Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Unintended Consequence of a Yacht Untied

When Betsy Devos' luxury yacht was untied the other day, most people viewed it as a political prank. But now it appears that the event opened up an unfortunate Pandora's Box for Mrs Devos.

Apparently, according to Newsweek, the yacht is not registered in the United States, but in Cayman Islands, means that the owner of the yacht may characterize himself or herself as a foreigner to make use of a tax exemption.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Slow Fall of Vladimir Putin?

What will the future hold for Putin?

Vladimir Putin - Russia's strong-man president - seems to have been successful in his annexation of Crimea. Despite many objections from the U.S. and the E.U. in particular, he seems to have gotten things his way.

Putin has the oligarch vote

However, what many commentators seem to forget is that Russia is not really a democracy. The 'success' that we award Putin is based on our (Western) view of what keep politicians strong, namely popular support. But in Russia that's really not all that important. Ask any governor or oligarch: What is the source of your influence? They won't respond 'the people'. Instead it is the that fact that business and politics are more intertwined than in the U.S. or the E.U. A successful business in Russia is by definition influential as it provides access to power. And vice versa.

Multinationals pull out of Russia

Foreign companies are starting to suffer from the sanctions against Russia and its conflict with Ukraine. Carlsberg, the Danish brewery with global reach, saw its share price plunge 7 percent on 19 August  when the company reported lower operating profits than expected, according to CNBC/Reuters. Carlsberg has closed two of its breweries there due to a "deteriorating macroeconomic climate" in both Russia and Ukraine. For Russia to see a big multinational close down its direct investments there is a bad omen. Fewer foreign investments will only lead to lower Russian growth, higher unemployment and greater instability in the region. If history is anything to go by, the will spell greater social unrest, protests, violence, etc. Ultimately, Russia might see itself expelled from international organizations like the WTO if the country reacts to this changing climate with protectionism - which is highly likely. Already, as the BBC reports, Putin is handing out decrees ordering the destruction of Western - or partially Western - products like cheese, bacon, tomatoes and fruit coming into the country - to the dissatisfaction of ordinary Russians who struggle to make ends meet.


So for the moment, Putin seems to have played his cards right. For now, he has the support of the people because he has successfully created the narrative that it is the West that is trying to bully Russia - and not the other way around. But as we're seeing, money is starting to flow out of Russia. That was expected, of course, but the extent - and speed - with which this has occurred should be a source of concern for Putin. His power rests on the shoulders of oligarchs, and they are the ones paying the price for Putin's politics. For how long will they continue to support him while they see the international markets react against them?

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act

In 2005, The Economist did this piece about the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act which was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. It still remains a landmark piece of legislation that furthered the cause of racial equality in the U.S. Since the Economist piece, the U.S. did get a black president; although not Condoleezza Rice as they predicted.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A farewell to arms - and U.S. militias?

Yet another shooting...

As James Holmes - the 2012 Aurora cinema shooter who killed 12 people and wounded 70 others - was awaiting his sentence, another shooting at a movie theater happened in Lafayette, Louisiana. This time it happened at the screening of the movie Trainwreck in which comedian Amy Schumer, who is the second cousin of U.S. senator Chuck Schumer, stars. The both of them held this press conference to speak out against not only gun violence, but also against the apparent ease with which people - including people with a violent past - can get a gun in the U.S.

For Europeans, the fact that guns are so common in the U.S. can seem odd - and maybe even at little eerie. Because why should they be necessary in the first place? There shouldn't be any reason to assume that Americans should be any more prone to violent behavior - genetically, at least - than Europeans. So why this obsession with guns?


Part of the reason is most likely historical. Europeans sometimes forget that the birth of the U.S. came about in the first place because of a rebellion against a king that was seen as a tyrant. And rebellions - then as well as now - often require weapons. And so, the successful rebellion against the king was partly due to the settlers' access to weapons. They relied on their own strength and weapons to gain their freedom from tyranny.

