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West in political crisis has echoes of 1930s

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By Stella Dawson
Sun Jan 1, 2012 8:04am EST

(Reuters) – Dysfunctional politics threatens to deliver a protracted period of slow global growth, possibly lasting well beyond 2012, which will only deepen the political and economic problems for the West.

The global financial crisis that began four years ago has morphed into a political crisis for the United States and Europe. Leaders incapable of wrestling their debt loads to manageable levels or reviving strong economic growth are stoking turmoil in markets and populist unrest among the citizenry.

The political malaise is also hastening the shift of world economic power toward developing countries led by China. At worst, it could cause a second global recession bringing with it political upheaval on a scale not seen since the 1930s.

These unpalatable scenarios are being sketched by a growing number of leading political strategists, academics and economists after an extraordinary year when the once unthinkable came to pass: the United States had its credit rating downgraded while the developing world enjoys upgrades; Europe went cap in hand to Beijing for a financial bailout; and Brazil overtook Britain within the G7 club of major economies.

The shifting international economic order toward developing countries is nothing new. But it has been happening at a faster pace than expected, accelerated by what these analysts have begun describing as Western democracy in crisis.

They see a government credibility problem in the United States and European Union, stemming from a perception that the political elite is too closely tied to the financial elite in the West, and their collusion caused the financial chaos of 2007 and 2008 and its messy aftermath, leaving the average citizen burdened with higher public debt, higher taxes, unemployment and austerity programs.

Left to pay for what voters see as the elite’s mistakes, public confidence in government has been undermined, and political paralysis has set in as Western leaders struggle to pull governmental levers that are not working effectively.

In contrast, developing nations have been modernizing their institutions and markets, delivering growth rates in the past decade triple those of the West. By 2020, the Centre for Economics and Business Research in London estimates that India and Russia will have joined China and Brazil in the G7 ranks as the biggest economies in the world based on total GDP output, ousting Britain and France. Only the United States, Japan and Germany will be left from the old G7 that dominated the international order since World War II.

Niall Ferguson, a prominent economic historian now at Harvard, calls this an historic power shift.

“For the better part of 500 years, it was Westerners on both sides of the Atlantic who could say that they had the best economic system, that they developed the best political system and so forth. And those claims have sounded increasingly hollow in our time,” Ferguson said in an interview.

The breakdown in public confidence caused by the financial crisis has revealed a deeper problem. “What we’re seeing in government is part of a wider crisis of Western institutions,” he said.

The Tea Party movement in the United States, the Occupy Wall Street movement and riots in Europe all are populist expressions of this breakdown of trust. Institutionally, it is reflected in a U.S. Congress deadlocked over taxes and spending with lawmakers so polarized by different narratives on the causes and fixes for the financial crisis that it is nearly impossible to reach decisions, even though both sides recognize that if left unchanged, their policies will bankrupt the nation, he said.

In Europe, leaders lurch from summit to summit, making partial decisions on fixing a debt crisis and trying to save the 17-member monetary union. But in the process the political elite in Brussels and the capitals are losing touch with their democratic base, which is uncertain it wants to pay the price required for monetary union through deep cutbacks.

Heather Conley, a former U.S. Under Secretary of State for European Affairs and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said this near political paralysis seen in the United States and Europe is common when governments are at an inflection point.

“Without decisive direction and leadership, we march in place or attempt to muddle through, uncertain of which path to take. The West is at such a moment,” she said.

“Only an external shock I fear will force us to take the uncertain (new) path. Or we will become so frustrated that the West will choose leaders who will take us in a radically new direction. I’m not sure our frustration level has reached that level, yet. But Europe may be arriving there soon.”

Governments in Greece, Italy and Spain have collapsed or been voted out of power in the past year, and 2012 brings presidential elections in the United States, France and Russia.

ASIA NOT IMMUNE

The fall-out from Europe’s debt crisis is being felt far and wide.

Japan already has endured nearly two decades of lost economic growth and weak political leadership after its financial bubble collapsed in the early 1990s.

George Friedman, geopolitical strategist and chief executive of Stratfor Global Intelligence, sees a distinct risk that China too will join the club of countries in political stalemate, subdued or stalled growth and popular unrest – with potentially serious consequences.

“When the United States, Europe and China go into a crisis of this sort, it can reasonably be said that the center of gravity of the world’s economy and most of its military power is in crisis. It is not a trivial moment,” Friedman wrote in “Dominoes of Doom” on the website EconomyWatch.com.

