Wednesday, December 9, 2009

not who we think we are

Canadians have a self-image of themselves as well-meaning, liberal, polite and open. Canada as a nation is often seen in much the same way. Yet every so often a series of events collide that forces us to question some of these core precepts. The past 2 weeks has seen 3 sets of events that force me, once again, to ask a fundamental question: who do we think we are?

The first event was the spectacular testimony of Richard Colvin, who claimed to have repeatedly warned his superiors while he was posted in Afghanistan that Afghan detainees held by Canadian forces were being tortured upon their transfer to Afghan custody. The subsequent attack upon Colvin by senior government and military figures was staggering, and was clearly designed to deflect attention away from the central issue: were Canadian forces complicit in the torture of innocent Afghans?

What surprises me about this issue, though, is that in any event it deflects attention away from an even more central question: are Canadian soldiers complicit in the deaths of innocent Afghans. This question is not asked because we already know the answer: yes, of course they are. That the Canadian military kills innocent people is not the image that Canadians have of their armed forces; but the blue-capped Canadian peacekeeper is a thing of the past, replaced by a war-fighting machine that is currently involved in a mission that cannot be won and which has produced tens of thousands of dead non-combatants. Is this who we think we are?

The second event has been the series of racist attacks targeting international students in central Peterborough, where Trent University is located. Is Canada a country that respects difference? Canadians think they do; but these attacks say otherwise. They say that there are many places in Canada where the right to be different should not be assumed but instead remains an ongoing struggle. It says that Canada is not what it thinks it is, and Canadians are not who we think we are.

The third event is the Copenhagen conference on climate change. Writing in The Guardian George Monbiot described Canada as a 'corrupt petro-state'. There is more than an element of truth here: Canada is amongst the worst contributors to global warming on a per capita basis, the government's plan to deal with greenhouse gas emissions is derisory, and the government continues to promote the Alberta Tar Sands project, one of the dirtiest energy projects in the history of the past 2 centuries. Canadians as despoilers of the environment? It's not who we think we are.

Canadians, like people everywhere, need to face up to the realities of their country. Only then can improvements be made, and the reality start to begin to match the aspirations that Canadians have for themselves.

Friday, December 4, 2009

37000 won't work

Earlier this week US President Barack Obama announced, after a long and often heated debate within the US administration, that an additional 30000 US troops would be sent to Afghanistan by the summer of 2010. This morning in Brussels NATO foreign ministers were able to agree that an additional 7000 soldiers would be sent to supplement US and NATO forces already operating in the country. So, by next summer 140000 foreign soldiers will be fighting in Afghanistan. The plan is that the military surge will create the conditions for a transition to an improved security situation, which can then be reinforced by a civilian surge that takes advantage of improved security to kick-start development efforts in the country, particularly in agriculture, creating the preconditions by which the US can begin to exit the country in July 2011.

This plan will not work. The mission in Afghanistan will end in failure, for a very straightforward reason: from the beginning the US and its allies have profoundly misunderstood the nature of Afghan civil society.

Following the September 11 attacks the US overthrew the Taliban government that had been harbouring Osama bin Laden; but they did not do this on their own. They supported the Northern Alliance, a grouping of former Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara mujahideen fighters, which retook the major cities of Afghanistan from the Taliban, including Kabul. The factions of the Northern Alliance then sought to strongly control Afghan politics by facilitating the establishment of a government notionally led by a Pakhtun, Hamid Karzai, but dominated by elements of the Northern Alliance. It is this alignment that to this day controls the rudimentary state that exists in parts of urban Afghanistan; it is this group that rigged the last presidential election so that Karzai, who allows them to act with impunity, could remain in office. They control this restricted state in order to further one objective, and that is lining their pockets. Afghanistan in December 2009 is little more than a corrupt narco-state run by the warlords and criminals that used to control the Northern Alliance.

In supporting a corrupt and anti-democratic government the US and its allies have alienated the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan: the Pakhtuns. Granted, it was the Pakhtuns that formed the militant base of the Taliban, and it is the Pakhtun that form the base of the current insurgency. But it was also the Pakhtuns that militantly opposed the Taliban in its very heartland: the prolonged history of radical Pakhtun nationalism demonstrates some of the deeply anti-authoritarian tendencies within Pakhtun civil society, tendencies that Mullah Omar unsuccessfully tried to stamp out during the years of Taliban rule.

