31 July, 2010

Pick Your Metaphor With Care

A while back I wrote of the danger historical metaphors pose to statesmen, analysts, and others concerned with public affairs. While the focus of that post was analogies of a historical nature, the general points of concern extend to any metaphor we use to explain the world around us.

Human beings have a difficult time grasping the vast complexity of this world. As the duc d'Otrante likes to remind us, no human brain can fit all the universe inside it. We compensate for this deficiency by simplifying – by collecting all the random bits of information available to us and fusing them together into one cohesive, simplified, narrative. It is this process – narrative building – that has allowed humanity to survive and thrive throughout the millennia. And throughout this span the creation of metaphors has been an essential part of our narrative crafting abilities.

Every metaphor is an attempt to apply the logic of one situation to the problems of another. The utility of metaphorical devices is easy to grasp: metaphors allow man to transform complex abstractions into ideas and images more concrete and familiar than the original. As a labor saving device, metaphors have no peers. If the logic of one situation can be applied to the other, no one need waste time learning the intricacies of both.

Metaphors thus follow the pattern of a bow-tie platform. The central features of the bow-tie is its ability to accept complex and variable inputs (the left "bow"), convert them into a compact core (the "knot"), and then use what is stored in the core for a wide variety of purposes (the right "bow"). This pattern is a common to many complex systems, and can be found in structures as diverse as electric circuits and eukaryote organelles.

Generic bow-tie

Metaphors work the same way. Here the left "bow" is the original concept, process or idea that needs to be understood, the "knot" is the symbol equated with this concept, and the right "bow" is everything those who hear the metaphor associate with this symbol. Macbeth's famous lament, "life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" (Macbeth, Act V, Scene v), could thus be visualized as follows:

Macbeth's metaphor as a bow tie.

These visualizations illuminate the limitations of any metaphor. Macbeth tells us that life is like the performance of a bad actor. However, beyond being full of sound and fury, he sheds little light on what a bad actor actually is. The assumption is that the audience listening to Macbeth already has a good idea of what makes a good actor and what makes a bad one. Like most sane people told to think of a poor actor full of meaningless sound and furry, I recall Nicolas Cage. Sadly, not all people are sane. While it may surprise some of my readers, there are those who do not believe that Macbeth was trying to equate life with Nicolas Cage. Though we may all hear Macbeth utter the same lines, the ideas, images, concepts, and people we associate with his lines will not be the same.

This is the central problem of metaphors, symbols, and slogans. While they condense large amounts of information into small, easily understood packages, those using metaphors have little control over how this information will be unpacked. How a metaphor will be understood depends very much on the past  experiences and cultural background of those hearing it. What seems to be an effective metaphor for one man may be meaningless to another.

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the world of international politics. The actors on this stage are a diverse lot, haling from many a different land, language, and culture. Here statesmen must pick the metaphors they use with utmost care. At this level a poorly thought out metaphor has consequences.

Many of my readers will remember a debate that divided the American foreign policy establishment for the better part of the last two decades. While little heard now, the question was often asked during America's brighter days: Should the United States be the world's policeman?

While Americans were divided on the question, the rest of the world was not. The great majority of those living outside of the United States protested vehemently against the motion. Most Americans chalked this up to rational realism on the part of those who feared America and irrational anti-Americanism on the part of everybody else. This may be true, but it overlooks a simpler explanation. While suitable for domestic audiences, the metaphor of the hegemonic policeman was poorly framed for those living outside the United States.

Americans like their police. Policemen and detectives are the stars of the evening line up of every major American television network. We hold campaigns to "honor fallen policemen." After the military, the police are the most trusted institution in the nation. Americans never doubt that the police will protect their neighborhoods; if an American is lost a policeman is the first person he or she will ask for directions.

This is what Americans thought of when asked if the United States should be the world's policeman. They were trying to decide if the United States should be the country that gives people the right directions.

The rest of the world saw things differently.

What the Americans forgot is that the rest of the world those they would be "policing" have been dealing with a very different sort of police. Recent police actions in Turkey illustrate the difference:

Emma Sinclair-Webb. Human Rights Watch. 10 April 2010.
(Istanbul) - A recent string of shootings and ill-treatment by police officers demonstrates the widespread problem of excessive violence by Turkish law enforcement officials against members of the public, Human Rights Watch said today.

In separate incidents in the last three weeks, law enforcement officials in Turkey shot and seriously wounded a man in the western town of Kuşadası; badly beat a child in the south-eastern city of Hakkari; and shot and killed a child near the Iranian border.

"These shocking incidents are the latest examples of an all-too-familiar pattern of police violence in Turkey," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. "They should serve as a wake-up call for the government about the urgent need to do more to combat these abusive practices."

The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, a national nongovernmental organization, has documented 48 incidents of fatal shootings by police and gendarmerie during 2009 alone, concluding in each case that the circumstances warrant a full investigation to determine whether the shootings constituted summary killings.

"It's obvious authorities need to take more resolute action to end this horrific record, averaging a fatal shooting almost every week," Sinclair-Webb said. "They need to make clear that lethal force should be an absolute last resort to protect life, and not a routine means to catch a suspect....."In southeast Turkey, and especially in the town of Hakkari, there have been several recorded instances of individual or small groups of police officers assaulting or using excessive force against children during demonstrations. On April 23, 2009 television news channels broadcast footage of a masked member of the police special operations unit beating a 14-year-old boy, S.T. in the head with a rifle butt and kicking him in the course of dispersing a demonstration.

Outside of America, the police are not nearly so well liked. Talk to a man from India, Brazil, China, Nigeria, Russia, or the countries near them and you will hear a shockingly similar story. The police in these places do not serve the public. They extort them. These policemen are often violent, commonly cruel, and always eager squeeze bribes out of those they comes across. As an institution they are corrupt, and under them the law is upheld in an arbitrary and irregular fashion.  

Americans should not have been surprised that the men and women from these countries wanted nothing to do with a world policeman. It was a failure of American public diplomacy to ask the world to accept the United States in such a role. We never stopped to consider that others would unpack our symbols differently than we. 

The consequences are not difficult to see:

A poorly chosen metaphor.