China’s economy, heavily dependent on exports, is slowing fast. Officials described the global economic outlook as “extremely grim” last month after its annual work conference, signaling deep concern as China enters a year of leadership change.

The Chinese government responded to the global recession spawned by the 2007-2008 financial meltdown with a massive credit expansion that has stoked inflation and fed a property boom. It also increased controls on the economy through state-owned companies, further concentrating state power, which Friedman sees as politically destabilizing as growth slows down.

Witness the past month villagers in southern China in a 10-day standoff with public officials over land expropriation, thousands marching in Haimen city to protest a power plant and a worker sit-in in Dongguan city demanding back pay after their paper plant closed.

ENDING PARALYSIS

The best that can be hoped for in 2012 is a muddling through, where economic growth in the United States averages around 2 percent compared with zero in the euro zone, analysts said. World growth, buoyed by emerging markets, looks set to average around 3 percent.

Martin Sass, founder of the New York based hedge fund M.D. Sass with $7.5 billion under management, is among those pinning his hopes on the elections breaking the stalemate. “I never expected the level of dysfunction in the U.S. and European lawmaking … and I never saw fundamentals count for so little in the stock market. Politics and contagion were the drivers of this underperforming market, not balance sheets and earnings.”

“It is going to take a new election in November (in the United States) to get any legislation through to deal with our problems,” Sass said.

If the political system starts functioning effectively again, Mohamed El-Erian, chief executive officer at PIMCO, the world’s largest bond fund, said it’s not too late for policymakers to catch up and avert serious economic downturn.

But elections alone may not prove the answer. To break the paralysis, political leaders need to offer a new vision, one that rebalances the cozy linkage between finance and politics, otherwise the credibility of the political system will remain compromised, said Scheherazade Rehman, professor of international affairs and finance at George Washington University.

“There has to be a shifting of our institutions. The banking system is at the heart of our economic system and with it extraordinary ties to the political system. We have to rethink the close relationship that caused the breakage,” she said.

The political crisis shot to the foreground this year as voters lost confidence in how governments responded to the 2007-2008 financial crisis, global recession and the resulting explosion in sovereign debt levels. Two narratives have emerged of what went wrong. The left casts the banker as the prime villain, unpunished by the political elite who allowed CEOs to violate all the principles of fiduciary and moral responsibility in pursuit of personal gain, which fuels the perception of a political system in collusion with a criminal financial elite it is unwilling to punish.

The right-wing narrative casts big government as the villain for exploiting the crisis to expand its regulatory powers that intrude on free markets, and to spend money on huge bailouts and social welfare programs that have only exploded the budget deficit.

In both narratives, the victim is the average citizen who is left paying a gigantic bill – through high unemployment, higher taxes and lost economic opportunity. Either way, the compact between political governance and economic life has broken.

“The political reaction, whether big government is seen at fault or big business, the reaction is that the system is tainted and there is too much crony capitalism at work,” said Raghuram Rajan, finance professor at the University of Chicago and former International Monetary Fund chief economist.

There is a distinct possibility that political dysfunction will continue well after the 2012 elections – held in May for France and November for the United States, while China completes its leadership handover by the spring of 2013.

In the United States, voters could return a divided and polarized Congress again, continuing the legislative standoff. One-party rule may prove little better, if the path chosen toward budgetary discipline is excessive taxation or ultra-steep budget cuts. In France, the election winner’s relationship with Germany and fellow EU leaders will prove critical.

Although Western democracy has demonstrated the flexibility to reform when facing severe challenges, the shadow of the 1930s looms large. This uncertainty over whether strong political leadership can emerge in 2012 is haunting markets.

John Browne, senior economic consultant to Euro Pacific Capital, is among the pessimists. He told clients in his year end note that American and European Union politicians have shown utter unwillingness to take tough decisions they know should be enacted to avoid looming global economic disaster.

“With an estimated $6 trillion plus solvency shortfall of the euro zone banks, and $16 trillion in U.S. public debt, it will take leadership of far greater caliber to avert a disaster. Such leadership is nowhere in sight,” he said.

(Reporting By Stella Dawson; editing by Claudia Parsons)

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Soros-Rockefeller-Rhodes protégé – tried to allay a default by engineering a new sovereign debt bond mega-swap.

