American Double Standard on Spying

Alan GrossDuring the State of the Union address, you may have noticed a guy who was recently released from prison in Cuba. His name was Alan Gross, and President Obama told us, “[A]fter years in prison, we’re overjoyed that Alan Gross is back where he belongs.” Gross has been portrayed as a naive do-gooder, who the evil Cuban government treated like a spy. But the truth is at least a whole lot more complicated than that. And I would argue that the Cuban government treated Gross like a spy because Gross acted like a spy. He may not be a spy in the sense that he doesn’t work as an agent of the CIA. But he was working as a contractor for the US government doing espionage in Cuba.

What Gross was supposedly doing was setting up internet access for the Cuban Jewish community. That’s true in a sense. But as John Stoehr noted, “In 2009, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) paid Alan Gross, through a third party, almost $600,000 to go to the island nation to install military-grade internet equipment in Jewish synagogues that could not be detected by the government in Havana.” This is the kind of equipment that only the military and intelligence agency can get their hands on. Gross very clearly and knowingly broke Cuban law and was sentenced to 15 years for “criminal acts against the independence of the Cuban nation.” That it was — just as surely as the Bay of Pigs was.

The obvious retort to this is if Jewish synagogues want to have this kind of equipment they ought to be allowed. I totally agree! But you know who doesn’t agree? The United States government. If the Cuban government sent agents into the United States to install high tech gizmos for the purpose of evading surveillance, our government would arrest those agents and throw them in prison — very likely for a lot longer than 15 years. So it is just outrageous for the United States to claim that Cuba is in the wrong here when its government acted the same way that ours would.

Let’s remember: Edward Snowden is living in Russia right now. He not only can’t come back to the United States, he can’t even leave Russia. After Evo Morales said that he would consider giving Snowden asylum in Boliva, the US government got his plane forced down in Austria where it was searched in total disregard for diplomatic protocol. Similarly, Julian Assange is effectively under house arrest at the Ecuadoran embassy in London because the US wants to put him in prison for the rest of his life.

I’m for freedom of speech and the right to privacy — in the extreme. But until my own country shares my commitment, I’m not going to complain about other countries that are similarly small minded. (And Cuba has a much more valid reason for worrying than we do.) But this is always the way in the United States — not just with the government but also with our media. If a country is an enemy, whatever it does is bad and whatever we do to it is good. I discussed this a couple of days ago regarding the different treatment we give to Venezuela and the far, far worse Saudi Arabia, American Double Standard Regarding Democracy. So Obama and the rest can claim that Cuba was wrong to imprison Alan Gross. But they would have been all for it if the parties had been reversed.

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Paddy Chayefsky

Paddy ChayefskyOn this day in 1923, the great screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky was born. I know him primarily from three films: Marty, The Hospital, and Network. I’ll admit, I’ve never really understood Marty. Mostly it is just that no one could ever think that Betsy Blair wasn’t pretty enough for Ernest Borgnine. But the screenplay is quite good. It is a very sweet film — the kind that would likely be panned if it were released today.

But it is Chayefsky’s sharp satire in The Hospital and Network that he is most known for. I think they hold up quite well. But that may not speak so much of the films as it does to the fact that the world hasn’t much changed. The Howard Beale Show and The Mao Tse-Tung Hour in Network are only different from modern reality television in that these fictional shows actually showed so creativity. All that Chayefsky missed about the future was that the people who would bring it to us would be so unrelentingly boring — and that the nation would be just fine with that.

Most people remember the admittedly great “I’m mad as hell!” speech. But it isn’t really what Network is all about. It’s sad that people don’t remember the one scene that is really important. It’s a speech that tells humans that they are meaningless. It is the speech that eventually causes Howard Beale to be assassinated. But it isn’t Beale’s speech. It is the head of CCA, Arthur Jensen, who gives the important speech. It isn’t important because we should believe it. It is important because it completely summarizes what the Jensens of the world think about the rest of us. And if we don’t stand up to those people, we will continue to live in their worlds. “There are no peoples… There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars.”

Just five years after the success of Network, Chayefsky died of cancer at 58 years old. It’s sad because he was on a role. It would have been interesting to see what he went on to do.

Happy birthday Paddy Chayefsky!

