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March 15, 2018
Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-43412702
This morning I had the pleasure of talking with Trish Adudu on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire Radio about the Russian state and skulduggery in Salisbury. In five minutes we only touched on a small proportion of what was covered in my notes. Here’s my full commentary on recent events.
Who is to blame for the Skripal affair?
We don’t yet know the persons directly responsible for the attempt to murder Sergei and Yuliya Skripal. Without that knowledge, why does the Russia government not get the benefit of the doubt? First and foremost, Russia’s rulers have form. Putin presides over a conspiratorial regime. Too many opponents, critics, and whistle blowers have come to a bad end under his rule.
The Russian government and connected Russians have offered a long list of alternative candidates for the crime: MI5, Ukraine, Georgia, the United States, and, bizarrely, the family of Yuliya Skripal's boyfriend, seeking to break his connection to a traitor. The fostering of doubt by scattering such allegations is also part of this form.
Second, Novochok, the nerve agent used in Salisbury, is a Russian product of the Cold War. It was intended to be undetectable, but decades have gone by and it is no longer. Russia claims to have destroyed all its stocks, but this is self-evidently not the case.
Third, yes, some third-party involvement is entirely possible. But that should not let the Russian government off the hook. There is a well-understood advantage for a party like the Russian state in using “third parties” to achieve goals by stealth that cannot be sought openly. Sometimes those “third parties” will go “too far,” whether by accident or design, but this is not necessarily an unwanted thing, because it increases complexity and improves the plausibility of denial.
If you think of the various ways in which Russia has challenged the international order in recent years, “third parties” were involved in many of them: seizing Crimea, invading Eastern Ukraine, and shooting down the MH17 jet liner, as well as in many domestic assassinations. Often the trail is not that long and the “third parties” are barely even that. The two men who British police believe assassinated Alexander Litvinenko were former KGB operatives.
Don’t we murder people abroad too?
Sometimes, yes. There are examples of people have done great wrongs or present great dangers, who have put themselves beyond the reach of justice. A case in point would be the execution of Usama Bin Laden. (But the US government made no secret of its role.)
I don’t consider myself to be an expert in such cases. If Western governments set out to kill people in circumstances other than the ones I just described, my guess would be that it’s usually the wrong thing to do. And any such cases should absolutely not be used to justify the attempted murders in Salisbury. (Besides, to defend oneself against a murder charge by saying "he deserved it" or "I'm not the only one" essentially concedes the allegation.)
Most importantly, Skripal was not a fugitive from justice. He was previously tried in a Russian court for being a British spy, convicted, and imprisoned. The Russian state could have shot him at the time, and they did not; the court put him in prison. Later, they decided to pardon him and release him. They could have kept him in Russia, and they did not. They let him go abroad in exchange for some of their own spies. There is absolutely no “what about” defence for trying to kill him now – let alone his daughter, who lives in Moscow and has never been charged with anything.
Should Britain respond? Yes, absolutely. The expulsion of diplomats thought to be undercover intelligence operatives is appropriate. So are measures against particular Russians now living in Britain on the basis of “unexplained wealth.”
It’s important to understand that nearly all forms of sanction bring risks of collateral damage, which we should try to limit. British and Russia have many cultural and business ties, most of them completely innocent and bringing large benefits. Most Russians living or studying in Britain are entirely innocent of connections to this or any crime. Britons living in Russia are as vulnerable to indiscriminate sanctions as Russians in Britain. Footballers and football fans are mostly innocent bystanders. Whatever are the rights and wrongs of football’s international governance, we should try not to damage these links.
We should also keep talking to the Russians, but, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, the value of high-level contacts is low when the tone of the Russian side is currently limited to sarcasm and passive aggression.
One of the most important responses should be to investigate the Skripal affair thoroughly and to publish the results, as after the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. It was a bad mistake of the government in 2006 to try to limit the damage from the Litvinenko affair by suppressing evidence for the inquest. Lasting damage resulted; possibly, Putin or the FSB concluded that Britain was a soft target. If the individual wrong-doers in the Skripal affair cannot be brought to justice, their public exposure is still vitally important.
Beyond these things, Britain can do little alone. That’s why we have allies in the European Union and in NATO – to help defend us when we are attacked.
What will the Russians do next?
