Archive for the ‘ News ’ Category

Democrats staying one step ahead of the blame

A Reuters/Ipsos poll late last week reiterated what has been true for the majority of the time that this fiscal cliff saga has rumbled on: that if the USA goes over the fiscal cliff, the Republicans will be blamed more than the Democrats.

It seems like this fact has conditioned a lot of the Democratic approach to negotiations, sitting back as Boehner fails to come up with a proposal that even his own party will sign up to, portraying the GOP as a party which is behind the times when it comes to progressive taxation, and a party which is ignoring the will of the majority following Obama’s re-election.

This is very much like the Democratic approach to the FY 1996 budget, where Clinton and Gingrich went head to head. Clinton was prepared to resist Republican demands, even if it meant shutting down federal government, and was unwilling to sacrifice popular federal programmes so long polls showed that Republicans would get the majority of the blame for any shutdown.

Tell Newt To Shut Up! is the definitive guide to those winter ’95 budget negotiations, and quotes a conversation between a senior Republican (perhaps Dick Armey – though don’t quote me on that) and Vice President Al Gore. The Republican tells the veep that his party are willing to shut down the government unless the Democrats agree to their proposed spending cuts.

“Our numbers show that if you do that, you guys lose,” Gore replied.*

That dynamic has been very much at play in 2012 too.

* At least approximately. It’s not online and I don’t have a copy of the damn book. Wanted to get the blog out before the deadline (it’s late enough as it is) but if anyone knows the exact quote or has the book (I think it’s p. 146) then let me know…

A peacebuilding success? Cracks in Burundi’s fragile post-conflict settlement

News this week that a HRW report on political violence has been suppressed might come as a surprise to those in the international community who like to hail the Burundian experience as a success story when it comes to post-conflict situations.* However, to people who have studied the peacebuilding process, and to Burundians themselves, it is just one symptom of a broader picture which in reality is less optimistic.

Yesterday I saw Dr Devon Curtis deliver a talk about the situation in Burundi and the real nature of peacebuilding. While peacebuilding is often conceived of as a “neutral” activity, it is in fact by nature a political activity too.That doesn’t make it any less worthy, but if practitioners aren’t upfront about the values and priorities which infuse the frameworks they use in peacebuilding (be them centred around liberalism, stabilisation or even local ownership), then there will be problems in the future which will catch them unawares. As in the DRC, the process of peacebuilding has swung between an emphasis on the installation of Western notions of what it is to be a good liberal democracy on the one hand, and the stabilisation of the situation, so that values such as human rights are subordinated to the broader stability of politics in the region, on the other. Thus, the immediate post-1993 situation called for a stabilisation of a potentially explosive situation, whereas the Arusha process was infused with more liberal norms. I don’t think the two priorities are necessarily always so separable – what about the stabilisation ahead of DRC’s 2006 elections, elections that are at the heart of any liberal agenda? – but the dichotomy is nevertheless a helpful one. As Dr Curtis pointed out, both have order at the heart of them. With stabilisation, this is obvious, but even with the liberal approach, the DRC example is illuminating, as it doesn’t address the potential for the militarisation of politics. Overemphasis on the technicalities such as the formal completion of elections and the institutionalisation of power-sharing arrangements can miss the fact that returns to violence are still high in Burundi, and the liberal framework for peacebuilding doesn’t address this effectively. Instead, because elections are being held with regularity and the spectre of genocide has faded, the mission is wound down and declared a success; ignorant of the fact that dynamics of militarisation and control are still playing out in Burundian society today.

With a greater awareness of these issues, perhaps the international community would be more restrained in giving themselves a pat on the back for their great success in peacebuilding, and, by the same token, less surprised when it starts to unravel.

* The UNA-USA also seem to think that only 80,000 people died in Rwanda, so there’s another surprise in store for them there.

An inglorious triumvirate

I’ve had some interesting feedback to my last blog post, some of which took it more seriously than intended but all of which is well taken (not least as I’d be hypocritical to defend lazy blogging with appeal to humour given my unforgiving post of the same day). The central point of the post is the use of discourse: when the economy is recovering, it is due to the government’s genius, when it is tanking, it is due to all manner of implausible, irrelevant  and highfalutin excuses. And that point still stands.