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John Boehner’s Rotten Jobs Paid Well

John BoehnerSunday night, I wrote about the pathetic 60 Minutes segment that allowed John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to come on and pitch their talking points unmolested, Shameless Republican Ad on 60 Minutes. I wanted to add one more thing to that. In the discussion of the minimum wage, Boehner began to wax poetic about his days of working his way through college. This appears to be the case. Unlike most politicians, Boehner really is from relatively modest circumstances. But that doesn’t make his argument any stronger.

He gave the same old apologia for allowing the poor to work for next to nothing:

I’ve had every kinda rotten job you can imagine growing up and getting myself through school. And I wouldn’t have had a chance at half those jobs if the federal government had kept imposing higher minimum wage. You take the bottom rungs off the economic ladder.

There are many things wrong with this. The biggest theoretical problem is that it depends upon a widely held myth about the way that business works. According to this theory, businesses hire people out of some sense of beneficence. That’s just not true. Businesses hire because they have to. They have work that needs to get done. So the idea that companies are going to cut workers because the minimum wage goes up is just madness. What will happen in a very small number of cases is that really badly run, inefficient companies, which are only profitable because they pay their works starvation wages, will go out of business. But these are just companies that are currently gaming the system and they deserve to go out of business.

But more important is the practical matter of just what the minimum wage was when little Johnny Boehner was working himself through college. He was born in 1949. So what was the minimum wage worth in the late 1960s? According to work by Dean Baker and Will Kimball, if the minimum wage had just kept pace with inflation, it would be $9.66 today (that’s with my adjustment from 2012 up to 2015). In addition, if it rose with productivity (which it always did until that time), it would now be almost $17.50. And if we look at just non-farm productivity growth, it would now be worth more than $23 per hour.

Real Value of Minimum Wage - Time Series

What Boehner did in the 60 Minutes interview is common among people his age. They look back on their own youths — when pretty much only youths had those kinds of jobs — and claim that they were just fine. Well that may be. But those jobs paid a lot more back then. If we use the non-farm productivity figure, John Boehner was earning three times what a minimum wage worker is earning today. And as I noted: these jobs are not for kids working their way through college; they are for adults with kids just trying to get through the month.

If Republicans and other conservatives want to stop the minimum wage from increasing, that’s fine. But don’t pretend that the minimum wage of today is the same as it always was. It isn’t. And until 1970, it always went up with the rate of productivity growth. It is no coincidence that when the minimum wage stopped growing, so did the wages for the rest of American workers. The current minimum wage simply adjusted for inflation is 67% of what it was in 1968, when John Boehner was doing “every kinda rotten job you can imagine.” The imagination problem is not with us; it is with him and all his conservative allies who can’t see that things have changed a lot since they were at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.


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Penn & Teller Nonsense

Penn & Teller BullshitI came upon a very interesting Rational Wiki article on Penn & Teller. This pair has bugged me for a very long time — especially after their ideological defense of Walmart. Their libertarian views skew everything they do. I generally have a problem when rich and successful people promote libertarianism. It is like someone who’s won a war saying, “Now let me explain why monarchy is the best form of government…” These are guys who had all the advantages of public education, unions and public sector jobs (Jillette’s father was a prison guard), and a safety net that allowed them to risk failure in a field where most fail. Yet now they have convinced themselves that it was all about them, and now they don’t want no stinking government to interfere with them — even at the cost to later generations having the same support that they depended on.

But the duo is interesting in that they are strictly rational when it comes to looking at claims like UFOs or ghosts, but when it comes to politics, they’re hopeless. On their show Penn & Teller: Bullshit! they couldn’t touch on anything even remotely associated with politics without falling into the ideologue’s trap: they started with their conclusion. (In fairness, their approach to UFOs and ghosts is probably just as predetermined — but those subjects have the advantages of having had actual scientists look into them.) Then their arguments were nothing more than setting up straw men to knock down and cherry picking data.

They were most notoriously wrong about global warming. Now a real skeptic looking into global warming would, I don’t know, talk to a scientist? Maybe James Hansen would have something to say on the issue. But Penn & Teller are far too smart for that! They went to the source of the best information on climate change: the Cato Institute. Because when you want objective information, the best place to go is to people who are ideologically committed to the science saying a particular thing. And even better, go to people who are ideologically committed in exactly the same way that you are! That way you can filter any actual information through that prism.

