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Friedman: A Crise É Política

George Friedman

A crise é política, já ultrapassou a dimensão financeira ou económica e não pode ser confundida com “pânicos financeiros” ou meras recessões. O que temos é uma “global crisis of legitimacy”, uma grave crise política, portanto.  A análise é de George Friedman, o patrão da Stratfor, e é de 04 de Maio… de 2010. Tem três anos, portanto! O aviso de Friedman foi distribuído directamente a todos os seus “partners”, pelo mundo inteiro. Os empresários que o perceberam ganharam imenso. Infelizmente, os políticos não parecem tê-lo percebido. Em 09 de Agosto de 2011, George Friedman retoma explicitamente o tema, num outro “alerta” para os partners: Global Economic Downturn: A Crisis of Political Economy”. Como esta questão da natureza da crise, seu tipo e consequências parece estar longe de ter sido entendida pela maioria dos nossos decisores políticos, pelos analistas e, naturalmente, pelas “aves canoras” de serviço no universo político-mediático, que repetem à saciedade uma “cassete” de lugares-comuns sem conteúdo, aqui se regista, para os nossos leitores, o trabalho do nosso Amigo George Friedman sobre a natureza da crise, sua evolução e seu significado. Lê-lo não será tempo perdido… Bem pelo contrário.

 

George Friedman: The Global Crisis of Legitimacy

by George Friedman   .    Stratfor  May 4, 2010 | 0856 GMT

Financial panics are an integral part of capitalism. So are economic recessions. The system generates them and it becomes stronger because of them. Like forest fires, they are painful when they occur, yet without them, the forest could not survive. They impose discipline, punishing the reckless, rewarding the cautious. They do so imperfectly, of course, as at times the reckless are rewarded and the cautious penalized. Political crises — as opposed to normal financial panics — emerge when the reckless appear to be the beneficiaries of the crisis they have caused, while the rest of society bears the burdens of their recklessness. At that point, the crisis ceases to be financial or economic. It becomes political.

The financial and economic systems are subsystems of the broader political system. More precisely, think of nations as consisting of three basic systems: political, economic and military. Each of these systems has elites that manage it. The three systems are constantly interacting — and in a healthy polity, balancing each other, compensating for failures in one as well as taking advantage of success. Every nation has a different configuration within and between these systems. The relative weight of each system differs, as does the importance of its elites. But each nation contains these systems, and no system exists without the other two.

Limited Liability Investing

Consider the capitalist economic system. The concept of the corporation provides its modern foundation. The corporation is built around the idea of limited liability for investors, the notion that if you buy part or all of a company, you yourself are not liable for its debts or the harm that it might do; your risk is limited to your investment. In other words, you may own all or part of a company, but you are not responsible for what it does beyond your investment. Whereas supply and demand exist in all times and places, the notion of limited liability investing is unique to modern capitalism and reshapes the dynamic of supply and demand.

It is also a political invention and not an economic one. The decision to create corporations that limit liability flows from political decisions implemented through the legal subsystem of politics. The corporation dominates even in China; though the rules of liability and the definition of control vary, the principle that the state and politics define the structure of corporate risk remains constant.

In a more natural organization of the marketplace, the owners are entirely responsible for the debts and liabilities of the entity they own. That, of course, would create excessive risk, suppressing economic activity. So the political system over time has reallocated risk away from the owners of companies to the companies’ creditors and customers by allowing corporations to become bankrupt without pulling in the owners.

The precise distribution of risk within an economic system is a political matter expressed through the law; it differs from nation to nation and over time. But contrary to the idea that there is a tension between the political and economic systems, the modern economic system is unthinkable except for the eccentric but indispensible political-legal contrivance of the limited liability corporation. In the precise and complex allocation of risk and immunity, we find the origins of the modern market. Among other reasons, this is why classical economists never spoke of “economics” but always of “political economy.”

The state both invents the principle of the corporation and defines the conditions in which the corporation is able to arise. The state defines the structure of risk and liabilities and assures that the laws are enforced. Emerging out of this complexity — and justifying it — is a moral regime. Protection from liability comes with a burden: Poor decisions will be penalized by losses, while wise decisions are rewarded by greater wealth. Because of this, society as a whole will benefit. The entire scheme is designed to increase, in Adam Smith’s words, “The Wealth of Nations” by limiting liability, increasing the willingness to take risk and imposing penalties for poor judgment and rewards for wise judgment. But the measure of the system is not whether individuals benefit, but whether in benefiting they enhance the wealth of the nation.

