Renown Scholar Wang Gungwu on China


July 22, 2017

Renown Scholar Wang Gungwu on China

Understanding China is critical since it is a dominant player in our part of the world and a global power with a well articulated agenda for regional stability. As a member of G-20, it is building strategic partners in ASEAN, Latin America, the EU, Russia, and Africa. While Trump’s policy is America First, President Xi embraces globalisation. Listen to Professor Wang Gungwu for some valuable insights.–Din Merican

 

Malaysia’s Music Man–Dato’ Ooi Eow Jin


July 22, 2017

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Dato’Ooi Eow Jin, pianist at the Hotel Majestic. Photo by Stacy Liu.

At three o’clock, Tuesdays to Sundays, underneath the gold-leaf dome roof of the grand five-star Hotel Majestic in Kuala Lumpur, a man hunches over a black Yamaha piano. He wears a bow tie, a white jacket, and a hearing aid on his left ear. Slowly, he takes out a small turquoise clock, and leaves it on the left-hand ledge. He places a file of loose sheet music next to him. He takes a pause. Then, he begins to play.

He doesn’t smile. His fingers dance on a white ivory floor, born again like a young ballerina’s joy at touching the ground with the tip of her toes. He starts with “Moon River”, segues into “Top of the World”, then flows into the classic “As Time Goes By”. He is 75 years old.

For 45 minutes, history’s greatest pop songs are seamlessly twisted in the pianist’s hands. Still, no smile.

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 The Majestic Hotel, Kuala Lumpur

Hotel Majestic —which first opened its doors in 1932, and relaunched in December, 2012 to much fanfare—is a building that doubles as a treasure trove of Malaysian history. Former patrons claim the Allied forces of World War II conspired within the walls of this hotel; the inaugural meeting of the Independence of the Malaya Party, held by Datuk Onn Jaafar, took place here in 1951.

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Dato’ Ooi with Tan Sri P. Ramlee, both are from Penang

Today, as every day, guests are spending a cloudy afternoon basking in the Majestic’s colonial luxury. A group of girls eat scones on embroidered sofas. Some aunties chatter while sipping the house-blended Boh Cameronian tea. Waiters decked in white jackets walk around in brisk fashion. The only constant is the sound of music that floats in the air, the last thing anyone would remember.

Yet, unbeknownst to everyone present in this room, the old man hunched over the piano is Ooi Eow Jin. 38 years ago, Ooi Eow Jin (known to hotel staff as Uncle Ooi) was one of the music industry’s most sought-after composers.

It was Ooi who once toured with P. Ramlee, who conducted the most lauded orchestra in the land, and who wrote the first song ever recorded in a studio by a revered Malaysian singer: Sudirman.

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Ooi will always have a love affair with hotels. In 1960, he became one of the first resident pianists at the E&O Hotel in Penang, and entertained guests every night in their lounges for three years. On one of these nights, Alfonso Soliano, a jazz hero, music arranger and the founder of the seminal RTM Orchestra, came to the hotel for drinks.

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The Eastern & Oriental Hotel, Penang

“It was at that place when he first heard me,” says Ooi as we sit at a corner of the Majestic before his session. His voice is brittle, strung-out. His thoughts jump between past and present. Sometimes he stops, and leans forwards to ask you to repeat your question. He wonders why we’re sitting here in conversation.

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Well, you have an interesting life.

“I don’t know what is there to write about me,” he says, words rattling gently inside a soft, time-worn box. “I’ve been doing this for too long.”

But of the details on the night that changed his life, his memory is still as clear as a full moon. “I was playing that night, and he heard me,” he recalls. “He got interested, started asking questions about me with his friends. After I played, he got a hold of me personally and asked, ‘Why don’t you come to KL and play with the Orchestra?”

 

“Those days, the RTM Orchestra was the biggest thing to happen to music.”

 

This was a big deal. Soliano had moved from his part-time job playing keyboards at nightclubs to starting an orchestra at then-Radio Malaya in 1957. When television broadcasting was introduced in 1963, the RTM Orchestra became one of the most widely-watched music acts in the country.

