Monday, December 19, 2011


The Vreelander Holiday Edition: Looking for an original gift? Here's one that is perfect for someone interested in global affairs from an intimate perspective...

Writing beautifully. Youssef Cohen tells his story as a man searching for memories of his mother, Odette, who passed away when he was just a little boy.

The adventure will take you around the world, from New York, to Venice, Sao Paulo, and Cairo. You won't travel as a tourist, but will be welcomed nostalgically by old friends and family, with all the bitter sweet joy and melancholy these relationships bring.

You will also travel through history: Amsterdam, Syria, Paris, Portugal, Buenos Aires... Wars and crises impose migration as neighborhoods, societies, even countries are crushed then reconstituted, and your friends and family make their lives, finding their way through life around the globe.

Click here for the link on Amazon!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Who's on first?

Listening to NPR morning news today - they're referring to Xi Jinping as Joe Biden's "counterpart." Ok, technically, they're both "vice" guys. But Xi has been pre-selected as the next President of China, meaning that if all goes well, he will become, arguably, the 2nd most powerful man in the world. As for our Vice President, if all goes well, he will never become President.

This inspires me to write up a fun little script that you can play with your kids to help them get a sense of three prominent figures in Chinese politics.

ABBOTT: The newspaper says that Xi will be the next President of China.

COSTELLO: The next President of China will be a woman?

ABBOTT: No, Xi is a man.

COSTELLO: Weird. What is his name?


COSTELLO: I thought you said he is a man.

ABBOTT: He is.

COSTELLO: So what is his name?


COSTELLO: Wait a minute! Just tell me - who is the next President of China?

ABBOTT: No. Hu is the current President of China.

COSTELLO: I don't know who is the current President of China.

ABBOTT: Well, he is.





COSTELLO: Yes is the President of China?

ABBOTT: No! Hu is the President of China!

COSTELLO: I don't know! You said "Yes" is the President of China.

ABBOTT: No, I said Hu is the President of China.

COSTELLO: I don't know! Just tell me, who is the President of China?



ABBOTT: Yes. Hu.

COSTELLO: I don't know. Who?

ABBOTT: Yes. Now that we cleared that up. Tell me, what do you think of Xi?



COSTELLO: The woman?

ABBOTT: Xi is a man!

COSTELLO: Who is a man?

ABBOTT: Back to him? Yes.

COSTELLO: Yes is a man?

ABBOTT: Now you're just talking nonsense... Let's just get this straight. Xi is a man, and Hu is a man.

COSTELLO: She is a man?

ABBOTT: Yes. And the next President of China.


ABBOTT: No!!! Hu is the current President of China!



COSTELLO: And the next President of China?


COSTELLO: The woman with no name, who is a man.

ABBOTT: More nonsense! There is no woman. Xi will be the next President of China. Hu is the current President.


ABBOTT: Yes. You've got it?

COSTELLO: I don't have any idea what you're talking about!!! When will the new President take over?


COSTELLO: Yes, when?

ABBOTT: No, Wen is the Premier.

COSTELLO: Is that what it's called, the "premiere" of the next President?

ABBOTT: No, just the Premier.

COSTELLO: Sheesh. Ok. When is the premiere?


COSTELLO: Him again? I don't want to know who, I want to know when!

ABBOTT: The Premier.

COSTELLO: Yes. When is it?

ABBOTT: That's right.

COSTELLO: What's right? When will be the next President of China?

ABBOTT: Wen will not be the next President of China. Wen is the Premier!

COSTELLO: I have no idea when will be or not be the transition!

ABBOTT: Hu will step down as Communist Party leader in 2012 and as president the following year.

COSTELLO: I don't know. Who?



ABBOTT: Yes, Hu.




ABBOTT: The Premier.

COSTELLO: In 2013?

ABBOTT: Xi will be President.



COSTELLO: The woman?

ABBOTT: No, the man, Xi. Hu is also a man and the current President of China!!!


ABBOTT: Yes!!! Got it?

COSTELLO: I have no idea... I know nothing. When is the premiere? Who is the President?

ABBOTT: That's it!

COSTELLO: That's it?

ABBOTT: Yes, Wen is the Premier. Hu is the President. What do you think of Xi?

COSTELLO: I don't know when! I don't know who!! And I have know idea about she!!!

ABBOTT: Well, then, that puts you about even with most people.

Anyway, you get the idea. Have fun with the kiddies. And if you're too young to know about the inspiration for this, check out this classic clip. (Even if you know it, it's always worth another look!)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

It's the election, stupid

Many are suggesting that now is not the time to cut spending. Now is not the time to raise taxes. With interest rates so low, we have a golden opportunity to rebuild our public infrastructure – increasing the debt makes sense under current circumstances. And since the economy is so fragile, any hint at fiscal austerity would have an immediate contractionary effect.

