Thursday, January 26, 2012

History Repeated - Globalization and its Discontents by Joseph Stiglitz

Globalization and its Discontents has now been around for ten years. In 2002 the book was published as the tech bubble burst. It was five years since the Asian financial crisis in 1997. It was the better part of two decades since the Third World debt crisis of the 1980s effectively removed the livelihoods of masses in Latin America and Africa. And it was also ten years since the demise of the Soviet Union and its bloc. Joseph Stiglitz’s book analyses the response of the world’s major financial institutions, especially the World Bank and the International Monetary fund, to these crises.

National aid programmes and commercial banks also figure in the discussion. His conclusions were clear at the time – and remain so today. The ideologically-driven policy orthodoxy promoted by these bodies has repeatedly proved to be counter-productive. I lived in Asia at the time of the crisis.

I remember arguing with a Malaysian colleague about the need to take the medicine, as the IMF’s prescriptions were described. Integrate fully, open your markets, remove controls and accommodate foreign interests: this was the orthodoxy. When Malaysia did the opposite, I scoffed. The Malaysian economy subsequently contracted less than others, its people suffered less pain and recovery came quicker.

Thailand in particular swallowed the prescribed pills and continued to suffer. And, by the way, during the debt crisis of the 1980s, a number of Western banks became insolvent and had to be rescued. In that era, however, most measures were put in place behind closed doors so we never got to know the lurid details. We did, however, notice the recession.

Joseph Stiglitz illustrates how the right-wing ideology of perfect, self-regulating markets, liberalisation and privatisation failed to deliver in the past. He repeatedly shows how ensuing liquidity crises were treated with adjustment loans that undermined their own goals. He repeatedly shows how a range of measures calculated to address several angles of the problem simultaneously tended to produce better results. The evidence he presents is compelling.

So why, in 2012, do we again seem to be in the same tightening trap? Wherever lack of regulation or deregulation has been applied, it seems to produce the same results. Couple that with the reality of imperfect markets where no-one feels they will ever have to answer for either greed or risk and, it seems, you finish with a crash and then recession. And those who suffer are rarely those who created the problems. Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it. And what about those who ignore advice? Why use again a treatment that kills the patient? Here we go again.

Monday, January 16, 2012

An evaluation framework - Economic Policy and Human Rights by Radhika Balakrishnan and Diane Elson

Economic Policy and Human Rights by Radhika Balakrishnan and Diane Elson apparently declares an intention to compare and contrast fiscal and monetary policy, public expenditure consequences, taxation, trade policy and pension reform in Mexico and the United States of America. The choice of countries is justified on several levels: they are of comparable size, differ in level of development, contrast in governmental approaches and, crucially, are both signatories of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement which, itself, suggests a commonality in certain policy areas. At the outset, the authors declare that the neoliberal economic assumptions that have dominated policy choice for thirty years have not worked, ostensibly because their main result has been the current crisis. The authors thus attempt to illustrate this claim by examining a range of social, employment and economic indicators to assess the impact of the current paradigm on particular groups within both Mexico and the United States.

But Balakrishnan and Elson also declare the intention of doing much more than this, in claiming that the framework they adopt could become transferable to other places and contexts. Their choice of framework appears to achieve exactly what they intend, and it does so quite spectacularly. And it is a position that could have benefited my own work a couple of decades ago, if only it had then existed. My own research on education’s role in Philippine development found that increased use of market forces and privatisation in an education system already heavily reliant on the private sector produced distortions that undermined some of education’s potential and desired objectives.

After the debt decade of the 1980s, increased reliance on market forces in Philippine education placed most high quality educational experience beyond the reach of anyone but the economic elite. And yet, declared policy stated that the promotion greater equality was one of the education system’s explicit goals. In the future, work intending to identify such contradiction will benefit from employing the universal reference point of the transferable framework identified in Balakrishnan and Elson’s superb study. The authors begin with a short discussion of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Importantly, the rather general goals that this advises have been rendered more specific by subsequent declarations. And, by signing up to these, governments – presumably – declare their desire to see the declared goals achieved, both at home and abroad. Such general aims have thus become more specifically objectified via the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Thus policy objectives, if not timetables for their achievement, in the areas of race, gender, employment and several other areas can be specifically identified as having been espoused by governments because they have willingly signed up to these treaties, even though that might have been prompted more by political expediency than commitment.