Because both sides need to maintain the appearance of injured innocence, there will be a period of tit-for-tat. These processes do not usually go to many rounds. But everything depends on intentions. If the Russian government intends to escalate the situation, and is not frightened of the consequences, there is little we can do immediately to limit the process. But it should surely give us pause for thought: why we have allowed a situation to arise in which a potential adversary feels able to act against us with impunity?
Are we risking war with the Russians? The risk of unintentional war is very low, and is nearly always lower than many people think. Many believe, wrongly, that the First World War came about through unintended escalation from trivial starting points. This is wrong: the First World War was planned in Berlin and Vienna, and went ahead in 1914 because London and Paris allowed deterrence to fail.
Today the main risk of escalation comes from the possibility that the Russian government might intend to benefit from increased international tension or from conflict. In Russia there’s a presidential campaign under way. Whatever the motivation, the only way we can protect ourselves against this is by deterrence, which requires reliable defences and a strong alliance.
October 28, 2017
Writing about web page https://www.elindependiente.com/opinion/2017/10/28/por-que-colapso-la-economia-sovietica/
This column appeared (in Spanish) on 28 October on the website of El Independiente.
Soviet economic institutions were inspired by two western economic models of the early twentieth century. One was the German war economy of the Great War, which Lenin observed and admired for its government priorities, the control of supply chains by committees of industrialists, the rationing of commodities at fixed prices, and obligatory labour mobilization. The other was the American system of mass production of standardized products in great factories under centralized management.
Combined with an authoritarian single-party dictatorship, these two models made the Soviet economy as it emerged under Stalin and persisted until 1991. Everything was designed for mobilization, production, accumulation, and expansion. To ensure this, the state owned nearly everything and directed nearly everything from the centre, either by decree or by pressure to conform, backed up by the secret police. The citizens were motivated to comply with authority by a mixture of patriotic appeals, fear, and meagre rewards. The economy could supply basic consumer goods and services, but its special advantage lay in supplying the means of national power in the world, especially a mass army with vast quantities of standardized weapons. By the outbreak of World War II, Stalin’s Soviet Union had become one the world’s two leading producers of armaments, the other being Hitler’s Germany.
The Soviet economy was capable of growth, but it never proved capable of catching up with the innovative market economies of the time. Moreover, the growth rate of the Soviet economy steadily deteriorated through the postwar period. From the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union was falling further behind the United States in productivity and prosperity. While its economy began to stagnate, the Soviet Union faced additional challenges of the time. One challenge arose from the U.S. rearmament under Presidents Carter and Reagan. Another arose from the self-imposed burden of the Soviet Union’s entanglement in Afghanistan. In the international economy the Soviet Union was reliant on the oil market, where prices collapsed.
The Soviet leaders made repeated efforts to overcome economic constraints through reforms. The reforms sought to raise productivity by decentralizing management and improving incentives for efficient behaviour, while retaining the framework of state ownership and the party monopoly of power. All such reforms failed, as the economy reverted to its basic type. Later, the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping would say that the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was a fool for abandoning the party monopoly of power without reforming the economy. But this was unfair. Gorbachev did so only after all economic reforms had been tried, including most of the reforms that had been tried out successfully in China. Why they failed in the Soviet Union is an important story, but one for another time.
The end of the Soviet economy cannot be explained by economic factors alone. This should be clear from the example of countries like Cuba and North Korea, where ruling parties are facing vastly greater economic problems and threats than the Soviet Union ever faced, yet regimes have not collapsed. In the case of the Soviet Union, politics was decisive. The conservative generation of leaders such as Leonid Brezhnev, born in the early twentieth century, died out. A new generation took command, led by Mikhail Gorbachev. The new generation was more open-minded, and their open minds had been influenced by the ideas of the dissident movement – nationalist, liberal, or social-democratic. Gorbachev was decisively influenced by ideas about social democracy and rule by consent. He did not want to rule at any price, or to rule by fear. Once it became widely understood that resistance to power would not be punished, people stopped being afraid. The Soviet Union became ungovernable and fell apart.
Politics was decisive in the moment, but at the same time we should not ignore the deeper economic forces. The Soviet economy was designed for a world of mass production and mass armies. That is no longer the world in which we live. In the 1970s, the information revolution gave rise to flexible production and a services economy based on information sharing. In the same decade, precision guidance and miniaturized nuclear weapons put an end to the idea that the future of Europe could be decided by a great battle fought by thousands of tanks and planes and hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the central European plain. The world for which the Soviet economy had been designed was disappearing. The Soviet Union had no future. No one should want to see it return.
