Sunday, November 30, 2014

Pankaj Mishra's Confused Essay

Bloomberg Columnist Pankaj Mishra's Essay has been making rounds. Those who 'hate' America and traditional West, jump to this essay. When I read it, I however found it completely confusing and  much less useful piece of punditry. Here are few basic problems I see in his line of argumentation:

1. Let us keep aside the economic system for a while, we will get back to it. So in personal life and in a political system - what alternative framework is possible apart from what has been practiced in most Western Countries and India? Can we envisage a future where there are no 'personal freedoms' as well as no directly elected representation and still a society is peaceful and prosperous at large? What such a system would look like? Does Pankaj Mishra take any pains to articulate a vision here? Is there any viable alternative unless one opts for caste based system like India's past or hierarchical system like legacy Chinese Civilization? Which 'free people' in today's world are ready to accept that? What difference in worldview one can detect if Pankaj talks to a teenager in Delhi, Mumbai or in San Francisco, New York or Austin? Whether it is Western model or something else, it does not matter since the fact is more and more humans want to make their own decisions and want to enjoy their freedoms. Everything else is irrelevant.

2. What Pankaj is conveniently forgetting is West is not 'all full' of chest thumping Conservatives like Robert Kagan or Dick Chenney or Sarah Palin. Majority of Americans do not wake up in the morning thinking 'how exceptional their country is' or 'how to retain that shinny city on the hill'. For majority Americans the day starts by plotting how to make living and how to grow their children for a better life. This is no difference in that than an Indian Family or a Chinese Family. In that sense, Pankaj Mishra's 'straw man as the one thumping superiority of so-called Western Civilization' is simply a figment of imagination convenient to advocate his inert 'anti-Americanism' or 'too much pre-occupation' with what happens in those Western Countries while ignoring what happens in China, India and rest of the world. 

3. Now about Economics and Political Economy. A simple question - what answer does Pankaj Mishra have to the core contradictions in contemporary Capitalism pointed by Thomas Picketty in Capital? Why does he think Indian or Chinese Capitalism is immune to the menacing 'inequality' which is engulfing American Capitalism? How does Mishra think the struggles of American Society are going to be any different than Indian and Chinese Societies when they all face the same multi-pronged octopus called Global Capitalism? This whole discussion of superiority of Western Civilization is irrelevant when both Western and non-Western Economies have to fight the same problems - dramatic inequality induced by the Global Capitalism. Ironically it is the 'Flat World' which brings an American Labor on the same footing as that of Indian or Chinese Labor; making all of them to face same challenges of insecure wage earning potential as Global Capital goes from shores to shores in finding the minimum cost. 

4. Finally, what encouraging news one sees in today's non-Western autocrats like Turkey's new Sultan or in Vladimir Putin who is desperately re-constituting Russian Empire or even in Chinese boss Xi Jinping who is simply not ready to relinquish monopoly of Communist Party? None are any encouraging, all are fatally flawed and almost sure not to result in any kind of sustainable non-Western World View. Stated differently, there is no working, growing and sustainable 'life organizing philosophy' in existence apart from what Western nations have followed so far. One's un-reasoned animosity against America cannot be any substitute for facts on ground and for logic.

Global power balance for sure is shifting from America and Europe to Asia, but that does not mean we are talking any different models here. Jury on China is out. One has to think hard how a society would flourish in an 'intellectual property dominated digital economy' when piracy is so rampant in China and there is no sufficient protection for an individual's creations in Chinese System. It is all up hill for China going forward if it wants to make fundamental contributions to tomorrow's IP dominated industries. And as for India, Mishra will find it harder and harder to distinguish it from USA as India embraces the same Capitalism which has been at works in USA. Both societies face same issues, probably lot more compounded in India's case considering economic, socio-political, religious and cultural diversity it's Democracy must serve. There is no substitute to what India already practices here - elected democracy at all levels of governance with free media, full individual freedom and independent judiciary.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Strange Accountability in American Politics

Ross Douthat has been pulling one searing criticism after other on President Obama. Immigration Executive order is culmination of Barack Obama into an emperor threatening people's rule in this land; that is the gripe Douthat has. He says that Barack Obama is betraying himself by adopting an imperial route given that originally Obama did not want any kind of unbounded presidency.

This is all fine criticism and to an extent valid too. Most critics know that President Obama has not exceeded his legal authority, it is just that they did not want him to take any such egregious route, especially after Dems total loss in 2014.

But what these critics are failing to understand is American Politics is upside down in some sense. For 6 years, President Obama tried for compromises with GOP in every area; but he was clobbered in all those cases. Politics of Nihilism has been too attractive for Republicans to ignore while opposing Barack Obama all the time. After all 'attaining the power' has been in sight and trampling interests of common Americans was just a small price to pay in pursuing total parliamentarian opposition. 

