Monday, January 4, 2016

Why Weren't You Zusya?

A bit of Jewish wisdom to start off the new year and perhaps get the old blog rolling again after a hiatus in the second half of 2015.  Paraphrasing from Martin Buber's Tales of the Hasidism:

Rabbi Zusya dies and as he waits to come before God, he frets and frets, fearing that God will consider him a failure, will ask him, Why weren't you Moses, or Why weren't you Solomon, or at least, Why weren't you Maimonides?  But when the Rabbi reaches God, the Almighty asks him simply, Why weren't you Zusya?

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

My Grandfather's Job

I promise I'll leave poor Ian Bremmer alone soon, but couldn't help noticing this Tweet of his from a few weeks back:
On the scale of national policy, of course, 10 jobs is nothing, not even a blip.  A bliplet.  But Bremmer's Eurasia Group is a relatively small, narrowly-focused consulting firm.  If the increased volume of trade and investment attributable to the Trans-Pacific Partnership will give him cause to add 10, how many will McKinsey add, and +Deloitte+PwC+KPMG,  etc.?  To say nothing of the banks.

And even though all of them together may only number in the thousands, still a paltry total in the context of the entire economy, increased trade is about two things: 1) real people, and 2) ripple effects.  However many (or few) jobs are created by trade policy, those jobs are opportunities for real people, often young people who've just graduated with a very, very expensive professional degree, and who had previously been staring down the barrel of student loan defaults; defaults which would damage their credit and thus close them out of housing and new car markets for years, depriving those sectors of new customers, growth and cause to make new hires of their own.  In such circumstances demoralization quickly segues to a permanent lowering of expectations, and a generation of talent disappears into bleary mediocrity.

The answer is sure to come that this is all very dramatic, but that it pales in comparison to the hundreds of thousands if not millions of middle-class manufacturing jobs lost over the last 40 years or more.  Fair enough.  But the truth is that those jobs were not lost because the U.S. signed free trade and investment treaties.  Rather, free trade and investment treaties were signed because both U.S. companies who'd begun to manufacture outside the U.S. and U.S. consumers would benefit if the products now being made in Latin America and East Asia could be imported into the U.S. at lower costs.

To reiterate: jobs didn't follow free trade overseas; free trade followed logically when manufacturing moved out of the U.S. for its own reasons.  And in most cases, when the FTAs did follow, they did so either with countries of minimal impact for U.S. labor, or very late in the game, well after the exodus of manufacturing -- one of the oldest U.S. FTAs is with Israel (29 years), hardly a mass destination for formerly American-based jobs, and the so-called DR-CAFTA (Dominican Republic - Caribbean Area Free Trade Agreement), encompassing much of Latin America, didn't come into force until 2006.  As I pointed out in a previous post, the lodestar of cheap manufacturing is China, and we have no FTA or investment treaty with China.

In the end, the simple fact is that manufacturing jobs are gone from the U.S. (with the slight caveat that lower utility costs in the U.S. resulting from the availability of unconventional natural gas and oil supplies may be making America an attractive destination for some manufacturers in high-cost regions such as Europe).  And even if those jobs were to return, they would neither be nor support the kind of upper-middle and middle class jobs that my grandparents' generation knew.  My grandfather, a WWII B-17 pilot with a business degree from Northwestern, raised five children more or less comfortably as a regional manager for National Cash Register (NCR, later bought by AT&T), a company which made and sold cash registers to the American retail sector.  The 21st century equivalent of his job has nothing to do with manufacturing or selling anything to America's retailers.  It has to do with the kind of analysis done by international firms in the financial and service sectors.  These new jobs pay a lot better than his did.  There just aren't enough of them.  Yet.  But if we can generate more of them through intelligent trade policy, isn't it all but a moral necessity to do so?

