- Progressive politics after Piketty: Making the case for managed markets
- Why the official explanation of MH370’s demise doesn’t hold up
- The long arms of the law
Posted: 14 May 2014 01:24 AM PDT
It is very rare for the Left to have a best-seller but we have one now. The French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is currently being both widely read and even more widely discussed. That is great news. The question it leaves us with is how to put all that reading and discussion to best use.
My suggestion is that we capitalize on this rare moment of clarity on the true sources of contemporary inequality by placing the Picketty thesis at the core of a wider argument on the need for a managed capitalism. We need that progressive argument now — and we need it disseminated widely in the run-up to the mid-term elections — because of the equally wide dissemination around us of its obverse: namely the libertarian and conservative counter-assertion that markets work best when regulated least.
The standard line for a fully deregulated set of capitalist markets goes something like this.
There is no need to regulate capitalism because, left to themselves, capitalist markets are the great drivers of human progress. Unregulated markets not only generate economic growth, as recent history so clearly demonstrates. They also allocate scarce resources in an entirely optimal way. Prices in unregulated markets educate consumers, trigger entrepreneurial activity and set in motion Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” — the one that leads entrepreneurs to benefit society without planning to do so. Interference in such markets by well-meaning governments only distorts those optimal settlement points. Heavy taxation discourages enterprise. Labour laws create unemployment; and bailing out the weak only penalizes the strong. Letting the market decide is more than economic common sense. It is also the quintessential American way of doing business. Let Europeans regulate markets if they must, but don’t bring those European weaknesses to this side of the Atlantic.
So what does the Piketty argument do to that general case?
• Debunking core claims It blows a huge hole in the central libertarian and conservative claim about optimal allocation. Conventional economics would have us believe that unregulated markets can be expected to reduce income and wealth inequalities over time. Piketty, by contrast, demonstrates that, without political intervention, unequal societies are likely to become more unequal rather than less. That is particularly so, he argues, in periods of slow economic growth of the sort we have witnessed in advanced capitalist economies since the 1970s; for in those periods, when the rate of return on capital and the rate of economic growth both diminish, the latter slows much more dramatically than the former. As he recently put it:
The Piketty data suggests that inequality in contemporary capitalism is now at such a level that ordinary market processes no longer apply. Instead the trend is otherwise: “The past tends to devour the future: society inexorably tends towards dominance by inherited wealth.” So just because healthy competition requires some degree of inequality, there is no reason to claim that for reasons of competitiveness we must tolerate whatever level of inequality happens to prevail. If Piketty is right, too much inequality is as damaging to long-term economic health as too little.
• Perfect & Imperfect Competition The data-sets in the Picketty volume are new and extremely valuable, but the basic argument that they sustain has its own long and well-established pedigree. It has long been recognized by critics of market deregulation that only under the very special circumstances of perfect competition do capitalist markets perform in the optimal way claimed for them by their advocates. Unregulated markets work in that optimal way only when the economy is entirely composed of small firms competing with each other in sectors that are easy for new firms to enter. And unregulated markets only work in an optimal way in economies in which no one firm is capable of affecting prices in the market by its actions alone. But modern capitalist markets are rarely of that kind; and when they are, the competitive processes that go on within them invariably move them away from such perfect competitiveness. Markets necessarily generate both winners and losers. As the winners get bigger and the losers smaller relative to each other, perfect competition between them becomes necessarily imperfect in character unless those markets are managed back into competitiveness. No matter how often it is asserted otherwise, market competition rarely works in the manner of Adam Smith’s invisible hand; and it does so only if, and to the degree that, periodically the invisible hand is itself given some externally-generated assistance.
• Arguments for market regulation Nor is anti-monopoly policy of itself enough for progressive purposes, for unregulated markets do more than generate structurally-embedded inequalities of wealth of the Piketty variety. They also suffer from a basic fallacy of composition. In unregulated markets, action that is rational for the individual firm is not necessarily rational for the economic system as a whole. That is why there is an environmental case for market regulation. Unless markets are regulated, there is no incentive for firms to factor in the costs of pollution. That is also why there is a Keynesian argument for market regulation. Cutting wages for competitive advantage works for individual firms, but if all firms cut wages simultaneously they open a race to the bottom that leaves each of them short of consumers with money to spend. That is also why there is a labor market argument for market regulation. Successful firms growing larger gain market power not only over their competitors but also over their employees. Unless trade unions can establish minimum standards of wages and conditions, there is nothing in unregulated markets that blocks off sweat-shop routes to immediate profitability. And that is why there is always a democratic argument for market regulation. Because unregulated markets produce losers as well as winners, they eventually settle at points of economic optimality which are not automatically socially optimal. Their minimum standards and ours are not automatically the same.
