Monday, January 31, 2011

Not Tienanmen

In my previous post, I wondered if the Egyptian military would emulate China's in 1989. Today, it looks like we have an answer. Reuters is reporting that the military issued a statement saying that "the armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people."

Mubarak will be gone within weeks, perhaps days.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Egypt's Crisis: Tunisia, Tumult, or Tienanmen?

For much of the past three days, I've been glued to al-Jazeera's English-language live streaming video feed, watching Egypt unravel. Their Cairo bureau has been shut down by the government, but they continue to broadcast the most detailed reports from the streets that I've seen. As I note briefly in the book, al-Jazeera is a great example of globalization, allowing English speakers to get a sense of how the Arab world frames events. Right now, this TV network based in Qatar is far ahead of the rest of the world's media outlets on the Egypt story, helping us understand what's really going on. (For the record, I've found New York Times coverage to be a solid second best.)

Egyptians have taken instant inspiration from Tunisia's ouster of Ben Ali due to a quick-moving media cycle, which now includes cellphones, text messaging, Facebook, and Twitter. Although Mubarak's regime tried to clamp down by shutting off virtually all Internet servers and mobile phone service in Egypt on Friday, people were still watching al-Jazeera, which was much harder to shut down (unless they turned off all electricity, and even then people could power up generators). And you can imagine how angry people were without internet or cellphones.

What does this have to do with globalization, you might ask. Drawing on Jan Aart Scholte's definition, we can say that globalization is the process of increasing simultaneous and instantaneous interactions. We are more and more able to track events as they happen, right along with the people living through them. Knowing people who live and work in Egypt, and having been there three times, I am stunned to imagine what they are going through and I feel like I am almost there.

Being a political scientist, though, I have to speculate about what might happen next. Will this be another Tunisia? Or something else?

Everyone's comparing Egypt's protests to Tunisia's recent Jasmine Revolution. But Egypt's masses seem much less organized, reflecting Egypt's larger, more atomized, and more oppressed society. So far there is still no credible opposition leadership, whereas Tunisia had labor unions and student groups that pulled together cohesive demonstrations. Egypt's protests seem more chaotic and leaderless. That could change, but so far I don't see this looking like Tunisia's successful revolution.

Instead, tumult has erupted. The last two nights have seen looting, as the police evaporated from the streets. Either the government has started to collapse or the withdrawal of police was a deliberate strategy by the authorities, with the hope that they could sow enough chaos to justify a military crackdown. Although the military has appeared on the streets, to the welcome of the crowds, they have held back so far (apart from protecting key government ministry buildings). Whether intentional or unintentional, the breakdown of law and order is a deeply disturbing development. Cairo, a city of 18 million people, was chaotic and crazy even when the state kept a strong hand. Now there's a good chance that all hell will break loose. It's not clear that any government will have an easy time of restoring control there.

So could this be a Tienanmen Square situation? In response to widespread student protests there, the Chinese government on June 4, 1989 ordered tanks to open fire and kill civilians, brutally crushing the reform movement and stopping any steps toward democracy.

It's hard to imagine Egypt's military attacking its own people. Plus, it's hard to imagine that this would work. The anger at the regime is much more widespread than what China had in 1989. Apart from students, most Chinese citizens were willing to put up with their government, which delivered rising living standards. Unlike China's regime, however, Egypt's is weak and ineffective. Any attempt to use force would probably be inconsistently applied, thereby provoking more frustration. And attempts to limit media coverage also won't work. The news will get out, even if in a trickle.

If Mubarak's regime thinks it can pull off a Tienanmen-style crackdown, I think they will be disappointed. And if they try it, they will only provoke a greater popular backlash, as well as international isolation, thereby contributing to Mubarak's eventual demise. Repression might stretch the crisis out for a while, prolonging the regime, but it will only shed blood for naught.

It could be a messy few weeks or months, but Mubarak will be out of office relatively soon. I pray that all this will happen as quickly and peacefully as possible--and that peace will be restored to the streets of Cairo with ease.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Updates on WikiLeaks and Tunisia's Revolution

Just hours after I posted on the debate over WikiLeaks' effect on the revolution happening in Tunisia on Saturday, I turned on my car radio and heard NPR's "On the Media" program debating the same issue.

And the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, Tom Malinowski said yesterday that Tunisian sources confirmed that the release of U.S. State Department cables did play a role.

Protestors in Egypt have been inspired by Tunisia, and yesterday they got a little out of hand. Since I am scheduled to go with a group of students to Egypt in May, I'll be watching events there closely.

Shocking News: The Global Financial Crisis Was Avoidable

It's not really shocking news, but in the spirit of the Onion this headline from today's New York Times  could elicit a chuckle: "Financial Crisis Was Avoidable, Inquiry Finds." (Shocking! Haha!)

