CRF Blog

Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, and the Modern Whistle-Blower

by Bill Hayes

In Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, and the Modern Whistle-Blower for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell finds striking differences between the two men.

In “The Leaky Leviathan,” a study published three years ago in the Harvard Law Review, David Pozen attempts to understand a puzzle. Strict laws prohibit government officials from disclosing secrets, yet leaking has been a constant feature of American political life. Since the passage of the Espionage Act, in 1917, the federal government has prosecuted only about a dozen cases concerning media leaks of state secrets. That’s an astonishingly small number. Pozen, a Columbia law professor, cites one estimate that, between 1949 and 1969, 2.3 per cent of the front-page stories in the Times and the Washington Post were based on government leaks. Another study looked at just the first six months of 1986 and found that a hundred and forty-seven stories in the country’s eight major newspapers were based on leaks. The entire career of Bob Woodward, perhaps the best-selling political writer of his generation, is based on leaks. And yet, with a few symbolic exceptions, nothing is done.

“For a crime that Presidents describe as a major threat to national security and good government, the degree of ‘underenforcement’ is stunning,” Pozen writes. “Even if we were to limit the denominator to classified information leaks that the Intelligence Community (IC) is known to have otherwise documented publicly — which may be a small fraction of the universe of potentially prosecutable offenses — the historic indictment rate for leak-law violators would be below 0.3%. The actual rate is probably far closer to zero.” Even the recent uptick in leak prosecutions during the Obama Administration, Pozen argues, does not alter the fundamental pattern. In Washington, giving away secrets to the press is a crime largely without consequences.

Pozen easily dispenses with the idea that Administrations don’t prosecute leakers because they can’t find them. They can: information — particularly sensitive information — has a pedigree. When I worked on the science desk at the Washington Post, my colleagues and I would read a front-page story by our counterparts at the Times and invariably know where the leak on which the story was based came from. The first order of business was typically to call the leaker and complain that he or she was playing favorites.

Pozen argues that governments look the other way when it comes to leaks because it is in their interest to do so. He cites a story that ran in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post in 2012 about how the C.I.A., with the coöperation of Yemeni authorities, was using drone strikes against Yemen-based Al Qaeda militants. The drone program was classified: that story didn’t come from a press conference. Pozen says the story was clearly a “plant” — that is, a leak made with the full authorization of the White House. Letting the facts slip out served a purpose for the Obama Administration. A plant like that, Pozen writes, “keeps the American people minimally informed of its pursuits, characterizes them in a manner designed to build support, and signals its respect for international law.”

But if you want to reserve your right to plant an authorized leak, Pozen argues, you have to allow unauthorized leaks as well: “For a strategy of planting to work, it is critical that relevant audiences not immediately assume that every unattributed disclosure they encounter reflects a concerted White House effort to manipulate the information environment. The practice of planting requires some amount of constructive ambiguity as to its prevalence and operation.” [more]

For a related classroom lesson on Edward Snowden, see “Edward Snowden, the NSA, and Mass Surveillance. 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.

The Controversial Afterlife of King Tut

by Bill Hayes

In The Controversial Afterlife of King Tut, Smithsonian magazine looks at the opposing theories about the Egyptian pharaoh.

Since Howard Carter discovered the tomb now known as KV62, in 1922, no pharaoh has inspired more “educated guesses” than Tut. He probably came of age during the reign of Akhenaten, a ruler who famously broke from centuries of polytheistic tradition and encouraged the worship of a single deity: Aten, the sun. Born “Tutankhaten” — literally, “the living image of Aten” — Tut is thought to have become king at age 9, and ruled (likely with the help of advisers) until his death at 19 or 20.

Compared with the long reigns of powerful pharaohs such as Ramses II, Tut’s rule can seem insignificant. “Considering how much attention we pay to Tut,” said Chuck Van Siclen, an Egyptologist at the American Research Center in Egypt, “it’s as if you wrote a history of the presidents of the United States and devoted three long chapters to William Henry Harrison.”

Even so, it doesn’t take a Jungian analyst to understand why Tut has captured the world’s attention for so long. Egyptologists had long been forced to make do largely with scraps and fragments, but Tutankhamun’s tomb was found nearly intact and piled high with fantastical treasures. There was the absurdly beautiful burial mask, with its jutting false beard and coiled serpent, poised to strike. There were the rumors of the “curse” that had supposedly claimed the life of Carter’s deep-pocketed backer, Lord Carnarvon. And above all, there was the mystery of Tut’s death — he perished suddenly, it seems, and was placed in a tomb constructed for another king.