Okay, so that was back in 2003. There was little reason to doubt global warming then, but it was more understandable then. But in the years since, Jillette has only provided apologias for his previous positions. According to Rational Wiki, “In later interviews, Penn stated that anthropogenic global warming was probably real, but claimed that he was talking about not knowing whether ‘the whole package’ (ie the need for government intervention, presumably as opposed to a self-correcting market) was real.” But that’s not true: the duo was clearly making the case that all conservatives were making then, “We don’t know so we shouldn’t do anything!”

Further, Jillette (and Teller too, I assume) has only shown that he is doing the global warming denial steps. They are: (1) There is no global warming; (2) There is global warming, but humans aren’t the cause; and (3) Humans are causing global warming, but there is nothing we can do about it. There’s nothing rational about that. It is just, “I don’t want to believe and so I won’t.” And that makes him as rational and skeptical as your average fundamentalist Christian.

In 2008, the duo did an episode attacking the idea of carbon offsets. At that point, only loons were denying global warming. And there they were complaining about the most conservative response. Rational Wiki pointed out that in the episode, they used Argumentum ad Gorem, or Gore’s Law: “As an online climate change debate grows longer, the probability that denier arguments will descend into attacks on Al Gore approaches 1.” But what do you expect from a couple of libertarians? Rational argument?!

When it comes down to it, Penn & Teller will argue that they are just entertainers, “Just a clown! Just a clown!” But if that’s the case, why not step out of the skeptical movement? Why pretend that you are speaking the truth and not just pushing your own self-serving ideology? Why not stick to what you actually know? I would argue that the reason is because both these men are so deluded that they can’t even see their own biases. The same thing can be said for the New Atheist movement generally. And that’s probably why the New Atheists continue to admire them as their own.

See also: Philosophical Underpinnings of New Atheist Sexism.

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Hodgman’s Chait “PC” Twitter Response in English

John HodgmanNo one asked, but here are my thoughts about the Jonathan Chait piece in New York Magazine, Not a Very PC Thing to Say.

I acknowledge the phenomena he is describing is an actual thing. I was on a campus in the 90s and am on the internet now. I’ve seen and occasionally been confronted by principled passion and vitriol in response to what I thought was a mild opinion. I have been flustered at the suggestion that my opinion is simply invalid due to my privilege. I have watched all sides become entrench — their circular arguments tighten into sanctimonious death spirals, as they jockey for grievance status. Sometimes I conclude that many people just want to fight for its own sake; it offers them something; the other is not important.

It was ever thus online, however, as it was ever thus in every smelly college coffee house ever. There are toxic, pointless arguments all over the internet since internet began. Social justice is just one flavor of contentiousness. But I will say that the “PC” critiques, even at their most infuriating to me, almost always make me think and yes check my privilege. I’d never heard of cisgender until it had been hurled at me as an invalidating insult on Twitter. I bet it’s true for Chait too. But I am glad I know it now; I am glad to give these issues thought. It enlarges me to be called out, even when I conclude the caller is a troll, and especially when it’s by a person I respect.

Jonathan Chait offers very little evidence against this form of contentiousness, other than the anxiety and hurt feelings of some colleagues. To suggest that somehow this discourse is hurting its own side has a name: concern trolling. But I don’t want to invalidate his argument. Rather, I want to make a counter argument of my own. If Chait and heroes of mine like Andrew Sullivan [!?] want to make common cause against SJWs with gamergate that’s fine.

But I’ve avoided discussing gamergate out of fear of being drawn into a speech war that has had real world consequences on both sides. Because there are those who truly monitor and punish speech with doxing threats and harassment — from every philosophical spectrum. I’ve never had an exchange with the so called SJWs that I couldn’t shrug and move on from — sometimes smarter for it. I’ve learned tons from contentious folks of other stripes of Internet warriors as well: gamergate, MRAs, far right wing.

But when expression of opinion is met with real world attacks, the occasional harangue of the politically correct feels small to me.

