Why Winners Go Down: Economies, Firms, or States

I have spent much of my career wondering why winners go down.  Revolutions, of course, my main specialty, are the most spectacular case of winners going down.  The former rulers and dominant classes are overthrown and cast aside, much of what they had built up over decades or centuries being lost.

But there are analogous cases in other fields.  In global economics, leading economies fade and are overtaken by others.  Spain, with its glorious global empire in the 1500s, was overtaken first by the Dutch, then the British, then the Americans, over the next four centuries.  In the process, first Spain, then Holland, then Britain, went from being the richest and most powerful country in the entire world to a condition of near irrelevance in the global hierarchy.

In capitalist competition among firms, there are similarly winners who become losers.  IBM is a great survivor, as are Ford and GM, Coca-Cola and Proctor & Gamble and others.  But who now remembers such once-great iconic firms as Woolworth’s, A&P, Pan American, Kodak or Montgomery Ward?

Today, I am preparing for a lecture tour in Japan to address Japan’s future.  There —  just like in America, but much closer to their own shores — they are looking at the dynamism of China and asking about themselves:  will we be overtaken?  Are we the next “winner” in recent history to become a “loser” in the shadow of China’s spectacular rise?

In thinking about this, I am thinking in general terms about what makes once-great nations, economies, or firms turn into failures, sometimes spectacular ones.

The answer is pretty simple.  It’s as old as the story of Easter Island, or as new as the story of Kodak.  And it’s a well known story; it is just remarkable how difficult it is for people to learn from it.

The simple answer is this: the world is always changing, as new ideas and new markets and new technologies come on the scene.  Some of these are what Harvard Prof. Clayton Christenson calls “disruptive innovations,” because they have the potential to make novel and weaker competitors able to compete effectively with established dominant players.  So in order to stay on top, dominant firms or nations have to periodically re-invent themselves. Whatever advantage made the dominant firms or nations dominant will eventually lose its edge; so to stay on top, the dominant firms or nations need to find new advantages to stay ahead of emerging competitors.

Thus the Spanish advantage, based on heavily armed infantry and caravel ships, which overpowered all competitors in the 16th century, gave way to faster and more powerful warships and much better drilled and armed troops developed by the Dutch, using wealth from innovations in windmill power, commercial grain and dairy farming, cod fishing and processing, warehousing, and finance.  Then the British developed even better navies and more powerful national finance mechanisms and made a better imperial bet: grabbing the markets for Asian manufactures (in India for cotton cloth and in China for ceramics and silk), rather than the Dutch approach of taking a monopoly of spices in Indonesia (raw materials of declining value).  British efforts at creating home-manufactured substitutes for these items led to an unexpected industrial revolution that made Britain supreme.

In each case, the dynamics were similar.  The decision-making elites in the dominant nation were so successful at exploiting the advantage they had, that they couldn’t see their way toward abandoning those advantages to gamble on something else. Worse yet, during their period of global dominance, they were rich enough to afford certain inefficiencies that made their lives easier.  Thus the Spanish could afford tax privileges for their elites; the Dutch could afford to become ever more reliant on finance rather than production, even the British in the wake of their industrial revolution allowed themselves to become reliant on apprenticeships and the success of tinkerers to drive innovation rather than create a modern scientific educational and training system for its workers and industrial research (as Germany did, who soon displaced Britain as the global leader in manufacturing).   These inefficiencies in fact came to be seen, in an error only visible in hindsight, as basic rights or advantages that the elites were loathe to surrender and fought to maintain, even as they condemned their nation to growing impotence and irrelevance.

What we see here is the problem of undertaking short-term pain for long-term gain writ very large.  For an individual, making that trade-off is difficult, but possible.  But for an entire elite class, it often seems truly impossible to convince them that undergoing the pain of giving up much-enjoyed and valued privileges and wealth and easy profits and power, in order to give up current advantages that are fading and find new ones that will assure the future, is worthwhile, indeed essential to their survival.

Part of this is rooted in elite’s attitudes toward inequality.  When a nation or firm is poor or small and struggling to catch up, the inequality that matters to that nation or firm’s leader is often the gap between their country and that of the world leader.  To close that gap, they need to make sure that every person in their country, or their firm, is as productive as possible.  They invest in whatever techniques they can find to boost that performance throughout their economy or firm; in the process they often find some advantage than when honed and developed propels them to become formidable competitors and even to overtake the formerly dominant leader.