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Argentina, Buenos Aires : A woman passes in front of the window of an exchange in downtown Buenos Aires on October 28, 2011. (AFP Photo / Danniel Garcia)

Exactly ten years ago Argentina suffered a full-scale financial and governmental collapse. That was the end-result of over a decade of doing exactly what the IMF, international bankers, rating agencies and global “experts” told us to do.

Then President Fernando de la Rúa kept applying all IMF recipes to the very last minute, making us swallow their poisonous “remedies”.

It all began getting really ugly in early 2001 when De la Rúa could no longer service Argentina’s “sovereign debt” even after driving the country into full “deficit zero” mode, slashing public spending, jobs, health, education and key public services.

By March 2011, he had brought back Domingo Cavallo as finance minister, a post Cavallo had already held for six years in the nineties under then-President Carlos Menem, imposing outrageous IMF deregulation and privatization policies that weakened the state and led straight to the 2001 collapse.

Well, it wasn’t really De la Rúa who brought back Cavallo but rather David Rockefeller (JPMorgan Chase) and William Rhodes (CitiCorp), who personally came to Buenos Aires to tell/order President De la Rúa to name Cavallo… or else!

So, by June 2001, Cavallo – a Trilateral Commission member and Soros-Rockefeller-Rhodes protégé – tried to allay a default by engineering a new sovereign debt bond mega-swap which increased public debt by $51 billion, but did not avert total collapse that December.

What then? De la Rúa and Cavallo protected the bankers, avoiding a massive run on all banks by freezing all bank deposits. “Corralito” they called it – “the crib” – whereby account holders could only withdraw 250 pesos per week (at the time, equivalent to $250; after the 2002 devaluation, equal to $75).

Argentina’s economy all but collapsed; people took to the streets banging pots and pans, screaming and yelling, calling all bankers ‘thieves, criminals, crooks, swindlers and robbers’ but… the big mega-bank bronze gates all remained tightly shut. No one got their money back.

Half of bank deposits were in dollars. Again, no one got their dollars back, but just as pesos at a fraudulent rate of exchange after devaluation had been imposed and Argentina’s so-called “convertibility” Currency Board that Cavallo had imposed a decade earlier pegging the peso to the dollar at an unrealisticone-to-one parity, was dropped.

Clearly,this was a massive banker-orchestrated, government-backed robbery of the assets and savings of 40 million Argentinians.Half our population quickly fell below the poverty line, GDP contracted by almost 40% in 2002, millions lost their jobs, their savings, their homes to foreclosures, their livelihoods and yet… not one single bank folded or collapsed!

Amid rioting in Buenos Aires and major cities and brutal police repression that left 30 dead on the streets, De la Rúa boarded his helicopter on the rooftop of the “Casa Rosada” presidential palace and abandoned ship. That last week of December 2001, four presidents successively went by until finally the bankers, the media, and the US State and Treasury Departments accepted Eduardo Duhalde as provisional president. He finally named finance minister Roberto Lavagna, a founding member of the local CARI, the Argentine Council on Foreign Relations, which is the local New York CFR branch.

Argentina was used as a testing ground by the global power elite to learn how a full-scale financial, monetary, banking and economic collapse can be controlled and its social consequences suitably engineered to ensure that, with time: (a) the bankers came out unharmed, (b) “democratic order” is re-instated and the new government imposes another sovereign debt mega-swap, balance their numbers, and calm the people down (or else!), and (c) put big smiles back on bankster faces…Business as usual!

The lessons learned in Argentina in 2001/3 are today being used in Greece, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Iceland, the UK and the US.

So, “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrators, lend me your ears! You haven’t got a chance! The global money masters already made their financial war game exercise in Argentina.

At one point it got so bad that New York Times journalist Larry Rohter (later alleged by the Brazilian government to have ties with the CIA) had the gall to suggest the territorial break-up of Argentina to “solve” our debt crisis. The title of his perverse article, published on 27 August 2002, said it all: “Some in Argentina see secession as the answer to economic peril”, specifically targeting our natural resources-rich Patagonian region…

Then, the global power elite finally got their man when Néstor Kirchner became president in May 2003. Kirchner retained the finance minister, Lavagna, engineered yet another sovereign debt mega-swap running 42 years into the future (!); he paid the IMF the full amount they claimed of $10 billion (in cash, in dollars and with no deductions; i.e. absolutely most-favored creditor status!) getting nothing in return; he further weakened Argentina’s military, dumbed-down education, media and culture, and ended up imposing his wife Cristina as successor.