The single most weakness of American Political System is, it allows a political party to play the role of 'total parliamentary style opposition'; but our voters simply do not hold such an opposing party any accountable. Tell me what policy platform of GOP helped it to win elections of 2014? Was it the myopic vision of 'starve the beast' and that 'government cannot do anything right'? All that GOP has to do was bask in the glory of punishments accorded to Obama by Americans in not improving Economic circumstances of average Americans. Ross Douthat is right when he says 

"Because Congress is unsexy, frustrating and hard to follow, mass democracy seems to demand a single iconic figure into whom desires and aspirations and hatreds can be poured."

So then who is at more fault - the president who has been punished mercilessly for non-cooperation of Opposition (a brilliant strategy politically in American context knowing that Public never holds truly responsible party accountable) or voters who fail in the basic duty of holding responsible parties accountable? Or the Media which goes on making money by essentially leaving Americans ignorant? Or the Supreme Court which for partisan reasons allowed complete makeover of American Elections by breaking 'dams' so the flood of Billionaire money flows in? Ross Douthat has gall to argue about imperial presidency when the real non-termed imperial judges of Supreme Court of USA are openly remaking this America more suitable to their ideology.

Grim truth is Barack Obama is simply following the play-book in large part made by Republicans in last few years. If GOP over reacts to Presidential Immigration order, they clearly befall to the trap set. If GOP continues with 'shutdowns', more tantrums and shenanigans while throwing 'responsible governance' to winds; voters will get next opportunity to hold GOP accountable in 2016. Whether President makes GOP's political life difficult or he achieves his mandate through legal edicts; he is not for sure going to be punished any more than he has so far. GOP's predicament is of their own making. They are the ones who are in a position to pass whether it is Immigration Law or Budget or policies to counter growing inequality. Lamenting about President - Ross Douthat falls into the same trap he so eloquently points out - that Americans want someone to blame and they find White House occupant as an easy candidate to 'carry their cross' of grievances. But the things Douthat ignores in GOP and in our imperial courts could be actually keys for a more responsible and accountable political system in America.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Trade and Republican Anger

As Japanese Economy slides into recession and German Economy barely avoids a recession, the World Economy would not have got these trade deals at any better time. You got China-USA Hi-Tech Trade deal, followed by a crack opening in the blockade by India at WTO, followed by significant enlargement of China Australia trade. (Meanwhile hopefully President Obama holds his line on Net Neutrality to avoid any kind of robber baron style road blocks in Digital Economy.)

All this means Republican Congress should get its act together and work hard for the Trans Pacific Trade Deal in coming months and quickly facilitate IMF restructuring. The later can come in the Lame Duck session else G20 may go a different route to overcome USA. The world has waited long for the Republican non-sense in these matters and clearly Republican opposition obviously hurts America's national interest by forcing China to embark upon Financial Aid Diplomacy outside of IMF. 

In general, Republicans are likely to get tripped over in their anger to President Obama's Executive actions on Immigration and that rage is likely to hurt America's interests. (That does not mean President Obama should stop his executive actions on Immigration, he is already late and it is bound to be a boost to American Economy.) But I suppose Republican Politics hurting America is nothing new and it is unlikely to stop so long as American voters are simply accepting policy abuse by Republicans as business as usual.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Obama and Xi

Chinese President Xi and President Obama are meeting after an interval with some changed context. President Obama is going into APEC meeting clearly as a diminished leader domestically and in last 2 years of his second term with a clear focus of leaving behind a workable strategy with China for his successor. On the other hand, President Xi has consolidated power in not so authentic manner domestically - by jailing his political opponents in arbitrary application of anti-corruption fight rather than undertaking long term, sustainable, institutional political reforms. (Xi is improving Chinese Legal System, but those reforms have just started and will be a while before anything concrete comes out.) President Xi has presided an economy which is not in any pink of health whereas President Obama continues to ride a reasonably recovering economy despite American Voters reluctance to consider otherwise. 

The questions these two leaders will deal now are not much different than any earlier ones; primarily how to manage a peaceful growth of a new global power without resulting into any armed conflicts. Given stock of their respective domestic political capital, it seems that President Xi will be looking to continue his 'assertive' stance as far as claiming Chinese hegomoney in South China Sea whereas President Obama will be looking to find avenues where he can leave behind something useful for the next President to build upon.

Pundits talk about co-operation on Environment. That is all good and great from global perspective, but with American Politics having decisively moved with GOP, one is doubtful what lasting change can be achieved in dealing with China and rest of the world. President Obama did his EPA thing and it needs to be seen whether it can withstand corrupt courts of America. So this is all known by rest of the world. In essence, the world knows what President Obama can deliver on this front which is to say not much. Then why waste time and energy in engaging with vaporware? It will be prudent for President Obama to be circumspect in this regard, not to raise expectations and not promise anything which he cannot inherently deliver in next two years.

If at all Obama Administration wants to spend any capital (whatever it has) in working with Congress, the best it can do is to help Congress move on in changing IMF contributions so that China's gets bigger responsibility. That is the most sensible course of action as it will reduce incentive of China in going independent for a global developmental banker role as it gets that influence via IMF itself. Rest of the countries in Asia will be as well more willing to work with IMF rather than Chinese incarnation of ADB which is in essence Japan's financial power projection vehicle. Again, the trick for President Obama is to 'cast' Republican Opposition to IMF restructuring as a response which compromises America's national security.