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Whither Strategy, or On the Uncertain Value of Posturing

A recent Tweet by the always penetrating and incisive Ian Bremmer may be the ultimate justification for limiting oneself to 140 characters:

"Assad Must Go ISIS Must Be Destroyed N Korea Must Give Up Nukes Russia Must Leave Ukraine If We Can't (or Won't) Enforce, Stop Pretending."

Has the crux of an entire era ever been more pithily summed?  Hard to imagine.

Yet while Bremmer's formulation cuts to the heart of the present historical moment, it's not clear that his closing admonition is readily translatable into policy (as I'm sure he himself knows well -- if his tweet is the justification for Twitter, then this post is the illustration of its limitations); because the question, of course, is what exactly are we to offer instead of our protestations?

The late Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping is supposed to have said, "If you have an ugly face, there's no use in pretending to be handsome."  On the other hand, fans of Aaron Sorkin will readily call to mind another punchy aphorism (apparently attributable to the Episcopal Priest and early AA supporter Sam Shoemaker): "Act as if ye have faith, and faith will be given you.  Put another way, fake it 'til you make it."

So, which one is it?  Which approach must guide the conduct of international affairs in this profoundly uncertain time?  Should we admit to our ugliness and make explicit our unwillingness to meet these challenges to international order with the full force of all our civilization's resources?  Or should we hold doggedly to every principle until by the sheer force of intention and endurance, we can will them into reality?

Well of course the answer is both.  This is why we elect leaders, not slogans.  When to invoke unavoidable realities and when to insist that apparently dreaded circumstances can in fact be resisted is perhaps the primary question leaders are required to answer.  Balancing these approaches in order to produce stability is the singular skill of the statesman (or stateswoman).

Thus, back to Mr. Bremmer's original quote, surely his position is not so much that in any one of these cases we (the West, the U.S., the President) would be wrong to voice our grave and adamant objections.  What he's surely suggesting is that there comes a point at which a critical mass of knee-jerk proscriptions can coalesce into a demonstrable and near comprehensive impotence, from which too many international actors can draw too many frightening conclusions about their freedom to act as they see fit.  In this, he's undoubtedly correct.

The problem, as always, is what the alternative looks like.  Mr. Bremmer has said in various fora that the U.S. has no foreign policy strategy (and in at least one forum that almost no country in the world other than China has one right now).  But to say that a unified, coherent global strategy is the alternative to our current set of ad-hoc remonstrations, is still to replace one empty vessel with another.  What would it look like not to wag our finger at Russia, North Korea, ISIS, Assad, etc?  It would look like a cogent foreign policy strategy.  Fine.  And what, in this chaotic age, does a cogent foreign policy strategy look like?


To be clear, Mr. Bremmer may have, in one of his myriad books or articles, a very cogent foreign policy strategy indeed that he could recommend to the President, which I just haven't read yet.  But if he does, well, then, can we get him on a ballot somewhere?

Friday, May 22, 2015

Russia, China, and the Power of Institutional Habits

Reading this week about joint Russian-Chinese naval exercises in the Mediterranean, I thought of something I read a little over a year ago.  In April of 2014, while visiting Hamburg with my wife, I was flipping through the Financial Times at breakfast, and saw an article about a new Russian natural gas sale to China.  At the time, Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea was very recent, and debates about sanctions raged in Washington and Brussels.  Disapprobation, in any case, was being heaped on Russia from all sides (and deservedly so, of course).  Except from Beijing.

Whatever this sale of natural gas was (I, and everyone else, have long forgotten the salient details of the particular deal), it was a blip, and was not necessarily caused, or even occasioned, by the prospect of shrinking markets for Russian gas in Europe.  What struck me at the time, rather (nor would it have taken a PhD in the history of international relations to pick up the scent of this trail), was not the potential economic impact of Western sanctions against Russia, but the potential geopolitical consequences.

