The authoritarian wave reaches the west
       
When voters feel democracy is not serving their interests, freedom starts to falter
        
by: Gideon Rachman



After the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a “democratic wave”. Political freedom spread from its traditional bastions in western Europe and the US — and countries as diverse as Poland, South Africa and Indonesia turned democratic.


But now the process seems to have gone into reverse. An authoritarian wave that began outside the established democracies of the west has spread to the US and Europe.

The resurgence of authoritarian attitudes and practices that first manifested itself in young democracies, such as Russia, Thailand and the Philippines, has spread into western politics.

Poland and Hungary have governments with authoritarian tendencies. The most dramatic development is the election of a US president who regards the free press as “the enemy” and has little respect for an independent judiciary.

This authoritarian wave threatens to undermine comfortable assumptions about how politics works. The belief that the politics of the rich, established democracies of the west are fundamentally different from those of Latin America or Asia may need to be rethought. The idea that the middle-class and the young will always be the most stalwart supporters of democracy is also looking increasingly rocky.

The erosion of democratic values in the west was outlined last year in a much-discussed article by the academics Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk, writing before the election of Donald Trump. The article highlighted the rise of anti-democratic sentiments in both the US and Europe. One of their more eye-catching points is that one-in-six Americans now think that it would be a good idea for the “army to rule” — up from one in 16 in 1995. And while more than 70 per cent of Americans born in the 1930s think it “essential” to live in a democracy, only 30 per cent of those born in the 1980s agree. There has been a similar, if less marked, decline in faith in democratic institutions in Europe. Mr Foa and Mr Mounk conclude that “over the last three decades, trust in political institutions such as parliament or the courts has precipitously declined across the established democracies of North America and Western Europe”.

Mr Foa and Mr Mounk concentrate on the west. But the revival of soft authoritarianism is even more visible in countries that were once symbols of the democratic wave, such as the Philippines, which overthrew the Marcos regime in 1986, Russia, where Communist party rule ended in 1991, and South Africa, which ended apartheid in 1994. All three countries have retained key elements of democracy, such as elections. But they have seen an erosion of democratic norms and an embrace of personalised rule, which has allowed corruption to flourish.

In Russia, the economic collapse and lawlessness of the 1990s created the conditions for a revival of autocracy under Vladimir Putin. The Russian president has created a template for a soft authoritarianism combining nationalism, populism, corruption, a crackdown on the media and a close alliance between the presidency and a wealthy oligarchy. It may be no accident that some of the most articulate warnings against Trumpism have been issued by Russian dissidents, such as Garry Kasparov and Masha Gessen.

Rodrigo Duterte, the strongman president of the Philippines, has borrowed liberally from the Putin playbook. His embrace of vigilante justice has appalled Filipino liberals but has played well with a public that is frightened by crime and drugs. Mr Duterte also did well with young voters, who have few memories of the struggle to establish democracy in the Philippines.

The same pattern is threatening South Africa. The presidency of Jacob Zuma has seen a surge in corruption and growing pressure on the media and independent branches of government.

Many liberal South Africans hope that the end of the Zuma years will see a democratic revival. But things could go the other way. Simon Freemantle, senior political economist with Standard Bank, warns that “South Africa’s Trump moment is brewing”. He points to surveys showing that South Africa’s “born free” generation, born after the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, are less supportive of democracy than people with memories of the struggle against apartheid.

There is also growing support in South Africa for a Trump-like deportation of illegal immigrants.

What is it that links the erosion of support for democracy in countries as diverse as Russia, the Philippines, South Africa and even the US? It is that for many voters democracy is a means to an end, not an end in itself. If a democratic system fails to deliver jobs, as in South Africa, or security, as in the Philippines, or is associated with a stagnation in living standards, as in the US, then some voters will be attracted to the authoritarian alternative. A drift towards authoritarianism will become more likely, in the context of rising inequality, when the political and economic system seems “rigged” in favour of insiders.