—John Hodgman
My minor edit of his 22 twitter response
Compiled by German Lopez at Vox

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Palestine Gives Up on US — With Good Reason

Palestine Doesn't Trust USZack Beauchamp over at Vox wrote, It’s Over. It is more helpfully subtitled, “Why the Palestinians are finally giving up on Obama and the US peace process.” It’s a very interesting article. Basically, it is about how even Mahmoud Abbas has given up hope that a settlement can be reached in the traditional way everyone has previously thought with Israel on one side, Palestine on the other, and the United States in the middle. And it would seem that the proximate cause for this is John Kerry, who seems to have been every bit as clueless in dealing with the Palestinians as Condoleezza Rice had been — quite a feat!

But I wonder why anyone thought that the United States could be a neutral arbiter in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. I understand that the key to the conflict is where you are going to start it. That’s always the way it is with conflicts. If you tell me when it started, I will tell you what side you are one. When the Soviet Union was a going concern, they traced the Cold War back to World War I, whereas the US traced it back only to the period after World War II. But regardless of which side you come down on in the Middle East conflict, who thinks that America is a disinterested figure?

Things were probably different back in the 1970s. But today, the United States is pro-Israel in a way that defies all logic. Especially among conservatives, there seems to be more commitment to Israel than there is to the United States.[1] I think that is mostly due to the fact that Israel seems like a “kicking ass and taking names” kind of a country whereas the US is committed to diplomacy and all that sissy stuff. (Not that we are, but we give lip services to it.)

But more than this, there is just straight up racism going on. Israel looks more or less like the United States and Palestine looks like those people — you know, the ones who attacked us on 9/11. Out of Palestine we see desperate and mostly impotent attacks on anyone they can. We call this terrorism. Out of Israel, we see properly uniformed and armed forces that are devastatingly effective. We call this “Israel defending its right to exist.” In fact, these seem to get me into more arguments than I like. I have no problem with people siding with Israel, but it is a fantasy to claim that Israel’s tactics make it noble; both it’s tactics and those of the Palestinians are dictated by their power differential.

Given that there is pretty much nothing that Israel could do at this point that would alienate the American public — at least the way it is covered in the mainstream press — it is no surprise that our government has no interest in being an honest broker in the conflict. And I think it’s very simple: it is to Israel’s advantage to do nothing — at least in the short term. And if Israel were serious about a deal, it would stop the illegal settlements. But I think it is intent on allowing the situation to continue until a unified Palestine is impossible — figuring that it will just be able to finesse the situation at that time.

So I’m not surprised that Palestine is turning to the rest of the world, where they are much more likely to find people who understand that both sides have their problems. There isn’t much of an audience for that in the United States. So it isn’t surprising that our government hasn’t managed to get anything accomplished in a long time.

[1] It’s been a couple of days since I wrote this and it just occurred to me that people may think I’m referring to American Jews. That is not the case. In fact, it didn’t even occur to me. I am, of course, referring to Republicans — most of whom are evangelical Christians. Their support has little to do with the need for a safe place for a historically oppressed people. Rather, it is simply Islamophobia and the belief in the book of Revelation.

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John Banner

John BannerOn this day in 1910, the fine character actor John Banner was born. And 63 years later — to the day — he died. He had gone back to visit his home town. So apparently, you can go home — but it will kill you.

Banner is known for one thing: he played Sergeant Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes. As you may know, I was crazy about the show when I was a kid. And I’ve never really abandoned that, although my interest has become much more about what the show said about American attitudes about its place in the world. There was the bumbling, by-the-book British Colonel Crittendon. There was the mysterious and never quite trustworthy Russian spy Marya. But most of all, there was Sergeant Schultz: the good German who is just caught in the middle of a bad situation.

In one episode where Hogan manages to convince the Nazis that the war is over, we learn that Schultz was the owner of Germany’s largest toy maker before the government took it over to convert it to military uses. He’s probably a social democrat. He doesn’t like the Nazis. But mostly, he just doesn’t like conflict, “When it comes to war, I don’t like to take sides.” But there are times when the plot is used to turn Schultz into a real Nazi as when he takes over as commandant and when he is put in charge of making a movie. As I wrote before, “Schultz was the heart of the show.”

