Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sunday Patchwork

Rarely has one talk show furnished so much material for a comment as Fareed Zakaria’s GPS today.

The progressive economist Robert Reich, whose new book is 'Aftershock', was pitted against Ronald Reagan’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, David Stockman, in a contentious discussion of what to do to save the country from financial collapse. When I tuned in, Stockman was warning that we risk the same fate as Europe, which is currently trying to save Greece from default and the Euro with it.

True to form, Robert Reich was saying all the right things about the U.S., but still doesn’t have the nerve to say the one thing about Europe that might make people sit up and listen: Europe’s financial crisis happened because its money men went along with ours.

Recent derogatory references to Europe include one from Newt Gingrich, who described Obama as ‘a European-type socialist’.  This is intended to counter the news that the Europeans have solid safety nets. Instead of providing moral arguments against free health care and long unemployment benefits, Gingrich warns that if we were to implement Keynesian measures, putting the unemployed to work on much-needed government projects, WE WOULD END UP LIKE EUROPE, which is facing the debacle of its currency.  What an incredibly misleading short-cut!

I’m betting right here that the Euro is not going to fail, because the countries that use it have powers over their financial systems that we cannot even dream of. Notwith-standing France’s reputation for frivolity - lately embodied by the man who was tipped to be the next, socialist president and known familiarly as DSK - France placed highest on a graph in this week’s 'Economist' that reflects the amount of money spent on social programs - even higher than Sweden and Germany.  (Tellingly, the U.S. doesn’t even appear on the chart.)  France’s unemployment rate is also the highest among the countries listed, at 9.1%.  But it was consistently around 10% during the eighties and nineties, when I was living there! At that time, Minister of Labor Martine Aubry bucked the right-wing opposition to lower the work week from 40 to 35 hours, where it has been ever since, and as 'The Economist' admits, no one goes hungry in France.

Iceland was the first country to go broke, a couple of years ago, but it quickly - and publicly - recognized that it had created a financial bubble by joining American schemes. Zakaria announced that Iceland is rewriting its constitution. Iceland’s first parliament goes back to the tenth century, its first formal constitution dates from 1849.  Now the people have decided to stop amending it, and to crowd-source a new one. Suggestions made on social media are discussed and voted by a constitutional council on television. Readers familiar with Jared Diamond’s 'Collapse' will recall that Iceland was his prime example of a country extinguishing itself. The Islanders remember their history.

Currently, there is a campaign in the U.S. Congress to increase the number of hours high school students are allowed to work, because they can be paid less than adults, while  David Stockman’s opposition to government works programs was: ‘The bond market won’t tolerate it’. An in-your-face affirmation of the upside-down values we allow ourselves to be governed by.

Not to mention our lack of information. When Fareed Zakaria interviewed experts on Syria and Iran, we learned that the Syrian regime is likely to endure because it has a serious base of support. As usual, we were not given the explanation for that support, which is that the ruling Ba’ath Party considers itself a socialist party. Nor were we told that the oft-mentioned cozy relationship between Syria and Iran is due to the fact that the Shi’a, Iran’s majority, represent the left-wing of Islam - which is why the working class by and large supports Ahmedinejad.

(When we wonder why Russia is reluctant to back military action against Libya - and why it defended Milosevic’s ‘socialist’ Serbia - we have to see past its recent transformation into a market economy, to five hundred years of Mongol occupation, where everything belonged to the government and princes were expected to serve the Khan. Turkey also came under Mongol rule in the thirteenth century, so its cooperation with socialist-led Brazil in trying to broker a deal that would allow Iran to ship its nuclear waste abroad for reprocessing, is not surprising.  Most peoples have internalized their history, Americans perhaps less than most, when you consider that we are witnessing a new McCarthyism.)

The latest wrinkle on the Iranian political scene is the rift between Ahmedinejad and the cleric Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ‘supreme leader’, who condemns "deviation, liberalism, and American-influenced leftists". (A phrase to ponder at some future date.) According to Maziar Bahari, an Iranian Canadian journalist, ('And Then They Came for Me') , Ahmedinejad’s latest retort to the man who is officially his superior, is that Iranians can communicate directly with the Shi’a’s future savior, the Twelfth Imam, without mediation by a cleric. Will Shi'a Islam have its own Reformation?

If you think that’s far-fetched, a sorry report in the latest 'Mother Jones' entitled 'Escape from Missouri' describes a growing trend among born-again American Protestants to send their wayward daughters to girls’ institutions run along religious lines that practice unbelievable cruelty. I can’t help comparing this with traditional Muslim treatment of women.

Finally, I need to add this, because I’ve known it without having any references for it: This week’s 'Banyan' page in 'The Economist' looks into the origins of Chinese leader Hu Jintao’s idea of a “harmonious society’: the golden age of Chinese philosophy when Confucius and Lao Tse called for “Utopian visions of universal harmony”. The Peking-based philosopher Zhao Tingyang admits that harmony will be out of reach for 200-300 years, when countries will opt for a system of world government. Too bad we won’t be around to see it.

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