• The moral limits to markets Moreover, it is simply not the case that everything produced and consumed in modern economies can safely be left for allocation to unregulated market forces. There are moral limits to markets that everyone recognizes, limits that have to be imposed from outside, since ultimately the only morality an unregulated market recognizes is that of the jungle. Morality in unregulated markets lies with the victor in the perennial competitive struggle between demand and supply. Yet there are things which any civilized person recognizes are not suitable for allocation in that manner. In modern America, it isn’t legal to sell people any more. We don’t allow small children to work when they should be at school. We don’t think people should be allowed to starve simply because disabilities of age, illness or infirmity exclude them from labor markets. And in modern America, most of us don’t think that every good or service available to us should be freely sold. Instead, we implicitly agree that a list of exceptions to market mechanisms is required while we explicitly disagree – often intensely — about what that list ought to contain. For some, at the top of that list ought to be abortions. For others, it ought to be drugs. For many more, it ought to be health care itself. But clearly, for all the sharp disagreement on detail, all of us recognize that some limits to unregulated market processes are required. So the one thing that is illegitimate in the political conversation between us is the anger that many libertarians project back at progressives for having the audacity to propose market limits at all. It is not that progressives are out to destroy America — or God forbid, Europeanize America — by proposing that certain market outcomes need to be amended by public policy. It is simply that different ways of understanding how modern economies work produce different sets of policy proposals for their greater success.
With inequality at the levels they currently occupy in contemporary America, unregulated markets lock most individuals onto self-fulfilling trajectories of wealth or poverty. A particularly fortunate or gifted individual might break away from the poverty into which he/she was born, but for the mass and generality of us, the reality is that we have to strive endlessly just to stand still. As Thomas Piketty’s colleague Emmanuel Saez has recently demonstrated, since 2008, the richest 1 percent have taken a remarkable 95 percent of the new income and wealth generated by the collective efforts of us all, in the process locking the economy onto a low growth trajectory that over time excludes more and more of us from the core claim of the American Dream. What is that core claim: namely that through hard work, Americans can achieve a higher living standard as adults than they enjoyed as children. It is time to un-wrap the flag placed around unregulated markets by their libertarian and conservative advocates, and to wrap it instead around a progressive program of managed markets. It is time to advocate again a genuinely American New Deal that uses tax policy to break cycles of poverty and deprivation, and public spending to trigger the return of strong middle class jobs anchored in prosperous American-based businesses.
Posted: 13 May 2014 09:53 PM PDT
Outside satellite experts say investigators could be looking in the wrong ocean.
Investigators searching for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight were ebullient when they detected what sounded like signals from the plane's black boxes. This was a month ago, and it seemed just a matter of time before the plane was finally discovered.
But now the search of 154 square miles of ocean floor around the signals has concluded with no trace of wreckage found. Pessimism is growing as to whether those signals actually had anything to do with Flight 370. If they didn't, the search area would return to a size of tens of thousands of square miles.
Even before the black-box search turned up empty, observers had begun to raise doubts about whether searchers were looking in the right place. Authorities have treated the conclusion that the plane crashed in the ocean west of Australia as definitive, owing to a much-vaunted mathematical analysis of satellite signals sent by the plane. But scientists and engineers outside of the investigation have been working to verify that analysis, and many say that it just doesn't hold up.
A Global Game of Marco Polo
Malaysia Airlines flights are equipped with in-flight communications services provided by the British company Inmarsat. From early on, the lynchpin of the investigation has been signals sent by Flight 370 to one of Inmarsat's satellites. It's difficult to overstate the importance of this lonely little batch of "pings." They're the sole evidence of what happened to the plane after it slipped out of radar contact. Without them, investigators knew only that the plane had enough fuel to travel anywhere within 3,300 miles of the last radar contact—a seventh of the entire globe.
Inmarsat concluded that the flight ended in the southern Indian Ocean, and its analysis has become the canonical text of the Flight 370 search. It's the bit of data from which all other judgments flow—from the conclusive announcement by Malaysia's prime minister that the plane has been lost with no survivors, to the black-box search area, to the high confidence in the acoustic signals, to the dismissal by Australian authorities of a survey company's new claim to have detected plane wreckage.
