Monday, May 2, 2016

Owen Jones and anti-semitism in the left

One of the voices of the new left in Europe, Owen Jones, has spoken clearly about the need to eradicate any trace of anti-semitism in progressive movements. Here is what he said in The Guardian:

"Antisemitism is currently being discussed in the context of the Labour leadership contest, of which more shortly. But suffice to say that, although the sole attempt in human history to exterminate an entire people by industrialised means forced Europeans to confront pandemic antisemitism, this cancerous hatred remains. It can be overt. Take the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece, feeding off the despair of austerity; take the antisemitic Jobbik party in Hungary, which one in five Hungarians voted for last year; take the foul intolerance of murderous Islamic fundamentalism. But it is not simply the preserve of neo-Nazi skinheads; it can be subtle too, and it finds expression not just on the right but on the left. All cases need to be confronted for what they are. The Labour leadership frontrunner, Jeremy Corbyn, has been a long-term supporter of the Palestinian justice movement. He could not possibly have known the personal backgrounds of every individual who has joined him at the many rallies he has attended over the years. Some of these people were antisemitic. And while the vast majority of people involved in the movement are – like myself – driven by a passionate support for self-determination, there is a minority that indulges antisemitic tropes. These ideas have to be defeated. Yes, supporters of Palestinian justice get unfair criticisms. “Why do you focus on the plight of the Palestinian people rather than, say, the horrors committed by Islamic State or the suffering of the Kurds?” some ask. (...) I have challenged dodgy pronouncements from people who profess to advocate Palestinian justice.Jewish people are sometimes told that antisemitism is caused by Israel’s actions, for example. These are the same people who would never dream of victim-blaming members of other minorities, or claim that anybody was at fault other than the bigot themselves. Others play linguistic games: how can it be antisemitism, they say, when Palestinians are also “Semites” – members of a group of people originally of the ancient Middle East that includes Jews and Arabs – even though “antisemitism” has meant “anti-Jewish hatred” for generations. (This is like saying, “I’m not homophobic because I’m not scared of gays.”). There are those who imply that Jewish people are somehow synonymous with the Israeli government (a slur echoed by some uncritical cheerleaders of Israeli state policy). And some use terms like “Jewish lobby”, a classic antisemitic trope suggesting there is an organised Jewish cabal exercising behind-the-scenes influence worldwide. And so on. Antisemitism is too serious to become a convenient means to undermine political opponents. It is a menace: not just in its overt forms, but in subtler, pernicious forms too. There’s no excuse for the left to downplay it, or to pretend it doesn’t exist within its own ranks. Rather than being defensive, the left should seize any opportunity to confront the cancer of antisemitism and eradicate it for good."

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Voices from Berkeley

When I spent eight months in Berkeley in 2008 I saw in the corridors of the University of California academics of the calibre of Barry Eichengreen and Robert Reich. This week-end I had the occasion of knowing about their opinions on the economic and political crises of the recent past (which started precisely those months in 2008). I have been reading most of the book by Eichengreen "Hall of Mirrors" and I watched on the BBC the interview of Reich in the program Hard Talk. "Hall of Mirrors" is a fantastic book on the parallels between the Great Depression of 1930s and the Great Recession of 2008. It deals with experiences at both sides of the Atlantic in both historic episodes. It has many lessons, which I could apply to my own interests. For example, when talking about the crisis in Ireland, he explains that the fact that it was a small country did not help in disentangling the collusion of interests between politicians, bankers and regulators (this is a useful insight for those thinking that the independence of small nations will automatically increase democratic quality). Or he explains that in the UK the conservatives took advantage of the crisis to push their small government agenda, driving a campaign to eliminate a large number of public agencies. Or how central banks added responsabilities on financial supervision to those on monetary policy, but creating internal walls to separate both functions, to reduce the conflicts of interests among them. I would have found the last two insights useful when I was working on a paper on the merger of regulatory agencies in Spain (but now this paper has already been accepted by a journal). The interview of journalist Stephen Sackur with Robert Reich discusses the campaign between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Reich has endorsed Sanders but says that he will vote for Clinton if she is finally the nominee. He calls for the Democraric Party to channel the energies of the anti-establishment movement led by Sanders and that has its origins in the Occupy Movement. If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency and accepts large parts of the platform of Sanders it will be more difficult to argue that socialdemocracy faces an international terminal crisis.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Where is the old sovereign state in Europe?

