July 25, 2017

Alternative Facts When the Truth Could Kill

Writing about web page http://warwick.ac.uk/cage/news/20-07-17-advantage_magazine/

CAGE (Warwick's ESRC Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy) has just published the summer issue of its excellent Advantage Magazine. Claire Crawford asks: "Does offering more free childcare help parents work more?" Luigi Pascale writes about "Globalisation and economic development: A lesson from history." Nick Crafts ponders: "Building a new industrial strategy ... on shaky foundations?" Sascha O. Becker, Thiemo Fetzer and Dennis Novy discuss "Who voted for Brexit?" And Daniel Sgroi explains new work on "Measuring historical happiness using millions of digitised books." The last word, entitled "Parting Shot," is mine, and I reproduce it below.

Scholars involved in evidence-based policy research are sure to be concerned when “alternative facts” and “fake news” take over the agenda. By that, I mean more than just selection of the facts in a biased way. This is commonplace, and the expert’s task has always been to sift the data to correct for such biases. A more difficult problem is how to respond to alternative facts that are fabricated, although outrageously different from the truth, because that’s what their authors think ought to be true.

Alternative facts of the made-up kind are not new. As the economist Ed Glaeser once wrote, fabricated stories have typically spread through society in conditions of depression or defeat, when there is a popular thirst for explanation. Why has this happened and who is to blame? Foreigners, minority groups, and corporate interests can quickly become the target of “fake news” that points an accusing finger at the “enemies of the people.”

Alternative facts can emerge in any society, including liberal democracies. But the most diligent promoters of alternative facts are dictators, who are armed with the power to suppress the truth. Authoritarian rulers do this both to build support, and to expose covert resistance. Communist regimes, for example, required everyone, including experts, to salute fictitious achievements. To show scepticism or just indifference was not an option.

Exactly 80 years ago, in the spring and summer of 1937, Soviet statisticians were being arrested and imprisoned or shot because the facts they produced were in conflict with alternative facts that their rulers had authorized.

At the end of 1926, the Soviet population had been enumerated at 147 million. In the mid-1930s, to demonstrate the happy progress of Soviet society, Stalin announced an alternative fact: the population was growing every year by three million. On that basis, by the beginning of 1937, the population should have gained around 30 million people.

The 1937 census showed only half the expected increase: 15 million were missing. Why? The regime had to choose among explanations. In secret, some experts reported that Stalin’s alternative fact was wrong. There were more deaths than Stalin projected, because millions had starved, or were shot or died in prison, or fled the country. There were also fewer births, millions fewer, as a result.

More loyal officials offered another explanation: the census did not confirm Stalin’s alternative fact because the census office was captured by traitors, who aimed to discredit the party. Stalin waited a few weeks, then decided. Those who went with the facts disappeared, along with the census. Those who went with the alternative facts were promoted, and their explanation was released to the public.

This story has two messages. On the side of pessimism, it shows that the logic of alternative facts can be self-sustaining. When experts refute the alternative facts, the believers are likely to blame them as enemies, whose aim is to confuse and undermine society.

I am also an optimist. In the age of social media no information can be suppressed for decades. Yes, tyrants and despots can exploit social media to spread lies and to identify critics. Nonetheless, more scope exists today for truth-tellers in Russia and China, let alone in the West, than there ever was under Stalin or Hitler.


June 01, 2017

McCarthyism — Then and Now

Writing about web page https://www.forbes.com/sites/paulroderickgregory/2017/05/23/there-remains-no-evidence-of-trump-russia-collusion/

On Forbes on 23 May, my co-author Paul Gregory worries about America's risk of a new McCarthyism. He warns:

Joseph Welch, the lawyer for the army in the McCarthy-Army hearings brought the McCarthy Era to an end by asking McCarthy, who had gratuitously ruined the reputation of a young colleague: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” We are beginning to see the use of these guilt-by-association practices.

In picking up this theme, Paul echoed an exchange between US President Trump and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier in the spring. As the controversy over his campaign links with Russia intensified, on 3 March 2017 (at 2:38AM) Trump tweeted that leaks of information were turning into:

a total "witch hunt"!

Lavrov adopted and extended Trump's metaphor later the same day:

I can refer to a quote spread in the media today: all of this looks very much like a witch hunt or the days of McCarthyism, which we long thought have passed in the US, a civilized country.

And the following day, Trump returned the compliment:

Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!

What is McCarthyism? For readers who are not sure what that's all about, Senator Joseph McCarthy was Republican Senator from Wisconsin from 1944 to his death in 1957. He played the leading role in a postwar search for undercover communists and Soviet agents in US public life. With or without reasonable cause, this search placed tens of thousands of people under suspicion, many of whom lost their jobs and careers, and some of whom were eventually imprisoned on criminal charges.