29 July, 2010

Notes From All Over 29/07/2010

A collection of articles, essays, and blog post of merit.


Haiti, Disaster Sociology, Elite Panic, and Looting
Gary Peterson. Resilience Science. 2010 January 30.

This is one of the more compelling defenses of decentralization to be found under 2,000 words. Looking at disaster situations, Mr. Peterson does not find the disorder and chaos of the movies, nor the violence and looting of the news reports. People in distress are not selfish and panicked, but altruistic and steady minded. It is not until elites step in to provide protection and "restore" order that the true chaos begins.


The BP/Government Police State
Glenn Greenwald. Salon. 5 July 2010.

It is saddening that this has not caused more outrage. Equally disturbing is the following report:

Growing Number of Prosecutions for Videotaping the Police

Ray Sanchez. ABC News. 19 July 2010.

An ACLU lawyer interviewed by ABC says it best:

"Police and governmental recording of citizens is becoming more pervasive and to say that government can record you but you can't record, it speaks volumes about the mentality of people in government.... It's supposed to be the other way around: They work for us; we don't work for them."


My Thoughts on Afghanistan
Bahukutumbi Raman. Raman's Strategic Analysis.19 July 2010.

Mr. Raman is one of the sharpest Asia-hands on the web. His reports on the geopolitical developments in China, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are always worth reading. Here he sketches out the probable future of an Afghanistan absent the ISAF.

‘Bringing On The Army Against The Naxals Will Be A Disaster’
Interview with EN Rommohan. Tehelka Magazine. 12 June 2010

One of the most insightful commentaries on the Naxal insurgency. Mr. Rommohan's thoughts on the differing motivations of the insurgents in Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh are particularly interesting.


Again on Empire and Punctuated Equilibrium
Matt Eckel. Foreign Policy Watch. 28 July 2010.

Writing in response to Niall Ferguson's recent op-ed on the coming collapse of American hegemony, Matt Eckel muses:

I'm reminded of a great line in John le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy where Connie, a former Research Chief at British Intelligence, sardonically reflects on the sorry fate of her service: "Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away." British leaders, in other words, were prepared for and accustomed to a world of Pax Britannica, having internalized all the customs, heuristics, habits of thought and patterns of behavior that stemmed from growing up in a London-centric world. Such customs hadn't been consistent with material reality for several decades, but everyone in Britain (and many around the world) continued to behave as though they were until finally the center could not hold. Thus, one saw events like the 1956 Suez Crisis in which British (and French) officials behaved as though they led first-rank great powers, when in fact both nations had long since relinquished that status.

In the American context, it will be very interesting to watch the interplay between generational understandings of American power and the material reality of its limitations. Steven Walt, for example, notes that "the Cold War got the United States in the habit of going everywhere and doing everything," and that this habit has remained ingrained in post-Cold War thought. Young-ish President aside, American foreign policy is still run by elites whose views on America's role in the world were shaped by the launch of Sputnik, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, and the 1973 Oil Embargo, all in the context of a manichaean global struggle against Soviet power. I wonder if this hasn't habituated key people to thinking about the world in such black and white terms, rendering them, for example, more susceptible to narratives of civilizational clash, or less likely to question far-flung foreign interventions. Likewise, I wonder how (or if) American foreign policy will change once it's run by people whose historical touchstones are the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

It is an interesting topic. I would point my readers towards Raphel Cohen's essay for World Affairs, "War Games: Civil-Military Realtions c. 2030", for an unusually intelligent perspective on the matter. However, I suspect that any prediction made now will prove to be a half measure. There is much time between now and 2030 for new "historical touchstones" to emerge.

The End of Surface War Ships
Thomas Shrader. National Defense University Press. 2010.

Empty Oceans Pt 1
Mike Burlson. New Wars. 26 July 2010.

Empty Oceans Pt 2
Mike Burlson. New Wars. 27 July 2010

Will the Oceans Be Empty?

Nick Nielson ("Geopoliticratus"). Grand Strategy: The View From Oregon. 27 July 2010.

Lt. Shrader has sparked a fascinating debate with a remarkable claim: the end of surface war fleets is nigh. Satellite and missile technology, says he, threaten to make the American surface fleet obsolete. In the future, all combat vessels, not just strategic nuclear forces, will be submersible. The discussion that has followed Lt. Shrader's piece is worth reading in full.


Worth Reading: The Collapse of Complex Societies
"Joseph Fouche". Committee of Public Safety. 18 July 2010.

Joseph Fouche reviews anthropologist Joseph Tainter's much discussed The Collapse of Complex Societies. If you ever doubted Fouche's ability to tie Clausewitz into any topic and still make a lucid point, you will doubt no more.

28 July, 2010

Mr. Codevilla’s Ruling Class: Some Reservations

This author has waged a long crusade to turn public attention towards the greatest challenge now facing our Republic – the irresponsible and unaccountable elite that rule America and the citizen apathy that allows this rentier class to stand unopposed. While much of the traffic on this site comes from my posts on the matter, the populace as a whole has had little exposure to it.

Consequently, this week’s surge of interest in American plutarchy caught me by surprise. The catalyst for this surge was Angelo Codevilla’s essay for the American Spectator, “America’s Ruling Class – And the Perils of Revolution.” The essay has been excerpted and discussed on dozens of blogs, forums, and radio shows across the country. America’s oligarchy has finally pierced the public consciousness.

For those who have not yet read it, here is a small taste of what Codevila has to say:

Angelo Codevilla. American Spectator. July 2010.