The greatest systemic risk, therefore, is not an economic concept but a political one. Systemic risk emerges when it appears that the political and legal protections given to economic actors, and particularly to members of the economic elite, have been used to subvert the intent of the system. In other words, the crisis occurs when it appears that the economic elite used the law’s allocation of risk to enrich themselves in ways that undermined the wealth of the nation. Put another way, the crisis occurs when it appears that the financial elite used the politico-legal structure to enrich themselves through systematically imprudent behavior while those engaged in prudent behavior were harmed, with the political elite apparently taking no action to protect the victims.

In the modern public corporation, shareholders — the corporation’s owners — rarely control management. A board of directors technically oversees management on behalf of the shareholders. In the crisis of 2008, we saw behavior that devastated shareholder value while appearing to enrich the management — the corporation’s employees. In this case, the protections given to shareholders of corporations were turned against them when they were forced to pay for the imprudence of their employees — the managers, whose interests did not align with those of the shareholders. The managers in many cases profited personally through their compensation system for actions inimical to shareholder interests. We now have a political, not an economic, crisis for two reasons. First, the crisis qualitatively has moved beyond the boundaries of a cyclical event. Second, the crisis is rooted in the political-legal definitions of the distribution of corporate risk and the legally defined relations between management and shareholder. In leaving the shareholder liable for actions by management, but without giving shareholders controls to limit managerial risk taking, the problem lies not with the market but with the political system that invented and presides over the limited liability corporation.

Financial panics that appear natural and harm the financial elite do not necessarily create political crises. Financial panics that appear to be the result of deliberate manipulation of the allocation of risk under the law, and from which the financial elite as a whole appears to have profited even while shareholders and the public were harmed, inevitably create political crises. In the case of 2008 and the events that followed, we have a paradox. The 2008 crisis was not unprecedented, nor was the federal bailout. We saw similar things in the municipal bond crisis of the 1970s, and the Third World Debt Crisis and Savings and Loan Crisis in the 1980s. Nor was the recession that followed anomalous. It came seven years after the previous one, and compared to the 1970s and early 1980s, when unemployment stood at more than 10 percent and inflation and mortgages were at more than 20 percent, the new one was painful but well within the bounds of expected behavior.

The crisis was rooted in the appearance that it was triggered by the behavior not of small town banks or third world countries, but of the global financial elite, who took advantage of the complexities of law to enrich themselves instead of the shareholders and clients to whom it was thought they had prior fiduciary responsibility.

This is a political crisis then, not an economic one. The political elite is responsible for the corporate elite in a unique fashion: The corporation was a political invention, so by definition, its behavior depends on the political system. But in a deeper sense, the crisis is one of both political and corporate elites, and the perception that by omission or commission they acted together — knowingly engineering the outcome. In a sense, it does not matter whether this is what happened. That it is widely believed that this is what happened alone is the origin of the crisis. This generates a political crisis that in turn is translated into an attack on the economic system.

The public, which is cynical about such things, expects elites to work to benefit themselves. But at the same time, there are limits to the behavior the public will tolerate. That limit might be defined, with Adam Smith in mind, as the point when the wealth of the nation itself is endangered, i.e., when the system is generating outcomes that harm the nation. In extreme form, these crises can delegitimize regimes. In the most extreme form — and we are nowhere near this point — the military elite typically steps in to take control of the system.

This is not something that is confined to the United States by any means, although part of this analysis is designed to explain why the Obama administration must go after Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers and others. The symbol of Goldman Sachs profiting from actions that devastate national wealth, or of the management of Lehman wiping out shareholder value while they themselves did well, creates a crisis of confidence in the political and financial systems. With the crisis of legitimacy still not settling down after nearly two years, the reaction of the political system is predictable. It will both anoint symbolic miscreants, and redefine the structure of risk and liability in financial corporations. The goal is not so much to achieve something as to create the impression that it is achieving something, in other words, to demonstrate that the political system is prepared to control the entities it created.

The Crisis in Europe

We see a similar crisis in Europe. The financial institutions in Europe were fully complicit in the global financial crisis. They bought and sold derivatives whose value they knew to be other than stated, the same as Americans. Though the European financial institutions have asserted they were the hapless victims of unscrupulous American firms, the Europeans were as sophisticated as their American counterparts. Their elites knew what they were doing.

Complicating the European position was the creation of the economic union and the euro by the economic and political elite. There has always been a great deal of ambiguity concerning the powers and authority of the European Union, but its intentions were always clear: to harmonize Europe and to create European-wide solutions to economic problems. This goal always created unease in Europe. There were those who were concerned that a united Europe would exist to benefit the elites, rather than the broader public. There were also those who believed it was designed to benefit the Franco-German core of Europe rather than Europe as a whole. Overall, this reflected minority sentiment, but it was a substantial minority.

