Category Archives: politics

Politics Follows – But What?

There has been quite a lot of talk these days about the fact that politics is not delivering leadership.In the US, Washington is mired in gridlock. Worse still, it seems impossible to generate meaningful dialogue about serious issues. In Europe, core issues of the sustainability of the Euro find no political forum at all. And of course, these are perhaps the two most sophisticated political systems in the world.

Should we despair? give up on politics? Some might be tempted. They yearn for simpler ways to get decisions made. But this yearning ignores a problem — making decisions is just one part of the process in producing great societies. A more important part is assessing what decisions need to be made. And here, individuals tend to get lost in their own agendas. They flounder when they need to pivot. So we are stuck with a group process, like it or not.

The question then is how to make politics better? And here I think we need to do a re-think. For too long we have nurtured the fantasy that politicians lead. In fact, they do not. What they do is watch closely to uncover how to get elected to office and stay in office. And they do that stuff — no matter how silly it might seem. This is not leadership.

So if we want more dynamic leadership in society, we need to look to channels that compel politicians to follow — not plead with them to lead. What channels? That is an interesting question — and one that needs urgent attention.

the traditional answer is that we look to media. A free press can save us! Free exchange of ideas is the future! And I think few would debate whether media is essential. But is freedom enough? I think not. The missing sauce here is accountability. When the press is not accountable for the reporting that it does, it can broadcast whatever it wants.

I will be thinking a bit more about how to generate more accountability. Stay tuned!

Truth or Right?

American politics is raucous. It always has been. And part of that raucousness is a less than 100% dedication to the truth, especially in the heat of a political campaign.

But there is something a bit more devilish going on these days. These days, we witness a “movement” that is dedicated to changing how we understand who we are as Americans. Why? Because liberals screwed up the inheritance from the founding fathers.

This would not be such a big deal if the movement was like many other movements in America – just another voice in the crowd. But this movement has now taken over one of the great parties, the republicans. How did this happen?  Heather Cox Richardson tells the story rather well.

Putin in 2015

As we exit 2014, we are left with a number of hot conflicts around the world. One was a war of choice started by Mr. Putin in Ukraine. When Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine, it was not so easy to predict how things would turn out. Now it is a bit more clear. The war is starting to impact Mr. Putin’s political fortunes in Russia.

Mr. Putin is still popular.  But the signature event in Russia now is its economic crisis. So far, Mr. Putin has managed to sell the story that this has been caused by hostile outside forces in the west. A key question for 2015 will be whether this continues to sell.

I do not believe that the Russian people will suddenly blame Mr. Putin for the mess they are in. But when things get bad, people start getting angry about it. And when they are angry, they start listening more closely to stories that confirm their anger. Like stories about corruption and incompetence. These stories may create an opening for new voices inside Russia to be heard.  Vox has an interesting story along these lines already.

I suspect that this will be one of the more interesting stories that will unfold in 2015 – whether the Kremlin can sustain the control of the political messaging in Russia from the top down.

Sony and Powerful Corporations

One lesson learned from the Sony mess has to do with corporate power. We tend to think that corporations are powerful. After all, they have access to huge amounts of capital and talent and physical resources. They are connected. They add value to society. That is all power, right?

Well it is if you think of power as something based in the rules that govern its activities. Within the rule framework, corporations can do many things that individuals cannot.

But with the Sony mess, we see the limits of corporate power. Corporations are reluctant to risk capital for principle. Sony’s defense of its backing down to hackers is “hey, it is not our fight. After all we are only a corporation!” My how the mighty have fallen.

This is something to remember when libertarians trumpet the great benefits of a society without a public sector. They mean a society where corporations call the shots. And we see with Sony that they are likely to do so based on their own interests.

Roxburgh’s Putin

Angus Roxburgh is an author, song writer, and PR man. For a while, he advised the Russian government, presumably on PR matters. Given where things are now, one hopes that the Russian government is not following his advice.

Let us assume that Angus knows a thing or two about Russia (I believe that he does) and that he is sincere. His views about the current crisis in Ukraine are summed up in a recent Guardian article

The solution is clear. Abandon the missile shield. End the expansion of Nato. And think boldly about a new security arrangement for the whole of Europe – one that will bring Russia in rather than leaving it outside feeling vulnerable. If this were done, everything I know about Putin and Russia tells me the crisis over Ukraine would be solved – and the Russian economy would not end up being needlessly destroyed, causing woe and bitterness among its people. If it is not done, we will have to deal with a resentful Russia for decades – for Putin’s successors will also demand security.

Let us return to the ideals of 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev envisaged a new “common European home”. That is what every Russian leader since him has wanted – while the west, it seems, never did.

We can dismiss the last paragraph as hyperbole. In fact, Mr. Gorbachev most wanted to keep the Soviet Union together. This suited him and his circle, but it ignored the wishes of many, Balts included, who wanted just the opposite. Shall we now resurrect that crisis?

