Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In The News ("World at Risk," Greece in Crisis)

A new report about the risk of a WMD attack has cropped up in the headlines, The World At Risk: The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism the actual text of which you can find here.

The aspect of the report that has attracted the most attention is, predictably, the estimate in the Executive Summary that

The Commission believes that unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013 (xv).
There is no explanation in the report as to why 2013 should be thought of as some significant benchmark, and while most of the press seems to have uncritically swallowed the claim, experts Donald Henderson and Michael Krepon have appropriately criticized the report for what looks like an attempt to hype up its findings.

It is also noteworthy that the report seems to totally ignore chemical weapons, the authors saying in the preface that they focused on nuclear and biological weapons because "they pose the greatest peril" (x), and leaving it at that. There is no mention of the sarin gas attacks by the Aum Shinrkyo cult in Matsumoto in 1994, which killed seven and sickened six hundred, and in Tokyo in 1995, which resulted in over six thousand casualties. (Instead the only mentions of Aum's activity, despite its lengthy record of activity in this area are in relation to a single botched anthrax attack on Tokyo (on pages 10 and 11).) Partly because of this, the report tends to give the impression that WMD use by terrorists, certainly in a mass-casualty attack, is unprecedented, though clearly it is not (this report itself citing the Rajneeshee cult's 1984 bioterror attack, which sickened over 700 people, with the anthrax attacks of 2001, and the full range of Aum's bioweapon activities, worthy of mention).

These are serious deficiencies which have attracted too little attention in the press, too accustomed to simply reporting what the People In Suits Say, instead of scrutinizing it.

Speaking of lousy journalistic coverage, consider the treatment of the crisis in Greece, into which a general strike has just factored. The spark for this was the shooting of a youth by police, but the larger background to the situation seems to be long-running clashes between police and "anarchists" (I never know exactly what to make of that label here, given its vulnerability to abuse), and wide discontent with the corruption, incompetence (the mishandling of the wild fires of 2007, the fiscal mismanagement), and economic reforms (read: IMF-recommended neo-liberal measures, like privatizing the state telecommunications company and taking a hard line with labor), of the unpopular conservative government of Kostas Karmanlis.

One should note that Greece is not a Third World country. It is a member of the euro zone, with a $30,000 per capita GDP, putting it right between Taiwan and Italy for 2007. Its Gini score is 33, and its ranking in the Human Development Index is 24th in the world. It has problems with unemployment, debt, inflation, somewhat worse than Western Europe as a whole, but on the whole they do not seem to be very much so (the sizable current account deficit aside, partly due to the high energy prices now on the wane), and the country's growth has actually been comparatively robust (frequently clocking 4 percent a year these last several years, despite worries about slipping competitiveness).

In short, it is not the sort of place where things like this are "expected" to happen (like Latin America, for instance). Nonetheless, the numbers discussed above seem to miss some of the facts on the ground. These include youth unemployment, generally higher and in this case over 26 percent in 2006 according to Eurostat. Nor do they seem to reflect the actual poverty level, a recent study putting one in five households below that line (when the line is drawn at 470 euros a month, or about $7,300 a year), and attributing it to a relatively well-funded but exceptionally ineffective (mismanaged?) welfare system. Official inflation figures tend to understate the actual hardship for consumers of price shocks everywhere, but this is perhaps especially the case in countries which made the transition to the euro, with Greece in particular known to have "faked reported values of inflation in the run-up to accession of the monetary union in order to meet Maastricht criteria" according to this study by Milan Vyskrabka.

Simply put, this means things are worse than they look, and in some critical ways. The slowdown of growth, the promises of still more neoliberalism (keep in mind the country has a large public sector, so that the proportion of the citizenry directly affected will be comparatively large), and skimpy poor relief-justified on the grounds of a lack of money right after the Greek government provided the banking system with a generous and highly controversial financial bail-out (relative to the size of the Greek economy, equivalent to a $1.5 trillion package from the U.S.)-could not possibly be helping the political situation.

Looking at all this data, rarely touched on in the coverage of the riots, my guess would be that the causes of the current crisis are in large part economic, with the anomalousness of Greek politics perhaps playing a role as well. Following World War II the country went through a civil war, and in 1967-74, the country was ruled by a military dictatorship. The radicalization that resulted from it does not seem to have fully disappeared today-one expression of which is the size of the Communist Party (number three in parliament, with an eight percent share), and an opposition to U.S. foreign policy strong even by European standards (though those who see the world through Sam Huntington's "clash of civilizations" lens may also point to the country's Greek Orthodox religious identity). Immigration does not seem to be the "wedge" issue it has been in West European countries, helping to bouy conservative policies in spite of their rarely popular economic components. And the centrality of Athens as a center of Greek life (literally half the country's population lives there) adds to the government's vulnerability.

Nonetheless, with the world struggling through a financial crisis and economic slowdown so sharp as to evoke the "D" word from commentators who would ordinarily never dare let it slip past their lips, and energy prices on the wane now but perhaps poised to rebound even higher (Kevin Phillips speculating on C-SPAN2 yesterday about their going back to over $200 in just a few quarters), and the daily news offering one blast from the pre-neoliberal past after another, the way things are playing out in Greece may hint at the dangers to security and stability that other nations could face in the coming years. When even a eurozone member has this kind of trouble, other, poorer countries are unquestionably vulnerable, and it stands to reason that other affluent countries, many of which are in the same boat with regard to the problems discussed above, may not be totally exempt.

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