As I noted in an earlier post, the now-Oscar-nominated film Inside Job doles out plenty of blame to people who caused the crisis (primarily Wall Street bankers and regulators). Likewise, a host of books reviewed on this blog explain the many things that people could have done differently to avoid the crisis. 

But today's story is news because the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, a government study group set up by President Obama and Congress, is set to issue its report tomorrow morning. And the theme of this 576-page report, according to Sewell Chan of the Times, is that real human beings are to blame. According to Chan, the report states that 
the crisis was the result of human action and inaction, not of Mother Nature or computer models gone haywire. . . . The captains of finance and the public stewards of our financial system ignored warnings and failed to question, understand and manage evolving risks within a system essential to the well-being of the American public. Theirs was a big miss, not a stumble.
It's highly likely that the chair of the commission leaked a copy of the report's conclusions in advance to build interest in tomorrow's press conference announcing the release. 

But there will be some Republican complaints about this report, because the report was approved along party lines. The six Democrats on the panel voted to approve it, but the four Republicans rejected it.

We now have two main interpretations of the crisis: the canonical Democratic view, best expressed in Inside Job, that blames alleged Wall Street greed and an alleged lack of regulation; and the dissenting Republican view, which blames Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two Federal government-supported (and now government-owned) mortgage guarantors, for allegedly pushing poorer, sub-prime borrowers to purchase to take on risky mortgages. 

In the Republican view, individual borrowers demanded cheap credit and caused the crisis. We can call this the demand-side explanation.

In the Democratic view, it was the flood of global money pouring into Wall Street that created an excess supply of capital looking for a return on investment. Wall Street firms were dying to make huge money for themselves and their clients, so they pushed subprime lending. We can call this the supply-side explanation.

Who's right? As I'll explain in a later post, probably both parties. As I tell students, whenever you are presented with Option A and Option B, always choose Option C! 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Tunisia: The First WikiLeaks Revolution?

If you haven't been paying attention to international news the past few weeks, you've missed an amazing and important story. Protestors in the small North African country of Tunisia have driven the long-time president, Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali,  from the country and brought about a revolution that is gripping the entire Arab world. As the interim prime minister (and former close ally of Ben Ali) tries to cobble together a stable government, analysts are debating whether this is the first "WikiLeaks revolution" (Google "Tunisia wikileaks revolution" and you'll see a number of commentators weighing in). Are they right?

The catalyst that provoked the protests was a 26-year old street vendor named Muhammad Boazizi who, after refusing to pay a bribe, was harassed and arrested by a female government inspector and shortly after killed himself by setting himself on fire. (This New York Times story offers the most vivid details of his story so far in the mainstream American media.) Social media and Arabic TV networks (especially al-Jazeera) picked up the story. Text and picture messages spread the word and helped organize protests. There's no question that information technology helped speed up the process of ousting Ben Ali. But did it cause it?

The frustrations of ordinary Tunisians were no surprise to those familiar with the country. In March 2005, during what some called an "Arab spring" (of popular mobilization in Arab countries), I was able to spend a few days in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. I arrived just a day after large protests had erupted, and in the streets I saw buses full of riot police waiting to contain any new demonstrations. A U.S. diplomat told me about serious corruption in high places. One reason that there so few multinational food chains like McDonalds or Pizza Hut in the country, he said, was that they were facing constant pressures to pay off corrupt officials. Rather than pay constant bribes, they stayed away.

University students were very careful about what they said, because the secret police had informants everywhere, but they were deeply unhappy with the regime even then.

Corruption was not news in Tunisia, but last month WikiLeaks unveiled several U.S. State Department cables containing lurid details of wealth and extravagance that outraged Tunisians outside the president's inner circle. Chief among them was a cable in which the U.S. ambassador reported on a party he attended at the large beach compound of Ben Ali's son-in-law, where evidence of decadence and excess abounded: Roman artifacts such as columns and frescoes, a carved "lion's head from which water pours into a pool," a lavish dinner,  talk of private jets, and a caged live tiger that ate four chickens a day. Although word-of-mouth and rumor on the street talked of the president's cronies being a mafia, this was colorful and official confirmation of extreme corruption.

But can we say that WikiLeaks caused the revolution (as Andrew Sullivan and Elizabeth Dickinson and others suggested)? I don't think so, because conditions on the ground were the real frustration, and the immediate catalyst was Mohammed Bouazizi's suicide. But the WikiLeaks cables spread details of the corruption more widely and quickly--and they demonstrated that the U.S. and the French governments were doing nothing to stop it. People realized that they were on their own.

Furthermore, social media--as even skeptics like Evgeny Morozov, Dan Murphy, and Timothy Garton Ash admit--helped to facilitate popular mobilization.

