Myths About the US Election

Judging from the general mood on talk radio, Facebook, and anecdotal conversation, many South Africans are confused about the recent mid-term elections in the United States. I thought I’d try to clear up a few of the more common misconceptions: 1. American voters are stupid, irrational and/or evil South Africans tend to look at the features of American democracy that seem most alien—the tea parties, the “birthers”, the histrionics on cable news channels—and conclude that the recent swing towards the Republicans must be motivated by some combination of anti-government hysteria and racial resentment. But voting Republican was arguably the rational choice for Americans to make. During the last two years, the economy has continued to undergo a jobless recovery, with the unemployment rate hovering at slightly under 10%. With the Democrats controlling the House, the Senate and the presidency, there was only one party in power and only one party to blame. Of course, the Democrats don’t see it that way. They would argue that 1) they’re still cleaning up the mess that was created under the Bush Administration, 2) many of the economic problems are the result of structural forces, such as the shift in global manufacturing from the West to China, that neither party really knows how to deal with, and 3) without Democratic policies such as the stimulus bill, the unemployment rate would be even worse. These arguments are all true (with possible exception of #3, which is difficult to verify empirically). Nevertheless, it’s hard to fault the voters for demanding that parties succeed in spite of the structural obstacles they face. When the ruling party in a democracy is unable to deliver results, it makes sense for the voters to punish them and give the opposition a chance. 2. This will mean a major change in US economic policy As a corrective to the first point, it’s worth keeping in mind that the mid-terms will almost certainly not result in significant shifts in US economic policy. The Republicans will extend...

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North Korea: Like Father, Like Son

Nobody ever really knows what’s going on in North Korea. The “experts” who get quoted in the media are mostly are relying on rumour, hearsay and innuendo, and I suspect that Western intelligence agencies can’t do much better. We still have no idea, for instance, why the North Koreans sunk the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, back in March. Even by erratic standards of North Korea, this was an exceptionally belligerent act. But was it a deliberate provocation? A rogue decision by the military? A freakish accident? An outward manifestation of some invisible, internal political dispute? Unless the North Korean regime collapses and future historians gain access to its secret archives, we’ll probably never find out. Still, there are some things that even the pathologically secretive North Korean regime can’t keep under wraps. For several months now, information coming out of the regime’s propaganda organs seemed to indicate that a transition was underway. Last month, the North Korean Worker’s Party held its first conference in thirty years, and it largely confirmed that Kim Jong Il is trying to install his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as his successor. Jong Un was given senior positions in the military and the bureaucracy, and the regime itself has tacitly acknowledged that he will succeed his father. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal for him, right? Dictators trying to hand over power to their sons is nothing new, of course. But without the legitimating aura of a long-standing monarchy, it usually ends in failure. Perhaps not. Political transitions in authoritarian states are always tricky and often violent. More power concentrated in a single office means a more intense struggle to control that office. (If you have time, read this account of a series of violent transitions in the Roman Empire.) And, not to put too fine a point on it, just look at this guy. Does he seem like the type to inspire respect, awe and admiration? Kim Jong Un is either 27 or 28 years old. He’s...

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