Of course, there will always be people who see political freedom as a value in itself — something that is indispensable to human dignity. But dissidents prepared to go to jail in support of free speech are relatively rare. Ronald Reagan, the US president who saw out the last years of the cold war, liked to boast that “freedom works”. Unfortunately, if ordinary people stop believing that, some may give up on freedom.


The Nexus between Politics and Economics

By: Michael Pento


President trump made the following crucial statement on February 9th: "We're going to be announcing something I would say over the next 2 or 3 weeks that will be phenomenal in terms of tax." To be sure, the nucleus of the President's economic plan is the simplification of the tax code. To get this accomplished means everything for the stock market. Without a reduction in tax rates the air compressor that has been blowing up equity prices to near record and unsustainable valuations will explode.

To be a successful investor requires the knowledge that there exists a strong nexus between economics and politics. In just a few short weeks we will get Trump's details on the tax plan.

Understanding what form the tax plan takes shape, or if there is any such plan enacted at all, is essential to your portfolio's health because it will have a huge effect global currencies, bond prices, commodities and equities.

Getting tax reform passed is going to be complicated and will involve the following issues that need to be hashed out: border tax adjustments, trade tariffs, repatriation of foreign earnings, limiting the deductibility of net interest expense and eliminating other deductions, allowing companies to fully expense, instead of depreciating capital expenditures, an infrastructure spending package, and will the plan use dynamic or static scoring.

But the most important take away for investors is to determine which one of the following 3 scenarios the final plan entails: will it be neutral to the deficit, accretive to the deficit, or does the bill just die in the Senate.

The first outcome: Trump pushes through a simplification of the tax code that is done in a revenue neutral fashion through the use of a border tax adjustment or import tariffs. This may be a preferable course for Trump and the Republican Congress to pursue because it can be accomplished through budget reconciliation, which only requires a simple 51 vote majority in the Senate. In theory, this would lead to a stronger dollar because our trade deficits would shrink. Bond prices should fall (yields rise), but only moderately due to rising import prices and a bit more growth resulting from tax simplification. Stock prices should rise immediately after the passage of such reform but much of this has already been priced into shares. Precious metals could suffer from the rising dollar and the move into growth stocks. Finally, the Fed would remain on course for 2-3 rate hikes during 2017.

The second scenario is that Trump gets his tax overhaul done with the help of Democrats, which would require a 60 vote majority in the Senate. If the proposed reduction in corporate and individual tax rates were to be accompanied by infrastructure spending -- especially the type that would be most amenable to Senate Democrats -- he may get it through; even though he will lose the most fiscally conservative members. The major investment takeaway from this scenario is that deficits would absolutely surge and that bond prices would crash. Equity prices would most likely rise in the short-term because trading algorithms are programed to love fiscal stimulus that is not offset by a reduction in write-offs. However, stocks could run into a major sink hole once bond yields soared past 3% on the Ten-year Note. The dollar's value should get hurt by rising deficits but get a boost from the perceived rise in growth and the realized rise in bond yields. Therefore, I find this scenario slightly dollar bullish. Precious metals would benefit from rising debt and deficits but would at the same time get hurt by rising long-term rates and the impetus of the Fed to increase its planned 2-3 rate hikes to 3-4 hikes.

Although this is the least likely outcome it is still one that merits preparation.

The third possible outcome is that Trump's tax overhaul gets severely diluted, or that it cannot get passed through Congress. The market will perceive the paralysis in D.C. as extremely bearish for economic growth and that should put the Fed on hold for the rest of 2017. The investment strategy for this scenario is clear: Bond yields would crash along with the U.S. dollar. But perhaps the most salient ramification for the inability to push through tax reforms will be that equity prices plummet just as precious metals soar.

Why will stocks crash and gold skyrocket? Because the stock market rally is predicated on the hype and hope provided by President Trump that the U.S. economy can finally escape the anemic 2 percent GDP growth experienced over the past eight years.

Just how extended have stock market valuations become riding this anticipation of surging growth?

According to famed investor John Hussman, the median price/revenue ratio of individual S&P 500 component stocks now stands just over 2.45, which is easily the highest level in history. The longer-term norm for the S&P 500 price/revenue ratio is less than 1.0. Even a retreat to 1.3, which we've observed at many points in recent cycles, would take the stock market to nearly half of present levels.

