Singapore and the U.S.: a tale of two economies

I'm back in Singapore for the first time in nearly two years, and what a difference two years can make. Back in 2009, Singapore was reeling from the after-effects of the global recession, which hit its trade-dependent economy particularly hard.

The island nation has regrouped quickly, however, and its economy reportedly grew by an astonishing 17.9 percent in the first half of 2010. The harbor is chock-full of ships again, construction is proceeding apace, and the government expects robust growth to continue.

I don't want to go all "Asian values" on you, and comparing Singapore's economy with that of the United States is risky at best. But I've been reading a few books and articles on the endemic corruption (or if you prefer, criminality), embedded within the United States political/economic system (and watching documentaries about it too). And it made me wonder how much this feature might have to do with the varying trajectories of the two countries.

Case in point: today's Herald Tribune reports that Goldman Sachs has concluded that there's nothing really wrong with how it does business. To quote the print version (not the online edition) Goldman decided "its operations need only a fine-tuning, not a complete overhaul." Hmmmm. I don't know about you, but when a major investment bank has to get bailed out by the American taxpayer, and just paid a $550 million fine to settle civil fraud charges (not the first time Goldman has had to do something like this, by the way), one might reasonably conclude that there were more fundamental problems involved. Not from the point of view of Goldman's present profits, perhaps, but from the point of view of what is good for the society as a whole. And the problem seems to be that maximizing political influence is as much a part of Goldman's business model as the pursuit of economic gain itself.

Mind you, I'm not an economist, and I'm sure there are legions of people out there who would be quick to leap to Goldman's defense. And I'm not really picking on Goldman, because the financial meltdown of 2007-2008 suggested that the rot was far more widespread. Instead what troubles a layperson like me -- and maybe ought to worry you, too -- is that we've just lived through the most significant global recession since the 1930s but don't seem to have learned much in the process. That recession was triggered by malfeasance in mortgage and financial markets, and yet not much seems to have been done to create new arrangements that would prevent something similar from happening again. And the main reason isn't conceptual or economic but political: financial interests give a ton of money to politicians, and -- surprise, surprise -- those same politicians tend not to take actions that these donors oppose, like significantly tighter financial regulations. 

Singapore is far from a perfect society, and as I said at the outset, direct comparisons between its situation and that of the United States are somewhat dubious. But I can't help but wonder if maybe we could learn a few things about political economy from them. Like not letting private money play an enormous role in politics, and paying civil servants enough so that more of our best brains choose public service over Wall Street.  

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Stephen M. Walt

On the Tucson shooting

There's been a lot of thoughtful reaction already to the appalling shooting in Tucson, much of it focusing on what it says about the polarized state of American politics and the violent and overheated rhetoric that has been a staple of right-wing political discourse over the past decade or so.  I don't have anything deeply profound to add to this discussion, but I do want to offer two thoughts.

First, when something horrific like this happens, we can only hope that we learn something from an otherwise awful event. In my course on the causes of war, I tell students that learning valuable lessons from the history of human conflict is a way to make the losses suffered in war worth something; it is a way of at least partly redeeming the sacrifices that others made. The greatest benefit we could derive from the Tucson madness would a lot of genuine soul-searching within our political establishment, and especially among the pundits and media figures who have made hateful and violent rhetoric a key part -- and in some cases, the only distinctive element -- of their discourse. And frankly, I don't know what's worse: when politicians use extreme and demonizing rhetoric to advance a political agenda, or when media figures use hateful and violent rhetoric merely to make a buck. If this tragedy helps delegitimize such behavior, and restore some measure of civility to our political discourse, we will all have gained something from a tragic and senseless event.

Second, those of us who do some or all of our work in the blogosphere should do some soul-searching ourselves. Rhetoric in the blogosphere is a lot more combative and even violent than what you'd typically read in your local newspaper, or what you'd read in a scholarly journal. And this isn't just a monopoly of the political right: You can find some pretty hot language coming from bloggers on the left as well. Bloggers like to use verbs like "demolish," or "eviscerate" when discussing those with whom they disagree, as in "Smith offers a new justification for the war in Afghanistan, and Jones shreds it here." Or we get into heated exchanges that degenerate into name-calling and various forms of character assassination.  Sometimes editors make this worse by going for edgy or combative headlines to titillate readers and drive up page-views. Edginess is part of what makes the blogosphere entertaining, I guess, but is it also contributing to the coarsening of our political values and the erosion of any sense of shared identity, humility, and common humanity?  And don't get me started about the flame wars that occur in the "comments" sections, where people exploit anonymity to voice all manner of vile accusations.

I've tried to avoid that sort of thing in my own postings, but I suspect you could find a few places where I went further than I should have. So as we mourn the victims, hope for the survivors, and reflect on what this says the state of our country at this moment, let's spend some time looking in the mirror. Words matter, people, and if we are all going to be part of a public conversation, we owe it the society of which we are part to conduct it in a spirited, frank, but civil manner.  Or we will reap what we sow.

Postscript: I'm leaving for an extended trip to Southeast Asia today, to attend some meetings at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and to give a series of lectures there and in Vietnam. It's my first visit to the latter country, and I'm thrilled to have the opportunity. Blogging will be erratic while I'm on the road, although I'll try to squeeze a few posts in when I can.

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