It was a fork-in-the-road moment for the then-24 year old Ooi, and he left his day job as a government clerk and took the risk of moving to the capital. “Imagine people saying, ‘You are crazy. You’ve got a full-time salaried government job, and you’re leaving it for a contract job.’” He wags his finger, reminding you that one generation will always admonish another for choosing uncertainty over certainty. “But that was my calling. I couldn’t be a clerk if there was something like this in front of you. Those days, the Orchestra was the biggest thing to happen to music.”

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Radio Malaya Band with Alfonso Soliano in  the early 1960s

Ooi would spend the next 17 years in the RTM Orchestra. “It was a great experience playing all kinds of music. To have the orchestra there, that’s something, you know? That… that really took my heart away.” Soliano would groom Ooi to become the orchestra’s senior arranger, giving him opportunities to conduct concerts, and teaching him how to compose a piece of music. “He guided me. He wanted me to depend on my ears. ‘What you hear, you play’, he would tell me.’”

 Ooi’s career would soon intersect with another artiste looking for his own break in life. In 1976, a young singer with a songbird’s voice by the name of Sudirman Arshad took part in a nascent reality show called Bintang RTM. In the final round, Ooi arranged a Broadway medley that would help Sudirman win the competition. “I used two songs. One of them was ‘Cabaret’, and the other was ‘Big Spender’. I arranged those two songs for him, and he got first prize because of that.”

The two became friends, and Ooi wrote the first song Sudirman ever recorded inside a studio, a soulful number titled “Teriring Doa”. History tells us that Sudirman would become an Asian phenomenon, pulling in 100,000 people in a Chow Kit Road open air concert, tabbed as “Malaysia’s Number One Entertainer”.

Related imageThe Legend –Sudirman Haji Arshad

Ooi wrote the first song Sudirman ever recorded inside a studio, a soulful number titled “Teriring Doa”.

“One thing I know of Sudirman is that he is a very, very humble man, a very nice person to know,” Ooi says. “Every time he meets me, when he was famous, he would say, “Mister Eow Jin, I can never forget you for what you’ve done for me. Imagine someone like that saying like that about you.” He looks down, humbled by the power of a sincere compliment. “It makes your heart melt.”

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Ooi gets up from his seat, and returns soon after with a CD in his hand. It is a compilation of twenty compositions, a greatest-hits collection he gives out to friends. It’s part of a personal canon that encompasses over 60 Malay pop songs, a nostalgic walk-through of the local music industry’s heyday.

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Singing Sensation Dahlan Zainuddin

He penned the weepy hit “Masa Berlalu” for singer Salamiah Hassan, the mother of current jazz singer Atilia; other singles include Dahlan Zainuddin’s “Lagu Untukmu”and Yunizar Hoessein’s “Kisah Gadis Sepi”. He wrote the entire soundscape for Yassin Salleh’s blockbuster film Dia Ibukuin 1981, along with the theme song sung by the popular M. Nasir. He would rub shoulders with industry luminaries that spanned the entire region; names like Gigi Villa, the Alleycats and Frances Yip all sought out Ooi’s ability to twist an American ballad sound around a Malaysian tongue.  

“I have something that will knock you down.” He takes out a photograph, and lays it on the table. It is a black-and-white snapshot of a boyish, bespectacled Ooi wearing an army uniform. He is standing next to P. Ramlee on the shores of Sebatik Island off Tawau.

 

Industry luminaries sought out Ooi’s ability to twist an American ballad sound around a Malaysian tongue.

Ooi played for the Malaysian legend during a tour of 21 army barracks in Borneo in 1965, bringing A-class entertainment to the armed forces. “We were quite near the Indonesian camps, and we could hear gunfire sometimes, at a distance… A few of us would fly in on helicopters into these camps, and we would do on-the-spot performances for the soldiers.”

By any generation’s estimation, this is unquantified success. But as Ooi deep-dives through his past, something escapes his grasp like grains of sand. For all the credits, his name rarely comes up in any historical tome of Malaysian music.