But when a nation or firm experiences rapid gains and starts to catch up to, or even overtake its competitors, its elites and leaders may grow attached to the wealth they have gained and the particular techniques and habits that accompanied it.  They become wedded to their privileges and social practices as the foundation of their elite status.  At that point, they may cease to care very much  or at all about the welfare of their ordinary workers and citizens, instead doing whatever they think will best maintain their own wealth and power.  This was the case for Spanish aristocratic army commanders; for Dutch oligarchs and financiers; French noble landlords; and British industrialists.  For a while, they can indeed maintain and grow their wealth by abusing and exploiting the ordinary soldiers, workers, and people of their society or firm; but in the longer run they will lose the enthusiasm and productivity and competitive edge of their society or firm as a whole.  Instead of being able to innovate and draw on the strength of the best workforce or most capable citizenry, they will be thrown more and more on their own devices, and then easily overtaken by firms or nations that have better prepared and empowered their people to innovate and strive to overcome others.

This was shown most clearly on the battlefields of 18th century Europe.  Over the 17th and 18th centuries, noble commanders grew ever more distant from their conscript troops; the latter fought only under duress and with little enthusiasm for any cause or loyalty to their commanders, seeking mainly to survive.  When Revolutionary France changed this equation by recruiting troops to preserve a republican regime that made them citizens, led by officers chosen and promote for merit, they overcame every army thrown at them by other still-aristocratic European monarchies.

But Japan taught the same lesson to comfortably inefficient American manufacturers in the 1970s and 1980s — by empowering workers, raising their education and human capital, Japanese manufacturing overtook American giants in regard to both cost and quality, bringing American firms in numerous industries to their knees.

America survived by restructuring its old industries (although many went bankrupt or nearly so and never regained their global domination), but mainly by pioneering in new information and computer and materials industries.  America’s great research universities, and the ease of forming new companies to exploit their discoveries, allowed America to retain its place in the world economy despite the loss of its former dominance in much traditional manufacturing, where Japan and Germany and Korea (in many high end industries) and China (in most low-end industries) took over.

But today, both Japan and America again risk fading away.  American elites have created a system of income and wealth inequality and expensive private-financed education that is gutting the state universities and making private university education unaffordable for the vast majority of the population, along with K-12 education that is, as a whole, among the worst in the developed world.  Tolerating a stagnation in wages and decay in relative human capital (recent tests of 15 and 20 year olds show that American high schoolers and college graduates rank toward the bottom of the 20 leading industrialized nation in skills), American firms will struggle to compete against firms and countries with much more capable talent.  For the last thirty years, America’s competitiveness has relied heavily on the skills of the baby-boom generation (including Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and many others) and immigrants (Sergey Brin and numerous Asian founders of high tech and financial firms).  As the baby-boomers, who were at the time the best educated population in the world, fade away, and the doors to immigrants close tighter and tighter except for the family members of existing Americans, the overwhelming advantages that America had over other nations will fade as well.

Japan has a different problem but one just as profound.  Japan still has the world’s best educated population — by all tests its high schoolers and recent college graduates have the best literacy and numeracy of all advanced nations.  Yet Japan has its inefficiencies as well that are crippling it today: a respect for the elderly that keeps control of key institutions in the hands of 70 and 80 year old leaders while it is difficult for younger people to start their own firms to compete; and a confining view of marriage that makes women choose between family and career and makes choosing a family unattractive.  The latter has resulted in drops in marriage and fertility that are causing the size of the youth and working-age populations to plummet, starving Japan’s domestic market demand and labor force.  At the same time, Japan is opposed to immigration, and severely lagging other advanced nations in English language skills, so that it is unable to draw in talent from outside its own shrinking population.  Despite the quality of its young work force, Japan is thus starving itself of the numbers of young people and families it needs to sustain its own growth.  Unless it can change these aspects of its social practices, it too will continue to fade in global competition with more dynamic societies.

The statues of Easter Island are mute testimony to what happens when elites continue to place maintenance of their own positions above the welfare and productivity of the ordinary citizens of their society, and are unable to wrench themselves out of old habits.  But history shows us that this is the norm, not the exception.  Winners become losers; that may be as true of America and Japan today as it was in so many places across the centuries past.

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Should we vs. Can we?

My recent posts on staying out of Iraq have produced several interesting comments (click on the titles of the posts below then scroll down to see the comments and replies).

