Who's the problem: People or politicians?
Francois Hollande rode to victory in France on an anti-austerity platform, preaching growth instead of staunch cuts.
May 9th, 2012
05:56 PM ET

Who's the problem: People or politicians?

Editor's note: Ravi Agrawal is the Senior Producer of "Fareed Zakaria GPS." You can follow him on Twitter @RaviAgrawalCNN

By Ravi Agrawal, CNN

The winners of last Sunday’s elections in Greece and France would do well to consider “Juncker’s Curse.” It’s named after the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker, who famously quipped: “We all know what to do. But we don’t know how to get reelected once we've done it.”

Juncker would know. He’s the longest serving democratically elected head of government in the world.

But it raises an interesting, philosophical question. Is populism our greatest obstacle to growth and success? Are world leaders really just sitting on solutions to all our problems – but they can’t implement them because of us?

In other words, are people the problem, and not politicians?

A few recent events make one wonder.

Exhibit A: Nigeria, the world’s 8th largest exporter of crude oil. Until the end of 2011, gasoline prices in Nigeria averaged $1.70 a gallon – less than half the U.S. average, and nearly a third of prices in India and China. But cheap oil came at a heavy price: Nigeria was spending $8 billion a year to subsidize gasoline – 4% of GDP. Rolling back those subsidies would give the government funds to build refineries; those new refineries would in turn make Nigeria a more effective exporter of refined crude, generating far more wealth. The International Monetary Fund – as well as many other economists – all agreed that cutting subsidies would be a vital first step towards fixing Nigeria’s finances.

So Lagos boldly decided to double prices. Suddenly, on January 1, 2012, a gallon of gasoline was worth $3.50.

Riots ensued. But President Goodluck Jonathan vowed to stand firm – after all, this was a decision that was good for the people, right?

It took sixteen days to cave. The government dropped prices much of the way back down, to $2.27 a gallon.

It seems Jonathan backtracked in time. A Gallup poll from April shows he has an 81% approval rating.

If there is a moral, it is this: You can break promises you never meant to keep; but never, ever take away a gift you’ve already given.

The story isn’t new. Jordan’s government reversed similar cuts last year in the face of protests. In Venezuela, if gasoline costs $0.18 a gallon – less than bottled water – it’s not because President Hugo Chavez likes being generous. The last time a leader there tried to raise prices, in 1989, all hell broke loose. Hundreds died in riots. In India last year, a proposal to allow Walmart to enter the country was met with mass strikes – despite the fact that economists agreed it would revolutionize the market and increase supply-chain efficiency. One could go on.

For all of these countries, subsidies or nationalist policies can be a populist, short-term crutch. They tend to skew markets and hold back investment in infrastructure and wide-scale development.

I put that to Ken Rogoff, a Harvard economics professor who was once chief economist at the IMF. He says that almost everywhere, people want the government to deliver more while paying less.

“The problem isn’t nearly as much the politicians as the voters. Every poll you look at shows the public has huge expectations of what the government can do for them. And it’s just not possible.”

So is Juncker right?

There is a flipside, as Rogoff himself pointed out to me. The issue isn’t just economics – it’s trust.

Just ask the Nigerians. Transparency International ranks the country #143 in the world on corruption. No surprise then, that the rioters weren't convinced oil money would end up in the right hands.

The deficit of trust isn’t limited to countries perceived to have high levels of corruption. Let’s go back to Greece and France’s elections last Sunday. Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman diagnosed it as a vote against policies – against austerity. “Europe’s voters,” he wrote in the New York Times, “are wiser than the continent’s best and brightest.”

So maybe the people do know what’s best for them?

The most heartening thing I heard this week came from an eastern neighbor of France and Greece. The Czech Republic’s Foreign Minister was lamenting the mood of anti-incumbency around the world.

“The next elections are lost anyway,” said Karel Schwarzenberg to the Financial Times. “I should be astonished if we won. And in that case, if you can’t keep power, you should do what you promised to do.”

Now there’s something both the people and the powerful won’t disagree on.