The old idea of a state associated to a currency, a language, an army, a flag, a monarch... is dead. The still frequent habit of associating a language to a country's flag is a symbol of a more general mismatch between symbols and reality. When I see the Spanish language associated to the Spanish flag I feel a current of cognitive dissonance, because I empathize with all the hundreds of millions of people who have Spanish as their language and who do not live in Spain. And I empathize with all those Spaniards who also have other languages as their own. In Europe, our army is NATO, whether we like it or not. We have our national flags coexisting with local or regional flags, and with the European flag, and with many other flags that are important for some people, expressing sexual orientation identity or sports preferences. Our monarchs are more and more becoming like the kings of Southafrican tribes, mere touristic attractions and actors and actresses in old useless rituals. In the eurozone, our currency is the Euro, although we may also use digital or local social monies (none of them is a national currency any more). We use one language for one function and another one for another (some fanatic socio-linguists in Catalonia don't like this, but that is just because nationalists tend not to like facts), and more and more we will use one jurisdiction for one thing and another one for another. The peace deal of Northern Ireland some years ago was in this sense much more interesting than the in-out referenda that have become fashionable in the United Kingdom more recently. That deal was based on a broad agreement that involved both Ireland and the UK, and both populations endorsed it in a referendum, as part of a process of complex agreement, not of simplistic division. Ireland and the UK became united again to decide on a very important topic (peace) although they kept different instutions for other things: we may argue that although citizens believe they belong to independent countries, they share their most important public good: absence of violence. The Scottish referendum was much more divisive, but it also illustrated that creating a sovereign state is not what it used to be, as even the secessionists did not want a new currency or a new head of state. What remains of the old sovereign nation-state is the myth, which is used to fight for local political control. It is the political media market that is still national, our leaders (and media outlets) are mostly still national. And they are fighting for your mind. But the real stuff is no longer national.

Friday, April 29, 2016

An example of the difficulties of regulatory independence

Four years ago I started a research about the reform of regulatory institutions in Spain. Finally, the result has been a paper with Ramon Xifré from Pompeu Fabra University that has been accepted by the Journal of Utilities Policy (hopefully, they will upload an electronic version in the next few weeks). We argue there that there are concerns that the Spanish reform (the merger of the antitrust agency and sector regulators) imposed a homogeneous level of independence for different sectors, reduced the overall level of regulatory independence, and by unilaterally changing legislation, de facto reneged on regulatory independence by taking advantage of the legislative change to remove from office the regulators appointed by the previous political majority.
Regulatory agencies are influenced in their evolution by the pressures of interest groups and political principals. This has indeed been the case in the Spanish reform.

Consolidation can be justified in industries where there is technological convergence; coordination between regulation and competition policy also makes sense when liberalizing industries. But this does not justify the extreme position of integrating almost all regulation and competition policy in a single agency, especially when the integration is not designed with consumer welfare as the main objective. This extreme position is not justified either by reasons of productivity or competitiveness, as the relationship between the institutions of regulation and competition policy (microeconomic tools) with stabilization or macroeconomic growth objectives is not well established. This does not mean that efficient network industries and competition are not important in the long run, but there is little reason to believe that the institutional details of policy have macro implications.
In contrast with the model of maximal integration adopted in Spain, the case for a certain degree of institutional diversity appears to be justified because, although some consolidation and coordination may be beneficial, diversity creates the conditions for accountability and sound decisions for consumers in markets that are complex, subject to the pressure of interest groups, and uncertain.
Good board members and officials may over time overcome the institutional deficiencies that we have noted with regard to this reform. But the reform itself reveals interesting issues about the difficulties of regulatory independence in practice. If fairness in the process of reform is as important as the outcome (as argued in the behavioral literature), then the institutions of regulation and competition policy have not become more robust as a result of integration, because these institutions remain vulnerable to the changing opinions of the public, stakeholders, and potential new political majorities, who have not been involved in the reform process. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Nationalist International