As analyst Ian Bremmer pointed out on Charlie Rose recently, it is nearly always a mistake to divide international relations into discrete sectors -- economic, political, military, cultural, etc. -- as if each has no effect on the other.  For example, as Bremmer pointed out, failure to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, particularly as a result of myopic political jockeying in Congress, would have not only economic repercussions, but geopolitical resonance as well -- it would make explicit that which is surely already sensed in friendly and unfriendly capitals around the world, namely that the American government is near paralysis.  (See my earlier comment on the TPP, here.)

My premonition in early 2014 regarding the implications of expanded natural resource links between Russia and China was very much about the possible bleed-over of institutional habits from any given sector (in this case energy) into the mindset of the parties generally.  It was, in essence that without hard work to tend the U.S.-China relationship, a chill between the West and Russia would provide an impetus for Russia to begin building the kind of broad and deep working-level and administrative-level relationships that can solidify into habits of thought.  In this sense the very forgetability of whatever Russo-Chinese gas deal I read about was what made it a signal -- for such are the kinds of institutional arrangements that gradually become normative in the collective thinking of national bureaucracies.  And if you doubt the ability of bureaucracies to influence national policy by means of sheer intransigence, well, read pretty much any political leader's memoir and you'll see.  As Henry Kissinger has quipped, Hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat denied his prerogatives.

Because international relations do not proceed in direct causal lines, it is not the case that this week's naval exercises are the result of a Chinese-Russian relationship strengthened by the West's economic sanctions against Russia.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union, China and Russia have maintained all manner of relations, including military relations. Russia has sold China tremendous quantities of arms, and the two countries have even worked together on civilian nuclear power projects.  These joint exercises are not the first instances of naval cooperation, nor are they, apparently, on a scale like anything the U.S. might conduct with its NATO allies.

The question instead is whether there is developing between Russia and China a pattern of habitual cooperation that could result in new assumptions about the shape of the international situation among their leaders, their bureaucracies, and their general populations.  As well as among the rest of the international community.  Those habits, those assumptions, those defaults, precisely because they are subconscious, are tremendously powerful.  It is the task of leaders to intuit these implicit realities, and then to shape them.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


What I know about cosmology: precisely squat.  Take everything hereafter, therefore, for what it's worth.

This article is surely some of the best, if not the best, writing on cosmology ever.  Lucid, well-paced, a little ecstatic, it's everything writing (on any topic, really) should be.

Another extraordinary source of cosmology-writing (who'd have thought there'd be two?) is John Updike's 1997 novel, Toward the End of Time.  But that book was devastating; it's black and expanding universe was icy and tended fundamentally toward annihilation.  I despaired for weeks after reading it.  Though Updike's prose was as luminous as ever, no mere opalescence can endear to us that great and final wave of oblivion which (the book's cosmology held) is our fate.

But how about this: "Science owes its epistemological gravitas to its stern insistence that every idea faces the firing squad of experiment...That’s the methodology that gifted us the shimmering, intricate, expansive cosmos we live in today."

Or this: "Galaxies were also giving off a special kind of light, a downshifted hue that suggested they were speeding away from Earth."

In this telling, by the science writer Ross Andersen, the cosmos is all wonder and hue, all mystery, interplay, distance, light.  And science is that giddy thing it was for Einstein, who began our century of relativity by wondering what it would be like to ride a beam of light.  Who wouldn't want to live in this realm of elaborate crystalline grace and power?

So what's the lesson?  Hard telling.  Updike wasn't generally a pessimist.  And, though I've never read anything else by Andersen, it seems clear from this article that he's as devoted to rigor and process as he is to dreamy metaphor.  Nor is it a contest.  Rather, in every case, doesn't the lesson have ultimately to do with imagination itself?  As Andersen's article discusses, cosmologists face the problem that they're not yet able to observe our own galaxy (or any other, for that matter) from outside of our galaxy.  And isn't this the problem, in microcosm, of cosmology generally?  Cosmology, precisely because its subject is so comprehensive ("all of space and all of time," as Andersen points out) is fated to measure, more than anything, our ability to imagine a plausible cosmology.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Rock Stars, Serious and Otherwise

New album out today by Brandon Flowers, front man for The Killers (once described by none other than Bono as 'the swankiest rock band on the planet').  While I don't exactly share Mr. Flowers' 80s nostalgia, I do appreciate his insistence on mining that otherwise plastic-y territory for the depth of spirit and feeling that must surely have been there, however synthesized and neon green it may have been.  Similarly, though I've no affinity for Las Vegas, Flowers' invocation of his home city's glitzy pathos feels fresh and serious.