In the American constitution it states under Article II - which describes the role of the executive power of the President - that the President "shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States [...]". The word "militia" has probably changed a great deal in meaning since then, but nonetheless it seems like a relic of the past when we read the Constitution today - for the obvious reason that the people of the U.S. are no longer subjects of a king. They are free, and therefore they can put down their arms. But they don't. Instead, they treasure their guns and see them as symbols of the American people's struggle for freedom, it can be argued. Some symbols, though, belong in museums and not on the streets or in our homes.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

New photos on 9/11

The U.S. National Archives have release a large number of pictures taken on September 11th which have not previously been available to the public. They can be seen on the Archives' Flickr page here.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Nazis and ISIS

The other day marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Approximately 1.1 million people died in the camp, which still stands as the most infamous monument of the Nazi regime's horrific, yet carefully planned, attempt to cleanse Europe of Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, the disabled, and others whose mere existence was viewed as unacceptable.

Polish-English sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has written a thorough analysis of how the Holocaust was made possible. In Modernity and the Holocaust he offers the explanation that - in short - it was not despite of modernity that this mass murder happened, but that modernity itself provided the framework within which a high degree of specialization, division of labor, and rational bureaucratization made it possible to kill so many people and have a relative few admit to their complicity.

Today, our societies are as technologically sophisticated as ever. This, as history so depressingly proves, is , however, no antidote against brutal mass murder on a huge scale. Technology is a double-edged sword. As Goebbels - the Nazi's genius in charge of propaganda - used the technology of the day to demonize Jews and other types of 'others', so technology today is used by The Islamic State to spread the propaganda of their mass killings - whose barbarism easily matches that of the Nazis - to draw wannabe jihadists to Iraq and Syria to fight for IS' pervertedly warped interpretation of Islam. 

IS' 'others' are Shias, Christians, Yazidis, and others who do not - faced with the barrel of a gun or the blade of a knife - immediately yield to IS' demands of complete submission. This extreme intolerance of other world views matches that of the Nazis - it is merely statistics that tells them apart. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Russia's descent

Since this blog is about E.U. and U.S. affairs it shouldn't really be dealing with Russia, since I don't believe Russia is really part of Europe. There are differing views on this, but when one looks at what Europe has in common with Russia, it should be clear that Russia doesn't belong in the group of European countries alongside Denmark, Sweden, Britain, Germany, etc.

Therefore, some would argue that the sanctions imposed on Russia by the U.S. and the E.U. are justified. Russia has in effect been fighting a war with the Ukraine, only by proxy. Pro-Russian rebels may not be official partners with Russia, but it is clear that their interests are closely aligned. Which is why it can hardly come as a surprise that the rebels get arms, money, and other facilities directly from the Russians.

Unfortunately, until Mr Putin realizes that the sanctions being put in place by the West are not acts of agression but merely logical responses to Russia's violations of international law and order, odds are that the current situation is only going to escalate further. Self-reflection never has been Russia's favorite pasttime.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Tragedy in Ferguson

At face value, the decision not to indict a (white) police officer for the fatal shooting of the young black man Michael Brown shows the hallmark of racism: A white male in a position of power kills an under-privileged black person. However, as always, scratching the surface is a good idea in this case.

For one, Michael Brown was a suspect of a small-scale, although quite violent, robbery at a convenient store and therefore a shady character, at least.

Second, the police officer, Darren Wilson, had never fired his gun up until this incident.

Third, Michael Brown approached and - as the medical reports strongly suggest - hit Darren Wilson when the police officer was in his car.

Fourth, after the tussle at the SUV, Brown runs off, but turns around and approaches Wilson. Witnesses say Brown - the reason not being clear - reaches for his waistband - as he moves toward Wilson. Wilson shoots at Brown several times until Brown is finally hit in the head and dies.

The Washington post has made this graphic illustration of the scenario.

However, after having thoroughly gone through the evidence and witness accounts, it was still unclear what exactly had happened. Witnesses disagreed, and some even contradicted themselves.

The case has received enormous attention, so media coverage has been substantial. Good coverage, however, can - as usual - be found at the Washington Post and The New York Times and other major news papers.

As regrettable and tragic as this case has been, what remains clear, at least, is this: That assaulting a police officer is not an acceptable action to take, and that the public has a tendency to find patterns of racism in America when witnessing particular cases.

There is no simple way forward. But in general, it seems, that cops need to resort to using their guns only as a last resort. Training in conflict management, for instance, seems to be under-prioritized in some areas. However, the public should refrain from shouting 'racism!' whenever a white person kills a black person. Cops - even white ones - are extremely exposed and are in fact putting their lives on the line every day. The black community has a legitimate claim to equal rights, and the U.S. has yet to deliver on its promise to ensure these for all citizens.

