19 government decisions as stupid as the shutdown

Foolish, self-destructive behavior isn't the sole purview of the US. Several global correspondents weigh in

Published October 2, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)


This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Global Post BOSTON, Mass. — With the partial government shut-down that began Tuesday, Washington seems bent on waging a bitter, partisan battle that threatens the world's largest economy — to say nothing of the human, political and other damage the spat could produce in the United States and around the world.

But Washington is not alone in its short-sightedness.

When it comes to government actions, there's plenty of stupid to go around. We asked GlobalPost's senior correspondents stationed around the world to recount some of their favorite examples. They did not disappoint, and came up with 19.

Palm, meet face.

1. North Korea: On the brink of starvation? More nukes, please

With its garish war threats and brassy personality cult, North Korea has always been a pariah. In fact, many experts agree that the world’s most heavily sanctioned regime is largely to blame for its own woes.

A decade ago, North and South Korea were growing closer, paving the way for the eventual reunification of the peninsula. The North was in need of aid, emerging from a famine that brought it to the brink of collapse. The South, in a humanitarian gesture, was handing over assistance worth millions of dollars each year.

Then in 2006, the country tested the first of three nuclear devices — pouring resources into its military at the expense of its malnourished people. The result: further international isolation.

Southerners felt particularly burned by the nuke tests. In 2008, voters pushed out the long-popular liberal party and elected tough-guy president Lee Myung-bak, who slashed aid to the North. Following a third nuclear test last winter, the United Nations tightened the screws once again, passing a heavy embargo on the state financial bank.

By Geoffrey Cain in Seoul

2. South Korea: The annual parliamentary brawl

With a government shutdown looming, American lawmakers are venting their frustration in fiery op-eds and speeches. In the South Korean National Assembly, this sort of deadlock would be apt to trigger a massive brawl on the parliament floor. Yes, really.

The spectacle has become something of a rite of passage for Korean politicians. One newspaper has even called it the “yearly budget brawl,” since it’s usually sparked by opposition parties angry with the national budget. Past melees have seen smoke grenades, sledgehammers, a chainsaw, and the creative use of fire extinguishers.

While the images make for a good laugh, the scuffles rarely lead to solutions. About two-thirds of South Koreans, understandably, think their political parties and the legislature are “corrupt” or “extremely corrupt,” the worst of any institution surveyed, according to a study by the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.

By Geoffrey Cain in Seoul

3. Thailand: Bangkok wrecks its world-class rice production by spoiling its farmers

If you’re among the 3.5 billion people who eat rice — i.e., half of humanity — there’s a good chance you’ve eaten grains that once sprouted up from Thailand’s emerald-green rice paddies. For three decades running, the nation exported more rice than any other on the planet.

But no longer. Stats confirm that in 2012 Thailand not only lost the lead spot but fell to third place. The primary cause of this development wasn’t a flood or a plague.

It was populist politics.

Thailand is still producing vast mountains of rice. But these days, much of it ends up in state-owned warehouses.

That’s because the ruling political party, during elections two years ago, promised rice farmers it would buy every grain they could produce and pay them nearly 50 percent above the market rate.

That’s a recipe for happy farmers, a key voting bloc. It’s also costing the government more than $12 billion a year — about 4 percent of GDP. The scheme’s architects had hoped dragging so much rice supply out of the market and into silos would ratchet up the global price and allow them to sell their vast stockpile at a premium.

Instead, rival rice growing nations pounced to meet the world’s demand for rice. India is now the top exporter. Vietnam has edged out Thailand for second place. And most commodities experts predict Thailand won’t be able to reclaim the crown for years to come.

By Patrick Winn in Bangkok and Yangon

4. Myanmar: Dictator reconfigures currency to suit a lucky number

Ask anyone in Myanmar over the age of 40 to cite the

favorite number of Ne Win, Myanmar’s Stalin-esque, longest-running strongman.

They’ll likely know the answer: nine.

In late 1987, the numerology-obsessed despot decreed that all cash notes in the country must be divisible by his lucky number. That left two notes in circulation: the 45 and 90 kyat denominations.

