December 03, 2007
Fear For Europe
This James Poulos post on the dystopic future of Europe seems a little overexcited. "The expansion of the EU," he says, "will cement into place a comprehensive, sprawling regime dedicated to micromanaging the health and security of citizens and noncitizens alike; the difference between politics and economics — the state and the market — will eventually vanish completely; and social, moral, and cultural license will be the consolation prize in an era of diminished or useless political liberties.
That sounds pretty bad. On the other hand, I was just in Europe, where the bars are full of smoke, the avenues are dotted by cheese shops (including those raw milk cheeses you can't sell in America), the bikers don't wear helmets, and the marijuana is way less regulated. But who're you going to believe: The ineluctable logic of Friedrich Hayek, or your lying eyes?
Moreover, I wouldn't take EU expansion as such a given. While in Amsterdam, we met with all manner of Labor party leaders and intellectuals, including the Deputy Prime Minister, and the despair they exhibit over the future of the "Europe project" can hardly be overstated. Forget the onerous individual regulations Poulos fears; the people keep rejecting proposed Constitutions, the opinion leaders keep darkly warning of Dutch troops under German command (as they, uh, already are in Bosnia), and the rising tide of nativism has rendered expansion into anything that could increase Muslim voice and immigration a rather unlikely possibility.
October 07, 2007
How Ya Doing, Europe?
Just fine, as it turns out. Steven Hill offers a quick overview of the European economy, and it appears to be doing rather nicely. Folks forget how big Europe is -- the largest trading bloc in the world -- and how well it's actually doing. Between 2000 and 20005, Europe's GDP growth was basically equal to ours. In 2006, they pulled ahead. Moreover, next time you hear about Europe's dread levels of unemployment, keep this in mind:
Half of the E.U. 15 nations have experienced effective full employment during this decade, and unemployment rates have been the same as or lower than the rate in the United States. Unemployment for the entire European Union, including the still-emerging nations of Central and Eastern Europe, stands at a historic low of 6.7 percent. Even France, at 8 percent, is at its lowest rate in 25 years.
That's still higher than U.S. unemployment, which is 4.6 percent, but let's not forget that many of the jobs created here pay low wages and include no benefits. In Europe, the jobless still have access to health care, generous replacement wages, job-retraining programs, housing subsidies and other benefits. In the United States, by contrast, the unemployed can end up destitute and marginalized.
Not all unemployment is created equal.
August 26, 2007
ETA and the Roots of Terrorism
There is no country in Europe that interests me more than Spain. There is no ongoing issue in Spain that frustrates me more than ETA, one hopes the last homegrown terrorist organization in Western Europe.
I've been reading Giles Tremlett's excellent book, Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Secret Past and recommend it heartily, especially if you have an interest in Spain. His chapter on ETA is especially compelling.
Why does ETA want independence, especially for what appears to be only the Spanish portion of the historic region? Granted, there is no question that much of the region suffered greatly under the dictatorship of Franco, who referred to the region as the "rebellious provinces" and who banned the language from being spoken, while rewarding the communities of Alava and Navarre for supporting his uprising. Times have certainly changed, however:
- Basque is acknowledged as an official language in Spain, despite the fact that it is not spoken by a majority of the population within the Basque country and barely has one million speakers and even fewer who speak it as a first language. . Here is the website for the Basque language verson of Spain's national rail system called RENFE. It's also available in Gallego and Catalan in addition to Castellano.
- The Basque Region has at least as much autonomy as any other region in Spain, if not more.
- The Basque Region has far and away the best economy in Spain, including the most disposable income in the country.
Granted that the government of former Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez committed acts that probably spurred younger people into supporting ETA, but that was years ago. So, why the desire for independence that leads to such horrid violence? Why the obsession among some with the fact that the Basque population has a higher percentage of RH- in its population or the claims that the Basques have unusual crania? Why the insistence that a referendum be held for independence when recent polls show only 38% of the population would vote for independence?
I wish I knew.