As over-leveraged investment houses began to fail in September 2008, the leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties, of major corporations, and opinion leaders stretching from the National Review magazine (and the Wall Street Journal) on the right to the Nation magazine on the left, agreed that spending some $700 billion to buy the investors' "toxic assets" was the only alternative to the U.S. economy's "systemic collapse." In this, President George W. Bush and his would-be Republican successor John McCain agreed with the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama. Many, if not most, people around them also agreed upon the eventual commitment of some 10 trillion nonexistent dollars in ways unprecedented in America. They explained neither the difference between the assets' nominal and real values, nor precisely why letting the market find the latter would collapse America. The public objected immediately, by margins of three or four to one.
When this majority discovered that virtually no one in a position of power in either party or with a national voice would take their objections seriously, that decisions about their money were being made in bipartisan backroom deals with interested parties, and that the laws on these matters were being voted by people who had not read them, the term "political class" came into use. Then, after those in power changed their plans from buying toxic assets to buying up equity in banks and major industries but refused to explain why, when they reasserted their right to decide ad hoc on these and so many other matters, supposing them to be beyond the general public's understanding, the American people started referring to those in and around government as the "ruling class." And in fact Republican and Democratic office holders and their retinues show a similar presumption to dominate and fewer differences in tastes, habits, opinions, and sources of income among one another than between both and the rest of the country. They think, look, and act as a class.
Although after the election of 2008 most Republican office holders argued against the Troubled Asset Relief Program, against the subsequent bailouts of the auto industry, against the several "stimulus" bills and further summary expansions of government power to benefit clients of government at the expense of ordinary citizens, the American people had every reason to believe that many Republican politicians were doing so simply by the logic of partisan opposition. After all, Republicans had been happy enough to approve of similar things under Republican administrations. Differences between Bushes, Clintons, and Obamas are of degree, not kind… The Republican Party did not disparage the ruling class, because most of its officials are or would like to be part of it.
Never has there been so little diversity within America's upper crust. Always, in America as elsewhere, some people have been wealthier and more powerful than others. But until our own time America's upper crust was a mixture of people who had gained prominence in a variety of ways, who drew their money and status from different sources and were not predictably of one mind on any given matter. The Boston Brahmins, the New York financiers, the land barons of California, Texas, and Florida, the industrialists of Pittsburgh, the Southern aristocracy, and the hardscrabble politicians who made it big in Chicago or Memphis had little contact with one another. Few had much contact with government, and "bureaucrat" was a dirty word for all. So was "social engineering." Nor had the schools and universities that formed yesterday's upper crust imposed a single orthodoxy about the origins of man, about American history, and about how America should be governed. All that has changed.
Today's ruling class, from Boston to San Diego, was formed by an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as tastes and habits. These amount to a social canon of judgments about good and evil, complete with secular sacred history, sins (against minorities and the environment), and saints. Using the right words and avoiding the wrong ones when referring to such matters -- speaking the "in" language -- serves as a badge of identity. Regardless of what business or profession they are in, their road up included government channels and government money because, as government has grown, its boundary with the rest of American life has become indistinct. Many began their careers in government and leveraged their way into the private sector. Some, e.g., Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, never held a non-government job. Hence whether formally in government, out of it, or halfway, America's ruling class speaks the language and has the tastes, habits, and tools of bureaucrats. It rules uneasily over the majority of Americans not oriented to government.

Mr. Codevilla's essay is much larger than this short excerpt. I encourage the readership to read the entire thing, if only to understand the limitations of his argument. While Mr. Codevilla begins his essay with a clear picture of the elite and the dangers it poses, his zealous social conservatism soon muddies any insight he might have brought to the masses.

The over-riding problem with Codevilla's essay can be seen in his attempt to define just what makes this batch of elites different from those of America's past. Says he:

Who are these rulers, and by what right do they rule? How did America change from a place where people could expect to live without bowing to privileged classes to one in which, at best, they might have the chance to climb into them? What sets our ruling class apart from the rest of us?


Wealth? The heads of the class do live in our big cities' priciest enclaves and suburbs, from Montgomery County, Maryland, to Palo Alto, California, to Boston's Beacon Hill as well as in opulent university towns from Princeton to Boulder. But they are no wealthier than many Texas oilmen or California farmers, or than neighbors with whom they do not associate -- just as the social science and humanities class that rules universities seldom associates with physicians and physicists. Rather, regardless of where they live, their social-intellectual circle includes people in the lucrative "nonprofit" and "philanthropic" sectors and public policy. What really distinguishes these privileged people demographically is that, whether in government power directly or as officers in companies, their careers and fortunes depend on government. They vote Democrat more consistently than those who live on any of America's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Streets. These socioeconomic opposites draw their money and orientation from the same sources as the millions of teachers, consultants, and government employees in the middle ranks who aspire to be the former and identify morally with what they suppose to be the latter's grievances.

I offer no argument against the premise of this passage. In today's America big government and big business live in close symbiosis. Finding the point where one begins and the other one ends is a task made more difficult with the passing of each day. It is this dependence upon expansive government power that most clearly distinguishes the elite of today from those of yesteryear. Having realized this, it is a great pity that Mr. Codevilla fails to use it in his essay to demarcate the rulers from the ruled.

Mr. Codevilla's elite is not the Oligarchy of Good Intentions that dominates American society today. His is but the traditional conservative caste of villains: the snobbish English professor indoctrinating the youth, the worthless philanthropist surviving off charity of others, the faceless technocrat "managing" the citizenry, and of course, those devils that admire President Woodrow Wilson. These are Codevilla's ruling class. Those not famous for repeating leftist shibboleths need not apply.

The original metric gives us a better view of the hands grasping for the levers of power. The California farmer? What is he but the beneficiary of one of the largest - and long standing - subsidies found within the United States? The Texas oil man is hardly better; the oil industry is awarded some of the largest royalty reliefs offered by the federal government. And those evil humanities professors? There are not ten universities in the nation whose humanities and social science departments have not been downsized in favor business, science, and tech over the last decade. And their funding? It too comes from the taxpayer's pocketbook.

Oligarchy is not restricted to the political left. For every leftist among our ruling class you will find a man of the right to match him. Events have shown the distinction to be quite arbitrary. What remains is high profile theater performed for the entertainment and favor of the masses.

Mr. Codevilla's rhetorical excesses and logical gaps have been defended in the name of action. As one who has despaired bitterly in past days over over the willful ignorance and apathy of my people, I am wary to fault any man who can bring this issue to light. But how great is the cost of awareness! Codevilla shoe-horns the dangers facing the Republic into the narrow prism of the social conservative canon. I suspect that it is upon such contortions the success of his essay is built.

But why is this so? Are not liberty and self-government worth defending in and of themselves? It seems that my fellow Americans can fight for nothing unless they are engaged in a culture war.