The claim that the panic was purposively induced was meant more ironically, which is just as well because, as has been pointed out to me, the figures don’t add up. ONS statistics of Q4 GDP at market prices have £380,517,000 = 0.1% of quarterly GDP, meaning that to add +0.3% (assuming 0% growth without the fuel crisis) would require >£1.1bn extra spending. If we assume 30 million cars on the roads, they’d all have needed fill up at the government recommended amount of half a tank (30 litres) at 140p per litre, and it not had had a negative impact on other consumption. In one sense this is possible, as the nature of panic buying isn’t that everyone followed the government’s “reasonable” advice, but that those who did top up bought much more than half a tank, even if it wasn’t all the 30 million. But then wrangling like this is tenuous, as how many would had to have bought petrol anyway, how many people at petrol stations across the country who were interviewed by the BBC exclaimed their frustration at the panic buying while claiming (very plausibly) that they needed it? Analogously you can argue that the supposed growth of last quarter was illusory because the the proportion of money that is spent on food… clearly that is absurd. My point was that the government’s reasoning is likewise tenuous, and had growth been below par they probably would have cited Lent and a drop in demand for sugar as the reason, even though it’s never been relevant any other year, and people buy Easter eggs preemptively…

Whatever, you get the picture. Given the difficulty of working out the effect of the petrol crisis on growth, the idea that it was pre-planned conspiracy is far-fetched to say the least. Irony is hard to convey on a blog, and while I don’t apologise for that, I did want the figures and will happily admit that they don’t back up the hypothesis of coalition led conspiracy. But part of me thinks: if only they did! Because as explanations of accounting for the government’s motivation during the the petrol crisis, we have that it was:

a) a conspiratorial account for inflating growth figures,

b) a possible “Thatcher moment”, spoiling for a fight with trade unions

c) due to massive amounts of governmental incompetence.

The friend who alerted me to the figures cited b), I’d just as happily believe c). Inflating growth figures, while underhand, could instrumentally benefit the country, restoring market confidence and perhaps creating a positive cycle of growth. While we have a classic case of credit-taking by the political class, good things could come of it, and frankly, it seems the lesser of three evils when explaining the government’s action. Which might be, in term, why on examination it’s the least plausible. After all, of all the feedback I had from the blog, no-one said that I was being unfair on the government per se; merely that I had misidentified their motivations, and the exact nature of their dastardliness/incompetence. Which doesn’t exactly cover them in glory.

Tanker Politics and Technical Recessions

As is repeated to the point of banality, a week is a long time in politics. Last week, the OECD said that Britain would fall back into a technical recession. This week, the BCC said it will avoid one. What’s changed in the interim? Well, the exogenous consumption shock of a manufactured crisis that hugely increased demand for an expensive product during the last few days of Q1, that’s what.

Whenever the performance of the economy has been below par, there’s always been an excuse. The royal wedding.  Cold weather. Warm weather. But now we have a mightily impressive growth rate of 0.3%, it’s not the result of chaos and panic induced by the government, but rather is “encouraging”, and proof of business “confidence”. Much like the reaction to the budget was meant to be. How dim do they think we are? “Oh, GlaxoSmithKline read the budget and overnight decided to create a thousand jobs! What a good budget that must be. And when George Osborne gets asked questions about things like the 50% tax rate, he can legitimately cite GSK (despite its lack of relevance) and I will be satisfied.” (See 1.20-2.10ish).

You have to hand it to the government, it’s all fairly ingenious. Want a good way to boost consumption without giving anyone a job or more income to fund it? We’ve just been shown a masterclass. And it’s not even as if  all the petrol will go to waste! We just all bought it a few days early, and can keep it in those trusty jerrycans in the interim.

Kony 2012: the Ugandan Prime Minister’s response

I was fascinated to watch Ugandan PM Amama Mbabazi’s response to the Kony 2012 campaign last night, and how he seems to share the critiques of many Ugandan observers, such as Mamdani, and non-Ugandans. This is not necessarily obvious, given that the Ugandan government stands to gain from the achievement of Kony 2012’s goals. If you remember my first blog that talked about the LRA,  it was addressing an article by John Pilger in the New Statesman who dismissed the American national interest (which justified the intervention) as “usually mean[ing] buying a corrupt and thuggish regime that has something Washington wants”. And my first piece on Kony 2012, the Think Africa Press piece by James Schneider and Zoe Flood have all noted the self-interest that is served by Ugandan forces being given a remit to pursue Kony.

