>Obama derangement syndrome

>Excellent read as usual, especially the last paragraph.


Apr 16th 2009
From The Economist print edition

The president is driving some people mad. That may be to his advantage in the short term

BY MOST people’s standards Barack Obama has had an excellent week. He enjoyed a counter-Carter moment when navy commandos rescued an American hostage, leaving three kidnappers dead. He gave a measured speech on the economy. And, to cap it all, he gave his daughters a Portuguese water dog named “Bo”. What’s not to like?

Plenty, according to some people. Mr Obama may be widely admired both at home and abroad. But there are millions of Americans who do not like the cut of his jib—and a few whose dislike boils over into white-hot hatred. The American Spectator, which came of age demonising the Clintons, has run an article on its website on Mr Obama entitled “Il Duce, Redux?” The internet crackles with comparisons between Mr Obama and various dictators (Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini) or assorted psychotics (Charles Manson and David Koresh). When Jonah Goldberg, a conservative pundit, praised Mr Obama over the dispatching of the Somali pirates, his e-mail inbox immediately overflowed, he said, with “snark and bile”.

A recent Pew poll showed that public opinion about Mr Obama is sharply divided along party lines. Some 88% of Democrats approve of the job that he is doing compared with only 27% of Republicans. The approval gap between the two parties is actually bigger than it was for George Bush in April 2001. Bush loyalists, led by Karl Rove, have duly over-interpreted this poll in order to soften their former boss’s reputation as America’s most divisive president. Today’s Republican base is significantly smaller than the Democratic base was in 2001, so surviving Republicans are more likely to have hard-core views. But there are nevertheless enough people out there who dislike the president to constitute a significant force in political life.

As The Economist went to press, the bestselling book in the United States was Mark Levin’s “Liberty and Tyranny”. Mr Levin frequently denounces Mr Obama on his radio show as an exponent of the second of those two qualities. The new sensation in the world of cable is Fox News’s Glenn Beck, who has already attracted 2.2m regular viewers since his show was launched in January. Mr Beck recently apologised to his viewers for saying that Mr Obama’s America is on the path to “socialism” when it is really on the march to fascism. Media Matters, a left-wing organisation that monitors the media, reports that, since the inauguration, “there have been over 3,000 references to socialism, fascism or communism” in describing the president.

Rush Limbaugh claims that he has seen an uptick in his audience since he announced that he hopes that Mr Obama fails. He has no time for the idea that all Americans should wish their president well (“We are being told that we have to hope Obama succeeds, that we have to bend over, grab the ankles…because his father was black”). Mr Limbaugh is not the ankle-grabbing type. He has also added Robert Mugabe to the list of people to whom Mr Obama can be likened.

Why are some people so angry? For all his emollient manner and talk of “post partisanship”, Mr Obama is just as much an embodiment of liberal America as Mr Bush was of conservative America—an Ivy League-educated lawyer who became a community organiser before launching a political career in one of America’s most cosmopolitan and corrupt big cities, Chicago. Mr Obama almost lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton because of his lack of rapport with white working-class voters. In the general election he did worse than Michael Dukakis in the Appalachian states of Kentucky and West Virginia.
Tough times make for tougher talk

The economic crisis has transformed this cultural suspicion into a much more potent political force. It is true that Mr Obama’s solution to the recession—spending public money in order to stimulate demand and trying to prevent a run on the banks—is supported by most economists. Mr Bush would have done much the same thing. But it is nevertheless driving many Americans crazy. April 15th—the last day on which Americans can perform the melancholy duty of filing their tax returns—saw rallies (dubbed “tea parties” after the Boston one) in every state, 500 or so in all. The protesters, some of whom dressed in three-cornered hats and waved “Don’t tread on me” flags, repeated a litany of criticisms that has been mounting since Mr Obama won the election—that he is a big government socialist (or fascist) who wants to take people’s money away and crush their freedoms.

It is hard to judge so early in the game what the rise of anti-Obama sentiment means for the Obama presidency. Bush-hatred eventually spread from a molten core of leftists to set the cultural tone of the country. But Obama-hatred could just as easily do the opposite and brand all conservatives as a bunch of Obama-hating cranks.

