The Belt and Road Initiative and Asia’s changing order


November 18, 2017

The Belt and Road Initiative and Asia’s changing order

by Nick Bisley, La Trobe University

In the two days of meetings from 8 November between President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Trump’s first state visit, it appears that they did not talk at all about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Trump’s tour reflected the tendency of his administration to see Asia entirely through the lens of bilateral ties and crises. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Trump have stated that the United States seeks to sustain and protect a free and open Indo-Pacific, but the inability to match that concept with either a meaningful strategic vision or substantive policy was plainly on display.

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This absence of strategic thinking about the region is a key reason for the neglect of China’s BRI. It is a policy that is monumental in scale, highly strategic in its outlook and reflects Xi’s confident and ambitious vision of China’s global role. If the United States and its allies want to maintain the underlying economic and strategic status quo in Asia, they need to recognise that they will be doing so at the same time that China is forging ahead with its BRI plans.

The initiative was first announced in a pair of speeches given by Xi in 2013 in Kazakhstan and Bandung, setting out a sweeping but vague vision for improved connectivity between China and the former Silk Road Corridor. At the recent 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the initiative was written into the party’s constitution. It is without question the most important element in China’s international policy.

At its core, the BRI is about the practical business of connecting peoples and markets through infrastructure. But it also has at least five different strategic functions.

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Perhaps the most immediate of these is that it is a means to drive economic growth in China’s deprived southern and western provinces. The aim is both to reduce the huge economic inequalities between the Chinese hinterlands and the coast and to provide a social developmental anchor for parts of China that the CCP has long seen as restive and resistant to Beijing rule. A more prosperous Xinjiang is, from this view, less likely to be susceptible to the allure of ‘terrorism and separatism’.

But huge investment in infrastructure is not just about leveling out economic prospects within China: the initiative also aims to improve economic development prospects in China’s western periphery. The China–Pakistan Economic Corridor — a sprawling program of pipelines, dams and development projects in Pakistan — is not so much about bringing hydrocarbons from the Arabian Sea to Xinjiang. Rather, it is about improving Pakistan’s welfare. A well-off Pakistan is a better market for Chinese goods, a more reliable partner to balance Indian influence and is less likely to be a source of radical Islamist inspiration. That the economic improvement among China’s neighbours would also align those countries’ interests with Beijing’s is an added bonus.

This will also help create more developed markets to consume the higher-end manufactured goods that China’s economic reformers aim to create. Importantly, as those markets  along the Belt and Road are developed they are also intended to have Chinese industrial standards to become internationalised, further entrenching China’s economic advantage. As the United States knows, countries that build infrastructure also set the standards.

A fourth motive — and perhaps one that has been the most prominent in the minds of China hawks — is the BRI’s geopolitics. China’s dependence on its maritime approaches and their vulnerability to US power has long been a source of concern for the Party leadership. The US navy’s submarine fleet is likely to ensure that even if China were to ‘leapfrog’ aircraft carrier development, the country would remain susceptible to US naval predation. By pivoting west and being able to access markets via continental means, China can overcome the maritime choke points that create submarine vulnerability, thereby gaining much needed strategic depth.

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Finally, in developing the BRI’s US$1 trillion infrastructure program that binds states and economies into a China-centred economic and strategic system, China is aiming to weaken existing strategic and institutional structures. In short, the BRI is a crucial part of China’s incremental and non-threatening construction of a new regional order. The symbolism could not be clearer from Beijing: we are building bridges, ports and pipelines while you, the United States, are building walls.

More than 60 countries have signed memorandums of understanding with China about the BRI, yet many others (particularly those close to the United States) remain sceptical. Australia seems genuinely perplexed as to how to respond, while Japan’s recent cautious approval is the public face of a very sceptical Japanese government. This uncertainty is understandable.

From a US ally point of view, the BRI is a genuinely puzzling program. The region badly needs infrastructure investment and China has the capital, experience and capability to drive this forward. But the initiative will almost certainly increase China’s relative strength and further erode the old regional order. As a project in which the geopolitical cannot be disentangled from the economic, it also frustrates more conventional approaches to international policy.

The BRI’s close association with President Xi means that it is going to be the most important component of China’s international policy over the coming decade. Equally, as it unfolds it will significantly alter strategic and economic relationships in the region. More broadly, the BRI reflects an ambition to fill in the missing piece of the connectivity puzzle that will create a more China-centred regional order. The question is whether the United States will contest China’s efforts or be too busy with its own travails to even realise that there is a competition. If Trump’s first nine months in office are any indication, China has the field wide open.

