Autocracy 2.0

Further to the previous post and the erosion (if not yet the implosion) of the post-war world order, another significant shift lies in the rise of new kinds of autocracies. In the post-war era, democracies were generally much more prosperous and better governed than autocracies, most of which were disaster zones. The Soviet Union was full of shops that had nothing to sell and citizens queueing for hours to buy consumer goods and even bread. And — just in case they were minded to try their luck elsewhere — they were locked behind an Iron Curtain that kept them from fleeing to the West. (Cue images of the Berlin Wall.) I remember the occasional visitor from the Soviet bloc arriving in Cambridge and being transfixed by a visit to Sainsburys. China was a backward country that had just recovered from a major famine and Maoist madness. Albania and Romania and even Poland were backward dystopias. Ethiopia was a byword for famine, suffering and death. And so on.

But now? Here’s Tyler Cowen’s take on it:

Since that time, governance in those regions has become much, much better, even though China, Ethiopia and Russia still are not democracies in the Western sense. China for instance has built one of the world’s most impressive economic growth miracles ever, with the Communist Party still firmly in power. Ethiopia is coming off of some years of double-digit economic growth and is developing its manufacturing. Yet the country is autocratic and has a history of censoring the internet. Putin rules Russia with a firm hand, but today consumer goods of virtually all kinds are widely available and most Russians are free to leave whenever they want.

What led to these beneficial changes? In the 1970s and 1980s, it was a common view that if authoritarian or totalitarian regimes liberalized, it would bring an end to their rule. The collapse of Soviet and Eastern European communism over 1989-1992 seemed consistent with this prediction, as perestroika and relaxed travel restrictions caused those regimes to implode.

But maybe that was wishful thinking on our part. Tyler says that modern autocrats — most of all in China — have found ways of both liberalizing and staying in power.

The good news is that people living under authoritarian governments have much, much better lives than before. The corresponding bad news is that autocracy works better than it used to and thus it is more popular and probably also more enduring. The notion that autocratic government would fade away, either in practice or as an ideological competitor to Western liberalism, simply isn’t tenable any more.

The basic message, therefore, might be this: autocracy works! For most of us liberals, this is an appalling thought. But since most people are not much interested in politics — or perhaps in free speech, judicial independence, the rule of law, etc. — so long as the system delivers jobs, economic growth and public order then that’s good enough for them.

Present at the Destruction

Reflecting on Trump’s decision to walk away from the G7 Summit at Charlevoix without signing the joint communique, the New Yorker‘s George Packer was reminded of an earlier era:

Dean Acheson, President Truman’s Secretary of State, called his autobiography Present at the Creation. The title referred to the task that confronted American leaders at the end of the Second World War and the start of the Cold War, which was “just a bit less formidable than that described in the first chapter of Genesis,” Acheson wrote. “That was to create a world out of chaos; ours, to create half a world, a free half, out of the same material without blowing the whole to pieces in the process.” A network of institutions and alliances—the United Nations, Nato, the international monetary system, and others— became the foundation for “the rules-based international order” that the leaders in Charlevoix saluted. It imposed restraints on the power politics that had nearly destroyed the world. It was a liberal order, based on coöperation among countries and respect for individual rights, and it was created and upheld by the world’s leading liberal democracy. America’s goals weren’t selfless, and we often failed to live up to our stated principles. Power politics didn’t disappear from the planet, but the system endured, flawed and adaptable, for seventy years.

“In four days, between Quebec and Singapore”, Packer continues,

Trump showed that the liberal order is hateful to him, and that he wants out. Its rules are too confining, its web of connections—from trade treaties to security alliances—unfair. And he seems to find his democratic counterparts distasteful, even pathetic. They speak in high-minded rhetoric rather than in Twitter insults, they’re emasculated by parliaments and by the press, and maybe they’re not very funny. Trump prefers the company of dictators who can flatter and be flattered. Part of his unhappiness in Quebec was due to the absence of President Vladimir Putin; before leaving for the summit, Trump had demanded that Russia be unconditionally restored to the G-7, from which it was suspended over the dismemberment of Ukraine. He finds nothing special about democratic values, and nothing objectionable about murderous rulers. “What, you think our country is so innocent?” he once asked.

