Sunday, March 26, 2017

The right lessons from a Nazi past

There is an increasing number of articles about the Nazi and Fascist period in the international media. This reflects in my view not that there is a risk of the same type of regimes coming back, but the fact that some of the mental processes that made them possible, in a different period, may be at work today in our democracies. After all, the human mind is the same now as it was in the 1930s, but the social and technological context has changed substantively. One of these articles was published two days ago in the New York Times, with the title "I loved my grandmother, but she was Nazi." I don't totally like the easy attitude of the author: "I disapprove of what my dear grandma did." A more productive  attitude is for each of us to think about our hypothetical choices if we had been exactly under the same circumstances that pushed other more or less ordinary people to Nazi or Fascist membership. And to reflect about whether our Fascist or Nazi ancestors would be very different from us had they lived under our present circumstances. Nevertheless, this particular article has a useful reminder of the frame of mind under which many people embraced disastrous ideas, and it is a frame of mind that sounds quite familar to many of us living in societies where national dreams are still too alive: "She and my grandfather grew up in a working-class suburb of industrial Dortmund, where unemployment was rife; it had been occupied by the French after World War I. They joined the Nazi Party to be youth leaders in an agricultural education program called the Landjahr, or “year on the land,” in which teenagers got agricultural training. My grandmother always maintained that she had joined the Nazis as an “idealist” drawn to the vision of rebuilding Germany, returning to a simpler time and, perversely, promoting equality. In the Landjahr, sons and daughters of factory workers would live and work side by side with sons and daughters of aristocrats and wealthy industrialists. She liked the idea of returning to “traditional” German life, away from the confusing push and pull of a global economy. Through research, I understand the Landjahr program was part of Hitler’s larger “Blut und Boden” (“blood and soil”) vision of making Germany a racially pure, agrarian society. The “racially pure” part was not something my grandmother ever mentioned."

Friday, March 24, 2017

European Union: happy birthday and thank you

60 years, a Nobel prize and no wars. We should all thank the European Union for its existence. Personally, my life would not be the same without 4 years in Florence and two and a half in London courtesy of the training and research funds of the Union. But more than this selfish gratitude, we should thank the founders for all these decades of peace and freedom. Without the European institutions that made possible the European dream, Spain would perhaps never have been a democracy. For my mother, it was a great thing to be the first woman to leave her village to go to a University. Her mother spent all her life without never travelling more than 100 km away from her home. For many of the younger generations today, going to Universities in other countries in Europe is routine. It is very sad, especially for us anglophiles, that we cannot celebrate this birthday with our British friends, although so many of them would like to join in the party. Mike Rice-Oxley, writing today in The Guardian, is one of them, and we should pay attention to his message: "Where did it all go wrong? Looking back, it’s clear that this Europeanisation was perhaps only relevant to an outwardly focused, relatively privileged minority, to people interested in a world beyond the end of their street and able to afford to investigate it. The tide turned in the 2000s, though it’s still quite hard to pinpoint precisely why. Immigration? Economics? Euro-crises? Elitism? Complacency? Boredom? Or perhaps simply that those who talked down the EU were just better at doing so than those who talked it up. People say you can love Europe without loving the EU. That’s the wrong end of the telescope for my generation. It was the camaraderie and fraternity the EU fostered that helped us discover and fall in love with Europe. And that makes the divorce so much more bitter." But this was not a marriage, this was brotherhood. Who knows, perhaps we'll be together again in future birthdays.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Universal values and truth against paleo-conservatism

Paul Blest has an excellent article in The Nation arguing that those in favor of "Calexit" or the secession of California and other "blue states" are dumb and cruel (paleo-conservative) and would leave the poor and the ethnic minorities in the hands of the worst politicians.  "The idea that the left should completely abandon the poor and working class in entire swaths of the country—which, in many places like Mississippi, is largely made up of people of color who have faced systemic discrimination at every level for generations—is pure cruelty." To defeat national-populism and xenophobia, what is needed is not secession and communitarian laissez-faire, but solidarity and universal values. Of course it is also necessary to fight for the truth, as the national-populist advance their cause by systematically lying about policies, climate change, or economics. Tim Harford argues that fighting lies is not easy, because telling the truth is more complex and boring and unpopular than lying: "a simple untruth can beat off a complicated set of facts simply by being easier to understand and remember. When doubt prevails, people will often end up believing whatever sticks in the mind." He finishes by suggesting as solution that we had some kind of Carl Sagan or David Attemborough of the social sciences, because scientific curiosity seems to work as a therapy to resist lies. But that is in contradiction to Harford's suggestion that fighting for truth is a complex issue. There are no easy solutions. A respected TV advocate would be a good thing, but nothing can replace the work of millions of people in schools, the media and politics organizing and fighting for truth. Harford gives the example of the tobacco industry as a lying machine that succeeded for many decades, but it ultimately lost its battle against truth.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Neither austerity nor Corbyn are the solutions