Nick Bisley is Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and Professor of International Relations at La Trobe University. You can follow him on Twitter at @NickBisley.

Cambodia: Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen adopts strong people-centeric leadership instead of liberal democracy


November 3, 2015

Cambodia: Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen adopts strong people-centeric leadership  stead of liberal democracy

by Carlyle A Thayer

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

Image result for hun sen at wef, may, 2017 in phnom penh

Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia seen with Philippine President President Rodrigo Roa Duterte. 

Since 2016, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has set about deliberately dismantling his country’s democratic system. Month by month, the country’s political opposition has been eviscerated through a combination of coercion and judicial means, known as ‘lawfare’.

 

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, is one of the world’s longest serving leaders and has now been in charge in Cambodia for 32 years.

Degradation of the democratic process dramatically accelerated during 2017. If this continues, the national elections scheduled for July 2018 will effectively be a one-party affair. Cambodia today is an illiberal democracy rapidly descending into autocratic rule.

In 1991, after Cambodia had spent three years under the murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge and ten years under Vietnamese military occupation, the United Nations was mandated to carry out peace-building. It was the largest such mission of its time. Liberal multi-party democracy was enshrined in the constitution. In May 1993, Cambodia held national elections for a Constituent Assembly. Four months later it promulgated a constitution that restored the monarch, Norodom Sihanouk, and re-established the Kingdom of Cambodia. His successor, Norodom Sihamoni, had for many years spent much of his time abroad.

Cambodia’s current constitution was amended in 2004. Five references to liberal multi-party democracy are enshrined within it, including the assertion in the preamble that Cambodia will ‘become once again an “Oasis of Peace” based on the system of a liberal multi-party democracy’.

Article 1 states that ‘the King shall fulfil His functions according to the Constitution and the principles of liberal multi-party democracy’, while Article 50 declares ‘Khmer citizens of both sexes shall respect the principles of national sovereignty and liberal multi-party democracy’.

Article 51 specifies that ‘the Kingdom of Cambodia adopts a policy of liberal multi-party democracy’ and Article 153 affirms that ‘the revision or the amendment of the Constitution cannot be done, if affecting the liberal multi-party democracy system and the constitutional monarchy regime’.

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Cambodian Minister of Public Works, Sun Chanthol and Transport, Sun Chanthol and Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, Minister in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Office.

National elections have been held at regular five-yearly intervals in Cambodia since 1993. In 1998, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) gained majority control and it has won every election since then. In 2012, two opposition parties, the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, merged to form the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). In the national elections the following year, the CPP suffered a major setback when it lost 22 parliamentary seats, although it still retained control. The opposition charged that the election was rigged and Cambodia experienced a period of domestic turmoil as mass protests erupted.

Since the setback to his control in 2013, Hun Sen has set about systematically destabilising the opposition. His efforts intensified as commune elections scheduled for 4 June 2017 approached. These elections were widely viewed as a bellwether for national elections scheduled for July 2018.

The leader of the CNRP at the time, Sam Rainsy, was forced to flee abroad and in December 2016 he was convicted of ‘falsifying public documents, using fake public documents [and] incitement causing unrest to national security’ in absentia. His successor, Kem Sokha, was forced to step down as party leader while other CNRP members were jailed for ‘inciting social instability’.

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A Member of ASEAN since 1999, Cambodia has been making friends around the world on the basis of mutual respect and win-win partnerships.

In January 2017, Hun Sen cancelled military exercises with the United States for a period of two years, on the grounds that the Cambodian military needed to provide security for the elections and to assist in an anti-drug campaign. Later he abruptly ordered a US Navy unit engaged in humanitarian construction of school toilets and maternity wards to leave the country.

International organisations have also been expelled. In February 2017, Hun Sen countered the opposition by amending the Law on Political Parties so that the CNRP could be dissolved for ‘jeopardising the security of the state’ and ‘provoking incitement’. A Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations was also passed in July 2015. It required the 5000 domestic and foreign NGOs working in Cambodia to register with the government and provide detailed reports on their activities and finances. If they failed to comply, they risked fines, criminal prosecutions or deregistration.