The other area where the Congress might be more easy to work with will be in arming Vietnam which is asking for advanced weapons in order to prepare itself in a possible armed conflict with China. America's strategy should be to seek co-operation with China but not let go any opportunity to strengthen regional players. Working and deepening security alliances with as many players as possible around China, is one sure way of convincing China that raw power projections based on military might alone would not bring much benefits.

The same alliance strategy would be equally effective in entering into Free Trade Agreement with large number of Asian and South American countries without China. As most observers say, with a Republican Congress, Obama Administration should find it easy to move forward in this regard. In general coordinated actions in security and financial sectors will keep America's aggressive posture viable while extending the hand of co-operation to China. That is the standard 'sticks and carrots' policy President Obama has to execute in his last critical engagements with China.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

American Politics - Dems Lost

President Obama got his second shellacking as Senate is lost for Democrats. Democratic ground game did not hold up and late breaking of public vote towards Republicans basically turned into GOP wave almost as good as Tea Party win 2010. When Sen. Mark Warner is in trouble and Colorado flips, we know that President Obama's unpopularity is weighing down heavily.

President Obama has been busy spending his political capital, but he never grasped the importance of carrying political popularity. Without some popular support, it is pretty difficult to enact any consequential changes. President Obama is not the party man. He never endorsed anyone of consequence before entering Oval Office nor he did effective campaigning for other candidates. He wanted to wage the politics of policy as a rebuke to Washington Politicians, but he never did an effective job of keeping a sustained and coherent agenda on national political discourse.

In absence of popularity and sustained coherent policy framework; administrative competence and execution became important in evaluating Obama Presidency in the Second Term. In that regards, there are serious mistakes which are costing Democrats lot. Lukewarm domestic economy still weighs most. Here, part of the problem is with American Public. They seem not to understand what obstructionist role GOP played as well as how wrong GOP prescription of 'austerity and tax cuts for rich' is in this context. Voters seem to have voted anything opposing Obama, regardless whether it is beneficial to them or not. 

But Obama mistakes continued on foreign front. When American forces left Iraq, Obama Administration did not make it loud and clear the dangers of Maliki's practices and dangers of falling Iraq into the current chaos. Agreed that Iraqi's did not want American residual force in Iraq, but warning on possible dangers was required. Americans see their commander-in-chief fulfilling public wish of winding down wars; but they wonder in the process if President Obama is leaving us in more dangerous world. It is a valid suspicion and ground for criticism, from which President Obama has not recovered.

Equally he made a mess of his Syrian response. Turning to Congress did not turn out any smarter and the entire process essentially exposed White House as a non-resolute power. Despite the smart and effective move of cleaning out chemical weapons in Syria; Administration squandered that victory. Same for America's Ukraine policy - it is effective and smart; but Obama Administration does not get any credit for the same.

Some other decisions are inherently more difficult; for example the case of an executive action on immigration. Clearly doing so would have helped in Colorado while dragging candidates in Southern states. In the end however everything is lost with no benefits of waiting for this decision till elections. But one can argue that in the summer of 2014, the decision of holding off executive actions on immigration looked as like a necessary step given the state of affairs at that time. What should have been avoided was building the mountain of expectations pre-maturely. Again, the impression is 'over promising and under delivering' White House. Possibly turning back on immigration execution action will be remembered as the true bad call which broke Democrats in 2014.

President Obama will pay the price of not having Democratic Senate and remaining two years of his presidency will be essentially an exercise in 'selling the liberal policy silver' piece by piece. He may choose to fight considering politics of confronting pro-rich agenda is the minimum service he can do for Democratic Party; the party which believed in him so much.

On Republican side, if a quick contender for 2016 emerges; he (yes, they all are men) should be able to 'build' on the momentum of 2014 election results. But likelihood of that happening is low. Success of 2014 will rather attract large swath of contenders, each out gunning each other. In other words, it is  possible that Republican Party will learn nothing from 2012 nomination charade. Egos and ambitions of messers Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie are large enough. Rand Paul has some policy baggage, but seems to be the smartest mind on GOP side.

For Democrats, the best bet will be Clinton-Warren ticket after Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton declare some kind of a 'policy pact' as their agenda statement considering that Clintons are cozy with Big Corp. Capitalism whereas Warren wants to fight Big Corp. Capitalism. Elizabeth Warren has said no to presidential primary and after having un-experienced politician in White House for last 8 years it is doubtful that Americans will be ready for another green shoot. That is where Clinton is expected to bring the cover. Elizabeth Warren is on the right side of policy path this country needs. She carries younger and liberal voter base and unless and until it is united with an experienced hand like Clinton; Democrats would suddenly experience a harsher electoral environment. Results of 2014 are bound to send shiver down the spine of Democrats, they are on much, much weaker wicket. 

(It will be interesting to see if ObamaCare can be saved. If GOP is smart, it will attempt to undercut the law in a protracted, relentless manner. That will be the test of President Obama in remaining two years.)