Using these objectives as a framework for evaluation, the book’s individual papers conduct a near-forensic examination of a range of Mexico’s and the USA’s recent economic and social policies in the specified areas in order to examine whether the agreed objectives have been furthered or hindered. Almost without exception, neoliberal policy conformity is shown to undermine these agreed objectives and often to impact differently from their declared intent on specific and identifiable target groups within the population. This evidence makes a strong case for greater and more active accountability of government action and thus also questions declared commitment to previously agreed – and politically convenient – principles. In more than one area, there is strong evidence to suggest that policies are mere populist window-dressing in that their stated objectives are in line with identified and desired goals whilst their implementation can only undermine their own stated intent. Economic Policy and Human Rights thus provides much more than an examination of particular policy prescription in Mexico and the United States. Indeed it may even present an evaluative framework that could be applied by progressive analysts to any state or region that has adopted the objectives of these quite specific treaties. As such it will surely provide an important and enduring contribution to any debate on social and economic policy.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Characters mutually fragmented - Trespasses by Paul Bailey

Trespasses by Paul Bailey presents the reader with an early challenge. The principal character, Ralph Hicks, or Ralphie to his mother, has suffered a breakdown and, during the book’s first fragmented section, we see the world from his disjointed, guilt-ridden, apparently random perspective.

Perhaps a sense of confusion was intended by the author, who might have assumed as much skill in the average reader as he possesses as a writer. As an introduction, the opening seems to work less than well. When the form is revisited later on, it works poignantly and wholly effectively.

Eventually, Trespasses is a beautiful, engaging, but deeply sad tale. Ralph, an academically gifted working class lad, meets Ellie, a quintessential lower middle class lass, and they marry with apparent happiness. But Ralph, perhaps because of a childhood experience of his parents’ not unhappy but woefully incomplete relationship, simply cannot love.

He always seems to need a motive, a clear reason for doing something that is not immediately physical. Ellie, not herself a victim, suffers the indignity of what she sees as a one-way trade in emotions. She takes her own way out. But perhaps Ralph did love. Perhaps that’s why he reacted as he did. Trespasses is a short novel that must be read slowly. Many of the apparently mundane passages seem to contain clues about the characters, none of whom exhibit any of the expected clich├ęs.

There are neither heroes nor villains here, only people. But they are people portrayed almost in shorthand, in a way that any of us might meet them, incompletely, in real-life encounters. Thus some simple passages benefit from being read like poetry. There are multiple references to events that are described from different perspectives – a visit to the zoo, a sexual experience, a walk with a father and his lady-freind, a meal remembered.

Trespasses is in part an experimental novel, an attempt to blend innovative style and form with content to form a whole. It does not succeed completely, but it comes very close. Many readers will not cope with its initial demands first time of asking. But it is also a thought-provoking and deeply moving human story. The characters become thoroughly three dimensional but, like most people, they are likeable only in part. It takes real writing skill to bring such people to life, even via their deaths.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Another Side of the Slave Trade - Rough Crossings by Simon Schama

No short review of Rough Crossings by Simon Schama could begin to do it justice. It is far too big a project, far too significant an achievement for any simple summary. It presents a momentous story, highly relevant to our own times, of partial emancipation for the enslaved.

The book is not for the faint hearted. For a start there’s almost five hundred pages of detailed historical narrative, several distinctly prickly characters to meet and many direct quotes from contemporary documents, complete with the writers’ inconsistencies of spelling and grammar. And then there is the raw suffering that it describes. There is real human suffering here, real people who were wronged by others who perpetrated a crime for which they will remain forever unpunished.

Balancing this, however, is optimism engendered by the idealism of those who campaigned and worked for freedom and justice, against the convenient populist bigotry of their time. But rising above all others are those whose personal histories are described. These are people who devoted their lives to the undoing of the wrongs that were done to them, who never lost faith in life’s eventual ability to deliver justice, despite the repeated contradiction of experience. In the end, it’s the enduring human spirit that seems to triumph, despite the lack of any obvious lasting victories.

For all concerned, it’s a struggle, has always been so and will probably remain so in the future. Rough Crossings chronicles the politics, warfare, commerce and human experience surrounding the practical application of the campaign to abolish the slave trade. It was Gore Vidal who described several of the founding fathers of the United States as dedicated slave owners, eager to protect their investments. He thus questions their commitment to their own declarations on freedom and equality.

Simon Schama provides much detail to support this theme. He describes black soldiers fighting for the British, ex-slaves, escapees, collaborators and supporters who sided with the colonial forces. We follow some of these people to the not very hospitable but at least relatively vacant lands of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. And then, via the campaigns and vision of Granville Sharp and the active management of John Clarkson, we follow the development and enactment of a truly magnificent project.