May 03, 2007
Pepe Le Awesome
Was listening to a report on the French presidential debate this morning and was struck by how hilariously opposite their politics are. The framing of election pits the Reaganite, free market reformer Nikolas Sarkozy against the staid, socialist, Segolene Royal. But among the policy positions clarified in the debate was Sarkozy's promise not to change the 35-hour workweek. That's how you unlock the magic of the free market! This is par for the course, though: In America, when progressives talk about the need for government protections, they're really talking about sanding the roughest, farthest edges of unchecked capitalism. In France, when conservatives talk about unleashing free market principles on the country, they're really talking about some tweaks on the margins of the welfare state.
The apparent popularity of the 35-hour workweek, though, deserves some attention -- as does the French mandate of 5 weeks of vacation. The French like not working incessantly. They are consciously sacrificing a bit of economic growth in order to devote more time to leisure. It's a perfectly legitimate choice for a society to make. But it's never represented that way in domestic punditry, as we exclusively evaluate policy decisions based on their effects on measurable economic indicators.
It's that society/economy distinction I'm always going on about; in contemporary American discourse, it's almost impossible to justify any policy that won't plausibly increase economic growth. Yet the French seem rather enamored with just the opposite:
On top of the five weeks [vacation], there are another dozen public holidays, and a maximum 35-hour work week, with no paid overtime allowed. Managers like Marchand, who work more than 35 hours a week, get more time off.
"The so-called 35-hour work week gives us 22 more days a year," says Marchand.[...]
Normally busy streets in Paris empty out in July and August, when most locals take their annual holiday. Shops and businesses are often deserted for a month, sometimes longer. Whole apartment buildings are shuttered when Parisians flee the city.
The French are so passionate about their vacations, they put pleasure before profit. As tourists throng the streets and summer temperatures hit their peak, Paris’ most popular ice-cream parlor is closed for a whole six weeks. It’s the kind of business bonanza that would be seized upon by Americans, but the French don’t seem to care.
I'd give up a lot for a guaranteed five weeks of vacation. That's time enough to vacation with friends, and regularly see my family, and take the occasional long weekend. Indeed, I'd love to see an economist model what that would cost us. It would have to be an almost unimaginably high number to dissuade me from taking the deal. And, in any case, I'd love to see some better reporting on the French elections, wherein it's actually explained that the French keep choosing these policies, and that their effect isn't simply to drive down economic indicators, but to order society in a way that emphasizes leisure.
March 17, 2007
Addressing The Climate Crisis: US Not Leading Or Even Following
The richest and most developed nations in the world are forging ahead with plans to cut carbon emissions significantly by the year 2020. But the United States--arguably the richest and most developed of all, and inarguably the world's largest per-capita consumer of natural resources and contributor to carbon emissions--is still not on board. Worse, developing nations are citing America's poor example of stubborn isolationism as the reason for their own hesitation or outright refusal to participate and enact proactive climate-protection policies (bolds mine):
Environment ministers of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations, and officials from leading developing countries, were meeting to prepare for a June G8 summit at which climate change will be a major topic.
"On two issues, the United States were the only ones who spoke against consensus,'' German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel told reporters at the end of the two-day meeting, which he chaired on behalf of Germany's G8 presidency.
Gabriel said the U.S. remained opposed to a global carbon emissions trading scheme like the one used in the
European Union and rejected the idea that industrialized nations should help achieve a "balance of interests'' between developing countries' need for economic growth and environmental protection.
The Bush administration, which for years questioned the reliability of scientific findings showing man-made pollution was responsible for the planet's warming, has shifted its stance.
Washington now backs the conclusions in a U.N. report last month which said mankind was to blame for global warming and predicted an increase in droughts and heatwaves and a slow rise in sea levels.
"There is a strong consensus on the science,'' de Boer said. ''We can now put behind us the period when science was called into question.''
Several environmental groups criticized the United States, which in 2001 pulled out of the U.N. Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gases, for refusing to support carbon dioxideemissions reduction targets at the Potsdam meeting.
Developing countries cite the U.S. position as a reason for their refusal to commit to reduction targets.