Monday, November 24, 2014

U.S. Defense Secretary Hagel steps down

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has resigned. Read more at The New York Times. According to the New York Times' source, Mr. Hagel wasn't fired, but offered his resignation in light of the fact that the new threat from the Islamic Stated required other skills than those possessed by Mr. Hagel, who is a Vietnam War veteran. He served as Secretary of Defense less than two years.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The New York Times Says The World Must Follow Europe's Lead On Climate Change

Today's editorial at the New York Times covers the EU's ambitions on curbing climate change.
[...] Europe is moving faster and more aggressively than any other large economy to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the preindustrial level — a level formally acknowledged at the Copenhagen summit meeting in 2009 as the point beyond which the impacts of climate change could become unacceptable. The rest of the world needs to match Europe’s ambitions.
The editorial, though, mentions another aspect of the challenges of the EU transition toward a more sustainable energy solution, namely that there is actually no common market for energy in the EU. I.e. surplus energy from, say, Portugal cannot be used in Denmark or Sweden. If the EU is to become even more dynamic it must work toward creating a common energy market like the single market for goods and services which is currently (more or less) in place. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

P.M. Cameron refuses to pay $2.7 billion extra for EU membership

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, wasn't at all pleased with the bill sent to him by Brussels. It's not unusual for member countries to receive a little extra - or pay a little more - than they estimated. For Britain, however, the bill turned out to be the equivalent of going on a huge bender one night and finding out that you spent $200 on drinks on a Saturday night. Not that Britain went on a bender, but you know what I mean.

In any event, Britain is asked to pay no less than $2.7 billion before 1 December. Britain, which already pays  $13.8 billion annually for their EU membership, has received the claim with... disgust, is probably the word to describe it.

"It is an unacceptable way for this organisation to work - to suddenly present a bill like this for such a vast sum of money with so little time to pay it," Mr Cameron said, according to the BBC.
The unexpected bill will hardly do much to diminish the demands of far right political fractions in Britain - like Ukip - which already believe that membership of the organization is too expensive. Whether it will actually lead Britain closer to an EU exit we will just have to wait and see.

Read more at The New York Times and The BBC.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Brits not that eager to leave the EU after all

People cheering for the UK's exit from the EU may be setting themselves up for disappointment. According to a MORI poll cited by the Guardian, support for staying in the EU is actually higher than it has been in years. 56% would vote 'yes' to staying in the EU. Read more here.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

At 0.3 percent, will low inflation lead us into another recession?

Jack Ewing of the New York Times has a piece on the low rate of inflation in the eurozone, which stood at just 0.3 percent in September. This low rate of inflation indicates, according to Mr. Ewing, that leading economists fear that consumers will halt their spending and lead the already fragile eurozone into another recession. Deflation, i.e. falling prices, will result in lower growth rates and higher unemployment.

With these fears in mind, will it be possible for the new European Commission to pursue an economic strategy that will aggressively make a dent in the disastrous unemployment rate of nearly 25 percent in the eurozone? Hopefully. Otherwise, things may just get worse before they get better.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Lithuania to adopt the euro

Lithuania is to be the 19th member state of the EU to adopt the common currency effective of 1 January 2015.

According to data from the World Bank, Lithuania suffered a massive blow to their GDP during the financial crisis. In 2009 it plummeted to -14.7 percent. Since then, though, it has bounced back remarkable well. Now, it is 3.7 percent with the unemployment rate at 13.2 percent (% of total labor force).

Luckily, this shows that there is still optimism on behalf of the poor euro, which - in my view - has received far too much criticism. It has been blamed for much of the dismay in the eurozone, although this blame was really to be placed with the individual member countries. In short, many of the problems - for instance in Greece - were caused by irresponsible fiscal policies, not the monetary policy of the ECB. But that's a different topic. For now, let's just applaud the good news.

Read more on the EU's website. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Thursday, July 3, 2014

50 Years Since The Civil Rights Act: A Time for Reflection

It's been fifty years since Lyndon B. Johnson managed to get the Civil Rights Act through Congress. This landmark bill was a huge step forward in the fight for equal rights between blacks and whites as it - among other things - ended racial segregation in schools, at the workplace, and at facilities available to the general public, e.g. theaters and retailers.