26 July, 2010

If You Ever Doubted

The big news to hit today's foreign policy press was the release of several thousand DoD documents to The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Speigel by Wikileaks. As the title of the Times piece suggests, the top story to emerge from the leaks is the numerous field reports detailing how the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence has been protecting, funding, arming, and otherwise aiding the same insurgents that are fighting and killing American and Afghan troops today.

I wish I could say that this is truly news. Sadly, it is not. Steve Hynd has complied a list of news reports that shed light on Pakistani collusion with the Taliban that stretches back to 2002. It is worth a moment's reflection: the dozens of articles and exposes compiled by Mr. Hynd are only what is available in the public sphere. As this leak has shown, the Pentagon and the White House have had access to a great deal more evidence than that which has trickled out to the public at large. For years they have known that the ISI has actively worked against the interests of the Afghan people, the U.S. government, and the stability of the region as a whole. And the American response to these provocations? We invite them to Washington with open arms. Such is the state of our halls of power. 

With the risk of sardonicism, I must ask: why do we trust these men and women with anything, much less America's national security? I once had an inkling of faith in our foreign policy elites. I do no more.

23 July, 2010

Peak Oil and EROI: Understanding a Concept

Peak oil is a divisive topic. Bitter battles over its timing and consequences plague the blogosphere. I rarely comment on these debates. My experience with the subject is limited, and thus the insight I can bring to any discussion on the matter is even more so. My attention is spent simply trying to catch up. For those possessing little expertise with energy issues, this is a difficult task. In such a wide ranging debate how can readers even hope to sort the wheat from the chaff? Luckily, there is a simple way to separate the pundits who truly understand the issue from the pundits who do not. Inexperienced analysts debate the size of oil reserves. Serious commentators focus their debates on EROI.

EROI stands for “Energy Return on Investment.” It isfor the purposes of all but the most technically mindedsynonymous with another term occasionally heard, “Energy Return of Energy Invested” (ERoEI), and related to another important concept, “Net Energy.” All three terms affirm the importance of the means by which the energy is acquired over the size of retrievable energy reserves. 

The idea behind EROI is not hard to understand. Businessmen use it every day. “Return on Investment” (ROI) is a metric known by every marketer and manager in America. In basic terms, ROI is the amount of profit made for every dollar invested in a product, employee, asset, or any other chosen investment. It is usually expressed in the form of a percentage.

Movie theaters and gasoline stations provide a fair example of ROI in action. The ROI of a movie ticket or of a gallon of gas is very low (usually less than 4%) because the cost of purchasing refined gasoline or reels of film is high and the demand for both gasoline and movie tickets is highly elastic. It is not surprising that these businesses make most of their money by selling a product with a much higher ROI: overpriced food. Consumers do not choose which gas station or theater to attend on the basis of concession costs, allowing the proprietors to sell their wares at ridiculously high (and inelastic) prices. This is reflected in the balance sheets. While gasoline sales have a very high gross income, the net income made from food and beverage sales is almost always higher.

EROI applies this type of thinking to energetics. The surveying of potential oil sites, the construction and maintenance of oil rigs, and the refinement and transportation of recovered oil all take energy. The energy return on investment is the ratio of energy produced for every unit of energy spent in the production process. Analogous to a business’s net income is net energy, the total amount of energy produced after the energy cost of production has been accounted for.

Real world examples of the relation between net energy, EROI, and global energy supplies abound. The Athabasca tar sands are estimated to contain 1,700 billion barrels of bitumen, placing its proven reserves of petroleum at the same level of magnitude as the rest of the entire world’s proven conventional reserves. However, most petro-geologists, oil companies, and governmental agencies (e.g. the EIA) only include one tenth of this in their estimates of Canada’s oil reserves. Why? All tar sands have an incredibly complex and energy-intensive extraction and refining process. One tenth of the sands can be accessed through open-pit mining; the energy invested is devoted mostly to transporting and refining the sand. However, the remaining 90% lies deep underground. The additional energy cost of mining these sands is enormous. So enormous that the net energy of extracting, processing, and using deep tar sand oil is negative.

This may not always be so. Future advances in technology may lead to the development of a new, less energy intensive extraction method. If this was the case, and the EROI of tar sand oils increased remarkably, so too would the amount of reserves available to humanity. Raising the EROI of oil extraction bears the same result as finding additional reserves.

EROI is not always so helpful to peak oil optimists, however. British Petroleum’s operations in the Gulf of Mexico are a case in point. While British Petroleum has published no official data on the matter, we can be quite sure that the EROI of extracting oil from the Gulf has fallen drastically over the last five months. Beyond the normal energy invested in constructing and maintaining deep-water oil rigs, British Petroleum must invest exorbitant amounts of energy into capping Deepwater Horizon, cleaning up the its spillage, and paying higher insurance costs on its other deep sea rigs.

The interesting thing about these examples is that the EROI of both is completely independent of actual reserve size. This is not true in all cases. However, you will be hard pressed to find a single operation where the net energy is determined more on the basis of reserve size than on limits imposed by location, technology, or political and financial restraints. What happens above ground is more important than what is below it.

The same holds true for peak oil. The day the last well runs dry is not the day humanity stops using oil. That will come the day it takes more barrels to drill the well than can be gained from the drilling.

22 July, 2010

Imagining India Without Two Centuries of British Rule

Economic historian Angus Maddison provides us with our first "Intriguing Passage of the Week":

It is interesting to speculate on India’s fate if it had not had two centuries of British rule. There are three major alternatives which can seriously be considered. One would have been the maintenance of indigenous rule with a few foreign enclaves, as in China. Given the fissiparous forces in Indian society, it is likely that there would have been major civil wars and the country would have split up. Without direct foreign interference with its educational system, India probably would not have developed a modernizing intelligentsia because Indian society was deeply conservative, and it did not have a homogeneous civilization around which to build its reactive nationalism. If this situation had prevailed, population would have certainty grown less but average standard of living might have possibly have been a little higher because of the bigger upper class, and the smaller drain of resources abroad.

Another alternative to British rule would have been conquest and maintenance of power by another West European country such as France or Holland. This probably would not have produced results very different in economic terms from British rule.

