Piketty qui s’en prend à ses collègues américains

“Ces groupes sociaux [le décile supérieur de la hiérarchie des revenus] ont connu depuis les années 1970-1980 des hausses de revenus sensiblement supérieures à la croissance moyenne de l’économie américaine, ce qui n’est pas négligeable.

On trouve par exemple dans ces groupes les économistes universitaires américains qui ont souvent tendance à considérer que l’économie des États-Unis fonctionne plutôt bien, et en particulier qu’elle récompense le talent et le mérite avec justesse et précision: voici une réaction bien humaine et compréhensible.”

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Zaporizhia lies at 200 kilometers from Donetsk, on the highway that runs from Crimea to Moscow. Donetsk and Luhansk of course, further to the east, are where an Italian photographer was killed on Saturday, pro-governmental militia members on Friday, and regular Ukrainian soldiers on Thursday.

There, “nobody understands what happens” as Mikhaïl Boulgakov writing about Kiev in 1918 put it in The White Guard. Are those fighting paid and incited by the Russian government? Or simply Russians themselves? Nationalist volunteers or special forces? It has been claimed that the main servers from the Ukrainian Central Election Commission were hacked, many Ukrainians mockingly deride this claim as a cover up for their administration’s incompetence. What is true, what is false, what is propaganda, what are the proverbial grains of truth? No one truly knows and if they claim they do, chances are they are deceiving either you or themselves.

Yet, here in Zaporizhia, where it is almost shockingly calm. Youngsters sell the Ukrainian flags that have become fashionable recently on the side of the road. Couples hang out near the Dniepr. In the villages men sit in the shade drinking beer and at night well-dressed young men and women flock to the town’s party mile. And then all of a sudden you come across two men beating a third lying on the ground and who has blood running down the side of his head. An act of random violence? People stare but no one intervenes and onlookers claim the man had sympathies with the separatists’ cause but do they really know that?

How to reconcile this eerie quiet and single sudden interruption with what social media and traditional journalism report from the neighboring regions? Here ten seemingly unarmed men stand guard at the regional Rada (parliament) to prevent a takeover of the building, and a middle-aged man with a boastworthy belly claims to have a thousand men at his command. Most everybody is disillusioned politically but virtually everyone proclaims his adherence to Ukraine and his incomprehension towards the supposed problem that were the linguistic question. Both the Ukrainian and Russian language are used interchangeably. But then again, who really know what is true, what is being said and what is left out?

Ever since this morning the elections are underway, people are milling to the electoral stations, from the outside looking in, participation seems to be high. They wear their Sunday best or traditionally styled clothes or even a dress in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The older have a higher presence than the young.

Rumours about what or who may incite violence later today or in the night abound, some people are afraid to vote or shun the whole process either because they are politically disillusioned or because they sympathize with anti-government militants in the Donbass . Parts of Ukraine clearly live turmoil and violence on election day, yet as the sun sets in this region bordering Ukraine’s very east, a calm election day draws to an end.

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The French Intifada or an Arab is an Arab is an Arab – apparently

The Guardian published on its website an extract from a book by Andrew Hussey The French Intifada: how the Arab banlieues are fighting the French state, on February 23rd. This extract made quite the buzz on my Francophone Twitter timeline with many comments being quite approving.

I fail to understand this positive perception. While I had never heard of Andrew Hussey before, as per his Wikipedia page, he is a cultural historian and biographer who works at the University of London Institute in Paris, his historical works on Paris and French culture sound interesting. Yet, this long article (or extract) fails to convince or to provide much of an insight.

Hussey starts out with a description of the riots in the Gare du Nord back in 2007, when a ticket control resulted in a young man’s broken hand and the subsequent – and rapid – mobilization of hundreds of banlieusards wreaking havoc in the station, the most important regional train hub linking Paris to its poorer Northern suburbs. He links this violence with 2005, “when two young men were electrocuted while trying to escape police”, which “was followed by almost a week of rioting every night, during which thousands of cars were burned.” So far, so good, and clearly the frequency of these riots – one could mention Lyon in 2010 as well – shows that something is rotten in the state of France’s societal fabric.

Yet, Hussey then goes off the rails when he claims denial of the fact on the part of those who blamed a “fracture sociale” for these riots. Instead – citing Gilles Kepel – he argues that “what happens here is because of our relationship with the Arab world, and our history there.” He then goes on to recite in detail the Tunisian revolution as an expression of the same sentiment that caused French youths of Arabic origin to whistle the French national anthem before the France-Tunisia friendly match in Paris in 2008.