Let me be clear — if I thought we could improve American security and reduce killing and strife in the Middle East by some kind of intervention, I would be in favor of that, as I was in Syria, and in Libya.

Did past US actions contribute to the current problems? Regrettably, yes.  As the most powerful country in the world and one long involved in the region, do we have a moral responsibility to try to reduce the violence?  Again, yes.  And should the U.S. do everything to reduce the risks of terrorism against Americans at home and abroad — a third time, yes.  That is what the American people want when they say that terrorism is the most significant threat to U.S. security.

However, the real-world question, not the abstract moral one, is whether any actual interventions: air strikes, inserting special forces as advisors and intelligence coordinators, or calling on Iraq to change its government are actually going to do any good.

President Obama already faced such a decision once, in Syria.  There, in the early days, Obama decided that even though there was a cruel dictator facing a serious rebellion involving growing dominance by extreme jihadists (in fact the same ISIS organization now moving into Iraq), and producing hundreds of  thousands of deaths and refugees, the U.S. would do nothing.

At the time, I believed that early in that conflict, the U.S. could have effectively intervened to limit the role of jihadists and force a negotiated settlement on Assad.  But the time has passed for that, and at this point not intervening (unless the conflict spills into Jordan or Turkey) seems the best course.

But now in Iraq, Obama faces a situation very much like that in Syria, except that the jihadists are even more dominant (although, to be clear, the Sunni rebellion in Iraq includes many groups besides ISIS).    So why now choose to intervene here?  In Syria, there was at least a hope of eliminating (in Assad) a strong ally of Iran.  In Iraq, where Iran is the country most committed to the survival of the regime in Baghdad, saving the government — even if it can be saved — simply supports a bad government allied with Iran.

Could Iraq develop a more inclusive government?  Perhaps at one point, but I fear at present that opportunity has passed.  Much more likely is the (overdue?) dissolution of Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi’a independent countries.  The  Shi’as of Iraq are unlikely to ever allow the Sunnis of Anbar and other western provinces full equality and a return to prominence in a united Iraq.  The Kurds have been enjoying de facto independence and moving steadily toward actual independence for some time.

The academic literature on civil wars is fairly clear — unless overwhelming force can be used to separate the combatants, such wars only end with the victory of one side or the other, or a painful stalemate that forces the sides to negotiate.  Moderate foreign intervention usually has the effect of making civil wars last longer, as it is insufficient to provide a victory and just encourages the side being supported to fight on.

Does it make sense for the U.S. to intervene so massively as to halt the conflict by putting troops on the ground to push back the forces of ISIS? And if we did so, what then?  Does the U.S. again occupy Anbar and try to beat down the inevitable insurgency?  Haven’t we been there, done that already?

And if the U.S. is not willing to intervene with overwhelming force, what will be accomplished by intervening “just a little?”  Will that enable the demoralized and poorly trained Iraqi military to defeat, occupy, and suppress the Sunnis of Anbar?  Unlikely.

With support from Iran, the Shi’as of Iraq should be able to preserve the bulk of the portion of the country where they dominate.  And then Iraqis will have to work out their own fate, whether to divide their country into real nations, or not.  However, there is little or nothing the U.S. can do to decide that outcome.

Could the ISIS-dominated state in Western Iraq and Northern Syria then become a terrorist threat to Europe and the U.S.?  Perhaps; but for the most part ISIS is far more engaged in conflict with Sh’ias and secular regimes in the Islamic Middle East. By far the greatest target of Muslim terrorists have been other Muslims; whether in the Middle East, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, intra-Islamic conflicts have far outweighed attacks on Israel, India, or Western nations.  The Boston Marathon terrorists came out of Dagestan, not Pakistan, Afghanistan, or the Middle East.

As long as the West is perceived as the enemy of Islam, fanatic Muslims will plan attacks against the West, whether those fanatics come from north Africa, Central Asia, southeast Asia, or even the Muslims of Europe or America (or even, as with the Fort Hood shooting, from within the U.S. military).  What we should have learned in the last decade is that having American and NATO troops fighting in various Islamic countries will not stop or suppress Islamic terrorist attacks inside or outside the Islamic world.  Homeland security remains the best way to protect Americans from terrorist threats.

In the long run, the best way to reduce Islamist terror threats is for the U.S. to be perceived as a supporter of the legitimate interests of Muslims around the world in freedom, dignity, security, and economic opportunity, for men and women alike.  I do not believe either support for the Sisi regime in Egypt, or military intervention of any kind in Iraq, contributes to those goals.


