Morsi's Choice, Democracy, and the Fate of the World

07/17/2013 06:58 pm ET | Updated Sep 16, 2013

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi obviously failed, but it is far from certain that his successors will succeed. For they, like Morsi, face a difficult -- some might say impossible -- choice with respect to the Egyptian economy: do what is right and sacrifice popular support... or do what is popular and sacrifice the economy.

If Morsi had done the 'right' thing he would have reformed the massive network of food and fuel subsidies that support large segments of the Egyptian populace. That is what the International Monetary Fund wanted him to do as a condition of receiving a $4.8 billion emergency loan. The 'popular' course was to keep the subsidies firmly in place.

In reality, 'Morsi's choice' may have been no choice at all. Reforming food and fuel subsidies, however it was done, would have generated enormous political discontent. With 40 percent of the population living in poverty or just above the poverty line, the subsidies are a vital economic lifeline. Yes, they are inefficient, and, yes, they spur corruption and spawn black markets, but reforming them in the current economic environment would have been the political equivalent of conducting open heart surgery on a patient without anesthesia. If Morsi had done what was 'right' on subsidies, the crowds in the street would have been larger and the anger much more intense.

Egypt's new government still confronts a 'Morsi's choice.' Yes, with massive financial support from Saudi Arabia and other allies, reforms might be more tenable, but they will still be unpopular, and still could undermine the political legitimacy of any new government. With Egypt's economy still teetering on the brink, with Egypt still importing nearly half of its food, and with Egypt's population projected to jump from 82 million to 122 million by 2050, Egypt's troubles are far from over.

Egypt, however, is not the only government facing a 'Morsi's choice' on fuel subsidies. Many oil-exporting countries keep domestic gasoline prices well below the global average. In Saudi Arabia, premium gasoline goes for just over 60 cents per gallon, and gasoline consumption is rising so fast that Citigroup warned last year that Saudi Arabia could become a net oil importer by 2030. In Venezuela, you can buy gas for the laughable price of 9 cents a gallon. None of this makes ecological or economic sense, but it is very popular. When Indonesia's government voted last month to trim its fuel subsidies, large protests broke out in the nation's capital.

We live on an over-heated, over-subscribed, over-populated planet where trying to do the right thing is going to get harder and harder as resource scarcity and environmental degradation increase. Easy choices will be in increasingly short supply. Even worse, efforts to solve one problem (e.g. food security) will exacerbate another (e.g. climate change). Soon there will be a 'Morsi's choice' around every corner: Political expediency or political ruin?

In many water-stressed parts of the world, including parts of the U.S., politicians recoil from the idea of raising water rates for fear of antagonizing voters or offending large agricultural interests. As a result, lakes and rivers are shrinking and water tables are falling. Overfishing of the world's oceans requires the imposition of politically unpopular fishing quotas, but most governments fearing a backlash from fishing interests are unwilling to commit. Governments all over the world have faced a 'Morsi's choice' on greenhouse gas emissions, and most have elected to stop short, far short, of what is really needed to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Hopes for a binding global commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions have largely evaporated.

And so it goes. Even when it comes to a 'no brainer' like providing contraceptives to women who want to avoid a pregnancy, policymakers are often reluctant to do the right thing. Anti-abortion legislators in Texas and other states legislatures have slashed state funding for contraceptive services, forcing many family planning clinics to close their doors. As a result, there are more unplanned pregnancies, higher health care costs, and--of course--more abortions. Demagoguery trumps common sense. Meanwhile, an austerity-minded Congress is edging ever closer to slashing support for international family planning assistance, the most cost-effective form of foreign aid.

Democratic rule is always preferable to authoritarian rule, but that does not mean that democratically-elected governments -- including Morsi's -- always make wise decisions... or make them in time to avert disaster. Democracy is our best hope, but democratically-elected governments, like the people who elect them, are all too human, all too prone to make mistakes, and all too likely to sacrifice long-term interests for short-term gain. Democracies are only as good as we make them.

Meanwhile, humanity, like Egypt, is on an unsustainable course. We are demanding more from planet Earth than it can sustainably provide. We are heating up the planet, changing the world's climate for the worse, losing topsoil at a worrisome rate, shrinking lakes, lowering water tables, altering the very chemistry of the oceans and the atmosphere, ripping down ancient forests, and destroying vital bio-habitats. And we show no signs of slowing down. World population, currently 7.2 billion, is now projected to rise to 9.6 billion by 2050 and 10.9 billion by 2100. The world's economies are in a desperate race to claim and consume the world's remaining inheritance of metals, minerals and fossil fuels. Leading scientists urgently warn that we are violating "planetary boundaries" and doing irreparable harm to the ability of the Earth to support life, but their warnings are falling on deaf ears.

Humanity and the governments that represent us are confronted with a 'Morsi's choice': Do what is needed or do what is popular? Let us hope that we choose wisely...otherwise we could meet Morsi's fate.