Opinion

When Populism Can Kill

LONDON – Unfounded skepticism about vaccines in some communities, in developing and developed countries alike, has emerged in recent years as one of the most serious impediments to global progress in public health. Indeed, it is one of the primary reasons why eradicable infectious diseases persist today.


For example, the effort to eradicate polio worldwide has been disrupted in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria, where rule by Islamist militants has led to increased resistance against vaccination campaigns. And many high-income countries have experienced measles outbreaks in recent years, owing to fears about vaccinations that began with the publication of a fraudulent paper in the British medical journal The Lancet in 1998.

More recently, skepticism about vaccine safety and efficacy has been on the rise in Southern Europe. According to a 2016 study, Greece is now among the top ten countries worldwide with the lowest confidence in vaccine safety. And, as Greek Minister of Health Andreas Xanthos has noted, health-care professionals are increasingly encountering parents who have fears about vaccinating their children.

Similarly, in Italy, Minister of Health Beatrice Lorenzin recently warned of a “fake news” campaign, backed by the opposition Five Star Movement, to dissuade parents from vaccinating their children. Already, the share of Italian two-year-olds who have been inoculated against measles is under 80%, well below the World Health Organization’s recommended threshold of 95%. So it should come as no surprise that Italy had five times more measles cases in April of this year than it did in April 2016.

In May, Greece and Italy each enacted very different policies to respond to vaccine skepticism. In Greece, despite the fact that child vaccination has been mandatory since 1999 (unless a child has a certified medical condition), Xanthos has advocated an opt-out option for parents who do not want to vaccinate their children.

By contrast, Italy’s center-left Democratic Party government has made vaccinations against 12 preventable diseases compulsory for all children. Under a new law, unvaccinated children are not permitted to attend school, and parents of unvaccinated children can be fined for their children’s non-attendance. According to Lorenzin, the law is meant to send “a very strong message to the public” about the importance of inoculation.

In other words, two left-wing governments have responded to the same public health problem in very different ways. Whereas Greece moved from paternalism to laissez faire, Italy moved in the opposite direction.

The decision by Greece’s Syriza-led government is surely the stranger of the two, given that Syriza tends to favor robust state intervention in most other policy areas. In Italy, the government is responding to the populist Five Star Movement’s anti-vaccination agenda, which has become a part of its broader campaign against the state, established political parties, and the “experts” responsible for the 2008 financial crisis and the eurozone’s prolonged economic malaise.

But, putting politics aside, there are compelling reasons for why governments should mandate vaccinations for all children, rather than leaving it up to parents to decide. Ultimately, the state has a responsibility to protect vulnerable individuals – in this case young children – from foreseeable harm.

In 1990, Greece signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, in which it recognized all children’s right to “the highest attainable standard of health and to facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health.” But by allowing misinformed parents to forego vaccinations, Greece is exposing children to preventable infectious diseases and openly violating its pledge to ensure “that no child is deprived of his or her right of access to such health-care services.”

Moreover, governments have a responsibility to establish public goods through legislation, and “herd immunity” is one such good. Herd immunity describes a level of vaccination coverage that is high enough to prevent a disease from spreading through the population. Achieving herd immunity is one of the only ways to protect vulnerable members of a community who cannot be vaccinated because they are immunocompromised, or simply too old.

In addition, vaccination is a crucial instrument in the fight against one of the twenty-first century’s biggest health challenges: antimicrobial resistance. By preventing infections, vaccines also prevent overuse of antibiotics, thereby slowing down the development of drug resistance. More generally, it is widely known that high vaccination coverage results in a healthier population, and that healthier people can contribute more, both economically and socially, to their communities.

No medical or technical obstacles are blocking us from eradicating preventable infectious diseases such as measles and polio. Rather, the biggest hurdle has been popular resistance to vaccination. By allowing parents to make uninformed decisions about the health of not just their own children, but their entire community, the Syriza government is only adding to the problem. Governments should be educating the public to improve overall coverage, not validating unfounded fears about vaccine safety.

No country can achieve herd immunity – and eventually eradicate preventable infectious diseases – if it allows parents to opt out of vaccinating their children, as in Greece. But it also will not do simply to sanction noncompliant parents, as in Italy. Ultimately, to defeat infectious diseases, we will have to restore faith in expertise, and rebuild trust with communities that have grown increasingly suspicious of authority in recent years.

Domna Michailidou works for the Economics Department of the OECD and teaches at the Center for Development Studies at the University of Cambridge and the UCL School of Public Policy. Jonathan Kennedy teaches at the UCL School of Public Policy and is a research associate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge.

By Domna Michaildou and Jonathan Kennedy

How Parasites Pull the Strings

LIVERPOOL – Science fiction has long explored the terrifying possibility that we are devoid of free will, and that some unpleasant creature could control our minds or turn us into plodding zombies. But mind control is not just a literary trope. It is also a common method by which parasites gain access to environments where they can grow, reproduce, and complete their life cycles.’


Consider the fungus Cordyceps, which interferes with the behavior of ants in tropical rainforests in such a way as to make them climb high into the vegetation, and latch onto a leaf to die. The fungus then reproduces by dropping its spores all over the forest floor, to infect more ants below. Similarly, a virus that infects gypsy moth larvae prompts them to climb en masse to the tops of trees to die. The virus then multiplies, and rains viral particles down on the forest floor.

These parasites make their hosts seek a higher elevation, which expands the reach of their infectious spores or particles. But other species can induce far more complex behaviors. Nematomorph worms, for example, infect crickets, and drive them to commit suicide by jumping into various water sources, be it a puddle or swimming pool. It is precisely in such aquatic environments that nematomorph worms reproduce and complete their life cycles.

And parasites’ mind-control abilities are not limited to invertebrates. Consider the rabies virus, which is transmitted among dogs, humans, and other mammals by biting. To maximize its chances of spreading to another host, the virus actually alters its host’s mind to turn it into an angry, slavering, biting machine that will chomp at anything it encounters.