July 25, 2017
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
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.
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 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.
January 16, 2017
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
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:
- 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!
- Deaton, Angus. 2012. The financial crisis and the wellbeing of Americans. Oxford Economic Papers 64(1): 1-26.
- Deaton, Angus, and Arthur A. Stone. 2016. Understanding context effects for a measure of life evaluation: how responses matter. Oxford Economic Papers 68(4): 861-870.
October 19, 2016
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.
August 26, 2016
Writing about web page http://www.simonandschuster.co.uk/books/Bridge-of-Spies/Giles-Whittell/9781849833271
Were there missed opportunities to unwind the tensions of the Cold War? This question was raised by my holiday reading: Bridge of Spies, by Giles Whittell. The book was published in 2011 by Simon & Schuster. (Since then Steven Spielberg has made a film with the same title. The relationship between the book and the film is currently in dispute. The book is great. I'm told the film is decent, but I haven't seen it yet; my remarks are based entirely on the book.)
The book tells the stories that came together in a prisoner exchange across the Gleinicke Bridge that joined East and West Berlin on 10 February 1962. For present purposes, the story that matters is that of Francis Gary Powers, an American U-2 (spy plane) pilot, shot down over the Urals on 1 May 1960. After parachuting to safety, Powers was captured, put on trial, and imprisoned. The author links this moment to a missed chance for peace in the Cold War. His argument goes like this.
In the 1950s, there was a Soviet-American race to develop long-range nuclear missiles. Both sides had atomic weapons that could be delivered by planes, but planes were slow and could be intercepted. Ballistic missiles would take nuclear attack and counter-attack to a new level: fast and certain. The arms race was becoming more dangerous.
In point of fact, however, in the late 1950s neither side actually had a reliable long-range missile. Rocket science meant filling a giant tube with an oxidizer and an oxidant and setting them on fire in the hope that they would burn smoothly, not just blow up. Mostly they blew up.
There was one difference between the two sides. The American failures were public. The Soviet failures were hidden from view. They were concealed by two things. One was intense secrecy. The other was a veneer of success. As far as both the American and the Soviet publics were concerned, the Soviets were winning the space race. They were first with a space rocket, first with an orbiting satellite (the famous sputnik), and first with a dog in a spaceship, all in 1957. Judged on that basis, the Soviet missile programme was more advanced. In 1958 and 1959 the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, made several claims of a successful, large-scale Soviet missile programme that strongly reinforced this impression.
Only one of these claims is reported in Bridge of Spies, but they are collated in a declassified CIA report dated 21 January 1960as follows. In November 1958, Khrushchev announced that Soviet intercontinental missile production was set up and ready to go. In January 1959 he repeated this announcement, referring specifically to “serial” production, implying large numbers. In November of the same year, he told journalists: “In one year, 250 missiles with hydrogen warheads came off the assembly line in the factory we visited.” (But he did not state that they were intercontinental missiles.) And, in January 1960, he announced a substantial cutback of Soviet conventional forces, offering as the public justification: “We already have so many nuclear weapons … and the necessary rockets … that … we would be able literally to wipe the country or countries which attack us off the face of the earth” (my emphasis).
(More famously, but less precisely, at a reception held in November 1956, Khrushchev had told the assembled NATO ambassadors: "We will bury you," using the Russian verb for interment of the dead.)
During 1958 and 1959 the Americans who took Khrushchev seriously raised the alarm: there was a "missile gap," they claimed, that US President Eisenhower had allowed to grow from complacency and lack of effort. Eisenhower tried to manage his critics by looking for independent evidence of the true size of the Soviet missile programme. The evidence would come from a secret CIA operation, a squadron of camera-laden spy planes overflying Soviet territory at super-high altitudes, above the reach of Soviet air defences.
In reality, Khrushchev was bluffing America over his WMD programme—a risky activity, as Saddam Hussein would later discover. The huge Soviet space rocket that was lifting satellites into orbit was completely unsuitable for a surprise nuclear attack, as Whittell explains: it "took days to fuel and was impossible to hide." Meanwhile, Khrushchev’s bluff was going wrong: it was stirring the United States into a military-industrial mobilization. If that worked, the Soviet Union would have no choice but to turn the bluff into reality. For the Soviet economy, only a fraction the size of the far wealthier United States, that looked ruinously expensive.