Posted in The Middle East Revolts | Leave a comment

As I was saying…

Just a few headlines from today to confirm yesterday’s message:

“Jailed Al-Jazeera journalists convicted in Egypt. …

In an interview on Al Jazeera shortly after the verdicts were read, Amnesty International director Steve Crawshaw deplored what he called an “outrageous ruling” and called it an “absolute affront to justice.”

Mostefa Souag, the acting director general of Al Jazeera, called the verdict “shocking” in a televised interview.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with justice,” he said, calling it another step in Egypt’s “campaign of terrorizing people and terrorizing the media.”

Al Jazeera English managing director Al Anstey said in a statement that the sentencing “defies logic, sense, and any semblance of justice.”

And nearby:

“John Kerry holds talks in Iraq as more cities fall to ISIS militants”

According to the article:

“As radical Sunni militants snatch city after city in their march toward Baghdad, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Iraq on Monday. …”I’m here to convey to you President Obama’s and the American people’s commitment to help Iraq,” Kerry said when greeting Iraq’s speaker of parliament, Osama al-Nujayfi. “The principal concern is the integrity of the country, its borders, its sovereignty,” …. His trip is emphasizing “our highest-level commitment to Iraq during this time of crisis,” a State Department official said.

OK — so what exactly represents our “highest level commitment?” 300 advisors?  What exactly was Kerry thinking when he said “the American People’s commitment” to help Iraq is concerned with keeping the integrity of their borders.  Really??  Can you find any poll that remotely suggests a majority of the American people have a commitment to maintaining the integrity of Iraq’s borders?

This loose language is foolish and dangerous.  It is foolish at home because it presumes to commit the American people to a state they hardly know and certainly no longer want to support; it is foolish abroad because it commits us to the cause of a regime that we will in fact not fight to defend, and when that regime falls the US will again look impotent to both enemies and allies.

No one likes an I told you so, so let me just say it again:  We have no business supporting the governments of Iraq or Egypt at this time. We should be staying as far away from both as we can, and Kerry’s actions to engage and support them is a bad policy that we will come to regret.

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When it is vitally important to do nothing!

Disasters everywhere:  Syria is in flames, Iraq is collapsing, Afghanistan’s election is disputed with riots, Boko Haram is still unchecked in Nigeria, Libya is breaking up in slow motion, Buddhists (Buddhists!) are massacring Muslims in Sri Lanka, tanks and armored vehicles are on the move in Ukraine.  In these difficult times, when on all sides cries arise to “DO SOMETHING” is it vitally important to be selective in deciding whether doing something–anything–is really superior to waiting things out.

As someone who in the past was a firm advocate of intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11, in Libya after the first rebellion in Benghazi, and in Syria from the beginning of the rebellion, it may surprise some that my advice regarding the advance of ISIS in Iraq is “Do nothing.”

But so it is.  Just as the initial US intervention in Iraq in 2003 burgeoned into a disaster (except for the Kurds, who gained a de facto independent state in northern Iraq), further intervention will likely only make things worse for the U.S.

The fight between ISIS and Iraq is a fight between two undemocratic, extremist religious groups who seek to destroy each other.  It is a mud and bomb-slinging match, with vicious propaganda and vicious weapons, and to blunder into the middle of this will only leave the U.S. or NATO dirty and scarred.  On the one hand, ISIS is a fanatic Sunni group who wishes to destroy anyone who stands in the way of their goal of turning the historically rich and multi-religious regions of Syria and Iraq into a homogenous orthodox Sunni society under religious/military rule. On the other hand, the Maliki government in Iraq has acted like a fanatic Shi’a group who wishes to destroy anyone who stands in the way of turning the historically rich and multi-religious society of Iraq into a Shi’a dominated society under authoritarian rule.  Maliki’s government has not been as photogenically violent as ISIS, but in its own way it has sought to destroy the role of Sunni Arabs in Iraq by marginalizing them, disdaining their votes and rights, and ensuring they have no dignified place in Iraqi society.  So wonder so many Iraqi Arabs have in effect joined ISIS, given the choice between these two monsters — better the monster who believes in you than the one who has been your enemy!

To imagine that any good can come to the U.S. or NATO from associating oneself with the survival or cause of either of these contending parties is a terrible, destructive illusion.

