omnipresent populism, while clearly it is proceeding at a level of sophistication that is quite above that of political parties in our very own nether lands. We wish it well.

2005-03-01

The day of the neocons? 

It seems that things are starting to move in a positive direction in Lebanon (which attempts to liberate itself from Syria's influence), Syria (where the regime is starting to look more fragile by the day), and Egypt (where president Mubarak is considering contested elections for his successor).

More at the Economist, the Washington Post [registration required] , and at two excellent weblogs written by experts on the region:

Across the Bay and The Head Heeb


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