By 1960, therefore, Khrushchev was regretting his bluff. In January he announced a major cutback of conventional forces—justifying it by claims of Soviet nuclear strength. According to Bridge of Spies, moreover, he was preparing a daring initiative to end the missile race—a chance for peace in the gloom of the Cold War. In return for American restraint, he would offer to bargain away something that he didn't actually have: a successful Soviet missile programme. If the Americans would agree not to build missiles, the Soviet side would agree to stand down Khrushchev’s missiles. Without missiles, the balance of terror would recede, and the world would be spared the pointless expenditure of trillions of dollars on nuclear overkill.
What could go wrong? While Khrushchev was forming his plan, the Americans were trying to uncover the truth—and they were beginning to succeed. The CIA spy planes had found most of the Soviet potential manufacturing, test, and launch sites, and there was no sign of hundreds of missiles. Still, the picture remained worryingly incomplete, and the U-2 programme continued.
Then, disaster struck. On May Day, 1960, while Khrushchev reviewed the annual military parade in Red Square, a new Soviet anti-air missile shot down the U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers. Khrushchev made a huge public fuss. A planned East-West summit was cancelled. There was no Soviet arms control initiative. The missile race went on, and led quickly to the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. This came in 1962 with Khrushchev’s attempt to place nuclear missiles in Cuba.
So, Whittell suggests, the chance for peace was lost. But I began to wonder. My first question was: if a chance was lost, who lost it? That is, who should have behaved differently? Whittel does not criticize the actions of Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, who is portrayed as seeking peace. Nor does he question the decisions made by Eisenhower, the American leader, who resisted the escalation of tensions, and looked to the CIA and its U-2 programme for supportive evidence. As for Powers, he was just a soldier.
Those whom Bridge of Spies holds accountable are the American promoters of the “missile gap” theory: the profit-seeking entrepreneurs (Thomas Lanphier), position-seeking politicians (Allen Dulles and Stuart Symington), and headline-seeking journalists (Joseph Alsop and Frank Gibney) of the US military-industrial complex. Also, let’s not forget the US presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, who campaigned successfully in 1960 on closing the “missile gap.”
Still, one wonders: how should these people have behaved differently? In hindsight they were wrong, and hindsight is a wonderful thing, especially for historians. At the time, however, how should they have known that Khrushchev lied? The Soviet Union was then, as before and afterwards, shrouded by the most intense secrecy the world had ever known. Why, and what did the secrecy conceal? Eisenhower’s intuition was that Khrushchev’s claims were a bluff, but he did not know for sure; that’s why he approved the U-2 spy plane programme. Dulles, Symington, and the others did not know for sure either, but at least they had evidence on their side in the public claims of the Soviet leader himself.
Was there really a lost chance for peace in 1960? As I asked myself this question, I stumbled on a second “lost chance.” This one, from 1953, is claimed by Sheila Fitzpatrick, writing in The Guardian on 18 August 2016. Fitzpatrick, one of the world’s great experts on Stalin’s Russia, was reviewing The Last Days of Stalin, by Joshua Rubinstein, published this year by Yale University Press. This is a book I haven’t read, so my comments are based entirely on Fitzpatrick’s review.
As Fitzpatrick points out, after Stalin’s death in March 1953, the Soviet leaders who succeeded him allowed many reforms to go ahead. Within their country they quickly curtailed Stalin’s last purges, and they went on to the phased release of millions from forced labour and resettlement. (I wrote about these changes in my own book, One Day We Will Live Without Fear.) In Korea, the new leaders allowed ceasefire talks to resume, bringing a speedy end to that bloody conflict.
Could there have been more? Soviet leaders, Fitzpatrick writes, “wanted to signal their interest in easing cold war tensions …. in the crucial months between Stalin’s death in March and the Berlin uprising in June of 1953, the US missed a great opportunity to meet the new Soviet leaders halfway.” She quotes Rubinstein’s verdict: “Soviet and Western governments could not overcome the decades of distrust that divided them.” That suggests equal blame for missing the chance on both sides.
Fitzpatrick answers back: this is too even-handed. Khrushchev looked for an opening. Churchill was ready for a summit. Eisenhower resisted, believing that this might be the time to call on the Soviet people to rise up against their oppressors. Whispering in Eisenhower’s ear was the older Dulles brother, John Foster Dulles, who believed that, eight years after World War II, the Soviet Union presented “the most terrible and fundamental” threat to Western civilization in a thousand years. Responsibility for the missed opportunity to unwind the Cold War in 1953 lies, Fitzpatrick concludes, “squarely with the US.”