On 11 April 2017, the Cambodian government released an eleven-page report, ‘To Tell the Truth’. It accused Western governments, UN agencies and NGOs of conducting a deliberate campaign of disinformation to denigrate the CPP. The report also accused the United States and the opposition CNRP of colluding to overthrow the Cambodian government.

Yet the Cambodian people continue to support the opposition at the ballot box. Despite efforts by Hun Sen and his CPP to hound and destabilise the opposition, the opposition performed well in the June 2017 commune elections. Even though the CPP received 51 per cent of the vote to the CNRP’s 44 per cent, the CPP lost 436 commune chief seats while the CNRP gained 449 out of a total of 1646 commune chief seats. And the CPP lost 1779 commune councillor seats while the CNRP gained 2052 out of a total of 11,572 councillor seats.

After the commune elections, Hun Sen and the CPP blamed their poor showing on outside interference by the US National Democratic Institution (NDI) and Khmer language broadcasts by Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA). The NDI was ordered to leave Cambodia and the 53 local radio stations that rebroadcast news from VOA and RFA were shut down. The Cambodian Daily was closed on allegations of tax fraud. In September, former leader of the opposition Kem Sokha, the founder and former leader of the Human Rights Party, was charged with treason.

Hun Sen is an autocrat who is clinging to power. To ensure that he remains at the helm he has resorted to subversion of the national constitution. In the process, he is transforming Cambodia’s liberal multi-party democracy into a dictatorship, a democracy in name only.

Carlyle A Thayer is an Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.

This article was originally posted here on Asian Currents.

 

Planning for success in Cambodia


October 14, 2017

Planning for success in Cambodia

by Jayant Menon

https://blogs.adb.org/blog/planning-success-cambodia

Weak human capital is arguably the biggest challenge for Cambodia to reach middle-income status.
Weak human capital is arguably the biggest challenge for Cambodia to reach middle-income status.

Cambodia recently made the transition from a low income to a lower middle-income country, according to the World Bank’s rankings.

This is good news, but it poses a question: Does Cambodia need to rethink its model of export-driven economic growth, as preferential access for its exports to developed countries is gradually reduced or as aid flows diminish? Not necessarily, at least for now. But it should start preparing immediately.

Cambodia still has least developed country or LDC status as defined by the United Nations, and will likely retain its trade privileges for a while yet. But it will likely transition out of LDC status by around 2030 if it maintains current growth rates. With adequate advance planning, Cambodia can avoid being a victim of its own success when it does so.

That means stronger efforts to improve the tax collection mechanism, and curbing tax avoidance and evasion. Strengthening institutions to improve tax collection, and creating a culture where businesses and citizenry feel an obligation to contribute towards the provision of public goods and services, can take years, so it needs to start now.

Weak human capital is top challenge for Cambodia to reach middle-income status

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Cambodia also needs to expand the tax base, and hasten the move from direct to indirect sources of tax collection, while reducing its reliance on trade taxes. These initiatives are essential to mobilize domestic resources to fund development, given that overseas development aid and concessional financing will wane as the country gets more prosperous.

Cambodia also has several domestic obstacles to overcome, not only to prepare for a transition to upper middle income status, but to speed up that journey.

Arguably the most important challenge is weak human capital, as well as a skills mismatch. To fix this requires a much greater investment in education – not only in vocational or higher education but also at primary and secondary school. The enormity of the task that lies ahead is underscored by the World Economic Forum’s Global Human Capital Report 2017, that placed Cambodia at the bottom of the list in ASEAN.

The goal is making sure all Cambodians have at least 10 years of schooling, forming the basic building block for a much more productive workforce. Then we can talk about specialized vocational or tertiary education, and matching employee skills to employer needs.

At this stage, and based on interviews with Japanese firms operating in the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone (PPSEZ), what employers are seeking is not necessarily “trained” labor, but “trainable” labor, as skills required are quite job-specific and usually provided on-site.

Agriculture to remain backbone of Cambodia’s economy

Other challenges include the elevated cost of electricity, one of the highest in Asia. Apart from the skills constraint, the cost and unreliable supply of power is the other key factor limiting industry’s progression up the value chain from simple assembly to production of parts and components. If the former is labor intensive, the latter is energy-intensive, and remains uneconomical at current tariffs.

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Agriculture, however, will remain the backbone of the country’s economy for years to come, and during the transition to the next income bracket. Most Cambodians continue to be employed in this sector – either directly or indirectly.