No one can be blamed for hoping that modern science, with its ever-increasing powers to reconstruct the past, would come to the rescue of this tantalizing mystery. The most recent phase of scientific Tut-ology began in 2005, when Zahi Hawass, then the head of the Egyptian antiquities service, used the latest technologies to study Egyptian mummies. He began with CT scans on a few royals at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, in Cairo (a.k.a. the Egyptian Museum), before driving the CT scanner to Luxor, for a test on Tut himself.

He found the mummy in appalling condition. It had been interred in three coffins, which sat in the sarcophagus like Russian nesting dolls. Over time, resins and ointments used in the mummification process had congealed, sealing the two inner coffins together. Carter had employed increasingly violent maneuvers to remove the mummy from the coffins, and to get at the jewelry and amulets. First, the innermost coffin was left out in the sun to roast, in the hope that the heat would melt down the resins. Next, at Carter’s suggestion, an anatomist named Douglas Derry poured hot paraffin onto the mummy’s wrappings. Later, they pried the body out and yanked various limbs apart, and used a knife to slice the burial mask away from Tut’s head. Carter later reassembled the mummy as best he could (minus the mask and jewelry), and placed it in a wooden tray lined with sand, where it would remain.

Hawass was looking at a shriveled, broken thing. “It reminded me of an ancient monument lying in ruins in the sand,” he wrote. Still, he and his scientific co-workers walked the mummy, which reclined on the tray, out to the CT scanner. [more]

Rate of European Drug-Induced Deaths

Infographic: Drug deaths in Europe | Statista You will find more statistics at Statista

The Great A.I. Awakening

by Bill Hayes

In The Great A.I. Awakening for New York Times Magazine, Gideon Lewis-Kraus explains how “Google used artificial intelligence to transform Google Translate, one of its more popular services — and how machine learning is poised to reinvent computing itself.”

Late one Friday night in early November, Jun Rekimoto, a distinguished professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Tokyo, was online preparing for a lecture when he began to notice some peculiar posts rolling in on social media. Apparently Google Translate, the company’s popular machine-translation service, had suddenly and almost immeasurably improved. Rekimoto visited Translate himself and began to experiment with it. He was astonished. He had to go to sleep, but Translate refused to relax its grip on his imagination.

Rekimoto wrote up his initial findings in a blog post. First, he compared a few sentences from two published versions of “The Great Gatsby,” Takashi Nozaki’s 1957 translation and Haruki Murakami’s more recent iteration, with what this new Google Translate was able to produce. Murakami’s translation is written “in very polished Japanese,” Rekimoto explained to me later via email, but the prose is distinctively “Murakami-style.” By contrast, Google’s translation — despite some “small unnaturalness” — reads to him as “more transparent.”

The second half of Rekimoto’s post examined the service in the other direction, from Japanese to English. He dashed off his own Japanese interpretation of the opening to Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” then ran that passage back through Google into English. He published this version alongside Hemingway’s original, and proceeded to invite his readers to guess which was the work of a machine.

NO. 1:

Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.

NO. 2:

Kilimanjaro is a mountain of 19,710 feet covered with snow and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. The summit of the west is called “Ngaje Ngai” in Masai, the house of God. Near the top of the west there is a dry and frozen dead body of leopard. No one has ever explained what leopard wanted at that altitude.

Even to a native English speaker, the missing article on the leopard is the only real giveaway that No. 2 was the output of an automaton. Their closeness was a source of wonder to Rekimoto, who was well acquainted with the capabilities of the previous service. Only 24 hours earlier, Google would have translated the same Japanese passage as follows:

Kilimanjaro is 19,710 feet of the mountain covered with snow, and it is said that the highest mountain in Africa. Top of the west, “Ngaje Ngai” in the Maasai language, has been referred to as the house of God. The top close to the west, there is a dry, frozen carcass of a leopard. Whether the leopard had what the demand at that altitude, there is no that nobody explained.

Rekimoto promoted his discovery to his hundred thousand or so followers on Twitter, and over the next few hours thousands of people broadcast their own experiments with the machine-translation service. Some were successful, others meant mostly for comic effect. As dawn broke over Tokyo, Google Translate was the No. 1 trend on Japanese Twitter, just above some cult anime series and the long-awaited new single from a girl-idol supergroup. Everybody wondered: How had Google Translate become so uncannily artful?