One more thing about this hyperbole. Going back to 1991, there is ample evidence that the west actually wanted to fit Russia into a new European home. The main question was how to accomplish this. I know because I was part of the regional effort to make that happen. The regional programming was generic (not targeted to advance one country over another) and was aimed to assist countries to make the transition from Soviet to western institutional orientation. Let us be clear, at a certain point in time, Russian policy, from the top down, changed to reject this approach. The most probable reasons are that this policy approach presumed a devolution of power away from the Kremlin as well as increased accountability for the results of policy. The ruling elite in Russia wanted to have their cake (friendship with the west) and eat it too (consolidate power).

The most painful result of this change in policy was the end of legal reform in Russia. The end of legal reform surprised some. For example, Paul Klebnikov, thought it possible to report for Forbes on large scale corruption issues. He was shot in the head very soon after setting up shop in Moscow.  It surprised Mr. Khodorkovsky as well, who thought it possible to oppose the Kremlin.  But these two were not the only ones who faced unpleasant surprises. It also surprised scores of people who took over certain values that are at the core of the European experience – free speech and protection of human rights. Journalists, human rights workers, lawyers. The list of folks inside Russia who were unpleasantly surprised is rather long.

Was this policy change necessitated by the something the west did? I think it would be more accurate to say that we have been witnessing a long term clash over fundamental values. On one side are forces within Russia. Notice I do not say the Russian people. But certain forces have chosen to reject values that the west holds to be fundamental. On the other side are people who believe these values are fundamental to build a better future.

If we are in the midst of such a clash, is it appropriate to blame the west for having values? Well, I think not. I do think blaming the west for the crisis is the type of distraction that you would expect from propagandists or by persons taken in by their messaging.

But what about the first paragraph? Angus writes

… everything I know about Putin and Russia tells me the crisis over Ukraine would be solved (if the west reaches out to Russia).

This is ironic in that Angus admits earlier that Putin’s strength is precisely his inscrutability.

…  Putin’s response to sanctions is always bizarre.

So what could Angus actually know that the rest of us do not?  I would argue that the answer is nothing. But we do know one thing. about the situation. Putin has it in his power to end the Ukraine crisis tomorrow.  He has had this power from the beginning. He chose then and chooses now not to end it. Why? We can only guess.

This insight is critical. As Angus tells us, we cannot predict what Putin will choose if the west does reach out to him, He is as likely as not simply to proclaim victory and demand more concessions that secure and increase his power. That implies further attempts to erode the institutional structures that would constrain him. And yes, while NATO has never been a threat to Russia, it does constrain those in Russia who would like to extend their influence beyond Russia’s borders.

Based on this, I do apologize Angus if this sounds a bit harsh, but we either hold on to our shared values here or we give in to folks who do not share them. We may not be able to choose how to end this mess, but we do have that choice.

Russia: An Inflection Point Coming?

Well, things are looking pretty grim for Mr. Putin and his crowd these days. What to make of this?

Some argue that his popularity may suddenly plummet, opening up the door for possible change. Others argue that allowing a disaster in Russia is not worth the risk. Kevin Drum, writing for Mother Jones, is one of them.

he writes this

I have precious little sympathy for Putin, whose success—such as it is—is based on a toxic stew of insecurities and quixotic appetites that have expressed themselves in a destructive brand of crude nativism; reactionary bigotry; disdain for the rule of law, both domestic and international; narrow and myopic economic vision; and dependence on an outdated and illiberal oligarchy to retain power. Nonetheless, there are kernels of legitimate grievance buried in many of these impulses, as well as kernels of necessity given both Russia’s culture and the post-Cold War collapse of its economy that has left it perilously dependent on extractive industries.

Kernels of legitimate grievance? Just what does that mean? More obscure is the phrase “kernels of necessity”.  Let’ not get confused about what is going on. The Ukraine adventure was not something based on a legitimate grievance. Nor was it necessary for Russia. It was chosen by Mr. Putin as a tactical move. It was an incursion of choice. He can end it whenever he wants to do so. He can negotiate his way out of it. But if the west flinches now, he will win. And if he wins here, he will know that he can flout the foundations of western security again.

Evolving Political Agendas

There is a curious trend at work these days, the rich are getting richer and the rest of us are not. I am not writing here to complain or to propose how to change this. Instead — because this is a conflict management blog — I would like to point out something about the conflicts that may emerge.

As the rich get richer, their political agenda will likely change. How? Well, the political agenda of those striving to get rich is to be pro-business. And of course, this is what you have heard form republicans. But once people are rich, they might lose interest in the race to the top. Instead of being pro-business, they are as likely to become pro-capital.

What does a pro-capital political agenda look like? Consider what the rich want most of all – a secure foundation to maintain and enjoy their wealth. This has many possible manifestations. One would be policies that retard protest movements and radical change. Another would be a dislike of capital gains taxes. Indeed, a dislike of progressive income tax in general. And of course, there is that damned  inheritance tax.

But how to replace government income that would be lost if these taxes are to be seriously reduced? The Reagan idea was that a sudden explosion of business activity, unleashed from tax constraints, would generate more revenue. Well, whenever tried, this has not happened.

But how about this idea — introducing a national VAT? The rich can afford VAT. Hmmm … don’t be surprised if you start hearing more about the purported virtues of VAT.