To further reduce poverty and inequality, the agriculture sector must become more productive. To do this requires better irrigation systems, more fertilizer usage, and easier access to high-yielding varieties of crops. The size of farms and variety of their produce should also be enhanced to exploit economies of scale and scope, respectively. Land reform will be essential here.

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Another option is to pursue agro-processing to raise value-addition. Agro-processing combines agriculture and manufacturing. We can see this in products like pepper, cassava or coffee, which add value along the supply chain and boost economic returns.

Cambodia is making good progress towards upper middle-income status by diversifying its economy. There is a lot of new investment from Japanese firms in the PPSEZ that is plugging it into regional supply chains for the first time.  This trend will only continue to grow in the future, creating good jobs for more of the workforce.

Cambodia must plan carefully to preserve economic gains for next generation

While agriculture will remain important for some time yet, there is no denying the long-term trend decline in its share of economic output, and the increasing shares of services and manufacturing. These structural transformations will require reskilling of the labor force to reduce adjustment costs and unemployment.

The challenges in the labor market extend further, however, and involve demographic transitions in a young population seeking productive employment; the much-vaunted demographic dividend will only be realized if the jobs are there to be filled.

These structural changes will also result in rising urbanization as rural-urban migration increases. This must be managed by better town planning to prevent urban slums and create livable cities. One only needs to look at how Phnom Penh’s infrastructure has been stretched over recent years to appreciate the magnitude and importance of this challenge.

Cambodia’s socio-economic achievements since the early 1990s peace settlement have been remarkable. But success brings with it new challenges.If Cambodia plans carefully for graduation from LDC status, it would ensure that the hard-won economic gains are preserved for the next generation.

Sustainable Development Goals Achievable?


September 28, 2017

Sustainable Development Goals Achievable?

by Andrew Sheng and Xiao Geng*

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/sdgs-global-cooperation-trump-un-speech-by-andrew-sheng-and-xiao-geng-2017-09

The SDGs were always bound to meet strong headwinds, owing to technological disruption, geopolitical rivalry, and widening social inequality. But populist calls for nationalist policies, including trade protectionism, have intensified those headwinds considerably.

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US President Donald Trump’s recent speech at the United Nations has gotten a lot of attention for its bizarre and bellicose rhetoric, including threats to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal and “totally destroy” North Korea. Underlying his declarations was a clear message: the sovereign state still reigns supreme, with national interests overshadowing shared objectives. This does not bode well for the Sustainable Development Goals.

Adopted by the UN just a year before Trump’s election, the SDGs will require that countries cooperate on crucial global targets related to climate change, poverty, public health, and much else. In an age of contempt for international cooperation, not to mention entrenched climate-change denial in the Trump administration, is achieving the SDGs wishful thinking?

The SDGs were always bound to meet strong headwinds, owing to technological disruption, geopolitical rivalry, and widening social inequality. But populist calls for nationalist policies, including trade protectionism, have intensified those headwinds considerably. Simply put, populations are losing faith that the global development orthodoxy of good governance (including monetary and fiscal discipline) and free markets can benefit them.

With all of the advanced countries confronting serious fiscal constraints, and emerging markets weakened by lower commodity prices, paying for global public goods has become all the more unappealing. Budget cuts – together with accountability issues and new technological challenges – are also hurting those tasked with delivering good governance. And markets increasingly seem to be captured by vested interests.

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Economic outcomes often have their origins in politics. Harvard Law School’s Roberto Unger has argued that overcoming the challenges of knowledge-based development will demand “inclusive vanguardism.” The democratization of the market economy, he says, is possible only with “a corresponding deepening of democratic politics,” which implies “the institutional reconstruction of the market itself.”

Yet, in the US, the political system seems unlikely to produce such a reconstruction. Harvard Business School Professors Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter argue that America’s two-party system “has become the major barrier to solving nearly every important challenge” facing the country.

Political leaders, Gehl and Porter continue, “compete on ideology and unrealistic promises, not on action and results,” and “divide voters and serve special interests” – all while facing little accountability. A forthcoming book by University of San Francisco Professor Shalendra Sharma corroborates this view. Comparing economic inequality in China, India, and the US, Sharma argues that both democratic and authoritarian governance have failed to promote equitable development.

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There are four potential combinations of outcomes for countries: (1) good governance and good economic policies; (2) good politics and bad economics; (3) bad politics and good economics; and (4) bad politics and bad economics. Other things being equal, there is only a one-in-four chance of arriving at a win-win situation of good governance and strong economic performance. That chance is diminished further by other disruptions, from natural disasters to external interference.