Michael Ellman from University of Amsterdam says about the Dutch election that
"The main loser is the traditional Social Democratic party, the Labour Party or from its Dutch initials PvdA. This party has played a major role in Dutch politics since 1945 but fared dismally in these elections. I think the main reason is that it was the junior partner in the coalition and went along with fiscal orthodoxy/austerity which hit many of its traditional voters who turned elsewhere to express their dissatisfaction. For many years now it has been a 'New Labour' type of party and not a home for victims of globalisation. This has not pleased many of its traditional voters. It is also a culturally liberal party which also did not go down well with many of its traditional voters."
That does not mean that an extreme left answer is the best strategy, as shown in this article  by Zack Beauchamp. This autor argues that left or center left parties that focus on redistribution have a hard time convincing voters that do not want to share their welfare with "others". That probably requires some convincing that more and more, in our integrated world with huge global challenges, "us" also includes "others."
Applied to the U.S., it means that

"The uncomfortable truth is that America’s lack of a European-style welfare state hurts a lot of white Americans. But a large number of white voters believe that social spending programs mostly benefit nonwhites. As such, they oppose them with far more fervor than any similar voting bloc in Europe.
In this context, tacking to the left on economics won't give Democrats a silver bullet to use against the racial resentment powering Trump's success. It could actually wind up giving Trump an even bigger gun. If Democrats really want to stop right-wing populists like Trump, they need a strategy that blunts the true drivers of their appeal — and that means focusing on more than economics."

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

"Deciding our future" versus "taking back control"

It is very sad to see people from the left such as Jeremy Corbin and some in his team accepting the logic of self-determination referendums. It is not the "will of the people" or "democracy" that is prevailing, but utter confusion and a slippery slope that may take us back to a logic of government more typical of the Middle Ages than of the XXI century. It seems that those acritically in favour of the wrong type of referendums do not think about the ultimate consequences of what they are proposing, consequences that we are starting to see in front of our faces. If the "will of the people" is that 52% of a given population agree that they do not want something, then it is not surprising that some of the sub-populations where the remaining 48% live argue that the will of "their" people is that they do not share those feelings and therefore that they want to secede from the first population. For example, the leader of the Scottish nationalists claims the right of the "Scottish people" to decide its own future (although Mariano Rajoy may want to have a say). She could have said that she wants the Scottish people to "take back control." Or the Brexiteers could have said that they wanted to decide their own future (well, actually probably they already did). Meanwhile, Northern Ireland may become as a result physically separated from the rest of its own island through a hard border, or perhaps not and they also have the wrong kind of referendum (unlike the one that gave them peace in the 1990s, based on an international general agreement) and then 51% of them decide to secede from the UK. Then perhaps the protestant minority may argue that the will of their own people is to secede from Northern Ireland and have a system of walls and checking points similar to the one in Palestine. And so on and so forth until we have neighbours seceding from each other and at the end each individual waves a different flag in the roof of his or her house. This is the slippery slope to the Middle Ages. Thank you, David Cameron.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The problem is our lack of faith

An article in The New Statesman by Jonn Elledge explains very well why the federalists will be blamed for the collapse of the pro-independence campaign in Catalonia, even if the article is about the UK: things do not turn out as expected because of the lack of faith of the skeptics. This is how this Tinkerbell theory works: "It was in run up to the Scottish referendum that I first spotted Tinkerbell in the wild. Reports suggesting that RBS would consider relocating from Edinburgh, should independence lead to a significant rise in business costs – a statement of the bloody obvious, I’d have thought – were dismissed by then-First Minister Alex Salmond as merely “talking down Scotland”. Over the next few months, the same phrase was deployed by the SNP and its outriders whenever anyone questioned the Yes campaign’s optimistic estimates of future North Sea oil revenues. The implications of all this were pretty clear: any practical problems apparently arising from independence were mere phantasms. The real threat to Scotland was the erosion of animal spirits caused by the faithlessness of unpatriotic unionists, who’d happily slaughter every fairy in the land before they risked an independent Scotland. All this seemed pretty obnoxious to me, but at the time of the referendum it also all seemed to be a reassuringly long way away. Little did I realise that Salmond and co were just ahead of their time, because today, Tinkerbell-ism is bloody inescapable. On Monday, Sir John Major made a wonkish speech laying out his concerns about Brexit. He talked about the threat to the Northern Ireland peace process, the way it would isolate Britain diplomatically, the difficulty of negotiating highly complicated trade deals on the timetable imposed by Article 50. He wanted, he said, to “warn against an over-optimism that – if unachieved – will sow further distrust between politics and the public, at a time when trust needs to be re-built”. And how did Britain’s foreign secretary respond? “I think it’s very important that as we set out in this journey we are positive about the outcome for the very good reason the outcome will be fantastic for this country,” Boris said, probably imagining himself to be a bit like Cicero."