Wikipedia defines McCarthyism as:

the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence.

So, that's McCarthyism. Now for the parallel. Those who raise fears of a new McCarthyism suggest that we should compare today's beleaguered Trump campaign and White House officials to McCarthy's victims after the war. How well does that hold up? The comparison is reasonable up to a point. The chief similarity is the fevered atmosphere of suspicion and finger-pointing, inflamed by a widespread belief that America's public life has been penetrated by hidden enemies, who now lurk just beneath the surface of things.

On Vox on 18 May, Zack Beauchamp noted the spread of fake news about the Trump campaign and presidency, the Congress, and Russia connections:

President Donald Trump is about to resign as a result of the Russia scandal. Bernie Sanders and Sean Hannity are Russian agents. The Russians have paid off House Oversight Chair Jason Chaffetz to the tune of $10 million, using Trump as a go-between. Paul Ryan is a traitor for refusing to investigate Trump’s Russia ties. Libertarian heroine Ayn Rand was a secret Russian agent charged with discrediting the American conservative movement.

These are all claims you can find made on a new and growing sector of the internet that functions as a fake news bubble for liberals.

That same evening, my own Facebook feed provided a near-perfect illustration. The evening's news was that investigations into the Trump campaign's Russia links were homing in on a "current White House official" as a "significant person of interest." But who would that be? Nobody knew. I came across some comments by people, not my friends, or even friends of friends, just ordinary, good-hearted, liberal-minded Americans, whom I'll call A, B, and C:

A. Bannon I hope

B. Nope. He's not important. It's Kushner.

A. I wish it could be Pence just to get him out of the picture. So that makes sense why he got so close to top.

C. Please oh please oh please be Jared.

What struck me was not just how interested we have become in the hidden workings of the White House. It was more than that; it was the hunger and thirst for one or another hate figure to be found out for what, in our imagination, they really are -- or what we need them to turn out to be, if the hatred is to be justified.

Common to the new and old McCarthyisms is the burning desire of many to see proven what they feel they already know, in the absence of any hard evidence, to be true. We've made up our minds about Trump and his circle, and what sort of people they are. All we need is the facts that confirm it.

That is not all, however.

There is a deeper point that is buried in the history of the old McCarthyism, a problem that those who warn of the new McCarthyism appear to forget. They hold, and I agree, 100 per cent, that McCarthy and his supporters did despicable things. The McCarthyites ruined the lives of many people who had done nothing wrong. They injected a poison into American political life that persists to the present day.

But there is more. The suspicions that fuelled McCarthyism were not unfounded in fact. McCarthyism was not about nothing. And McCarthyism, in its time, was not technically a witch hunt, although I understand most of its victims felt it like that. For in fact witches do not exist, whereas the traitors that McCarthy hunted in his blind, destructive way, really existed.

Since the end of the Cold War, historians have been able to reconstruct the deep history of which McCarthyism was an evil outgrowth. During the 1930s and 1940s, particularly during World War II when the Soviet Union and the United States were allied, and so before the Cold War began, the American government was penetrated by hundreds of Soviet spies and undercover agents. It was easy for this to come about because many educated Americans had a spark of sympathy for communism, which made them susceptible to Stalin's fake news about the Soviet Union, and also because America at that time lacked the traditions and institutions of counter-intelligence.

By the late 1940s, by means of partial decryption of Soviet diplomatic cables, the FBI knew of the existence of up to a couple of hundred Soviet agents in and around a variety of government departments and projects, including the Manhattan Project. But the FBI mostly did not know who these agents were. This was because the agents' identities were protected by cover names, which the FBI could not crack except by good luck, which did come around occasionally. Meanwhile, the FBI could only protect its limited capacity to decode the Soviet signals by hiding the authoritative source of its suspicions.

Beneath the surface of the McCarthyite search for traitors, in other words, lay two things. First was a pattern of covert collusion by American citizens with the Soviet Union, a country that was operating an intelligence assault on its wartime ally consistent with a state of undeclared war between them. Second was an investigation into them that could not be completed and would remain unfinished and undisclosed for half a century. It was in this context that public suspicion and the desire to expose traitors took hold, with the destructive results that we know.

There are three clear lessons for today.

First, justice is not served when guilt is determined in advance of the facts, or when evidence is sought only to confirm prior beliefs. That is why we should worry about a new McCarthyism.

Second, calling it McCarthyism doesn't mean there is nothing there. The allegations of underhand dealing between the Trump campaign and Russia need to be substantiated or cleared out of the way, based on evidence.

Third, nothing will fuel popular suspicion more than an unfinished investigation. The investigation of Russia's role in the 2016 US presidential election needs to be seen through to the end.


