CRF Blog

How Russia went wrong, as told from the inside

by David De La Torre

In How Russia went wrong, as told from the inside, The Economist reviews Russia’s Dead End: An Insider’s Testimony from Gorbachev to Putin by Andrei Kovalev.

The central argument of the book is that Russia has returned to the dangerous stagnation of the 1980s, largely thanks to the resurgence of the old KGB. The authoritarian squeeze will worsen at home, Mr Kovalev predicts, while foreign policy will become increasingly hostile and unpredictable. In the long run he fears a break-up of Russia, before — possibly — the dawn of democracy, the rule of law and modernisation. [more]

For a related free classroom lesson, see “Putin’s Illiberal Democracy.” It is available from  CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive. It is currently only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.

This Month’s Harper’s Index

by Bill Hayes

Each issue of Harper’s contains Harper’s Index, a collection of interesting statistics. Excerpts from this month’s Harper’s Index:

Median age of voters in the 2016 US presidential election : 53

In mayoral elections : 57

Ratio of white millennials who view the Republican Party favorably to those who view the Democratic Party favorably : 1:1 [more]

The French, Coming Apart

by Bill Hayes

In The French, Coming Apart for City Journal, Christopher Caldwell reviews the French book Le crépuscule de la France d’en haut (roughly: “The Twilight of the French Elite”) by Christophe Guilluy.

Christophe Guilluy calls himself a geographer. But he has spent decades as a housing consultant in various rapidly changing neighborhoods north of Paris, studying gentrification, among other things. And he has crafted a convincing narrative tying together France’s various social problems — immigration tensions, inequality, deindustrialization, economic decline, ethnic conflict, and the rise of populist parties. Such an analysis had previously eluded the Parisian caste of philosophers, political scientists, literary journalists, government-funded researchers, and party ideologues.

Guilluy is none of these. Yet in a French political system that is as polarized as the American, both the outgoing Socialist president François Hollande and his Gaullist predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy sought his counsel. Marine Le Pen, whose National Front dismisses both major parties as part of a corrupt establishment, is equally enthusiastic about his work. Guilluy has published three books, as yet untranslated, since 2010, with the newest, Le crépuscule de la France d’en haut (roughly: “The Twilight of the French Elite”), arriving in bookstores last fall. The volumes focus closely on French circumstances, institutions, and laws, so they might not be translated anytime soon. But they give the best ground-level look available at the economic, residential, and democratic consequences of globalization in France. They also give an explanation for the rise of the National Front that goes beyond the usual imputation of stupidity or bigotry to its voters. Guilluy’s work thus tells us something important about British voters’ decision to withdraw from the European Union and the astonishing rise of Donald Trump — two phenomena that have drawn on similar grievances.

At the heart of Guilluy’s inquiry is globalization. Internationalizing the division of labor has brought significant economic efficiencies. But it has also brought inequalities unseen for a century, demographic upheaval, and cultural disruption. Now we face the question of what — if anything — we should do about it.

A process that Guilluy calls métropolisation has cut French society in two. In 16 dynamic urban areas (Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, Toulouse, Lille, Bordeaux, Nice, Nantes, Strasbourg, Grenoble, Rennes, Rouen, Toulon, Douai-Lens, and Montpellier), the world’s resources have proved a profitable complement to those found in France. These urban areas are home to all the country’s educational and financial institutions, as well as almost all its corporations and the many well-paying jobs that go with them. Here, too, are the individuals — the entrepreneurs and engineers and CEOs, the fashion designers and models, the film directors and chefs and other “symbolic analysts,” as Robert Reich once called them — who shape the country’s tastes, form its opinions, and renew its prestige. Cheap labor, tariff-free consumer goods, and new markets of billions of people have made globalization a windfall for such prosperous places. But globalization has had no such galvanizing effect on the rest of France. Cities that were lively for hundreds of years — Tarbes, Agen, Albi, Béziers — are now, to use Guilluy’s word, “desertified,” haunted by the empty storefronts and blighted downtowns that Rust Belt Americans know well.

Guilluy doubts that anyplace exists in France’s new economy for working people as we’ve traditionally understood them. [more]

End-Times for Liberal Democracy?

by David De La Torre

In End-Times for Liberal Democracy?, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations interviews Yascha Mounk, a lecturer on political theory at Harvard University.

You identified a malaise with liberal democracy and the rise of “democratic illiberalism” several years ago. Do you see 2016 as an inflection point?