Clearly, lots of lessons were learned from the “Argentine experience,” which come in so handy when dealing with those rowdy, poorer Europeans today.

So, one decade on…. anyone for a tango? Adrian  Salbuchi

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Obama’s New Nationalism

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by Conn Carroll Senior Editorial Writer

Today, in Osawatomie, Kansas, President Obama will invoke Teddy Roosevelt as a model for his 2012 reelection campaign. Over 100 years ago, after leaving the White House, Roosevelt delivered a seminal speech, titled “The New Nationalism,” which would become the foundation for the Progressive Party he would later create to challenge President Taft’s reelection. Obama plans to identify with those same progressive roots today as he calls for higher taxes on the rich and more government control of the economy.

At the White House press briefing yesterday, spokesman Jay Carney said Obama, “Thinks it’s an opportune time and an opportune location to try to put into broader perspective the kind of debates we’ve been having and the issues that are of vital importance to give middle-class Americans the kind of fair shot that they deserve.” Obama will no doubt echo Roosevelt’s call for a “equality of opportunity” and recycle the speech’s “square deal” rhetoric.

But while there are many parts of Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech that will sound great to modern ears, there are also many passages that will grate on independent voters:

Combinations in industry are the result of an imperative economic law which cannot be repealed by political legislation. The effort at prohibiting all combination has substantially failed. The way out lies, not in attempting to prevent such combinations, but in completely controlling them in the interest of the public welfare.

This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.

These words are as radical today as they were 100 years ago. When text of Roosevelt’s New Nationalism reached New York, The New York Times called it “Roosevelt’s Super-Socialism.” Don’t count on that paper using a similar description of Obama’s speech today.

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Former Union Chief Andy Stern Praises Crony Communism

Andy Stern

Andy Stern

Posted 12/02/2011 07:05 PM ET

IBD Editorials

Economic Systems: The former head of the Service Employees International Union says capitalism is on the ash heap of history and sees China as our role model. We have seen his future, however, and it doesn’t work.

President Obama once reportedly told aides, according to the New York Times, that things would be easier if he were president of China. Presumably he meant there would be no pesky things like a Congress, free elections and a free press to deal with.

Former SEIU chief Andy Stern, who may still hold the record for visits to the White House under this administration, would agree with that assessment. Stern, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, writes of China’s “superior economic model,” a command-and-control economy unimpeded by such anachronisms as democracy and a truly free market. Stern writes that the “conservative-preferred free-market fundamentalist shareholder-only model” of capitalism “is being thrown onto the trash heap of history in the 21st century.”

We should, he says, “rethink” our economic model rather than “double down on an empirically failing free-market extremism.” He speaks glowingly of China’s 12th five-year plan and “Deng Xiaoping‘s government-led growth-oriented reforms (that) have created the planet’s second-largest economy” soon to replace us as No. 1.

Stern is wrong on at least two counts. The first is that what we have been practicing of late can hardly be called unfettered capitalism. We labor under the burden of ever-restrictive regulation and the highest corporate tax burden in the world. The administration has embraced industrial policy to dictate where factories can be built and what energy can be developed. It, not the free market, picks the winners and losers.

If we were practicing capitalism, Boeing would be allowed to make its Dreamliner passenger jet in South Carolina without the commissars at the National Labor Relations Board interfering. We’d be building the Keystone XL pipeline to bring Canadian tar sands oil to American markets. We’d be drilling offshore and in ANWR.

If we were practicing capitalism, there would be no such thing as too big to fail. There would be no bailouts, no nationalization of health care or buying of car companies. There would be no Solyndras or government “investments” in failed alternative energy. We wouldn’t shoot ourselves in the foot building high-speed trains.

The second is that China is hardly the worker’s paradise Stern portrays. Its progress has been built on the corpses of millions sacrificed for this or that great leap forward. China has perhaps the worst distribution of wealth on the planet.

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by ANDY STERN: Obama’s other Buddy

China’s Superior Economic Model

The free-market fundamentalist economic model is being thrown onto the trash heap of history.

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By ANDY STERN

Andy Grove, the founder and chairman of Intel, provocatively wrote in Businessweek last year that, “Our fundamental economic beliefs, which we have elevated from a conviction based on observation to an unquestioned truism, is that the free market is the best of all economic systems—the freer the better. Our generation has seen the decisive victory of free-market principles over planned economies. So we stick with this belief largely oblivious to emerging evidence that while free markets beat planned economies, there may be room for a modification that is even better.”