This is absurd on multiple levels of course. Yet, apart from a few sloppy errors such as implying that the military had originally partaken in the repression of demonstrations in Tunisia and the ministerial portfolio of Michèle Alliot-Marie his description of events is sound and full of vivid detail. It is his very facts that contradict his assessment though. If it was “a young Congolese man” whose arrest caused the riots at the Gare du Nord, if these rioters were made up of “mainly black[s]” [and Arabs], then how does that square with Islam and/or a coherent Arabic society – a sort of ummah (أمة‎) if you want – lying at the root of this unrest?

The application of one identity – Arabic or Islam – to a whole group of people only some of which are even of Arabic origin or Muslims is not only nonsensical per se, it also pretends to explain the motives of rioters in France with a dangerous simple-mindedness. Yet, it is highly dubious to argue that the banlieusards’ ‘us’ against ‘them’ logic is based on an underlying religious commitment or an adherence to pan-Arabism. If the latter had been the case wouldn’t French Arabs have demonstrated – rioted if you may – following Alliot-Marie’s proposal to supply Ben Ali with French security expertise against the demonstrations in Tunisia? Wouldn’t rioters in that case have targeted shops run by français-de-souche or in general non-Muslim business owners just like African-Americans in Los Angeles had done with Korean-American-run shops? Yet, neither of this took place.

If Hussey is as familiar with Tunisia as he purports to be, then he will be aware of the strong economic roots – youth unemployment, corruption, and inequality especially – of the Tunisian revolution. Religiously motivated demonstrators, let alone those demonstrating out of a pan-Arabic sentiment, were at best part of a barely visible minority there also. These social grudges are of a national nature though, and while some of the same underlie societal problems in France – youth unemployment mainly – the scale of both their pertinence and outcome is incomparable.

There are obviously some parallels between riots in France and Tunisia, the exploitation of social media and mobile phones, which lead to a potentially much quicker mobilization of popular or mob reinforcements for example. Or, arguably, in general the 21st century’s high street-level mobilization as could also be seen recently in Turkey, Egypt, Ukraine, et al. Yet, none of these parallels are based on French colonial history, Islam, or some kind of an inherent Arab cultural link that surpasses generations, country borders, and the Mediterranean to extend from rural Tunisians to suburban French city-dwellers.

Hussey himself admits as much when he talks about how “it is almost impossible for immigrants to France from its former colonies to feel authentically “at home” there.” Yet, if this is – one of – the reasons for conflict, it is not something that is peculiar to either Muslims or Arabs, nor can the same argument feasibly be made for the revolutions in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world. By linking the Tunisian revolution and French riots to an ill-defined Arabic/Islamic society, The shame is that Hussey undercuts his own – or Kepel’s – intriguing argument of French colonial history lying at the core of the country’s recurring violent eruptions by this orientalist scapegoating.

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Loose Lips Sinking Markets?

The ECB in July 2013 published an extremely interesting paper on “The Impact of Political Communication on Sovereign Bond Spreads.” Here are some highlights.

Keep in mind that, “Euro area countries are more exposed to the risk of self-fulfilling crises whereby investors generate a liquidity crisis that can degenerate into a solvency crisis.”

Correcting for financial, economic and other political events, this study finds that political communication – both of a positive and negative nature – does have a daily contemporaneous effect on sovereign bond yield spreads.

Similarly, an interesting finding is that economic fundamentals appear not to have a significant influence on bond spreads in the short term, but are instead overwhelmed by statements, credit rating changes and country specific events.

Bond investors will price risk appropriately only if the realistically face a danger of default. Governments will run sound fiscal policies only if they know that they are not going to be bailed out by the euro area and that they might face higher financing costs. This debate about incentives and principles is a fully legitimate one in open democratic societies. However, it has sent a possibly destabilising message to potential investors in the bonds issued by troubled countries, namely that those bonds are not safe assets because the probability of a complete redemption was seen as reduced, and this with a perceived (semi-)official sanction. Investors have therefore demanded a large risk premium. This, in turn, may have contributed further to the fiscal problems in the peripheral euro area countries over the past two years. Policy-makers are therefore confronted with a certain trade-off between conducting open democratic debates and respecting the needs of the financial markets, reflected by the controversy over the notion of a “democracy in conformity with market needs.”

This study does not find any strong empirical evidence that the amount of political communication has an impact on the level of government bond yields. Rather, our finding is that the connotation of the communication determines the type of impact on government bond yields: positive communication can lead to a compression of spreads, whereas negative communication can cause a widening of pspreads.

Communication policy would be more effective if certain principles were respected in the design and implementation of politicians’ communication strategies.

At several points during the crisis, certain types of political communication may have added uncertainty rather than certainty to market perceptions about the sovereign debt crisis in the euro area, and that unconstructive and inconsistent communication can have real and tangible effects on countries, their financing conditions, and by extension, on their populations, as well as on the cohesion of the euro area.