When asked about his success, Ooi pinches the skin of his wrist. “I am the only one amongst so many Malay composers. I was the first non-Malay composer to write Malay songs for films,” he says. “There is something, when I tell you, you’ll feel a bit sad. You know FINAS [National Film Development Corporation Malaysia]? I won the prize for best theme music for one movie, you know? After they announced the prize for best theme song for the movie, you what came out in the papers the next day? Nothing came out.”

His voice becomes unsteady. “You devote so much to this, and you get nothing out of it. Just because of…” And he pinches his skin again.

Older guests who come to the Majestic Hotel—some fans of the RTM Orchestra, or simply those who listen to artistes like Sudirman and are homesick for a piece of history—still remember Ooi. “Some will come up and say, ‘Hey, you formerly from RTM Orchestra ah?’ Ya lah, I’m now doing a new job.” By a twist of fate, the Filipino quartet who plays in the evenings after Ooi’s session are the Solianos, a family ensemble who are all children of the late Alfonso Soliano, Ooi’s mentor.

Many years later, Ooi still plays because it is a calling that he cannot quiet. “How do you retire? Unless you are too sick to play? I will play until I cannot play. Because there is nothing else to do.” Ooi has also seen his only two sons through tragedy; the eldest had a brain tumour in his twenties that has resulted in two serious operations, and his youngest son died of leukaemia as a youth. “These are just the sad things of my life I put away. I store it away somewhere, and try to pretend it didn’t happen.”

He comes to us after his first session. He sits on our table, and a waitress brings him a cup of coffee. Instead of drinking one of the hotel’s hinterland imports, this cup is made from a three-in-one instant coffee mix from Malacca, a sachet he gives to the kitchen to specially brew for him every day. He grabs her hand, and pats it like a grandfather.

“Thank you.” He looks up and smiles at her, paying forward the kindness once shown to him a long time ago. “You are a very nice lady.”

“No problem, Uncle.”

He leans forward, eyes tainted in fading black. “Did you hear me?” He looks back at us for an answer.

We could hear you.

“I’m always not sure whether people can hear me from back here.”

Soon, he returns for his second 45-minute session. The medleys will fill the room. But all around him, the music stays silent.

UPDATE: As of 30th June 2015, Mr Ooi has retired as a pianist, aged 77. However, friends rallied around by organising a fund raising concert to help the pianist through his family difficulties.

On 7th September 2015, Mr Ooi was conferred a Datukship by the state of Penang. Poskod.MY is honoured to have played a small role in bringing wider attention to this music man. 


 

 

Trump and the Truth About Climate Change


July 22, 2017

Trump and the Truth About Climate Change

by Joseph E. Stiglitz

http://www.project-syndicate.com

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Under President Donald Trump’s leadership, the United States took another major step toward establishing itself as a rogue state on June 1, when it withdrew from the Paris climate agreement. For years, Trump has indulged the strange conspiracy theory that, as he put it in 2012, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.” But this was not the reason Trump advanced for withdrawing the US from the Paris accord. Rather, the agreement, he alleged, was bad for the US and implicitly unfair to it.

While fairness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, Trump’s claim is difficult to justify. On the contrary, the Paris accord is very good for America, and it is the US that continues to impose an unfair burden on others.

Historically, the US has added disproportionately to the rising concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and among large countries it remains the biggest per capita emitter of carbon dioxide by far – more than twice China’s rate and nearly 2.5 times more than Europe in 2013 (the latest year for which the World Bank has reported complete data). With its high income, the US is in a far better position to adapt to the challenges of climate change than poor countries like India and China, let alone a low-income country in Africa.

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After 6 months in office, Trump has shown that he is incapable of getting his agenda going. He cannot get at the issues which require his leadership.

In fact, the major flaw in Trump’s reasoning is that combating climate change would strengthen the US, not weaken it. Trump is looking toward the past – a past that, ironically, was not that great. His promise to restore coal-mining jobs (which now number 51,000, less than 0.04% of the country’s non-farm employment) overlooks the harsh conditions and health risks endemic in that industry, not to mention the technological advances that would continue to reduce employment in the industry even if coal production were revived.