Another species that can affect human behavior is the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii, the causal agent of Toxoplasmosis. T. gondii is extremely common, with an infection rate of 15-85% across different countries, depending on climate and diet. Whereas Brazil and France have infection rates of around 80%, Japan’s is only 7%.

T. gondii can find its way to humans through farm animals such as pigs, cows, and sheep. And, as it happens, raw-meat dishes are more common in French and Brazilian cuisines. But T. gondii naturally targets cats, by way of rats whose behavior it has altered. Namely, the microbe increases the likelihood of its host rat being eaten by a cat, by reducing the rat’s natural fear of light (photophobia) and cat urine.

Humans, too, can experience alarming behavioral changes after becoming infected by T. gondii. Infected men can become jealous, distrusting of others, disrespectful of established rules, and less risk-averse; as a result, they are almost three times more likely to be involved in a car accident. Infected women, meanwhile, can become either suicidal or more warm-hearted, insecure, and moralistic.

Moreover, there is evidence that a T. gondii infection could play a role in mental disorders. More than 40 studies have shown that people suffering from schizophrenia test positive for T. gondii antibodies, indicating that they may have been previously infected. And T. gondii has also been tied to dementia, autism, Parkinson’s disease, and brain cancer.

How can these puppet-master parasites control the brains of such diverse invertebrate and vertebrate species? One possibility is that they can change the levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Neurotransmitters are ancient molecules that have been conserved through the ages of evolution, and they are known to influence behavior.

Thanks to genomics and proteomics, we have begun to understand the role that neurotransmitters play in allowing parasites to manipulate host behavior. When researchers analyzed the T. gondii genome, they found the precursor to dopamine synthesis, L-DOPA, suggesting that the parasite might be able to synthesize and secrete dopamine directly into a host’s brain. This would explain why rats infected with T. gondii have higher levels of dopamine, and why dopamine inhibitors can suppress their parasite-induced behavior.

Parasites that infect invertebrates can also manipulate neurotransmitter levels. For example, the emerald cockroach wasp injects its cockroach host with a venomous cocktail that contains the neurotransmitter octopamine. This puts the cockroach into a sleep-like state, at which point the wasp drags it off to its lair and lays eggs in its abdomen.

And like T. gondii in rats, acanthocephalan worms (also known as spiny-headed worms) overrides the natural photophobia of their freshwater crustacean hosts. As the crustacean gravitates toward the surface of the water, it is eaten by a duck, at which point the worm completes its lifecycle.

Researchers have found that when uninfected amphipods are injected with serotonin, they spend more time near the surface of the water, as if they had been infected. And protein analysis of grasshoppers infected with nematomorph worms shows a change in the proteins that are involved in releasing neurotransmitters.

We are only just beginning to understand how these diverse puppet-master parasites can manipulate invertebrate and vertebrate behavior. But we already know that pulling on the strings of neurotransmitters is one common method. If further research vindicates some of the more seemingly outlandish imaginings of science fiction, it wouldn’t be the first time. Robbie Rae is a lecturer in genetics at Liverpool John Moores University, United Kingdom.

By Robbie Rae

The Imperialist People’s Republic of Africa?

BEIJING – A few months ago, a New York Times magazine cover was emblazoned with the question “Is China the World’s New Colonial Power?” The notion that China is a twenty-first-century colonizer is not new: commentators have been batting it around for a decade. But, to anyone who has experienced or even studied colonialism, the claim seems inappropriate, if not insulting.


The colonialism described in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, and Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks was insidious and potent. Yes, there were strong trade and investment relationships, but there was always explicit dominance, exemplified in imposed curricula, curfews, and movement restrictions based on skin color.

In the countries that experienced such colonialism – including my home country, Kenya – the effects can be felt to this day. To call China a colonial power is to diminish the true horrors that were faced by the colonized communities, including by my own relatives, who were detained by the British colonial authorities.

But, beyond the moral obtuseness of the comparison, this approach simply is not useful. To label China a “colonizer” or “benefactor” does little to help us understand the true nature of its relationship with the African continent, let alone other regions such as the Caribbean. And, given the potentially lopsided power dynamics, grasping that relationship is vitally important.

I recently worked with the boutique consultancy ChinaAfricaAdvisory to explore in depth how Chinese actors are operating within some key African countries, including by carrying out revealing cross-country comparisons. Three observations stand out.

First, we found that Chinese state-owned and private companies, government departments, and non-governmental organizations prefer to do business in African countries that have already formalized their ties with China. This is not the way colonialism usually works, for those still insisting on that comparison.

Such formalization often happens through memorandums of understanding, which seem to act as a kind of “gateway” for Chinese actors. For example, Kenya, which has at least 17 such memoranda with Chinese government actors, has attracted a large number of Chinese companies and NGOs for activities like managing special economic zones and spearheading large infrastructure and agricultural projects. Nearby Tanzania and Mozambique each have fewer than ten such agreements, and have attracted less Chinese activity.

The second observation is that Chinese actors do not avoid countries with governments that champion their own citizens’ interests (again, not a typical trait of colonizers). For example, in African countries with strong domestic labor laws, Chinese companies are not just willing to engage in infrastructure and other contracted projects; they also tend to hire more local workers, relative to Chinese labor. A recent McKinsey survey of over 1,000 firms in eight African countries found that almost 90% of their employees were locals.

This can have a powerful impact on the host country. Job creation resulting from construction projects and manufacturing investment is crucial, particularly in countries such as South Africa, Namibia, and St Lucia, where 40% or more of young people are unemployed. The shift toward hiring more local labor is particularly notable, because, as recently as 2015, almost 40% of all Chinese overseas workers were on the African continent.