People have been growing more and more critical of our political system — not just of particular governments or institutions but of democracy itself — for a long time. It used to be that the average citizen was much wealthier than his or her parents had been. That’s no longer the case. It used to be that people felt that they had a real voice in government and that there were intermediary institutions to help translate their views into public policy. That too is less and less the case. That’s why, over the last twenty years, antisystem parties and movements, especially on the far right, have risen around the world.

Even so, it’s no exaggeration to say that 2016 was a watershed. First, it became obvious that these movements don’t just get 25 or 30 percent in the polls; they can win, as they did with Trump and Brexit. Second, it became clear that this is not just the problem of particular societies, but one that affects virtually every liberal democracy around the world. [more]

The Chinese World Order

by Bill Hayes

In The Chinese World Order for the New York Review of Books, Andrew J. Nathan reviews these three books: The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region by Michael R. Auslin, Post-Western World: How Emerging Powers Are Remaking Global Order by Oliver Stuenkel, and Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? by Graham Allison.

Ten years ago the journalist James Mann published a book called The China Fantasy, in which he criticized American policymakers for using something he called “the Soothing Scenario” to justify the policy of diplomatic and economic engagement with China. According to this view, China’s exposure to the benefits of globalization would lead the country to embrace democratic institutions and support the American-led world order. Instead, Mann predicted, China would remain an authoritarian country, and its success would encourage other authoritarian regimes to resist pressures to change.

Mann’s prediction turned out to be true. China took advantage of the growing potential of unrestricted global commerce to emerge as the number one trading nation and the second-largest economy in the world. It is the top trading partner of every other country in Asia, not least because of its crucial position assembling parts that have been produced elsewhere in the region. Sixty-four countries have joined China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) infrastructure initiative, which was announced in 2013 and consists of ports, railways, roads, and airfields linking China to Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe — a “New Silk Road” that, if it succeeds, will greatly expand China’s economic and diplomatic influence. Twenty-nine heads of state attended Beijing’s OBOR conference in mid-May.

Meanwhile, China has remained an authoritarian, one-party state that is backed by an increasingly powerful military. China’s military budget has risen at the same rate as its GDP for the past quarter-century, from $17 billion in 1990 to $152 billion in 2017 — a 900 percent increase. This has allowed China to acquire aircraft carriers, sophisticated missiles, advanced submarines, and cyberwar capabilities that challenge American military dominance in Asia. It has vastly expanded its naval presence in what it calls the “near seas” around its coast, and even into the Pacific and Indian Oceans. [more]

The Sorrow and the Shame of the Accidental Killer

by Bill Hayes

In The Sorrow and the Shame of the Accidental Killer for the New Yorker, Alice Gregory looks at the psychological burden of being responsible for accidentally killing another person, which Maryann Gray did when a child ran in front of her car in 1977.

Today, Gray, who is sixty-two, is a recently retired U.C.L.A. assistant provost. Divorced, but still friends with her ex-husband, she tends to an active social life and lives in a sunny two-story apartment in Santa Monica with her dog, Harvey. She never did have children. When I met her on a Saturday morning in April, Gray did not immediately strike me as a “vivid reminder of human fallibility and the capriciousness of fate,” as she has described herself in the past. Instead, she opened her front door in stocking feet, offered me coffee and fresh strawberries, and projected a generally cheerful demeanor. Trim, with curly blond hair, Gray is warm, self-reflective, and easy to talk to.

Gray’s lightness is the result of an unburdening that forced her to think differently about her accident. In July, 2003, not seven miles from where Gray was then living, an eighty-six-year-old man driving a Buick sedan mistakenly pressed his foot on the accelerator and plowed into the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Ten people died, and sixty-three were injured. His attorney called the crash an accident, but there was an outpouring of rage. “People were not just angry with the driver but called him a murderer,” Gray said. “To me, it was so obvious that he didn’t do it on purpose, and I thought the response was so cruel.” (Three years later, the driver, George Weller, was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to five years’ probation.)

After reading about the reactions to the collision in the newspaper, Gray closed the door to her office and wrote a brief account of her own accident. She e-mailed the document, fewer than four hundred words in all, to the local NPR station, and got a call back within an hour. A producer wanted her to read a version of it on the air. “Like most people, I’m horrified and saddened by the devastating car accident,” Gray began. “My heart goes out to those who lost family members and friends. But, unlike most people, my deepest sympathies lie with the driver.” The segment first aired on “All Things Considered,” on July 18, 2003. It was broadcast at rush hour.