In fact, far more jobs are being created in solar panel installation than are being lost in coal. More generally, moving to a green economy would increase US income today and economic growth in the future. In this, as in so many things, Trump is hopelessly mired in the past.

Just a few weeks before Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris accord, the global High-Level Commission on Carbon Prices, which I co-chaired with Nicholas Stern, highlighted the potential of a green transition. The Commission’s report, released at the end of May, argues that reducing CO2 emissions could result in an even stronger economy.

The logic is straightforward. A key problem holding back the global economy today is deficient aggregate demand. At the same time, many countries’ governments face revenue shortfalls. But we can address both issues simultaneously and reduce emissions by imposing a charge (a tax) for CO2 emissions.

It is always better to tax bad things than good things. By taxing CO2, firms and households would have an incentive to retrofit for the world of the future. The tax would also provide firms with incentives to innovate in ways that reduce energy usage and emissions – giving them a dynamic competitive advantage.

The Commission analyzed the level of carbon price that would be required to achieve the goals set forth in the Paris climate agreement – a far higher price than in most of Europe today, but still manageable. The commissioners pointed out that the appropriate price may differ across countries. In particular, they noted, a better regulatory system – one that restrains coal-fired power generation, for example – reduces the burden that must be placed on the tax system.

Interestingly, one of the world’s best-performing economies, Sweden, has already adopted a carbon tax at a rate substantially higher than that discussed in our report. And the Swedes have simultaneously sustained their strong growth without US-level emissions.

America under Trump has gone from being a world leader to an object of derision. In the aftermath of Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Paris accord, a large sign was hung over Rome’s city hall: “The Planet First.” Likewise, France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, poked fun at Trump’s campaign slogan, declaring “Make Our Planet Great Again.”

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But the consequences of Trump’s actions are no laughing matter. If the US continues to emit as it has, it will continue to impose enormous costs on the rest of the world, including on much poorer countries. Those who are being harmed by America’s recklessness are justifiably angry.

Fortunately, large parts of the US, including the most economically dynamic regions, have shown that Trump is, if not irrelevant, at least less relevant than he would like to believe. Large numbers of states and corporations have announced that they will proceed with their commitments – and perhaps go even further, offsetting the failures of other parts of the US.

In the meantime, the world must protect itself against rogue states. Climate change poses an existential threat to the planet that is no less dire than that posed by North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. In both cases, the world cannot escape the inevitable question: what is to be done about countries that refuse to do their part in preserving our planet?

Demise of Liu Xiaobo: a case of lose-lose for China


July 21, 2017

Demise of Liu Xiaobo: a case of lose-lose for China

by Kerry Brown

http://asaa.asn.au/demise-liu-xiaobo-case-lose-lose-china/

China’s treatment of its Nobel Peace Prize laureate, writer, literary critic, and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, raises difficult and penetrating questions, writes Kerry Brown

The loss of Liu Xiaobo is a tragedy. For him, a personal tragedy but there are far wider ramifications.

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The final decade of his life was spent in jail. The books he could have written, the contribution he could have made to Chinese and global society, the influence he could have had as a highly regarded public intellectual.

The silencing of Liu has robbed Chinese society of an important, forensically sharp, and creative voice at a time of huge internal change when it needed diversity of opinion.

The outside world has been robbed of the perspective of a truly authentic, engaged, highly erudite and insightful scholar. The body of work that Liu published in Chinese and English before his incarceration provided immensely useful insight for understanding the complexities of China’s current position. More of this would have been very helpful. But it was not to be.

That he died suffering from terminal cancer is just about the worst possible outcome for the Chinese government. Eight years into his 11-year sentence, the world saw heart-breaking photos of him and his wife, Liu Xia, while he undertook palliative treatment in hospital and received some kind of care.

Stain on China’s reputation

While Xi Jinping, China’s President, attended the G20 in Hamburg, back home a man in a hospital ward in the north-eastern city of Shenyang was making the sort of headlines that the Chinese government would have preferred to avoid during its new era of global influence.

The Chinese state often talks about win-win outcomes. In the case of Liu, it has turned out to be lose-lose. No one comes out of this happily. For Liu, his family and friends, the situation is very obviously a terrible tragedy. For the Chinese government, who of course will be blamed for the entire situation, it is a great stain on its reputation.

