Archives for January 2012

Are Russians As Rich As Czechs?

In terms of new cars, they now are. According to 2011 statistics, Russians bought 17.6 new automobiles per 1000 people. This indicator is still quite a bit below most of Western Europe, such as Germany’s 38.5, France’s 33.4, Britain’s 31.9, Italy’s 30.1, and Spain’s 20.0. However, it has already overtaken most of East-Central Europe, whose figures are: Czech Republic 17.0, Slovakia 12.5, Estonia 11.7, Poland 7.2, Hungary and Ukraine both 4.5, Romania 3.7. Likewise, some countries that by the 1990’s came to be regarded as natural parts of affluent Europe are now behind Russia on this measure: Portugal 14.4, Greece 9.0.

Now this is just one example, and the market for one consumer durable good isn’t going to be perfectly reflective of the overall situation. The crises in the PIGS may be temporarily dissuading nervous consumers from making large purchases; another factor to consider is that their overall car fleets are bigger and newer than Russia’s, so there is not as much of an incentive to get new cars. And taking into account a much larger basket of goods, the World Bank estimates Russia’s GDP per capita (at PPP) to be $20,000, which is still considerably behind $25,000 in Portugal and the Czech Republic, and $32,000 in Spain.

What’s all the better is that the current improvements in Russia’s relative position are happening against the background of extremely benign debt dynamics; aggregate debt is only 74% of Russian GDP, compared to 184% in China, 280% in the US, and more than 300% in most of Europe. This leaves it with a great deal of fiscal and monetary wiggle room in the event of a renewed global crisis that is no longer available to the developed world or lauded emerging markets such as Brazil, India, Poland, Turkey, and Poland. While the affluence gap between Russia and the most developed nations remains large it is nonetheless being steadily and sustainably closed.

Introducing the Journalism Security Index (JSI)

The Press Freedom Index issues by Reporters Without Borders is a good starting point for assessing journalistic freedoms in global comparative perspective. However, much like all attempts to measure democracy or Transparency International’s assessment of corruption perception, their methodology relies on tallying a number of intangibles that cannot be objectively estimated: Censorship, self-censorship, legal framework, independence. These can barely be quantified and are in any case subject to a wide degree of interpretation based on one’s ideological proclivities; for instance, just how do you go about estimating the degree of self-censorship?

I have decided to strip out these elements and focus only on indicators that can be objectively measured, i.e. the numbers of killed and imprisoned journalists set against the size of the national journalistic pool. Using figures from the Committee to Protect Journalists, I tally the numbers of journalist murders from the past three years – to reflect the fact that journalist killings can have a chilling effect years into the future – and the numbers of imprisoned journalists imprisoned now multiplied by six, so that their aggregate weighting is twice that of journalist killings. The reason I do that is because truly authoritarian regimes typically have a tight clampdown on monopoly violence, including on the various independent criminal elements (e.g. drug cartels, rogue intelligence officers); as such, direct killings of journalists tends to be rare. On the other hand, due to the threat of imprisonment and other harassment, independent journalism is severely circumscribed if at all existent. But instead of just going with this figure, I further adjust it to the size of the national journalist pool, because – for obvious reasons – a few journalist killings in a country the size of India is tragic, but nonetheless qualitatively different from the same number of killings in a country with a far smaller population like Honduras where there is a far bigger chance those journalists would know each other. The resulting figure is the Journalism Security Index; a narrower (but far more objective) measure than the Press Freedom Index, which – by necessity – relies on fallible expert judgments on unquantifiable measures such as self-censorship and journalistic independence.

Scroll down to the bottom to see the full results of the Journalism Security Index 2012.

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Karlin Freedom Index 2012

This is the Karlin Freedom Index for 2012, a political classification system I formulated more than a year ago in response to systemic bias on the part of traditional “freedom indices” such as Freedom House and The Economist Democracy Index (hint: they give massive bonus points for neoliberalism and pro-Western foreign policy orientations).

The explanation: Reconciling democracy with liberalism is really hard: since people are illiberal by nature, there is usually a trade-off between the two. The more frequent result is Semi-Liberal Democracy (describes most “Western” countries), which in turn can degenerate into a full-blown Illiberal Democracy (as did Russia around 1993, or the US and Hungary around 2011). Oligarchy is meant in the sense of rule by a few. It should be noted that some legislation ostensibly enacted to protect the public interest, such as libel laws, surveillance laws and anti-terrorist laws – in practice serve more to undermine liberalism. When they go too far, there appear Semi-Authoritarian states of permanent emergency. In the lower rung, Authoritarianism consolidates all political power unto the state (Semi-Authoritarianism tries to, but isn’t as successful). Totalitarianism extends the political realm over all spheres of life, bringing us into the realm of (Viereck’s) Metapolitics.

Liberal Democracy

  • Iceland – In the wake of its post-financial crisis constitutional reforms, this small country may claim to have the most direct democracy on Earth.
  • Netherlands
  • California (state government)
  • Germany
  • Finland
  • Sweden – Not as high as it might have been due to the politically-motivated prosecution of Assange.
  • Spain
  • Czech Republic

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Is The US Still A Liberal Democracy?