The financial crisis came at Europe in three phases. The first was part of the American subprime crisis. The second wave was a uniquely European crisis. European banks had taken massive positions in the Eastern European banking systems. For example, the Czech system was almost entirely foreign (Austrian and Italian) owned. These banks began lending to Eastern European homebuyers, with mortgages denominated in euros, Swiss francs or yen rather than in the currencies of the countries involved (none yet included in the eurozone). Doing this allowed banks to reduce interest rates, as the risk of currency fluctuation was pushed over to the borrower. But when the zlotys and forints began to plunge, these monthly mortgage payments began to soar, as did defaults. The European core, led by Germany, refused a European bailout of the borrowers or lenders even though the lenders who created this crisis were based in eurozone countries. Instead, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was called in to use funds that included American and Chinese, as well as European, money to solve the problem. This raised the political question in Eastern Europe as to what it meant to be part of the European Union.

The third wave is represented by crisis in sovereign debt in countries that are part of the eurozone but not in the core of Europe — Greece, of course, but also Portugal and possibly Spain. In the Greek case, the Germans in particular hesitated to intervene until it could draw the IMF — and non-European money and guarantees — into the mix. This obviously raised questions in the periphery about what membership in the eurozone meant, just as it created questions in Eastern Europe about what EU membership meant.

But a much deeper crisis of legitimacy arose. In Germany, elite sentiment accepted that some sort of intervention in Greece was inevitable. Public sentiment overwhelmingly opposed intervention, however. The political elite moved into tension with the financial elite under public pressure. In Greece, a similar crisis emerged between an elite that accepted that foreign discipline would have to be introduced and a public that saw this discipline as a betrayal of its interests and national sovereignty.

Europe thus has a double crisis. As in the United States, there is a crisis between the financial and political systems. This crisis is not as intense as in the United States because of a deeper tradition of integration between the two systems in Europe. But the tension between masses and elites is every bit as intense. The second part of the crisis is the crisis of the European Union and growing sense that the European Union is the problem and not the solution. As in the United States, there is a growing movement to distrust not only national arrangements but also multinational arrangements.

The United States and Europe are far from the only areas of the world facing crises of legitimacy. In China, for example, the growing suppression of all dissent derives from serious questions as to whom the financial expansion of the past 30 years benefits, and who will pay for the downturns. It is also interesting to note that Russia is suffering much less from this crisis, having lived through its own crisis before. The global crisis of legitimacy has many aspects worth considering at some point.

But for now, the important thing is to understand that both Europe and the United States are facing fundamental challenges to the legitimacy of, if not the regime, then at least the manner in which the regime has handled itself. The geopolitical significance of this crisis is obvious. If the Americans and Europeans both enter a period in which managing the internal balance becomes more pressing than managing the global balance, then other powers will have enhanced windows of opportunities to redefine their regional balances.

In the United States, we see a predictable process. With the unease over elites intensifying, the political elite is trying to stabilize the situation by attacking the financial elite. It is doing this to both demonstrate that the political elite is distinct from the financial elite and to impose the consequences on the financial elite that the impersonal system was unable to do. There is precedent for this, and it will likely achieve its desired end: greater control over the financial system by the state and an acceptable moral tale for the public.

The European process is much less clear. The lack of clarity comes from the fact that this is a test for the European Union. This is not simply a crisis within national elites, but within the multinational elite that created the European Union. If this leads to the de-legitimization of the EU, then we are really in uncharted territory.

But the most important point is that almost two years since a normal financial panic, the polity has still not managed to absorb the consequences of that event. The politically contrived corporation, and particularly the financial corporations, stands accused of undermining the wealth of nations. As Adam Smith understood, markets are not natural entities but the result of political decisions, as is the political system that creates the allocation of risk that allows markets to function. When that system appears to fail, the consequences go far beyond the particular financials of that event. They have political consequences and, in due course, geopolitical consequences.

Stratfor: The Global Crisis of Legitimacy | Stratfor

 

Global Economic Downturn: A Crisis of Political Economy

The current economic crisis is best understood as a crisis of political economy. Moreover, it has to be understood as a global crisis enveloping the United States, Europe and China that has different details but one overriding theme: the relationship between the political order and economic life. On a global scale, or at least for most of the world’s major economies, there is a crisis of political economy. Let’s consider how it evolved.