Well, of course this is true. But it misses the point. We have an election on the horizon!

Right now may not be the appropriate moment to pay for the stimulus. But we are going to have to pay for it *eventually*. The question is, who is "we"? How are "we" going to pay for it?

This is about distribution. We can cut public spending. Or we can raise taxes. (Or both.)

If we cut spending, let’s be clear about who "we" means: That person who stops by your house every day delivering mail – might take a hit. Those folks who educate your kids – might take a hit. The guys fixing up the roads – might take a hit. Disabled people who rely on government assistance – might take a hit. Old folks on medicare - might take a hit. The people you call during an emergency – police, firefighters, the military – might take a hit. And if you’re in the private sector but have customers who work for the government, you’ll take a hit too – because those customers will stop shopping.

If, alternatively, we raise taxes, people are talking about targeting the rich. So, in this case, "we" means the very top of the income distribution. If you make less than $250,000 per year, you’re out of that group.

Now, if we try to understand the manufactured debt-ceiling crisis in terms of promoting economic growth, it makes no sense. It was bad for growth – period. But if we consider it in terms of income distribution and realize that there is a major election on the horizon in 2012, things come into focus.

Consider some data. The following figure comes from the website of Douglas Hibbs, who has proposed an intuitive "bread and peace" model of winning presidential elections. In this figure, we just have "bread" – i.e., economic growth - across the x-axis. It’s the average rate of growth during a 4-year presidential term – weighted so that the last few months before the election count far more than the previous time period. Along the y-axis, we have the incumbent party’s share of the vote (that is, the share out of the votes cast for the 2 major parties).

The relationship is clear: more growth, more votes for the incumbent party.

The "peace" part of the model is captured by the data-points marked in red, where military fatalities were high, so that incumbent parties lost despite solid economic growth. One thing is clear – if economic growth is low when an election approaches, the incumbent party loses.

So, how do things look for President Obama? Not so good. Here is a picture according to the latest prediction from Hibbs’s model. Note that in this figure, the x-axis combines weighted economic growth with military fatalities. The red point is the prediction for Obama:

If this looks bad for the President, you can be sure that the debt ceiling crisis made things worse. Not only did it contribute to volatile losses in the stock market, it also signaled to the world that the US stimulus is over. If you put through such contractionary policies... voilĂ , you’ll get a contraction. According to the "bread and peace" model, this will contribute to the Democrats losing the White House.

If you are rich, you face a trade-off. Either your income contracts because your tax rate goes up or due to the manufactured negative shock to growth. If the economy picks up towards the end of Obama’s term, he has a good chance of getting reelected. This means that when it’s time to pay for the stimulus, the Democrats will be in a strong position to raise taxes on the rich. If we can manage to keep growth low for the next year, however, then the Republicans will take over the White House, and taxes on the rich will remain low.

When you think of it this way, the manufactured crisis not only makes sense, it was brilliant. We trade low growth, for low taxes. This is a great trade for us. We may not know where the global economy is going, but we know that raising taxes cuts our incomes. Of course, by "us," I mean the rich.

For the other "us" – the 98% percent of us earning less than $250,000 a year – it was a bad trade.

For more on how governments can take advantage of manufactured economic crises to push through policies that are bad for growth and exacerbate income inequality, see my book: Vreeland, James Raymond. 2003. The IMF and Economic Development. New York: Cambridge University Press. (This book has also been endorsed by the American Medical Association as a non-narcotic alternative sleep-aid. Just read 2 pages. Zzzzz...)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Imagined Lines Are Not Imaginary

I was traveling last week, so I didn't get a chance to re-post the following. It's something I've been talking a lot about on FB, and I put something together quickly when asked by Joshua Tucker (NYU) and John Sides (George Washington). It's always a privilege to be featured on their blog, The Monkey Cage, which they co-author along with Erik Voeten (Georgetown), Andrew Gelman (Columbia), and Henry Farrell (George Washington). So here is the original Monkey Cage post from 6 Aug 2011, and here is the text:


If we had raised the debt limit with no fanfare, like usual, it would have had no effect – it’s just an arbitrary line.

But if you treat it like a line in the sand, drawing the attention of the world to our unsustainable fiscal situation, and then you fail to cut much spending or raise taxes, you send a powerful coordinating signal to the global herd: It’s time to run.

See, our twin deficits – fiscal and current account – are sustainable only as long as people believe they are. But if people stop believing, then they will start to run from the dollar and from US bonds. If that happens, you don’t want to be the last one left at the party.