Four days later, a couple of hundred journalists, entrepreneurs and advertisers from all over the world gathered in Google’s London engineering office for a special announcement. Guests were greeted with Translate-branded fortune cookies. Their paper slips had a foreign phrase on one side — mine was in Norwegian — and on the other, an invitation to download the Translate app. Tables were set with trays of doughnuts and smoothies, each labeled with a placard that advertised its flavor in German (zitrone), Portuguese (baunilha) or Spanish (manzana). After a while, everyone was ushered into a plush, dark theater. [more]

Drones and Everything After

by Bill Hayes

In Drones and Everything After, New York magazine reports what the effects of drones may be.

If you were creating, from scratch, a taxonomy to describe all machines, these drones would not belong to the same species. They would probably not belong to the same phylum. The technology of unmanned flight has diversified so rapidly that there are now 1,500 different kinds of drones being manufactured, and they are participants in nearly every type of human endeavor, composing a whole flying-robot ecology so vast that to call every one by the same name can seem absurd. But drone, an impossible word, is also a perfect one. Each of these machines gives its human operator the same power: It allows us to project our intelligence into the air and to exert our influence over vast expanses of space. Drones have become important to the pursuit of isis, the plans of Amazon and Google, the management of farmland in Asia, the protection of pyramids in the Andes. Just within the past two weeks, Facebook has announced a trial of a drone-based wireless internet, the delivery conglomerate DHL has revealed that it will use the machines to ship packages to isolated German islands in the North Sea, and the U.S. government has decided to allow Hollywood production companies to film from drones, making possible visual angles that have so far existed only in animation.

Drones are a different kind of new technology from what we’re used to. The communications breakthroughs of the past two decades have multiplied the connections within society, but drones offer something else: the conquest of physical space, the extension of society’s compass, the ability to be anywhere and see anything. This physical presence can be creepy when seen from the ground, in ways that echo the imaginings of science fiction. “Flying,” says Illah Nourbakhsh, who ran the robotics program at NASA’s Ames facility, “creates this dynamic where people are no longer on top.” And yet to the drone pilot, maneuvering through the air, it is liberating.

It’s an incredible thing, extreme elevation. It makes you feel both alone and unsurpassable. Send a drone up, equipped with a camera, the control in your hands and your laptop rigged to see what the camera sees, and what you feel is not displacement but extension. Each of these flying robots, more than anything else, changes your perspective. Now anyone with a drone can watch the Earth from a point of view that once implied great power. This summer, the pastor of a prominent Evangelical megachurch in Texas delivered a series of sermons comparing God to a Predator drone.

Lost in the concern that the drone is an authoritarian instrument is the possibility that it might simultaneously be a democratizing tool, enlarging not just the capacities of the state but also the reach of the individual — the private drone operator, the boy in Cupertino — whose view is profoundly altered and whose abilities are enhanced. “The idea I’m trying to work out to simplify this whole thing — surveillance, drones, robots — has to do with superhero ethics,” says Patrick Lin, a technology ethicist at California Polytechnic State University. “It’s about what humans do when they have superpowers. What happens then?” [more]

Recent Political Cartoons

by Bill Hayes

See Cagle’s collection of recent political cartoons.

For how to use editorial cartoons in the classroom, see Teaching With Editorial Cartoons.

Civil Warrior

by Bill Hayes

In Civil Warrior for the New York Times Book Review, Thomas E. Ricks reviews William Tecumseh Sherman: In the Service of My Country: A Life by James Lee McDonough.

The surprise now, in 2016, is that this soldier, portrayed to generations of children as the father of the American style of scorched-earth warfare, was actually a politically shrewd general, probably more so than 99 percent of our top officers today. He grew up in a political atmosphere. His foster father and one of his brothers were United States senators from Ohio and also became secretaries of the Treasury. Though Sherman disliked the political world, he understood it well. He knew how Washington worked and how events there were affected by military operations. He understood, for example, that Union soldiers randomly stealing from the farmers of Kentucky would “turn the people against us.” This concerned him especially because he believed that holding Kentucky and Tennessee, and their rivers, was the key to winning the war. Another example: He knew that taking Atlanta at a time when Grant was stalemated in Virginia would help Lincoln win re-election in 1864. [more]

Trying to Remember J.F.K.

by Bill Hayes

In Trying to Remember J.F.K., for the New Yorker, Thomas Mallon reflects on the Kennedy presidency and discusses these projects: The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five-Year Campaign by Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie; The Afterlife of John Fitzgerald Kennedy: A Biography by Michael J. Hogan; Jackie, a film by Pablo Larrain; and the JFK Presidential Library.