Stratfor  August 9, 2011 | 0854 GMT

By George Friedman

Classical political economists like Adam Smith or David Ricardo never used the term “economy” by itself. They always used the term “political economy.” For classical economists, it was impossible to understand politics without economics or economics without politics. The two fields are certainly different but they are also intimately linked. The use of the term “economy” by itself did not begin until the late 19th century. Smith understood that while an efficient market would emerge from individual choices, those choices were framed by the political system in which they were made, just as the political system was shaped by economic realities. For classical economists, the political and economic systems were intertwined, each dependent on the other for its existence.

Origin of the Crisis

As we all know, the origin of the current financial crisis was the subprime mortgage meltdown in the United States. To be more precise, it originated in a financial system generating paper assets whose value depended on the price of housing. It assumed that the price of homes would always rise and, at the very least, if the price fluctuated the value of the paper could still be determined. Neither proved to be true. The price of housing declined and, worse, the value of the paper assets became indeterminate. This placed the entire American financial system in a state of gridlock and the crisis spilled over into Europe, where many financial institutions had purchased the paper as well.

From the standpoint of economics, this was essentially a financial crisis: who made or lost money and how much. From the standpoint of political economy it raised a different question: the legitimacy of the financial elite. Think of a national system as a series of subsystems — political, economic, military and so on. Then think of the economic system as being divisible into subsystems — various corporate verticals with their own elites, with one of the verticals being the financial system. Obviously, this oversimplifies the situation, but I’m doing that to make a point. One of the systems, the financial system, failed, and this failure was due to decisions made by the financial elite. This created a massive political problem centered not so much on confidence in any particular financial instrument but on the competence and honesty of the financial elite itself. A sense emerged that the financial elite was either stupid or dishonest or both. The idea was that the financial elite had violated all principles of fiduciary, social and moral responsibility in seeking its own personal gain at the expense of society as a whole.

Fair or not, this perception created a massive political crisis. This was the true systemic crisis, compared to which the crisis of the financial institutions was trivial. The question was whether the political system was capable not merely of fixing the crisis but also of holding the perpetrators responsible. Alternatively, if the financial crisis did not involve criminality, how could the political system not have created laws to render such actions criminal? Was the political elite in collusion with the financial elite?

There was a crisis of confidence in the financial system and a crisis of confidence in the political system. The U.S. government’s actions in September 2008 were designed first to deal with the failures of the financial system. Many expected this would be followed by dealing with the failures of the financial elite, but this is perceived not to have happened. Indeed, the perception is that having spent large sums of money to stabilize the financial system, the political elite allowed the financial elite to manage the system to its benefit.

This generated the second crisis — the crisis of the political elite. The Tea Party movement emerged in part as critics of the political elite, focusing on the measures taken to stabilize the system and arguing that it had created a new financial crisis, this time in excessive sovereign debt. The Tea Party’s perception was extreme, but the idea was that the political elite had solved the financial problem both by generating massive debt and by accumulating excessive state power. Its argument was that the political elite used the financial crisis to dramatically increase the power of the state (health care reform was the poster child for this) while mismanaging the financial system through excessive sovereign debt.

The Crisis in Europe

The sovereign debt question also created both a financial crisis and then a political crisis in Europe. While the American financial crisis certainly affected Europe, the European political crisis was deepened by the resulting recession. There had long been a minority in Europe who felt that the European Union had been constructed either to support the financial elite at the expense of the broader population or to strengthen Northern Europe, particularly France and Germany, at the expense of the periphery — or both. What had been a minority view was strengthened by the recession.

The European crisis paralleled the American crisis in that financial institutions were bailed out. But the deeper crisis was that Europe did not act as a single unit to deal with all European banks but instead worked on a national basis, with each nation focused on its own banks and the European Central Bank seeming to favor Northern Europe in general and Germany in particular. This became the theme particularly when the recession generated disproportionate crises in peripheral countries like Greece.

There are two narratives to the story. One is the German version, which has become the common explanation. It holds that Greece wound up in a sovereign debt crisis because of the irresponsibility of the Greek government in maintaining social welfare programs in excess of what it could fund, and now the Greeks were expecting others, particularly the Germans, to bail them out.

The Greek narrative, which is less noted, was that the Germans rigged the European Union in their favor. Germany is the world’s third-largest exporter, after China and the United States (and closing rapidly on the No. 2 spot). By forming a free trade zone, the Germans created captive markets for their goods. During the prosperity of the first 20 years or so, this was hidden beneath general growth. But once a crisis hit, the inability of Greece to devalue its money — which, as the euro, was controlled by the European Central Bank — and the ability of Germany to continue exporting without any ability of Greece to control those exports exacerbated Greece’s recession, leading to a sovereign debt crisis. Moreover, the regulations generated by Brussels so enhanced the German position that Greece was helpless.