The third hypothesis is perhaps the most intriguing, i.e. conquest by a European power, with earlier accession to independence. If India had self-government fro the 1880s, after a century and quarter of British rule, it is likely that both income and population growth would have been accelerated. There would have been a smaller drain of funds abroad, greater tariff protection, more state enterprise, and favors to local industry, more technical training – the sort of things which happened after 1947. However, India would probably not have fared as well as Meiji Japan, because the fiscal leverage of government would have been smaller, zeal for mass education less, and religious and caste barriers would have remained important constraints on productivity.
– Angus Maddison, The Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD: Essays in Macroeconomic History. (Oxford: Oxford University Press). 2007. p. 130.

EDIT (22/07/2010): On a related note, the folks over at South Asian Idea have an on-going series on the way in which Hinduism was fundamentally changed by British rule. For those interested in such subjects, it is more than worth reading

21 July, 2010

Who Is Laughing Now?

Earlier this month many of us laughed when Forbes Online published their satirical photo essay, "Would BP's CEO Have Been Executed In China?"

It seems that the jest has presaged reality. China now has their own oil spill. Let us see if they can handle it any better than we did.

Does The Executive Branch Suffer From a Learning Disability?

It must. For try as I might, I cannot come up with another explanation for this:

Saeed Shah. McClatchey's News. 18 July 2010.
The U.S. will announce Monday hundreds of millions of dollars worth of civilian aid projects for Pakistan, American officials said, in an attempt to demonstrate that Washington has broadened its relationship with the country, away from just anti-terror cooperation to helping the people of Pakistan.
The men up top have read the same reports I have - and then some. They know that it is next to impossible to exercise oversight on developmental aid sent to Pakistan. They know that the aid we do send is funneled away into corruption-filled voids. And they know that increasing the amount of money we spend in Pakistan will not change the region's basic strategic calculus or stop the ISI from training the insurgents that are killing American soldiers.

A learning disability. It is the only excuse they have left.

20 July, 2010

Futuristics, Geopolitics, and National Resilience

Earlier this month Antoly Karlin (of Sublime Oblivion) wrote an interesting post outlining several possible trajectories India may take in the near future. A fair amount of the post is devoted to comparing India with Asia's other billion-person behemoth, China. The two giants are likely to remain engaged in intense strategic competition for the next half century, and as Mr. Karlin sees it, the inevitable winner of this great geopolitical game will be China.

A quick statistical comparison reveals why:

India China
GDP / capita 2009 2900$ 6600$
Literacy rate 1995-2005 66% 93%
Manufacturing sector (current prices) 2008 190bn $ 1800bn $
Internet penetration 2008 5% 22%
Planned infrastructure spending 2008-11 240bn $ 725bn $
Naval tonnage 164,000 346,000
Table taken from Antoly Karlin's post, "The Century without an Indian Summer"

Given the evidence presented, I must agree with Mr. Karlin: all long term trends clearly point towards a future of Chinese dominance. If growth rates and naval tonnage are the name of the game then this is a game India cannot win.

But must these be the name of the game? It is a question worth the pondering. The course of history is rarely decided by nothing but the demographic and economic trends of the long duree. Just as important as any long term trend are the short jumps and leaps of history. "Punctuated equilibrium", "critical transitions", "black swans" - a whole host of terms have been created to name those unexpected events that truly change everything.

This is a problem that undermines the very foundation of future studies. Futurists use the data of days past to make projections for the future. Such extrapolation suffers from a crippling weakness: it only works in a world where these trends are allowed to play themselves out absent hidden variables. This world is not ours. No state on this Earth operates in a vacuum. As complex adaptive systems they are subject to the unexpected stresses of a system disruption. There are plenty of possible yet unpredictable "discontinuities" (e.g. epidemics, ecological disasters, major war, assassinations or terrorist strikes, large-scale social unrest, ect.) that could throw even the steadiest trend off its given course. While we can be reasonably sure that these discontinuities will happen in the future, it is a fool's game to try to predict the scale, shape, or timing of any one disruption.

This places clear limits on the futurist's craft. Theirs is not a doomed art, however. I am reminded of a few words I wrote for an earlier post on theories of social decline:

T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 27 February 2010.
It hardly needs to be said that most civilizational collapses are unexpected 'black swan' events - if they were anything else, the great majority would have been averted. However, the unpredictability of an empire's final throes does not render theories of collapse and social decline useless. The metaphor of the camel's back serves us well here. Few can predict the exact manner in which a stray straw floating in the air might fall onto a camel's back. More difficult still is to predict the precise straw that will break the poor creature. But the wise herdsman can know when the camel has been overburdened to the point where a straw might break the back.

As are the camels of metaphor, so are the civilizations of reality. The proper concern of civlizational theorists should not be the prediction of the exact moment or cause of a collapse. Rather, theorists should concentrate their efforts on developing models that predict when societies become most vulnerable to these 'black swan' events. Plagues, barbarians, terrorist, famines, recessions - such ills befall all complex human societies. Some of the societies find the power within themselves to overcome these challenges; others fall prey to them. The difference between the two is rarely found within challenge itself. A people are brought to its knees by what came before the last straw. Societies, states, empires, and civilizations do not fall simply because they are confronted with unexpected challenges. It is when they lack the capacity to respond to these unexpected challenges that collapse ensues.
I term a country's ability to respond to challenges and recover from disruptions national resilience. While it is harder to quantify than concrete economic statistics, resiliency is just as important - in a few cases quite a bit more important - than are long term trends in GDP growth and military spending. Futurists who ignore national resilience threaten the credibility of their predictions from the get-go.

Resilience is a tricky thing. An ecologically resilient country may be financially brittle; social resilience may come at the cost of political collapse. In most cases a failure in one part of the system will spill over into the others. A key aspect of any resilient system is its ability to reduce the damage these spill overs cause or otherwise contain disruptions before they bring down the entire system. It is on this count the comparison of China and India is most revealing.  