Which raises the question: why doesn’t the Ugandan Prime Minister welcome Kony 2012’s simplifying message with open arms, if it seems clearly in his government’s interests to do so?

A few points here. The reality on the ground cannot be ignored; be it Zoe Flood’s taxi driver or a Professor at Makerere University, Uganda’s civil society seems to have responded unanimously, taking exception to the video. And rightly so. It could be that the Ugandan government’s response has been derived from this backlash, and deviation from the public discourse within the country (for example, if the government welcomed the video wholeheartedly) might be seen as so politically motivated as to be absurd.

Secondly, the actions of the UPDF are not necessarily the direct fault of the central government. By this I mean, when Flood’s taxi driver says that “they haven’t arrested him because he makes them too much money”, it’s unclear who he means by “they”, and many of the UPDF’s abuses appear to be more the result of moral hazard rather than centralised policy. I wrote in my earlier post about Kisangani, and Gerard Prunier pointed out (in Africa’s World War) that mineral exploitation in Kisangani was not centrally controlled through the government, as it was by Rwanda. Moreover, when Schneider refers to “military commercialism,” he talks of Uganda’s senior officials in the army, not of the government per se. This isn’t a defence of the government, as clearly they should be responsible for their troops if they’re out of control as much as if they were just following orders. But it provides a dualism through which the government can keep a distance from the actions of the army, and again, might be jeopardised if the government supported the film too much.

Thirdly, throughout the film it is clear that Mbabazi is playing down the role of the military for a reason. He wants to encourage tourism and investment, and stress that Uganda is a safe country which has been at peace for five years. These things are all true, but this only makes sense if the gains to peace are higher than the gains to aid given to support the capture of Kony. This suggests that Flood’s taxi driver only takes us so far: while there may be marginal benefits to pursuing a war out of a Collier style “greed” scenario, the growth produced by investment and peace seem to outweigh this. It may be that both can be pursued, with the army being given a carte blanche to galavant around Central Africa to find Kony, while publically the government emphasises gains to peace inside Uganda.

Finally, it might just be that the Pilger story isn’t plausible. Why wouldn’t the Ugandan PM like a film which supported US aid for his “corrupt” government that is otherwise powerless to stop a warlord? Well, why would he? Perhaps it’s not all a big conspiracy theory, but rather the honest reaction of a man in government who is just as much bemused by the simplification of his country’s problems and history as his compatriots are. At this point, here’s a helpful reminder of some of my previous thoughts on African conspiracy theories.

I think the extreme version of the last point might be a bit naïve, but, as ever, comments are welcomed.

US Budget: Forecasting skulduggery and lessons from FY1996

Skulduggery is arguably quite easy to forecast when it comes to the US budget, but you know what I mean.

Here’s the gist. According to the Congressional Budget Office, Obama’s budget, in which he wishes to preserve middle class tax cuts of the Bush era, will greatly increase the deficit, assuming that the tax cuts expire. Got that? No? Oh yeah, and by the seventh paragraph, there’s the admission that Obama’s budget will cut the deficit by $4.3 trillion by 2022, despite saying in the second paragraph that it’d increase it by $3.5 trillion. I don’t know whether to blame the Hill for sensationalism, or the CBO for providing misleading headline stats. When Congress and the Presidency are at odds, the CBO can become somewhat biased towards Congress’ goals, just as the Office of Management and Budget (the OMB) often gives favourable forecasts for the President to justify his policies. This is all pretty much par for the course. But this sort of misinformation isn’t helpful. TPM take a clearer approach to what the CBO figures mean, and Krugman isn’t happy. And I quite agree that people who claim there is a spending “binge” when there isn’t one aren’t helping inform the electorate about the realities of fiscal policy, and if Obama gets chastised for his profligacy regardless of how profligate he is then the idea of fair accountability in a democracy kind of goes out the window.

However, the CBO ratings can be a helpful bargaining tool for the President. For Fiscal Year 1996, the year of multiple government shutdowns, Clinton was insistent that his budget was scored by the OMB, not the CBO. Gingrich, Kasich, Armery, DeLay, etc, etc. were all unhappy with this. So it became a major battleground. When he agreed to a CBO scored budget, the House Republicans thought they had secured a major victory. But having driven such a hard bargain, Clinton wanting something in return. So part of the Daschle plan which resolved the shutout was that the budget saved less on Medicare, meaning fewer entitlement programs were cut, than the White House had previously been willing to sacrifice.

