Monday, April 6, 2009
Last Wednesday (3 April, 2009), I went to see Fareed Zakaria, editor of the international edition of Newsweek, give a talk in Rovereto about the green economic policies of President Obama. I had this conception of Zakaria as a fairly conservative commentator, and so I was surprised at how liberal his ideas actually were.
I had already heard a lot of Zakaria's arguments made by other people, but he pulled them together into a coherent whole and presented them nicely. He spoke mostly about green technology and the pressing need to start adopting it as our oil runs out. At one point he said he would respond to those who say climate change is a hoax by saying that, if true, it would be "the most beneficial hoax in history" because it would have spurred the development of renewable energy. Of course, the problem with this point is that there is still plenty of coal in the world, and the debate is about whether or not to start exploiting it. Whether climate change is a "hoax" or not has a real impact upon this debate.
Zakaria also talked a little bit about the European Union. He criticised Europe for their initial response to the financial crisis, which he said had been to blame the US. Zakaria pointed out that European banks had, on average, three times the leverage of US banks (mostly invested in Eastern Europe). I would argue, of course, that there's a big difference between investing in the development of Eastern Europe and running a hedge-fund off the back of toxic mortgages, but he is correct in that this crisis was not purely the fault of Wall Street and the US.
My favourite soundbite from the night was this one: "Everything is globalised except the politics." Zakaria was arguing that the conflict between a country's domestic interests and its international interests produces harmful results. European banks invested heavily in Eastern Europe, convincing countries to allow them to operate in their markets by telling them "you don't need local banks, we will be your local bank." Then, when they had to be bailed out and partly or fully nationalised, the public in their home-countries objected to taxpayer money going to support these bank's Eastern European obligations. So the banks dropped their Eastern European obligations. Now, after this financial crisis is over, Eastern European countries may no longer trust Western European banks and may restrict how they can operate in their markets. Everything is globalised except the politics.
Asked about European leaders, he said that he thinks most of them are "serious people." Angela Merkel is a "serious person." Mr Sarkozy, on the other hand, is a "fascinating person." He ran for election telling the French people he would be a Reagan-style economic liberaliser, yet now he tells the press he is currently reading Marx's Das Kapital. Zakaria thinks he's just doing it for show, as Das Kapital is "an incredibly boring book."
The most "serious" person of all, however, in Zakaria's view, is British Prime Minister Gordan Brown. Zakaria said Brown is "almost an intellectual." But Brown's greatest flaw is that he does not "connect with the people" in the way that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi does. The two of them should have a child, mused Zakaria, and it would be the perfect politician. I'm not sure how many people would agree with that.
When it comes to the great debate about the European Union, Zakaria thinks the problem is that we have never resolved the relationship between the EU and the member-state. Every time something unpopular needs to be done, national politicians cry "don't blame me, it's all the fault of evil Brussels." And then when politicians say they want to build a stronger Europe, they complain they are unable to because Brussels is too unpopular with the public.
We are constantly taking away legitimacy from Brussels by blaming it when unpopular decisions need to be taken. The EU is like the whipping boy of national politics. The problem with this argument is that it makes Europe sound like we have only one politician, who can never make up his or her mind about Europe. In truth, we have many, many politicans, all arguing from different perspectives when it comes to the EU, and hardly ever coming to agreement.
Still, it's interesting to hear an outside perspective.