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Economics & consequences - Feb 21

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Is Eastern Europe Primed to Explode?

Mike Whitney, CounterPunch
Eastern Europe is about to blow. If it does, it could take much of the EU with it. It's an emergency situation but there are no easy solutions. The IMF doesn't have the resources for a bailout of this size and the recession is spreading faster than relief efforts can be organized. Finance ministers and central bankers are running in circles trying to put out one fire after another. Its only a matter of time before they are overtaken by events. If one country is allowed to default, the dominoes could begin to tumble through the whole region. This could trigger dramatic changes in the political landscape. The rise of fascism is no longer out of the question.

The UK Telegraph's economics editor Edmund Conway sums it up like this:

"A 'second wave' of countries will fall victim to the economic crisis and face being bailed out by the International Monetary Fund, its chief warned at the G7 summit in Rome....But with some countries' economies effectively dwarfed by the size of their banking sector and its financial liabilities, there are fears they could fall victim to balance of payments and currency crises, much as Iceland did before receiving emergency assistance from the IMF last year." (UK Telegraph)

Foreign capital is fleeing at an alarming rate; nearly two-thirds gone in matter of months. Deflation is pushing down asset prices, increasing unemployment, and compounding the debt-burden of financial institutions. It's the same everywhere. The economies are being hollowed out and stripped of capital. Ukraine is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary have all slipped into a low-grade depression. The countries that followed Washington's economic regimen have suffered the most. They bet that debt-fueled growth and exports would lead to prosperity. That dream has been shattered.
(17 February 2009)



Economy Strains Under Weight of Unsold Items

Annys Shink Washington Post
The unsold cars and trucks piling up at dealerships and assembly lines as consumers cut back and auto companies scramble for federal aid are just one sign of a major problem hurting the economy and only likely to get worse.

The world is suddenly awash in almost everything: flat-panel televisions, bulldozers, Barbie dolls, strip malls, Burberry stores. Japan yesterday said its economy shrank at an 12.7 percent annual pace in the last three months of 2008 as global demand evaporated for Japanese cars and electronics. Business everywhere are scrambling to bring supply in line with demand.

Downsizing can be tricky, though. No one knows how much worse the economy will get, and while everyone waits for the recession to peter out, businesses are grappling with how to cut costs and survive without sabotaging their ability to grow when the economy picks up.
(17 February 2009)


The Axis of Upheaval

Niall Ferguson, Foreign Policy
Forget Iran, Iraq, and North Korea—Bush’s “Axis of Evil.” As economic calamity meets political and social turmoil, the world’s worst problems may come from countries like Somalia, Russia, and Mexico. And they’re just the beginning.
---
... The bad news for Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, is that he now faces a much larger and potentially more troubling axis—an axis of upheaval. This axis has at least nine members, and quite possibly more. What unites them is not so much their wicked intentions as their instability, which the global financial crisis only makes worse every day. Unfortunately, that same crisis is making it far from easy for the United States to respond to this new “grave and growing danger.”

... For more than a decade, I pondered the question of why the 20th century was characterized by so much brutal upheaval. I pored over primary and secondary literature. I wrote more than 800 pages on the subject. And ultimately I concluded, in The War of the World, that three factors made the location and timing of lethal organized violence more or less predictable in the last century. The first factor was ethnic disintegration: Violence was worst in areas of mounting ethnic tension. The second factor was economic volatility: The greater the magnitude of economic shocks, the more likely conflict was. And the third factor was empires in decline: When structures of imperial rule crumbled, battles for political power were most bloody.

... After nearly a decade of unprecedented growth, the global economy will almost certainly sputter along in 2009, though probably not as much as it did in the early 1930s, because governments worldwide are frantically trying to repress this new depression. But no matter how low interest rates go or how high deficits rise, there will be a substantial increase in unemployment in most economies this year and a painful decline in incomes. Such economic pain nearly always has geopolitical consequences. Indeed, we can already see the first symptoms of the coming upheaval.

... The problem is that, as in the 1930s, most countries are looking inward, grappling with the domestic consequences of the economic crisis and paying little attention to the wider world crisis. This is true even of the United States, which is now so preoccupied with its own economic problems that countering global upheaval looks like an expensive luxury. With the U.S. rate of GDP growth set to contract between 2 and 3 percentage points this year, and with the official unemployment rate likely to approach 10 percent, all attention in Washington will remain focused on a nearly $1 trillion stimulus package.

... The answer is obvious: The resources available for policing the world are certain to be reduced for the foreseeable future. That will be especially true if foreign investors start demanding higher yields on the bonds they buy from the United States or simply begin dumping dollars in exchange for other currencies.

Economic volatility, plus ethnic disintegration, plus an empire in decline: That combination is about the most lethal in geopolitics. We now have all three. The age of upheaval starts now.

Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard University.
(March/April 2009)

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