A short introduction

This blog concerns mostly global, economic and political issues. Feel free to comment.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Best of Two Worlds

So apparently there are only two approaches the ECB can take regarding the European debt crisis. This fits very well with the extreme opposites politicians like to adopt, when facing off. For instance, in the French elections.

1 European countries should suck up the pain and cut their budgets to get out of the crisis. The ECB is not a lender of last resort and that's that. This is the only way to ensure the efficiency of governments and prevent fiscal profligacy. The changes in Italy represent this: without the debt crisis, they would have never taken place.

2 The ECB should buy up government paper through 'quantitative easing' policies. The indirect approach (through lending to the banks at bottom rates, thereby stabilizing the banks books) will just not do.

The first approach is self-defeating. Being too fiscally conservative in a time of obvious lack of liquidity will hurt millions and will not restore any measure of stability any time soon. But it has something going for it. There is need for political pressure on the inefficiency of a good number of European countries. The way Greece and Italy used to collect taxes while maintaining a ballooning deficit, for instance, was irresponsible.

Yet some of these countries are in such bad shape, that mere fiscal conservatism will not save the day, any longer. These countries have to be shielded from market conditions by one of the only players that is capable of doing so efficiently and at a low cost. The political fallout of these decisions are tremendous, and the decision-making process to achieve them tenuous. But they are the only likely way countries like Spain and Italy, let alone their more troubled cousins, will be able to pay off their debt.

There has to be pro-growth reform and more efficient taxation in these countries. But this has to be combines by a programme where the ECB becomes a guarantor for their debt. If the borrowing costs of these countries would be lowered to one percent, the savings would be enormous, could improve the deficits of these countries and stave off structural cuts that will hurt their economies in the long term and hurt basic services to citizens. Cuts will still have to be made and people will still suffer, but not nearly as much. Most importantly, this will allow governments to actually engage in some investments, to kickstart the economy.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Just a Consipracy Theory

The sudden decision of Egyptian election authorities to bar almost half the participating candidates is surprising. It is only a good thing that the decision is even-handed and cuts on both sides. The Brotherhood, the Salafist movement, but also Omar Suleiman (former Mubarak pawn) have been removed from the ballots. So that proves something, right? It's not just an anti-islamist decision... right?

How about we just speculate a little on the motivations behind very sudden announcement of the participation of mr. Suleiman in the elections. Which took place little less than a week ago. Even more interesting is the incredible pace at which he was able to gather enough autographs for his candidacy. It appears likely that he got a helping hand from the authorities he had been part of, before the revolution. The former chief of the intelligence agency surely has some ties or the other with the military council that ran Egypt yesterday, and still does today.

So why did mr. Suleiman decide to participate all of a sudden? Even though he was not going to win by a stretch and is universally resented. It's only a good thing he got cut out by the election authorities now, right? Along with the islamist front-runners... It illustrates just how independent they act when they cut out not only islamists, but also mr. Suleiman, symbol of the system they stem from themselves.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The end of morality

An article in the New York Times raises an interesting point in the debate on capital punishment:

“The cost of our system of capital punishment is so enormous that any benefit that could be obtained from it — and now I think there’s very little or zero benefit — is so dollar-wasteful that it serves no effective purpose.”

“The cost is the most politically neutral argument,” said Paula M. Mitchell, a Loyola Law School professor and one of the authors of the report. “We’ve debated the morality of the death penalty for decades. We’ve tried very hard to focus on the objective cost issue, because that’s something that people who differ on all the other issues can reach a consensus on.”

The colonization of every aspect of life by economics has finally branched out to ethics now, too. Let us please not consider morality and look at capital punishment as an economic issue, ok?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Comparative Journalism: Telescopic Vision

Every major press agency or news outlet dedicates an article to the Russian 'change of heart' concerning Syria. This evolution is of course mostly cosmetic, when the permitted language they will require for the draft to pass into a resolution is examined. In fact, mr. Lavrov explicitly states: 'I don’t think you can talk about any revision in our position, if you are familiar with the consistency of our recent statements,' And of course Xinhua also adds an article which states that Russia will honor its arms commitments to Syria, so as to offset the gravity a little. Only Iranian news agencies remain remarkably silent on this issue.

