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Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Politicians: Out of their Depth?

Witty people who have never borne political or business responsibility can be highly vocal in expressing their criticism - and their ridicule, quickly descending into contempt - for office-holders who are struggling to pursue their ends in difficult, unpredictable and often adverse conditions. There are a large number of leaders at the present time who seem to have a limited [or even obtuse] perception of the situations that they are attempting to manage.Critical opposition is very often easier to mount than is reasoned presentation of feasible alternative options. Let us take a few examples that are in the News this evening.

In Moscow and other Russian cities there are small but significant demonstrations against the continuance of Vladimir Putin in office: either as Prime Minister or as President. These are at least matched numerically by demonstrating supporters of Putin's party; but it is notably oppositionists who are being arrested. In recent months, around the time of his announcement that he will again run for the Presidency of the Russian Federation, Putin has presented himself as a fitness fanatic, and a game hunter, and a supporter of the Arts, and a politico-economic polymath, and a populist who was astonished to hear boos directed at him when he came into the arena during a recent sporting event. He has done enough positive things for the country to enable him to seek re-election on the basis of that healthy record; but he seems to be unable to believe that. He also appears to lack any vision about how he can increase genuine popular support by tackling endemic problems that have emerged in a rapidly developing and changing socio-economic nexus. He has tried to project a 'personality' that is so multi-faceted as to be unsustainable, as well as fundamentally incredible; while he has been notoriously indulgent to corruption. He will never convince the punters that he is Superman; and by every device that he uses to try to demonstrate the impossible he increases the opportunities for satire. Even his fiercest critics have conceded that he has had every chance to gain the presidency by a real electoral majority: but now he is threatening his chances both by inviting ridicule at his antics, and by his toleration of cronyism and corrupt business practice, and by the exploitation of political and bureaucratic processes by venial officials who he retains in post. This is very sad for him [and it could be terminal, if he allows his personality to sink into megalomania] and it is tragic for Russia which he has demonstrated the ability to serve so well.

President Obama's gift, which is also his curse and his potential doom, is his fluency. He can be highly articulate both in set speeches and in off-the-cuff utterances; but the more he says off-script, the more apparent it is to the growing army of his critics that his understanding of issues is incomplete [at least], his power to analyse complex data appears to be exiguous, and he appears to have no attainable plans for delivering benefits to voters, despite the release of many billions of dollars by his administration and by the Federal Reserve system acting in cahoots with the federal government. The more Obama takes centre-stage and holds forth, the less credible he appears to be; the more money his administration spends, the less relevant he seems to be in the legislative process and yet he carries the primary blame for the lack of impact of the limited policies that are adopted.

The remarkable Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, is constantly criticised for doing too much and to little to grow the economy, for obstructing measures of liberalisation and for letting in too much alien capitalism, for tolerating the residual curse of the caste system and for indulging capricious [and probably crooked] untouchable politicians, for being locked-in to party-political croneyism and for being meritocratic. All of which adds up to showing balance, moderation, and a positive skill in directing a cabinet of more than thirty ministers and in getting responses out of an immense, inert bureaucracy. This is an outstanding political achievement that is working to the economic and social benefit of a massive and fast-expanding population.

No such single figure prevails in China. The complex hierarchy of past, present and future holders of the highest posts in the echelons of the Communist Part - and thus of the state- is partially understood by foreign commentators; though all assessments of power shifts and secret alliances are subject constantly to revision. No system that channels humans who are heavily endowed with ambition and personality through the corridors of the Great Hall of the People and the courtyards of the Forbidden City can work as smoothly as the Chinese authorities would have one believe: but their system has responded remarkably well to the complex processes of liberalisation and hugely rapid economic change and development, delivering 9%+ economic growth despite the turmoil in global capital markets and its impact on American and European buyers of Chinese goods. In recent days various Chinese ministers and bank officials have popped up as expert spokespersons on the specific issues of the day; talking truth to the diminishing western powers, asserting China's independent assessment of policy options, emphasising that their country is now a responsible global superpower and demonstrating that this truly is the case.

The different modes of success of Indian and Chinese leadership do not betoken a general superiority of Asian political models, or of Asian politicians over the rest of the global crop. I have lost count of the succession of ineffectual Japanese Prime Ministers who have come and gone since I first had the privilege of being a visiting professor there; and the politics of South Korea hardly bear forensic examination. Thailand has a Prime Minister who was elected solely because she is somebody's sister; and the entire country is scared of what will happen when the revered King dies and his heir - generally regarded as a wastrel, or worse - claims the inheritance. Sri Lanka is a military dictatorship, Pakistan is prey to factions that assemble and undermine sullenly-consensual governments that exist by striking compromises with the military. Politics in Indonesia and Malaysia is being edged slowly in the direction of 'moderate Islamism', which also seems to be the trend is the Arab world from Saudi Arabia to Morocco. Iran is suffering an attempt at permanent revolution that could be ridiculous if it were not armed to be dangerous to its neighbours; while Iraq is the agonised outcome of more than half a century of conflict.

We have not yet glanced at the prevailing political mode in most Asian states, nor any in Latin America: so there is much of the world left to review in future blogs. One area that must briefly be mentioned in this wide-ranging look at the political effectiveness of various people and situations is Europe. Two countries - Italy and Greece - are directly ruled by EU Proconsuls; and half a dozen are constitutional monarchies where the party-political mix in government is pragmatic and is not existentially important. In France, Germany and the United Kingdom, despite very different rhetoric surrounding the relative position of the state government to the EU, it is clear that their politically-insecure leaders see the maintenance of the Union as the key priority. The original purpose of the Union was to prevent a third 'world' war: now it is seen as potentially [though not yet actually] an entity big enough to allow the European economy that is being overtaken by emergent powers to have a chance of survival on the world stage. The political leaders in the predominant EU member states, and [often more so] in the smaller   states that follow them, are focussed on what Europe can do for the economic environment, and thus enable growth to return and eventually generate enough new wealth to transcend the present gloomy prospect. That was the proposition on which Heath 'sold' the EEC to the British Parliament and people, and Cameron and Merkel and Sarkozi are relying upon the same hope today. Not much fruit has sprung from Heath's planting of forty years ago and the politicians of 2011 understand that they cannot get away for long simply by saying that the long-term gains [when we are all dead] will make the short-term pains [that will be felt for several years of the immediate future] worth while. The message is impossible to deliver in a positive package, but that is the message to which the inescapable impact of the Iron Law of Wages has driven them. For European connoisseurs of politician rhetoric, if for nobody else, interesting times lie ahead.

For an explanation of the Iron Law of Wages, see Personal Political Economy which is accessible from this site.

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