Although Inmarsat officials have described the mathematical analysis as "groundbreaking," it's actually based on some relatively straightforward geometry. Here's how it works: Every so often (usually about once an hour), Inmarsat's satellite sends a message to the plane's communication system, asking for a simple response to show that it's still switched on. This response doesn't specify the plane's location or the direction it’s heading, but it does have some useful information that narrows down the possibilities.
You can think of the ping math like a game of Marco Polo played over 22,000 miles of outer space. You can't see the plane. But you shout Marco, and the plane shouts back Polo. Based on how long the plane takes to respond, you know how far away it is. And from the pitch of its voice, you can tell whether it's moving toward you or away from you—like the sound of a car on the highway—and about how fast.
This information is far from perfect. You know how far the plane was for each ping, but the ping could be coming from any direction. And you how fast the plane is moving toward or away from you. It could also be moving right or left, up or down, and the speeds would sound the same. The task of the Inmarsat engineers has been to take these pieces and put them together, working backwards to reconstruct possible flight paths that would fit the data.
What's the Frequency?
There are two relevant pieces of information for each ping: the time it took to travel from plane to satellite, and the radio frequency at which it was received. It's important to keep in mind that the transit times of the pings correspond todistances between satellite and plane, while frequencies correspond to relative speeds between satellite and plane. And this part's critical: Relative speed isn't the plane's actual airspeed, just how fast it's moving toward or away from the satellite.
Authorities haven't released much information about the distances—just the now-famous "two arcs" graphic, derived in part from the distance of the very last ping. But they've released much more information about the ping frequencies. In fact, they released a graph that shows all of them:
This graph is the most important piece of evidence in the Inmarsat analysis. What it appears to show is the frequency shifts or "offsets"—the difference between the normal "pitch" of the plane's voice (its radio frequency) and the one you actually hear.
The graph also shows the shifts that would be expected for two hypothetical flight paths, one northbound and one southbound, with the measured values closely matching the southbound path. This is why officials have been so steadfastly confident that the plane went south. It seems to be an open-and-shut verdict of mathematics.
So it should be straightforward to make sure that the math is right. That's just what a group of analysts outside the investigation has been attempting to verify. The major players have been Michael Exner, founder of the American Mobile Satellite Corporation; Duncan Steel, a physicist and visiting scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center; and satellite technology consultant Tim Farrar. They've used flight and navigation software like STK, which allows you to chart and make precise calculations about flight scenarios like this one. On their blogs and in an ongoing email chain, they've been trying to piece together the clues about Flight 370 and make sense of Inmarsat's analysis. What follows is an attempt to explain and assess their conclusions.
What We Know
Although the satellite data provides the most important clues about the plane's overall flight path, they're not the only clues available. Authorities have some basic but crucial additional information about the flight that can help to make sense of the satellite math:
1. The satellite's precise coordinates
The satellite in contact with Flight 370 was Inmarsat's IOR satellite, parked in geostationary orbit above the Indian Ocean. The satellite is meant to be stationary, but its orbit has decayed somewhat, so that it actually rotates slightly around its previously fixed position. Its path is publicly available from the Center for Space Standards & Innovation.
2. The plane's takeoff time and coordinates
16:41 UTC from the Kuala Lumpur airport.
3. The plane's general motion toward or away from the satellite
From radar tracking, we know the plane traveled northeast, away from the satellite, over the first 40 minutes after takeoff, then westward, toward the satellite, until 94 minutes into the flight, when it was last detected on radar. Inmarsat spokesmen have stated that the ping distances got progressively longer over the last five hours of flight, meaning that the plane was moving away from the satellite during that time.
4. Two flight paths investigators think are consistent with the ping data
In addition to the frequency shift graph, the Inmarsat report includes a map with two "Example Southern Tracks," one assuming a flight speed of 400 knots, the other a speed of 450 knots. Check it out:
These bits of knowledge allow us to put some basic constraints on what a graph of the ping frequency shifts should look like. We'll use more precise numbers later; for now, it's helpful just to have some qualitative sense of what to expect:
5. Frequency shifts that should all be negative
When the plane is moving away from the satellite, the radio signal gets stretched out, so the frequency decreases. This means that the frequency shifts should be negative over most of the flight. Although there was an approximately one-hour period starting 40 minutes after takeoff when radar showed the plane moving westward, toward the satellite, the graph shows that no pings were sent during that time—so actually, all of the shifts on the graph should be negative.