The third insight revealed by our research relates to the true complexity of Chinese investment decisions. Like any investor, Chinese actors in Africa focus on maximizing returns – and that means seeking fast-growing economies. As a recent Johns Hopkins University briefing showed, the Chinese investment destinations of Tanzania, Ghana, and Kenya have been growing at annual rates above 6%.

But, unlike many other investors, Chinese actors have proved willing to take economic and political risks. Consider South Africa, which has a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with China. Since at least 2003, South Africa has regularly ranked in the top five African recipients of outward direct investment from China, with Chinese ODI continuing to rise, even as South Africa’s economic growth has declined.

Similarly, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zimbabwe – countries with notoriously difficult political environments that typically feature at the bottom of global competitiveness indices – have all been key destinations not just for loans, but also for significant non-financial Chinese investment over the last decade.

While China is no colonizer, African and other governments do have a responsibility to ensure that their relationships with China meet their own development interests and objectives. Given China’s growing global footprint, an ad hoc approach is no longer appropriate.

I would suggest four critical steps.

• First, each government should prepare an in-depth “China plan” that sets out explicitly what its citizens want from Chinese partnerships. Such plans can also support due diligence – for example, exploring China’s relationships with neighboring or other countries at a similar level of development.

• Second, each country should seek out Chinese actors that might help them carry out their China plan. Organizations such as the China-Africa Business Council and others can help facilitate such searches and introductory meetings.

• Third, countries should negotiate memorandums of understanding and contracts on the basis of established best practices. In pursuing such negotiations, African countries should be aware that they actually have a great deal of bargaining power vis-à-vis China, even more than many other developing countries.

• Finally, governments should enlist the help of domestic entities, such as NGOs, in monitoring and reviewing the outcomes of China’s activities, such as those concerning labor standards or environmental performance.

There are still an estimated 389 million Africans living below the poverty line – over half the world’s total. China’s engagement in Africa can help to reduce that number, but only if African countries work to manage their relationships with China strategically, protecting their own interests as they create mutually beneficial arrangements with the Asian giant. Though China is no colonizer, it would be a mistake to assume that its growing global footprint is purely benign.Hannah Ryder, a former head of policy and partnerships for the United Nations Development Programme in China, is founder and CEO of Development Reimagined.

By Hannah Ryder

The G20 and the Inequality Crisis

LONDON – Almost a decade ago, facing a near-collapse of the financial system and the risk of a depression, the world needed a new form of leadership to navigate and restore confidence in the global economy. That’s why, in 2009, at his first global summit as US president, Barack Obama joined then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to spearhead the G20’s upgrade, making it the world’s preeminent economic forum. What they created helped solve one immediate problem, but it let linger another global challenge.


With the Obama-Brown upgrade, the G20 – comprising 19 of the world’s largest advanced and emerging economies, plus the European Union – took over the role played by the G7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the US). Obama and Brown knew that a group that did not include rising economic powers, like China and India, could not propose effective solutions to the global economy’s biggest problems.

Whatever one thinks of the G20 – and it is by no means perfect – this more inclusive grouping helped to overcome the consequences of the 2008 global financial crisis. With an expanded coterie of world leaders taking charge, jittery financial markets stabilized, and the G20 then helped launch, and sustain, a global economic stimulus, led by China, which reversed the downward spiral.

Today, the G20, now meeting in Hamburg for its annual summit, must confront the challenge of inequality. With the world’s richest 1% now owning 40% of its assets, the benefits of growth are not being shared in a way that is either economically efficient or politically sustainable.

This crisis had been building for many decades, but it accelerated sharply after the global financial meltdown that the G20 helped stem. As a result, disillusioned and disaffected voters in advanced economies are challenging established political parties to find solutions or cede power, while millions of people from poor countries, unable to envision a future at home, are risking their lives by crossing deserts and seas in search of economic opportunity.

It is up to the G20 to deal with the global inequality crisis with the same urgency it showed during the Great Recession of 2008-2009. Just as Obama and Brown led the way then, German Chancellor Angela Merkel must respond purposefully and powerfully to the widening divide between rich and poor, which has become an acute danger to the world economy, and to social cohesion and political stability.

The G20, which Germany now leads, could take many steps to address the crisis of inequality, but three are most important.

First, the G20 needs to get serious about accelerating work on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs set a bold but achievable agenda for addressing poverty, reducing inequality, improving education and health, and protecting the planet. But almost two years after their launch, a business-as-usual approach prevails in most countries, and accountability has been reduced to exercises in collecting data. The G20 countries, which collectively account for most of the world’s population and resources, should lead by translating the SDGs into national policies, and by harnessing government budgets and their private sectors to drive implementation.

Second, the G20 must crack down on economic abuses that weaken states and markets, and erode public trust. Tax avoidance by big corporations and wealthy individuals, which by some estimates cost poor countries $200 billion a year, is a case in point. Many business leaders do understand that the future of the world economy, and their own companies, depends on reducing poverty, and that this is becomes harder to achieve as inequality widens. But to tackle a crisis of this scale, the entire business community must be on board.

Finally, the G20 should lead the way toward giving every child access to quality education by 2030. This is the real game changer when it comes to addressing inequality. For example, teaching all students in poor countries to read could help pull more than 170 million people out of poverty, equal to a 12% decline in the number of poor people worldwide.

But this would require a dramatic increase in education spending, including more funding for existing programs, like Education Cannot Wait, which supports the continuation of schooling for children in disaster areas, and the Global Partnership for Education, which provides grants to support education in countries with the most need. It must also include investment in proposed initiatives, like the International Finance Facility for Education, which aims to bring public and private donors together to increase global education financing by more than $10 billion dollars a year.

The G20 is still the world’s leading forum when it comes to the global economy. It helped us through the global financial crisis. Now is the time for the G20 to step up again, and to act with genuine resolve, to address the global inequality crisis.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a former Prime Minister of Denmark, is Chief Executive of Save the Children and a member of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity.