Both my grandfathers had died long before I was born, a reason perhaps, those mailed good wishes notwithstanding, for my never feeling anything personal toward Eisenhower. With Kennedy, politics aside, everything was intimate, aspirant, literally seen from below. From the inaugural ceremony (I was home from school for a snow day) to the assassination (I was absent, with a cold, playing chess with my uncle), I experienced most of the thirty-fifth Presidency lying on our braided living-room rug, head tilted upward to the television.

Rhetorically, the Administration was an aural experience, heard through the radio-style mesh of the TV speaker. Some of its less remembered lines fastened themselves to me more lastingly than the ghostwritten flourishes that have entered historical memory. “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” On October 22, 1962, the syllogistic nature of this sentence seemed to impress me as much as the possibility it discussed. These were the words I reported to my father when he came through the door, arriving home from work past the middle of the speech.

A year later, when Kennedy made his civil-rights address, it was a rhetorical question, one that followed a list of indignities suffered by American Negroes, that registered with me: “then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?” This exercise in empathy had guaranteed appeal for an imagination susceptible to the weekly premises of “The Twilight Zone.” I could try to do this in the same way I had tried to see myself as Henry Bemis, the Burgess Meredith character who breaks his glasses just after realizing he has a lifetime of peaceful post-nuclear-apocalypse reading ahead of him.

My paternally inspired devotion to Nixon remained weirdly keen, but Kennedy was now my leader, and I was ready to put my undersized shoulder to the wheel. Project Mercury (an Eisenhower program, I feel conservatively compelled even now to point out) had found in the new President a leader who looked as if he could himself be one of the seven astronauts in whose progress I took an obsessive interest. I was most comfortable surrendering to Kennedy when he was in the company of those pilots, making postflight calls, pinning on medals, or just being at Cape Canaveral with them, wearing his Ray-Bans. The incipient sexual dimension of all this is obvious to me now. Why should I have been less vulnerable than anyone else to the projection of desire onto Jack and Jackie? Even eleven-year-olds may have realized that this President, his hand always furtively in and out of his jacket pocket, had his own barely kept secrets. [more]

Children of jihad

by David De La Torre

In Children of jihad, The Economist reviews these two books: Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State by Olivier Roy and Al-Qaeda’s Revenge: The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings by Fernando Reinares.

Olivier Roy’s new book, “Jihad and Death”, asks why young European Muslims are drawn to Islamic State (IS) and why the West is so terrified of it. Mr Roy, a French authority on Islamism, regards IS as the monstrously inflated product of its own propaganda; it is, he says, first and foremost a death cult. Despite Islam’s injunction against suicide, it persuades Muslims to fight and die under the banner of a chimerical Islamic caliphate. Why, then, should such a nihilistic message be so appealing? Mr Roy’s answer is that IS has successfully marketed itself to the children of modern youth culture. Its recruits know little about Islam; they like alcohol, rap music, martial arts and violent American films. Many have spent time in prison. In their eyes, IS is heroic and glamorous. [more]

Robert Caro, The Art of Biography

by Bill Hayes

In Robert Caro, The Art of Biography, the Paris Review interviewed (in 2016) the biographer, best known for his multi-volume biography (still in progress) of Lyndon B. Johnson. From that long interview:

Since 1976, Robert Caro has devoted himself to The Years of Lyndon Johnson, a landmark study of the thirty-sixth president of the United States. The fifth and final volume, now underway, will presumably cover the 1964 election, the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the launch of the Great Society, the deepening of America’s involvement in Vietnam, the unrest in the cities and on college campuses, Johnson’s decision not to seek reelection, and his retirement and death — enough material, it would seem, for four additional volumes. If there is a question that annoys Caro more than “Do you like Lyndon Johnson?” it is “When will the next book be published?”

This interview took place over the course of four sessions, which were conducted in his Manhattan office, near Columbus Circle. The room is spartan, containing little more than a desk, a sofa, several file cabinets, and large bookcases crammed with well-thumbed volumes on figures like FDR, Al Smith, and the Kennedy brothers — not to mention copies of Caro’s own books. One wall is dominated by the large bulletin boards where he pins his outlines, which on several occasions he politely asked me not to read. On the desk sit his Smith-Corona Electra typewriter, a few legal pads, and the room’s only ornamental touch: a lamp whose base is a statuette of a charioteer driving two rearing horses.