We have to remember the crime that Liu was said to have committed. He never physically harmed any one. He never stole. He was never accused of blackmail or bribing or breaking any law recognisable under most standard justice systems.

His crime was subversion of the state. And the evidence for this was articles he wrote on websites, most of which were blocked in China and had no more than a few hundred readers.

When we reflect on the meaning of Liu’s case, we have to wonder why it was that every step of the way over eight years, right to the end, the Chinese government did not compromise, despite paying a huge price in terms of its reputation and image.

Since the Olympics in 2008 in Beijing, the Chinese state has poured huge resources into promoting itself abroad. Under Xi Jinping, it has made a concerted effort to communicate the ways in which its role in the world is now beneficial and positive. At the same time, this one case gave its most implacable enemies endless ammunition.

The horrible irony was that this was the first-ever peace prize to a citizen of China, resident and also in detention

Take, for instance, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu. The horrible irony was that this was the first-ever such prize to a citizen of China, resident and also in detention. For a government that had been pursuing its dream of getting Nobel recognition for decades, this was a huge slap in the face. But its management of the issue afterwards made a bad situation even worse.

Liu became for Chinese officials a symbol of how they would not bow to Western pressure. In a sense, he became a test case for how emboldened they felt in the face of criticism about their rights record. So, the refusal to allow him to attend the Oslo ceremony, and the empty seat that was used to represent him, was a powerful and emotive symbol. A single image represented just how problematic Chinese government treatment of rights issues had become.

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On top of this, there was the treatment of Liu Xia in the years since. Her incarceration in her own home despite never being accused of a single crime summed up the zero-sum approach of the Chinese security apparatus. Images of her weeping in the street, reports of her deep depression, and sporadic stories about her pitiful condition, provided a parallel, contradictory narrative to the bolder, positive message China was trying to spread under its new leadership.

One of the most worrying aspects of the Liu case is how it points, not to the Chinese government’s strength and confidence, but to its weakness. As uncertainty spreads everywhere, the world is increasingly inclined to want and to believe in a China that is stable, predictable and confident. The fact the Chinese state has been willing, right until today, to expend so much precious political capital, such disproportionate effort on this case, looked like tangible evidence of a mighty party state rattled by the actions of one man.

The answer lies in trenchant comments that appeared in Liu’s essays

Western leaders have to contend every hour of every day with fierce and sometimes savage criticism, without recourse to placing their opponents in jail, yet China made such an effort to deal with a single individual? The question this inevitably provokes is a simple one: why were they so frightened?

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The answer lies in trenchant comments that appeared in Liu’s essays. For him, what broadly typified the Western posture towards politics and culture was a sceptical, questioning attitude. He contrasted this with a much more managed, coerced contemporary Chinese practice.

Questions will linger

Liu’s work repays attention, as does his case. His treatment after his leading role in the demand for more human rights in Charter 08 generates endless, worrying questions about the control of the ruling Communist Party in China, and their mandate.

These are questions they have so far responded to by simply closing down debate, silencing Liu and people like him. One wonders how this approach can be sustained.

From the Oslo 2010 ceremony, from society in China during his imprisonment, and now through his death, it is Liu’s absence that proves so powerful. This is remarkable.

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Liu’s contribution is to leave unanswered questions lingering for years to come. These questions, which can perhaps be evaded but not ultimately avoided, relate to the real inner confidence and conviction of the political system that imprisoned him. His final disappearance will not stop these questions, only make them more penetrating and difficult to answer.

In his life, Liu worried the Chinese state. With his demise, Liu’s questions should worry us all.

 

 

The Quiet Demise of Austerity


July 21, 2017

The Quiet Demise of Austerity

by James McCormack

James McCormack is Managing Director and Global Head of the Sovereign and Supranational Group at Fitch Ratings.

https://www.project-syndicate.org

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It has been several years since policymakers seriously discussed the merits of fiscal austerity. Debates about the potential advantages of using stimulus to boost short-term economic growth, or about the threat of government debt reaching such a level as to inhibit medium-term growth, have gone silent.

