The U.S. Elections 2017: The Unexpected Democratic Sweep

Commentary No. 461, November 15, 2017

Elections in the United States have one feature that almost no other country shares. They largely occur on mandatory fixed dates. Presidential elections are every four years. Senatorial elections are staggered. One-third of them occur every two years. Both of these elections occur in years ending in an even numeral. Gubernatorial elections tend to occur in the same even years. Local elections are more varied but very many also occur in the even years.

As a result, the so-called off-year elections (that is, years ending in an odd numeral) tend to be considered less important by the national parties. And voters participate at a far lower rate than in the even-year elections

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What about China?

Commentary No. 460, November 1, 2017

Very often, when I write about the structural crisis of the modern world-system, and therefore of capitalism as an historical system, I receive objections saying that I have neglected the strength of Chinese economic growth and its ability to serve as an economic replacement for the clearly waning strength of the United States plus western Europe, the so-called North.

This is a perfectly reasonable argument, but one that misses the fundamental difficulties of the existing historical system. In addition, it paints a far rosier picture of China’s realities than is justified by a closer look. Let me address this question then in two parts – one, the historical development of the world-system as a whole, and two, the empirical situation of China at the present time.

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The Presumed ‘Mystery’ of Frozen Wages

Commentary No. 459, October 15, 2017

According to neoclassical economic theorizing, the relation between wages and jobs is a simple one. When there’s not enough demand for work, wages suffer. Workers compete against each other to get a job. But when there’s high demand for work, wages go up. Employers compete against each other to get the now scarce work force. This shifting cycle is said to maintain the smooth functioning of the free market system, guaranteeing a constant swing back to a moving equilibrium.

What has happened is that this cyclical process isn’t working that way anymore, and for pundits and academics this is seen as a big puzzle to explain. The explanations are varied and multiple. What seems to be at their heart is to suggest that there is a new normal. But why, and how does it work? In the October 8 issue of the New York Times, the lead article in the Sunday Business section had the following headline: “Plenty of Work: Not Enough Pay: Even as job markets tighten in major economies, low unemployment is failing to spur robust salary gains.”

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The Myth of Sovereignty

Commentary No. 458, October 1, 2017

Donald Trump spent much of his speech to the United Nations asserting that he was elected to defend U.S. sovereignty. He said that every other member state was also seeking to defend its sovereignty. What did he mean by this?

There is probably no other word in the public vocabulary of both political leaders and scholarly analysts that have as many conflicting meanings and usages as “sovereignty.” The only other one that comes close in confusion is “liberalism.” It is therefore useful to trace a little of the history of the term.

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Chaotic Uncertainty

Commentary No. 457, September 15, 2017

Are you confused about what is going on in the world? So am I. So is everyone. This is the underlying and continuing reality of a chaotic world-system.

What we mean by chaos is a situation in which there are constant wild swings in the priorities of all the actors. One day, from the point of view of a given actor, things seem to be going in a way favorable to that actor. The next day the outlook looks very unfavorable.

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Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy

Commentary No. 456, September 1, 2017

Donald Trump is approaching the end of his first year as president of the United States. By now, everyone – supporters, opponents, even indifferents – seem to agree on one thing. His pronouncements and his actions are unpredictable. He ignores precedents and behaves in ways that constantly surprise people. Supporters find this refreshing. Opponents find this terrifying.

Yet very few have remarked upon what is I think his most singular achievement. He has managed the trick of being the most unpredictable actor on the U.S. and world scene, and being at the same time the most predictable actor.

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Dilemmas of the Radical Left

Commentary No. 455, August 15, 2017

In what I call the pan-European world (North America; western, northern, and southern Europe; and Australasia), the basic electoral choice for the last century or so has been between two centrist parties, center-right versus center-left. There have been other parties further left and further right but they were essentially marginal.

In the last decade however, these so-called extreme parties have been gaining in strength. Both the radical left and the radical right have emerged as a strong force in a large number of countries. They have needed either to replace the centrist party or to take it over.

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North Korea: Outmaneuvering Everyone Else

Commentary No. 454, August 1, 2017

It is evident that North Korea is the most unpopular regime in the world today. Virtually all other regimes would do anything they could to force North Korea to change its policies, both internally and externally in the modern world-system. Yet they cannot seem to be able to do very much about North Korea’s policies – indeed, almost nothing at all.

How has this regime been able to ignore all the punitive measures the United Nations, the United States, China, Japan, and South Korea have voted, and even implemented? The basic consideration of all those hostile to the North Korean regime has been fear of what North Korea might do if pushed too far. We need however to distinguish between fear of its possible actions internally and fear of its actions externally.

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