The past few weeks have proven Mr. Grove’s point, as our relations with China, and that country’s impact on America’s future, came to the forefront of American politics. Our inert Senate, while preparing for the super committee to fail, crossed the normally insurmountable political divide to pass legislation to address China’s currency manipulation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama all weighed in with their views—ranging from warnings that China must “end unfair discrimination” (Mrs. Clinton) to complaints that the U.S. has “been played like a fiddle” (Mr. Romney) and that China needs to stop “gaming” the international system (Mr. Obama).

As this was happening, I was part of a U.S.-China dialogue—a trip organized by the China-United States Exchange Foundation and the Center for American Progress—with high-ranking Chinese government officials, both past and present. For me, the tension resulting from the chorus of American criticism paled in significance compared to reading the emerging outline of China’s 12th five-year plan. The aims: a 7% annual economic growth rate; a $640 billion investment in renewable energy; construction of six million homes; and expanding next-generation IT, clean-energy vehicles, biotechnology, high-end manufacturing and environmental protection—all while promoting social equity and rural development.

Some Americans are drawing lessons from this. Last month, the China Daily quoted Orville Schell, who directs the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, as saying: “I think we have come to realize the ability to plan is exactly what is missing in America.” The article also noted that Robert Engle, who won a Nobel Prize in 2003 for economics, has said that while China is making five-year plans for the next generation, Americans are planning only for the next election.

The world has been made “flat” by the technological miracles of Andy Grove, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. This has forced all institutions to confront what is clearly the third economic revolution in world history. The Agricultural Revolution was a roughly 3,000-year transition, the Industrial Revolution lasted 300 years, and this technology-led Global Revolution will take only 30-odd years. No single generation has witnessed so much change in a single lifetime.

The current debates about China’s currency, the trade imbalance, our debt and China’s excessive use of pirated American intellectual property are evidence that the Global Revolution—coupled with Deng Xiaoping’s government-led, growth-oriented reforms—has created the planet’s second-largest economy. It’s on a clear trajectory to knock America off its perch by 2025.

As Andy Grove so presciently articulated in the July 1, 2010, issue of Businessweek, the economies of China, Singapore, Germany, Brazil and India have demonstrated “that a plan for job creation must be the number-one objective of state economic policy; and that the government must play a strategic role in setting the priorities and arraying the forces of organization necessary to achieve this goal.”

The conservative-preferred, free-market fundamentalist, shareholder-only model—so successful in the 20th century—is being thrown onto the trash heap of history in the 21st century. In an era when countries need to become economic teams, Team USA’s results—a jobless decade, 30 years of flat median wages, a trade deficit, a shrinking middle class and phenomenal gains in wealth but only for the top 1%—are pathetic.

This should motivate leaders to rethink, rather than double down on an empirically failing free-market extremism. As painful and humbling as it may be, America needs to do what a once-dominant business or sports team would do when the tide turns: study the ingredients of its competitors’ success.

While we debate, Team China rolls on. Our delegation witnessed China’s people-oriented development in Chongqing, a city of 32 million in Western China, which is led by an aggressive and popular Communist Party leader—Bo Xilai. A skyline of cranes are building roughly 1.5 million square feet of usable floor space daily—including, our delegation was told, 700,000 units of public housing annually.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government can boast that it has established in Western China an economic zone for cloud computing and automotive and aerospace production resulting in 12.5% annual growth and 49% growth in annual tax revenue, with wages rising more than 10% a year.

For those of us who love this country and believe America has every asset it needs to remain the No. 1 economic engine of the world, it is troubling that we have no plan—and substitute a demonization of government and worship of the free market at a historical moment that requires a rethinking of both those beliefs.

America needs to embrace a plan for growth and innovation, with a streamlined government as a partner with the private sector. Economic revolutions require institutions to change and maybe make history, because if they stick to the status quo they soon become history. Our great country, which sparked and wants to lead this global revolution, needs a forward looking, long-term economic plan.

The imperative for change is simple. As Andy Grove pointed out: “If we want to remain a leading economy, we change on our own, or change will continue to be forced upon us.”

Mr. Stern was president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and is now a senior fellow at Columbia University’s Richman Center.

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