Apropos of the video below, though, here's the thing I'm finding I really like more and more as I get older: I like it when serious people are light, and loose, on purpose. 

I suppose one might raise doubt as to whether rock stars get to count as serious people.  I don't know.  Serious enough for me.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Life of the (Russian) Mind


I read this book some years back, with an eye to reviewing it for the European Journal of International Law (I never did -- those were somewhat more...irresolute days for me, shall we say).  If I recall at all correctly, one of its primary premises was that Russians simply do not arrange their concrete affairs by forming enforceable contracts.  What they do instead I don't quite remember -- I seem to think it had something to do with tacit hierarchical agreements that reflected a world-view most fully expressed in Russian Orthodox iconography.  I do seem to remember that the writing was very good, and that the premise was based on a very bold, exciting, even sort of shocking characterization of the author's observations of Russian life: an entire civilization that simply doesn't contract?  Wow.  Fascinating.

What I also remember is that the author's explanation of why Russians do not contract sort of petered out in the face of the overwhelming strangeness of the fact that they do not.  The book (again, as I recall; it's possible I wasn't reading terribly carefully then, and that I would see it differently if I were to read it today) seemed to fall back a bit on bald assertion and a reiteration of amazement at the alien feel of Russian cultural and economic mores, however correctly observed they might have been.  Turns out you need more than just a single blinding insight to sustain a book-length explanation of the causes and effects that give structure to an entire society. 

In theory, at least, the blog post is a form more amenable to the announcement of mere insights, per se.  Here, perhaps, the initial big bang of an idea's seeming rightness can carry the day, and with any luck begin a process of exploration that might eventually lead to a more fully realized argument about the deepest nature of things.  Or, maybe it's just a way for lazy weekend philosophers to absolve themselves of responsibility and cover their desultory theories in a patina of glossy plausibility.  Either way.

Tomorrow I'm to begin an online Russian language course.  I've been listening to my wife and her family speak the language for over a decade, and have already picked up some random vocabulary and basic constructions.  One of these constructions is the strange (to English speakers) mode of handling personal possession.  Where English is straightforward and declarative -- 'I have...' -- Russian is almost unbelievably tentative: U menya yist..., or 'With/near me there is...'  The language, at least on the literal level, has no direct means of attributing possession.  In Russia(n), it is literally true that no one has anything.

Obviously there a raging danger here of over-determining a world view on the basis of a linguistic quirk.  It's a familiar (and rotten) feeling for anyone who's ever attempted any systematic thinking about broad and complex subjects to have their first impressions -- so vivid and dynamic! -- run to ground on the shore of careful analysis.  (I suspect this may have been part of what happened to our author in the book above: the flash of a felt reality on the streets of Moscow seemed to hold the key to a civilizational truth, but, upon further scrutiny, the wattage of the insight dimmed and lost much of its explanatory power.)  In the case of my grammatical theory above, there's a whole tribe of cognitive linguists out there who could surely drain it of any analytical value in a heartbeat.

Still, the intuitive allure of the insight holds, I think (as, for that matter, does the intuitive allure of our author's insight about the instinctive Russian resistance to the institution of contracting).  It can't explain everything about Russia's unique economic status, or about the behavior or beliefs of individual Russians.  But it can't be for nothing that the minds of a people who have been so resiliently inimical to Western values, have been formed by a language in which there simply exists no category for ownership.