The alienation of progressive Pakhtuns was then reinforced by 'collateral damage': according to Human Rights Watch the numbers of non-combatant deaths over the past 8 years in Afghanistan has been 65000, of whom the vast majority have been Pakhtun; only 2000 insurgents have been killed. So the 'mission' in Afghanistan has since 2001 become progressively little more than an all-out one-sided assault on the Pakhtun by forces aligned with an illegitimate government dominated by druglords and criminals. It is little wonder that this has generated resistance amongst the Pakhtun; resistance that the West terms Taliban but which is in fact a far more complex manifestation of Afghan realities.

The Pakhtuns have never accepted occupation, and they never will. The international mission in Afghanistan will fail because it is in support of a regime that does not enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of the very population in whose name it is supposed to rule.

Friday, August 28, 2009

recent activities, summer 2009

The summer of 2009 promises to be a very busy time even though I am currently on sabbatical. I have completed a first complete draft of my next book, entitled Hungry for Change? Farmers, Agrarian Questions and the Global Food Crisis, and will be revising the manuscript in consultation with an editor for publication later in the year. I have also completed a draft chapter of my forthcoming An Introduction to Gender and Economics: Foundations, Theories and Policies, which is being co-written with Irene van Staveren and Nicky Pouw; work will be done on revising this chapter shortly. I have been commissioned to write a survey article on the agrarian question for the Journal of Peasant Studies, and the first draft of this article is complete, with revisions to come. Finally, I will be finishing the editorial work on an article to be published in the Journal of Peasant Studies and a book chapter to be published in a book on engendering human security.

I will be attending 4 conferences over the summer months where I will deliver papers. At the end of May the annual meetings of the Canadian Association for the Study of International Development will be held in Ottawa. In July I will attend the annual meetings of the Association of Heterodox Economists in Kingston, UK, in August I will attend the 25th World Historical Congress in Utrecht, the Netherlands, and also in August I will attend an international conference on the global food crisis at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas in Zacatecas, Mexico.

In July I will be Visiting Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, UK, while in August I will be a Visiting Professor at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas in Zacatecas, Mexico, in conjunction with the Critical Development Studies Network.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can't escape unscathed

From the Toronto Star, 23 June 2009

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can't escape unscathed

Iranian leader's image tarnished as outrage over vote hurts regime, undermines presidency

Jun 23, 2009 04:30 AM

Olivia Ward

It was only a few months ago that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was bidding for a role as the new Iranian idol. With flamboyant appearances at home and abroad, plaudits from hardline clerics and a 15-member council dedicated to popularizing his "thought and works," the hardline president might well have expected a shoo-in at the polls. But as swelling protests, and widespread allegations of vote-rigging, rolled through the country, Ahmadinejad's "landslide" has turned to a dust. His image has faded and that of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who unswervingly supported him, has come into sharp relief.

Doubts are escalating about the extent of Ahmadinejad's authority to lead, if he is able to resume the presidency after the unexpectedly muscular challenge of his more moderate rival Mir Hossein Mousavi. "The mask has been lifted and people clearly understand that it was Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad, who was really wielding the power," says Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "He says publicly that his personal views are closest to Ahmadinejad's, so it is obvious that he is the one who was really conducting the country's policy for the last four years."

The outcome of the ill-starred election is still unpredictable, even for long-term Iran experts, and some believe Ahmadinejad may have won by a narrow margin rather than the large numbers that were officially endorsed. Meanwhile, inside the Islamic Republic, clerical factions for and against Ahmadinejad's victory are quietly struggling for power. The picture is blurred by the murky nature of the election's vote tallying. Yesterday, Iran's most senior election monitors acknowledged that votes cast in 50 cities exceeded the number of eligible voters in two provinces. Previous election results in some rural areas are also too far from the current ones to be credible.

But the continuing protests show that whatever the outcome, the electoral waters are now too muddy for many citizens to swallow. "The fact that people's votes were overturned poses a real threat to the legitimacy of the regime," says Haroon Akram-Lodhi, a professor of international development studies at Trent University. "That will also undermine Ahmadinejad's position, and not just in the urban areas, where he was less popular." Whatever the ultimate result, Ahmadinejad can't escape the effects of the protests unscathed, Akram-Lodhi says. "He will have been compromised, and widely seen as occupying a position to which he was not legitimately elected by the majority of Iranians."

The dilemma over Ahmadinejad's legitimacy makes it difficult for the United States to deal with Iran, even as the crisis over its nuclear ambitions drags on. Some are advising President Barack Obama to engage with the proclaimed winner of the poll, others to ignore him and reach out to Iran's opposition.