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Topics: Analysis • Politics

soundoff (296 Responses)
  1. Danotto94

    I mean if the people get angry at government policies when it's government trying to establish long-term goals, if the government has the commitment to actually improve infrastructure, then wouldn't it be able to respond to the peoples' discontent by telling them that the country needs this for long-term growth and that a transparency system will be put in place in which people can verify that corruption isn't occurring? I'm shocked that this hasn't happened already..

    May 13, 2012 at 10:05 am | Reply
  2. Voiceinthedesert/Troubledgoodangel

    Each country has its own sets of problems. Everywhere, people get the politicians they deserve. There are though countries which can be fixed by either people or politicians. Such country is Greece, where the problem is beyond the reach of normal human beings. politics, and procedures. To fix Greece what is needed is new ideas. China comes to mind: Why China is doing better than Greece? It's not just large population. It's Politburo and being pegged to the dollar ... and getting away with this! Perhaps, time has come to emulate China. pegging the dinar to the dollar, and creating an autoritarian one- party Politburo! I can't see a better solution for Greece! They should try it for a decade, to see if it works.

    May 13, 2012 at 10:47 am | Reply
    • Lee Zaslofsky

      The Greeks did "try' dictatorship in the late 60s and early 70s. Their military seized power and ran the country by decree, imprisoning and torturing anyone who disagreed. people with democratic principles were outraged that this should happen in the cradle of democracy, and disgusted by the brutal violence of the colonels who decided they were chosen by god to tell everyone else what to do. The 'experiment" was a failure, and a democratic republic was installed when the colonels were ignominiously forced from power.

      May 14, 2012 at 12:43 am | Reply
  3. deniz boro

    Let's say nowadays the politicians are under severe stress that may cause catatonia whereas societies have a tendency for mass hysteria.

    May 13, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Reply
  4. Jim Black

    Depends on which country it is. Populous places like both the people and the politicians are the problem. The first mired in poverty and the other corrupt. Both expect the other to pull it out of the quagmire but are stuck in the poltiical quicksand.

    May 13, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Reply
    • Jim Black

      CORRECTION: Should read "POPULOUS PLACES LIKE IINDIA BOTH THE PEOPLE.......". My apologies

      May 13, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Reply
  5. mjplatt

    The problem is really complicated, but in the end, politicians are giving us what we (collectively) ask for. We just don't like rhe price tag.

    May 13, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Reply
  6. Solo

    I've seen the term-limits rule actually backfire. There was a Congressman in my area doing an excellent job and a very honest public servant – he had to step down by law.

    May 13, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Reply
  7. mujib

    Problem are both, when we/people elected the politicians for their job to fulfill what they promise,when they don't that it"s
    politicians problem.After he or she come back to us/people for reelected we forget every thing,we never ask them why
    they don"t & we re-elected them,it"s people"s problem.

    May 13, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Reply
  8. WDinDallas

    Term limits are the answer.....

    People get elected, basically to get bribed. Why would you get a law degree to be a politicians? Because of the money.

    They pander for votes by giving people tax money. The governemnt is based on other peoples money.....

    When they get power then the payouts get bigger, from lobbists. All of our federal politicians are multi-millionaires after 4 terms! Some of them in congress were on welfare before they got elected and now are multi-millionaires. How did that happen?

    Term limits eliminates politics as a career, puts it back as service. 12 years is enough for anyone, including state service.

    Politicians are like diapers, change them often.

    May 13, 2012 at 8:15 pm | Reply
  9. Lee Zaslofsky

    Fareed Zakaria is a member of the American policy elite, and his show is a chance to get a prettied up version of what that elite is thinking. On today's show he let us know what some of his elite contacts are thinking about the future of democracy. According to him, they think it isn't working any more. They are distressed by the repeated and increasingly resounding defeats their policies have been receiving from voters in France, Greece, Britain, the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, and now in the most populous German state, Rhineland-Westphalia, in all of which governments committed to the Austerity Agenda have been thrown out of office or seriously curbed. In the Netherlands, the government fell recently, also because the majority in Parliament refused to support Austerity.