There is no mistaking which side won, and why. Austerity is dead. And as conventional politicians continue to take rearguard action against populist upstarts, they will likely embrace more fiscal-policy easing – or at least avoid tightening – to reap near-certain short-term economic gains. At the same time, they are not likely to heed warnings of the medium-term consequences of higher debt levels, given widespread talk of interest rates remaining “lower for longer.”

One way to confirm that an international fiscal-policy consensus has emerged is to review policymakers’ joint statements. The last time the G7 issued a communiqué noting the importance of fiscal consolidation was at the Lough Erne Summit in 2013, when it was still the G8.

Since then, joint statements have contained amorphous proposals to implement “fiscal strategies flexibly to support growth” and ensure that debt-to-GDP ratios are sustainable. Putting debt on a sustainable path presumably means that it will not increase without interruption. But in the absence of a definite timeframe, debt levels can undergo lengthy deviations, the sustainability of which is open to interpretation.

Objections to austerity were understandable in the period following the 2008 financial crisis. Fiscal policy was being tightened when growth was languishing below 2% (after bouncing back in 2010), and sizeable negative output gaps suggested that overall employment would be slow to recover.

In late 2012, at the peak of the post-crisis austerity debate, advanced economies were in the midst of a multi-year tightening equivalent to more than one percentage point of GDP annually, according to cyclically-adjusted primary balance data from the International Monetary Fund.

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But just as fiscal policy was being tightened when cyclical economic conditions seemed to call for easing, it is now being eased when conditions seem to call for tightening. The output gap in advanced economies has all but disappeared, inflation is picking up, and world economic growth is forecast to be its strongest since 2010.

In 2013, Japan was the only advanced economy to loosen fiscal policy. But this year, the United Kingdom appears to be the only one preparing to tighten its policy – and that is assuming recent political ruptures haven’t altered its fiscal orientation, which will be reflected in the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Autumn Statement.

Most observers would agree that government debt levels are uncomfortably high in many advanced economies, so it would be prudent for policymakers to discuss strategies for bringing them down. Moreover, there are several options for doing this, some of which are easier or more effective than others.

In the end, government deleveraging is about the relationship between economic growth and interest rates. The higher the growth rate relative to interest rates, the lower the level of fiscal consolidation needed to stabilize or reduce debt as a share of GDP.

As economic growth continues to pick up while interest rates lag, at least outside the US, fiscal authorities will have further opportunities to reduce debt, and create fiscal space for stimulus measures when the next cyclical downturn inevitably arrives. But policymakers are not doing this, which suggests that they have prioritized largely political considerations over fiscal prudence.

After the recent elections in the Netherlands and France, a growing chorus is now proclaiming that “peak populism” has passed. But one could argue just as easily that populist ideals are being absorbed into more mainstream political and economic agendas. As a result, politicians, particularly in Europe, have no choice but to favor inclusive growth policies and scrutinize the potential impact that a given policy could have on the income distribution.

This political environment is hardly conducive to fiscal consolidation. Any tax increases or spending cuts will have to be designed exceptionally well – perhaps impossibly so – for leaders to avoid a populist backlash. Some people will always lose more than others from fiscal consolidation, and deciding who those people are is never a pleasant exercise.

So far, those decisions are being delayed on political grounds. But the economic implications of high government debt cannot be ignored forever. Monetary policy is already starting to change in the US, and it could be on the verge of changing globally. One way or another, fiscal authorities will have to confront challenging tradeoffs in the years ahead.

Trump’s enfeebled America stands alone


July 20, 2017

Trump’s enfeebled America stands alone

Economic change has affected other countries, but they have managed globalisation

by Martin Sanbu@www.ft.com

Image result for Trump Go it Alone Foreign PolicyDonald Trump with his Foreign Policy Novice, SIL Jared Kushner

The US President used to be thought of as the leader of the free world. America’s western friends are finding that they can no longer rely on it. But the truly transforming change is that they may find they no longer need to — and that the US needs the world more than the other way around.–Martin Sandbu

The greatest challenge posed by Donald Trump’s presidency is not that he will deploy American strength against the global common good. It is that he demonstrates how weak the US has become.