What is clear is that the rapid replacement of Bush-hatred with Obama-hatred is not healthy for American politics, particularly given the president’s dual role as leader of his party and head of state. A majority of Republicans (56%) approved of Jimmy Carter’s job performance in late March 1977. A majority of Democrats (55%) approved of Richard Nixon’s job performance at a comparable point in his first term. But today polarisation is almost instant, thanks in part to the growing role of non-negotiable issues such as abortion in American politics, in part to the rise of a media industry based on outrage, and in part to a cycle of tit-for-tat demonisation. This is not only poisoning American political life. It is making it ever harder to solve problems that require cross-party collaboration such as reforming America’s health-care system or its pensions. Unfortunately, the Glenn Becks of this world are more than just a joke.


>Dragon nightmares

>From The Economist print edition

The European Union finds it hard to agree over how to deal with China

Illustration by Peter Schrank

HERE is a quick way to spoil a Brussels dinner party. Simply suggest that world governance is slipping away from the G20, G7, G8 or other bodies in which Europeans may hog up to half the seats. Then propose, with gloomy relish, that the future belongs to the G2: newly fashionable jargon for a putative body formed by China and America.

The fear of irrelevance haunts Euro-types, for all their public boasting about Europe’s future might. The thought that the European Union might not greatly interest China is especially painful. After all, the 21st century was meant to be different. Indeed, to earlier leaders like France’s Jacques Chirac, a rising China was welcome as another challenge to American hegemony, ushering in a “multipolar world” in which the EU would play a big role. If that meant kow-towing to Chinese demands to shun Taiwan, snub the Dalai Lama or tone down criticism of human-rights abuses, so be it. Most EU countries focused on commercial diplomacy with China, to ensure that their leaders’ visits could end with flashing cameras and the signing of juicy contracts.

Meanwhile, Europe’s trade deficit with China hit nearly €170 billion ($250 billion) last year. China has erected myriad barriers to European firms, notes a scathing new audit of EU-China relations by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), a think-tank. The trend is ominous. In five years, China wants 60% of car parts in new Chinese vehicles to be locally made. This is alarming news for Germany, the leading European exporter to China thanks to car parts, machine tools and other widgets.

As ever, Europeans disagree over how to respond. Some are willing to challenge China politically—for example, Germany, Britain, Sweden and the Netherlands. But they are mostly free traders. That makes them hostile when other countries call for protection against alleged Chinese cheating. In contrast, a block of mostly southern and central Europeans, dubbed “accommodating mercantilists” by the ECFR, are quick to call for anti-dumping measures. But that makes them anxious to keep broader relations sweet by bowing to China on political issues.

The result is that European politicians often find themselves defending unconditional engagement with China. The usual claim is that this will slowly transform the country into a freer, more responsible stakeholder in the world. The secret, it is murmured, is to let Europe weave China into an entangling web of agreements and sectoral dialogues. In 2007 no fewer than 450 European delegations visited China. Big countries like France and Britain add their own bilateral dialogues, not trusting the EU to protect their interests or do the job properly. There are now six parallel EU and national “dialogues” with China on climate change, for example.

Alas, familiarity with Europeans does not preclude contempt. EU-China dialogues on human rights or the rule of law are a way of tying Europeans down with process, avoiding substance. China abruptly cancelled an EU-China summit scheduled for last December. The astonishing snub was presented by Chinese diplomats as punishment for France’s Nicolas Sarkozy for meeting the Dalai Lama when his country held the rotating presidency of the EU (with other EU countries left to take note).

Chinese interest in the EU peaked in 2003, when it looked as if the club would soon acquire a constitution, a foreign minister and a full-time president. But the honeymoon had ended by 2006, after China failed to get the EU to lift an arms embargo imposed after the Tiananmen Square killings of 1989. At policy seminars and closed-door conferences, state-sponsored Chinese analysts now drip condescension. America is a strong man and China a growing teenager, said one at a 2008 conference in Stockholm; Europe is a “rich old guy”, heading for his dotage. At a recent Wilton Park conference in Britain, a Chinese academic called the EU a weak power, unprepared to challenge American hegemony: China was not about to work with it on a new world order.

Unity meets disunity

If you wanted to design a competitor to show up European weaknesses most painfully, you would come up with something a lot like China. It is a centralised, unitary state, which is patient and relentless in the pursuit of national goals that often matter more to the Chinese than anyone else. European governments do not even agree on what they want from China. They are fuzzily committed to EU “values”, but will readily trample on those in a scramble to secure jobs and cheap goods for their voters. They do not share the same vision of trade policy, or how best to press China on climate change. Worse, the biggest countries, especially France, Germany and Britain, compete to be China’s favourite European partner. This causes damage. It was mad that the British and Germans did not rush to back Mr Sarkozy when he was bullied over the Dalai Lama. They could easily have insisted that EU leaders meet whomsoever they want.