This is an exceedingly prescient article. It highlights the wilful blindness of many commentators who are outraged by what is happening — particularly the disintegration of the post-war, US-designed, ‘liberal’ world order which enabled societies (at any rate the West) to recover from the trauma of the second world war and enjoy a period of relative peace and prosperity. Almost everything we see now — the growing difficulties of the EU as it grapples with the increasingly illiberal regimes in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Trump’s ‘America First’ obsessions, the rise of China, Putin’s triumphalism, etc. — suggests a reversion to a world dominated by old-style power-politics.

The liberal game is over, in other words. Although I am/was a beneficiary of it (like many members of various Western elites) I was never an unqualified admirer of it. From the 1970s onwards, it was really a system for making the world ready for neoliberalism, with all the inequality and injustice that that implied. But maybe, pace Churchill, it was the least bad of the available alternatives.

The challenge now is to see if there is a creative side to the destruction of Acheson’s creation.

Censorship 2.0

This morning’s Observer column:

One of the axioms of the early internet was an observation made by John Gilmore, a libertarian geek who was one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The internet,” said Gilmore, “interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” To lay people this was probably unintelligible, but it spoke eloquently to geeks, to whom it meant that the architecture of the network would make it impossible to censor it. A forbidden message would always find a route through to its destination.

Gilmore’s adage became a key part of the techno-utopian creed in the 1980s and early 1990s. It suggested that neither the state nor the corporate world would be able to censor cyberspace. The unmistakable inference was that the internet posed an existential threat to authoritarian regimes, for whom control of information is an essential requirement for holding on to power.

In the analogue world, censorship was relatively straightforward…

Read on

US diplomacy, 2018-style

From the Washington Post:

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who spoke with Trump as he flew home from Singapore on Air Force One, said the president was simply being his natural “salesman” self.

“He is selling condos, that’s what he is doing,” Graham said. “He’s approaching North Korea as a distressed property with a cash-flow problem. Here’s how we can fix it.”

In a news conference Tuesday before departing Singapore, Trump hinted at his dreams of real estate diplomacy, noting that he had played Kim a video — derided by some as more akin to North Korean propaganda than the work of the president’s National Security Council — to show him the possibilities of a deal with the West.

“As an example, they have great beaches,” Trump said. “You see that whenever they’re exploding their cannons into the ocean, right? I said, ‘Boy, look at the view. Wouldn’t that make a great condo behind?’ ”

The AT&T judgment shows how how far US antitrust law has drifted

In today’s FT, the paper’s US Editor trumpets the Circuit Court’s approval of the AT&T-Time-Warner merger as evidence of the resilience of the judicial system in the face of Trump’s aggression. (He has regularly spouted his opposition to the deal.) But Tim Wu sees it more of a confirmation of how far antitrust law and judicial interpretation has drifted from the original determination of Congress to prevent corporate agglomeration.

When Congress enacted the Anti-Merger Act of 1950, the law by which American courts still adjudge corporate mergers, it did so with the repeatedly stated goal of fighting excessive economic concentration. The “dominant” concern, as the Supreme Court wrote in a 1962 merger case that analyzed the law, was about “a rising tide of economic concentration in the American economy.” At the time, the court explained, a wave of corporate consolidation posed the threat of an “accelerated concentration of economic power” and also a “threat to other values,” like the independence of smaller businesses and local control of industry. In particular Congress had said it intended the new law to stop a wave of mergers in its “incipiency.”

That’s why, for the 1950 Congress, the law would surely have allowed the Justice Department to block the recent AT&T-Time Warner merger. The merger, which a federal judge approved on Tuesday, combines AT&T, the nation’s largest wireless provider and a major seller of pay TV, with Time Warner, one of the most powerful media companies, in an $85 billion deal. No one can deny that the new AT&T will have more economic power and also more political power than before, even as it now carries more debt ($181 billion) than many industrialized nations. The ruling, by Judge Richard J. Leon of United States District Court in Washington, implicitly encourages the rest of the industry to integrate as well, and AT&T’s comrades have taken the hint: Comcast has already announced its intent to acquire much of 20th Century Fox, while other deals are said to be imminent.