But questions also remain about whether the roots of Ahmadinejad's power run deeper than his critics believe. Although he has presided over soaring cost of living increases and rising unemployment, he has also poured money into popular housing and infrastructure projects and proposed cash handouts to replace fuel subsidies.
An overwhelming number of Iran's legislators have backed his return to power, with 220 out of 290 reportedly endorsing his election victory.

Ahmadinejad may also have a covert network of power that makes Khamenei's unprecedented public support more than just backing for a puppet politician, says Arang Keshavarzian of New York University, who witnessed the polls and their aftermath in Iran. "One of the questions is how much Ahmadinejad is in the forefront and Khamenei is following him, and how much it's the other way around," Keshavarzian told the Council on Foreign Relations, citing hints that Ahmadinejad and his "military-intelligence circle" may be putting pressure on the supreme leader.
"Some of these events in the past few days suggest it may in fact be Khamenei who is reluctantly following Ahmadinejad's lead."

But the behind-the-scenes power struggles have little relevance for the protesters who have risked life and liberty to join the demonstrations in the past week.
"If Ahmadinejad continues in power, he'll become an Iranian version of (Zimbabwe's discredited president) Robert Mugabe," predicts Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, a history professor at University of Toronto. The election has brought Iran to the crossroads, Tavakoli-Targhi says. "The future is in danger. In the past 30 years, Iranian society has been increasingly secularized. Now there is the possibility of an Islamic democracy that could be a model for the Middle East. "If it fails, it's not only Ahmadinejad that will be seen as worthless. The only way to save the revolution is to empower the individual. If that doesn't succeed, Iran will be a failed state."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

the elections in Iran

This weblog has been silent for a long time, and a lot has happened that I should have commented upon, but have not had the time: the A-H1N1 pandemic; the end of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka; the dramatic drops in international development cooperation as a result of the global economic crisis; the continuing deaths of non-combatants in Afghanistan; the revival of the military commissions in the US, with implications for Omar Khadr; and more.

But today, as protest in Iran gathers pace, it is important to clearly state that the election in Iran last Friday has been stolen. This is not the view of a foreigner who has been deceived by western journalists focusing on Tehran and the educated elite that have been quite public in their support for Mir-Hossein Moussavi. The election results themselves suggest that the election has been stolen.

Consider this: they election results that gave Mahmoud Ahamdi-Nejad 63 per cent of the vote suggest that a core component of Moussavi's support, the urban middle class, in fact voted against him. Educated young people, women, the private business community, and both reformists and conservative figures in the Iranian political establishment--all must have changed their minds and voted for Ahamdi-Nejad. Moussavi is an Azeri: the election results suggest that the Azeri community voted for Ahamdi-Nejad. Even Moussavi's home town is said to have voted for Ahamdi-Nejad. Or consider the position of Mehdi Karoubi, who 4 years ago came very close to beating Ahamdi-Nejad for the Presidency: according to the election results, he did not even win his home province.

The elections in Iran have been rigged. The implications for Iran are far reaching.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

recent activities, winter 2009

In addition to carrying my normal teaching load during the fall, I was pleased to attend 2 meetings. In October I delivered an address to the annual conference of the Global Political Economy Group at the University of Manitoba on the global food crisis. In November I attended an intensive 2 day workshop in New York on unpaid work, care and the economy, as a member of a United Nations Development Programme Expert Group, speaking on the issue of modeling the macroeconomics of care.

My teaching responsibilities for the fall of 2008 have been completed, and now I am looking forward to my first sabbatical. In January I will be working on Hungry for Change, which I hope to substantially complete. In February I will be working on analyzing the 2006 Vietnam Household Living Standards Survey at the University of Manitoba, working on a short article for the Journal of Peasant Studies, and scoping out my proposed development economics textbook. In March and April I will work on a chapter for my forthcoming co-authored textbook in feminist economics. In May I will undertake field research in rural Vietnam and work on an article for the Journal of Agrarian Change on land markets and the character of landlessness in rural Vietnam. In June I will assume a 2 month visiting professorship at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, in the United Kingdom. I am also, through this period, scheduled to give half a dozen public seminars in both North America and Europe. It will be a very busy sabbatical.

