News of Hugo Chavez’s narrow referendum defeat brought a decidedly unexpected relief. His proposals, in line with his former policies and stated goals, would have moved the Chavez administration toward a Castro-style dictatorship. But whereas Castro possesses an enduring charm, even if warped and spoiled by time and power, Chavez has all of the charm of a pit bull. At the conclusion of CNN’s story on the referendum result, the reporter offers a fascinating financial footnote: Venezuela’s oil-fueled prosperity, which has helped enrich Chavez’s popularity and solidify his power (the country’s wealth allows him to fund his social programs) accounts for as much as 90% of the country’s export economy. Two guesses as to who buys most of venezuela’s oil… Us. Apparently, the United States is one of the few countries that can refine Venezuela’s low-grade crude and we pick up about a million barrels per day. So, America then, Chavez’s nemesis, has been funding his regime.
A so-called National Intelligence Estimate issued today — a consensus view of “all 16 American spy agencies” (but who’s counting?) — concludes that Iran quite probably stopped its weapons program (if it had one) back in 2003, and that as of the middle of this year had probably not resumed that program (if it ever existed). Although couched in all kinds of provisos and qualifications, perhaps the most striking conclusion of the NIE is the estimate that sanctions and international pressure probably caused Iran to halt its program (if it did and if it had one). Of course, the White House has been quick to point out that this makes the President right again in seeking to maintain and increase pressure on Iran, rather than being wrong to pressage military action, since military action would have been not his error but someone else’s error for issuing a National Intelligence Estimate like the one that got us into the Iraq war. (Not that that was a mistake, but if it had been a mistake it would have been someone else’s mistake, too.) In any case, money seems to have been a key factor in making bringing to a halt the Iranian weapons grade fuel enrichment centrifuges (if they weren’t just nuclear energy centrifuges).
In Malawi two seasons of good crops have helped prevent famine. After the country’s most recent miserable crop failure in 2005, the president of Malawi, Bingu wa Mutharika, decided to ignore the financial strings attached to foreign subsidies and to subsidize himself the use of fertilizer and good seed. The U.S., Britain, and the World Bank have disfavored fertilizer and seed subsidies in countries such as Malawi because… wait for it… “foreign-aid fashions in Washington [and elsewhere] featured a faith in private markets and an antipathy to government intervention.” Let me get this straight, while the U.S. government subsidizes fertilizer purchases for our own farmers it’s been preaching and practising free-market ‘no subsidy’ religious policies overseas that have effectively been starving millions of people in Africa and elsewhere. The shamefulness of such self-righteous arrogance seems reprehenisble.
(There’s also a good op-ed piece about Goldman Sachs along similar lines, but I don’t have space to write about that.)
Money, money, money… But what about principles, what about good sense, what about logic and reason, why does money seem to lurk behind everything like a pesky accountant with an irrevocable pen poised to fall?
Allow me a quick detour into energy and matter. When Einstein equated mass with energy he unlocked a mysterious secret about the universe. The question: What is this stuff that things are made of? Einstein’s answer: Call it what you will, but you may as well call it energy.
A similar, humbler equation exists of course between money and power. Money and power are two ways of thinking about the same thing. You can convert one into the other and vice versa.
(My wife and I, for another instance, were discussing the presidential race and my wife pointed out to me the reason Mike Bloomberg could still run for president having skipped the abrasion of the primaries: He doesn’t need the money.)
Rather than just throw up my hands at this point, I’m struck by the question of what we as observers of the machinations of money and power can we do to make a difference? It seems to me that armed with the awareness that money churns away like a sump pump in the basement of every important political edifice, we’ll always be better able to judge things for what they are if we pop our head down the stairs and take a sniff. “Follow the money,” as Deep Throat apparently said, and we’ll be richer for it.
And if we doubt that paying attention to this will be enough to make a difference, we can be heartened by another discovery of science, famously encapsulated by the thought experiment of Schrodinger’s cat, that observation by itself is enough to change the outcome of a process. (more…)