The producer warned Gray that she might receive hate mail, but the spiteful feedback she anticipated never came. Friends and colleagues she’d known for decades called her to express sympathetic surprise; she got e-mails from dozens of people who had caused accidental deaths, all of them grateful. One friend introduced Gray to her sister, who had killed a cyclist with her car in upstate New York. They discussed the morbid etiquette of whom you tell about the accident and whom you allow to remain ignorant, and the impulse to game out, pointlessly, alternate versions of the past. It was the first time that Gray spoke about her experience with another person who had accidentally caused a death.

Moved by the response to the NPR segment, Gray registered a Web site under the name Accidental Impacts. It included a link to the segment, reading recommendations (academic books about P.T.S.D., a few memoirs, some psychology-inflected guides to living a meaningful life in the wake of trauma), and short essays she had written on the subject. A few years later, with the help of her tech-savvy personal trainer, Gray opened it up to comments. [more]

London’s Big Dig Reveals Amazing Layers of History

by Bill Hayes

In London’s Big Dig Reveals Amazing Layers of History, National Geographic looks at recent archaeological discoveries about the city.

Peel back the pavement of a grand old city like London and you can find just about anything, from a first-century Roman fresco to a pair of medieval ice skates — even an elephant’s tooth. As one of Europe’s oldest capitals, London has been continuously lived in and built over by a succession of Romans, Saxons, Normans, Tudors, Georgians, Regency rakes, and Victorians, each of whom added to the pile. As a result the modern city sits atop a rich archaeological layer cake that’s as much as 30 feet high.

The challenge for archaeologists is that London is also a bustling metropolis of more than eight million inhabitants, chock-full of busy streets and skyscrapers and monumental architecture. Opportunities to lift the concrete veil and poke around in the artifact-rich soil tend to be few and brief. But a perfect storm of landmark engineering projects and a building boom in the archaeological heart of London has provided an unprecedented chance to peek beneath the surface and explore the city’s deep past.

The resulting haul of archaeological goodies has been almost overwhelming. They include millions of artifacts covering the vast sweep of human history along the River Thames — from the early Mesolithic, some 11,000 years ago, to the late Victorian, at the end of the 19th century. The discoveries also include the bones of thousands of rank-and-file Londoners who died and were buried in graveyards that were built over and forgotten centuries ago. [more]

Guernica: What inspired Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece?

The BBC looks at: What inspired Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece?

Why did we start farming?

by Bill Hayes

In Why did we start farming? for the London Review of Books, Steven Mithen reviews Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott.

Fire changed humans as well as the world. Eating cooked food transformed our bodies; we developed a much shorter digestive tract, meaning that more metabolic energy was available to grow our brains. At the same time, Homo sapiens became domesticated by its dependence on fire for warmth, protection and fuel. If this was the start of human progress towards ‘civilisation’, then — according to the conventional narrative — the next step was the invention of agriculture around ten thousand years ago. Farming, it is said, saved us from a dreary nomadic Stone Age hunter-gatherer existence by allowing us to settle down, build towns and develop the city-states that were the centres of early civilisations. People flocked to them for the security, leisure and economic opportunities gained from living within thick city walls. The story continues with the collapse of the city-states and barbarian insurgency, plunging civilised worlds —  ancient Mesopotamia, China, Mesoamerica — into their dark ages. Thus civilisations rise and fall. Or so we are told.

The perfectly formed city-state is the ideal, deeply ingrained in the Western psyche, on which our notion of the nation-state is founded …. But what if the conventional narrative is entirely wrong? What if ancient ruins testify to an aberration in the normal state of human affairs rather than a glorious and ancient past to whose achievements we should once again aspire? What if the origin of farming wasn’t a moment of liberation but of entrapment? Scott offers an alternative to the conventional narrative that is altogether more fascinating, not least in the way it omits any self-congratulation about human achievement. His account of the deep past doesn’t purport to be definitive, but it is surely more accurate than the one we’re used to, and it implicitly exposes the flaws in contemporary political ideas that ultimately rest on a narrative of human progress and on the ideal of the city/nation-state.

Why did people start farming? [more]

How Sicily Became Ungovernable

by Bill Hayes

In How Sicily Became Ungovernable for Spiegel Online, Walter Mayr reports on the corruption, poverty, and other problems the island faces.