The Chinese Communist Party prevents the conflagration of financial and social disruptions by holding a tight reign on Chinese society. There could be no paralyzing bandh of the type that shut down the Indian economy earlier this month; if it were attempted the perpetrators would be promptly rounded up and arrested. Social unrest and financial volatility are closely monitored by the ruling regime; it does not hesitate to use means arbitrary or coercive to stop trouble spots from spiraling out of control. In China the government is the guarantee of societal resilience. 

There is but one problem with this approach: the Chinese system is dependent on a strong functioning government. If the Chinese Communist Party cracks, so does the rest of China.

This problem is made worse by the general brittleness of the Chinese regime. It suffers from a malady common to authoritarian states: there is no established process for resolving severe disagreements among the political elite. Bandhs are one of many ways the Indian political system channels the opposition away from true instability and violence. Where is the Chinese counterpart? The CCP has no vehicle for dissent. As long as China's political elite are united in consensus this poses no danger. But this consensus will not last forever. A serious schism would threaten to bring the whole system crashing to the ground. 

We do not know if such a schism will occur. What we do know is that if the politiburo was to crack apart, or if the general staff of the PLA were to find themselves in sharp disagreement with the leading bodies of the CCP, the consequences would have a much longer reach than if similar schisms occurred in the ranks of their Indian counterparts. And what emerges from the fray may be much worse than the fray itself. Even if even if the internal struggle of the Chinese elite is both quick and bloodless China's leaders would remain a small clique whose will is law. This is another bug of authoritarian systems.:If the foolish gain control there is very little that can stop them from ruining everything. The contrast with India proves the point. India would recover from another Long Emergency at a much faster rate than China could hope to rebound from another Cultural Revolution.

Of course, one cannot know if the 21rst century's great authoritarian will find his (or her) way to power in China, India, or another place altogether. Futuristics is a blind man's dice game. One can never be quite sure where the next disaster will strike or when the next miracle will occur. To whom fortune deigns to give her frowns and smiles is known by none but her. However, with few reservations I can say that her frown will harm Beijing more than New Delhi.

14 July, 2010

Confucius and I

Rufus F, of the League of Ordinary Gentleman, has written an interesting post on the Confucian way of politics. Its centerpiece is a lengthy excerpt from a previous discussion in which this author took part. Those interested in a few of my thoughts concerning the Chinese political order circa 450 BC are encouraged to read Rufus' post.

While not an expert, I am far more comfortable with classical Chinese history than are most Westerners. It is my belief that the words of the Zuo Zhuan and Sima Qian are of the same value as those found in the annals of Tacitus and or the accounts of Thucydides. If popular interests exists, I would be glad to devote a series of posts to the notable ideas, men, military stratagems, and political machinations of China's classical canon. 

07 July, 2010

The Many Sided Turk

Unless my readers have spent the greater part of the last five weeks inside a subterranean cavern they have doubtlessly heard and seen much concerning the 'freedom flotilla' that attempted to break through the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the (botched) Israeli commando raid dispatched to stop them. Proving our collective inability to place world events in their proper context or proportion, the raid left both the standard news outlets and the blogosphere aflutter; a month has passed and yet talk of Israel and Palestine is still all the rage. Such longevity is a rare thing in an age of 7-second news cycles and soundbite sized attention spans. Among consumer and commentator alike the story of Israel and Palestine resonates.

I find this amusing, as this story is not about Israel or Palestine. As the more astute observers  - Thomas Barnett, Nitin Pai, Walter Russel Meade, and The Economist come to mind - have pointed out, the Gaza strip is but a side show to the real drama. And the main actor in this drama is not America, the Palestinians, or even Israel. It is Turkey.

Or so it first seems. But at second glance this analysis also has its weak points. Declarations that Turkey is making its bid for great power status, trying to obtain 'the bomb', or that wishes to distance itself from the West all miss a central point: it is not Turkey that is doing this, but Turks. Or in this case, one particular Turk: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This realization is the last puzzle piece needed to put together a picture of the whole. Despite realist claims to the contrary, states like Turkey cannot be seen as unitary actors. They are entities divided, battlefields for factions and magnates. Struggles for power on the international stage occur midst struggles for power on the domestic. Rare is the action of any statesmen whose motivation is purely geopolitical.

And in few countries is this as true as in the Republic of Turkey.

Douglas Muir (of Fistful of Euros) made this point exceptionally well on a Sublime Oblivion thread on the subject:
Any article that presumes to discuss Turkish grand strategy without at least mentioning Turkey’s internal politics gets an automatic Fail. The split between the AKP and the military/Kemalists is broad, deep, and runs right across Turkish society. The two groups have dramatically different strategic visions for the country, and their rivalry is one of the major drivers of AKP foreign policy.

Internal politics are important everywhere. But in Turkey, they’re pretty much critical. You simply can’t make sense of the current government’s actions without taking them into account.

...This was a chess move by Erdogan and his AKP in their multi-front political, legal and constitutional struggle with Turkey’s entrenched Kemalists. Erdogan was facing a political crisis over proposed constitutional changes, and possible early elections. He’s now in a much stronger position than he was last week.

– “Chess move” isn’t exactly right. “Cheap, low-risk high-gain gambit” is more like it. If you play Hearts? Like leading a spade when you hold four low spades and no Queen. Worst that happens is, you clean out some spades at no risk of loss to yourself. Best, you nail someone with the Queen — which is more or less what happened here.

About the only negative for Erdogan is, he now must ride the tiger of enraged Turkish public opinion.

Mr. Muirs's point merits further explication.

Prime Minister Erdogan is not only Turkey's head of government, but also the chairman of the Justice and Development Party, more widely known by its Turkish initials AKP. Broadly defined, the AKP's policy platform stands upon three pillars: the need for political and economic integration with the rest of Europe, support for economic liberalization and freer markets, and the protection of Islamic conservatism as a legitimate and lawful political force. The third of these has given the AKP notoriety both inside and outside of the Republic.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding statesmen of the Republic of Turkey, was an avid secularist. Convinced that the Ottoman Empire's shameful performance in the First World War was the result of decrepit social and political institutions, Ataturk embarked on a great modernizing crusade to transform an empire of serfs into an industrialized, democratic, and independent nation state. As the old empire had been imbued with religious authority of the Caliphate, limiting the influence religion had in political affairs was seen as a central step in this transformation.