All previous bills were rendered worthless.

This meant that every family with savings hoarded in currency was suddenly sitting on a valueless pile of paper. Many went bankrupt overnight and the fallout was severe.

The demonetization disaster is often cited as a factor helping spark a street uprising that would end in an estimated 3,000 demonstrators killed and the birth of a feisty resistance movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

By Patrick Winn in Bangkok and Yangon

5. China: The Four Pests Campaign

During China’s tragic 1960s and 1970s, the government initiated many disastrous, self-destructive policies under the “Great Helmsman,” Mao Zedong.

One of Mao’s earliest such policies was a drive to rid the entire country of sparrows, along with mosquitoes, flies, and rats. People were urged to shoot birds from the sky and bang pots and pans to prevent sparrows from landing until they died from exhaustion.

While Mao’s goal was to preserve more food for China’s agrarian population, the effect was catastrophically the opposite. With more than 2 billion birds killed, the locust population soared, devastating crops and preparing the way for what eventually became one of the greatest famines in human history.

By Benjamin Carlson in Hong Kong

6. China: Overreaction to Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize

In 2010, when the jailed Chinese writer and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Beijing could have chosen to take the news quietly and let it subside over time.

Instead, Chinese authorities decided to make a big stink.

They berated a Norwegian diplomat; cut off salmon imports; published loud editorials condemning Liu’s award as a “desecration” of the Nobel; and bullied other countries into boycotting the awards ceremony.

In the end, Beijing succeeded only in making a bad situation worse. Liu Xiaobo became a household name in the West, and China came out looking like a country ruled not only by a repressive regime, but one that is thin-skinned, tone deaf, and petulant.

By Benjamin Carlson in Hong Kong

7. EU Blunder No. 1: Cyprus

There have been many dubious decisions in European policymakers' attempts to grapple with the debt crisis, but the Cypriot bailout debacle was an undoubted low point.

Back in March, the Mediterranean island’s finances were on the verge of collapse. The Cypriot government pleaded for a 17 billion-euro ($23 billion) rescue from the European Union.

Germany in particular was unwilling to dig deep to help a country whose slack banking controls had turned it into what the tabloid newspaper Bild denounced as a "washing machine for illegal Russian money."

A last-ditch compromise was agreed in the early hours of Saturday, March 16. The EU and other international creditors would contribute 10 billion euros ($13.5 billion), and Cyprus would get the rest by lifting cash from the savings of everybody in the country with money in the bank.

European ministers seemed satisfied and declared a done deal.

Horrified Cypriot citizens took to the streets to denounce a case of government smash and grab. Cypriot banks locked their doors. Economists across the world screamed the move risk shattering savers' trust and triggering runs on banks across the euro zone's shaky south.

"Unfair, short-sighted and self-defeating," The Economist newspaper opined.

Three days later, the Cypriot parliament voted to block the deal. Euro zone finance ministers had to huddle for more emergency talks and a new deal was reached — this time sparing small investors and making only those with more than 100,000 euros ($130,000) in their accounts contribute to the government bailout.

Although the Cypriot economy represents just 0.2 percent of total EU output, the euro zone's finance ministers enabled it to reignite the euro crisis and send a chilling message to markets about their ability to handle it with their farcical response.

"A remarkable policy blunder that will carry consequences for the EU," was the verdict of Nicolas Veron, senior fellow at the economic think tank Breugel.

By Paul Ames in Brussels

8. EU Blunder No. 2: Strasbourg

Back in the heady, early days of European integration in the 1950s, it seemed like an excellent plan to locate the European Parliament in the French city of Strasbourg.

The old cathedral city facing Germany across the River Rhine would symbolize the new spirit of reconciliation, cooperation and unity among ancient foes. What better place to host the democratically elected chamber of what would become the European Union?

More than 50 years on, it doesn't seem such a good idea.

With the other main EU bodies based over 250 miles away in Brussels, the 766 members of parliament, plus their support staff, must make the trek down to the French city every month for weeklong plenary sessions. The cost to Europe's hard-pressed taxpayers is estimated at 180 million euros ($245 million) a year.