President Obama has sent 300 “advisors” to Iraq to assist the government.  Who are they, and what is their mission?  They are not civilian advisors, but experienced elite military officers, SEALS and special forces.  What is their mission?  The cover story is that they are in Iraq to assess the fighting potential of the Iraqi army.  Really?  After the last few weeks, anyone can answer that question without entering Iraq — it is terrible!  Maliki, like any aspiring personalist dictator, has driven out professional military officers and replaced them with personal supporters chosen for political loyalty, not military experience and skill.  They are now enlisting tens of thousands of volunteers to be thrown in to a line of defense around Baghdad without any significant military training.  Those who do not run will be slaughtered.

The only plausible mission for the “advisors,” given the movement of aircraft carriers into position in the Gulf, will be to gather intelligence to guide US air power in striking at ISIS forces.  Yet this is a foolish hope.  ISIS is not dumb enough to present nice massed tank or armored vehicle columns, as did Saddam Hussein, for US airpower to destroy.  ISIS will bury itself in and around towns used as staging areas: Fallujah, Husaybah, and others.  Use of US airpower will inevitably kill civilians, and the US will once again appear to the entire Sunni Arab world as shedding innocent Muslim blood.  As is almost always the case with large-scale military actions, those actions taken in the name of trying to halt terrorists will in fact worsen our problems of terrorism.

Even worse, if that is possible, is Secretary Kerry’s visit to Egypt to meet with Egypt’s new President Sisi.  This is an outrage of the worst sort.  Sisi heads a government that overthrew an elected President in a military coup, and then when it tried to validate itself by popular elections — running virtually unopposed — it had to hold the polls open an extra day to try to persuade enough people to come out and vote for Sisi to make the election credible.

The Sisi regime has trampled on human rights in a variety of ways.  The epidemic of violence against women has been supported, not stopped, by the Egyptian police.  HUNDREDS of people have been sentenced to death–for what?  For participating in a demonstration during which ONE policeman was killed.  There was some hope that these sentences would only be for show, and that the death penalty would be thrown out on appeal; but that hope was forlorn.  Yesterday an Egyptian court upheld the death sentences for 183 members of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Moreover, since last November, Egypt has had a law in effect that bans all public demonstrations unless they receive a permit from the government 72 hours in advance.  This is a regime that jails journalists, brutally abuses women and political opponents, and intends to stamp out any democratic and civil freedoms, as well as any opposition.

And yet the U.S. continues to support this regime with over a billion dollars of military hardware each year.  And an official accompanying Secretary Kerry to Cairo explained — to my utter disbelief — that the purpose of Kerry’s visit to Cairo, aside from trying to rally support among Sunni nations (!??) to support the MALIKI government (which is now backed by the chief nemesis of the Sunni nations, Iran!) is to “make the point that it is in Egyptian political and economic interest to build a more inclusive government. … ‘We do not share the view of the Egyptian government about links between the Muslim Brothers and terrorist groups,’ said the official. ‘With regard to the challenge that the Muslim Brothers pose, I would characterize it more as a political challenge than a security challenge.'”

This is foolishness on a scale that beggars the mind, even for the U.S.  Is there no one in the U.S. State Department who can spare Secretary Kerry the embarrassment of appearing so ignorant?  Has no one told him of the life-and-death struggle for the past six decades between the Egyptian military leadership and the Muslim Brotherhood?  This is like trying to encourage a cobra and a mongoose to form an inclusive government, persuading the cobra that the mongoose should be seen “more as a political challenge than a security challenge.”   As soon as Kerry leaves, as long as he has ensured that Egypt will continue to receive U.S. military aid, I am sure that peals of laughter will ring out throughout Cairo at the Secretary’s naivite.

What the U.S. should do in Egypt is dissociate itself as fully as possible from the Sisi regime, and claim that the U.S supports the Egyptian people and their rights to dignity, free expression, and personal security.  We should stop all aid and demand that only when a truly inclusive government has been provided through free and competitive elections, the military returned to their barracks and subjected to civilian rule, and journalists freed and women protected, will the U.S. find Egypt a suitable recipient of significant U.S. aid.

Every day that we support the government of Sisi, ordinary Egyptians and Muslims everywhere will conclude that the U.S is an enemy of democracy and of Islam, just as they did from our support for Mubarak.