By Helle Thorning-Schmidt

Death or Democracy in Venezuela

CARACAS – Venezuela’s democratic institutions are in ruins, its coffers are empty, and its citizens are searching for food in garbage dumps. Its people are dying from starvation, from preventable and curable diseases (at much higher rates than the Latin American average), and from violence – including, in some cases, gunshot wounds inflicted by their own government.


More than three quarters of Venezuela’s 31 million people want to free themselves from the stranglehold of their rulers, a small group of no more than 150 mafia-like figures (mostly military) who have hijacked the country’s democracy, robbed it blind, and created a devastating humanitarian crisis. The 18-year-old regime – established by Hugo Chávez, and now led by President Nicolás Maduro – would rather hold an entire country hostage than lose power and potentially have to answer for crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court. But how long can it hold on?

Venezuelans have actively pursued a change of government. In the December 2015 parliamentary election, two thirds of voters lent their support to the democratic opposition. That outcome should have loosened the regime’s grip on the state and helped to re-establish the checks and balances envisioned in the constitution that Chávez himself drafted.

But the regime has systematically undermined the National Assembly through rulings from a Supreme Court that it packed with loyalists, using the outgoing legislature. At the end of last March, the Supreme Court went a step further, taking over all of the Assembly’s powers – a move so blatantly illegal that even the chavista Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega Díaz denounced it as a “rupture of the constitutional order.”

With that, desperate Venezuelans took their opposition to the streets. On April 1, they began holding almost daily protests demanding another general election, despite the mortal danger of public opposition. Indeed, since the protests began, the regime’s security forces have killed 85 demonstrators and wounded over 1,000 more, including by throwing tear-gas canisters into crowds and launching pellets at people’s chests, at close range. More than 3,000 protesters face criminal charges, simply for exercising their democratic rights.

Cornered, the ruling clique has become defiant. Maduro recently announced that if the regime cannot muster the votes needed to stay in power, it will use its weapons instead. But he is also taking more extreme political action to protect the regime: he has now ordered, by presidential decree (rather than by referendum, as the constitution requires), a constituent assembly, to be chosen on July 30, to draft a new “communal” constitution.

The demonstrations have now become what is essentially a popular uprising, with Venezuela’s people calling on the armed forces to evict the regime from power. Ortega, for her part, has called on the Supreme Court to annul the regime’s push to rewrite the constitution, but the court declared her request “not receivable.”

Venezuelans recognize that a Marxist-Leninist constitution approved by regime-appointed deputies would complete Venezuela’s transformation into another Cuba within a month. The question is whether the rest of the world will stand by idly.

Luis Almagro, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS), has called its member states’ attention to the Venezuelan regime’s grave constitutional and human-rights violations. At last month’s OAS General Assembly in Mexico, 14 countries (Argentina, Brazil, Bahamas, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Guyana, Jamaica, Mexico, the United States, Peru, St. Lucia, Uruguay, and Paraguay) proposed a draft resolution on how to initiate a dialogue with the Venezuelan regime – to no avail.

Such a dialogue would have focused on pushing Venezuela’s regime to comply with the commitments mediated by the Vatican last autumn, including holding free and fair elections this year, releasing political prisoners, restoring the National Assembly’s constitutional powers, and accepting humanitarian assistance. But, though 20 OAS member states supported the resolution, ten did not, owing to their dependence on Venezuelan oil and financing. That left the resolution three votes short of the required two-thirds majority.

Emboldened by what it perceived as a victory, the Venezuelan regime has ramped up its violence against protesters and organized a bogus coup against itself. During the recent siege of the Legislative Palace, an officer of the National Guard assaulted Julio Borges, the president of the National Assembly – the only institution with any legitimacy left. The regime is also set to appoint a tame new deputy prosecutor general to replace Ortega, who has had her bank accounts frozen and is barred from leaving the country.

The opposition is firing back, organizing via the National Assembly an official referendum, on the basis of articles 333 and 350 of the constitution. Venezuelans will be able to weigh in on Maduro’s plan to rewrite the constitution and the opposition’s push for new elections, the restoration of all checks and balances, and the formation of a “national unity” government. The vote will take place on July 16, in all churches in Venezuela, and with international observers.

Having lost all legitimacy, Venezuela’s kleptocratic and murderous regime is hanging on by a thread. Already, individual OAS member states have imposed targeted sanctions on officials affiliated with the regime’s aggressive drug-dealing faction – the sub-group responsible for murdering young people in the streets and torturing some 300 political prisoners. (The European Union has yet to join the effort.)

By rejecting a democratic transition, the regime is only prolonging its own agony and creating higher costs for Venezuela. While the ruling clique is not eager to negotiate, a deal offered via the OAS or at the United Nations Security Council could prove difficult to refuse in the current context.

Such a deal would require an immediate general election and the cancellation of the constituent assembly, and could be implemented relatively quickly and easily, according to the existing constitution. If successful, it could help reinvigorate international trust and cooperation. More immediately, it would give the desperate, starving, and repressed Venezuelan people their country back.  Enrique ter Horst, former Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in El Salvador and Haiti, was UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights.

By Enrique ter Horst

Death or Democracy in Venezuela

CARACAS – Venezuela’s democratic institutions are in ruins, its coffers are empty, and its citizens are searching for food in garbage dumps. Its people are dying from starvation, from preventable and curable diseases (at much higher rates than the Latin American average), and from violence – including, in some cases, gunshot wounds inflicted by their own government.


More than three quarters of Venezuela’s 31 million people want to free themselves from the stranglehold of their rulers, a small group of no more than 150 mafia-like figures (mostly military) who have hijacked the country’s democracy, robbed it blind, and created a devastating humanitarian crisis. The 18-year-old regime – established by Hugo Chávez, and now led by President Nicolás Maduro – would rather hold an entire country hostage than lose power and potentially have to answer for crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court. But how long can it hold on?