I realize that different cultures--indeed, different individuals within each culture--are going to have widely divergent ideas about how much change is realistic or even tolerable when the benefits of living green and adopting carbon-neutral lifestyles are, in many respects, not immediate, visible, and tangible. And Big Business in all its incarnations has done a bang-up job of scaring everyone into believing that reducing America's carbon footprint will lead to all manner of economic woes, not to mention intrusions on one's very freedoms, like the right to drive a massive, gas-guzzling SUV to, say, a football stadium, the building of which required the clearcutting and dredging-and-filling of once-sensitive land. Or the right to eat beef and pork for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. Or the right to consume our way through time and space, demonstrating to the world once and for all that he who dies with the most toys wins.
But when all is said and done, I have to hope that even the stubbornest among us would want his children to enjoy a habitable world, as opposed to one in which draconian emergency restrictions had to be enacted and enforced lest everyone starve when arable, above-water land was in critically short supply and drowning in a hurricane-caused flood was a very real threat. Or, equally disturbing, a world in which ecosystems are so violently and precipitously thrown off-balance, deadly viruses that were once contained deep within rainforests emerge and begin to sicken the planet's already-stressed animals, including humans.
It should also be noted that some of us have already begun to view the climate challenge as an enormous economic opportunity.
Beyond the strawman arguments posited in such irresponsible statements as "Scientists disagree about how bad things will get and when we'll really notice any ill effect" or "Last year's hurricane season was tame, so I'm not buying this whole global warming thing", there really is nothing to debate at this point. We must take action, we must commit to a solid and comprehensive plan to reduce greenhouse gases, and we must do it now.
It's time to put our pride in our collective pocket and take our place at the table alongside Europe's leaders. They know we're well-armed--aren't we always?--but this time, at this international sit-down, the weapons will be American ingenuity and innovativeness, two resources we actually do have in limitless supply.
January 02, 2007
Try Some Delicious Danish?
Some interesting discussion between Tyler Cowen and Matt on whether we can scale up Denmark's mixture of economic security and dynamism for a country the size of the US. The basis for this discussion is Jon Cohn's excellent examination of the development and success of the Denmark model, which is well worth a quick read. In short, they've made the most liberal of the neoliberal visions manifest: The economy is market-oriented and ruthlessly adaptive, while the government offers a robust safety net, a high level of economic security, and a promise that if the unemployed seek work, the government will make sure the work is there, and offer the training and counseling necessary to help the displaced.
The economic outcome has been impressive: High GDP growth, low unemployment, high average incomes, low inequality, and dirt-low poverty. On the other hand, Denmark is a country of 5 million, more akin to a large city than the United States. Few of the Danish work in the low-paid service economy, which tends to run off imported labor. And Denmark's small population and high cultural cohesion exempts them from the problems of a giant urban underclass who've grown culturally alienated, been systematically exempted, and become ever more distrustful of the country's economic mainstream.
That said, it isn't clear to me why we don't give a Danish-style model more of a shot. What's fascinating about the American system is that, for all its federalism, there's precious little variation. The most generous cities display only a couple degrees of difference from the least. Santa Fe may have a living wage, but it doesn't have single-payer health care, or paid maternal leave, or massive job retraining. We hear talk about the genius of the states, but they all tend to work on basically the same problem, in basically the same way, leaving little room for brilliance to burst forth.
In part, that's because state exploration is shackled by funding streams, many of which trickle down from the federal level. But this sort of experimentation seems like the sort of thing the government should be offering grants for (in much the way it once did for welfare): Why we've not helped a major US city create a generous universal health program (San Francisco, it should be said, is trying) baffles -- if the hoped-for savings from integrated care could help lower costs from chronic disease in ravaged urban enclaves, the country would learn a lot, and possibly save even more. Same goes for serious paid maternal leave efforts, and job retraining, and all the rest. The Danish model may not work here, but then again, it may, and the nice thing about having 300 million people rather than five million is that it's not particularly hard to try.
Also at Tapped
July 06, 2005
Give The People What They Want
Every election sees Democrats offering vague promises to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Maybe they shouldn't be so vague. As this Yale-led survey (PDF) shows (found via Heather Hulbert), energy independence may be better politics than we think. 92% of Americans think dependence on imported oil is a somewhat or very serious problem (68% say "very serious). That's a bipartisan judgment, too. 70% of Democrats say very serious, 68% of Republicans, and 66% of Independents, so agreement on this is broad.