Dare I say it:  At this point in the mess that the Middle East has become (with the sole exception of Tunisia, which is making progress on building an inclusive democratic regime and deserves our support, and the possible exception of Jordan) the best thing, in terms of military action, is to DO NOTHING.  There is a good case to be made for offering humanitarian support to refugees in Turkey and Jordan, who are suffering from the chaos in Syria and Iraq.  But beyond that, there is little we can do that does not make things worse for those in the region, and the U.S.

President Putin, who the U.S. is warning not to intervene against the new regime in Ukraine on the grounds that Ukraine’s new government is a democracy, must be shaking his head as he sees the U.S. gather forces to support Sisi in Egypt and Maliki in Iraq.  Clearly, the U.S. has no principles, nothing but naked self-interest, and so clearly Russia must act in the same way.  Thus we sow trouble with our sorely misguided actions, and reap ever worse and worse outcomes.

Posted in The Middle East Revolts, U.S. Politics | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Making healthy life easy (or not…)

There is a new disease stalking  the developed world.  Not ebola, or anti-biotic resistant tuberculosis, or MERS ( a new respiratory disease that emerged in Saudi Arabia).  They are bad enough.  This one is called NASH, and has an even more tongue-twisting actual name: non-alcoholic steatohepatitis.  Or in plain English, non-alcoholic fatty liver syndrome.

In NASH, the liver swells up from excess fat deposits, rather like the liver in a goose stuffed to develop into foie gras.  The result is virtually the same as alcohol-produced cirrhosis of the liver.  There is no cure, and in severe cases the only treatment is a liver transplant.

Thirty years ago, this condition was so rare in the United States it did not even have a name.  Now it is suspected to be occurring in 5 million Americans.  In 2001 cases of NASH were responsible for only 1 percent of liver transplants in the U.S.; by 2009 it had reached 10 percent, and by 2020 NASH is expected to be the leading reason for liver transplants.

Where did this epidemic come from?  Apparently, like smoking and drinking, we did it to ourselves.  NASH is linked to obesity and type-II diabetes, both of which stem from excessive intake of sugar and fats.  It is normally a progressive disease, striking people over 50, but in recent years  we have seen a sharp upsurge of NASH in children and adolescents, just like type-II diabetes.  Today the US performs about six to seven thousand liver transplants per year.  Yet if no treatment is found and current rates of  NASH continue, by 2025 — just ten years from now — the demand for transplants from people with failing livers could reach 5 million per year.

Now if 3D printers can print replacement livers for us by then, all may be fine.  But right now, it seems that millions would die for lack of available organs for transplant.

How did this happen?  Heroin is dangerous, so illegal.  Cigarettes and alcohol are dangerous, so they are illegal for teens and heavily taxed and regulated.  Sugar is just as deadly, when consumed in the quantities we now routinely make available in giant-sized sugary drinks at fast food restaurants, theaters, and convenience stores.

When I was a kid, we drank Coca-Cola in six ounce bottles, got our sugar rush, and that was it (we also turned in the bottle for a recycle fee if we could).  Today’s kids routinely drink 32 ounce sugary drinks.  At McDonald’s the “child-size” Coke is 12 oz., large is 32 ounces and “super-size”  is 42 ounces.  That is almost a half-gallon of soda, containing literally one-quarter pound of sugar! (113 grams)

I won’t go into fats here.  I know that a certain amount of sugar and fat is necessary and healthy, just like drinking wine in moderation is good for you.  But with almost any other substance sold in the marketplace that is dangerous when over-consumed, we regulate it, limit access for minors, and sharply limit marketing.  Yet with sugar, we have no limits!  We accept advertising, huge portions, and access for kids at every vending machine and cafeteria and corner store; when we make sugar consumption so attractive and so easy it’s no wonder we have problems linked to overconsumption.

Of course, just because we see a problem, have good scientific information on how to halt it, and care about children, doesn’t mean we will do a damn thing.  We saw that when Mayor Bloomburg tried to limit the sale  of super-large portions of sugary drinks in New York.

So very likely we will have another problem causing the unnecessary loss of millions of lives, children succumbing to a preventable maladies, and billions of dollars of health care costs added to our health insurance load — in short, another major public policy failure.

It may be impossible to stop hundreds of thousands of people from being killed in Syria and Iraq.  But we can easily stop millions of our own children and adults being killed right here at home — we just have to ban (or punitively tax) portions larger than 12 oz. for sugary drinks, limit the size and number of candy bars that children can purchase without an adult, and change the marketing of sugar-rich products to include health warnings.

But will we do it?  Or in ten years will we wring our hands over another challenge we faced and ignored?