Over the decades, the parliament has evolved from a toothless talking shop into a fully fledged legislature whose laws apply to 500 million people across 28 countries. Its members have their permanent offices in Brussels, where parliamentary committees meet.

Some 78 percent of them favor ending the monthly trip down to Strasbourg — which in addition to the financial cost is estimated to generate 19,000 tons of annual carbon emissions due to lawmakers' flights and the fleet of trucks that rumbles back and forward with official documents.

"Parliament’s traveling circus ... is a remnant of our history — but makes little sense for a modern and efficient parliament in the 21st century — and is certainly not sustainable," Gerald Hafner, a European legislator from Germany's Green Party, wrote in May.

However, there’s little chance anything will be done about it. The splitting of the parliament's seat is enshrined in the EU's founding treaty and can only be changed if all 28 member countries agree.

That means a French president would have to vote to take away an institution that has become a cash cow for the country's seventh-largest city, bringing in an estimated $26 million a year. None has been prepared to contemplate it.

"I defend Strasbourg, the capital of Europe, because it is history that teaches us the role Strasbourg has to play," President Francois Hollande said on a visit this year. "Strasbourg is both the history and the future of Europe."

By Paul Ames in Brussels

9. UK: The poll tax nightmare

In 1987, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduced a so-called "poll tax" to pay for community services in local jurisdictions. As the levy rolled out across the country over the next few years, people got angry. Very angry. The boneheaded response to the public outcry led to Thatcher's downfall and nearly saw central London burned down.

In March 1990, London police stubbornly insisted that the organizers of a march against the poll tax confine their protest to Trafalgar Square — a public space that could accommodate only about one-third of the expected crowd — and failed to suspend construction work there, providing protesters with access to unsecured bricks and scaffolding. Some 200,000 people flooded the square and spilled across central London, leading to violent riots that lasted all night.

Thatcher resigned a few months later, still defending a tax that only 12 percent of the public supported.

—By Corinne Purtill in London

10. UK: Scruffy Grassgate

It was 2011 and southwest London's Merton Council was facing the equivalent of more than $110 million in spending cuts. Resources were incredibly tight, which is why people are still scratching their heads over the council's efforts to protect this 2 by 3 foot patch of grass.

—By Corinne Purtill in London

11. The UK in Iraq

Yes, it's all gone very poorly for the UK in Iraq. Very, very poorly indeed.

—By Corinne Purtill in London

12. South Africa: On secrecy, electronic tolling and "Nkandla-gate”

The African National Congress (ANC) party enjoys a firm majority in South Africa’s government, so there is little chance of a US-style stalemate. But even so, some government initiatives have proved so unpopular that they required embarrassing climbdowns.

Take, for example, the Protection of State Information Bill — aka the “secrecy bill” — which threatens journalists and whistleblowers with prison terms of up to 25 years. Not surprisingly, it sparked an enormous amount of opposition from all corners, including civil society groups, prominent South Africans and even the powerful trade union group Cosatu, which is in an alliance with the ANC.

Last month in a surprise move President Jacob Zuma sent the bill back to parliament, saying it had failed to pass “constitutional muster.” His critics welcomed the decision, but noted that this is, after all, an election year.

Another misstep has been something called “e-tolling,” which is basically a hugely unpopular electronic road toll system to be introduced in the province that includes Johannesburg and Pretoria — the economic heart of the country.

Giant toll gantries were built at significant expense, but have been standing idle on freeways, with the start of the dreaded e-tolling repeatedly delayed due to mass protests and court challenges by motorist groups and trade unions. In the meantime, South Africa’s roads agency has racked up debt estimated at 36 billion rand, or $3.6 billion.

But in general there tends to be less squabbling over government policies and more focus on the near-constant scandals involving top officials.

Of particular note has been “Nkandla-gate,” in which Zuma spent $28 million of public funds on renovations to his private country estate in rural KwaZulu-Natal province. These “security upgrades” included underground bunkers, soccer fields for his bodyguards and a tuck shop for one of his four wives to run. South Africa’s main opposition party has gone to court to seek a copy of a report into Zuma’s spending that was compiled by the public works department but classified as “top secret.”