Venezuelans have actively pursued a change of government. In the December 2015 parliamentary election, two thirds of voters lent their support to the democratic opposition. That outcome should have loosened the regime’s grip on the state and helped to re-establish the checks and balances envisioned in the constitution that Chávez himself drafted.

But the regime has systematically undermined the National Assembly through rulings from a Supreme Court that it packed with loyalists, using the outgoing legislature. At the end of last March, the Supreme Court went a step further, taking over all of the Assembly’s powers – a move so blatantly illegal that even the chavista Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega Díaz denounced it as a “rupture of the constitutional order.”

With that, desperate Venezuelans took their opposition to the streets. On April 1, they began holding almost daily protests demanding another general election, despite the mortal danger of public opposition. Indeed, since the protests began, the regime’s security forces have killed 85 demonstrators and wounded over 1,000 more, including by throwing tear-gas canisters into crowds and launching pellets at people’s chests, at close range. More than 3,000 protesters face criminal charges, simply for exercising their democratic rights.

Cornered, the ruling clique has become defiant. Maduro recently announced that if the regime cannot muster the votes needed to stay in power, it will use its weapons instead. But he is also taking more extreme political action to protect the regime: he has now ordered, by presidential decree (rather than by referendum, as the constitution requires), a constituent assembly, to be chosen on July 30, to draft a new “communal” constitution.

The demonstrations have now become what is essentially a popular uprising, with Venezuela’s people calling on the armed forces to evict the regime from power. Ortega, for her part, has called on the Supreme Court to annul the regime’s push to rewrite the constitution, but the court declared her request “not receivable.”

Venezuelans recognize that a Marxist-Leninist constitution approved by regime-appointed deputies would complete Venezuela’s transformation into another Cuba within a month. The question is whether the rest of the world will stand by idly.

Luis Almagro, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS), has called its member states’ attention to the Venezuelan regime’s grave constitutional and human-rights violations. At last month’s OAS General Assembly in Mexico, 14 countries (Argentina, Brazil, Bahamas, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Guyana, Jamaica, Mexico, the United States, Peru, St. Lucia, Uruguay, and Paraguay) proposed a draft resolution on how to initiate a dialogue with the Venezuelan regime – to no avail.

Such a dialogue would have focused on pushing Venezuela’s regime to comply with the commitments mediated by the Vatican last autumn, including holding free and fair elections this year, releasing political prisoners, restoring the National Assembly’s constitutional powers, and accepting humanitarian assistance. But, though 20 OAS member states supported the resolution, ten did not, owing to their dependence on Venezuelan oil and financing. That left the resolution three votes short of the required two-thirds majority.

Emboldened by what it perceived as a victory, the Venezuelan regime has ramped up its violence against protesters and organized a bogus coup against itself. During the recent siege of the Legislative Palace, an officer of the National Guard assaulted Julio Borges, the president of the National Assembly – the only institution with any legitimacy left. The regime is also set to appoint a tame new deputy prosecutor general to replace Ortega, who has had her bank accounts frozen and is barred from leaving the country.

The opposition is firing back, organizing via the National Assembly an official referendum, on the basis of articles 333 and 350 of the constitution. Venezuelans will be able to weigh in on Maduro’s plan to rewrite the constitution and the opposition’s push for new elections, the restoration of all checks and balances, and the formation of a “national unity” government. The vote will take place on July 16, in all churches in Venezuela, and with international observers.

Having lost all legitimacy, Venezuela’s kleptocratic and murderous regime is hanging on by a thread. Already, individual OAS member states have imposed targeted sanctions on officials affiliated with the regime’s aggressive drug-dealing faction – the sub-group responsible for murdering young people in the streets and torturing some 300 political prisoners. (The European Union has yet to join the effort.)

By rejecting a democratic transition, the regime is only prolonging its own agony and creating higher costs for Venezuela. While the ruling clique is not eager to negotiate, a deal offered via the OAS or at the United Nations Security Council could prove difficult to refuse in the current context.

Such a deal would require an immediate general election and the cancellation of the constituent assembly, and could be implemented relatively quickly and easily, according to the existing constitution. If successful, it could help reinvigorate international trust and cooperation. More immediately, it would give the desperate, starving, and repressed Venezuelan people their country back. Enrique ter Horst, former Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in El Salvador and Haiti, was UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights.

By Enrique ter Horst

Public Spheres for the Trump Age

BERKELEY – In many societies, universities are the main bastions of ideological and intellectual independence. We count on them to transmit our values to the young, and to support short- and long-run inquiries into the human condition. In Donald Trump’s America, they are more important than ever.


Unlike universities, for-profit media enterprises have never been up to the task of nurturing a robust “public sphere.” Inevitably, their coverage reflects enormous pressure to please the base – their advertisers or investors – or at least to avoid giving offense. That is why the American writer and political commentator Walter Lippmann – no stranger to journalism – ultimately put his trust in public intellectuals working in universities, think tanks, or other niches.

For most of the post-war era, the for-profit media’s structural deformities were relatively harmless. The far right, having unleashed Nazism and fascism on the world was in political exile. And the far left had its own albatross: “really existing socialism” in the Soviet bloc was murderous and unproductive.

This left only the North Atlantic triptych of political democracy, free markets, and social insurance. Technocratic debates about how to achieve the greatest good for the most people could proceed without the baggage of deranged ideologies. The West was living through the “end of ideology”; or, even more optimistically, the “end of history.”

But now we are confronting what Lawrence Summers calls “the challenges of the Trump era,” and the stakes could not be higher. In a recent commentary for the Financial Times, Summers laments that universities, in particular, have failed to rise to today’s challenges.