For House Republicans, getting a CBO scored budget was a hollow victory. Firstly, the capital they spent on it meant that they gave up more cuts. Secondly, the pessimism of the CBO forecast was not well founded, and so the budget was balanced well before the seven year plan that they had proposed. For real deficit hawks like Kasich, this might be normatively desirable, but politically it’s not great. It’s one thing to give the President a bad outlook to make his plan look economically disastrous. It’s another when that plan retains much of its spending on Medicare and works better than expected, making his plan look economically genius.

So as much as those who are sympathetic to the Democrats might despair about CBO ratings, Obama should keep the experience of FY1996 in mind. He might find it reassuring

Friday Question: What are the dangers of changing the definition of marriage?

In a bid to make my blog more interactive (and working on the principle “blog more often, blog fewer words”…) I’m introducing a Friday question, the great advantage of which is that I don’t need to figure out for myself what I think before I post about it.

This week’s is a genuine puzzler to me. During the gay marriage debate, I’ve heard a lot about the “dangers” of messing with an institution on which this country was built. But I’ve heard very little about what these dangers actually are. Newsnight last night was a good case in point. With the new “lots of people in a small room” set-up, it got a bit heated, incomprehensible and awkward. However, while the person who suggested that arguments about gay marriage can be an excuse for thinly veiled homophobia was pretty roundly shouted down, I can’t see a “danger” in changing the idea of marriage following on from any other premiss than homophobia.

Some of the bishops alluded to marriage’s importance in producing and raising children, which is obviously at one level biologically unfeasible in gay marriage but on another level already legal in civil partnerships. The link between marriage and raising children has been dead for a while now in heterosexual relationships too. I mean, it’s not a fact that the church is necessarily a fan of, but it’s true (in the interest of brevity I’m not going to discuss this point further, but pick me up on it in the comments if you really want me to spell it out further).

Milo Yiannopolous, a gay Catholic who seemed to think that his own unique position of being gay AND a Catholic lent him some sort of profound insight into the issue which no-one could disagree with, did at least come up with a theoretically quantifiable “danger” of gay marriage: given that the Catholic (and Anglican) churches weren’t going to allow gay marriages, even if they were legalised, there would then be test cases which set individuals and the church against each other in conflict, which he personally didn’t want. I can think of two good arguments against this. First, transplant the location to Little Rock Arkansas, the issue to school segregation and play through his reasoning… and it’s not very pretty. That an institution is resistant to change which might threaten its own prejudices is regrettable but not an argument against change. Secondly, I can understand that in his own position he might think it not worth the hassle, might prefer to put his faith above his sexuality (or might convince himself that his partner is a “profoundly good friend” or whatever). But what of the Christian gay couple who were on the show, who want to get married, and whose vicar wants to marry them? The fact that sympathetic vicars can’t marry gay people reveals the more likely effect of the legalisation of gay marriage. I can completely understand that as a group who has been discriminated against, one might not want to rock the boat against a powerful adversary and face a backlash. It would be understandable, even if it didn’t make inaction right. But so many Christians are sympathetic to gay marriage, that I think the more likely outcome isn’t a big conflict between gay people who really really want a traditional Catholic marriage, but another schism where new churches, probably Anglican but also maybe Catholic, split from the mainstream and allow gay marriage. And you can see why people in high places in these Churches might not want this, but again, it’s not really a societally “dangerous” consequence of gay marriage.

So I could only surmise two actual “dangers” of gay marriage from Newsnight last night: The threat to children and the threat of test cases and conflict, and neither seem to a) appear valid or b) override normative imperatives even if they were valid (that is, even if Little Rock were to play out, that wouldn’t be an argument against the rightness of the decision).* So given these two reasons don’t stand up, this is where you come in. Can you think of any other dangers in changing the definition of marriage?


* I realise what is “right” does not mean what is safe, and so when someone talks of the “dangers” of something, it doesn’t mean they don’t think it’s right, in the general case. In this case though, it seems that they do. So I’m taking “dangerous” in the sense that the Bishops seem to use it, in the sense it might foundationally threaten the fabric of our society (which would be wrong). When they use it, they don’t say “we’re begging to do the right thing and be able to marry gay people, we just fear that our barbaric congregation will tear them limb from limb”. Either members of the clergy cite this sort of moral-spiritual “danger”, and argue against gay marriage as being “wrong”, or they argue for it as something that is “right”, regardless of other dangers.