And then there’s “Gupta-gate,” in which Zuma’s close friends, the Gupta family, somehow were allowed to commandeer a South African military air base to welcome guests flying in from India for a niece’s wedding, under the pretense it was an “official delegation.” Good times.

By Erin Conway-Smith in Johannesburg

13. Kenya: The international justice flip-flop

After political violence left well over a thousand people dead and Kenya's moribund judiciary and inept police force had failed to hold anybody to account, Kenyan MPs voted for the case to be sent to the International Criminal Court in The Hague: "Don't be vague, go to the Hague," went up the cry.

But when the two most senior indictees were elected president and deputy president earlier this year, the tune changed: now parliament is falling over itself as it desperately backtracks and tries to haul the case back to Kenya, where it can be safely buried.

By Tristan McConnell in Nairobi

14. Kenya: Show us your money

You'd have thought that after their election to parliament in March this year Kenya's freshly minted lawmakers would quickly set to work, keen to show their constituents just how wise their electoral choice had been. You'd be wrong.

Instead of debating matters of national import or seeking to push policies the promise of which had gotten them elected in the first place, Kenya's MPs set about arguing for a pay rise, never mind that they are already among the best paid on the planet ($76,000 per year, not including a one-off car allowance of $59,000).

Popular outrage was duly triggered, and protests followed as the disgusted common man dubbed the new leaders "MPigs," a sobriquet that is proving remarkably resilient.

By Tristan McConnell in Nairobi

15. Israel: The Yom Kippur/October War

On Sept. 25, 1973, the eve of the Jewish New Year, King Hussein of Jordan flew to Tel Aviv at considerable risk to warn Prime Minister Golda Meir that Syria and Egypt were on a war footing.

The two nations had no diplomatic ties at the time. After consulting with her top military brass, and heeding the advice of her intelligence chief, Meir decided to treat the warning as equivocal and raised no alarm.

Israel was therefore unprepared for the war that broke out a week later, when a coalition of Arab armies led by Egypt and Syria launched a joint surprise attack on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, which that year fell during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Meir eventually lost the prime ministership for her decision to ignore the king's warning, which cost Israel hundreds, some say thousands, of lives and left the country with a trauma that has never diminished.

Called the Yom Kippur War in Israel and the October War in the Arab world, the hostilities ended in a decisive military victory for Israel. But the losses of the first few days — during which even the call-up of Israeli reserves was halting and considerable Israeli assets were hit — filled Arab leaders with pride and left Israelis with scars and an enduring sense of vulnerability.

As a result, on each anniversary of the war, the Arab world exults in its imagined victory, and Israel mourns the loss of its sense of self. Last month, newly released testimony revealed that Egypt's ousted president, Hosni Mubarak, who was an air force commander in 1973, boasted of having fired the first shot in the war.

The Hussein-Meir meeting was kept from the public until a journalist published a leak in 1988. The full account of their meeting remains classified to this day.

By Noga Tarnopolsky in Jerusalem

16. Israel: How not to conduct diplomacy with an important neighbor

On Jan. 12, 2010, Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, summoned the Turkish ambassador, Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, to Jerusalem for a scolding about recent Turkish criticism of Israeli policies.

Ayalon called an Israeli camera crew into his cramped office and proceeded to position them in such a way that the visiting ambassador would appear even smaller than he was.

While the crew filmed and a mystified Celikkol sat listening, Ayalon explained, in Hebrew, that there was no Turkish flag on the table, that the ambassador was seated on a couch lower than his own more elevated chair, and that he was not shaking his hand.

"Pay attention that he is sitting in a lower chair," he said, as if to a dimwitted audience. "That there is only an Israeli flag on the table and that we are not smiling."

The entire farce was aired on Israeli TV that night.

By the next day, Ayalon had been forced into an apology: "My protest of the attacks against Israel in Turkey still stands. However, it is not my way to insult foreign ambassadors and in the future I will clarify my position by more acceptable diplomatic means."