Yet talk of a “Chi-merican” G2 running the world is overblown. For one thing, China will probably prefer to keep its own global options open. For another, senior Brussels figures rightly insist that the EU’s voice cannot be ignored in global economic discussions. It is China’s largest trading partner, after all, with two-way trade worth a huge €300 billion.

Ideally, European governments would be less feeble and fractious. Failing that, Europe could set itself more modest goals. Chinese officials are reportedly fascinated by European welfare and public-health systems, as well as by EU product regulation. Providing a model for red-tape or welfare reform may not be as much fun as jointly running a multipolar world. But with its pathetic record of handling partners such as China, Europe should welcome recognition of its relevance, however it is offered.

>This is brilliant. Hugely progressive thinking and application

>Have you been taking your medicine?

Apr 15th 2009
From Economist.com
A cheap and simple way to ensure that patients pop their pills

Careful which colour you choose

TAKING your medicine even for a week is a drag. Taking it every day for six months is a real nuisance. Yet that is what is asked of those being treated for tuberculosis. They need to pop their pills for half a year if they are to eliminate the bacteria that cause the infection and combat the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains. Worse, from the point of view of compliance, the actual symptoms of infection tend to go away after just two months of taking the medicine, so the incentive to carry on is negligible. But worse than that, the drugs themselves produce unpleasant symptoms, including nausea, diarrhoea, headaches and insomnia. Indeed, one common anti-TB drug, rifampicin, also has the unnerving side effect of turning people’s tears, sweat and urine a shade of reddish orange.

Every cloud, though, has a silver lining, for it was this strange, if harmless, side effect that gave a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) their crucial idea: stamp-sized patches, much like litmus paper, that change colour when exposed to the urine of people with traces of medicine in their systems. The crucial trick of XoutTB, as the system built around these patches is known, is that the change in colour reveals a code that a patient can text-message to a service which rewards him with free airtime minutes on his mobile phone. Patients thus have a daily incentive to take their terrible pills.

The XoutTB project began in the spring of 2007, with the launch of the Yunus Challenge, a now-annual contest at MIT to promote development in poor countries. Muhammad Yunus, after whom the challenge is named, is a Nobel Prize-winning pioneer of microfinance—the idea that loans too small for traditional banks to handle are nevertheless crucial in enabling businesses to flourish in the poorer parts of the world.

The winner of that year’s challenge was Jose Gomez-Marquez, a medical engineer at MIT. His original idea, inspired by Dr Yunus’s work, was to involve local banks (in this case in Nicaragua) in a scheme that would give TB patients micro-loans in exchange for evidence that they had been taking their medication. That plan fell by the wayside because the banks did not want to get involved. But phone companies were willing to give it a try, and brought with them the bonus of an established infrastructure for distributing the rewards. The resulting trial, which involved 30 people with tuberculosis, was a success, and a second is about to be carried out in Pakistan, where a batch of 400 XoutTB patches is arriving this month.

Conditions in Karachi, the Pakistani city in which the trial is being conducted, could politely be described as “challenging”. According to Rachel Glennerster, a member of the XoutTB team who has worked as an economist at the IMF and the British Treasury, the local clinics are closed about 60% of the time and doctors or nurses are often absent during the 40% when the doors are nominally open. Such absences—and the associated lack of compliance-monitoring—are one of the things for which XoutTB is designed to compensate.
Click Here!

Pakistan, though, offers a second difficulty. Aamir Khan, the director of XoutTB’s operations in the country, has quickly discovered that one of the neediest groups of people there are 15- to 25-year-old women. Unfortunately, they are often under the thumbs of their parents or husbands and are not allowed mobile phones of their own. Dr Khan is therefore considering the idea of a different reward—high-energy food supplements to combat malnutrition. The system would not supply food, per se, but would instead top up credit at the patient’s grocer using an automatic link.

If XoutTB does work, the team has ambitions to extend it. Other drugs, too, can be a nuisance to remember. The anti-retrovirals used to combat AIDS, for example, have to be taken for the rest of a patient’s life. And taking medicines for non-infectious conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure is also a chore. Find the right “litmus test”, though, and what is now being done with TB drugs could succeed with any of these as well. Taking your medicine could, at last, become a truly rewarding experience.


