You can be great at soccer, or globally dominant - you can't be both

Cross-posted at River Twice Research.

So the United States lost to Brazil in the final of the FIFA Confederations cup, in that thrilling but painful tale of two halves, with the U.S. up 2-0 only to see Brazil roar back (or rather dance and prance and glide with balletic ferocity) and win 3-2. All I can say is, thank god.

For the past sixty years, the powerhouses of international soccer (a.k.a. football) either have been empires past their prime and on the decline or countries that dream fruitlessly of empire - England, France, Italy, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, and Spain. To bestride the world as a soccer power is to not bestride it as an economic or military power. In its period of global hegemony, the United States was manifestly not a global powerhouse in soccer. It was mighty in everything but the sport that is played by more people in every corner of the world than any other. And so if the United States had magically defied the odds and the gods and beaten Brazil, it would have been the final sign that American is indeed in decline.

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The Bogotá-Brasilia Axis

The world press is largely focused on yesterday's Venezuelan referendum where Hugo Chávez won the right to indefinite re-election. While this is not insignificant for it marks another step in Venezuela's lurch into authoritarianism, the referendum was not the most significant event yesterday in Latin America. Chávez is a throwback to the tradition of the caudillo which apparently in Venezuela, South America's most backward republic until oil rescued the country in the 1930s, remains intact. It is not an accident that the most authoritarian regimes in South America are both members of OPEC. Oil may be a blessing but it also proven a curse for its wealth has been mismanaged by governing elites.

While there are many reasons why a Chávez arose in Venezuela, corruption and the inability of governing elites to tackle social inequality stand atop the list. Chávez prevailed yesterday in part to coercive electoral tactics but it is important to note that he has also delivered to the poor, cutting the poverty rate to 26% at the end of 2008 from 54% in 2003. Among the poor, and not just in Venezuela, Chávez remains quite the hero. For governing elites in Latin America, this lesson has not been lost.

Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua form the hard left in Latin America. Evo Morales in Bolivia doesn't really want to be a member of this club but it seems US policy in the region may yet push him in that direction. But the left in Latin America is a rather broad and dynamic enterprise. The fin de siècle may have been lost, but in this new century Latin America's rejection of neo-liberalism has unleashed a vitality in the region.

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The rise of the rest

Cross-posted at River Twice Research.

The current economic crisis has claimed many victims, but what has changed most is the way that the United States is viewed, perhaps permanently. That isn't ideology; it isn't declinism; it's a fact. For all the talk in past year about the shifting balance of power globally, until now it has been just that, talk. Saying that the emerging world of China, India, Brazil and the rest have assumed a new place is like saying that a new army is well-equipped with sharp uniforms and cutting-edge weapons. That doesn't mean it can fight. Until tested in battle, it's just a guess. The economic crisis of the past two months has been such a test, and the results are clear: talk of the emerging world as the wave of the future isn't just speculation; it's a permanent reality.

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The Triumph of Global justice

Common Dreams is currently running an essay about the Global Justice Movement, excerpted from an optimistically titled book by Mark Engler, How to Rule the World.

The optimistic Mr. Engler sees signs of extraordinary progress in a series of gatherings in Port Alegre, Brazil, but I can't quite share Mr. Engler's optimism.

"Tents holding discussions on the need to curb corporate power have advanced a slate of innovative proposals."

Isn't there something slightly pitiful about this picture? The radicals plotting to overthrow the global corporate oligarchy are chattering in tents in Brazil.

What's next?

Tree houses in Tasmania?

Tiny people whispering together in a shoe box?

"In other tents, family farmers and food safety advocates from throughout the world have gathered to promote models for redistributive land reform."

One of the unfortunate aspects of "redistributive land reform" is that before you can redistribute land, you have to take it away from the people who own it. In the United States, the Fifth Amendment prohibition against "taking" without just compensation means that the land to be redistributed must be bought at market value, and in all countries at all times this purchase can only be accomplished with mountains of ad hoc currency, which dilutes whatever value the rest of the money in circulation may have. Hyper-inflation inevitably follows, and since the new possessors are previously inexperienced with the management of anything (cf. land "reform" in Zimbabwe), the entire economy falls to pieces, militias appear, and you find yourself in that condition of society which Hobbes succinctly described as "the war of all against all."

Since the shooting will inevitably begin eventually, successful attempts at "redistributive land reform" have taken the precaution of shooting first and observing local analogues of the Fifth Amendment later. In the immortal words of Chairman Mao, "This is not a simple, clean, or quick struggle."

Chairman Mao's recipe isn't much different from the Bolshevik cookbook: Start with peasants and workers, add guns, subtract the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, and try to survive a few decades of chaos until another ruling elite emerges to make the machine work again.

But way down south in the tent-city of "global justice," there's always yet another hopeful gang of crusaders meeting in yet another tent.

"Groups meeting in tents designated for discussion of energy and the environment have strategized about ways to break our dependence on the oil economy."

Small hand-made windmills may be sprouting all over a landscape somewhere, but not too far from the chattering tents in Port Alegre peasant entrepreneurs are cutting down the last remnants of the rain forest that produces the air we breathe, and all the chatter about "global justice" will soon be moot, because none of us will survive to enjoy it.

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There's tragedy and then there's tragedy.


The top photo is of a luxury home destroyed by flooding of the banks of a river in the US midwest (perhaps Wisconsin), while the bottom photo is of a favela, flooded by normal rains somewhere in Brazil.

The home above is relatively new, very expensive.  The homes below could be found pretty much just as you see them, regardless of any natural disaster.  If two or three of the families from the favela below could share what's left of the house above, they would probably do so and feel a sense of relief.

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