A lot of people seem to have the idea that Banner died during the series run. This is not true. He went on to star in another situation comedy, The Chicago Teddy Bears. I don’t know much about it except that it took place in Chicago during Prohibition. Banner starred with Dean Jones (who by federal law had to star in every Disney movie from 1965 to 1980) as partners in a speakeasy. It sounds like a decent show, but few watched it and it was canceled after 13 episodes. The only thing I’ve found is this terrible copy of the opening credits:

Happy birthday John Banner!


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Tune in Tomorrow and the Search for Light Comedy

Tune in TomorrowBack in 1990, I walked into a movie theater cold, and was treated to Tune in Tomorrow. It is a very clever film adaptation of Mario Vargas Llosa’s 1977 novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. It stars Barbara Hershey, Keanu Reeves, and Peter Falk. Set in 1950s New Orleans, it features a great score by Wynton Marsalis, much of which is in situ in clubs and restaurants. It also has a beautiful pastel themed art direction that captures the period in all its rose colored nostalgia. Tune in Tomorrow is a sweet and funny comedy that should delight everyone.

So why did it bomb? Why do critics generally dismiss it? Why has no one I know ever seen it? I think I know the answer to this question. The problem is with me. There are many films that I think are anywhere from good to classic that other people dismiss. A partial list will do: Medicine River, Krippendorf’s Tribe, French Kiss. And the problem seems to be that these are sweet and funny comedies. Had they been made in France, well that would be fine. The French are into that sort of thing. So films like My Best Friend, Romantics Anonymous, and The Dinner Game get a fair hearing because the French are allowed to make such movies.

But big budget comedies are somehow not okay in America — at least as long as they aren’t Dumb and Dumber or one of the Farrelly brothers’ films. It’s a strange thing. “Critics” like to complain that Hollywood doesn’t make films for adults, but when Hollywood does make films geared toward escapist fun for adults, these same people savage the films. Apparently, films for adults are supposed to be limited to deadly serious films like Schindler’s List.

I’ll admit, I tend to like French comedies (and generally, European ones) more than American comedies. They tend to be more emotionally complex. They also tend to have relatively low budgets. It seems that Hollywood can’t make a film only for adults; they also worry if it will play with the kids. And God help us when Hollywood decides to remake one of these foreign films. A good example is the remake of The Dinner Game. The original was basically just a filmed play. Almost the entire thing took place in a single location. But the remake, Dinner for Schmucks, became some kind of bloated frenzy, designed to appeal to the only demographic Hollywood is really interested in.

But Tune in Tomorrow really is worth watching. I fully admit, the film would have been better if the French had made it. But I doubt the great care in art direction and music would have been shown. It really is a beautiful film to watch and hear. It was clearly a prestige film — just look at the cast for some of the minor roles: Peter Gallagher, Elizabeth McGovern, Dan Hedaya. I suspect that the studio intended to kill it, because I would have thought it would have played reasonably well. It’s hard to say. But lucky for you, the whole thing is available on YouTube — at least for now.

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Libertarian Fail on Fifth Amendment

Richard EpsteinIn the most recent issue of Washington Monthly, Michael O’Donnell wrote, SCOTUS Heads Toward the Cliff. It is ostensibly a review of two books about the Supreme Court — mostly, Damon Root’s Overruled: The Long War for Control of the US Supreme Court. I’ll present a quote from the article tomorrow. Right now, I just want to comment on one thing mentioned in the review as a side note. O’Donnell mentioned Richard Epstein, the “dean of judicial libertarians” — who Root apparently talks about with much admiration. But Epstein has a curious take on the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. According to him, the government doesn’t just have to pay for land they take away from a citizen, “It also owes a business money if its regulations have the effect of ‘taking’ the business’ profits.”

By this theory, if the government enacted a law that banned the use of lead in gasoline, the oil companies would have to be paid not only for the cost of doing so but for any related loss in sales because, for example, people used less gasoline because their cars didn’t run as well with unleaded gas. This would effectively tie the hands of the government. As a practical matter, the government would never be able to regulate anything at all. And that, of course, is the point. That’s the point of “judicial libertarianism”: to tie the hands of democracy so that the public sector has no power to do anything.

This is a ridiculous theory. Consider a similar situation in which property rights are set like a fly in amber: the invention of flying. In the distant past, it was generally accepted that the space above your property was your own. The government had no right to tell you that you couldn’t shoot birds that flew over your property. But then planes came in. People were flying over private property. Sound silly? Maybe so, but there was a court case where a farmer sued to stop planes from flying in his air space. Because the aircraft industry had a lot more political power than the farmer, the courts found the way they almost always do: for the powerful. And as a result, air traffic is a common thing.