Monday, March 30, 2009

don't expect much in London

On Thursday this week the 25 leaders of the G20 grouped of developed capitalist and developing capitalist countries meet in London, in what is being billed as the most important global economic crisis for 75 years. They are supposed to come together and come up with a mutually-agreed plan to tackle the global economic crisis that continues to gather in fury, despite what some dewy-eyed optimists might say, as well as putting in place the preconditions to ensure that the current crisis is never repeated. Don't count on it. The one-day meeting will issue a communique that is all sweetness and light, to be sure, but don't expect the problems facing the world economy to be solved on Thursday.

A critical reason why this meeting cannot solve the problems facing global capitalism, other than the absurdly short period of time that the leaders are willing to devote to the problems at hand, is that the key leaders of the most important developed capitalist countries do not agree about what has caused the crisis. There is a fundamental division between the Anglo-Saxon economies--the US, Canada and the UK--and the 'social market' economies--notably France and Germany--about why this crisis has emerged. Don't get me wrong: all 5 countries agree that the crisis has been propelled by the excessive risk-taking of US finance capital. Where they differ is in their understanding of why this propellant has assumed the destructive force that it has.

The US and British position is one that is probably most widely trotted out by the English-dominated global financial media. For Barack Obama and Gordon Brown the key problem facing the global economy has been the seizing up of the financial markets as a consequence of a 'flight to safety' engendered by the collapsing value of 'toxic assets' such as 'collateralized debt obligations'. The answer, then, is to pump money back into the system in order to get banks in particular but also non-bank financial institutions to start to lend money and advance credit again. Public sector deficits--like those created by Barak Obama's US$787 billion stimulus bill--and looser monetary policy--like the Bank of England's adoption of 'quantitative easing' to put more money into the economy, and thus ease the availability of money, and hence of lending--are the way to kick-start a financial sector that is right now unwilling to take chances to start taking chances again, lend, and get the US and world economy moving again.

The French and the Germans have a very different view. For Angela Merkel and the French policy-making elite, the problem is not too little money; it was the fact that there was too much money sloshing around the global financial system. For the French and the Germans, the response of the US Federal Reserve, under the then Chairmanship of Alan Greenspan, to the last 2 significant global events in finance--the 1997 Asian crisis and the financial impact of the terrorist attacks of 9/11--was to loosen up the availability of money in order to keep the financial markets working. This loosening encouraged excessive risk-taking on the part of global finance capital, in pursuit of profit-driven growth that was by definition unsustainable. In this view, the chickens were bound to come home to roost, and they have, with a vengence.

It's going to be hard for Angela Merkel and Barack Obama to reach agreement when they don't even agree as to what caused the problems in the first place. But here's the rub: they're both wrong. Both the Anglo-Saxons and the social market economies fail to grasp the essential characteristics of the crisis of global finance capital: finance capital has become steadily and increasingly divorced from the 'real' productive economy that produces the goods and services that people need. Moreover, in becoming divorced, global finance capital has contributed to the crisis in global manufacturing: a crisis that is well-documented to be threatening the Detroit car industry, to be sure, but which is the result of widespread, deeper, structural and systemic problems. The branch of global productive capital that makes the goods and services that people actually need has yet to find a convincing way out of the productivity and profitability-driven crisis that was unmasked in the 1970s. Finance capital, which was supposed to help sustain profits in the productive economy, has not helped; in many cases, realizing there was not enough money to be made by the 'Masters of the Universe' in the productive economy they have invented new and more esoteric ways of trying to make paper profits on the back of an inability to produce anything of worth to anybody in need. The global economic crisis has been driven by finance capital becoming increasingly divorced from the reality facing the productive economy, and the only way of dealing with the long-term issues created by the crisis and maintaining capitalism as a viable mode of social and economic organization will be to re-connect finance to industry--there is a need to shorten up and tighten the chain between credit and creditor.

The Anglo-Saxon economies want the developed capitalist and developing capitalist countries to do more, in terms of spending, to try and address the crisis. The social market economies want greater regulation of global finance. Both answers only go part of the way to addressing the problems of the global economy; more spending, yes, but redistributive spending that puts money in the pockets of people that actually spend, who tend to be those in the lower 60 per cent of the income distribution. Greater regulation, of course; finance capital cannot be allowed to run rampant. But together they are not enough, given the failure of finance to address the core needs of industry under modern global capitalism.