In the years since 9/11, the US has built a mosaic of national security powers that undermine its claim to be the “land of the free.” According to this useful summary by Jonathan Turley, these include: Assassination of its own citizens; warrantless searches; use of secret evidence and secret courts; the rise of an unaccountable surveillance state (more on that by Glenn Greenwald). This is in addition to hosting the world’s largest prison population (both in relative and absolute numbers), which includes what for all intents and purposes can be considered a transnational Gulag as part of its efforts in the endless-by-definition “war on terror.” At least for many Muslims and minorities, the US has already not been a liberal democracy for a long time.

But at what point can a country be considered to have definitively retreated from liberal democracy? After all, though much of the above are common to authoritarian states, they are sometimes present in liberal democracies too; and besides, the US does have some mitigating features (e.g. strong freedom of speech provisions that are relatively free from PC and libel laws, unlike in the UK and much of Europe).

The argument can be made that the US ceased being a liberal democracy on December 31, 2011 – the day the NDAA 2012 was signed into law by Obama. This legalizes the indefinite detention of US citizens by the military on the mere suspicion that the suspect is “associated with” terrorism or committed “belligerent acts” against the US or its allies. Bearing in mind the incredibly broad and flexible definition of what “terrorism” actually means, this could potentially encompass any number of anti-elite groups: Anonymous, Wikileaks, Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, etc.

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Translation: Sergey Lukyanenko – I Will Vote For Putin

Courtesy of Evgeny‘s comment at Mark Adomanis’ blog, I found a very interesting piece by Sergey Lukyanenko – the bestselling Russian sci-fi writer best known for his Night Watch series, which was later converted into Russia’s first blockbuster film in 2004 – on the recent turmoil in Russian politics. It is a bit dated, from January 3, and originating as a blog post the language is highly colloquial and informal. But I think it worthy of translation for two main reasons.

First, there is the distinct (but wrong) impression that the mass of the literary “intelligentsia” is behind the anti-Putin protests, because of the visibility of high-profile writers like Boris Akunin, who recently wrote a rather rambling op-ed for the NYT. Lukyanenko demonstrates that this is not the case.

Second, I personally agree with almost all of it, save for a few parts like citing Switzerland or the UK as a good democracies. But on the whole I can vouch for practically every word. And as a science fiction writer in whose worlds the lines between good and evil are frequently blurred – if they exist at all – he brings a much needed “middle ground” position to the rigidly pro-Kremlin/anti-Kremlin binary that dominates this discourse.

I Will Vote For Putin

I didn’t want to, but in the end I had to make a comment. For every so often agitated young people would run into my LJ blog, asking me the following types of question: “Where were you during the Meetings [for Free Elections]? At home? That means you voted for the swindlers and thieves! Are you not ashamed of yourself? Your friends Kaganov, Eksler, Bykov were out there, making rhetorical history and laughing and waving placards… How could you look them in the eyes now? If everything in your life is fine, you’d be for Putin, right? You consider this regime to be ideal? What, you mean to say, that we don’t have anyone else qualified to be President?”

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New Year Special: 2012 Predictions

It’s been a great year! To recap, in rough chronological order, 2011 saw: The most popular post (with 562 comments and counting; granted, most of them consisting of Indians and Pakistanis flaming each other); Visualizing the Kremlin Clans (joint project with Kevin Rothrock of A Good Treaty); my National Comparisons between life in Russia, Britain, and the US; my interview with (now defunct) La Russophobe; interviews with Craig Willy and Mark Chapman; lots of non-Russia related stuff concerning the Arctic, futurism, Esperanto, and the Chinese language; possibly the most comprehensive analyses of the degree of election fraud in the Duma elections in English; TV appearances on RT and Al Jazeera; and what I hope will remain productive relationships with Al Jazeera and Inosmi. Needless to say, little if any of this would have been possible without my e-buddies and commentators, so a special shout out to all you guys. In particular, I would like to mention Alex Mercouris, who as far as I can ascertain is the guy who contributed the 20,000th comment here. I should send him a special T-shirt or something.

In previous years, my tradition was to review the previous year before launching into new predictions. I find this boring and will now forego the exercise, though in passing I will note that many of the defining traits in 2010 – the secular rise of China and of “The Rest” more generally; political dysfunction in the US; growing fissures in Europe, in contrast to Eurasian (re)integration; the rising prominence of the Arctic – have remained dominant into this year. The major new development that neither I nor practically anyone else foresaw was the so-called “Arab Spring”, as part of a pattern of increasing political stress in many other states: Occupy Wall Street and its local branches in the West; the Meetings for Fair Elections in Russia; Wukan in China and anti-corruption protests in India. I don’t disagree with TIME’s decision to nominate The Protester as its person of the year. However, as I will argue below, the nature of protest and instability is radically different in all these regions. I will finish up by reviewing the accuracy of my 2011 predictions from last year.

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