Sicily is Mafia country, and no one is more aware of this than Nino Di Matteo. The 56-year-old public prosecutor is Italy’s most endangered man. Because the Cosa Nostra wants to see him dead, Di Matteo has had around-the-clock protection for the last 23 years, with 42 officers working in shifts to provide his security in Palermo. With submachine guns over their shoulders, they follow Di Matteo wherever he goes. He also has bodyguards in Rome, where he was transferred in the summer, but he still spends his weekends in Sicily. And more importantly, he remains the prosecutor in a trial here intended to clarify the extent to which the government accommodated members of the Mafia in the 1990s, a case to which he is especially devoted.

This afternoon he is traveling in a convoy on his way to Palermo. An advance guard checks the scheduled route, to be followed a few minutes later by three Jeeps and Di Matteo’s armored limousine. The car has a feature usually seen only in war-torn regions: a jamming transmitter to prevent remote-controlled detonations. Top Mafia leaders have supposedly taken out several contracts to kill the prosecutor. According to wiretapped conversations, they want to see him slaughtered “like tuna” and “taken around the corner.” Some 150 kilograms of explosives have reportedly been delivered to Palermo already.

“I have been deprived of all freedom in my life,” says the prosecutor, after reaching his office in the palace of justice. “I have to notify my escort before I open the door of my house in the morning. I feel as if I can’t breathe. I would so much like to take a walk alone.” He lives like a hardened criminal with a bounty on his head.

Although the days when blood-soaked bodies lay in the streets of Palermo are gone, the fight against the Mafia is far from won. The Sicilian Cosa Nostra is merely pursuing a different strategy. Instead of fighting the government with weapons, it is infiltrating it. As it invests money in the legitimate economy, it makes greater inroads into society. [more]

It Is Engineers, Not Politicians, Who Can Solve Climate Change

by Bill Hayes

Writing for The Walrus, Jon Evans argues that It Is Engineers, Not Politicians, Who Can Solve Climate Change.

When Trump … announced America’s exit from the Paris climate agreement, the world erupted with fury and despair. Commentators called the decision “abhorrent,” “apocalyptic,” an event that “edged the world closer to climate disaster.” France’s Emmanuel Macron—who mockingly asked Trump to “Make Our Planet Great Again”—not only announced that he will push his country to go beyond its emissions commitments under the 2015 agreement, but has offered his country as a “second homeland” for American climate scientists. Desperate times, desperate measures.

Weep not for the Paris agreement. It is not going to save us, but then, there was never any hope that it would. All it does is affirm a goal, while saying exactly nothing about how to achieve it. It doesn’t require its signatories to commit to any specific targets. Its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, included theoretically binding commitments by wealthy nations to reduce their emissions of six major greenhouse gases by an average of 5.2 percent between 1990 and 2012, but those commitments were unenforceable, and while Kyoto held sway, global emissions rose by 40 percent. The Paris agreement is an even more toothless successor to Kyoto’s failure. [more]

The Mundell-Fleming trilemma

by David De La Torre

The Economist has published six articles on seminal ideas in economics. The sixth article is on The Mundell-Fleming trilemma, which says that a country may choose only two of three options in monetary policy.

The policy trilemma, also known as the impossible or inconsistent trinity, says a country must choose between free capital mobility, exchange-rate management and monetary autonomy …. Only two of the three are possible. A country that wants to fix the value of its currency and have an interest-rate policy that is free from outside influence (side C of the triangle) cannot allow capital to flow freely across its borders. If the exchange rate is fixed but the country is open to cross-border capital flows, it cannot have an independent monetary policy (side A). And if a country chooses free capital mobility and wants monetary autonomy, it has to allow its currency to float (side B).

To understand the trilemma, imagine a country that fixes its exchange rate against the US dollar and is also open to foreign capital. If its central bank sets interest rates above those set by the Federal Reserve, foreign capital in search of higher returns would flood in. These inflows would raise demand for the local currency; eventually the peg with the dollar would break. If interest rates are kept below those in America, capital would leave the country and the currency would fall. [more]

The other articles can be found here:

George Akerlof’s 1970 paper, “The Market for Lemons”

Minsky’s moment

The Stolper-Samuelson theorem

Fiscal stimulus

The Nash equilibrium

The Problem with ‘Friendly’ Artificial Intelligence

by Bill Hayes

In The Problem with ‘Friendly’ Artificial Intelligence for The New Atlantis, Adam Keiper and Ari N. Schulman look at some problems with machine “morality.”