But not according to Epstein. Or rather, it wouldn’t have been according to Epstein a century ago. Now, I’m fairly sure, he would make some argument about how property rights have a limit in their vertical extent. But there is nothing obvious about that. I doubt very seriously that 19th century farmers would have liked the idea that they only owned a finite box of air. And like all libertarian thought, this idea starts to rattle apart with the slightest of pressure from practical implementations.

Think about what would have happened if the courts had claimed that airplanes couldn’t fly over private property without permission. The airplanes would have ignored the laws. The private property owners would have then had to sue the owners. But how would they have known what airplane violated their property rights? And even if they did, they would have to hunt down the owners and then start legal procedures. That would be pretty hard if the plane belonged to a foreign corporation. And what if a hundred planes flew over? A hundred lawsuits? In the end, the property owner would just give up in frustration. So much for your property rights!

But let’s go back to the leaded gas example. It is more complicated than I just said. Leaded gas is highly toxic; it makes people stupid. Every seller of gas should be culpable for the damage done by the lead that is poisoning society. But in Epstein’s world, the government couldn’t stop them. So every person who was harmed would have to sue every oil company. And that would be hard because it is pretty much impossible to show individual damages, even when it is trivial to show collective damages. And what about the secondary effect of lead: a more violent society. Should people knifed in the park be able to sue?

The situation clearly gets out of hand quickly. And this is why we do allow the government to regulate. Libertarianism may have an impressive simplicity in theory, but it always becomes ridiculously complex in practice. Consider just what a mess it would be if all the roads were owned by various people and we all had to pay tolls on them all. Now compare that to the very simple alternative of public roads funded by gas taxes. Gas use is correlated with road use. It’s a wonderful, simple solution. But it is unacceptable to libertarians because it doesn’t fit into their theory.

Libertarians live in a fantasy land in most of their thinking, but they are most delusional when it comes to the judicial system. They claim that the government can’t do anything right, yet it is going to have a perfect judicial system. Or maybe it is going to be a private system that somehow won’t be corrupted by money. It’s just madness. O’Donnell started a sentence with, “Libertarianism, so principled, so carefully thought out, does not appear to have grappled with…” But you could put anything that is concrete at the end of that. It hasn’t grappled with the real world consequences of anything. Why people take it seriously is beyond me.

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Europe Should Let Greece Democracy Work

Francesco SaracenoIt is most likely that from the elections of January 25 will emerge a Syriza-led government, the main uncertainty being how large a coalition Alexis Tsipras will have to gather to obtain a comfortable parliamentary majority. This is seen with a fair deal of preoccupation in Europe. A preoccupation that does not seem warranted. Syriza is no longer the radical party of the beginning, which called for the exit from the euro and for a default on Greek public debt. Today it is party whose program can hardly be defined revolutionary, and whose label of “radical” left is justified mostly by the drifting of other social democratic party in Europe (for example in Italy and in France) towards the center of the political spectrum, and towards a de facto acceptance of the European macroeconomic orthodoxy. Syriza’s leader, Tsipras, as the prospects of victory become more concrete, has further softened his tones and is already actively negotiating with the Commission and with the major countries, in view of a compromise on the key points of his program. However, some of the media and some political leaders around Europe continue to present the Greek elections as an incoming Armageddon, and the possibility of a Syriza victory as the beginning of the end for the monetary union…

On closer inspection, it seems far more radical the position of those who, despite having grossly underestimated the negative effects of austerity, ask for more of the same; of those who insist on advocating supply-side reforms to cope with a chronic lack of demand; and of those who boast having achieved a balanced budget one year ahead of forecasts, when Europe would benefit from a recovery of domestic demand in Germany…

Europeans should stop worrying and let democracy play its role. A Syriza-led government (possibly forming an alliance with George Papandreou’s To Kinima) would not cause an earthquake. Rather the contrary, it could help stirring things up, and bring within the European debate discussion about measures the need for which is now obvious to all except to those who will not see.

—Francesco Saraceno
Who are the Radicals in Europe?


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