Robert Shiller, the esteemed economist from Yale indicates that the S&P 500 now trades at 28x their trialing 10 year average earnings. This is the same level as seen in 1929 and far higher than it was in 2007, just before the Great Recession began. The average 10 year trailing earnings PE ratio is just 16.7, which according to the professor's data would require a 60% haircut in prices just to put the market back to historical norms. In addition, the tailing 12 month PE ratio of the S&P 500 is at the 90th percentile; meaning that 90% of the time observed over the past 80 years the PE ratio was lower than it is today.

One last overvaluation metric to share. The total market cap to GDP ratio now stands at 130 percent.

The normal level is closer to 50 percent. The stock market stands at a precipice virtually unparalleled in history that absolutely requires radical growth measures to be adopted in order to keep the air flowing into this bubble.

Investors have to pay close attention to both the economics and the politics if you want to get your investment allocations correct. This has never been truer than now.


Searching for God at the Center of the Big Bang

What quantum mechanics can tell us about the possibility of life after death and resurrection. Peter Woit reviews “A Big Bang in a Little Room: The Quest to Create New Universes” by Zeeya Merali.

By Peter Woit
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A model of multiple universes evolving after the Big Bang. Photo: Science Source



Human beings have always been fascinated by the question of the origin of the universe. The past hundred years have seen a dramatically successful effort by physicists and astronomers to move this question from untestable philosophical and theological speculation to solid science. We now have a relatively well-understood theory that allows us to trace the history of the universe back to some moments after a “Big Bang.” What happened at the Big Bang—or before—is an irresistible question but one that, for now, as science, lies in the realm of the purely speculative.

In “A Big Bang in a Little Room,” science writer Zeeya Merali turns the question around, asking instead whether physicists can create a “baby universe,” born in its own Big Bang. Indeed, one prominent theorist she interviews has suggested that our own universe might be a baby universe created by a “physicist hacker,” with the complex pattern of fundamental particle masses intended as some sort of message to us. thereby learning more about the beginnings of the “old” one.

Ms. Merali, who has a Ph.D. in cosmology from Brown University, explains that her interest in this topic is tied up with her religious beliefs: If we ourselves could play God and create a new universe, wouldn’t that creation amount to a theological discovery, showing the likelihood that some higher intelligence was responsible for the Big Bang? She structures her narrative around interviews with prominent theoretical physicists; they mostly discuss science, but religious questions sometimes play a role, with often fascinating results. While some refuse to engage, she gets others to discuss such topics as the relation of the laws of physics to God’s happiness, the possibility of a physical “consciousness field,” and what the quantum mechanics of the Big Bang might indicate about the possibility of life after death and resurrection.

Whether or not you believe in a “physicist hacker,” you have to have some sort of theory that applies to the era before the Big Bang. Around 1980 various “inflationary universe” models were proposed, in which a very short period of exponential growth at the time of the Big Bang provided a possible explanation for some observed large-scale properties of the universe. These models invoked a new, speculative “inflaton” field (and, no, that’s not a typo—it’s analogous with boson, muon, etc.) responsible for the expansion; but the properties of these models had to be carefully chosen to match observations. Ms. Merali does an excellent job of describing the early history of such work, interviewing important figures like the theorists Alan Guth and Andrei Linde, who along with others investigated the issue of whether such models would allow us to make extrapolations about what things were like back before the Big Bang. They also began discussing models of baby-universe creation; by 1992 Mr. Linde had published a paper he first titled “The Hard Art of Universe Creation.”

Mr. Linde is the central figure in this story, and Ms. Merali describes him as “a showman: bombastic, passionate, and fueled by the certain belief that inflation theory, which he helped to invent, is correct.” While Ms. Merali takes all of this seriously, there are very good reasons why most physicists don’t. Readers of “A Big Bang in a Little Room” would be well-advised to enjoy the ride but stay skeptical. Inflationary models can to some degree be confronted with observation and tested (a topic covered in other books but not this one). Attempts to give these models theoretical grounding (such as string theory) also cannot be independently tested: They involve a morass of many different unobservable new entities, inflaton fields among them, with no understanding of the physics of such a system.