But not SANA, the Syrian Arab News Network. To confront the kaleidoscope of opinions concerning the statements of Lavrov, it offers a spectacular form of 'telescopic vision'.

It manages to completely ignore every statement at the expense of Syria: That the Syrian government 'responded incorrectly' and 'is making a lot of mistakes'.

But SANA carries a different message. A message of support, no doubt provided by that same Russian government. But it goes to show the split tongue of the Russians, the narrow scope of SANA, but in this case also of the BBC and other major western news organizations. Because all this indicates is Russia adapting its posture slightly, internationally, though not bilaterally. And nothing will change on the ground, in Syria.

'MOSCOW, (SANA) – Chairman of the Federation Council of the Russian Federation Valentina Matviyenko on Tuesday said that Russia is opposed to exerting excessive pressure on Syria and using force to undermine the authority in it, stressing that the Syrian crisis can only be solved by negotiations between the authorities and the opposition without preconditions.'

In other words: Let the Syrian government deal with its opponents in exactly the way they claim they are doing. The Syrian authorities have namely been involved in these negotiations for months now. They just need to get rid of some terrorists, too. And no-one should interfere with that.

Comparative Journalism: Confusion in Iran

There seems to be some confusion in Iran's policy, concerning the oil embargo. This is reflected in the following news items, plucked from the Fars News Agency website.

Iran Ups Oil Storage Capacity
TEHRAN (FNA)- Iran has re-commissioned a new storage facility at a Persian Gulf island as part of its measures to block the impacts of the current embargos imposed by the West on Iranian crude oil, an Iranian oil official stated.


So clearly, Iran is bracing itself for the impact of the oil embargo. But then, in the very next press statement, we read:

Growth in Iran's Crude Exports Proves Ineffectiveness of Oil Embargos
TEHRAN (FNA)- The latest data shows that Iran has increased its oil exports in the first month of 2012 despite the embargos imposed by the western states against the country's oil sector.


This can mean a couple of things and we are about to explore them, of course.

1 Iran is lying about the impact of the oil embargo, as a bluff.

2 Iran is building completely superfluous oil stockage capacity. For some reason undisclosed.

3 Iran is not feeling the impact of the oil embargo yet, but prepares for the worst, while producing press statements that are meant to show a stiff upper lip.

Is is hard to tell what is the truth behind this lurching chasm. There is no real way of accommodating both articles, without a sleight of hand. But it reveals some interesting diversity within the news analysis by Mehr.

Comparative Journalism: On a Sidenote

Human interest, sideshow, fun facts etc. They are on the home page of every news outlet today. News has to be fun, of course, just like everything else. And if you think that the official press agency of the Islamic Republic or Iran (IRNA) has to act any different, you are clearly mistaken.

From their healdlines:

'Half of Indians defecate in open, but more own a mobile phone: Report'

From this article we do not only learn a lot of superfluous statistics about India, the smarter reader can deduce in the syllogistic manner that: Some Indians defecate in open and have a mobile phone.

Just so you know.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Syria vs Libya

The need for intervention in Syria is clear. But that is about everything that can be stated about it. Someone should go in there and do something. But who and what it is impossible to tell. What is possible, is to say who should not do what. But first some things have to be disentangled from one another.

The West needs to keep its hands off of Syria, that much is clear. Luckily, for a change, it is not interested. Before the oil-chanting crowd gets started: for about 90% of people: there is hardly any in Syria. For 90% of the rest, foreign policy is not to be viewed solely through the narrow scope of oil. That would be like say... basing your election strategy on gas prices. The intervention in Lybia was only very marginally about oil. I have heard claims that the US would not intervene in Syria because there is no oil. Geopolitically speaking, Syria has more impact on oil prices than Libya ever could.