Now, we all know that US imbalances are unsustainable. The only question is just how far they can be pushed, and what exactly triggers them to come back towards balance. I have been hoping that they might someday be addressed by China addressing their exchange rate as their economy develops. For a long time, China has benefited from a weak exchange rate against the dollar, as the United States is the main destination of their powerful export sector. But there is another pressure on the rise: competition for scarce resources. At some point, the Chinese government will see that the marginal benefit for the export sector from a weak exchange rate has met the marginal benefit from a strong exchange rate for cheaper oil.

If this day had come before the current mess, then we might have had nice market forces addressing US imbalances – and it would have been a slow and steady soft landing. With the revaluation of the renminbi, US consumers would be able to afford fewer exports from China, and the Chinese would buy more from the United States. A market solution would be nice because domestic politics on both sides of the border were not going to address this. Certainly not the “non-tax and spend” Congress. Our government simply lacked the political will to do what was necessary.

But, dammit, the last thing you want to do is to call attention to the lack of political will! Changing the debt ceiling issue into a global focal point forced Congress to finally put up or shut up. They failed to put up. The way you address a fiscal deficit is to cut spending and raise taxes. Every country that has been subject to IMF austerity knows this all too well. In their arrogance, (some members of) Congress believed the United States is above this logic. Now we’re heading for no man’s land. We have announced to the global herd in a focused manner that the United States lacks the political will to address its deficit. Sadly, this is going to hurt global economic transactions, which many people believe contribute to a more peaceful world. The foolishness of making the debt ceiling a focal point – especially with what is going on in Europe – cannot be underestimated. Hard times are ahead.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Culture vs. Institutions: The Soccer Edition

Brazil and the United States battled today in soccer. Brazil: a nation of 200 million dedicated exclusively to soccer – perhaps the #1 soccer-nation in the world. VERSUS The United States: a nation that devotes most of its vast resources – its time, money, and best athletes – to... baseball, football, and basketball. Let's face it, we don't even call soccer by its proper name.

But this was also a battle of culture versus institutions. Of markets versus states. And when it comes to supporting sports, markets have a bias towards testosterone. Without government intervention, men have many more incentives than women to devote their lives to sports. And Brazil doesn't intervene on behalf of women. The United States does.

Yes, I'm talking about the 2011 Women's World Cup Tournament.

To understand today’s match, we need a little history of US institutions. In 1972, the United States passed a law called "Title IX," which requires educational institutions to devote equal resources to male and female athletics (or any education program/activity receiving Federal financial assistance).

American universities were spending a lot of money on their men's American football teams, and they wanted to continue to do so. But how can you maintain football expenditures and also find money to spend on women's sports teams? Well, first, you cut expenditures on other men's sports... like men's soccer. (This helps to explain why we lag behind the rest of the world in men's soccer. Title IX implicitly encourages our best male-athletes to play something else.) You also, obviously, increase the money that you spend on women's sports – on any women’s sport you can find.

Title IX thus produces incentives for millions of little girls to play various sports. Think about the incentives for parents to support their daughters. Take my cousin, for example. He was coaching his amazing son to be a bowler. (They’re both really good, having both bowled perfect 300 games on pro-shot lanes.) His younger daughter was tagging along at the lanes, bowling for fun. Somebody in the bowling alley noticed that she was pretty good, so he mentioned something to my cousin. "Ever heard of Title IX?"

This question set in motion a bowling career for Jennifer Vreeland. She wasn't so keen on joining the school bowling team at first. Frankly speaking, it wouldn't have happened without the motivation of her father, who, in turn, was motivated to get her a scholarship because of Title IX. Yet, Jenn grew to love the bowling team. By her senior year in high school, she was team captain and enjoyed self-esteem, camaraderie, and good health thanks to Title IX. Today she is an NCAA bowler on scholarship at St. Francis College. In her first season, she set a new team record, scoring 288 in an important match.

This is a personal anecdote, and there are literally millions more like it across America. Mothers and fathers recognize that by encouraging their daughters to play sports, they give them a better chance of getting into college – and getting scholarship money.

And that brings us back to today's AMAZING victory of the United States over Brazil. Yes, you guessed it. Today, institutions triumphed over culture. And it's not the first time. US women's soccer is a dominant force in international sports. If you haven't heard what happened in today's game... well, find out. This game is one for the movies. I can't do it justice here. Seriously, if you had pitched today's story to Hollywood, they wouldn't have taken it because they would have thought it unbelievable. And the victory is due, in part, to Title IX.