Atatürk's reforms became the basis of ideology of the ruling Turkish elite for the rest of the 20th century. Known as Kemalists, the greatest supporters of Atatürk's vision dominated every major political institution in the Republic. In particular, both the upper echelons of the Turkish court system and the Turkish General Staff became strongholds of Kemalist ideology. Both worked actively to frustrate Islamist political movements: the courts by using their constitutional power to veto laws and to ban opposition parties viewed as "anti-secular", and the military by overthrowing elected governments labeled the same.

The Kemalist status quo was preserved for more than four generations. Things began to change when the AKP came roaring into power with the turn of the millennium. Champions of both European integration and Islamic conservatism, the AKP platform struck a chord with the country's pious (yet globalized) middle class, bringing the party stunning electoral success.

The AKP won the 2002 parliamentary elections with 34% of the vote and 363 (of 550) seats in the Grand National Assembly. Two years later the AKP swept through local elections, taking control of 60 of  Turkey's 81 provinces.

Prime Minister Erdogan could not have come to power at a better time. Over the next five years Turkey would witness the highest economic growth rates in the Republic's history, while Turkish art, politics, and entertainment would reach a level of prestige in the Middle East not seen since the days of the Sultan. In the 2007 general elections the electorate awarded the AKP for Turkey's success, and the AKP captured 47% of the vote. 

This was seen as a disaster by the Kemalist elements of the army and the courts. For a century Atatürk's dreams had been Turkey's reality, and now in the space of a few years all of this began to crumble away. Henri Barkey aptly summarized the state of malaise in which Kemalists began to find themselves in a recent Council on Foreign Relations round table:
Turkey is going through a major transformation and it's a very complex one. This political party, AKP, is really the product of economic reforms that happened in the 1980s where, for the first time, you had a new bourgeoisie emerge in Anatolia that is conservative, that is pious, but it is also very market-oriented. And as a result, they carried this body to power. 

So it does have, shall we say, a pious conservative bent to it, but at the same time, you also have to realize that for the longest time, since the inception of the republic, that the Turkish regime or the Turkish state has been a very ideological state. There are very few societies like Turkey, or old Turkey if you want. It's not Korea, Cuba, China and Iran, which are so ideological.

And you had a very stultifying, very static-oriented system in Turkey where the judiciary and the military essentially ran everything. This is crumbling now, but it's also crumbling because -- not just because of AKP coming to power; it is also crumbling because the military has made mistake after mistake after mistake. I mean, there is a reason why military officers should never become politicians and they should never run countries. I mean, you really see it in Turkey. And so, they have essentially made the problem for themselves bigger.
Seeing their world "crumbling" away, the Kemalists turned to the courts to stem the tide. Appointed by fellow judges, not legislators, the court system remained an avowed enemy of politicized Islam. In 2008 the chief prosecutor of the Supreme Court indited the AKP for "hosting a hotbed of anti-secular activities." The party was forced to defend its very existence in the Supreme court and only narrowly escaped being banned outright.

This was too close a call for the AKP. Mr. Erdogan and his fellow legislators began to work on a series of proposals to defang both the military and the court system, of which the most significant would give elected officials more control over the selection process of the supreme court. Promising to change the structure of the Turkish government itself, all proposals took the form of constitutional amendments.  If passed, they would be the most important legacy of the Prime Minister's career. He announced these proposals at the beginning of this spring. 

The timing of the announcement was unfortunate. The economic crisis halved Turkey's growth rate, and the approval rate of the AKP fell with it. By the time of his announcement, Primer Minister Erdogan 's approval rating was hovering somewhere near 27%. If Mr. Erdogan and his party wished to push such drastic reforms through the system they needed to restore their credibility with the people at large.

Thus the Gaza flotilla crisis. 

The pattern for the flotilla was set more than a year previous. After declaring Israeli President Shimon Peres a murderer and then storming out the room during a televised Davos forum, the Prime Minister returned home to a hero's welcome and a boost in the opinion polls. Turkey's alliance with Israel has never been popular in the Republic, and Mr. Erdogan's outburst struck a chord with the Turkish public.

The flotilla allowed the Prime Minister to repeat his performance on a far grander scale. It changed the political balance in the Grand Assembly over night. A day before Mr. Erdogan and his party had been accused of usurping the rule of law; now Erdogan turned around and branded the opposition as pawns of Tel Aviv. The AKP's poll numbers jumped upwards; Mr. Erdogan regained the credibility a year of economic decline had lost him. He could now push his reforms with a free hand.

The Prime Minister's decision to force a row between Israel and Turkey over the flotilla was not entirely a choice made because of domestic necessities. There have been clear signs for years that Turkey and Israel's strategic relationship was falling apart. It was simply a matter of time until this became clear to the world. Luckily for Mr. Erdogan, he could choose a time to his liking. 

Image credit: Europe Oriente

06 July, 2010

Notes From All Over (05/7/2010).

A collection of articles, essays, and blog post of merit.


David Autor. Center for American Progress. April 2010.

Catherine Rampell. New York Times. 21 June 2010.

Open Secrets. 3 June 2010.

Placed together these three reports tell the troubling story of America's elite. Dr. Autor reports that shifts in labor demand have led to polarization of job opportunities, with employment growth concentrated in high-skill, high-wage occupations and in low-skill, low-wage jobs. All of this comes at the expense of “middleskill jobs".

As middle class employment opportunities disappear the scramble for the top seat at the table becomes all the more furious. Every American is told from the time they are little that education and hard work bring prosperity; the immediate bestowal of both is expected by today's graduates. Universities, like any institution intent on keeping its donors, have labored to meet these impossible expectations. The result is groundless grade inflation with the hope that higher GPAs will provide the new graduates with the employment opportunities they desire.

This process can only succeed on the short term. Once a large enough number of universities have jumped on the inflation band wagon the credibility of higher institutions as whole is damaged. Diplomas and high GPAs will matter very little when they are so easy to obtain. America's meritocracy will be gone. Connections will remain the one viable path to success.


William Darmyple. The Guardian. 1 July 2010.