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Two weeks, dismay and horror

I have spent the last two weeks attending three conferences and various lectures in Russia and the UK, on issues including Public Policy, International Security, and using history to forecast and explain events.

Sadly, it seems clear that neither public policy nor those who study international security have been doing a good job, or paying much attention, to using history to forecast and explain events.

Back in late January, about 3 weeks before the Maidan uprising in Ukraine, I wrote a draft paper that I sent to FOREIGN AFFAIRS (which they declined).  It was responding to an article they published in Jan/Feb  by Michael Mazaar.  Mazaar argued that the US had wasted a decade worrying about failed states, saying that fixing failed states is not the best way to fight terrorism and that we should stop worrying about them.

I argued that Mazaar had it all wrong — the purpose of trying to help strengthen failed states was not to stop terrorism, but to stop widespread regional crises that would produce collapsed governments and international conflicts.  I wrote:

“Ukraine’s decade since the Orange Revolution as an increasingly weak state rent by corruption and declining legitimacy has left it on the brink of civil war and a major source of tension between Europe and Russia. Unmanaged Shi’a-Sunni conflicts in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria not only brought on civil wars; they continue to polarize the entire region into a confrontation between Sunni powers including Turkey and Saudi Arabia and an Iranian-led Shi’a axis that plays out through proxy wars and may lead to even greater conflicts.”

In the last few weeks, we have seen civil war in fact break out in Ukraine, which has caused the most serious Russian/NATO crisis since the end of the Cold War; and we are now seeing a collapse in Iraq that in conjunction with events in the failed state of Syria threatens to wreak havoc throughout the Middle East.  And in addition, we have seen a coup overturn the once-promising democracy in Thailand.  Regarding which I wrote, in a paper published in 2012, regarding the “Red shirt” protests:

“In the end, massive military violence ended the protests.  Yet that mode of response makes it unlikely that Thailand will emerge from authoritarian rule anytime soon.  The government has been discredited and relied on force rather than legitimacy to stay in power;  once that step is taken, governments are generally committed to that path.”

Sure enough, despite the hopeful election of Yingluck Shinawatra, once popular pressures for change arose, the military turned to force and staged a coup to depose the Shinawatra regime.

I don’t claim to be a soothsayer; I don’t have a crystal ball and expert predictions are notoriously weak in identifying rapid changes from the status quo.  But it takes no great prophetic powers, just a basic knowledge of history and revolutions, to realize that fragile states periodically collapse, creating regional and international disorder!  That is what “fragility” entails and why it is important to worry about it.

Yet policy-makers seem to have decided that, once the US extracted its troops from Iraq and almost from Afghanistan, that state fragility was no longer our problem.  So when states collapsed in Ukraine, Thailand, and now Iraq, we were wretchedly unprepared and “shocked, simply shocked” to see that we were reaping what we had sown.   Nigeria is also in the process of melting down in the north under assaults from Boko Haram that have exposed the inability of that state to protect its people.  That all of this happened just after we saw the wave of state breakdowns in the Arab Spring is just more reason to be dismayed — we should have been MORE alert to the risks of fragile and failing states, not less!

Still, ignoring the evidence is hardly unique to dealing with fragile states.  The  evidence is strong that immigration is helpful to countries — yet the US  and Europe and Japan refuse to embrace immigration, instead trying to roll up their borders (and people demand they do so, as shown by the defeat of Eric Cantor in the US and the rise of the UK Independence Party and other anti-immigration parties in Europe).  The evidence is overwhelming that the climate is changing in dangerous ways — yet people refuse to take any actions to ameliorate it.

I could add that action is needed on pensions to avoid debt explosions of the kind that felled Detroit and that will derail the state of Illinois and threaten other jurisdictions; that providing universal health care at reasonable costs is vital to keeping the US economy competitive; and that the U.S is becoming a sharply stratified society returning to gilded age levels of inequality but that could be stopped simply by going back to the same estate tax laws we had under Ronald Reagan.  Yet people prefer to turn away from these problems rather than solve them.

I should say that  one thing which was obvious is that I was the only person who was  at BOTH the policy and international security conferences AND the very academic conference on using history for forecasting and explanation.  I understand that; the latter conference had  papers on topics such as whether mathematical models of history can cope with important individual events, the collapse of Mayan civilization, the future of youth in Iranian politics, and other topics that seem to abstract or too far past or too much in the future to capture the interests of policy analysts or those studying current international relations.