May 30, 2017

Dear Jim: A Letter to my Labour Candidate

Dear Mr Cunningham

You wrote to me on 25 April: “I wanted to let you know that at the General Election, to be held on June 8th, I will be standing again. I have proudly represented Coventry South for 25 years, and I believe that I can continue standing up for Coventry.”

You asked for my support. I was a Labour supporter and voter in every General Election from 1970 to 2005. I voted for you many times. Led by Gordon Brown, Labour lost my support in 2010. I see no chance of Jeremy Corbyn winning it back.

Every major party in this election has good and bad in its manifesto, and that includes the Labour Party. But Labour’s present leaders are tarnished by their past hostility to our armed forces and security services, our nuclear deterrent, and our NATO membership. Whatever they say now is compromised by their sympathy, sometimes open and sometimes poorly concealed, for authoritarian regimes, anti-semitic causes, and terrorist factions around the world.

Jeremy Corbyn has justifed his past contacts with terrorists by the necessity to talk to "people you profoundly disagree with." But there is reason to think that, at the time, he saw the terrorists he talked to not as people he disagreed with but as friends. He explains the terrorists' actions, in part, as responses to our own past foreign policies. But this carries little weight when the overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks worldwide have no such explanation.

As well as having repellent views on these matters, Corbyn and Abbot stand out as incompetent. But not all your leaders are incompetent. McDonnell, Milne, and Murray are evidently capable people. That makes them worse, not better. Their competence is sinister. I fear for our future if such people ever got their hands on the machinery of the British state. That outweighs any other reason I might have to vote for you.

Your letter states: “The country needs change.” I agree. But, just when change is needed, the Labour Party has managed to offer an alternative that is also unacceptable. The Labour Party needs change. If you would acknowledge this, you would put country before party.

Yours sincerely

Mark Harrison


May 22, 2017

The Soviet Economy: Designed for Future War

Writing about web page http://www.oei.fu-berlin.de/institut/videos-oei/vorlesung-russian-revolution/Mark_Harrison_The_Stalinist_Economic_System/

In Berlin on 22 November last year, I gave a talk at the Free University in a series on the Centenary of the Russian Revolution. My title was The Stalinist Economic System. The organizers were kind enough to make a video, which has been published here (50 minutes, so pour yourself a drink first if you are inclined to watch).

If you prefer just to leaf through my presentation, a slideshow is here.

For the cover slide, I used an illustration that made a big impact on me when I found it some years ago. It's the front page of Pravda on New Year's Day 1937: "Happy New Year, comrades!"

Pravda 1 January 1937

In the foreground, Stalin smiles benignly on the happy workers and peasants, who wave back at him. Advancing from the background is a column of tanks. Above them in massed formation flies a fleet of bombers. For the image was drawn from a real scene, the Revolution Day parade in Red Square in November 1936. Here's a grainy photo from that day:

TB-3s over Red Square 7 November 1936

(If you would like a moving version, set to the Kremlin bells and a marching band, it's here on Youtube.)

The airplanes were not just symbolic, by the way. The TB-3 was the world's first four-engined bomber. In the late 1930s the Soviet Union was building as many combat airplanes as the rest of the world put together, despite the fact that several other countries were actually at war and the Soviet Union was not.

I used these images to illustrate a simple point. Don't look at them and tell me that the Soviet project was not first and foremost about building national power. Don't tell me the first priority was the welfare of the people, or giving everyone a job or a hot dinner, or even economic growth, There was growth, and job creation, and some people did get hot dinners, but these were incidental by-products of the building of national power.

The Soviet economy was the first of its kind, a system designed for continuous war mobilization, even when there was no war. The Soviet economy and society lived under permanent mobilization, not because there was a war on, but because there might be one in future, and in order to be permanently ready for the "future war" when it arrived. Nothing took priority over that. It was the first priority under Lenin and Stalin, and it continued to be the first priority after the war, under "peaceful coexistence" and in the era of "detente."

There's more, of course. But for that you have to sit through the lecture. So pour yourself a drink.


February 10, 2017

Torture: How Far Will the Trump Administration Go (Part 2)

Follow-up to Torture: How Far Will the Trump Administration Go? from Mark Harrison's blog

My recent blog on torture received an interesting comment from Mr Paul Thompson. If you want to see it in the original, go here and scroll down. I thank him for it. I would have replied beneath it, but my reply turned out to be too long for the box. (One of the risks of blogging, is that there is no one to say no to you.) So, here it is, point by point:

Torture or even the threat of torture, when employed on a large scale, often leads to the victims giving up a large volume of information,

I agree.

some of which is useful for intelligence operations.