Seventeen Israeli parliamentarians signed a letter to Celikkol expressing their regret and embarrassment over Ayalon's behavior.

Realizing the potential for damage between Israel and one of its few regional allies, President Shimon Peres called the incident the "mistake of one man, not of the state."

In May 2010, Israel stormed the Mavi Marmara, a ship heading toward Israeli-blockaded Gaza. Nine Turks were killed, and the two countries recalled their ambassadors.

New ambassadors have yet to be named, despite the high-profile attempt by President Obamaon his March visit to Israel, to broker a peace of sorts between the two regional economic and military superpowers.

By Noga Tarnopolsky in Jerusalem

17. India: The famous economist flubs the Indian economy

India's prime minister has a doctorate in economics from Oxford. But as Forrest Gump might say, stupid is as stupid does. And since taking office in 2004, Manmohan Singh and his government have made some very boneheaded moves.

Despite a long-standing effort to woo foreign direct investment, where India lags woefully behind neighboring China, Singh's United Progressive Alliance government repeatedly slammed the door in the face of Walmart last year. And as the financial crisis was starting to sink in around the world, the bright sparks introduced revisions to the tax code to stick Vodafone with a $2.5 billion bill for its 2007 acquisition of one of India's leading telecom players.

Retrospectively. After Vodafone had won its case in India's Supreme Court.

But Singh didn't stop there.

Economics 101 warns that a high current account deficit — the excess of money a government is sending out (to pay for oil, for example) versus taking in (from export earnings) — can result in a vicious cycle of currency depreciation and rising debt payments. But Professor Singh ignored a current account deficit of more than double the 2.5 percent suggested by the textbooks. Worse, he suggested that India's unique situation meant the usual rules of economics didn't apply.

It's easier to recognize his mistakes after the fact, of course. But Singh was using bubble logic. And the prime minister that Angela Merkel called the only world leader to truly understand the euro crisis ought to have been immune.

The result of these two moves — as well as repeated failures to get infrastructure projects off the ground — was a dramatic flight of foreign investors and a disastrous plunge of the rupee's value earlier this summer.

— By Jason Overdorf in New Delhi

18. Peru: A congressional “carve-up”

When it comes to putting political brinkmanship ahead of the national interest, Peru’s congress members have shown themselves to be every bit as intransigent as their counterparts in the US.

Earlier this year, the entire congress here was left humiliated after a huge public backlash against its inept attempt to make key appointments. They included three judges to the constitutional court, six officials to central bank board, and a new head of Peru’s official human rights watchdog.

The posts had been vacant for more than two years as the parties bickered and failed to come up with the two-thirds majority required for the appointments.

Eventually, under massive public pressure, congress agreed “la repartija,” or “carve-up,” in which they divvied up the different positions along party lines, including nominating several highly partisan candidates widely seen as unqualified for their new high-profile jobs.

The most controversial of the nominations may have been their choice for the constitutional court, a key body in protecting human rights in Peru. They tapped Rolando Sousa, a personal lawyer of former President Alberto Fujimori, who’s serving a 25-year sentence for crimes against humanity and corruption.

The backlash, with thousands taking to the streets, was so strong that in July congress was swiftly forced to unanimously reverse the appointments. And the 10 posts remain vacant.

— By Simeon Tegel in Lima

19. Paraguay: Ousting Lugo

Let’s say Barack Obama’s handling of Syria or the economy has not been to your liking. Would you want Congress to suddenly sack him, effectively overriding the votes of millions of your fellow Americans out of the blue? (Well, perhaps some staunch critics are nodding yes.)

That’s exactly what happened in Paraguay in June 2012, when the congress, in the space of some 24 hours, accused and impeached leftist President Fernando Lugo. The lawmakers cited a range of alleged crimes from nepotism to bungling a land dispute that left 17 protesters dead.

Despite almost unanimous international condemnation, the new government insisted the ouster was “constitutional.” Yet few outside the country believed due process had been observed or that Lugo had even been given a real chance to defend himself.

Well over a year later, and following new presidential elections, Paraguay is only just coming in from the international wilderness.

— By Simeon Tegel in Lima

By News Desk


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