There are those who believe that technology will help to overcome such disruptions, by spurring enough growth to generate the resources needed to mitigate their impact. But while technology is consumer-friendly, it produces its own considerable costs.

Technology kills jobs in the short term and demands re-skilling of the labor force. Moreover, knowledge-intensive technology has a winner-take-all network effect, whereby hubs seize access to knowledge and power, leaving less-privileged groups, classes, sectors, and regions struggling to compete.

Thanks to social media, the resulting discontent now spreads faster than ever, leading to destructive politics. This can invite geopolitical interference, which quickly deteriorates into a lose-lose scenario, like that already apparent in water-stressed and conflict-affected countries, where governments are fragile or failing.

The combination of bad politics and economics in one country can easily produce contagion, as rising migration spreads political stress and instability to other countries. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, there were 65 million refugees last year, compared to just 1.6 million in 1960. Given the endurance of geopolitical conflict, not to mention the rapidly growing impact of climate change, migration levels are not expected to decline anytime soon.

The SDGs aim to relieve these pressures, by protecting the environment and improving the lives of people within their home countries. But achieving them will require far more responsible politics and a much stronger social consensus. And that will require a fundamental shift in mindset, from one of competition to one that emphasizes cooperation.

Just as we have no global tax mechanism to ensure the provision of global public goods, we have no global monetary or welfare policies to maintain price stability and social peace. That is why multilateral institutions need to be upgraded and restructured, with effective decision-making and implementation mechanisms for managing global development challenges such as infrastructure gaps, migration, climate change, and financial instability. Such a system would go a long way toward supporting progress toward the SDGs.

Unger argues that all of today’s democracies “are flawed, low-energy democracies,” in which “no trauma” – in the form of economic ruin or military conflict – means “no transformation.” He is right. In this environment, reflected in Trump’s embrace of the antiquated Westphalian model of nation-states, achieving the SDGs will probably be impossible.

*Andrew Sheng, Distinguished Fellow of the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong and a member of the UNEP Advisory Council on Sustainable Finance, is a former chairman of the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission, and is currently an adjunct professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His latest book is From Asian to Global Financial Crisis.

*Xiao Geng, President of the Hong Kong Institution for International Finance, is a professor at the University of Hong Kong.

The Unlikely Return of Cat Stevens


September 17, 2017

The Unlikely Return of Cat Stevens


Cat Stevens was giving us back the songs he’d taken away so many years ago. He was, after all this time, validating their worth again, and with it, our love for them.

Photograph by Matt Writtle / eyevine / Redux

Early in a Cat Stevens, a.k.a. Yusuf Islam, a.k.a. Yusuf/Cat Stevens, concert in Boston a couple of years ago, there was a hushed pause in the room as the then sixty-six-year-old performer waited for a stagehand to bring him a guitar in between songs. “I’m really happy to be here!” the singer suddenly exclaimed. It did not sound like ersatz show-biz banter; it sounded humble, childlike even, as if he himself were surprised by the emotion. It sounded like capitulation. The crowd, in response, rose to its feet en masse, producing a sound that was more than just a cheer. It was an embrace. It was an acknowledgment by artist and audience alike: Cat Stevens, a figure who, for all intents and purposes, had ceased to exist more than three decades ago, had come back.

For a long time, it has been hard to love the man once known (and now known again) as Cat Stevens. In the years since he formally retired from the popular music world, in 1978, his name has popped up in the media from time to time. He would be quoted, or seen in a video-clip interview, and it was difficult to accept the visage of the person whom he now presented himself as—to reconcile this cold, humorless, unhappy, and severe-looking man with the joyful, understanding, goofy, wise songwriter whose music we’d known and loved. For a long time, the man who’d changed his name to Yusuf Islam had completely disowned his artistic output as Cat Stevens—a confusing, dispiriting slap in the face to those it once meant a great deal to.

The man who was Cat Stevens ran Islamic schools for children, spreading the word of Allah, and acted as a spokesperson for Islam. After a while, he began making some children’s albums, but he wasn’t playing the guitar, and the music was not for his traditional fan base. In interviews, he sounded defensive and removed. Some remarks attributed to him seemed to be in line with some of the more distasteful prejudices of orthodox Islam.