Hmm. It depends what is meant by "some." How much? Five percent? The interrogator's problem is then: which five percent? It's not enough for information to be useful. You also have to identify it as such, against the 95 per cent that is not useful. If five per cent is the proportion, the odds on identifying it correctly are just one in twenty. That's not good.

Given the relative technological backwardness of the Nazis and the Soviets, they understood well that mass torture was one the most effective methods they had available to find those of their opponents who had gone into hiding.

I have no specialist knowledge of the methods and results of the Gestapo. But the Soviets: that's wrong. The historical records of Soviet counter-intelligence suggest an entirely different story. The Soviet authorities did believe that their opponents had gone into hiding. The primary method of identifying enemies was not information gleaned through torture, but markers of social origin, kinship, acquaintance, and past behaviour. The products of torture were used mainly to confirm the "guilt" of those already identified by other means. There are many historical accounts, from Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago to Joerg Baberowski's Scorched Earth, published just last year. (Or would you believe, say, that Marshal Tukhachevskii, whose blood was found on his signed confession, was actually an agent of the Gestapo, as he confessed?)

It is a matter of common knowledge that more technologically advanced tyrannies, like modern Russia, still use torture on a mass scale,

I'll give this a pass, but I'm not happy. Even under authoritarian rule there is a distinction to be drawn between torture as a centralized policy and torture in the more decentralized form of the abuses that are enabled when the abusers know they will not be called to account. This distinction may not matter to the victim, but it is certainly germane to the instrumentality of torture. Still, for the sake of argument, let's move on.

and sometimes gain information that they deem important by this means.

That's fascinating. Is that really common knowledge? How would we know about it? (We should think about modern tyrannies that have collapsed, so that their records are available.) And, how often is "sometimes"? And, shouldn't we ask whether "the information that they deem important" turned out to have at least some external validity? I'd certainly like to know more about this.

The Eighth Amendment explicitly prohibits "cruel and unusual punishments".

Absolutely. (But we are not discussing torture as a punishment. We are discussing torture as an instrument for gathering information. The victim is being interrogated, not punished.)

The US political system is duty-bound to enforce the constitution,

Near enough. The President swears to "preserve, protect and defend" the constitution. Enforcement relies on the courts. See below.

so there the matter rests.

Yes, that's what I hope. But enforcement relies on the judiciary. So I am disheartened to find the President, who just swore to "preserve, protect and defend," attacking "so-called judges" and calling the courts "political." He doesn't seem to feel the call of duty as strongly as he might, and he encourages his supporters to believe that the situation calls for a strong leader willing to break rules. As I said, it's disheartening. I understand I'm not the only one to feel this way.

For all the hysteria about waterboarding, the US has not and will not ever have a policy of inflicting permanent physical harm on prisoners.

These words mislead, I think. First, they seem to limit torture to those methods that might lead to "permanent physical harm." So methods leading to physical harm that is only temporary, such as rape or the local bruising or burning of soft tissues, are not torture? And permanent psychological trauma, such as that arising from simulated execution, is also not torture?

And then "the hysteria about waterboarding." A line is drawn, apparently, between waterboarding (done before and perhaps could be done again) and "inflicting permanent physical harm" (not done, and never will be, at least as a matter of policy). But everyone can read the account of waterboarding written by my friend, the late Christopher Hitchens, who was required beforehand to sign a contract of indemnification that included the words:

Water boarding is a potentially dangerous activity in which the participant can receive serious and permanent (physical, emotional and psychological) injuries and even death, including injuries and death due to the respiratory and neurological systems of the body.

See the words "permanent" and "physical"?

Based on his experience Hitchens concluded: "Believe me, it's torture."

Perhaps you will find time to write about the mass torture and mass murder at Saydnaya prison,

Probably not. It's horrifying, of course. But my aim is to comment only when I can add something based on expertise. On Saydnaya I have none; I can add only what anyone can add who has skimmed the serious media. It's a topic on which others can add more value than me, so why should I compete with them for attention?

a rather more important topic.

Maybe. In terms of immediate human consequences, you're probably right. In terms of what is added to knowledge, perhaps not. I'm a social scientist, so I'm always interested in surprises, because by definition they tell us something we did not know. We already knew that Syrians lived under a vile tyranny. No surprise there. But to hear "What about Saydnaya" as a response to "Let's not go back to waterboarding": that's a surprise.

Before this, I always believed that US constitutional checks and balances were robust. On this matter I still hope not to be surprised.


January 30, 2017

Torture: How Far Will the Trump Administration Go?

