Russia in Denial about Election

Peggy Noonan at WSJ.com describes how a not-so-free press supports the ruling power. Denial can be very revealing.

Link: 'At Least Bush Kept Us Safe' – WSJ.com.

The Russian newspapers had generally played down Mr. Obama's victory, she said, because it got in the way of the establishment line: that the corrupt American democracy is composed of two warring family machines that have the system wired and controlled with the help of their corporate oligarch cronies. It's not a real democracy but a pretend democracy, and a hypocritical one. This helps the Russians rationalize and excuse their infirm hold on democratic ways and manners. And then the black man from Chicago with no longtime machine or money is elected . . .

So the Russian press muted its coverage. Mr. Obama's victory upset their story line. They have to think up a new one now. They will.

Who’s Going to Fix America?

Thomas L. Friedman gets on his soapbox about the need for a better-functioning democracy in the U.S.

Are we getting the leaders we deserve?

Link: Op-Ed Columnist – Anxious in America – Op-Ed – NYTimes.com.

My fellow Americans: We are a country in debt and in decline — not terminal, not irreversible, but in decline. Our political system seems incapable of producing long-range answers to big problems or big opportunities. We are the ones who need a better-functioning democracy — more than the Iraqis and Afghans. We are the ones in need of nation-building. It is our political system that is not working.

I continue to be appalled at the gap between what is clearly going to be the next great global industry — renewable energy and clean power — and the inability of Congress and the administration to put in place the bold policies we need to ensure that America leads that industry.

“America and its political leaders, after two decades of failing to come together to solve big problems, seem to have lost faith in their ability to do so,” Wall Street Journal columnist Gerald Seib noted last week. “A political system that expects failure doesn’t try very hard to produce anything else.”

We used to try harder and do better. After Sputnik, we came together as a nation and responded with a technology, infrastructure and education surge, notes Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International. After the 1973 oil crisis, we came together and made dramatic improvements in energy efficiency. After Social Security became imperiled in the early 1980s, we came together and fixed it for that moment. “But today,” added Hormats, “the political system seems incapable of producing a critical mass to support any kind of serious long-term reform.”

If the old saying — that “as General Motors goes, so goes America” — is true, then folks, we’re in a lot of trouble. General Motors’s stock-market value now stands at just $6.47 billion, compared with Toyota’s $162.6 billion. On top of it, G.M. shares sank to a 34-year low last week.

That’s us. We’re at a 34-year low. And digging out of this hole is what
the next election has to be about and is going to be about — even if it
is interrupted by a terrorist attack or an outbreak of war or peace in
Iraq. We need nation-building at home, and we cannot wait another year
to get started. Vote for the candidate who you think will do that best.
Nothing else matters.

Democracy, Politicians, and War

Another wake up call from Atanu Dey, who continues to aim economic intelligence at the leaders of the world’s largest democracies. He wants us to see the light before it is too late. I fear we’re on the razors edge now.

Atanu (India) and I (US) both live in countries where we can criticize the leaders without persecution. We both want free societies to survive and prosper. Acknowledging a problem is the first step to a solution.

Link: Your Vote for My Money

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until a majority of voters discover that they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury.
– Alexander Tytler

Some numbers are well beyond human comprehension. We can talk glibly about millions and billions of this or that but we cannot intuitive grasp what they actually mean. Evolution has equipped us with fine brains but those brains never needed to deal with thousands — leave alone millions — of anything. So we have to do some mental gymnastics to get a fleeting glimpse of what very large numbers represent.

Here’s a way of realizing how large millions, billions, and trillions are relative to a thousand. One thousand seconds passes in less than 17 minutes. A million seconds takes around 13 days. A billion seconds takes a bit over 31 years. We humans live for something between 2 and 3 billion seconds. A trillion seconds is over 31,688 years. We don’t really know what thousands of years mean, of course. Human civilization is not a trillion seconds old.

The US war in Iraq has been estimated to cost around $3 trillion. That is, $3,000,000,000,000. Details are in Joseph Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes’ new book, “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict.” See The Cold Price of Hot Blood in Salon for more on that. The total cost globally could well be over $6 trillion.

…It is the very nature of democracy that creates the perverse incentives for the politicians to implement policies that help themselves at the cost of immense harm to the country. Those who make the policies enjoy the indirect benefits of the policies — votes from specific groups — without paying any of the costs.

There is another asymmetry. The direct beneficiaries of the policies naturally have a concentrated interest in voting for the politicians. The costs are diffuse and poorly understood by the rest of the population. So while they bear the costs, they do not connect it with the policies and the politicians.

In the final analysis, a country is only as rich or as poor as its collective wisdom allows it to be. The politicians can be expected to make those decisions that are good for them, just like you and I make self-interestedly rational decision in our daily lives. However, we get to play with whatever little money we have; the politicians can play with billions and trillions that do not belong to them. So they are understandably less careful with billions than we would be with our few thousands.