6. Frequency shifts before takeoff that should be near zero
Plotting the satellite's path in STK, you can see that it moves through an ellipse centered around the equator. Space scientist Steel has created this graphic of the satellite's motion, including marks for its position when the plane took off and when it last pinged the satellite:
The satellite's motion is almost entirely north-south, and the plane's takeoff location in Kuala Lumpur is almost due east of the satellite. This means that the satellite was only barely moving relative to Kuala Lumpur, so the frequency shift for a plane nearly stationary on the ground at the airport would be nearly zero.
7. Frequency shift graph should match map of southbound flight paths
The way the Marc-Polo math works is that, if you assume the plane traveled at some constant speed, you can produce at most one path north and one path south that fit the ping data. As the example flight paths on Inmarsat's map show, the faster you assume the plane was moving overall, the more sharply the path must arc away from the satellite.
This constraint also works the other way: Since flight paths for a given airspeed are unique, you can work backwards from these example paths, plotting them in STK to get approximate values for the ping distances and relative speeds Inmarsat used to produce them. The relative speeds can then be converted into frequency shifts, which should roughly match the values on the frequency graph. (This is all assuming that Inmarsat didn't plot the two example paths at random but based on the ping data.) We'll put more precise numbers on this below.
The Troubled Graph
But the graph defies these expectations. Taken at face value, the graph shows the plane moving at a significant speed before it even took off, then movingtoward the satellite every time it was pinged. This interpretation is completely at odds with the official conclusion, and flatly contradicted by other evidence.
The first problem seems rather straightforward to resolve: the reason the frequency shifts aren't negative is probably that Inmarsat just graphed them as positive. Plotting absolute values is a common practice among engineers, like stating the distance to the ocean floor as a positive depth value rather than a negative elevation value.
But the problem of the large frequency shift before takeoff is more vexing. Exactly how fast does the graph show the plane and satellite moving away from each other prior to takeoff?
The first ping on the graph was sent at 16:30 UTC, eleven minutes prior to takeoff. The graphed frequency shift for this ping is about -85 Hz. Public recordsshow that the signal from the plane to the satellite uses a frequency of 1626 to 1660 MHz. STK calculations show the satellite's relative motion was just 2 miles per hour toward the airport at this time. Factoring in the satellite's angle above the horizon, the plane would need to have been moving at least 50 miles per hour on the ground to produce this frequency shift—implausibly high eleven minutes prior to takeoff, when flight transcripts show the plane had just pushed back from the gate and not yet begun to taxi.
On the other side of the frequency graph, the plane's last ping, at 00:11 UTC, shows a measured frequency shift of about -252 Hz, working out to a plane-to-satellite speed of just 103 miles per hour. But the sample southbound paths published by Inmarsat show the plane receding from the satellite at about 272 miles per hour at this time.
In other words, the frequency shifts are much higher than they should be at the beginning of the graph, and much lower than they should be at the end. Looking at the graph, it's almost as if there's something contributing to these frequency shift values other than just the motion between the satellite and the plane.
Cracking the ‘Doppler Code’
Exner, an engineer who's developed satellite and meteorology technologies since the early 1970s, noted that the measured frequency shifts might come not just from each ping's transmission from plane to satellite, but also from the ping's subsequent transmission from the satellite to a ground station that connects the satellites into the Inmarsat network. In other words, Exner may have found the hidden source that seems to be throwing off the frequency graph.
Inmarsat's analysis is highly ambiguous about whether the satellite-to-ground transmission contributed to the measured frequency shift. But if it did, a ground station located significantly south of the satellite would have resulted in frequency shifts that could account for the measured shifts being too large at the beginning of the graph and too small at the end. And sure enough, Inmarsat's analysis states that the ground station receiving the transmission was located in Australia.
It's possible to check the theory more precisely. Public records of Inmarsat ground stations show just one in Australia: in Perth. Using STK, you can precisely chart the satellite's speed relative to this station, and, using thesatellite-to-ground signal frequency (about 3.6 GHz), you can then factor the satellite-to-ground shifts out of the frequency graph. Finally, you can at last calculate the true satellite-to-plane speed values.
The results seem to be nearly perfect. For the first ping, you wind up with a satellite-to-plane speed of about 1 mile per hour—just what you'd expect for a plane stationary or slowly taxiing eleven minutes before takeoff. This finding seems to provide a basic sanity check for interpreting the graph, and led Exner to declare on Twitter, "Doppler code cracked." He produced a new graph of the frequency shifts, shown below. The gently sloping blue line shows the shifts between the satellite and the ground station in Perth, while the dotted red line shows the newly calculated satellite-to-plane shifts:
Why Inmarsat's Analysis Is Probably Wrong
If this interpretation—based on the work of Exner, Steel, Farrar, and myself—is correct, it would allow independent experts to fully review Inmarsat's analysis, verify its work and check to see if Inmarsat might have missed any important clues that could further narrow down the plane's whereabouts.