Writing about web page https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/01/26/donald-trumps-brazen-first-interview-as-president-annotated/?utm_term=.aea7ee7c3ace

In his 25 January ABC interview, US President Trump was asked about the use of torture in the interrogation of terrorist suspects. He said:

I have a general who I have great respect for, General Mattis [new secretary of defense], who said — I was a little surprised — who said he's not a believer in torture. As you know, Mr. Pompeo [a defender of waterboarding] was just approved, affirmed by the Senate. He's a fantastic guy, he's gonna be the head of the CIA ...

But I will tell you I have spoken to others in intelligence. And they are big believers in, as an example, waterboarding. As far as I'm concerned we have to fight fire with fire. Now, with that being said I'm going with General Mattis. I'm going with my secretary because I think Pompeo's gonna be phenomenal. I'm gonna go with what they say. But I have spoken as recently as 24 hours ago with people at the highest level of intelligence. And I asked them the question, “Does it work? Does torture work?” And the answer was, “Yes, absolutely” ...

I wanna do everything within the bounds of what you're allowed to do legally. But do I feel it works? Absolutely I feel it works. Have I spoken to people at the top levels and people that have seen it work? I haven't seen it work. But I think it works. Have I spoken to people that feel strongly about it? Absolutely.

According to a draft order on Detention and Interrogation of Enemy Combatants, obtained by The New York Times and published on the same day as the ABC interview, but as yet unconfirmed by the administration, the President intends to allow the CIA to reopen extra-territorial sites for the detention and interrogation of terrorist suspects outside the ordinary legal protections of US domestic law. The draft order specifically orders the secretary of defence, James Mattis, to carry out a review of the interrogation practices authorized by the Army Field Manual since 2006 and to modify them towards the "safe, lawful, and effective" interrogation of "enemy combatants."

Taken together, these disclosures have heightened reasonable fears that the Trump administration is on a course to restore such practices as waterboarding, if not worse.

Torture is wrong. A problem is that many Americans believe that it works. A big influence has been spy movies and TV shows based on a "ticking time bomb" fantasy in which intelligence extracted by torture saves lives. Many viewers have concluded that such scenarios are reality-based, although they are not. In reality torture is unproductive, if not counterproductive, at least on average (I don’t exclude that exceptionally it might give rise to useful information). Worse, just as depictions of torture corrupt the viewer, the practice of torture corrupts those that use it: once you start, it’s hard to stop. For all these reasons, President Trump’s reported willingness to faciliate a return to torture is reprehensible.

Still, if the President intends to change American practices, as opposed to striking an attitude for his voter base, he will encounter significant obstacles. It is notable that in his ABC interview Trump himself acknowledged the first two obstacles. One is the law, including the Detainee Treatment Act 2005, and related court rulings. Another is Mattis, his secretary of defence. Beyond that lie other resisters. His CIA director-designate is not opposed, but it seems the CIA as an organization does not want to go back there. Leading congressmen are opposed, including some Republicans. Finally, America’s allies will not cooperate.

What does Trump really want to achieve? To strike an attitude or to radically change US practices? If the latter, what price is the President willing to pay to achieve it? Is he willing to take on Congress and the courts? To sacrifice Mattis? We don't know. How strong are the checks and balances of the US political system? Again, we don't know.

It will be an interesting time.


January 16, 2017

Kompromat: it’s What We Don’t Know, Not What We Know

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-38589427

The Steele memorandum, with its lurid tales of Donald Trump and “golden showers,” has put kompromat in the news.

Kompromat is the Russian term, a colloquial abbreviation, for “compromising evidence.” When did it arise? Sometimes there's the impression that it is a recent thing – a feature of post-Soviet Russia. Andrei Soldatov, an expert on the KGB, describes kompromat as “a tactic to smear one’s opponents in the media” that “came into use in Russia in the late 1990s.” Likewise, Julia Joffe links kompromat to cases that became frequent in Russia in the 1990s, involving what Russians call “black PR” – the use of real or faked evidence of wrong doing to discredit political opponents in the public arena.

It’s true that, to judge from the Google Ngram viewer, kompromat was completely unknown until the mid-1980s, when Soviet censorship collapsed, and its use became widespread only in the 1990s. (The figure below shows both the abbreviated and unabbreviated forms of kompromat; they show similar patterns. I can't explain the spikes during World War II; they might just be a random consequence of relatively few books entering the Google Books corpus from that time.)

But this pattern also reflects the limitation to published print media. For the first seventy years of its life the term kompromat was used very widely, but only by Soviet government and party officials in the secret documentation that can now be found in archives. In Soviet times, kompromat denoted the security files that documented the political crimes, misdemeanours, and faults of the citizens. In this sense its use goes back almost a century. The Soviet secret police was founded in 1918, and it began storing kompromat as soon as the circumstances of civil war allowed it to turn from killing people to recording their weaknesses.