Mr. Guth was initially fascinated by the idea of baby universes getting produced and making up a multiverse, though he imagined these other universes would all have the same physics as ours. Ms. Merali relates that he quickly lost interest: Why care much about cosmological models producing not just our universe but other copies we can never observe? Over the past 15 years, however, Mr. Linde’s slightly different argument—for a multiverse of universes, each with different physics, has become very popular. Such a multiverse even provides an explanation for the lack of progress in recent decades toward a better understanding of where fundamental laws of physics come from: The laws we observe are just artifacts of where various inflaton fields happened to randomly end up after our Big Bang; in other universes, the laws are different. Ms. Merali gives a disturbing version of this, contemplating the possibility that “string theory and inflation may be conspiring against us in such a way that we may never find evidence for them, and just have to trust in them as an act of faith.”

Science, however, is fundamentally not about faith but about evidence. One section of “A Big Bang in a Little Room” describes well-advertised hopes from 10 years ago that the new Large Hadron Collider in Geneva might somehow find evidence for extra dimensions, magnetic monopoles or other extremely exotic new physics. Based on this, the jacket copy tells us that “within the next few decades” physicists may be able to use this new physics to create baby universes. This is nonsense, for a list of reasons, beginning with the implausibility of such ideas in the first place and going on to the fact that data from the LHC is now here, and has shown no evidence at all for any of them.

In an era where “post-truth” was the word of the year, scientists and science writers need to make clear that science is not a species of theological or philosophical speculation and not about belief or entertainment value. Legitimate scientific claims are those that can be backed up with evidence, and unfortunately the wonderful and exciting story told well here contains none at all.


—Mr. Woit is the author of “Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law.”

miércoles, marzo 08, 2017

THE PRICE OF EMPIRE / PROJECT SYNDICATE

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The Price of Empire

Shashi Tharoor

Daily life Kerala India v2


NEW DELHI – Indians tend not to dwell on the country’s colonial past. Whether through national strength or civilizational weakness, India has long refused to hold any grudge against Britain for 200 years of imperial enslavement, plunder, and exploitation. But Indians’ equanimity about the past does not annul what was done.
 
Britain’s shambolic withdrawal from India in 1947, after two centuries of imperial rule, entailed a savage partitioning that gave rise to Pakistan. But it occurred curiously without rancor toward Britain.
 
India chose to remain in the Commonwealth as a republic, and maintained cordial relations with its former overlords.
 
Some years later, Winston Churchill asked Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who had spent nearly a decade of his life in British jails, about his apparent lack of bitterness. Nehru replied that “a great man,” Mahatma Gandhi, had taught Indians “never to fear and never to hate.”
 
But, notwithstanding appearances to the contrary, the scars of colonialism have not fully faded.

I learned that firsthand in the summer of 2015, when I delivered a speech at the Oxford Union decrying the iniquities of British colonialism – a speech that, to my surprise, inspired a powerful response across India.
 
The speech quickly went viral on social media, with one post racking up more than three million hits in just 48 hours, and with websites across the globe reposting it. My right-wing opponents stopped trolling me on social media just long enough to hail my speech. The speaker of the Lok Sabha, Sumitra Mahajan, went out of her way to compliment me at a function attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who then congratulated me publicly for having said “the right things at the right place.”
 
Schools and colleges played the speech to their students. One university, the Central University of Jammu, organized a daylong seminar, at which eminent scholars addressed specific points I had raised. Hundreds of articles were written in response, both in support of and in opposition to my statements.
 
Two years later, strangers still approach me in public places to praise my “Oxford speech.” My book on the same theme, An Era of Darkness, has remained on Indian bestseller lists since its publication three months ago. The British edition, Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, hits bookshelves next month.
 