Then, in 2006, came “An Other Cup,” his first album of commercial music in twenty-eight years. He’d dropped his adopted last name of Islam, and was now calling himself, simply, Yusuf. Something had shifted, certainly. How welcome it was to hear that voice with that guitar again, after all these years. Still, the album’s opening track, “Midday (Avoid City After Dark),” set a tone of unease, paranoia, and judgment that never really lifted. Elsewhere on the recording, there was a revisit to a much earlier composition (“I Think I See the Light”) and an interesting (if forced-sounding) reworking of a section of his “Foreigner Suite” (“Heaven/Where True Love Goes”), but the bulk of the album felt earthbound. Nowhere was there the joie de vivre that inhabited his best work. The follow-up, “Roadsinger,” in 2009, sounded fresher, but still unconvincing. Which was it—was he wary of us, or we of him? There seemed to be skepticism and distrust on both sides.

Some live performances began to appear here and there online. Yusuf was steadfast about not playing any old Cat Stevens material, save for a select few songs that he could justify in the context of his religious path, such as “The Wind” and “Peace Train.” He had collaborated on a musical called “Moonshadow” that featured actors singing some of his old songs and was having a run in Australia. It proved a critical and financial flop.

I paid attention to all of this because, unhip as this may be to admit, the music of Cat Stevens once meant a great deal to me. I did not grow up listening to it, per se (I was too young), but his music became the soundtrack to my adolescence when I watched “Harold and Maude” for the first time, and my world changed. I went out and got a guitar. I listened to Cat Stevens obsessively, played and sang his songs with friends, hunted down all of his albums. While it was clear that he’d lost his way artistically on later albums like “Numbers” and “Izitso,” the earlier, classic albums that he’s still known for (“Mona Bone Jakon” through “Foreigner”) were full of treasures that could be mined again and again. Indelible melodies, beautiful production, emotionally committed performances, and, most of all, a gentle wisdom, a repudiation of the status quo, a sense that we were not alone. Here was someone who was trying to make sense of life, too; he may not have had the answers, but he was looking for them, and we were encouraged to join him. Here was a friend.

Of course, I quickly learned that Cat Stevens had already ceased to be. My adolescent soul despaired, knowing that there would be no more Cat Stevens albums, no more Cat Stevens concerts. The man who had become a hero to me had long since retired from the music world.

In time, his music, too, would fade from my consciousness. As I grew and matured, so did my musical tastes and sensibilities. I might reach for a Cat Stevens album on rare occasions, to remind myself of something that I’d once treasured, sometimes surprised that a song or album held up as strongly as it did, but his music was no longer a living thing for me. I paid attention when he came out of retirement with the two Yusuf albums, and listened to each of them a handful of times with attendant hopes and (it seemed) inevitable disappointment. It was hard to get excited about his music now. The voice was the same, but the spirit was changed, different, unwelcoming.

Nevertheless, when it was announced, in late 2014, that he was going to perform in America for the first time in thirty-eight years, I put my misgivings aside and became a teen-ager again, queueing up for tickets on the phone the morning they went on sale. I did not listen to his latest album, “Tell ‘Em I’m Gone,” nor did I look for any news about the kinds of shows that he’d been playing of late. I simply drove up to Boston to see my old hero, expectations dimmed to almost nothing. I imagined that there I would see Yusuf Islam, delivering a respectful program of his latter-day music, with perhaps one or two old favorites thrown in as crowd appeasement. I wasn’t going for Yusuf Islam. I was going to pay homage to the singer who had once meant so much to me, for the chance to simply be in the same room with him for the first (and what I assumed would be the last) time.

It has taken some time for me to think clearly about what it was like to be at that show. What happened there was more than just a good concert given by a group of well-rehearsed, talented musicians, backing a pop icon on a comeback tour, though it was partly that. It was more than just a nostalgic trip down memory lane, as a sold-out crowd sang along to songs that many (including myself) never expected to hear played live again, though it was partly that, too. Without resorting to hyperbole, being there, for me, was an unexpected catharsis, something like seeing a ghost.

I didn’t know, until I got there, that the singer was now billing himself with the ungainly but revealing name of Yusuf/Cat Stevens. Was he now acknowledging his former self? This was a surprise, the first of many that the evening would hold.