Judge Leon’s decision shows just how far the law has wandered from congressional intent. The law has become a license for near-uncontrolled consolidation and concentration in almost every sector of economy. Whether involving airlines, hospitals, the pharmaceutical industry, cable television or the major tech platforms, mergers leading to oligopolies or monopolies have become commonplace…


George Soros on the European crisis

Standfirst from his essay:

There is no longer any point in ignoring the reality that a number of European Union member countries have explicitly rejected the EU’s goal of “ever closer union.” Instead of a “multi-speed Europe,” where all members are still heading toward the same destination, the goal should be a “multi-track Europe” that offers member states a wider variety of choices.

Ireland springs another surprise

I’m stunned by the outcome of the referendum on abortion in my native land. I expected it to be close, and watched with distaste the attempts by the American fanatical anti-choice movement to influence the campaign. I thought the Yes campaign would win, but suspected that it would be by a narrow margin (as in the Brexit referendum in the UK). And I expected that the result would reflect the growing urban/rural divide in Ireland.

I was wrong about all this. Two thirds of my fellow-citizens voted to repeal a previous amendment to the Constitution that effectively banned abortions in the Republic. And as for my idea about the urban/rural divide — well, only a single constituency (Donegal) voted against repeal — and then only by a narrow margin (51.9% to 48.1%).

The Irish Times columnist, Una Mullally, summed it up nicely:

We were told this was a divisive campaign. It was a unifying campaign. We were told this was a difficult issue for people, yet for many it was straightforward. We were told it was the third rail of Irish politics, so instead, the people led, from the activists and protestors to the canvassers and ordinary women and men who rolled up their sleeves, to the Citizen’s Assembly, to the women who shared their abortion stories. We were told about Middle Ireland. There is no Middle Ireland. Just Ireland. Its islands, villages, cities, towns, coasts, midlands, mountains, estates, flats, and fields. This campaign was intergenerational. Younger activists stood on the shoulders of those gone before them, and brought an energy, fearlessness, creativity and sense of unrelenting determination and optimism that inspired people across the board. The brilliantly eclectic make-up of the campaign brought in doctors, mothers, lawyers, students, trade unionists, the LGBT community, feminists, and everyone in between.

Who did the No campaign really have in the end, apart from a cabal of fringe fundamentalists whom no one can really understand how or why they have gained such a platform and unfettered access to the media? The No campaign drove recklessly and ended in a car crash. They alienated undecided voters at every juncture with extreme messaging. In the final weeks, the No campaign acted as an asset to the Yes campaign, with spokesman John McGuirk, who revelled in bizarre statements, and campaigners such as Ronan Mullen getting short shrift, particularly when he disrespected a woman who shared her abortion story in a television debate. No amount of media training could connect No campaigners with the public.

This is now the second referendum that my fellow-citizens have surprised the world. In 2015 they voted 62.1% to 37.9% to legalise same-sex marriage. And again only one constituency in the entire country voted against.

This is getting to be a habit. Long may it continue.

How democracy ends

David Runciman’s book is out. It’s a terrific, thought-provoking read IMHO, not least because it makes a refreshing contrast to the current feeding-frenzy of shocked liberals bewailing Trump and Orban.

I’m doing a public conversation with David at the Cambridge Union on Tuesday May 22nd. Tickets available here

The problem with welfare states

Interesting WashPo essay by Megan McArdle

Notably, almost all the foreign programs that American social democrats envy were enacted during Europe’s long post-war economic and demographic boom. That meant that the initial cost of these systems was fairly low — young people don’t need much in the way of health care or pensions, and economies at full employment don’t spend a lot on unemployment insurance or job retraining. As incomes soared, it was comparatively easy for government to skim some of the surplus for their new social insurance schemes, because even as their taxes went up, workers still got to take more money home every week. Governments ran into problems when the boom stopped, of course, but by then, political sentiment had cemented those programs in place.

What was easy in 1960 looks herculean as 2020 approaches. Economic growth has slowed, and populations are aging, which raises the cost of any proposed program and requires you to fund heavy losses on someone to fund it, either workers in those industries, or taxpayers. As psychologists tell us, people are “loss averse” — they care much more about losing something they have than about equivalent potential gains. Given the mammoth cost of socializing the U.S. economy now, and the huge number of people who face substantial losses, I’d argue that we should probably change “herculean” to “impossible.”