Friday, August 24, 2012


Leaving for a short trip to Europe, I feel like someone condemned who has to choose between two equally painful choices. The United States in pre-convention mood feels like a journey in Sabbath and I expect Europe to remain a crossroads of repetitive meetings wherein  the stausquo is sold as a path forward.
On this side of the Atlantic, Obama and Romney are sinking in generalities.  On the other side of the ocean the situation looks almost hopeless. There are too many doctors in the European ER who know too well where to cut and intervene but retreat out of fear of being seen as the Brutus of the moment.
The Americans have a choice between two dysfunctional concepts. Obama wants to impose a view devoid of management, while Romney suggests management without consistency. Both candidates have the teammates they deserve: Biden who is supposed to entertain, and Ryan who has been asked to be the wizard of the insoluble. This being said, both presidential candidates also have their pluses. Obama too often plays the philosopher king and fakes proximity, an attitude which he shares with Romney. The Democrat is probably more focused on the world as it is while the Republican appears stuck in a worldview which was.  Romney's forte is the economy but his belligerent trade talk is counter-productive. Obama is better at social issues but looks sometimes pathetic in foreign affairs, where his right instincts have been unable to achieve the global governance which figured high in his agenda.
The EU has become fatherless, even if it has to be admitted that Angela Merkel tries to keep her self-control and confers with more leaders than Mary Poppins is able to achieve in three acts. The Europeans look insular and become tribal, if not irrelevant, in a world wherein the Chinese start to rule the waves and fill the gaps while the EU and, to a lesser degree, the US look on.
I don't see the end of the fiscal or monetary cliffs which are threatening both the Americans and the Europeans. They are in a stage of panic wherein the abstract overtakes the concrete. When the deficit numbers eventually go down in the US there will be a sigh of relief, independently of the consequences in such fields as education, clean energy, Medicare or military expenditures, and the list can continue. When the Greeks are out of the way, the Europeans will be tempted to run for Beethoven's Ninth and let loose the lies they carried for too long.
I always pleaded in favor of  a new Atlantic partnership.  Without such an aggiornamento we run the risk of becoming second-tier spectators of a world in flames by its own doing or depleted by the Chinese inroads. The United States might still try to play at being indispensable.  Europe on its own cannot. The mare nostrum has become a highway for dangers of any kind; a short-sided immigration or enlargement policy almost made a joke of what was a grand ambition after the Treaty of Rome. Rather than partying with Arab Springs and the Chinese "harmonious society," and  too often turning a blind eye to the Wal-Mart of nuclear waste in the Caucasus, we had better regroup, set our priorities right and act later. We are running out of time since the Iranian bluff might become a reality and since Syria risks inflaming the whole region.
It is to be hoped that the statesmen--if they are still around--amongst us stand up and show the politicians, who have taken the bureaucracy hostage here and there while being themselves manipulated by lobbyists and interest groups, the exit door.
Hamlet said it all:  More in sorrow than in anger.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


The electoral dominoes in the United States are in place. The pieces are known, the set is complete after Governor Romney chose Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate. His choice was a bold one and might prove to be a formidable adversary for Vice President Biden, who represents a more traditional, less technocratic profile. He looks and acts "old," compared to the youth and aggressive posture of his Republican opponent.

True, the election is about the President and less about the teammate. Nevertheless, precedents have given ample proof that the choice of the vice-president (a hallucinatory hangover dixit Senator Joe Liberman) can be toxic (Sarah Palin), smart (Lyndon Johnson) or misguided (Eagleton) and can end up becoming a burden rather than a bonus.  Romney, who still has a problem as coming over as "ordinary," filled this gap by going for the conservative "first of the class."  In doing so he risks  alienating the Independent voters who might find Ryan's brew too conservative.

Obama wanted to be a philosopher king, feeling home in a soliloquy, acting too often like a solipsism. I have a hard time imagining how he connects or is able to create loyalties which can reach further than the photo-op.  He inherited a global mess from the Bush years and was able to contain a feared overspill.  Some of his economical ideas were correct. Aspects of his surprisingly cynical foreign policy are right. Obamacare has become a distraction rather than an added value, capable of reassembling the Americans around an ambitious project. Congress felt sidelined and gave him not an inch. Sometimes it looked unfair if not rude, but the President also chose for hauteur rather than for consensus. Personally I still like him but in these current times of deficits and a grounded economy, Romney can easily look like the right man for those difficult situations which have affected Americans, both in their purse and in their pride.

This country does not take a vacation when things go bad, it does not kick the can down the road, as Europeans too often do. There is still the idea of exceptionalism which remains alive in the American psyche and which is hurting today.  Obama's lofty words can be extraordinary but after these long years they have failed to convince people that they were right to see in him the man of change.  Romney is more of a pragmatist, convincing in the realm of "hardware," but utterly unconvincing in the world of foreign affairs (which finds little interest with the American bread and butter voter).  His turn rightwards might help Obama, who nevertheless risks having to work with a Republican Congress in case he wins. The stalemate would be total.

America has a hard time getting over the wasteland of the Bush years and Obama looked and sounded like the almost providential guide, who would lead the way out of the pathological "no-man's land," the country felt itself to be in.  His global outreach, his neo-geo-political strategy, his containment of the economic tsunami after the Bear Sterns debacle and the Detroit meltdown were successful.  Likewise, the stimulus was the right thing to do, even when it has to be admitted that there were too many loopholes which could have been avoided. The policies of Romney come too often over as textbook solutions.  He represents the "rational expectations" theories, monetarism versus Keynesianism, Milton Friedman versus Paul Krugman. Obama is more the man in the middle, often seen as leaning towards the more centre-left school of ideas. In this he has often been misunderstood and criticized as an interventionist and over-regulator.