The once and future Cat Stevens walked onstage to a tremendous ovation (no surprise there) and launched into a solo performance of “The Wind.” O.K., in some way, this was what we’d all come for, and here he’d already given it to us. All the latter-day Yusuf stuff would follow, we’d give him some hearty applause at the encore, and that would be that—or so I thought. What was this, though? He was wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket—not the austere, devotional garb he’d worn in the (admittedly not so recent) appearances that I’d seen him do online. And the stage set—it was elaborate, whimsical, evocative of the old Cat, whose tastes sometimes crossed the line into outright silliness. Most significantly, though, he himself seemed engaged, connected, and—hardest to believe—lighthearted.

“Here Comes My Baby” and “The First Cut Is the Deepest” followed, two pop hits from the infancy of his career, both secular love songs, both jarring surprises. “Thinking ‘Bout You” followed, a more recent song of love and devotion, but it was buoyed by an energy and commitment that sustained the freshness of what had come before, and served as a bridge to the first real shock of the night, as the singer made his way to a piano at the side of the stage and, unaccompanied, launched into the opening strains of “Sitting,” and the crowd seemed to collectively gasp before erupting into joyous, grateful cheers. Here he was again. Cat Stevens. Questioning, seeking, proudly admitting that he did not have the answers, but that he was on his way to find them. Our companion, our friend, had returned.

It was the first of what would be many goosebump-inducing moments in the generous, two-part concert. He followed it with “Last Love Song,” from 1978’s obscure (and mostly uninspired-sounding) “Back to Earth,” the mere fact that he was exploring and reclaiming obscurities from his back catalogue speaking volumes. By the time he reached the end of the first set, closing it with “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” the message was clear—something had happened. He was giving us back the songs he’d taken away so many years ago. He was, after all this time, validating their worth again, and with it, our love for them. After insisting for so many years, as Yusuf Islam, that there was only one way, only one truth, one law, one path, he’d relented. He was giving us permission, again, to do and think and live how we wanted. And he seemed genuinely happy saying and singing it.

The second set held even more surprises, as song after song from the old œuvre was brought back to life. “Oh Very Young,” “Sad Lisa,” “Miles from Nowhere” (I have my freedom / I can make my own rules / Oh yeah, the ones that I choose). They were presented, for the most part, as set pieces, with hardly any improvisation at all, but that didn’t matter. The faithful Alun Davies was there on lead acoustic guitar, as he has been since 1970. Matt Sweeney was a welcome addition on electric guitar, adding a pinch of verve and danger to the mix, but if old concert footage is any indication, Cat Stevens was never one for taking too many risks onstage musically, choosing instead to eschew spontaneity in deference to the arrangements on his studio recordings.

It was touching to hear the singer-songwriter still tinkering with that beautiful failure “Foreigner Suite,” still trying to get it right. Classics such as “Where Do the Children Play?” and “Trouble” brought with them a great sadness; confronted with the simplicity, the naïveté even, of the sentiments in these gentle lyrics, it was impossible not to think of how the world has changed and darkened since these songs were written and last performed. Even “Moonshadow,” that lullaby of Buddhist acceptance, carried with it the sting of longing for less dire times.

Being at that concert, hearing those songs again, sung with conviction by that man, was like being allowed to spend a night in one’s childhood home, with everything back the way that it was from some preëxistential, innocent moment—with even one’s family members frozen in time the way that they were decades ago. For me, it was eerie, spooky, unsettling, like Emily’s return from the dead in “Our Town.”

At the end of each of these old songs, there was that same sustained applause that followed his aside, early in the show, about how happy he was to be there. It’s a sound I keep coming back to in my mind when I think about the experience of being at that concert, a sound distinct from any that I think I have ever heard. It was an entity, a palpable force, as though the emotion behind every voice and every pair of hands could be heard. There was a sort of desperate celebration to it. It was the sound of reconciliation, of gratitude, of forgiveness.

Yusuf/Cat Stevens has a new album coming out this week, called “A Laughing Apple,” and more tour dates have been announced. I have not heard the new recording yet, but news of its release has led me to reflect on that night, when it felt as though this shape-shifting performer had brought someone we once loved back from the dead, a phantom from another time, and with that act offered tacit acknowledgment that we’re so much better together than we are apart. It’s a notion as naïvely idealistic as any he ever gave us; an echo from the past, finding its way to us past a wall that is, miraculously, no longer there

Howard Fishman is a writer, performer, and composer based in Brooklyn,  New York.