As I argue in the book, the globalization of politics is a mixed bag. The Internet and social media may be speeding up politics around the world, but they are not fundamentally altering the structures of authority vested in the state (at least, not yet). However, they are making it harder for politicians to get away with some of their old ways, as Ben Ali and his cronies found out too late.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Charles Ferguson is Pissed!

Filmmaker Ferguson is an angry Ph.D.
Thanks to the Canton Palace Theatre Thursday art film series, tonight I finally got to see Inside Job, the documentary film on the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 that I called "The Most Important Film of 2010" in an earlier post (even though I hadn't seen it yet).

Thankfully, now I can say that my judgment, however premature, was warranted. This is an amazing, devastating, illuminating, captivating, and compelling film. Anyone who cares about what happened to our economy in the last few decades needs to see this.

What drives the film and gives it such power is the barely concealed rage of its sole interviewer, writer, director, and producer: Charles Ferguson, who should be nominated not only for an Oscar for best documentary, but also for the title of "the academic Michael Moore."

Ferguson, who has a Ph.D. in political science from MIT and went on to make some money in the software industry before an early buyout/retirement, made his first-ever film on the bungled postwar occupation of Iraq. He got curious and started interviewing people with a camera, and pretty soon he had a film on his hands.

Despite being broadly supportive of regime change in Iraq into early 2003, he was appalled at the disasters that followed: looting, suicide bombings, insurgency, economic collapse, and so on. So, like a good political scientist, he tried to figure out what had gone wrong in the policy process, by interviewing as many decision-makers as he could. With their help, he made the counterfactual argument that it could have been different. Instead of agreeing with then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that "stuff happens" and that looting was the price of freedom, Ferguson assembled dozens of interviews to show that officials of the U.S. government made several critical errors that, if avoided, would have prevented the disasters that followed.

Ferguson has taken the same approach with Inside Job, right away dismantling the lazy assumption that the economic crisis that began in late 2007 was somehow either inevitable or unexpected. Instead, he plays clips from interviews of Charles Morris and Nouriel Roubini, who both predicted the crisis beforehand (or at least understood its main causes in the very early stages). Later, he shows Ben Bernanke denying to a TV anchorwoman in 2005 that a housing market problem could contribute to a recession (oops, sorry about that).

And he makes the convincing case that a number of people knowingly contributed to the crisis through their appalling action or inaction. This wasn't an accident of history but the result of greedy people pursuing their own private gain--at the expense of the public treasury and the public good.

While making his case, Ferguson has a series of testy exchanges with Glenn Hubbard, former economic adviser to President George W. Bush; Martin Feldstein, professor of economics at Harvard; John Campbell, chair of the economics department at Harvard; Scott Talbott, chief lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable; Frederic Mishkin, ex-Federal Reserve Board Governor; and David McCormick, former U.S. Treasury Under Secretary for International Affairs. (Watch the trailer for the best ones.)

Apart from these Michael Moore-like, on-camera confrontations, Ferguson tells a good story. For his hook, he starts with Iceland's parallel economic collapse and a short synopsis of the onset of the crisis in the September 15, 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. Peter Gabriel's punchy song "Big Time" is the perfect accompaniment to aerial shots of the financial district in Manhattan, evoking upbeat emotions, with lyrics that could be telling the story of Wall Street bankers making it "Big Time".  From there he tells the story in five chapters.

Part I is "How We Got Here." Short answer: our political leaders allowed the financial industry to concentrate its operations and get too big, without proper oversight, especially in the $70 billion a year "derivatives" market, where the famous collateralized debt obligations and credit-default swaps were hatched, all without supervision. Alan Greenspan comes in for special scrutiny here.

Part II is about the housing bubble of 2001-2007, which a number of observers were able to detect by 2005 (although not Ben Bernanke, by then the new Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors). Among these high-level observers and on-camera interviewees were both the managing director and the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, hedge fund founder George Soros, journalist Allan Sloan (who documented mortgage-related rot in an October 2007 article), and French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde. This bubble was entirely predictable.

Part III is a straightforward narration of the crisis of September-October 2008, stemming from the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and the near-collapse of the giant insurer AIG. Henry Paulson, Secretary of the Treasury, and former CEO of Goldman Sachs doesn't look so great by the end of this section.

Part IV--"Accountability"--seeks to figure out who should have taken action during or after the crisis. Stan O'Neal, the former head of Merrill Lynch, which tanked and had to be bought out by Bank of America, walked away with a total compensation package of $161 million. Who is allowing this? It turns out that the board of Merrill Lynch and other corporations' boards are not very effective checks. What about the government? The financial industry has the equivalent of five lobbyists for every member of Congress. The Obama Administration appointed Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, both with close ties to the financial services industry, to top positions. What about the economics profession in top universities? Here Ferguson digs up some of his juiciest material, pointing out that many top economists draw up to 80% of their income from sitting on financial service companies' corporate boards, consulting with them, or collecting speakers' fees from them. So much for truth-seeking academics speaking to power!