Caro was born in New York in 1935. He was educated at Horace Mann and Princeton; after college, he worked for a New Jersey newspaper and then Newsday. It was there that Caro first heard of Robert Moses, the urban planner who would become the subject of The Power Broker (1974), which is not so much a biography as it is a thirteen-hundred-page examination of the political forces that shaped modern-day New York City. After conceiving of the book as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Caro persisted through seven difficult years of being, in his words, “plain broke.” With the support of his wife, Ina (to make ends meet, she sold their house on Long Island without telling him), he finished, and The Power Broker won Caro his first Pulitzer. It also won him the freedom to dedicate himself to his next subject, LBJ. (For his third volume, Master of the Senate [2002], he won another Pulitzer.)

In addition to the countless hours he has spent in archives poring over memos and correspondence, Caro has camped out alone in the Texas Hill Country; persuaded former senator Bill Bradley to serve as a model on the Senate floor (Bradley is roughly the same height as Johnson, making him a useful stand-in); and tracked down virtually everyone who ever knew Johnson, from his siblings to his chauffeur. Many of these sources are now deceased, to the frustration of Caro, who valued the ability to call Johnson aides like George Reedy or Horace Busby for spur-of-the-moment clarifications.

Caro now spends most of his days in the Columbus Circle office, writing. Though it is clear that he values uninterrupted time at his desk above almost anything else, he always received me with warm courtesy, except for one occasion, when I arrived fifteen minutes late for our meeting. My tardiness visibly irritated Caro, who had broken off his work in anticipation of my arrival. Waving aside my offer to postpone, he ignored my apologies and began answering my questions in a taut, quiet voice. But as the interview progressed, Caro was warmed by his enthusiasm for his subject, speaking faster and more animatedly, chopping at the air in his eagerness to bring Lyndon Johnson to life. — James Santel

INTERVIEWER: Did you grow up in a house full of books?

CARO: No. My mother got very sick when I was five, and she died when I was eleven. My father was a Polish immigrant. He wasn’t really a reader. Books were not part of the house, but my mother, before she died, had my father promise to send me to Horace Mann. When I think of my childhood, it’s Horace Mann.

I was the editor of the school newspaper. Every Friday, I’d take a trolley up to Yonkers with a rotating cast of the other editors. We’d get off at Getty Square, take all our copy over to a Linotype shop, and then we would stay there while the hot type came out, and when the page was complete they’d ink it and put a piece of paper over it with a roller, and that’s how you’d read it.

The nicest thing that’s happened to me, really, is that four years ago Horace Mann said they wanted to name a prize after me. I said that would be great, so long as they made it for something that I really wanted to be studied. And they said, Well, what is that? I said, I want students to learn that writing, the quality of the prose, matters in nonfiction, that writing matters in history. So they created the Robert Caro ’53 Prize for Literary Excellence in the Writing of History. My wife, Ina, is always saying, when I win awards, You’re not excited. I say, I’ll pretend to be excited if you want. It’s like those awards are happening to somebody else, you know? But to go back up there to that school that I loved and to see tacked up on the door of every classroom, DEADLINE FOR THE CARO PRIZE — you say, My God, that’s exciting. [more]

The mathematicians who want to save democracy

by Bill Hayes

In The mathematicians who want to save democracy, the science journal Nature reports on what scientists have learned about gerrymandering.

Leaning back in his chair, Jonathan Mattingly swings his legs up onto his desk, presses a key on his laptop and changes the results of the 2012 elections in North Carolina. On the screen, flickering lines and dots outline a map of the state’s 13 congressional districts, each of which chooses one person to send to the US House of Representatives. By tweaking the borders of those election districts, but not changing a single vote, Mattingly’s maps show candidates from the Democratic Party winning six, seven or even eight seats in the race. In reality, they won only four — despite earning a majority of votes overall.

Mattingly’s election simulations can’t rewrite history, but he hopes they will help to support democracy in the future — in his state and the nation as a whole. The mathematician, at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has designed an algorithm that pumps out random alternative versions of the state’s election maps — he’s created more than 24,000 so far — as part of an attempt to quantify the extent and impact of gerrymandering: when voting districts are drawn to favour or disfavour certain candidates or political parties.