The 'realist' benefits to be attained by toppling Assad Syria are far beyond the very limited ones to be reaped in Libya: Destabilizing Hamas (already achieved, completely by accident), Hezbollah and isolation of Iran. Stabilizing Israel, Lebanon and Iraq.
But possible downsides are legion: Civil war in Syria, a possible breeding ground for extremism. The loss of an enormous market for Turkey and Iraq, reducing economic growth in the region enormously. Destabilization of Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Turkey.

Then, if Assad is allowed to get away with what he does?
Benefits: Stability in Syria as it was before: at gunpoint (I have heard many Syrians claim they dislike Assad, but are greatful he is around to keep the peace). Stability in Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. Hezbollah and Iran are allowed to maintain their dangerous positions. Israel and Syria will continue to stare each other down.

Assad is a murderer and the plight of the Syrian people is terrible. The possible benefits of intervention are real. Terrible as it is, the means of attaining a stable, democratically elected regime in Syria, may be by far worse then letting Assad 'pacify' the country.

In Libya, there was a leader the many knew to be a madman. A relic from the past. Bashar Al Assad had a different standing in the world and among his people, and many believed him to be progressive still, until he let loose the cannons. Secondly, Libya's tribal society is a problematic backdrop to a peaceful solution, but much less so that in Syria. In Libya, 6 million live stretched out across an enormous surface and in relative isolation of geopolitical fault lines. Libya is a void, and one with enough natural resources to 'buy' itself prosperity, if only properly managed. Syria is a nation of over 20 million, concentrated in a densely populated and stretch on the west. The terrain is much better suited for protracted conflict due to its ruggedness. To add to that, its military is far more numerous, loyal and better equipped than the Libyan army. Not only are there tribal tensions, there are ethnic, religious and sectarian tensions to add to the mix. Powerful neighbors with long-standing feuds make this a dangerous combination.

Syria is a hornet's nest. Intervention could result in a civil war worse than anything that happened in Iraq, with terrible possibilities regarding neighboring countries. Here are two issues that further complicate possible intervention:

- The West cannot be at the forefront of any intervention. Unlike in Libya where France and the UK were 'leading the effort'; after the US pulled out its teeth and claws, Europe was left to kill the defenseless beast. Libya, so close to France and Britain proved to be a logistical nightmare without the help of the US, which had to silently back the frail European capacity. In Syria, much further away, Europe could not clear the job at all. The US would need to deploy the full brunt of its military to subdue it properly. It would be impossible for European or Arabic nations to 'lead the way' with silent US support. No-one would take bait when the hook is so clearly in sight. The US cannot afford another intervention in the Middle East for a long time to come, due to past... errors of judgement, say. They are also unwilling and unable to finance the effort. Europe lacks the capacity to project its power, or the support of its citizens for a protracted conflict. Intervention in Syria seems doomed.

- Any intervention cannot consist of air raids only. The civilian toll would be enormous and Assad's ground army will be nigh-on impossible to contain from the air only. But putting boots on the ground, only complicates my first point.

What options does this leave us with? UN intervention will only happen once Russia changes its mind. Give me a call when that happens. The only alternative is Arabic intervention under Turkish leadership. This option is highly problematic. Not only does Turkey have numerous outstanding scores to settle with Syria (conflict over a Syrian province France once 'gave' to Turkey, water issues, the Kurdish problem,...), the Turkish army is also hardly an example of restraint and peaceful resolve. It would be up to the task, as a very well-equipped, sizable and organized force. But it is haunted by a recent past of violent oppression in Turkish Kurdistan. Any Arabic 'backup' can hardly be seen as any better. There isn't a great deal of Middle Eastern countries that direly need their troops at home to maintain a precarious balance.

Turkish army intervention would allow for the US to 'take care' or air superiority, relatively unseen as the Turkish army would play a leading role. But it would also result in a war the scale of which the Middle East hasn't seen since the Iraq-Iran war and the precarious occupation of a problematic country.

Balancing that out against murderous Assad is almost impossible and whatever choices will be made, history will blame its makers, for lack of a clear view of the alternative option.