Here’s an example. You’re following suspect A, let’s say, someone who is suspected of passing information to foreigners. In the street, A greets a stranger, who now becomes suspect B. Someone else will now follow suspect B and identify him. After that, the officer in charge will write a note to KGB records: “Is there kompromat on B?” And the answer will come back, yes or no. If no, too bad. If yes, it might be that B listens to Western radio, or sends letters abroad, or comes from a family that once had property, or is Jewish, or gets drunk and, when drunk, is liable to curse the communist party and its leaders. For any of these is a sign that B might hold a grudge against the political and social order and should therefore be considered potentially disloyal.

Now, suppose there does exist kompromat on B. The question is, what do you do now? In the Soviet practice of kompromat the answer is that you do not, under any circumstances, take it to the media. On the contrary, you file it and store it.

In Soviet times, kompromat had a mass application and a targeted application. The mass application was to grade people in very large numbers. Then, when someone sought promotion at work, or entry to higher education, or a foreign trip, the KGB would check its files for kompromat, and the files would tell it whether to say yes or no. The evidence would never be disclosed. Nonetheless, it is clear that most Soviet citizens understood the importance of not accumulating kompromat, and this influenced their behaviour in ways that were favourable to the stability of the regime.

Kompromat had a more targeted use. Although arguably of less importance in history than its mass application, this is the meaning of kompromat that is of greater interest today.

In cases where an individual person such as B was targeted, the kompromat would be useful, not when it was published to punish or discredit B, but because it was kept secret. And, used in this way, kompromat had the magical quality that it could turn people who might otherwise have been reluctant or recalcitrant into productive material for the regime.

Kompromat in this sense is blackmail, but no money changes hands. You would use the kompromat to persuade B to cooperate in your task, whatever that might be: for example, you might recruit him as an informer. You would apply the pressure slowly, over a long period of time, and during all this time the kompromat would remain secret, and would never be disclosed, but would be a gift that keeps giving.

This principle was applied not only in police matters, but more widely in politics. The party boss must promote one of two subordinates. Which should he choose, the one that is clean, or the one with a flawed past, documented by kompromat? The choice was clear. The untainted subordinate could become a rival; better promote the one the boss could control, the one who was obligated to the boss by his silence. In a low-trust organization, in other words, kompromat is the key that guarantees loyalty.

In these cases, you can see, the moment the targeted kompromat reaches the public, it loses its power to control the target, for that power lies in secrecy. You promise to keep the information secret while B works with you and your organization. You have given B something to lose. Hold the kompromat forever, and forever your collaborator will be obligated to you.

Today’s use of kompromat to cover the publication of discreditable information – real or fake – is, in comparison, a break with its traditional meaning. To hold kompromat is to hope that the target, the person on whom kompromat is held, might one day be useful. The dissemination of kompromat signals that you’ve given up that hope. The target has nothing left to lose, and can no longer be manipulated.

Here’s the bottom line. To read discreditable stories about our leaders is a worry. We should worry about these stories and try to evaluate them carefully, as best we can. But don’t worry about the stories too much. If they’re false, we should discard them, and, if they’re true, at least we know.

And we know, also, that kompromat that is published is spent and has no more value. The kompromat that still has value, that retains its magical power to induce cooperation, is the kompromat that is held back. If you like to lie awake at night and worry pointlessly about who is manipulating our leaders, you should think about the kompromat that we don’t know and will never hear. As I said, it's pointless.

PS Lots more like this in my book of stories, One Day We Will Live Without Fear.


December 31, 2016

Reasons to be Cheerful — 1, 2, 3

Writing about web page http://www.metrolyrics.com/reasons-to-be-cheerful-part-3-lyrics-ian-dury-the-blockheads.html

I'll spend this New Year Eve with old friends. To keep our spirits up, we agreed some self-denying rules. Here are three things that we will not talking about around the dinner table:

  • Brexit.
  • Donald Trump.
  • Climate change.

This was not my suggestion. And in some ways you might think this would be hard on us, for we are all interested in the world of politics and policy, and those of us who will gather would all have something to say on such matters.

Yet, when it was put to me, it made immediate sense. I recalled a discovery made a few years ago by Angus Deaton. He was working with Gallup surveys of very large numbers of Americans (Deaton 2012). In these surveys, carried out in 2008 and 2009, respondens were asked to evaluate their own subjective well being. It turned out that their responses were strongly affected by whether or not the respondents had just been asked about their views of America's then-current political leaders. The effect of being asked these political questions was to lower the subject's reported well being, compared with others who were asked the questions in a different order. The negative effect was large -- an amount similar to the effect on well being of a major recession, such as the one that was actually taking place at that time.