Gerrymandering has a long and unpopular history in the United States. It is the main reason that the country ranked 55th of 158 nations — last among Western democracies — in a 2017 index of voting fairness run by the Electoral Integrity Project, an academic collaboration between the University of Sydney, Australia, and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although gerrymandering played no part in the tumultuous 2016 presidential election, it seems to have influenced who won seats in the US House of Representatives that year. [more]

He Was About To Pick Up His Newborn Son After Surgery When He Was Arrested By ICE

by Bill Hayes

In He Was About To Pick Up His Newborn Son After Surgery When He Was Arrested By ICE, part of its ongoing series on immigration, ProPublica looks at how ICE has stepped up enforcement under the Trump administration.

Early last Monday morning, Oscar Millan’s longtime partner called him from a Boston hospital, weepy with relief.

Their son, Oscar Matias, had been born two weeks earlier with a serious condition that prevented food from traveling from his stomach to his small intestine. But that morning, he’d undergone a successful surgery to repair it, and a second was scheduled for early June. Millan told his partner, Evanice Escudero, that he’d be by to pick them up in a couple of hours, after checking in on a landscaping job he had to do that day.

But Millan, a 37-year-old undocumented Mexican immigrant, never made it to the hospital. [more]

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:

Portion of Oklahoma school districts that have switched to four-day weeks because of budget cuts : 1/5

Portion of U.S. teachers hired today who are projected to pay more into their pensions than they will get back : 3/4

Percentage of Americans who estimate they will need at least $1,000,000 to retire : 37

Of Americans aged 55 and older with retirement plans whose accounts contain more than $250,000 : 35 [more]

The Innovative State

by Bill Hayes

In The Innovative State for Foreign Affairs magazine, Mariana Mazzucato argues that governments should make markets, not just fix them.

The conventional view of what the state should do to foster innovation is simple: it just needs to get out of the way. At best, governments merely facilitate the economic dynamism of the private sector; at worst, their lumbering, heavy-handed, and bureaucratic institutions actively inhibit it. The fast-moving, risk-loving, and pioneering private sector, by contrast, is what really drives the type of innovation that creates economic growth. According to this view, the secret behind Silicon Valley lies in its entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The state can intervene in the economy—but only to fix market failures or level the playing field. It can regulate the private sector in order to account for the external costs companies may impose on the public, such as pollution, and it can invest in public goods, such as basic scientific research or the development of drugs with little market potential. It should not, however, directly attempt to create and shape markets. A 2012 Economist article on the future of manufacturing encapsulated this common conception. “Governments have always been lousy at picking winners, and they are likely to become more so, as legions of entrepreneurs and tinkerers swap designs online, turn them into products at home and market them globally from a garage,” the article stated. “As the revolution rages, governments should stick to the basics: better schools for a skilled workforce, clear rules and a level playing field for enterprises of all kinds. Leave the rest to the revolutionaries.”

That view is as wrong as it is widespread. In fact, in countries that owe their growth to innovation, the state has historically served not as a meddler in the private sector but as a key partner of it—and often a more daring one, willing to take the risks that businesses won’t. Across the entire innovation chain, from basic research to commercialization, governments have stepped up with needed investment that the private sector has been too scared to provide. This spending has proved transformative, creating entirely new markets and sectors, including the Internet, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and clean energy.

Today, however, it has become harder and harder for governments to think big. Increasingly, their role has been limited to simply facilitating the private sector and, perhaps, nudging it in the right direction. When governments step beyond that role, they immediately get accused of crowding out private investment and ineptly trying to pick winners. The notion of the state as a mere facilitator, administrator, and regulator started gaining wide currency in the 1970s, but it has taken on newfound popularity in the wake of the global financial crisis. Across the globe, policymakers have targeted public debt (never mind that it was private debt that led to the meltdown), arguing that cutting government spending will spur private investment. As a result, the very state agencies that have been responsible for the technological revolutions of the past have seen their budgets shrink. In the United States, the budget “sequestration” process has resulted in $95 billion worth of cuts to federal R & D spending from 2013 to 2021. In Europe, the eu’s “fiscal compact,” which requires states to drop their fiscal deficits down to three percent of gdp, is squeezing educational and R & D spending. [more]

Trump’s challenge in North Korea

by David De La Torre

Fareed Zakaria gives his take on what to do about North Korea.