For starters, Summers rightly calls for universities to do more to “recruit, admit, and educate economically disadvantaged students.” When universities accept only the well prepared, they are not just being lazy. They are also failing their students, faculty, and the communities they serve. Underprivileged students who are less prepared than their peers should not be blamed for the circumstances into which they were born.

In economic terms, it is a university’s job to maximize its educational “value added,” which means that it should seek out the students who stand to benefit the most from its services. And, once admitted, these students should be afforded what they need to complete their studies.

Summers is also right to find it “terrifying that the US now has its first post-rational president who denies science, proposes arithmetically unsound budgets, and embraces alternative facts.” Universities, Summers points out, should “be bulwarks for honest, open debate as a route towards greater truth.” Indeed, universities are venues for not just expressing but evaluating ideas. We should cultivate intellectual diversity; but we also must reject failed, unsound, or fraudulent ideas.

For this reason, university faculty and students may proffer any argument or idea that they deem worthy of further investigation. And they should be free to invite speakers who share their perspective. Summers is right that a university is no place for “giving a heckler’s veto to those who want to carry the day with the strength of their feeling rather than the force of their argument.”

And yet there is some conflict between rejecting failed ideas and maintaining intellectual diversity. One rule of thumb, offered 70 years ago by the historian Ernst Kantorowicz, is that those who advance an idea have an obligation to “their conscience and their God” to be sincere about it.

Consider the example Summers cites: Charles Murray’s visit to Middlebury College, which resulted in large student demonstrations. I saw Murray discuss his notorious book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, back in the mid-1990s, and I was not impressed. And since then, Murray’s ideas – especially his claims about IQ and race – have not been well received.

So, to my mind, if Murray was invited, he should be allowed to speak. But the Middlebury students who invited him also owe it to their consciences, their God, and the rest of us to explain in good faith why they think his ideas are still worthy of consideration.

One area where I disagree with Summers concerns his defense of meritocracy. Suggesting that meritocracy is an unalloyed good ignores the provenance of the term, which the sociologist Michael Young coined in his 1958 dystopian satire The Rise of the Meritocracy.

Summers laments that college faculty are now being “trained that it is wrong and even racist to say that ‘America is a land of opportunity’ or that ‘meritocracy is a good thing.’” But whether such statements are objectionable depends on the context in which they are uttered. It is fine to encourage promising young people to work hard. But the meritocracy we have is an untrustworthy arbiter of individual worth, given how much it discriminates against those who, through no fault of their own, are not prepared to fulfill its criteria for success.

At this point in discussions about today’s universities, the term “safe space” often crops up. To be sure, universities should be safe spaces for exchanging and judging ideas, and for changing one’s mind in the face of new arguments and evidence. Summers, for his part, is right that “a liberal education that does not cause moments of acute discomfort is a failure.” But he errs in not acknowledging that some students experience acute discomfort by being made to feel as though they do not belong.

As communities of speech and debate, universities are vulnerable to disruption, which is why civility, as Summers rightly emphasizes, must be upheld. Moreover, campus turmoil is often perceived as a sign of societal disorder. Summers cites the historian Rick Perlstein to remind us that Ronald Reagan’s political rise in the 1960s partly reflected his “railing against” the student protests at the University of California, Berkeley, at the time. Summers suspects that campus radicalism is on the rise again, and that “the political effects will be about the same now as they were then.” Donald Trump, one suspects, is counting on it.

J. Bradford DeLong, a former deputy assistant US Treasury secretary, is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

By J. Bradford DeLong

Should China Deleverage?

BEIJING – China’s mounting debt problem recently moved into the spotlight when Moody’s downgraded the country’s sovereign rating. But was the downgrade really warranted?


Though China’s overall debt-to-GDP ratio is not an outlier among emerging-market economies, and its levels of household and government debt are moderate, its corporate debt-to-GDP ratio, at 170%, is the highest in the world, twice as large as that of the United States. China’s corporate leverage (debt-to-equity) ratio is also very high, and rising.

A high and rising debt-to-GDP ratio, which goes hand in hand with a high and rising leverage ratio, can lead to financial crisis through three channels. The first is the deterioration of the quality of financial institutions’ assets, and the decline in the price of those assets. With institutions forced by mark-to-market accounting to write off an equal amount of equity, the leverage ratio rises, leading to a further deterioration in asset quality and decline in asset prices.

The second channel is refusal by investors, concerned about the rising leverage ratio, to roll over short-term debt. This causes the money market to seize up, forcing banks and other financial institutions to tighten credit and raise interest rates, thereby further weakening borrowers’ debt-service capacity. Defaults proliferate and the volume of nonperforming loans rises.

The third way a high debt-to-GDP ratio can lead to crisis is by driving banks and nonbank financial institutions, unable to secure sufficient capital, into bankruptcy. In this case, the public could panic and withdraw their cash, fueling a run on deposits that could lead to the collapse of the entire financial system.

But none of these scenarios seems like a real risk for China, at least not in the foreseeable future. China is, after all, a highly frugal country, with gross savings totaling 48% of GDP. As a result, loanable funds are abundant, and funding costs can be kept low. Therefore, China has more scope than other countries to maintain a high debt-to-GDP ratio.

Moreover, because China’s debt consists overwhelmingly of loans by state-owned banks to state-owned enterprises, depositors and investors feel confident (rightly or wrongly) that their assets carry an implicit government guarantee. And not only is the government’s fiscal position relatively strong; it also has $3 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves – a sum that far exceeds China’s overseas debts. China’s government could, if it so chose, bail out banks in trouble, preventing contagious bankruptcies.

Mitigating the debt risk further, China’s capital account remains largely closed, enabling the government to block capital flight and gain sufficient time to deal with unexpected financial events. It helps, too, that the People’s Bank of China stands ready to inject liquidity into the money market whenever necessary.