The problem is, although this interpretation matches two basic expectations for the frequency graph, it still doesn't match Inmarsat's example flight paths. The new frequency values, calculated by Exner, show the flight's speed relative to the satellite as only about 144 miles per hour by the last ping, but Inmarsat's example flight paths show a relative speed of about 272 miles per hour.
It's possible these outside experts have still erred or missed some crucial detail in their attempts to understand the Inmarsat analysis. But that just means that Inmarsat's analysis, as it has been presented, remains deeply confusing, or perhaps deeply confused. And there are other reasons to believe that Inmarsat's analysis is not just unclear but mistaken. (Inmarsat stands by its analysis. More on that in a minute.)
Recall that the Marco-Polo math alone doesn't allow you to tell which direction pings are coming from. So how could Inmarsat claim to distinguish between a northern and southern path at all? The reason is that the satellite itself wasn't stationary. Because the satellite was moving north-south, it would have been moving faster toward one path than another—specifically, faster toward a southbound track than a northbound one over the last several hours of the flight. This means that the frequency shifts would also differ between a northbound and southbound path, as the graph shows with its two predicted paths.
But this is actually where the graph makes the least sense. The graph only shows different predicted values for the north and south tracks beginning at 19:40 UTC (presumably Inmarsat's model used actual radar before this). By this time, the satellite was traveling south, and its southward speed would increase for the rest of the flight. The frequency shift plots for northern and southern paths, then, should get steadily further apart for the rest of the flight. Instead, the graph shows them growing closer. Eventually, they even pass each other: by the end of the flight, the graph shows the satellite traveling faster toward a northbound flight path than a southbound one, even though the satellite itself was flyingsouth.
One ping alone is damning. At 19:40 UTC, the satellite was almost motionless, having just reached its northernmost point. The graph shows a difference of about 80 Hz between predicted northbound and southbound paths at this time, which would require the satellite to be moving 33 miles per hour faster toward the southbound path than the northbound one. But the satellite's overall speed was just 0.07 miles per hour at that time.
Inmarsat claims that it found a difference between a southbound and northbound path based on the satellite's motion. But a graph of the frequency shifts along those paths should look very different from the one Inmarsat has produced.
Either Inmarsat's analysis doesn't totally make sense, or it's flat-out wrong.
For the last two months, I've been trying to get authorities to answer these questions. Malaysia Airlines has not returned multiple requests for comment, nor have officials at the Malaysian Ministry of Transportation. Australia's Joint Agency Coordination Centre and the UK's Air Accidents Investigation Branch, which have been heavily involved in the investigation, both declined to comment.
An Inmarsat official told me that to "a high degree of certainty, the proponents of other paths are wrong. The model has been carefully mapped out using all the available data."
The official cited Inmarsat's participation in the investigation as preventing it from giving further detail, and did not reply to requests for comments on even basic technical questions about the analysis. Inmarsat has repeatedly claimed that it checked its model against other aircrafts that were flying at the time, and peer-reviewed the model with other industry experts. But Inmarsat won't say who reviewed it, how closely, or what level of detail they were given.
Until officials provide more information, the claim that Flight 370 went south rests not on the weight of mathematics but on faith in authority. Inmarsat officials and search authorities seem to want it both ways: They release charts, graphics, and statements that give the appearance of being backed by math and science, while refusing to fully explain their methodologies. And over the course of this investigation, those authorities have repeatedly issued confident pronouncements that they've later quietly walked back.
The biggest risk to the investigation now is that authorities continue to assume they've finally found the area where the plane went down, while failing to explore other possibilities simply because they don't fit with a mathematical analysis that may not even hold up.
After all, searchers have yet to find any hard evidence—not so much as a shred of debris—to confirm that they're looking in the right ocean.
Posted: 13 May 2014 09:51 PM PDT
Across Asia, judges are having too much say in politics
AFTER nearly three years, Yingluck Shinawatra's stint as prime minister of Thailand drew this week to its inevitable close. The end came not with the bang of a people-power revolution that at one point seemed likely to unseat her; nor with the muted rumble of tanks in a coup like the one that toppled her brother Thaksin from the same job in 2006; still less with the raucous clamour of a contested election, though one had been called for July 20th. Rather, it petered out in the whimper of a court order. Not for the first time the Thai judiciary has intervened to solve a problem that a broken political system could not fix. And not for the first time its intervention was to the Shinawatras' detriment.