I fear that one can safely argue that the impact of governmental change in Germany in 2009 and especially the entry of the FDP into power was not a good thing for the Eurozone.

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« Miracle allemand », dites-vous ?

J’ai récemment publié un billet sur Rue89, une critique du livre « Made in Germany : Le modèle allemand au-delà des mythes » écrit par le rédacteur en chef des Alternatives économiques Guillaume Duval.



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On the NY Times and Stereotypes of the French Economy

Steven Erlanger, the NY Times London bureau chief, has written a piece that made quite the buzz in social media about France as ‘A Proud Nation [That] Ponders How To Halt Its Slow Decline.’ I am a bit at a loss as to why this piece would be considered as noteworthy. More of the same it would seem, preaching to the – Anglo-Saxon – media choir that has announced the imminent end of the French model for decades. Craig Willy has written convincingly about this in regard to the Economist, so let me just add a few points in response to Erlanger’s piece.

He starts out wondering whether “a social democratic system that for decades prided itself on being the model for providing a stable and high standard of living for its citizens can survive the combination of globalization, an aging population and the acute fiscal shocks of recent years.” Now, of course all three of these are true for the rest of Europe – to some extent the Western world + Japan – also, except of course that France in fact is in a notably better position in what concerns its demographics than, say, Germany or really almost anybody else in Europe (the one exception being Ireland). Why France should be discussed as a particularly failing model based on criteria that actually speak favorable to its – relative – sustainability hardly seems logical.

Screenshot from 2013-08-27 19:20:07

Yet, “Mr.  Hollande may simply lack the political courage to confront his allies and make the necessary decisions.” What those decisions are seems far less clear, which really is little surprising seeing the contentious nature of academic debate on these questions. Still, for Erlanger it is clear that “in a more competitive world economy, the question is whether … the French can continue to afford [their]” “social model.” “Based on current trends, the answer is clearly no, not without significant structural changes — in pensions, in taxes, in social benefits, in work rules and in expectations.” I don’t fundamentally disagree with his overall assessment of France requiring some reform, I do wonder if the New York Times would ever publish a similar piece arguing the same thing for the US’ military and public health spending for which “based on current trends, the answer is [as] clearly no.” France is in no way an outlier in the unsustainability of its public finances and this hardly is a reflection of the size of its social model.

Let’s keep on going though, French “growth is slow compared with Germany, Britain, the United States or Asia.” Ignoring the (still) rapidly developing nations in Asia that it is a bit weird to directly compare to any rich Western country, how does France compare with the rest of the West? France is growing slower than the United States and export-dependent Germany, growth has interestingly enough been faster in France since 2005 than in the UK though. This even while the latter clearly outperformed France from 1995 onwards. Not only does the rest of Europe differ little from France once more (it is worse off actually), it is additionally far from clear what a comparison between the British and French experiences of the crisis should tell us.

Eurostat_Graph_tsdec100 Screenshot from 2013-08-27 19:34:09

I could go on and wonder about Erlanger’s criticism of “82 percent of the new jobs created last year [being] temporary contracts” that are “not the kind of full-time work that opens the door to the French middle class,” which of course sounds like exactly the French Leftist he had been criticizing before. Isn’t that the kind of deregulation France is supposed to pine for? Or that a national debt figure of 90% of GDP is little different from Germany (82%), the UK (88%), and much better than the US (101%). Obviously France needs to do some reforms, but so does most everybody else. The attention focused on France’s supposedly dire economic situation in the English-language media in particular – but also in Germany – hardly seems justified by any objective measure. To the contrary, it is oftentimes based on faulty assumptions.

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The Islamist Challenge in Algeria – What Lessons for Egypt?

Comparisons between Algeria and Egypt have been all the rage recently. A whole number of interesting pieces about the worrisome potential similarities (and the seemingly reassuring dissimilarities) have been written. Amongst these the most insightful ones I read were Hicham Yezza on Open Democracy and William Lawrence on Fikra Forum. Of course, as Lawrence puts it, stating the obvious, “Egypt is not Algeria,” yet at least superficial similarities between the two military-led putsches against an electoral majority abound and make a closer look into them worthwhile.

Following a suggestion by Shadi Hamid on Twitter, I thus read Michael Willis‘ history of events in Algeria until 1996 entitled The Islamist Challenge in Algeria – A Political History. Willis starts out his book, based on his Ph.D. thesis, with a history of political Islam – or Islam used for political means however you prefer – in the region of what is today Algeria. The difference between the traditional Sufi-inspired variety of Islam in the region and the reformist Islam essentially imported from the Gulf and Egypt he highlights is very interesting, especially in light of its urban (reformist) vs rural (traditional) component, if maybe little relevant outside the Maghreb. Following a discussion of (the regionally traditional) Islam as a tool in resistance against the French in the 19th century, he moves on to a discussion of a reformist Islam as a mainly cultural tool of national affirmation in the early 20th century. This movement during the Algerian war of independence is essentially incorporated into the FLN (Front de libération nationale).