Part V--"Where Are We Now"--helps us assess the situation as of early 2010--a situation that, sadly, has barely improved. Unemployment has dropped a bit from the 10% level but we definitely suffered through a global recession that has devastated the lives of the poorest people more than the lives of people like me. (One of the more haunting segments in this section of the film is a small Chinese plant with empty tables, a vivid picture of how this worldwide recession affects migrant laborers in China making $80 a month.)

Ferguson ends with a shot of the Statue of Liberty and the hope that someone will fight to bring Wall Street bankers to justice. Could we imagine criminal or civil prosecutions of these characters? It's hard to imagine, when we have what one interviewee called "a Wall Street Government."

Monday, January 17, 2011

Why I Love the Sundays after Epiphany

It's January, and it's been cold, snowy, and gray here in the upper Midwest. But I love this time of year--not because I love cold weather, or even college basketball, or the NFL football playoffs. 

I love it because I love this season of the church calendar. Between the Feast of the Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, the church now enters a season of reflection. The Catholic Church calls this a season of "ordinary time," but the liturgically minded Protestants behind the Revised Common Lectionary call this the season of Epiphany. Either way, though, the focus throughout this period is on how God's glory is increasingly revealed through the work and ministry of Christ and the Church. This season is all about the extraordinary Light of God being manifested in the ordinary and mundane.

This theme is encapsulated in this week's communal prayer (or collect, in Anglican language), which is one of my favorites:
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
If Christians would take this prayer seriously and live it out, they would understand their mission in life and find their calling: Everything we do--especially our work in the world--should shine with the radiance of the Light of Christ. But this work must always be rooted in worship, in beholding the glory of the Lord, in experiencing the beauty of God's story. And this work is always to be aimed at making disciples of all nations, inviting others to worship, and teaching them to obey until the end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20).

Since I'm teaching a senior seminar focused on the theme of vocation this spring, I've been reading and thinking a lot about finding callings. It's difficult to figure out what to do with your life. I certainly had a hard time figuring it out, and I know many others who do. It's even harder in this season of winter, when it's easy to get depressed and stay in bed on chilly mornings.

To figure out your calling in life, I want to tell students, you might start by going to church, where you can be illumined.

I love this season because it challenges me to drag myself out of bed, to see the Light, to get to church, to dive into my work, and to renew my sense of calling--right when I need all this, in the depths of of the dark, cold winter.

When I do all these things, I often find that I have caught a glimpse of what I am to do with my life. I have caught a glimpse of my part in the Epiphany mission: the mission of revealing God's glory to all who will receive it.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Happy Epiphany!

Another season has arrived. The twelfth day of Christmas was yesterday (yes, we celebrated it, although we didn't have twelve lords a-leaping), and today--January 6--is the Feast of the Epiphany. This obscure day is actually one of my favorite Christian holidays, so I look forward to celebrating it tonight in worship at my church.

So what does one celebrate today? Traditionally the Western church celebrated the appearance of Jesus to the wise men, while the Eastern church celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. God's glory--the fullness of God's presence and the theme of this season--is revealed in both instances.

Matthew's gospel alone tells the story of the Magi traveling from the East to Bethlehem to worship Jesus. For Matthew, the narrative symbolizes the revelation of God's glory to the Gentiles, expanding the community of faith beyond the Jewish people. (For Matthew, these are the first converts to Jesus outside of Judaism, which means that our ancestors in the faith are probably Arabs or Persians, and that the church was globalized from its inception. Next time we want to convert Asians or Middle Easterners to Christianity, we might pause to ponder this point.)

Paul, the evangelist to the Gentiles, understood the point of Matthew's story, and that's why the church reads Ephesians 3:1-12 tonight. As Paul describes the mystery in verse 6, "the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel."

The Eastern Church treated this day as a celebration of God's glory being revealed through the baptism of Jesus. This, too, is a mystery revealed: a dove descends and God's voice declares that this is his son, with whom He is well pleased. Focusing on this mystery, the Orthodox call this the Feast of the Theophany (the revelation of God). And that is the core claim of Christian belief: the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.

The entering of Fullness into time changes everything (not just our approach to globalization). As I ponder this mystery again today, I am glad to be on the journey of another Christian year.

P.S. My favorite reporter at our local newspaper published an informative little story on Epiphany today. Nice to see that solid local journalism is alive in our medium-sized town!