The communique that is issued on Thursay will praise existing efforts at fiscal stimulus, without committing anyone to more; it will highlight the need to increase financial regulation in the medium-term, which is not the here and now; it will stress the need to clean up bank balance sheets, without making any commitments to nationalization, which at this stage is probably inevitable for some key global institutions; it will lambast protectionism, even though in the months following the last G20 meeting 17 of the 20 countries increased protectionism; and it will give the International Monetary Fund more money, but more money for reasonably well-off developed capitalist countries rather than the developing capitalist countries whose people are, literally, dying as a result of the crisis. None of the core problems facing the G20 will be, in the end, comprehensively addressed. The crisis will continue: for it is a global crisis rooted in the disconnection between finance and production, and in the massive increase in global inequality that such a disconnect has fostered over the last 20 years.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

global economic crisis and the case for nationalization

March 1 2009 was an awful day on financial markets around the world. The economic crisis that erupted into the public eye on September 15 2008, and which fundamentally transformed the dominant approach to governing neoliberal capitalism in the developed capitalist countries, is deepening. Let there be no doubt: things will get worse, because this crisis has been a long time coming. Over the course of this decade the developed capitalist economies allowed current account deficits to build up, in large part because they imported consumer goods from China to a far greater degree than they were exporting to the rest of the world. Normally, such a deficit would have put pressure on currencies: but with the Chinese accumulating foreign exchange reserves, this safety valve did not work. China thus sustained global imbalances.

At the same time the developed capitalist economies let investment outpace the savings needed to pay for the investment; in the US in particular, savings rates are dismal. Notwithstanding the creation of ‘innovative’ financial products designed to attract savings (such as sub-prime mortgages) but which instead turned into ‘financial weapons of mass destruction’, to borrow Warren Buffet’s phrase, investment was financed by attracting inflows of capital into the US from the oil producers, China and other developed capitalist economies. Such inflows were never sustainable in the long term without major adjustments in the US economy. Moreover, that investment that did take place was often channelled into unproductive residential construction rather than productive capacity expansion. Similar patterns were witnessed elsewhere: the UK, Ireland and Spain come to mind. The developed capitalist economies did not enhance the productivity of capital but rather allowed financial accounting profits to boom.

Concurrently, governments in the developed capitalist economies, most notably the US under George Bush, introduced government spending and taxation policies that reinforced the consumer-led boom that they were creating. By not considering the relationship between spending and taxes, governments produced a slide into budgetary deficits that will only be corrected through, at some point, a severe structural adjustment.

Capping all this was business. Finance capital was neither regulated nor supervised, allowing credit and house-price booms, booms that morphed into bubbles that were sustained by flows of Chinese money into the US dollar and into US Treasury bills. Companies became even more led by the short-term dictates of senior managers that had to show ever-increasing profits and dividends to major shareholders. In order to do this, increasingly private capital started engaging in financial activities of questionable morality. They did this because the ethics of business during the decade deteriorated behind the mask of ‘corporate social responsibility’, encouraging corruption on a scale that, in the Madoff affair, is historically unparalleled. This is the world that we have allowed to be created in the early years of the 21st century.

The inauguration of Barack Obama and the introduction of his economic recovery plans have not stopped the rot, as witnessed by yesterday’s chaos on global financial markets. In the last few weeks the deepening crisis of the American and British financial sectors in particular has led to widespread speculation that in both the US and the UK there is going to have to be some kind of nationalization of it. Nationalization is needed because certain banks, particularly in the US and the UK but also in other parts of Europe are all but insolvent, having too little capital and too many bad debts. They will go under unless taken over by the government, and, in the eyes of many, they cannot be allowed to go under, because the web of finance capital is so tightly interwoven into the interstices of our society that their failure might threaten the very viability of capitalism as a mode of organizing social and economic life. In a very real sense, banks such as Citigroup are ‘too big to fail’.

Of course, nationalization has already, to a degree, happened, if we define nationalization as the systemic transfer of the ownership of assets from the private to the public sector: the UK government owns 95 per cent of the Royal Bank of Scotland, all of Northern Rock, and in the US the government already controls 36 per cent of Citigroup, with probably more to come. Around the world major financial institutions now rely on large amounts of taxpayer money. Increasingly, government is needed to save capitalism from itself.

In the US in particular nationalization is viewed with dismay by many as a harbinger of ‘socialism’. Despite the fact that Alan Greenspan, the former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, whose belief in the self-regulating power of the market set the tone for the excesses of the decade, now believes that nationalization may be necessary, and despite the fact that some Republicans in the US Congress believe nationalization is needed, there is still reluctance to bite the bullet. Ben Bernanke, Greenspan’s successor as Chairman of the Fed, has been at pains to claim that nationalization is not on the cards: but he has defined nationalization as governments seizing banks and starting to directly run them. This is definitely not on the table: if nationalization occurs, it will see governments around the world stepping in to temporarily take over financial institutions in order to clean up their balance sheets and make them viable once more, before eventually privatizing them. Social democratic Sweden of the 1990s is the model for the policy-makers advocating this kind of intervention, for this is exactly what Sweden did.