Recall Mr Trump’s inaugural address. The phrase that has resounded around the world is “America first”. But the more significant phrase he used is that other, more inward-looking one: “American carnage”. What sort of country describes itself, in the words of its highest leader no less, in such terms? Not one that feels strong.

Some Americans may not recognise the dystopian conditions his speech described. But a large group surely does. American decline is not a figment of Mr Trump’s imagination. The US economy has left large numbers of people with stagnant wages for decades. It is an economy in which millions fewer people have a job than at the peak in 2000, and which still leaves tens of millions without secure, decent healthcare.

It is an economy dotted with towns that were thriving within living memory, but have been devastated by the loss of factory jobs — lost because automation made plants too productive to need as much human labour as before, or because a failure to automate made them uncompetitive against rivals.

Above all, it is an economy in which centuries-old progress against mortality has gone in reverse for middle-aged low-educated Americans, who are dying from the afflictions of broken lives and broken communities: drug overdoses, liver disease and suicide.

Deep economic change has affected other advanced economies too. But others have not let globalisation get in the way of managing it. The US is weak not because it has uniquely been cheated out of a golden age of factory jobs by foreigners, but because it has failed to create a prosperous new future for all at home.

Mr Trump’s railing against Washington is therefore not without foundation. Economic dysfunction has long been matched by glaringly inadequate governance. The devastation of the global financial crisis — which was at its core a US financial crisis, unsuspected by its regulatory system — followed the gross incompetence of the George W Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina and its adventurism in Iraq.

Mr Trump’s speech in Poland before the G20 summit was the international version of his American carnage speech. Just like the US, in his telling, is a landscape of decay at the mercy of corrupt leaders, he presented the western world as mortally threatened by destructive forces because of decadence within.

But while he may be a fiery prophet of US decline, he is wrong about the wider world. If other western countries display a quiet confidence vis-à-vis Mr Trump, it is because they have reason to. Their unrepentant globalism is striking. Canada’s reconsecration of its globalist destiny matches its ambitious welcome of refugees. Europe and Japan are creating one of the world’s largest free trade areas. The EU vows not to withdraw from globalisation but to shape it to its values of solidarity. Japan is leading the other spurned partners from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Mr Trump has pulled out of, in an effort to complete trade liberalisation without US participation.

What lessons can we draw from this contrast? First, take the theatrics of populism seriously. Populism paradoxically mixes machismo with an incessant focus on weakness — but blames weakness on elements that must be expelled, allowing the true representatives of the forgotten people a free hand.

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A revitalised Franco-German Partnership for a Strong EU–Macron and Merkel

Second, this worsens the problem populists promise to solve. It deepens existing divisions and paralyses democratic politics. For aspiring totalitarians that may be part of a plan. For others, it is simply a self-fulfilling prophecy. Look no further than Britain for a nation that has acted on a mistaken belief that its strength has been sapped by the global liberal order (in the form of the EU), only to throw itself into true political disarray and indecision.

Third, the clash between populism and globalism is theatrical all right, but it is a theatre of the grotesque that expresses reality by transmogrifying it. Those who most try to project strength are those with the most domestic weakness to hide. Leaders of harmonious countries have no need to brag.

Fourth, it is in countries where US-style social and economic decay is most visible that the global liberal order is most contested: above all the UK, but also France and Italy. The rest of the west must redouble efforts to improve the social protections that have kept decay at bay for now.

Germany is of particular importance: its labour reforms 15 years ago have produced a worrying increase in inequality and precarious work. It must not repeat the US’s mistakes.

Finally, the global liberal order is more than the US. Its remaining supporters aim to carry on by forging the unity of purpose collectively that the US cannot even muster at home. A few decades ago that would have been unthinkable. Today, it may just be true that US isolationism will most harm the US itself.

The US President used to be thought of as the leader of the free world. America’s western friends are finding that they can no longer rely on it. But the truly transforming change is that they may find they no longer need to — and that the US needs the world more than the other way around.

martin.sandbu@ft.com