Given India’s longstanding attitudes about colonialism, I did not expect such a reception. But perhaps I should have. After all, the British seized one of the richest countries in the world – accounting for 27% of global GDP in 1700 – and, over 200 years of colonial rule, reduced it to one of the world’s poorest.
 
Britain destroyed India through looting, expropriation, and outright theft – all conducted in a spirit of deep racism and amoral cynicism. The British justified their actions, carried out by brute force, with staggering hypocrisy and cant.
 
The American historian Will Durant called Britain’s colonial subjugation of India “the greatest crime in all history.” Whether or not one agrees, one thing is clear: imperialism was not, as some disingenuous British apologists have claimed, an altruistic enterprise.
 
Britain has been suffering from a kind of historical amnesia about colonialism. As Moni Mohsin, a Pakistani writer, recently pointed out, British colonialism is conspicuously absent from the United Kingdom’s school curricula. Mohsin’s own two children, despite attending the best schools in London, never had a single lesson on colonial history.
 
Londoners marvel at their magnificent city, knowing little of the rapacity and plunder that paid for it.
 
Many British are genuinely unaware of the atrocities their ancestors committed, and some live in the blissful illusion that the British Empire was some sort of civilizing mission to uplift the ignorant natives.
 
This opens the way for the manipulation of historical narratives. Television soap operas, with their gauzy romanticization of the “Raj,” provide a rose-tinted picture of the colonial era.

Several British historians have written hugely successful books extolling the supposed virtues of empire.
 
In the last decade or two, in particular, popular histories of the British Empire, written by the likes of Niall Ferguson and Lawrence James, have described it in glowing terms. Such accounts fail to acknowledge the atrocities, exploitation, plunder, and racism that underpinned the imperial enterprise.
 
All of this explains – but does not excuse – Britons’ ignorance. The present cannot be understood in terms of simple historical analogies, but the lessons of history must not be ignored. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, how will you appreciate where you’re going?
 
This goes not just for the British, but also for my fellow Indians, who have shown an extraordinary capacity to forgive and forget. But, while we should forgive, we should not forget. In that sense, the powerful response to my 2015 speech at the Oxford Union is encouraging.
 
The modern relationship between Britain and India – two sovereign and equal countries – is clearly very different from the colonial relationship of the past. When my book hit bookstores in Delhi, British Prime Minister Theresa May was just days away from a visit to seek Indian investment. As I’ve often argued, you don’t need to seek revenge upon history. History is its own revenge.
 
 


Turkey and the United States Groping to Accommodation

Despite past differences, the two countries are getting closer.

By George Friedman


The Munich Security Conference is a place where senior leaders make speeches and hold meetings with each other. Sometimes, the meetings are merely formal, sometimes they are substantive. It is not always easy to figure out which is which. This year’s meeting was held last week, and everyone was focused on the United States delegation.

The delegation was headed by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who were accompanied by aides and less prominent figures. The focus on this delegation was reasonable. The world wants to know what U.S. foreign policy will look like. Mattis and Pence, at the end of the day, emphasized continuity. This always soothes diplomats, for a reason that escapes me. No matter how incoherent the situation, the promise that the incoherence will continue unabated makes you a statesman. Pence and Mattis played the role well, effectively buying time while President Donald Trump’s administration defines U.S. foreign policy.

One thing that emerged from the meeting and other events in the last few days is a seeming shift in Turkish policy toward the U.S. Mattis met Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık in Brussels on Feb. 16 during the NATO defense ministers’ conference and assured him of U.S. support as a strategic partner in the campaign against the Islamic State in Syria. On Feb. 18, Pence met with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization chief Hakan Fidan. A day after the meetings, the Turkish foreign minister said in Munich that Turkey has asked for more U.S. Special Forces in Syria. He added that U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford was in Ankara last week and discussed “technical issues” related to a potential deployment.
GettyImages-642520720.jpg
 U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivers a speech at the 2017 Munich Security Conference on Feb. 18, 2017 in Munich, Germany. The 2017 Munich Security Conference, which brings together leading government figures from across the globe to discuss issues of common security concern, is taking place in the wake of the ascendence of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency and the appointment of a new U.S. government cabinet. Johannes Simon/Getty Images
 
U.S.-Turkish relations have been poor since the attempted coup in Turkey. The Turkish government blamed the attempted coup on Fethullah Gülen, a Turk who lives in Pennsylvania and is the father of a Turkish Muslim political and social movement that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said was responsible for the attempted overthrow of the government. Since Gülen lives in the United States, has other relationships in the country and the U.S. government was unwilling to extradite him without going through the American legal process, the Turks held the United States responsible for the attempted coup. Relations declined with the U.S., certainly in the public rhetoric.