None of this is to say that China’s high level of corporate debt is not a cause for concern. But it does imply that deleveraging may not be as urgent as many seem to think, especially at a time when China has another, more pressing policy imperative to pursue – one that could be undermined by rapid deleveraging.

For years, China has been in the grips of overcapacity-driven deflation. The producer-price index (PPI) has declined in year-on-year terms for 54 consecutive months, while the annual rise in the consumer-price index (CPI) is hovering around 1.5%. In October 2016, PPI growth turned positive, suggesting that the debt-deflationary spiral may have been broken. But, after a few good months, the sequential growth rate of PPI has turned negative again, suggesting that now is no time to test fate on deflation.

This is all the more true at a time when the government is clamping down on runaway real-estate prices – an effort that is likely to deter investment, thereby weakening economic growth in the next six months. In this context, a wrong move could tip China back into a debt-deflationary spiral – which would pose a more acute threat to China’s economic stability than the risks stemming from the debt-to-GDP ratio.

Still, Moody’s points out, China’s debt-to-GDP ratio is a serious problem. Moreover, to justify its downgrade, it argues that the government’s efforts to maintain robust growth will result in sustained policy stimulus, which will contribute to even higher debt throughout the economy.

But this reading fails to distinguish between the long-term trend of the debt-to-GDP ratio when the economy grows at its potential rate and the real-time debt-to-GDP ratio when the economy grows at a below-potential rate. When an economy is growing at roughly its potential rate, as China’s is today, it makes no sense to lower the growth target below that rate.

To be sure, China does have reason to implement economic stimulus. The overcapacity that, until recently, dominated the Chinese economy was rooted partly in a lack of aggregate demand (and partly in wasteful overinvestment).

In an ideal world, China’s government could respond by stimulating household consumption. But, in the absence of further reforms in areas like social security, growth in consumer spending is bound to be slow. In the meantime, the government must rely on an expansionary fiscal policy to encourage infrastructure investment, even if it means raising the debt-to-GDP ratio.

Such an initiative should also entail improved financing opportunities – including lower borrowing costs – for small and medium-size enterprises. Meanwhile, the rise in the corporate debt-to-GDP ratio could be stemmed by efforts to improve capital efficiency, boost enterprise profitability, narrow the difference between credit flows and credit-financed investment, increase the share of equity finance, and align the real interest rate with the natural interest rate.

There is no doubt that China’s debts – especially its corporate debts – are a serious problem, and must be curbed. But China must balance that imperative with the more urgent need to maintain a growth rate more or less in line with potential, and prevent the economy from being tipped back into a debt-deflationary spiral. So far, China has managed to juggle these two imperatives. One hopes that it has time to address the challenges before it drops a ball.

Yu Yongding, a former president of the China Society of World Economics and director of the Institute of World Economics and Politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, served on the Monetary Policy Committee of the People’s Bank of China from 2004 to 2006.

By Yu Yongding

The Changing Geopolitics of European Emotion

PARIS – A new triangle of geopolitical emotion has emerged in Europe: Great Britain has ceased feeling superior to France, and France has stopped feeling inferior to Germany. The question is whether this sentimental transformation will ultimately reorder the balance of power in Europe, and possibly the world.


Developments currently underway in Britain and France will prove decisive. It remains to be seen how the British repair the damage they are inflicting upon themselves through the Brexit quagmire. And it is still unclear if the French can harness the strong and positive energy of their new president, Emmanuel Macron, to implement badly needed reforms.

But even as those uncertainties play out, both countries are engaging in a kind of zero-sum transfer of emotions that is impossible to ignore. In the past, traveling to London from Paris, one could easily sense the difference between the two cities. London was bursting with dynamism, and proud to assert itself as the world capital of multiculturalism. Paris, although undeniably more beautiful, was in danger of becoming a new Rome, a prisoner of its past glory, at best a place to visit, but not a place to be.

Today, confidence has been sucked out of Britain by social and political upheaval, terrorism, and uncertainty about the country’s future. According to some opinion polls, while those who voted for Brexit stand by their decision, anti-European Union sentiment has waned, and the will to leave the EU has abated. Voters seem to be wrestling with how their departure will make the United Kingdom safer or address the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable.

In France, by contrast, one feels a new and positive energy. Hope for a better future has returned, reflected in the French public’s overwhelming support for Paris’s bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. Hosting the games, a global symbol of positive expectations, lifted the UK’s spirits 12 years ago, in July 2005, when London was awarded the 2012 Summer Olympics. (The celebration was cut short, however, when terrorists attacked the London transport system the following day).

Of course, French optimism does not mean that those defeated at the ballot box will not take to the streets, especially to oppose the implementation of reforms to French labor laws. But the opposition is now a minority in a country where the mood is lighter, even cheerful. That is true even if one takes into consideration the record-low voter turnout in the recent legislative elections.

The current mood reminds me of the atmosphere that briefly prevailed in France in July 1998, after “Les Tricolores” triumphed over Brazil in the final of the soccer World Cup. But this time, the feeling of elation may run deeper and last longer. The economic environment in Europe is more favorable, and the balance of power among French trade unions is shifting in favor of the reform-minded Confédération française démocratique du travail, and away from the more ideological Confédération générale du travail.

A combination of leadership talent and continuing luck means that, for the first time in decades in France, a prudent optimism may be justified. To paraphrase the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci, one could speak of a justified “optimism of the intellect” in France.

As a result of Macron’s election, and British Prime Minister Theresa May’s failed bet that the snap general election she called earlier this month would enable her to negotiate Brexit from a position of strength, France is now influencing the direction of Europe far more than Britain is. The only country of the EU’s “Big Three” that has remained stable is Germany, in anticipation of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s reelection in September.

Italy would love to replace the UK in Europe’s power trio. But Italy must get its own act together first. Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who is trying to push his way back to the top, is not an Italian Macron. Whatever talent and energy Renzi may have, he lacks Macron’s gravitas and understanding of the electorate.