    Zakaria did not endorse the view that democracy had lost its usefulness. But by raising the question, he made clear the growing contradiction between corporate capitalism and democracy.

    The question he raised is: Who shall rule - the tiny group of rich people who control the major corporations and the banks, or the vast majority of the people?

    Shall the Greek people decide their future? Or shall the rich bankers decide it?

    Shall the French people govern themselves? Or shall they be ruled by a tiny group of rich people?

    Shall the Nigerian people have democracy? or are they too "irresponsible" to be allowed to govern themselves/

    Shall we submit to rule by 'experts" acting in their own interests? Or shall we govern ourselves in our own interests, and compel the rich and their "experts" to defer to the will of the people?

    The incredible arrogance of the 1% who have managed to hog the resources of the world, leaving millions to starve, die of easily controlled diseases, or die in wars over the resources coveted by the rich - their abominable arrogance has now reached the point of discussing whether they will simply seize all the power, and use their paid goons, uniformed or not, to subdue us.

    Fareed Zakaria is a well paid shill for his rich friends, well trained to mouth their fatuous nonsense as if it were the highest wisdom. He should perhaps stop spending so much time with them, stop listening with such craven deference to their self admiration and contempt for the rest of humanity. Instead, he should put some effort into listening to those who, like Mr Tsipras in Greece, Mr. Hollande and Mr. Melenchon in France, and many, many smart, thoughtful (but not rich) people who articulate the disgust so many millions of people feel for the ruthless cruelty of the Austerity Agenda, and who have some damned good ideas about how to replace it with policies and programs that serve the vast majority of the human race, instead of the swindlers and crooks who muse about the "irresponsibility" of those whom they have cheated and robbed.

    May 14, 2012 at 1:22 am | Reply
  10. gggg

    Term limits based on years, not term counts. So everyone gets a max of 12 years (2 senate terms). At least we'll get one term from each politician where they will do what's actually best, not what's best for their reelection chances. There is also the people problem. While a most people think congress is a bunch of overpaid shills for some rich company or person, too many believe that THEIR congress person is ok so they will vote for that person again. So, in the end, it doesn't matter that most people think all of congress sucks because each individual keeps getting reelected. That is why congress does not care that their approval rating is in the tank. The only way to fix it is for each person to accept that THEIR congress person is, indeed, part of the problem and vote them out. Only then will attempts be made to do what is right for ALL of the people.

    May 14, 2012 at 10:56 am | Reply
  11. M.G.

    People are difinently the problem! Look what they put in the white house in 2008! ...have you had enough of Obamagheddon yet people? ...LOL

    May 15, 2012 at 5:39 am | Reply
  12. Erick Magati

    The power holders are the people, through the voting cards they choose the leaders. Unfortunately some of our voting patterns are based on wrong reasons e.g racism, tribalism, nepotism and religion.

    May 16, 2012 at 11:23 am | Reply
  13. hdq

    The root of the problem is that politics is about who will be in government. While government is about what those in government do. And the main role of government is to prevent people from harming themselves and others.
    The basics of it: "do not kill", "do not steal", "honour your contractual agreements", "do not deceive others", "control your reproductive urges", "earn your daily bread honestly by the sweat of your brow". But the people want to be free to do anything they want and that the government provides them with anything they (the people) wish. This cannot work. But promising this does place politicians into government, and gives them powers without responsibility. This is what DEMOCRACY is.
    But, if the duties of government are limited to the basic necessity and strictly defined, and adequately controlled, and those in government are held responsible for what they do, then everybody will know what to expect from government and whether the government perform their duties competently and honestly.
    It is not about WHO is in government. It is about HOW they govern. But this is MATHEMATICS (or Theocracy).

    May 19, 2012 at 9:28 am | Reply
  14. (Butch) Ronald Dennis Long

    Aren't politions people? Politicians are just another reason to keep the beaucracy going. It's a two party system with a dictator. What if we had seven parties, like Norway. They (our poiticians) all talk alot, but don't say one blessed thing.

    May 29, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Reply
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