The Turks are involved in a three-player game in the region. This includes the United States, a Turkish ally since the end of World War II that maintains via NATO a very large and important air base in Incirlik, Turkey. That base is important to maintain air operations over Iraq and Syria, monitor Iran, and operate in the Black Sea and the Caucasus to deal with potential Russian operations. This is one of those military bases the U.S. has access to that is of actual strategic value.

Russia, the other player in the region, is a historic rival of the Turks. Both in czarist times and throughout the Soviet period, the Russians had a special interest in Turkey. The Bosporus, a narrow passage between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, is of vital interest to the Russians. If they could control it, they would have unlimited access to the Mediterranean, a strategic imperative for the Russians.

The logic of the situation sustained since World War II was that Turkey would side with the U.S. against Russia, thereby blocking its aspirations. But these days, Russia is too weak to imagine the seizure of the Bosporus. Nevertheless, the Russians have other options for irritating the Turks. The decision to send aircraft to protect Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria was one way to accomplish this. The Turks wanted Assad to fall due to prior atrocities against the Turkish community in Syria. The Russians acted to save him. In the course of this intervention, the Turks shot down a Russian plane that slightly entered Turkish airspace. This sent Turkish-Russian relations to a near-war condition. Then, the attempted coup occurred, the Turks blamed Gülen and indirectly the Americans, and relations with Russia suddenly improved.

The Turks were maneuvering themselves into an enviable position, using their hostility to both Russia and the United States. Turkey was important to both. The U.S. needed Incirlik, and it also wanted Turkish help in managing the Arab world. The Russians needed to increase their strength to block American ambitions in Ukraine and related regions, and Turkey had emerged as a valuable asset. Russia and Turkey together would pose a challenge to the United States.

Turkey was in the sweet position of being courted by two countries it formally despised – it hoped to extract concessions from both in exchange for keeping Turkey from moving into the other’s camp. It was a very attractive game, and contrary to media coverage that portrayed Erdoğan as irrational, he actually was able to balance Russia and the United States against each other.

Suddenly, indications suggested that the Turks, in spite or because of Russian success in Syria, were tilting toward the United States. Reports indicate that the United States is considering sending not only Special Forces but also regular Army forces and Marines to engage and destroy IS. The Turks have actually expressed the hope that the U.S. will do so. They have at no point interfered with U.S. operations at Incirlik. They are asking for an end to U.S. support for Kurds in Syria, and they have not yet said what they would do if the U.S. intervenes. But the sense is that the discussion over Syria is reaching a critical stage, that the Turks are now eager for intervention and that this agreement – with many concessions by the U.S. – would return U.S.-Turkish relations to their status prior to the attempted coup.

One likely reason for this is that the Turks, having played with the Russians, have come to realize Russia’s limited value as an ally. In the end, Russian military capability is limited, and its economy is in trouble. As important, the situation to Turkey’s south is increasingly dangerous, and Turkey is extremely wary of the Iranians. The Turks share interests with the United States, and the U.S. is far more able to deliver on promises. As for the United States, if it decides to engage IS, it will need allies, and Turkey is by far the most significant country in the region.

One point to note is that Turkey is now playing in a different league than it was 20 or even 10 years ago. It deals with the Russians as an equal and the United States as more powerful but potentially dependent on Turkey. The evolution of Turkey to the point of a major – perhaps the major – regional power is marked. But regardless of how powerful Turkey becomes, it requires allies, and it seems to us that the straws in the wind point to an accommodation with the United States.