Responsibility and Unity

January 22, 2009

Unity has been a major theme in Obama’s previous speeches and campaigning, but it was notable mostly in its absence from the President’s  inaugural speech.  The theme of collective responsibility has implicit undertones of unity, but the idea itself was missing.

Responsibility and recommittment to hard work – a move away from the get rich quick celebrity fantasy culture – were certainly appropriate themes for a country that is facing major economic and social challenges (though I have to say that they came across more strongly re-reading the speech than when I listened live – for once Obama’s delivery made the message more obscure rather than illuminating it).  But I also wonder if President Obama and his boy-wonder speech writer decided to ditch the unity theme because they realised that it will be exceptionally difficult to turn around the highly partisan culture of US politics.

I recently ran across some interesting data on the 50/50 nation phenomenon compiled by a number of political scientists.   The most intersting fact is that while the US public itself is not particularly polarised, the political system is increasingly so.  Obama himself as early as his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech seemed to acknowledge that the divisions between “red states and blue states” were created by commentators and politicians, and did not accurately reflect people’s lives.  “The pundits… like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue States: red states for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.”

The polarisation of American politics, and in particular the bitter partisanship which characterised most of the 1990s and 2000s in the US Congress, seem to be the result of one long term trend and one shorter term trend.  The long-term trend is the changes that occurred to the base of party support after the Civil Rights Movement.  The Democratic Party’s support for the Civil Rights Bill did, as LBJ predicted, cause them to lose the votes of the south for a generation.   Prior to 1964, the voting preferences of the Congress were centrist, with a set of policies in which representatives in the two parties overlapped in their voting profile.   As the Democratic Party increasingly relied on the northeast / Great Lakes region for votes, this changed, with almost no overlap in the voting records of representatives from the two parties.

The shorter term trend was the changes made to Congressional districting in the 1980s and 90s that created an increasing number of “safe seats” where constituencies were determined by party voting, not by geography.  The impact of creating a number of more strongly Republican or strongly Democratic districts is that a) the average voter represented by the Congressional member has views further from the centre and b) more radical party activists have a greater role in choosing the candidates.  This has furthered the partisanship in the Congress.

All of this implies that solving the “unity problem” does not require President Obama to appeal to Americans common sense of duty and responsibility, but on electoral reform and work within the Legislative branch.  This does not make for a sexy inaugural address.  No wonder they left it out in favour of this…

“In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted – for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.”

Far more poetic.


Today both of the post-graduate classes I teach were focused on an international relations theory called constructivism, which emphasises the role of ideas, communication and persuasion in determining the outcomes of interactions between states.  A constructivist argument could explain, for example, why many Western countries and international financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank suddenly became more interested in relieving the debt of developing countries in the late 1990s.  Constructivists would argue that a new idea arose in the field of development: that forgiving debt would lead to increases in growth and social spending and thus development, and that this idea was actively pushed by a number of actors until leaders of states accepted the idea.  Once it was widely accepted among states, it became a basis for action.  At that point, the idea of debt relief being good for development became a norm.

But the point of this post is not to go into great detail about constructivism.  It is instead to tell you about something that hit me on the tube while I was reading the Financial Times’ reports on two fiscal stimulus plans: one announced by the Chinese and one planned by Obama, while constructivism was on my mind.   The solutions being posited to dig the world economy out of the current financial crisis / recession are all old ideas.   In particular, they are a mix of New Deal like Keynesian stimulus and a monetarist response in the guise of reduced interest rates.  These two approaches form the cores of Keynesian and neo-liberal economic policy prescriptions for downturns, respectively.   During the Depression, politicians had to experiment with previously untested economic policies whose ultimate impact on the economy was not known before hand.  In the case of the current crisis, instead, we draw on history to tell us the most appropriate policies to adopt, despite the fact that the severity of the crisis is in no way similar to the previous situation.

The implication of this is important for the ultimate severity of the crisis: because we perceive the crisis to have the potential to eventually be as bad as the Depression (which I actually believe is an erroneous perception, but that’s a matter to be discussed at a different time), we apply economic policies we know to have been successful in fighting major recessions, thus avoiding such a recession from ever really developing.   It is impossible to know the counter-factual: would the financial crisis of 2008 have been as severe as the 1930s?  Thanks to old ideas, we never need to find out… assuming that the old ideas still work in the new setting – something economics does indeed assume (paraphrasing a favourite quote from gaffe-prone former and potentially future Treasury Secretary Larry Summers “the laws of economics are like the laws of physics: the same across time and space.”).

That’s what makes old ideas “better” than new ones: old ideas are ready today whereas new ideas take some time to become accepted and applied, something which is generally perceived as undesirable in a time in which politicians use the behaviour of the Dow Jones in the moment’s after they announce new policies as a proxy for their likely success.  This is particularly problematic because the theoretical literature suggests that periods of war and economic crisis tend to be very useful periods for coming up with new ideas and therefore systemic change.  In modern economic crises, the market’s in built bias for quick responses means that politicians and policy makers are less likely to do the deep, out of the box thinking crises allow and instead rely on old ideas.   If this line of argument is correct, the future of economic policy making will look like just a little bit of history repeating.

What it means to be modern

September 11, 2008

September 11th seems an appropriate day to open a new blog on globalisation, as it was the day that we all developed an interdependence complex.  Globalisation, which until then seemed to bring mostly good things to those of us in the developed world (who were insulated from negative side-effects of globalisation like financial crises), dragged something nasty through the door.   Terrorism on a globalised scale.

A book by John Gray, a political philosopher here at the London School of Economics, reflected on the relationship between September 11th and globalisation: “The suicide warriors who attacked Washington and New York on September 11th 2001, did more than kill thousands of civilians and demolish the World Trade Center.  They destroyed the West’s ruling myth.  Western societies are governed by the belief that modernity is a single condition, everywhere the same and always benign.  As societies become more modern, so they become more alike.  At the same time, they become better.  Being modern means realising our values – the values of the Enlightenment, as we like to think of them. No cliche is more stupefying than that which describes Al Qaeda as a throwback to medieval times.  It is a byproduct of globalisation.”

This, my new blog, which comes after a more than six month hiatus from the blogosphere, intends to explore globalisation in my life and the life of those around me.  I like globalisation because it is contradictory and imperfect: I write and teach on globalisation at the London School of Economics, the most globalised university in the world’s most globalised city, yet I had to queue and pay several hundred pounds to obtain a visa to work here because I hold an American passport.  My infant son needed a visa too, even though he’s only 9 months old, and an Italian citizen.  He was given 6 months to stay and put on a “watch list” when we came back to London from the US in April, when he was four months old.  At the time of course, he couldn’t even roll over much less crawl or walk, so there was really no chance that he was going to flee the country, but never mind.  He was on a watch list none the less.

So The Interdependence Complex is born, to reflect on and poke fun at the world of globalisation, today, September 11th 2008, 7 years after Al Qaeda, in John Gray’s words, taught us what it means to be modern.   I remember watching the events unfold that morning on the Bloomberg screen, and later live on the streets of downtown Manhattan as I walked against the tide of dusty humanity walking away from the ruins to get back home.  Who wouldn’t have developed an interdependence complex?