However, Thailand is not alone in fighting political battles with legal weapons. A number of Malaysian opposition politicians find themselves in legal trouble, with potentially serious consequences. In Myanmar the opposition is planning demonstrations this month to demand reform to a constitution that places legal obstacles in the way of the country's democratisation, and of the right of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader, to stand in a presidential election she would surely win. Even in China a purge of potential opponents of Xi Jinping, the president and party leader, takes the form of a series of prosecutions for corruption. More hopefully, in Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, a former army chief and military dictator, is fighting a charge of treason, in a trial testing the army's willingness to cede privileges and immunity to an elected civilian government.
Various trends are at work. One, evident in India and Pakistan, is an enduring tradition of activism by a robustly independent judiciary. Often this has made the courts popular by comparison with the perceived lethargy, incompetence or malice of politicians. Public-interest litigation and its ability to make rulings suo moto (off its own bat) have encouraged India's Supreme Court to meddle in environmental and social policy. It has forced Delhi's buses, taxis and tuk-tuks to convert to compressed natural gas from dirtier fuels and has taken charge of India's trees. The court's green interests might please liberals, but they rued a ruling last December that overturned a Delhi High Court decision lifting a ban on homosexuality. In Pakistan the courts helped bring down Mr Musharraf, but then proceeded to hound his civilian successor, Asif Ali Zardari, through his five-year term.
Elsewhere, however, governments use the law as an instrument of political control. That is most obvious in one-party dictatorships such as China and Vietnam. But the suspicion of judicial persecution lingers even in countries whose governments present themselves as relatively liberal—such as Malaysia's, which has lifted some repressive colonial-era legislation. Yet, after a close general election last year, a number of opposition politicians face charges for sedition or for breaches of the law on assembly. The most serious case has nothing to do with politics. It is the five-year sentence on a charge of sodomy against which Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition, is appealing.
When Barack Obama visited Malaysia last month, Najib Razak, the prime minister, stressed that the Anwar case was a judicial matter in which the government had no part. Yet it was the government's own appeal which led to Mr Anwar's earlier acquittal being overturned. He is the figurehead who unites a diverse opposition torn at present by disagreement over the plan of one of its components, an Islamic party, to introduce fierce hudud punishments, such as amputations, in Kelantan, a state it governs. His disappearance into jail would be most damaging.
Thailand is illustrative of a third trend: for conservative judiciaries, when a time-honoured political dispensation changes, to find themselves, in effect, part of the opposition. Like much of the civil service, army and other pillars of Thailand's royalist establishment, the judiciary abhors the Shinawatras' alleged corruption with a special intensity in part because it fears their popularity, and hence their ability to overturn the accustomed order. In the Maldives, too, the courts helped get rid of a popular leader in 2012. Mohamed Nasheed was the first directly elected president after a long dictatorship. He threatened to shake things up, but lost a power struggle with a judge.
The Singapore sting
The lesson drawn from all this by authoritarian ruling elites facing pressure for reform is how important it is to have the courts on your side. Not only does it avoid awkward stand-offs; it helps foster the impression that you are moving towards "the rule of law". So, in Sri Lanka, the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa early last year impeached and sacked a troublesome chief justice. And in Cambodia laws now being considered would have the effect of emasculating judicial independence.
Cambodia's strongman, Hun Sen, is known to cast an envious eye at an unlikely role model: Singapore. There, the ruling People's Action Party has been in power even longer than his own Cambodian People's Party (CPP). And it has managed this without resorting to the thuggery and coups that have ensured the CPP's grip. Part of the PAP's secret is its use of the law. Strict defamation and contempt-of-court laws inherited from the British were invoked against foreign critics and domestic opponents, forcing some into bankruptcy. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister, whose son now holds that job, justified this as necessary to protect Singapore's leaders' reputations, rather than as a way of hounding the opposition. But it had the same effect.
However, those in Cambodia and elsewhere make two mistakes when they see Singapore as a model of efficient authoritarianism applied in large measure through the legal system. One is that Singapore is an international city seen as under the rule of law. Its courts are respected, if not always the use the government has made of them. The other is that many Singaporeans are turning against the PAP, which is even trying to change its image.
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