The case I'm making here is not meant to diminish the powerful influence that culture can have. Brazil has a smaller population and a smaller economy than the United States. Still, they have an incredible team, including, arguably, the best player in the world. But Brazil doesn't invest in women's sports the way that the United States does. (Interestingly, the American broadcasters on ESPN questioned just how great Brazilian women's soccer might be if only their country actually invested in it.)

The bottom line is that there are a number of factors that determine how well a country's national team does. The obvious are population size, income, and culture. But one factor that should not be overlooked is government action, especially when it comes to women's sports.

With this in mind, I believe that the United States has one of the greatest soccer programs in the world. Our nation may not yet have won a men's world cup trophy, but we don't really need national teams to inspire boys to play sports. Millions of fans tune in to watch high-testosterone professional league games. Ultimately, sports should promote self-esteem, camaraderie, and good health for the whole population. If you rely exclusively on markets, you only provide incentives for half of your population to play. You should thus judge a nation by the policies it puts in place to incentivize the other half of its population.

Congratulations to the US women's soccer team. Score another victory for Title IX. And God bless the United States of America.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Leading a Multi-Polar World

Crazy recent events have opened an opportunity for new leadership at the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Managing Director position has always gone to a European. The United States - which provides the most IMF resources and gets the most votes in return- has been fine with this arrangement. We get the IMF headquarters (just down the block from the White House and US Treasury) and the head of the other major financial institution, the World Bank. The front-runner to lead the IMF is yet another European - Christine Lagarde. But appointing another Western European would be a mistake for the United States.

No matter what happens, the IMF will remain mainly under the influence of the United States. But if we fail to open up the leadership of this institution, then the emerging market world will take the institution less seriously. Then the United States will be in charge of an institution that risks irrelevance, or one that is no longer an International but rather a European Monetary Fund.

Consider how power is distributed at the IMF Executive Board - the body charged with selecting the Managing Director. The United States controls nearly 17%. The European Union, if it votes as a bloc, controls about 30%. The Directorships of Japan, China, Singapore, and India collectively control nearly 17% of the votes. Latin America is weaker - with less than 10% of the votes, and Africa much weaker, with less than 5% of the votes (see here). But the point is that this is not a decision that the United States or the European Union can make alone. At least part of the rest of the world also has to go along. And the de facto approach has to make the decision by consensus.

So, suppose that the rest of the world does go along. Suppose that once again the IMF appoints a European. It won't be because emerging market and developing countries failed to propose alternatives. There are potential candidates from all over the world (e.g., Asia, Africa, and Latin America). Note that the emerging market and developing world can force the issue if they choose. Right now, Europe is over a barrel. Europe needs the IMF. The rest of the world does not.

Ultimately, if we see another European running the IMF, it's because emerging market and developing countries don't really care. If we see another European Managing Director, it will be because the rest of the world doesn't want to bother to mobilize the necessary political capital to overcome the Europeans (which would be substantial). And herein lies the problem. The emerging market world is done with the IMF.

So, we can appoint another European, but we will further alienate the rest of the world from this institution.

The opportunity for the United States is to draw the rest of the world back into supporting this institution - an institution where the United States will still have the lion's share of voting power.

Of course, irrelevance may be the IMF's destiny.

Global financial power is shifting. In the days of bi-polarity and uni-polarity, it made sense for the global hegemon (the United States) to provide the lion’s share of resources to global financial institutions and receive commensurate political control in return. In the new multi-polar world, however, emerging markets will demand more and more political power as they are able to provide more resources. Meanwhile, Western powers will be less and less willing to support an institution where they have declining control. Power at the IMF is on a tightrope.

The logic of collective action suggests that problems can be overcome when there are power-asymmetries, with the most powerful actor providing the public good. As power-asymmetries diminish at the global level so will the political support for a powerful global financial institution.

Yet, the multi-polar world does not spell the end of international cooperation. Power asymmetries persist at the regional level. There may not be a global economic hegemon, but there are regional economic hegemons. And there is increasing political will for Regional Financial Institutions (for a longer discussion, see this piece by Raj Desai and me).

As the relative financial power of the United States continues to decline, so will the power of the global institutions set up at the end of World War II. In a multi-polar world, political and financial power will be more decentralized. This process will speed up if the next head of the IMF is a European. It will return the IMF to its roots: an institution designed for Europeans, led by a European. But the rest of the world will turn away. If the United States wants to maintain the power of an institution where it exercises the most influence, it should not hasten the decline of the IMF. It should, instead, try to draw in the rest of the world by supporting a leader who comes from outside of Europe.

(Considering their lack of voting power, how about someone from Africa? I vote for Trevor Manuel.)