 

A New Way to study Economics


September 13, 2017

A New Way to study Economics

by John Cassidy

https://www.newyorker.com

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Dealing with Unemployment,Inequality, and  Poverty

With the new school year starting, there is good news for incoming students of economics—and anybody else who wants to learn about issues like inequality, globalization, and the most efficient ways to tackle climate change. A group of economists from both sides of the Atlantic, part of a project called CORE Econ, has put together a new introductory economics curriculum, one that is modern, comprehensive, and freely available online.

In this country, many colleges encourage Econ 101 students to buy (or rent) expensive textbooks, which can cost up to three hundred dollars, or even more for some hardcover editions. The CORE curriculum includes a lengthy e-book titled “The Economy,” lecture slides, and quizzes to test understanding. Some of the material has already been used successfully at colleges like University College London and Sciences Po, in Paris.

The project is a collaborative effort that emerged after the world financial crisis of 2008–9, and the ensuing Great Recession, when many students (and teachers) complained that existing textbooks didn’t do a good job of explaining what was happening. In many countries, groups of students demanded an overhaul in how economics was taught, with less emphasis on free-market doctrines and more emphasis on real-world problems.

Traditional, wallet-busting introductory textbooks do cover topics like pollution, rising inequality, and speculative busts. But in many cases this material comes after lengthy explanations of more traditional topics: supply-and-demand curves, consumer preferences, the theory of the firm, gains from trade, and the efficiency properties of atomized, competitive markets. In his highly popular “Principles of Economics,” Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw begins by listing a set of ten basic principles, which include “Rational people think at the margin,” “Trade can make everybody better off,” and “Markets are usually a good way to organize economic activity.”

The CORE approach isn’t particularly radical. (Students looking for expositions of Marxian economics or Modern Monetary Theory will have to look elsewhere.) But it treats perfectly competitive markets as special cases rather than the norm, trying to incorporate from the very beginning the progress economists have made during the past forty years or so in analyzing more complex situations: when firms have some monopoly power; people aren’t fully rational; a lot of key information is privately held; and the gains generated by trade, innovation, and finance are distributed very unevenly. The CORE curriculum also takes economic history seriously.

The e-book begins with a discussion of inequality. One of first things students learn is that, in 2014, the “90/10 ratio”—the average income of the richest ten per cent of households divided by the average income of the poorest ten per cent—was 5.4 in Norway, sixteen in the United States, and a hundred and forty-five in Botswana. Then comes a discussion of how to measure standards of living, and a section on the famous “hockey stick” graph, which shows how these standards have risen exponentially since the industrial revolution.

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The text stresses that technical progress is the primary force driving economic growth. Citing the Yale economist William Nordhaus’s famous study of the development of electric lighting, it illustrates how standard economic statistics, such as the gross domestic product, sometimes fail to fully account for this progress. Befitting a twenty-first-century text, sections devoted to the causes and consequences of technological innovation recur throughout the e-book, and the information economy receives its own chapter. So do globalization, the environment, and economic cataclysms, such as the Depression and the global financial crisis.

Given the breadth of its coverage, the CORE curriculum may be challenging to some students, but it takes advantage of being a native online product. (In Britain, a paperback version of the e-book is also available.) The presentation features lots of graphs and charts, and, in some cases, students can download data sets to create their own. The quizzes are interactive, and the presentation is enlivened by potted biographies of famous dead economists (Smith, Keynes, etc.) as well as video interviews with eminent living ones, such as Thomas Piketty.

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Unlike most textbooks, the CORE e-book was produced by a large team of collaborators. More than twenty economists from both sides of the Atlantic and from India, Colombia, Chile, and Turkey contributed to it. (Two of them, Suresh Naidu and Rajiv Sethi, teach at Columbia and Barnard, respectively.) The coördinators of the project were Wendy Carlin, of University College London, Sam Bowles, of the Santa Fe Institute, and Margaret Stevens, of Oxford University. The Institute for New Economic Thinking provided some funding to help get things off the ground.

The members of the CORE team deserve credit for responding to the critics of economics without pandering to them. They have produced a careful but engrossing curriculum that will hopefully draw more young people into economics, and encourage them to continue their studies. (At University College London, students who took the CORE course did better in subsequent economics classes than earlier cohorts who took a more traditional introductory course.)

But the CORE material isn’t just for incoming students. It will also reward the attention of general readers and people who think they are already reasonably conversant with economics. (Personal testimony: Having gone through some of the material in detail, I think I might finally understand the Malthusian model and how to calculate bank leverage ratios!) All this, and the price can’t be beat.