Friday, March 10, 2017

The risks of institutional monocropping

Many articles and books point out the failure of institutional transplants from one country to another. Institutions must be complementary from each other, and fit with the social norms and the cultural endowment of a society. There is now almost unanimity that the so-called "Washington consensus" failed to deliver in Latin America and Africa because it tried to promote institutions that were at odds with local practices and local political equilibria. Instead, may countries in East Asia, including China and India, have grown successfully with very different institutions, different from those promoted by the Washington consensus and different among themselves. China is very different from India, and India is very different from South Korea. But all of them have grown spectacularly. Of course they face challenges, and their institutions will keep evolving, but surely they will do so in unexpected and unpredictable ways. In Europe we have learned that the institutional monocropping of the nation-state is basically dead, and we have been experimenting with other institutional solutions for some decades now. This experimental process is likely to continue in the foreseeable future. This supposedly dangerous 2017 will see events happening, but most probably the European Union as a conglomerate of institutions at different speeds will survive, learn from its mistakes and keep evolving. Institutional diversity is friendly with modular hybrids and solutions that defy definitions. Perhaps if we approached problems in regions like Africa or the Middle East with a mentality that stops practicing the institutional monocropping of the nation-state we would find solutions that have been eluding us for the last 50 years.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Fix Europe to put the world first

It is very tempting to respond to nationalist campaigns by Trump supporters or pro-Brexit campaigners by shouting "Europe First." But we would be falling into their trap. We must not build a new nationalism based on Europe. Against conventional wisdom, I believe it would be possible, we just need a high enough propaganda budget to influence the hearts and minds of ordinary people. That is how most nationalisms have grown over time in many places. No: we must have more and better Europe, a better European Union and Euro zone, with the objective of contributing to making a better world. Europe is an example of freedom, respect for human rights, well regulated free trade, and support of social policies. The best version of its model is an example for the whole world. More than a two-speed Europe, we need a conglomerate of institutions at the right speed each of them, but at least the countries in the eurozone should benefit from a fiscal union with a decent budget to promote investments, transfers and growth. A stronger Europe will be able to be a force for the great causes of humanity, like fighting climate change or eliminating fiscal havens. Without more Europe,  nation-states and their citizens will be small boats in the middle of a storm in the ocean. No human being is more than another one: European citizens should not have more rights than citizens from other lands. But citizens from everywhere will benefit from a stronger and more democratic Europe, as they have already benefited in the last few decades, with the elimination of the risk of war in those countries belonging to the EU. Instead, those countries that are not in the EU, even if they are in the European continent, have not avoided war, as it happened in Yugoslavia and Ukraine. The stability provided by a more integrated Europe is a global collective good.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

A frightening reminder

The historian Richard J. Evans, in his review of a recent book by Volker Ulrich ("Hitler: Ascent") in The Nation, shows that the type of literary creation does not need to constrain the power of the message. One can say absurd or trivial things in a novel, an essay or an autobiography. But you can also convey powerful messages in any of these, or in a book review, or in a poem, or in a textbook. More than his comments about Ulrich's book, I would emphasize that Evans' piece is one of the best I have ever read suggesting, just suggesting, analogies between current events and the Nazi past.The article starts by saying that there is more than one way to destroy a democracy, and one by one it reminds us of the risks that we face when we underestimate totalitarian tendencies. Hitler would make Germany great again and put it first, of course. His vulgarity was compatible with a clever use of the new media of the time and he took advantage of international and economic circumstances to sell panaceas and target scapegoats. Each period confronts inmoral leaders with specific constraints and social norms. Many of us believe that the current developed world has both formal and informal institutions in place that will stop the worst from happening. But also many people in the 1930s believed that Germany had a strong judiciary and Parliamentary system that would tame the Nazis once in power: "Few took  Hitler seriously or thought that he would actually put his threats against the country's tiny Jewish minority, his rants against feminists, left-wing politicians, homosexuals, pacifists, and liberal newspapers editors, into effect. Fewer still believed his vow to quit the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations. But within a few months, he did all these things -and much more." History does not repeat itself, but sends us warnings.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Brexit, peace and borders

The Northern Ireland peace agreement would have been impossible without both the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom being members of the European Union, and also without a Democratic administration in the USA committed to universalistic values. Needless to say, all of that is today in serious danger. The agreement was exemplary because it was based on the relativization of self-determination, the requirement of broad intercommunity majorities and the de facto disappearence of the border. Too much complexity for those in favor of "taking back control", who perhaps would have preferred a two-state solution building high walls and border patrols between the neighborhoods of Belfast. There was a great article yesterday in the New York Times about Brexit and Northern Ireland. It includes this:
"The most striking thing about Ireland’s only land border is its absence. No posts or fences mark its circuitous 310-mile length. There is neither razor wire nor checkpoints.
When, a couple of years ago, I often took a rickety bus from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland, I would occasionally pass the time by trying to figure out if we had crossed the invisible line based on when my cellphone switched providers. I was seldom certain. The hedgerows and fields, the fog-capped hills, look the same on either side.
Now, in the wake of the Brexit referendum, the border has returned to Irish politics. When Britain leaves the European Union, which is expected to happen some time before the summer of 2019, the undulating border counties will become a European Union frontier, raising the prospect of dislocation, violence and political disintegration in Ireland — and in Britain."
Thanks, Nigel and company.