But picking out problems is easy, getting folks to agree on solutions is not. Well, not usually. In this case, however, consensus seems reached. 93% think "requiring the auto industry to make cars that get better gas mileage" is a good or very good idea. 89% want the auto industry making more fuel efficient cars. Interestingly, only 71% want the promotion of fuel cells and only 70% want tax credits for hybrid buyers. Americans seem most comfortable with the most coercive (to the auto industry, at least) solutions.
In this, the partisan differences are more stark, though not by much. 96% of Democrats and Independents want to raise CAFE standards, while only 85% of Republicans agree. Nevertheless, get 85% of Republicans on your side and 96% of everyone else and methinks you have a majority. Hell, 90% of SUV owners think it a good idea.
For Democrats, this is a gaping, obvious opportunity. Mentioning oil independence isn't enough, progressive politicians should stand onstage and challenge their opponents to sign onto their declarative policies to wean us off foreign oil. Higher CAFE standards means lower gas costs for Americans, less instability in the Middle East, more freedom to criticize Saudi Arabia. It's good policy and, it seems, stunningly good politics. Democrats should be fighting hard to be out front on it. I don't know if it'll make us the "Party of Ideas", but it'll help us be the "Party of Solutions", which I think is just as good.
May 15, 2005
The EU Comes In Handy
Speaking of nuclear stuff: Longtime readers of my blog know that I've taken something of an interest in the European Union. Today, Xinhua is reporting that Iran doesn't want the EU to give up the ghost on stalling its nuclear progress:
Iran warned the European Union (EU) Sunday that the next round of negotiators between the two sides will be the last chance to save the stalled nuclear talks.
"Iran has decided to negotiate with the European trio (France, Germany and Britain) for one more time upon their request, and the upcoming meeting will be their last chance," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi told a weekly news briefing.
One problem: In the same article, it is revealed that Iran's parliament voted to resume uranium enrichment activities. If this whole thing were a movie script, the EU would currently be cast in the role of "Iran's patsy." In the short-term, this isn't so bad: The EU is still mostly a united front with the US, at least in terms of strategic objectives, and Iran is too visible for it to practice on anyone's credulous simplicity.
That said, this does seem troubling for EU enthusiasts. The worry here is that, in future situations, the EU will become a stalling mechanism for nations that would otherwise be staring down the barrel of sanctions or worse. If international diplomacy is all about incentives, the EU is in a precarious position: They need Iran as badly as Iran needs them, as a testing ground for a new diplomatic power that relies chiefly on soft-power incentives. They won't want to pull the trigger on sanctions or small-scale military action (e.g. bombing nuclear development sites), because pulling that trigger would mean that their own tactics - and a lot of their raison d'etre, foreign policy-wise - had been judged obsolete. Will the EU be so eager to prove themselves as an important power that they fail to acknowledge the increasingly obvious reality of Iran's nuclear ambitions - and provide Iran procedural cover in the process? Only time will tell.
March 24, 2005
Arms to China?
Timothy Garton Ash is quite right on this -- the EU should be ashamed that it needed White House pressure to maintain its arms embargo on China. Readers know I'm something of an EU booster, mainly because I think their emphasis on diplomatic relations, morally defensible policy-making, and emphasis on soft power are proving pretty powerful as a counterweight to American belligerence. But you can't spend the days pasting gold stars on yourself and then turn around to try and ship armaments to a country with a terrible human rights record and a continuing habit of threatening to invade Taiwan. And to be talked down by Bush? Someone should be apologizing for allowing that gut punch to European dignity.
As Garton writes, it's not that the US is blameless here -- we export 6.7% of China's weapons while Europe only provides 2.7%, and it's hard to fault the EU for wanting to cultivate the Dragon as a primary trading partner (this year, the EU passed America as China's largest source of trade), but they need to keep the moral high ground when doing it. China is an emerging force, no doubt about that. But we have to remember that, eventually, they won't be emerging anymore, they'll be a real force, and the dynamics of the relationships we forge now will dictate our ties later. For now, China is something of a precociously smart, shockingly strong, child. Don't let him think he can just bully the world.