There are, however, at least two reasons it is worth attending to the matter of machine morality today. First, there exists a community of activists striving to hasten a future of intelligent machines, human enhancement, and other radically transformative developments. It is still a relatively fractious and fringe movement, but it comprises think tanks, endowed projects at major universities (including Oxford), academics the world over, a dedicated “university” backed by the likes of Google and NASA, regular conferences, bestselling authors, bloggers, and a growing public audience. Its ideas seem increasingly influential in mainstream scientific circles, and indeed, are in some ways just an extension of the basic premises of the scientific project — Cartesian method and Baconian mastery taken to somewhat absurd logical extremes. These committed advocates have made machine morality a matter of public debate, and their contentions, some of which are profoundly wrongheaded, should not go unanswered.

Second, we should care about machine morality for a more practical reason: We have already entered the age of increasingly autonomous robots. This is not a matter of distant divination. To be sure, robots in industrial settings remain largely “dumb,” and today’s consumer robots are basically just appliances or toys. But the United States has been developing and deploying military robots with wheels and wings — like the Predator drones, which are now remotely controlled by people who may be on the other side of the world. These machines are already capable of acting with some degree of autonomy. So how much autonomy is appropriate, especially when intentional acts of attacking and killing are a possibility? Military doctrine now requires that human beings be kept “in the loop” — so that whenever force is used, human beings must approve, and responsibility remains in the hands of the individuals who give the affirmative orders. But even today, the possibility of accidents raises vexing legal and ethical questions. And looking just a short distance ahead, more advanced autonomous military weapons systems now seem imminent; they might operate so efficiently that the requirement for real-time human oversight could be considered a strategically intolerable delay. The nearness at hand of machines with agency and lethality, and the likelihood that machines with similar degrees of autonomy could be arriving in non-military settings before too long, makes machine morality a matter well worth studying now. [more]

Money on the Mind

by Bill Hayes

In Money on the Mind, PBSNews Hour reports on studies showing that rich people are more likely to exhibit unethical behavior.

The Sinclair Revolution Will Be Televised

by Bill Hayes

In The Sinclair Revolution Will Be Televised for Bloomberg Businessweek, Felix Gillette reports on how Sinclair Broadcasting Group is planning on becoming the “Fox News of local TV.”

[Boris] Epshteyn, 34, was born in Russia and raised in New Jersey. On TV he exudes the ineffable air of a Trump insider, bolstered by family connection (he went to college with the president’s son Eric) and untroubled by an unorthodox résumé, involving law school and business ties to Russia. He talks with a thickly accented swagger that’s perfect for the current mode of televised political debate, which is one part pro wrestling match, one part spy novel. If you encountered Epshteyn at the Trump National Golf Club bar in Bedminster, N.J., you might expect him to hard-sell you on a real estate investment in the Urals or, failing that, a delicatessen in Newark.

Epshteyn briefly worked in the White House — the job ended not long after Politico reported that he’d gotten into a “yelling match” with a booker at Fox News — but since April he’s been employed as the chief political analyst for the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Located in Hunt Valley, Md., little-known Sinclair is the nation’s largest owner of broadcast TV stations. It has 173 of them, mostly in small markets (Sioux City, Iowa; Fresno, Calif.; Little Rock), but with several in larger metropolitan areas as well (Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, Washington). Whatever a particular station’s network affiliation — ABC, CBS, CW, Fox, or NBC — Sinclair viewers get a steady dose of conservative political commentary. Lately, Executive Chairman David Smith has begun assembling a kind of junior varsity squad of commentators and making unspecific murmurings about competing head-to-head with the senior lettermen and women at Fox News. To left-leaning viewers only just becoming aware of the company’s reach, Sinclair is positioned to flip a switch and turn those 173 stations’ newscasts — currently delivering bulletins on weather, school closings, and local affairs — into a cohesive network that pushes a Fox News-esque worldview of outrage and conflict into individual cities, counties, and towns.

Epshteyn shows how the arrangement might work. Three times a week he records brief video commentaries that are sent to Sinclair’s 65 or so newsrooms around the country. Station managers are required to weave them into their otherwise locally produced news shows — part of a larger daily slate of clips known internally as “must-runs.” In recent segments, Epshteyn has praised the Trump administration’s trade policies, encouraged states to cooperate with his Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, critiqued Democrats’ lack of a “coherent and authentic” message, and knocked other news outlets for their insufficiently admiring coverage of Trump.

The segments look like something you might see on Fox News — but only if you stripped away Fox’s high-end graphics, state-of-the-art studios, tailored wardrobes, perfect dental hygiene, and polished scripts. [more]

Older