I have collected a few articles dealing with this important anniversary.

First, The Atlantic has a good piece that examines The Supreme Court's influence and the importance of LBJ's efforts:

Lyndon Johnsons, of course, do not come along every four or every 40 years. Even if they did, Johnson brought plenty of darkness (election stealing, a credibility gap, Vietnam) along with the light (Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Great Society). Moreover, not every president needs to be a legislative genius in order to pass laws. Obama, after all, gambled big on the Affordable Care Act, investing the same type of capital in health care that Johnson invested in civil rights. It is now the law of the land. But the energy and purpose that Johnson brought to the Civil Rights Act struggle remains inspiring, and is a model for all presidents. As Richard Russell, the South’s leader in the Senate during the 1960s, put it to a friend a few days after Kennedy’s assassination: “You know, we could have beaten John Kennedy on civil rights, but not Lyndon Johnson.” 
The Daily Beast also covers the story with an emphasis on the bipartisan cooperation that ensured that the bill was finally signed into law.

Also, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin Texas was paid a visit by former presidents Carter, W. Bush, Clinton and current president Obama to mark the occasion. The library has a wealth of information on LBJ (of course) and is a good place to start, although - since the library is dedicated to him - it's wise to keep a critical mind. Go here to learn about 10 things that are different because of the Civil Rights Act was passed.

The excellent NPR adds audio. Michel Martin talks to historians Charles Cobb and Taylor Branch.

LBJ's legacy has to a great extent been overshadowed by the quagmire that was the Vietnam War. However, historians are increasingly paying emphasis on LBJ's achievements during the civil rights movement - and deservedly so.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Russia threatens Ukraine over E.U. partnership deal

The E.U. has signed partnership agreements with Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. Russia opposes. Ukraine's President Poroshenko hails the agreement as the most important event since 1991, when they gained their independence.

Russia believes the move will tear the Ukraine into two parts, and Mr. Poroshenko himself added that the agreement could in time pave the way for membership of the E.U. However, as we have seen, President Putin has used every excuse to destabilize the Ukraine. Time will tell if he will follow through on his 'promise' to punish the Ukraine. Read more about it on the New York Times

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Scottish Independence - A New Chapter for Scotland?

Hi there

CNN's Laura Smith-Spark has a good story on Scotland's referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. Scotland already has widespread sovereignty over its own affairs, but the referendum will give Scotland full independence. CNN's piece also includes the issue of Scottish membership of the EU. But, since Scotland is already a member, the process of gaining a "new" membership should be a foregone conclusion, I assume. Read more here.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Poverty in America in 2014

The Atlantic has a great piece on what it means for America that more than half of the members of Congress are millionaires.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

America's Waning Power

The Washington Post has an interesting piece about President Obama's speech at West Point - the prestigious American military academy. He said American leadership would persist for the next 100 years. China, on the other hand, didn't seem to agree to that statement.

But it is impossible to say. No question, the U.S.A. will continue - and also probably for the next 100 years - to be highly influential. But as THE dominant power America will most likely see its power diminish dramatically.

Examples of American powerlessness

Right now the U.S. still has the strongest military, the most innovative businesses, and a strong economy. But how does that influence America's ability to dictate what happens in the world? Let's look at some examples. Syria, the Central African Republic, Iran, North Korea, Nigeria, Crimea. In which of these has the U.S. gotten its way? The U.S. is already seeing its power wane. So how will it look a hundred years from now?

Moving toward an even more multi-polar world

After the Second World War the U.S. led a unipolar world up until the Cold War when it became a bi-polar World. After that, the U.S. became the leader, but of an increasingly multi-polar world. Now, the U.S.A., the E.U. and China probably shares 3/4 of the power with the rest shared among the rest of the world. A hundred years from now the U.S. and the E.U. may just have 1/4 while Asia will be the most dominant. This is based on the simple premise that both the U.S. and the E.U. will have reached its natural limit in terms of people and economic output.

A hundred years ago - in 1914 - the contours of a new world order were just in the making. In 2014 it is impossible to predict how it will look in 2114.