The abolitionists, not for any convenience associated with the idea of merely “shipping them back home”, but born of a sincere pursuit of freedom and autonomy for human kind, suggest that freed slaves might settle in Sierra Leone and there establish an autonomous, modern and self-supporting state. Not all goes to plan, of course, but then whatever does when idealism is realised? But the plan comes to fruition and communities sail the ocean to establish themselves in warmer climes on West Africa’s shore.

An observation offered late in the book will be permanently etched in this reader’s memory. The first women ever to participate in electing the government of a modern state were black women in Sierra Leone in the 1790s. Rough Crossings is worth reading for that revelation alone, for it is not the fact itself but the assumptions of the protagonists that led to it that is truly fascinating. How things came about, the motives of those involved and the energy with which they pursued their ideals is the real story, the enduring fascination.

There is far too much in Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings to review. There are finely drawn biographies, moving stories of human interest, political posturing and analysis, and a complete history of a commercial enterprise based on idealism. The only advice is to read the book, but also to take time along the way to reflect on what is described, to imagine what issue of our own time would be as politically risky as the applied idealism of these eighteenth century anti-slavery campaigners. And then follow that with any attempt to empathise with the experience of the cargo, whatever the direction of or motive for its transport.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Sri Lanka Pursuit - The Far Spent day by Nihal de Silva

The Far Spent Day by Nihal de Silva promises much. The fact that it does not deliver all it attempts should not deter anyone from exploring its world. Those interested in reading about the society and politics of contemporary Sri Lanka will find too little to justify careful scrutiny of the 100,000 word text. But they will enjoy the unexpectedly complex thriller that unfolds. People seeking a rip-roaring story will enjoy the process, but the only real suspense is that of the chase, since the identity and deeds of the protagonists, and indeed their principal roles is never in doubt.

The Far Spent Day is constructed as a film. The characters live very much in the present of the events that confront them and rarely reflect. Nihal de Silva also inserts gaps in the text whenever there’s a new scene or a change of camera angle. There is also copious dialogue, enhancing the film-like effect. The style is racy but restrained. There is much promise of sex, but Sri Lankan youth seem to be more restrained than their Western counterparts, certainly their fictional counterparts.

The novel’s Sri Lankan experience is valuable, if under-played. Ravi, a Sinhalese, and Tilak, his Tamil friend, have returned from overseas with their university degrees. They go out to celebrate and have a couple of drinks. There is a brawl and punches are thrown. Ravi and Tilak’s problem is that they have picked a fight with a political bigwig and such people don’t fight clean, or give up until they have ground all opposition into the dust, usually dead. Anyone who has driven in Sri Lanka knows about a minister’s cavalcade. It approaches from behind, comprises a number of large four-wheel-drives, and travels at speed with horns blaring and headlamps on full beam. Men in the passenger seats wave giant red and white gloved hands out of their windows to demand that all other traffic should get out of the way, immediately and without argument. They demand control, and get it, because if you don’t give way, they will run you off the road. If there were an accident, it would not be their fault.

Ravi and Tilak find themselves involved with such a character, and the minister decides to get even. How even that means only becomes clear at the end of the novel’s first section. Ravi’s life, and that of his whole family, has been utterly destroyed, ruthlessly destroyed. Every attempt he makes at securing justice results in more suffering for himself and others. Tanya, a young attracting Burgher journalist, takes up Ravi’s cause. She is in search of a scoop, but her own security is soon at risk. Ravi and Tanya are soon involved in a chase across the country in pursuit of their minister quarry, whose allies pursue the two companions. They evade capture, but not consequences.

They seek evidence, find it and a relationship develops between the Sinhalese Ravi and the Burgher Tanya to add further complication and twist. Later a young girl called Janaki becomes part of the plot. She assists Ravi in matters that only a professional woman could conduct. But it does her no good as newspaper stories backfire and scandals fail to materialise. The minister’s influence seems to stretch everywhere in Sri Lankan life. But Ravi has one final push to secure justice, to allow him to live his own life again without constantly fearing for his own safety. Eventually, when the book’s plot has worked through, the characters and the reader are all exhausted, but we got there.

The Far Spent Day would be a better novel at two thirds of its current length. It will not completely satisfy and reader, but its blend of fast-moving story with glimpses of Sri Lankan life is a rare mix, one that many readers will find compelling.