The campaigns have, dangerously so, veered off course and risk becoming overshadowed by class-warfare and social, often religious subtitles. They are more and more polarized, so that the choices get obscured by ulterior agendas. What is said is less about the real than about the hidden, and this goes both ways.  It is too early to foresee the outcome and it is equally naive to advance that sobriety will rule in the end. Whoever wins will be bruised and the American democracy might be a patient in need of a cure for an indefinite time.  This is all the more dangerous since we live in an era of multiple disparities.  A lack of American leadership risks setting the clock backwards to the rotten times of social unrest, populist rise and religious anachronism worldwide.

, Milton Friedman versus Paul Krugman.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


Today was supposed to be the Euro salvation day, after the ECB president said last week that he was now prepared to do "whatever it takes" to safeguard the Euro. Nothing drastic happened . We should have listened with more attention to the  ominous parallel analyses from the president of the Bundesbank Jens Weldmann or  Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, who sounded more cautious in their assessments.  Mario Draghi is obviously a very creative and astute banker. He might have underestimated though the resistance which exists amongst the member states to use the permanent or temporary bailout fund for secondary-market bond purchases.  Paradoxically, the weaker Euro aids the major exporters and widens even more the divide between Germany and the ailing peripheral members.  Accordingly, the stock market and the Euro might return to their downwards spiral, benefiting too few while penalizing too many.

The Euro began in a sceptical mode, went into an euphoric overdrive, and fell recently on hard times.  The cycle has staying power.  This hangover will last.
I believe that the problem lies in over-politicization, so that a succession of therapeutic monetary interventions brings only a small solace to a small number. The Euro was meant to be binary political instrument. The bankers, technicians and wizards had to be content with a second tier. The politicians created a hybrid in Frankfurt, monopolised the better seats, and daydreamed some ersatz fantasy of the school of  the Chicago Palimpsest. The myth was hence created that the EU was the Euro and vice versa. This is bogus. Not all EU members adhere to the Euro right now, and the "opt out" formula should be called upon where necessary (precedents exist.)  Besides, the ECB is anything but independent (as it should be) from the states which are represented in its governing board.  The fiscal and economical cacophony is deafening.

One can argue over Friedman or Krugman, zero inflation or a little inflation. Such discussions are normal between specialists. They can however become perverse when they oppose member states, who find themselves already divided by dangerous fault lines. The Greek and Spanish sagas are also toxic because they tend to reinforce socio-cultural cliches which split Europe in half and undo the visionary philosophy, which since World War II, brought about reconciliation, peace, prosperity and a common destiny for most. The totally obscure Maastricht Treaty fiasco, the referendums (i.a. in the Netherlands and France) were a clear signal which indicated that the Brussels jargon was no longer a unifying factor.  Public opinion expected an American type of constitution. They received instead a bureaucratic set of rules and ambitions without an inch of "sex appeal." The Euro was supposed to bring people together at a time when a hidden civil war opposed immigrants and Europeans, old and new Europe, and the United Kingdon versus the rest. The Euro looked good on paper.  If the Greek farce cannot be contained, it risks ending up in the shredder.  Once again Adam Smith will have to rule.  "Self interest" is to economy what Darwin is to existence. Both can help us understand why Germany is so adverse to absorbing shocks created elsewhere.  The ECB architecture has to undergo drastic changes or it might as well dissolve like a house of cards.  The outlooks remains bleak and the consequences might reach shores which had better remain off limits, and unspoken.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


With the demise of Gore Vidal the United States has lost one of its most prominent "intellectuals."  He was probably the last of a breed, with Susan Sontag and Christopher Hitchens, dilettantes who showed us the way and, in Vidal's case, lost us in the labyrinth of his more cranky utterances (Franklin Roosevelt, 9/11, Timothy Mc Veigh and tuti quanti.

The formidable writer and iconoclast from the earlier days gave way to a half-baked conspiracy-mongerings (in Hitchens' words).  He walked every avenue in life from his beloved Ravello to California, from the dark rooms of a forgotten gay sub-culture to the limelight of failed national politics.  He could be acerbic and it has to be recognized that he seldom came over as the "good guy."  Still, he was a giant in the great Anglo-Saxon tradition of historicity and prank, of personal vendettas (Norman Mailer, John Updike, William Buckley) with a nonchalant approach to genre and gender.

The Tea Party must be jubilant to see the ranks of their enlightened enemies shrinking. Vidal was indeed a true democrat (not along petty party lines), who knew that history was often the brainchild of blue blood who choose to write in red ink.  His quarrels with most things Kennedy were "family quarrels", which had nothing in common with the often exaggerated rendition of a fight between gods in some Valhalla on Pennsylvania Avenue.  He could be petty but was never banal.  Some of his best works such as Burr and Lincoln, were a Hineiniterpretierung with a bite which was not for the weak at heart or for the torch-bearer of the American dream, who was more often than not reduced by Vidal to an an American nightmare. In this he was closer to the French encyclopedistes or Edmund Burke than to the literature of his fellow countrymen, which he usually described as being provincial, if not parochial.

Despite those shortcomings, he was great and loved to let his sarcasm roam in "America, the beautiful."  In doing so he made enemies and created feuds which let his amazing talent be overtaken by his own prejudices. There was something of Oscar Wilde in him, a desire to shock and to make middle-Americans lose their bigoted balance.  Often he went too far, as he did yesterday, abandoning us. His death deprives us of a writer, a pamphleteer, an amuser and, of all things, a man truly of all seasons.  His qualities were such that his missteps did not make any difference in the end.  He played his Hamlet sparing nobody and willing to pay the price. His readers are the losers.  A Renaissance man, maybe the last American aristocrat, he ended up seemingly lost in these current mediocre times, preferring to leave for the winter of his discontent.