So, the hypothesis: two lost chances to scale back the Cold War, one in 1953, the other in 1960.
After much reflection I’m not convinced. Here are my reasons. First reason: pay attention to the inherent fragility of the two Soviet peace initiatives. They were so brittle and insubstantial that, if one obstacle had not broken them, another surely would have. Consider 1953, when a new Soviet leadership wanted briefly to open up to the West. The window opened in March, when Stalin died, but it closed again in June. Why so brief an opportunity? Because, at the first signs of domestic relaxation, thousands of East Germans turned out into the streets to demand the resignation of the communist government. The uprising was promptly suppressed by tanks and guns. Hundreds of people were killed, then or later.
From that moment it was clear that the goals of Stalin’s successors had not changed: to hold power at all costs and spread their system of rule wherever possible. They differed from Stalin only in their preferences over means: “peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must.” Did they really want peace? Not deeply enough to respond peaceably to their own people if there were unintended consequences.
The chance for peace in 1960 was fragile too. It was fragile for two reasons: the Soviet commitment to missile negotiations was only skin-deep, and it was based on a lie. Khrushchev wanted an agreement with the Americans, but how deeply did he really want it? The shootdown of Francis Gary Powers did not stop him from seeking one. The world knew nothing about the U-2 programme until the Soviets publicized it. If they had really wanted a disarmament summit, they could simply have kept the news to themselves. They had the means, after all, in the world’s most effective censorship.
You could say that the Western Cold Warriors, uncomfortable with Eisenhower’s restraint, did not help because they put pressure on Eisenhower, and this put pressure on Khrushchev, which played into the hands of the Soviet military leaders who were already uncomfortable with Khrushchev’s conventional arms cuts. (I’m writing about the Soviet military as though they were a faction, although there is no real evidence that such a faction existed.) But in fact the Soviet side was collectively to blame for all the circumstances in which this game was played out. The Soviet missile men were to blame for a failing programme that threaten to impoverish the country. And Khrushchev was to blame for lying about the programme’s success. If he hadn’t made exaggerated claims, the “missile gap” would never have existed.
Now my second reason: when communist leaders came to the West with peace initiatives, they generally had a vastly inflated belief in their own credibility. They never really got how most Westerners saw them. (But it’s true that Western sympathizers with communism shared the same blinkers.) Within their own countries these leaders, Khrushchev included, were responsible for terrible crimes of commission, arresting and killing millions, and also crimes of omission, allowing millions to die of famine. Afterwards they regretted this, and they made partial, semi-secret admissions, not of personal guilt, but of a few collective errors. Instead of resigning and allowing judicial scrutiny to take its course, their next move was to carry on as normal: So we made some mistakes. We fixed them. What’s done is past. Everything is all right now! Move on. But the world remembered.
In foreign policy, the communist leaders had occupied Poland and the Baltic countries, blanketed them with the same secrecy and censorship that they operated at home, eradicated their national institutions, exterminated their national elites, imposed new regimes, staked out new borders, and defended them with the threat of overwhelming conventional and nuclear force. Because this turned out to be quite expensive, they thought they could then turn on a sixpence and say to the West: lower your guard, because that was then, and now we want peace and friendship. And Western leaders were expected to lower their guard on the word of practised killers who concealed their own weapons under a veil that could be penetrated only by a spy plane at 90,000 feet.
The first and only communist leader to get this was Mikhail Gorbachev. He puzzled over the Soviet Union’s inability to reach new agreements with the West over arms control. Shortly after taking office, on his road to Damascus, in 1986 or thereabouts, he reached an astonishing, shattering conclusion: They don’t trust us because they think we’re liars! And they’re right: we are liars! We can only be credible partners in negotiation if we learn to be open about everything and tell the truth! (Which turned out to be unexpectedly difficult. I wrote part of this story here.)
So my conclusion on the lost chances to end the Cold War is pessimistic. I don’t see real missed opportunities in either 1953 or 1960. On a more optimistic note, there was usually scope for both sides to gain from arms control, and negotiations were generally better than fighting. The important arms treaties would come. But their negotiation required more mutual trust than was available in 1953, and more mutual openness than was available in 1960.
July 13, 2016
--- I'm going to shoot myself in the foot.
--- Don't. It'll hurt.
--- I told you.
--- Now you're talking me down.