The leader of the Italian Northern League has expressed his admiration and support for Donald Trump in the USA. There is a paradox here, in that nationalist movements are supposed to care only about their people. But of course all these leaders (also Marine Le Pen and other European populists) have interests in common. All of them are interested in promoting the xenophobic values of supremacism, more or less disguised in a democratic rhetoric. The Italian Northern League has been particularly active in expressing its support for foreign nationalist movements. They are the only important political party in Europe, for example, that has expressed its support for the secessionist movement in Catalonia. What is surprising then is that these nationalist politicians complain when another foreign leader expresses opposition to their ideas. For example, last week-end the Mayor of London (and one of the leaders of the Out vote in the irresponsible Brexit referendum called by David Cameron), Boris Johnson, tried to insult the US President Barack Obama when the latter argued that it would be much better for the UK to stay in the EU, and that he supported a stronger and more united Europe. Some people claim that the support of Obama to the In campaign may backfire and be seen as intefering in internal affairs. But I bet that the Out campaign spends a lot of resources trying to get prestigious foreign leaders to support them (probably with little success, as it happens with secessionists in Catalonia). Here's what The Guardian had to say about the support for Trump by the Northern League: "One of Italy’s leading rightwing politicians, Matteo Salvini, has declared his unabashed support for Donald Trump, saying he would choose the “legality and security” of a Trump presidency over the “disastrous” policies of Angela Merkel and Barack Obama. The bombastic head of the Northern League party – who is known for his verbal attacks on migrants, stance against the European Union and praise of the “good work” of fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini – met his American idol at a rally in Philadelphia on Monday. The date was 25 April, a day when most mainstream politicians in Italy are celebrating a national holiday that has never sat well with some ultra-conservative politicians: the day that marks the country’s liberation from fascism. Salvini’s most important European ally is Marine Le Pen, the head of France’s Front National party. In a series of tweets, Salvini praised Trump’s candidacy and published a photograph of himself with the New York tycoon."

Sunday, April 24, 2016

No, you can't

Nationalists in the UK have not liked what President Obama had to say about "Brexit" at the BBC. And he is not the only prestigious American who believes that the Out vote is a very bad idea. Nationalists in other European lands should pay attention too. The most important and prestigious democratic leader in the world (among other great personalities) is against European frangmentation:

The UK could take up to 10 years to negotiate trade deals with the US if it leaves the EU, Barack Obama has said.
In a BBC interview, the US president said: "It could be five years from now, 10 years from now before we were able to actually get something done."
Britain would also have less influence globally if it left, he added.
His warning over trade has angered UK campaigners for leaving the EU - with UKIP leader Nigel Farage dismissing Mr Obama's comments as "utter tosh".
Mr Obama has previously said the UK would be at the "back of the queue" for trade deals with the US, if it left the EU.
When asked about the comments, he told the BBC: "The UK would not be able to negotiate something with the United States faster than the EU.
"We wouldn't abandon our efforts to negotiate a trade deal with our largest trading partner, the European market."
He also warned the UK would have "less influence in Europe and as a consequence, less influence globally", if it left the EU.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The fruits of doing only one thing in one week

Besides watching "Spotlight" in the plane and the Sanders-Clinton debate due to the time zone, last week in Cali (Colombia) I concentrated on an unusual rather one-dimensional effort: teaching a 6 hours per day course in Applied Microeconomics, and interacting with students and faculty at Universidad Javeriana. The result of this lack of other common distractions was learning, having time to process insights and ideas from students, professors, and even from myself. For example, I realized that when students are motivated adults and have high ethical standards, one needs to spend less monitoring effort during the final exam (they just don't want to cheat). A great illustration of the interaction between internal and external institutions. Social norms save energy, which one can allocate to more productive uses. I also learned from a Cuban professor, when I asked him about the socio-political future in his country, that a likely scenario there is a political and business alliance between the military and the oligarchy in the exile, which will probably be bad for democracy, but good for stability. Another professor has done some work on large sports events, and he had developed more extensively a thought I also had at some point: these large events are wasteful to some extent, but it is difficult to achieve the same degree of coordination (including popular support) for other purposes, which implies that a coordinated effort to transform a city can hardly be done through means that are not one of these events. I also realized that there is a very simple way to classify incentives. These are not just extrinsic or intrinsic as I had been explaining in the recent past in my classes. A better classification keeps this initial taxonomy, but expands the extrinsic branch with monetary and non-monetary incentives, where the non-monetary part includes prizes, distinctions, applauses or similar extrinsic motivations. Simple, but useful.