Which narrative is true is not the point. The point is that Europe is facing two political crises generated by economics. One crisis is similar to the American one, which is the belief that Europe’s political elite protected the financial elite. The other is a distinctly European one, a regional crisis in which parts of Europe have come to distrust each other rather vocally. This could become an existential crisis for the European Union.

The Crisis in China

The American and European crises struck hard at China, which, as the world’s largest export economy, is a hostage to external demand, particularly from the United States and Europe. When the United States and Europe went into recession, the Chinese government faced an unemployment crisis. If factories closed, workers would be unemployed, and unemployment in China could lead to massive social instability. The Chinese government had two responses. The first was to keep factories going by encouraging price reductions to the point where profit margins on exports evaporated. The second was to provide unprecedented amounts of credit to enterprises facing default on debts in order to keep them in business.

The strategy worked, of course, but only at the cost of substantial inflation. This led to a second crisis, where workers faced the contraction of already small incomes. The response was to increase incomes, which in turn increased the cost of goods exported once again, making China’s wage rates less competitive, for example, than Mexico’s.

China had previously encouraged entrepreneurs. This was easy when Europe and the United States were booming. Now, the rational move by entrepreneurs was to go offshore or lay off workers, or both. The Chinese government couldn’t afford this, so it began to intrude more and more into the economy. The political elite sought to stabilize the situation — and their own positions — by increasing controls on the financial and other corporate elites.

In different ways, that is what happened in all three places — the United States, Europe and China — at least as first steps. In the United States, the first impulse was to regulate the financial sector, stimulate the economy and increase control over sectors of the economy. In Europe, where there were already substantial controls over the economy, the political elite started to parse how those controls would work and who would benefit more. In China, where the political elite always retained implicit power over the economy, that power was increased. In all three cases, the first impulse was to use political controls.

In all three, this generated resistance. In the United States, the Tea Party was simply the most active and effective manifestation of that resistance. It went beyond them. In Europe, the resistance came from anti-Europeanists (and anti-immigration forces that blamed the European Union’s open border policies for uncontrolled immigration). It also came from political elites of countries like Ireland who were confronting the political elites of other countries. In China, the resistance has come from those being hurt by inflation, both consumers and business interests whose exports are less competitive and profitable.

Not every significant economy is caught in this crisis. Russia went through this crisis years ago and had already tilted toward the political elite’s control over the economy. Brazil and India have not experienced the extremes of China, but then they haven’t had the extreme growth rates of China. But when the United States, Europe and China go into a crisis of this sort, it can reasonably be said that the center of gravity of the world’s economy and most of its military power is in crisis. It is not a trivial moment.

Crisis does not mean collapse. The United States has substantial political legitimacy to draw on. Europe has less but its constituent nations are strong. China’s Communist Party is a formidable entity but it is no longer dealing with a financial crisis. It is dealing with a political crisis over the manner in which the political elite has managed the financial crisis. It is this political crisis that is most dangerous, because as the political elite weakens it loses the ability to manage and control other elites.

It is vital to understand that this is not an ideological challenge. Left-wingers opposing globalization and right-wingers opposing immigration are engaged in the same process — challenging the legitimacy of the elites. Nor is it simply a class issue. The challenge emanates from many areas. The challengers are not yet the majority, but they are not so far away from it as to be discounted. The real problem is that, while the challenge to the elites goes on, the profound differences in the challengers make an alternative political elite difficult to imagine.

The Crisis of Legitimacy

This, then, is the third crisis that can emerge: that the elites become delegitimized and all that there is to replace them is a deeply divided and hostile force, united in hostility to the elites but without any coherent ideology of its own. In the United States this would lead to paralysis. In Europe it would lead to a devolution to the nation-state. In China it would lead to regional fragmentation and conflict.

These are all extreme outcomes and there are many arrestors. But we cannot understand what is going on without understanding two things. The first is that the political economic crisis, if not global, is at least widespread, and uprisings elsewhere have their own roots but are linked in some ways to this crisis. The second is that the crisis is an economic problem that has triggered a political problem, which in turn is making the economic problem worse.

The followers of Adam Smith may believe in an autonomous economic sphere disengaged from politics, but Adam Smith was far more subtle. That’s why he called his greatest book the Wealth of Nations. It was about wealth, but it was also about nations. It was a work of political economy that teaches us a great deal about the moment we are in.

Stratfor: Global Economic Downturn: A Crisis of Political Economy | Stratfor


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