>A nation of jailbirds

Apr 2nd 2009
From The Economist print edition

Far too many Americans are behind bars

Illustration by KAL

THE world’s tallest building is now in Dubai rather than New York. Its largest shopping mall is in Beijing, and its biggest Ferris wheel in Singapore. Once-mighty General Motors is suspended in a limbo between bail-out and bankruptcy; and the “war on terror” has demonstrated the limits of American military might.

But in one area America is going from strength to strength—the incarceration of its population. America has less than 5% of the world’s people but almost 25% of its prisoners. It imprisons 756 people per 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the world average. About one in every 31 adults is either in prison or on parole. Black men have a one-in-three chance of being imprisoned at some point in their lives. “A Leviathan unmatched in human history”, is how Glenn Loury, professor of social studies at Brown University, characterises America’s prison system.

Conditions in the Leviathan’s belly can be brutal. More than 20% of inmates report that they have been sexually assaulted by guards or fellow inmates. Federal prisons are operating at more than 130% of capacity. A sixth of prisoners suffer from mental illness of one sort or another. There are four times as many mentally ill people in prison as in mental hospitals.

As well as being brutal, prisons are ineffective. They may keep offenders off the streets, but they fail to discourage them from offending. Two-thirds of ex-prisoners are re-arrested within three years of being released. The punishment extends to prisoners’ families, too. America’s 1.7m “prison orphans” are six times more likely than their peers to end up in prison themselves. The punishment also sometimes continues after prisoners are released. America is one of only a handful of countries that bar prisoners from voting, and in some states that ban is lifelong: 2% of American adults and 14% of black men are disfranchised because of criminal convictions.

It is possible to pick holes in these figures. Some of the world’s most repressive regimes do not own up to their addiction to imprisonment (does anyone really believe that Cuba imprisons only five in every 1,000 of its citizens?). No sane person would rather be locked up in Russia or China than in America. A country as large and diverse as America boasts plenty of model prisons and exemplary training programmes. But all that said, the conclusion remains stark: America’s incarceration habit is a disgrace, wasting resources at home and damaging the country abroad.

Few mainstream politicians have had the courage to denounce any of this. People who embrace prison reform usually end up in the political graveyard. There is no organised lobby for prison reform. The press ignores the subject. And those who have first-hand experience of the system’s failures—prisoners and ex-prisoners—may have no right to vote.

Which makes Jim Webb all the more remarkable. Mr Webb is far from being a lion of the Senate, roaring from the comfort of a safe seat. He is a first-term senator for Virginia who barely squeaked into Congress. The state he represents also has a long history of being tough on crime: Virginia abolished parole in 1994 and is second only to Texas in the number of people it executes.

But Mr Webb is now America’s leading advocate of prison reform. He has co-sponsored a bill to create a blue-ribbon commission to report on America’s prisons. And he has spoken out in every possible venue, from the Senate to local political meetings. Mr Webb is not content with incremental reform. He is willing to tackle what he calls “the elephant in the bedroom”—America’s willingness to imprison people for drug offences.

Does Mr Webb have any chance of diminishing America’s addiction to incarceration? History is hardly on his side. For most of the 20th century America imprisoned roughly the same proportion of its population as many other countries—a hundred people for every 100,000 citizens. But while other countries stayed where they were, the American incarceration rate then took off—to 313 per 100,000 in 1985 and 648 in 1997.

Mr Webb also has some powerful forces ranged against him. The prison-industrial complex (which includes private prisons as well as public ones) employs thousands of people and armies of lobbyists. Twenty-six states plus the federal government have passed “three strikes and you’re out” laws which put repeat offenders in prison for life without parole. And the war on drugs has pushed the incarceration business into overdrive. The number of people serving time for drugs has increased from 41,000 in 1980 to 500,000 today, or 55% of the population of federal prisons and 21% of those in state prisons. An astonishing three-quarters of prisoners locked up on drug-related charges are black.

But Mr Webb is no ordinary politician. He packed several distinguished careers into his life before becoming a senator—as a marine in Vietnam, a lawyer, a much-published author and secretary of the navy in the Reagan administration. And he is not a man to back down from a fight: one of his best books, “Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America”, celebrates the martial virtues of the clan to which he is proud to belong.

Some signs suggest that the tide is turning in Mr Webb’s direction. Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003. Barack Obama’s Justice Department has hinted that it wants to do something about the disparity in sentencing between blacks and whites for drug crimes. Support for both the death penalty and the war on drugs is softening: a dozen states have legalised the use of marijuana for medical purposes. If Mr Webb can transform these glimmers of discontent with America’s prison-industrial complex into a fully fledged reform movement, then he will go down in history as a great senator.