In the developed capitalist economies there is a fundamental belief that private capital does a better job of allocating financial and physical resources than governments using state-owned enterprises to pursue a set of economic objectives. This is the reason that private ownership in developed capitalist economies is preferred to public ownership--nationalization--by the government. However, the supposed benefits of having private capital dominating business decision making in developed capitalist economies are not what they seem. I can think of 4 supposed benefits from having private capital dominate the business affairs of the developed capitalist economies:
1. Private firms have to respond to market demand for their goods and services, which means that firms must respond to the preferences of consumers. Government companies, subsidized by the state, do not have to respond to consumers. Allowing consumers to express choice fosters competition between private firms and in so doing increases efficiency, leading to the creation of more goods and services for everyone than would be the case if state-owned enterprises dominated the developed capitalist economies.
However: the efficiency of capital has nothing to do with the ownership of capital. Efficiency, which should be sought, requires competition; many private sector companies operate in oligopolistic markets with only a few rivals, with whom they often collude implicitly and explicitly. When this happens, private capital does not have to respond to the needs of consumers any more than monopolistic state-owned enterprises have to respond to the needs of consumers. In this instance, it is the lack of competition that precludes efficiency improvements, not ownership.
2. Private capital cuts government interference in the economy.
However: private capital has to be heavily regulated, in order to prevent oligopolistic abuses of corporate power, and such regulations represent government intervention in the day-to-day running of capital. Indeed, the history of the decade is that regulation has to be substantially enhanced if the abuses of the past few years are not going to be repeated. Private capital and state-owned enterprises are both subject to government regulation.
3. Private capital has to raise investment capital on financial markets, and to do this they must secure the confidence of financial markets that they are well run and effective in the markets in which they operate. State-owned firms, on the other hand, can raise money from governments and do not have to demonstrate to disciplinary financial markets that they are well run.
However: investment capital from financial markets for private capital may not be available to firms seeking to make long-term investments because of the short-run profit-obsessed time horizon of the financial markets. The lure of quick returns for the financial markets got us into this mess; it also guides how they allocate money to private capital.
Which means that: financial markets cannot be relied upon to make good decisions about the investment needs of private capital.
Moreover: in many instances private capital does not turn to financial markets to raise investment capital; instead, they reinvest their profits. This source of finance is available regardless of the character of corporate ownership.
Finally: in some countries the only reason state-owned enterprises cannot not raise investment capital in financial markets is because of government regulations which prevent them from doing so. This need not be the case, in which financial markets can still discipline the activities of state-owned enterprises. Suggestions by some that state-owned enterprises, by competing for investment capital with private capital, ‘crowd out’ investment, have been demonstrated to not be true.
4. While private capital does not require government resources, state-owned enterprises do. State-owned enterprises therefore increase government spending, weakening monetary policy and forcing central banks to set higher interest rates in order to sustain monetary policy.
However: if private capital does not invest in expanding productive capacity, as was the case during this decade, growth will eventually deteriorate because of a lack of corporate investment, with implications for jobs, equity and social justice.

It is clear to me that the case in favour of the private ownership of capital is not what it is made out to be. There is a strong case that can be made that the financial system as a whole should be treated as a public utility, in which the distribution of investment capital would be done on the basis of democratically-established criteria. This would of necessity involve controls on the international movement of capital and controls over the pattern and pace of investment within a country. As Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin have recently noted, ‘the point of making finance into a public utility is to transform the uses to which it is now put.’

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

the failings of (financial) markets

As the world recession continues to unfold, and every day brings more bad news, in terms of job losses, home foreclosures, and large and small companies going under, the high priests of global finance capital are beginning to doubt the strength of their convictions. Last week I was shocked to read that Jean-Claude Trichet, who, as president of the European Central Bank is the second most important central banker in the world after Ben Bernanke of the United States Federal Reserve, appears to be losing his faith in the self-correcting features of financial markets. Trichet said, in the context of European banks and financial markets hoarding capital rather than lending, and in so doing deepening the recesion, that 'what the markets are suggesting is not appropriate'.