Meanwhile, a new and better balance between Germany and France implies significant progress for European stabilization. Europe’s problem, contrary to what many critics have claimed, has not been “too much Germany.” It has been “too little France.” A “French moment” can therefore mean a “European moment,” if it means reconstituting an effective Franco-German alliance.

Americans, too, must understand the shifts that are taking place in Europe. A few days ago, at an international conference in Venice, a conservative Republican urged Europeans to “stop criticizing the Trump administration the way you do.” Otherwise, he warned, “The only result is that we will become much worse. And do you really want to be left alone with a very strong Germany?”

Disregarding the implied threat, the idea that the alternative to America is to be “left alone” with a “very strong Germany” is amusing. Germany, after all, has never wanted to be alone atop the EU; and now, with Macron’s makeover of French politics, it will not need to be.

Emotions may not be sufficient to explain all political realities. But the shift in national mood in Britain and France is undeniable, and it will play an increasingly important role in defining the politics of Europe.

Dominique Moisi is Senior Counselor at the Institut Montaigne in Paris. He is the author of La Géopolitique des Séries ou le triomphe de la peur.

Who Does Business Represent?

CAMBRIDGE – On whose behalf do business associations speak? Well, business. But who is “business”? It’s an increasingly urgent question, because while firms have radically changed how they think about themselves, business associations have yet to catch up. And the resulting lag is making capitalism less legitimate in many countries.


The traditional view of the firm – shared by both Karl Marx and Milton Friedman – is that it is an organization owned by capitalists (shareholders), on whose behalf it is run. It hires workers and buys other inputs to maximize returns for those who put up the money. According to Friedman, the social responsibility of the firm is to increase profits. Any goal that does not directly benefit shareholders is just another distortionary tax.

But what makes all of a firm’s stakeholders behave in a way that maximizes value? In fact, modern corporations struggle to create a sense of a collaborative community of employees, managers, suppliers, lenders, distributors, service providers, customers, and shareholders, all cooperating to create value by better satisfying customer needs and aspirations.

That’s why United Airlines would prefer that its employees treat passengers with grace. Or why Goldman Sachs wishes its bankers would not aid and abet massive corruption. Apple expects its suppliers to treat their workers humanely. UnitedHealthcare hopes its employees manage reimbursements honestly. Uber’s shareholders worry that misbehavior by senior executives may cause customers to switch service providers and valuable workers to quit.

To create functioning collaborative organizations, humans have evolved a sense of “us,” a feeling of belonging to what the historian and political scientist Benedict Anderson famously called an “imagined community.” We owe such communities our loyalty, and we feel pride in their achievements, pain in their stumbles, and hope for their continued success. We cooperate not just because it is in our cold pecuniary interest to do so, but because a cocktail of moral sentiments – loyalty, pride, guilt, shame, outrage, glee – make us work and root for our team.

Anderson’s focus was the rise of nationalism. But corporations try to create an analogous sense of allegiance by specifying their mission, vision, and values in lofty terms. When Chase Manhattan Bank bought J.P. Morgan in 2000, its managers assumed that they had also acquired the right to rename the organization. They soon discovered that J.P. Morgan was a more prestigious imagined community than Chase in the eyes of its customers and employees.

It is easy to see why the vision of the firm as a collaborative community is winning out in business schools and the most successful companies. One reason is that in most publicly traded corporations, shareholders are passive investors who just want to know enough about the firm to decide whether to buy or sell; they do not want to get involved in decisions.

At the same time, creating a sense of allegiance and trust by stakeholders facilitates running the show. A narrow focus on shareholders’ interests would impel all other stakeholders to pursue their narrow interests as well, increasing strife and transaction costs. The CEO may be appointed by a board of directors whose members are chosen by the shareholders, but he or she is supposed to represent and motivate the network of stakeholders that underpin the corporation’s success. The Fellows of the Harvard Corporation appoint my employer’s president, but they try to choose someone who will make us stakeholders proud.

And yet the social and political representation of business more closely resembles Friedman’s archetype. Business associations too frequently speak only on behalf of the narrow interest of the capitalist owners. In country after country – whether in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, France, Mexico, or the United Kingdom – business organizations give political voice to employers, not to the network of stakeholders.

Political representation of business per se, if well conceived, is invaluable for society. After all, economic progress requires that the invisible hand of the market be coordinated with the visible hand of the state. The cellphone industry requires the creation of property rights on the spectrum. The real estate industry needs to convince customers that their apartment building will not burn down. The IT industry would benefit if kids learned to code in school.

As these and many other examples show, business can become more efficient if governments provide the right combination of a diverse, relatively specific, and evolving set of public goods. Business associations need to interact with government in order to identify those public goods that would make economic ecosystems more productive, so that they can create more value for stakeholders.

But that task is burdened by the perception that those at the table are there to represent employers’ narrow interests, as their policy agenda – often focused on shifting the burden of taxation onto others – clearly suggests. As a consequence, governments often require that they meet in the presence of labor associations, so that employees also get a voice.

Setting the table in this tripartite way dramatically changes the nature of the conversation, by focusing it on labor and other distributive issues that could be resolved within the business network, at the expense of addressing how to supply productivity-enhancing public goods that could benefit all stakeholders. And it happens because the transformation in the conception of what a business is has yet to be reflected in the conception of what a business association should be.

Naturally, this lag leads to confrontation with other stakeholders, who must respond with their respective organizations. But if business associations could transform themselves so that they represented and gave voice to the network of stakeholders on which businesses are actually built, they could contribute enormously to the creation of a much more collaborative and inclusive society.

Ricardo Hausmann, a former minister of planning of Venezuela and former Chief Economist of the Inter-American Development Bank, is Director of the Center for International Development at Harvard University and a professor of economics at the Harvard Kennedy School.

By Ricardo Hausmann

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