I concluded that there was a scientific basis for avoiding talk of politics in everyday social interaction. If we all did so, we would feel the improvement.

More recently I found that Deaton has published a reassessment (Deaton and Stone 2016). This work is based on data from a more recent period. The result is a new finding, more complicated than before. As it now turns out, not everyone is depressed by being reminded of politics. Rather, people are depressed if (and only if) their own answers are depressing. Most likely this was already the case back in 2008 and 2009, but at that time there was not much optimism around, and most Americans disliked most of their leaders, so the general feeling that the country was on the wrong track overwhelmed the responses of the optimistic few in the Gallup survey sample.

To relate this to our own national context, we have just had a referendum that split our country into two nearly-equal halves. Suppose you belong to those that think Brexit will prove to be a detriment to our economy and society. When asked your view of British politics facing Brexit, your evaluation of your own life will go down. But if you think that Britain outside the European Union will be a magical success, then being asked your opinion will leave your personal mood as it was. It's only if you think things are going badly that being asked about politics will send your mood down.

Which has implications. One implication is that not all talk of politics is a downer. But when the country is evenly divided, and political issues are put on the table, half the people will find reason in politics to feel bad about their lives.

Another implication. There's a grain of truth in the Daily Mail tag "Remoaners." When reminded that we lost the referendum vote, those of us who preferred to remain in the European Union now feel down. It doesn't make us wrong, but it does make us depressed.

Until tomorrow, therefore, no more politics.

For tonight, at least, a Happy New Year to all my readers!

References


October 19, 2016

Donald Trump and America's Incomplete Contract with Itself

Writing about web page https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/2016/press.html

Last week's Economist has three articles that struck me by their connections. One of them looks at how US presidential candidate Donald Trump is undermining the unwritten rules of American democracy. Another deals with the business of outrage -- the money being made by political entrepreneurs selling racism and conspiracy theories. And a third examines the work of the 2016 Economics Nobel winners. That's where I'll start.

This year’s Economics Nobel was shared between Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström. (At Warwick we’re proud of this because Hart has two Warwick degrees, an MSc from many years ago, and more recently an honorary degree.) It turns out that the field of research that Hart has pioneered can throw light on the disturbing state of American politics.

Hart’s central contribution has been the idea of an incomplete contract. A complete contract writes down how the parties are to share the gains and losses arising under all circumstances. When the possible contingencies are too many and too varied to foresee them all, the contract is incomplete. When unforeseeable contingencies arise, there are unexpected gains and losses, and these have to be allocated among the parties. Who should gain and who should lose? Re-reading the contract does not help. Instead, the parties have to take responsibility for renegotiating their partnership. Hart pointed out that the possible outcomes depends on the relative bargaining power of the parties. In turn, telative power depends on many things, including resources, information, customs, beliefs, values, and incentives.

In that setting, how do unwritten rules arise? When the parties bargain with each other in mutually predictable ways, it is because they are following unwritten rules. If the rules they follow are consistent and agreeable, the partnership underlying the contract can persist in a state of harmony. An everyday example of a partnership based on unwritten rules is marriage. The marriage contract is always incomplete. On marriage, you promise to love and cherish each other for better and for worse, in sickness and in health, till death you depart. But exactly how you should do that under all circumstances cannot be written down in advance. There will be many unexpected blessings and tragedies that must be shared or shouldererd. To deal with these situations, marriages that last generally evolve unwritten, even unspoken rules that the parties follow to maintain harmony.

Another example is democracy. It turns out that democracy too is an incomplete contract. That’s generally the case, even for a country like the United States that has an apparently robust written constitution. The constitution has the written rules. These state who can play the game of democracy, how to tell who has won and who has lost, and the limits on what the winner can do. But it does not dictate the spirit in which the players should play the game. Just as a bad but not technically unfaithful spouse can undermine a marriage by violating its unwritten rules, a bad politician can undermine democracy without breaking the letter of the law.

What are the unwritten rules of democracy? The written rules are clear enough. In a democracy, when society is divided, victory goes to the side that can muster a majority (or a plurality). In a democracy, victory is always temporary. The majority party governs for a term. These are the written rules, but they are only the start. They imply, but do not requre, the spirit in which the competing parties should play the game. The spirit of the game is that it is never played for keeps. The ruling party should not aim to limit the rights of the minority or entrench itself at their expense. Between elections, the minority must be free to oppose, to criticize, to try again to mobilize a majority and so win the next time. When this works, it has an interesting result, one on which we place too little value. This is that every election has low stakes. It is the opposite of winner-takes-all. The election decides who rules for a few years, not for a thousand years. The winners do not take all and the losers do not lose everything.