Political Islam as an independent movement comes to the forefront once again in the 1980s then when the FLN-regime following the death of President Houari Boumedienne and in light of economic stagnation and rising unemployment was faced with wide-spread societal opposition (also from Feminist and Berber groups). The emergence of political Islam as an actor in political debate in for example the passing of a more restrictive Family Code in 1984, was paralleled by a minority of its adherents attempts at a ultimately defeated violent campaign against the state led by Mustapha Bouyali‘s MAIA (Mouvement algérien islamique armé).

Some of Algeria’s traditional Islamist leaders then went on to found the FIS (Front islamique du salut) to seize upon a thaw of the regime’s authoritarian mode of governance in the wake of massive demonstrations in 1988. In a clear parallel to the movements of the Arab Spring, these demonstrations were not predominantly made up or led by figures representing political Islam yet they were thrown into a leadership position thanks to their discipline and organisation in the face of a disparate if not to say chaotic mass movement.

The Algerian President at the time, Chadli Bendjedid, positioned himself in favour of a further opening of the political system allowing competitive elections first at the local level in 1990 and then nationally in 1991. Willis seems undecided as to his motives, which might have simply been a belief in the need for more democracy, but – this is the cynic in me talking – more likely was a reflection of him trying to establish himself as an independent power broker between the traditional ruling party, the FLN, and the new force in the field, the FIS. Chadli also seems to have underestimated the electoral appeal of the FIS, which not only swept the local elections in 1990, but also the first round of national elections in 1991, almost winning an absolute majority of seats in the first round alone.

An interesting aspect, interspersed in between the local elections dominated by the FIS and the national elections in December 1991, is that the national Assembly introduced a electoral voting reform in the Summer of 1990, with the FLN majority essentially trying to gerrymander itself to victory. The FIS called a general strike against this clearly anti-democratic attempt, yet it failed to mobilize a majority of working Algerians in support of this strike. It did manage to incite important crowds to take part in demonstrations, which became increasingly violent. This, of course, points to another interesting parallel with the Arab Spring, these being the bifurcation of society and especially the attractiveness of political Islam – or alternatively anybody who positions himself against the state as recent events in Egypt and the Tunisian interior have shown – as an alternative for those de facto excluded from the relative prosperity offered to a select few by an over-regulated economic system.

The Algerian military putsches itself into power in early 1991 then, forcing Chadli to resign and installing a civilian President, Mohamed Boudiaf, at the head of a council also including the actual strongman of the new regime, Khaled Nezzar, as its Defense Minister. In an interesting aside for Egypt, Boudiaf, untainted by much what had gone on in the past due to his exile, assumed a much more prominent role in trying to reignite the Algerian economy and incorporating the FIS’ voters back into society’s fold than most had presumed. Adly Mansour has so far shown little signs assuming such a role and in any case Boudiaf might have paid for his (semi-)independence with his life as he was assassinated soon after in uncertain circumstances.

Algeria descended into a civil war of course with anywhere from 60 to 150 thousand victims. Willis’ book – for no fault of his – ends a bit disappointingly early in 1996 and thus tells us little about the end to this slaughter. Yet, his portrayal of its beginnings and the vain attempts to end it early on remain insightful. Maybe the most important lesson for Egypt is that the FIS was essentially beheaded by the Algerian security forces, its leadership in prison or in exile, which served the radicalization of those activists not – yet – in prison. Resistance or insurrectionist groups thus multiplied and were essentially incontrollable by any single entity. Notably, the FIS never had any control over the most important of these groups, the GIA (Groupe islamique armé).

The danger for Egypt and its new government might thus not be that it cannot effectively get rid – les liquider ou les emprisonner tous (Le Monde)– of the cadres of the Muslim Brotherhood, what instead arguably poses the greatest threat to the country is what happens afterwards. Will the Egyptian military create the very Hydra it claims to be fighting? It is at this point that I side most with Lawrence’s aforementioned piece which argues that it is essentially the military’s behavior from here on out that matters most.

The Islamist Challenge in Algeria provides an interesting insight into the past of political Islam in Algeria, while seemingly offering some pertinent lessons for the countries of the Arab Spring. Rashid al-Ghannushi the Tunisian governmental Ennahda party’s President for one was in Algeria and closely associated with the leadership of the FIS at the time, arguably his more moderate and inclusive leadership, which has allowed Tunisia to remain the best hope for democracy in the region still standing, is also due to the lessons he drew from his Algerian comrades’ experience. Something that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are learning in a disgustingly bloody way now.


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