Similarly, Alan Greenspan, who was Bernanke's long-serving predecessor at the Fed, has, since last autumn, recanted some of the core beliefs that drove his decision making years: that free markets would handle the risks involved as the financial system created what Warren Buffet called 'financial weapons of mass destruction'; that because free markets would self-correct too much regulation was wrong, because it would damage Wall Street, and hence the US economy; and that banks would always put the protection of their shareholders first, rather than the protection of their executives, as witnessed in the US$4 billion in bonuses paid by Merrill Lynch just as it was being taken over, with government money, by Bank of America (US bilateral aid to Sub-Saharan Africa last year was about US$5 billion).

Perhaps global finance capital needs to read Marx to understand what is going on. Old grey beard, as he used to be called by the Chinese, warned that financial crises were inevitable 'where the ever-lengthening chain of payments, and an artificial system of settling them, has been fully developed'. Where's my copy of Capital?

Monday, January 26, 2009

the York University strike

As a resident of Toronto, with friends who work and study at York University, I have, like many Torontonians, followed the strike by contract faculty represented by CUPE local 3903 with great interest. The voices that seem to be aired in this labour dispute seem to be of those who do undoubtedly lose out: the students. Nonetheless, while I have a great deal of empathy for the difficulty that the 50000 undergraduates at York have faced, I sometimes wonder if they 'get it'.

CUPE 3903 has 3412 members, and, like many universities in Canada and the US, does more than 50 per cent of all undergraduate teaching at York. The union wants a wage settlement that is above the rate of inflation, a 2 year contract to harmonize the York contract with those of other CUPE university locals, job security, better working conditions, an end to the student code of conduct at York, and post-residency fees. Utlimately, though, this strike is about improving job security.

It is, in my view, important to remember just who are striking. Within the membership 871 are 'contract faculty' who sign a contract to work a certain number of months a year. The remainder--teaching assistants and graduate assistants--work part-time. So the York strike is above all else a strike by part-time workers for improved terms and conditions of employment, including some job security. It is the sort of thing that sensible people take for granted.

In this light, that the provincial government feels that it is necessary to pass back-to-work legislation to force the local back to work should be seen as an affront to sensible people. Back-to-work legislation, which I disagree with in principle, is usually passed to get essential services back up and running. This is what happened last year, for example, when the Toronto Transit Commission, which runs public transport in the city, went on strike. However: how can part-time workers be deemed an essential public service? If their work is essential, why don't they have a properly paid and secure job? These are the key questions that are missing in discussions about the strike.

The reliance of North American universities on part-time and insecure faculty demonstrates the extent to which neoliberalism has reconfigured tertiary education. Neoliberalism in the public sector relies on insecurity and fear to get the job done. However, casualization and flexibilization are not the basis by which to create a worldclass tertiary education sector where students actually learn. The strike demonstrates that some people are not prepared to kow-tow to such a regime. CUPE 3903 continue to deserve the full support of the people of this city.

Friday, January 23, 2009

the contradictions of hope

Last week there was near euphoria around the world when Barack Obama was inaugurated as 44th President of the United States. I must confess that I spent most of the day glued to the television, watching a remarkable event unfold: one of those moments when you had to be there, at least watching, as when 9/11 occurred, Nelson Mandela walked free, the Berlin Wall came down, or Nixon stepped into the helicopter to leave the White House for the last time.

Obama has been extremely active in his first 6 days in office, and has already done some remarkable things. There was widespread press coverage of Barack Obama signing a Presidential order on 22 January 2009 mandating that the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba be closed. In the same order it was decreed that all detainess held by the US would be covered by the Geneva Conventions. Less well noted were the fact that in the same order Obama ordered the closure of the Central Intelligence Agency's network of secret prisons, and that the CIA had been banned from using interrogation methods that are not contained in the US army field manual. At last, water boarding will come to an end as the official policy of the US government.

I don't expect the CIA or the US military not to resort to torture, or rendition; but if they do, at least now they can be held, to some degree, accountable. That is a positive return to a previous status quo--and after 8 years of Bush, a positive return to a status quo appears fresh and new.

Most remarkable of all, from an international development perspective, was a Presidential order that once more allows US aid agencies to deal with global groups that advocate family planning, like Marie Stopes and the International Planned Parenthood Federation. George W. Bush had imposed a moratorium on dealing with these groups within days of taking office; there can be little doubt that lifting the moratorium will save the lives of thousands of women throughout the developing world. This move reinforces the emphasis on development made by Hillary Clinton when she first addressed State Department staff last week--she is going to try and have development activities that lie under the control of the Defence department moved to State, where they clearly belong.