In the outcome, democracy is based on a conjuring trick of self-fulfiling expectations. When politicians and their followers expect an electoral contest to be low-stakes, they becoming willing to accept defeat. Because defeat is temporary, and not too costly, they do not try too hard to win, for example, using threats and bribes. And so they become willing to keep within the unwritten rules of democracy, and these in turn sustain the written rules -- the constitution.

You can see this clearly if you think for a moment about politics without democracy. Without democracy, the stakes are always terrifyingly high, because politics is deadly. We won? Be afraid. You lost? Go to jail, or go to hell. In contrast, democracy has this magic property that it makes politics polite: We won? During our brief term we will seek to govern for everyone. You lost? Thank you for the contest. The low stakes might be the single most important reason to prefer a democracy.

For democracy to work, most people have to subscribe to the unwritten rules. But developing those unwritten rules was historically a long and difficult process; embedding them in the societies of western Europe and north America took centuries. Although the rules took so long to create, they can be torn up relatively easily. Today the US constitution may look robust, but the shared beliefs underlying it are threatened. In the election campaigning, the threat is expressed in the high stakes that the parties attach to victory over defeat. Donald Trump has said that, if elected, he will seek the prosecution and imprisonment of the loser. If not elected, he will not accept the result or postpone his hopes until the next election. Rather, he will reject the outcome, claiming that it is “rigged,” leaving his angry followers to take the law into their own hands.

Now it goes without saying that corrupt politicians should go to jail, and ballot-rigging should be exposed, especially in a democracy. But it undermines the unwritten rules when a candidate for executive office campaigns as prosecutor, judge, and jury. In turn, to allege corruption and ballot-rigging, whether for electoral advantage or to make money, breaks the same unwritten rules. It does this by raising the stakes. The stakes can hardly be higher when one of the campaigns threatens to take all in the case of victory, or to take up arms in the case of defeat.

American politics is becoming high-stakes in a way that has not been the case since the Civil War. The atmosphere is eating away at the incomplete contract of American democracy. Free speech, even lying speech, is a core value of democracy, meaning that no law can make politicians tell the truth, or protect voters from their lies. There is no solution other than the self-restraint of politicians and the good sense of the electorate.

But this is no time for European self-congratulation, for the same has been happening across Europe. In the best outcome, it will take many years for the West to recover.


October 10, 2016

Women of the Gulag: A Last Chance

Writing about web page https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/women-of-the-gulag-documentary-finishing-funds-film-russia#/

women-of-gulag201308131848.jpgMy Hoover colleague and co-author Paul Gregory is involved in a remarkable project: to bring to life the stories of women who survived life in Stalin's Gulag. His book, Women of the Gulag: Portraits of Five Remarkable Lives, recounts their fates. As a historian, Paul began his research from documentary records of the survivors. He went on to track them down. The result is a beautiful and touching feature film by Marianna Yarovskaya.

In 2013 at the Hoover Institution's annual summer workshop I had the privilege to see an early cut of this beautiful film. Introducing Paul and his work to the audience, this is what I said:

For some of you Paul Gregory will need no introduction. For others, he is a leading economist and historian of Russia under communist rule. Among economists he is a rarity. All economists work with theoretical models and statistical data. Paul is one of the few that also understand the power of the story. Among Paul’s most celebrated publications are books that tell stories. His book Lenin’s Brain is a collection of stories from the Hoover Archives that range from the grim to the comic and curious. His book Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin is the poignant story of Nikolai and Anna Bukharin.

Today Paul Gregory will talk about his new book, called Women of the Gulag. Women of the Gulag was inspired by a need and an opportunity. The opportunity is represented by the Hoover Archive’s rich holdings on coercion and repression in the Soviet Union. These include millions of pages of documents from the Gulag, Stalin’s agency for forced labour camps. Among other holdings that tell the story of power and cruelty under the Bolsheviks are the minutes of many meetings of the party central committee and the personal archives of Nestor Lakoba, one of Stalin’s Georgian comrades in arms; and of Dmitrii Volkogonov, Gorbachev’s biographer of Stalin. These holdings illustrate the opportunity for scholars to work here at Hoover on the history of Soviet rule.

Now the important bit.

The need for Paul’s book is illustrated by a simple statistical comparison: In Russia, women die on average in their mid-70s, and men in their early 60s. Almost all men who experienced and survived Stalin’s mass repressions are now dead. Only a few women are still alive, and they too will soon have passed on. Their stories need to be told now, before it is too late. Through Paul’s book, the last survivors have now been able to tell their stories. They are: Women of the Gulag.

While Paul's book is published, the film of the book, which includes moving interviews with its surviving heroines, is still to be completed. Paul is crowd-funding this final stage. If you would like the chance to contribute, here's how.


I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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