Yet unless we do a better job bringing historical and theoretical knowledge of social dynamics to bear, we are not going to be prepared to deal with the dynamics of the world around us.

Sadly, that is where we are now, as we watch in dismay and horror at events unfolding in Iraq, Ukraine, Nigeria, Mali, the Central African Republic, Libya and will watch again in future collapses in other fragile states.

What did Santayana say?  That those who ignore the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it?





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And the winner is … !

In the United States, we think of elections as ending major conflicts and producing outcomes that everyone has to then accept and move forward.

Or rather, we used to think that way. Now, with the rise of the Tea Party and extreme polarization, we find that winning elections does NOT settle arguments. No matter that Obama was re-elected in 2012; Congressional Republicans still felt it was perfectly fine to try to overturn that victory in practice by attacking the President’s policies, blocking his appointments, and seeking to repeal his health care program. In other words, the Republican Party may have lost the race for President, with their candidate Mitt Romney being soundly defeated. But no matter — their zeal was undiminished, their determination to reject Obama’s policies only strengthened.

The United States used to be an exception in the world in the amount of faith we put into fair elections to settle outcomes. Now we have joined everyone else, for in much of the world we find that elections are not the conclusion of a political struggle; they are just one more thing over which to fight.

This week saw a large number of significant elections around the world. Field Marshall Sisi is running for President in Egypt, a position he is in because his military overturned the previously elected President, Mohammed Morsi. Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, was elected prime minister of India, with his Hindu nationalist BJP party winning national elections. Everyone in India is now waiting to see who they have elected: the hard-line Hindu nationalist who did little to help Muslim victims of hate crimes and who will polarize India, producing new conflicts, or the open-minded economic pragmatist who will help India resume rapid economic development? In Ukraine, a national election was held wherein anti-European forces prevented people from voting in two eastern provinces. Meanwhile Thailand sank deeper into a military coup that stepped into the power struggle between an popularly-elected government whose election was declared invalid and a conservative opposition who refuses to tolerate the outcome of recent elections.

Still, perhaps the strangest elections this week were those for the European Parliament. I tend to think that people believe the EU Parliament has so little real power that their votes are just symbolic, and won’t actually affect the conditions under which they live. This is wrong; but the results seem to me to be mainly a protest vote in which voters wanted to send a signal that they disliked the EU’s advocacy of austerity policies, of open immigration within the union, and expensive EU mechanisms that they do not understand. I do not believe European voters really want to give up the freedom to travel without restrictions within the EU, all the advantages of a unified free trade zone, and the environmental and safety legislation and the agricultural payments that the EU has provided for decades (and which voters now take for granted).

Otherwise, it is very hard to understand these results, with anti-EU parties winning the elections in several countries — elections to represent their countries in the very EU institutions they wish to dismantle. This is rather like having advocates of dog-fighting defeating all comers in elections for leadership of the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), or creationists winning elections for leadership of the National Science Foundation.

While election returns are still being counted, it appears that in France, the extreme right-wing National Front party has defeated both mainstream parties (Socialists and center-right UMP) for the first time since the NF was formed; in Britain the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party outpolled both Tories and Labour (the first time since 1910 that one of these parties did not win a nationwide election); in Italy the Five-Star party led by comedian Beppe Grillo will likely come a close second to the ruling Democratic Party; and in Denmark the euro-skeptic Danish People’s Party looks to emerge the winner.

Far-right parties, though not emerging victorious, still did better than previously even in Germany, whose policies toward immigrants are far more friendly and supportive than a decade ago. The new, anti-EU Alternative for Germany party won 7% of the vote, and even the neo-Nazi party won a seat in the EU Parliament for the first time ever. In Austria, the populist FPO party increased its support from 13% to 20%, and in Greece the extreme nationalist Golden Dawn Party won over 9%. Only in the Netherlands did a far-right party do worse than in the previous election, with Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PPV) getting only 13% of the vote.

Altogether, Euroskeptic parties will have the largest single bloc of delegates in the EU Parliament of any political grouping, with about 30% of the total. So this election surely looks to begin a struggle over the existence of the EU; it will be amazing to see how this plays out. Is this just a protest vote for what voters see as a meaningless body anyway (the EU Parliament?) Or is it really a portent of how they will vote in meaningful national elections, when these anti-EU and far-right parties will field candidates for leadership of their own nations? That may not be clear for several years, but the future of Europe hangs in the balance.

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