Cynics might decry these immediate--and fairly politically easy--changes under the new US President. I don't. These former US policies were an afront to the American people, served to galzanize opposition to the United States around the world, violated international law, and violated the rights of women. It was important that these wrongs be righted.

Nonetheless, it is still necessary to confront these changes against a more mundane and messy reality. On 23 January a US missle strike in North Wazirstan, Pakistan killed at least 21 people, including 3 children. These were the first such strikes--there were 30 in 2008--under President Obama, and as such must have received the direct approval of the President. On 24 January a US military raid in Aghanistan killed 22, including 2 women and 3 children--although the US military, with no observers on the ground, claimed that all the dead were militants. It is likely that a raid of this sort, in a civilian area of Afghanistan, was also explicitly authorized by President Obama. Thus, with the hopes that Obama has raised comes the contradictions of continuity. Such contradictions, however, are inevitable, as Barack Obama cannot and will not transform the US political economy. His role is to manage it better: and as such, President Obama will do much that will disappoint.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

voices from Gaza

From the Financial Times of 23 January 2009:

'Sabah Abu Halema lies on her bed in Gaza's Shifa hospital, her arms and legs covered in once-white bandages and her hands covered in brown scabs.'

'Mrs Abu Halema is a victim of white phosphorous burns after being caught in a bombing early in the 22-day Israeli assault on Gaza...'

'Mrs Abu Halema and her family were eating lunch during the second week of the conflict when three bombs hit her house. Her husband and four of their nine children were killed.'

'"You should tell everyone about these scandalous acts by the Israelis', she told the Financial Times yesterday.'

From the Financial Times on the day of Barack Obama's inauguration, 20 January 2009:

'When an Israeli airstrike destroyed the Imad Akl mosque in the Jabaliya area of Gaza City that night, it also took his house.'

'Tahreir, 17, Ikram, 14, Samar, 12, Dina 7 and Jawaher, 4, were all killed when the mosque collapsed through their bedroom wall. Baraa, who was only 12 days old when the war began, was saved when the force of the explosion flipped her cot over and gave her shelter.'

'"Before, I used to count my children when we went out for family lunch or dinner, to make sure all 9 were there," says Mr (Anwar) Baalousha, 37. "Now I don't need to."'

'The airstrike has change Mr Baalousha's life in more than one way. "I'm ready to become a martyr now", he says dispassionately.'

'His brother, Nafez, chimes in: "The thing is, he wasn't political at all before the attack"'.'

From The Economist, 17 January 2009:

'"My brother was bleeding so much and right in front of my eyes, he died. My other brother Ismail, he also bled to death. My mum and my youngest brother, they are gone. Four brothers and my mother, dead. May God give them peace."'

1500 dead. 5000 wounded. Why?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Gaza's silent victims

The Israeli Defence Force's air and ground assault on Gaza has been disproportionately deadly on one group of Palestinians: children. It is not widely enough known that of the 1.5 million people that live in Gaza, half are children under the age of 15. In any military operation, then, it was inevitable that children would die. Since the assault began, of the 636 Palestinians that have been killed, at least 115 have been children, according to reports in the Financial Times.

The Israeli assault on Palestinian children is easily seen in the repeated bombing of schools, which has been roundly condemned around the world. The latest tragedy, in which 40 civilians, including children, were killed when a United Nations school was bombed, reminds the international community that despite repeated assertions by the Israeli Defence Forces that they seek to minimize civilian casulties the reality is that civilian populations, whether they be in private homes, schools, or medical facilities, are systematic targets, and this includes children.

Who can forget the murder--for that was what it was--of Rami Jamal al-Durra in September 2000? French television filmed the scene of the 12 year old huddled next to his father, hiding, as his father pleaded with the Israelis to stop shooting. In response, the Israelis shot at the father, wounding him, and killing Rami Jamal al-Durra. It is a scene that we have, unfortunately, had to witness again this month.

Prior to the assault, as a consequence of the Israeli blockade of the territory, some 50000 children were malnourished; as in Iraq in the 1990s, there can be no doubt that some children have died as a consequence of the conditions created by the blockade. To this horror must now be added the horror of the deaths of far too many wholly innocent children.

The irony of this assault on children is not lost on the Israeli leadership: as Ehud Barak, the defence minister who is directing the assault, once said when asked what he would do if he were a Palestinian facing the Israeli Defence Forces, 'I would join a terror organization'. In attacking Gaza's children, the Israelis are creating the conditions that perpetuate the cycle of violence that plagues the region.

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