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Political Economy

Too narrow an interpretation of republicanism can rob us off many of the tools and insights we should now be employing. This is no time for elite paternalism. As an intellectual tradition, republicanism is a broad church. J. G. A. Pocock’s seminal charting of a particular part of that tradition, his genealogy of republicanism’s role in Britain’s 13 North American colonies’ struggle for and consolidation of their independence in The Machiavellian Moment, takes in figures as different as Niccolò Machiavelli and Alexander Hamilton. Any attempt to draw on the republican tradition for contemporary political insight needs to be aware, then, of the variety of thinkers who fall within it and the specificity of the problems they were trying to solve. Often their differences are considerably greater than their similarities, and in failing to appreciate those differences, much of the sophistication and plausibility of the lessons we might learn from the tradition can be lost.

The leadership turnover in China last year took place in a shifting political situation. Namely, there have been increased calls for more political accountability and multi-candidate elections, broader media freedom and financial reform. We need to watch this closely. How China’s leadership reacts to these calls for change will determine whether it will continue its phenomenal ‘rise’ or be hampered by intransigence. Let’s take a closer look at the context. The uprisings in the Arab world have prompted many to ask whether China will be the next to be swept along in a wave of popular unrest that has toppled rulers in several countries. Indeed, the Chinese leadership, both in power and previously in power, has been watching the situation carefully. This attention has been particularly justified considering that the current Chinese president assumed power at a time when social media became a real force. These new forms of communication played an undisputable role in the Arab and Maghreb uprisings. Now, half a billion Chinese are registered on Sina Weibo, a website much like Twitter. This online platform has served “netizens” to voice many complaints ranging from governance malfunctions and corruption to food and environmental issues. This raises inevitable questions. Is the bid for democratic reform a matter of time? Might the prediction of an “end of history” and of a uniform move in the direction of liberal democracy make a comeback? Or, might there be other sustainable alternatives?

I recently interviewed Professor Rosemary Foot about her new book, China Across the Divide: the domestic and global in politics and society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), as part of Politics and Spires’s OxOn China series. NH: What is the book about? RF: The book’s main argument is that, as students of international relations, we need to do more to collapse the divide between the domestic and global spheres of analysis. I make this argument with special reference to China, but I think it can be applied to other countries. I have chosen three main approaches to illustrate this phenomenon of the interconnectedness between the global and domestic levels of analysis. The first section of the book looks at ideas emerging from within China itself, at both mass and elite levels, about the country’s place in the world and how it should conduct its external relations. The argument is not that these ideas determine policy decisions, but help to shape, or set the broad contours of, the decisions that are arrived at. The second section looks at involvement in inter-societal enmeshments between China and other countries, and both the intended and unintended consequences of these linkages. This part of the book looks at the ways in which these non-state relations are transforming not only China itself but also the world of which it is a part. The third section focuses on three major global issues that are salient or intrusive at the domestic level and which require either some alterations in domestic ways of life or generate resistance at the domestic level to that intrusiveness. NH: What inspired you to write/edit it?

Fiscal austerity, fiscal consolidation and spending cutbacks currently dominate the politics of many of the world’s democracies. Old political arguments are being tested with new battles emerging over whose expectations are to be disappointed and who should be blamed for fiscal squeeze. Can the fiscal travails of the early United States in the 1840s, when half of the states then in the Union had to default over their debts and new unpopular taxes had to be imposed in the middle of an international trade slump, help us draw lessons for the Eurozone debt crisis of the early 2010s? Could cases often presented as ‘poster children’ of successful fiscal consolidation (and at those often portrayed as failures or ‘basket cases’) inform us about the politics of those fiscal squeezes? Can governments that copy ‘good’ examples of fiscal squeeze escape punishment at the polls? A recent conference on the politics of fiscal squeeze explored some these issues and looked at how it has played out in different times and places. It considered in depth nine cases of fiscal squeeze (defined as the political effort that goes into reining in expenditure or raising taxes) and explored what conclusions we can draw for current debates about fiscal squeeze from earlier cases in other democracies.

Private households in the UK own an estimated £10.3 trillion in property and other assets, most of which is relatively lightly taxed. Following the 2008 financial crash, the need to find additional public resources to reduce or obviate the need for painful spending cuts and fund growing long-term demand for public services makes wealth an attractive potential tax base. However, while it is generally accepted that the current system of property and wealth taxation in the UK is highly flawed, there is no broad political consensus on whether and how different forms of wealth should be taxed. There is also a lack of evidence about the potential impact of different approaches.

“What kind of economy is consistent with living inside a living being?” This was a question posed under a leafy canopy, deep in the woods of southern England, not far from Schumacher College where I’d come as a teacher. I stood listening with a group of students as resident ecologist Stephan Harding asked what for me would become a pivotal question – the only question there is, really, as we negotiate the turn from the industrial age into a new age of civilization. I’d come to Schumacher to share my learnings from four years as cofounder ofCorporation 20/20 at Tellus Institute in Boston, where I’d helped lead hundreds of experts in business, law, government, labor, and civil society to explore a critical question: How could corporations be redesigned to incorporate social and ecological aims as deeply as financial aims? Over 20 years as co-founder and publisher of Business Ethics magazine, I’d seen how corporations and financial markets had come to be the dominant institutions of society, how their profit-maximizing operating system had become the operating system of the planet. That design lay at the root of many major ills facing our society. But Stephan’s talk helped me understand why redesigning corporations did not quite hit the mark as the solution: You don’t start with the corporation and ask how to redesign it. You start with life, with human life and the life of the planet, and ask, how do we generate the conditions for life’s flourishing?

Index on Censorship is seeking entries for its student blogging competition.  To enter, students should submit a 500-word blog post on the following topic: ‘What is one of the biggest challenges facing freedom of expression in the world today?’ This could cover a repressive regime, threats to digital freedom, religious clampdowns or attacks on media freedom, focusing on any region or country around the world. The competition is open to all first-year undergraduate students in the UK, and the winning entry will be determined by a panel of judges including the Index Chair. The winning entry will be published in the Index on Censorship magazine.  This is a opportunity for talented student writers and activists to get professionally published and make contact …

Basic income is a regular unconditional cash grant paid to all citizens without any means test or work requirement. It’s often dismissed as a utopian idea. However, a basic income, or something very close to it, exists today in Alaska. It’s called the Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) or sometimes “the Alaska Dividend.” The PFD has been paying annual dividends to Alaskans since 1982 with no conditions except citizenship, residency, and the willingness to fill out a form. After following the Alaska Dividend since 1999, and I want to share six lessons that supporters of progressive economic policy should learn from what I call “the Alaska model,” but first some basic background. In 1956, Alaska ratified a constitution recognizing joint ownership of unoccupied land and natural resources. In 1967, North America’s largest oil reserve was discovered in state owned areas on Alaska’s North Slope. In 1976, a state referendum created the Alaska Permanent Fund (APF), a portfolio of diversified assets, into which the government would invest a small part of the state’s oil revenue each year as a way to turn the temporary stream of oil money into permanent wealth. Back then, the state had no plan for what to do with the APF. In 1982, the state government finally decided to distribute part of the returns from that fund as a yearly dividend, and the Alaska model was born. The APF continues to rise with yearly deposits from oil revenue, and it goes up and down with the financial markets.