A superb article by Mr. Darmyple - easily one of the best editorials I have read on the subject this year. (An extended version can be found in The New Statesman.) I recommend reading it; Mr. Darmyple's conclusion has profoundly changed how I plan to approach the upcoming Chicago Boyz Afghanistan 2050 roundtable.

H/T Kikobar

Jay Bahadu. Financial Times Online. 23 June 2010.

Piracy off of the Horn is one of the least understood issues in national security today. This article is the best primer you can get short of jargon-stuffed, book-length policy briefs.

Patricia Lee Sharpe. Whirled View. 5 July 2010.


Yale Environment 360. 1 June 2010.

I have argued before that any projection aiming to chart a direct relationship between climate change on the global scale and climate change and ecological transitions on the regional scale are models of fantasy. There are simply too many variables for any one model to take into account. This is a prime example.

"Fabius Maximus". Fabius Maximus. 22 June 2010.


Nitin Pai. The Acorn. 11 Apr 2010.

Srinath Raghavan. Telegraph India. 17 June 2010.

My fellow Americans often worry about civil-military relations. Our problems pale in comparison to India's.

Nandini Sundar. Outlook India. July 5th 2010 issue.
While rape is often described as a weapon of war, it is not uniformly practised, and indeed nothing distinguishes the two parties in a guerrilla war more than their attitude to rape. In her careful analysis of sexual violence during civil war, the political scientist Elizabeth Woods points out that while it was common in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, sexual assault was less frequent in El Salvador, Sri Lanka and Peru. In the latter cases, the vast majority of rapes were committed by the government or paramilitaries, this also being a primary reason why women were motivated to join the insurgents. The rebel armies—who carried out other violent acts, including the killing of civilians—almost never committed sexual violence, including against female combatants in their own ranks. In Mizoram, women recalling the regrouping and search operations of the 1960s described only rapes by Indian soldiers and none by the Mizo National Front. One said to me, “It is as if the vai (outsider) army was hungry for women.” Today, despite government claims that the Maoists sexually exploit young women, the distinction between insurgent and counter-insurgent is clear for the women of Dantewada. They are safe from one army (the PLGA) but not from the other (the Indian paramilitary and SPOs/police). And in any war to win hearts and minds (‘WHAM’), surely this is not an unimportant distinction.

As an aside, 'WHAM' goes near the top of the list of best pseudo-military acronyms ever conceived in the mind of an English speaking person.


Robin Lakoff. Huffington Post. 10 June 2010.

Reflecting on the success of Mrs. Palin, Clinton, Haley, et. all Robin Lakoff proposes an intriguing (and utterly non-pc) point:
If politics works like other once-prestigious fields, then the increasing success of women in it is not altogether an encouraging sign -- it may be a symptom of the culture's doubts about politics and its players. And while I am inclined to applaud the success of so many women today in a field formerly all but closed to them, the correlation between women's presence in a field and its fall in prestige is still worth contemplating. At the very least, today's results should be a wake-up call: what must we do to restore political service to a place of honor, so that the people who enter it will continue to be the best and the brightest?
Take his words with a grain of salt, however. Teasing out the independent variable is difficult in this case. The higher percentage of women involved in national politics could very well be the reason the electorate no longer respects the political class, not the other way around.

Data from countries with a higher percentage of women politicians would be worth investigating. This would make an interesting research project.


ED Klein. League of Ordinary Gentlemen. 23 June 2010.

The title is only loosely related to the post's actual content. I link to it here because it provides a concise summary of my own problems with America's conservative movement. To quote:
So I become frustrated that so many pundits and politicians on the right seem so hell-bent on painting themselves as incompetent or uninterested in the hard business of governance. I’ve said before that I think limited government is a much more difficult thing to implement than big government.

When the option of throwing money at a problem is off the table, actual solutions become necessary. We need to be able to trust that the people we put in control of limiting government aren’t hacks or impostors doing it more out of an obligation to special interests than out of a real desire to make government more responsive and limited. Right now, much of the right’s leadership does not inspire trust. From Sarah Palin to Glenn Beck, the vanguard of the conservative movement is riddled with hacks and charlatans.


Commission for Environmental Cooperation.

An interactive atlas of North America that can display population density, watersheds, major railroads and highways, topography, and precipitation across the North American continent. Very cool.

Prepared under the Director of Strategic Services. Office of Strategic Services. 17 January 1944.

A PDF of an OSS manual detailing ways in which field operatives working in occupied Europe could turn docile populaces into active citizen-saboteurs. Some of the more interesting tips include:
  • The saboteur may have to reverse his thinking, and he should be told this in so many words. Where he formerly thought of keeping his tools sharp, he should now let them grow dull; surfaces that formerly were lubricated now should be sanded; normally diligent, he should now be lazy and careless; and so on. Once he is encouraged to think backwards about himself and the objects of his everyday life, the saboteur will see many opportunities in his immediate environment which cannot possibly be seen from a distance. A state of mind should be encouraged that anything can be sabotaged. (p. 8)
  • put tightly rolled paper, hair, and other obstructions in the W. C. Saturate a sponge with a thick starch or sugar solution. Squeeze it tightly into a ball, wrap it with string, and dry. Remove the string when fully dried. The sponge will be in the form of a tight hard ball. Flush down a W. C. or otherwise introduce into a sewer line. The sponge will gradually expand to its normal size and plug the sewage system. (p. 14)
  • Fuel lines to gasoline and oil engines frequently pass over the exhaust pipe. When the machine is at rest, you can stab a small hole in the fuel line and plug the hole with wax. As the engine runs and the exhaust tube becomes hot, the wax will be melted; fuel will drip onto the exhaust and a blaze will start. (p. 18)
  • General rules for disruption:
    1. Insist on doing everything through "channels." Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.
    2. Make "speeches." Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your "points" by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate "patriotic" comments.
    3. When possible, refer all matters to committees, for "further study and consideration." Attempt to make the committees as large as possible — never less than five.
    4. Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
    5. Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.
    6. Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
    7. Advocate "caution." Be "reasonable" and urge your fellow-conferees to be "reasonable" and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.
    8. Be worried about the propriety of any decision — raise the question of whether such action as is contemplated lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon. (p. 32)