Tag Archives: Government

Preventing digital feudalism

By Mariana Mazzucato – The use and abuse of data by Facebook and other tech companies are finally garnering the official attention they deserve. With personal data becoming the world’s most valuable commodity, will users be the platform economy’s masters or its slaves?

Prospects for democratizing the platform economy remain dim.

Algorithms are developing in ways that allow companies to profit from our past, present, and future behavior – or what Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard Business School describes as our “behavioral surplus.” In many cases, digital platforms already know our preferences better than we do, and can nudge us to behave in ways that produce still more value. Do we really want to live in a society where our innermost desires and manifestations of personal agency are up for sale?

Capitalism has always excelled at creating new desires and cravings. But with big data and algorithms, tech companies have both accelerated and inverted this process. Rather than just creating new goods and services in anticipation of what people might want, they already know what we will want, and are selling our future selves. Worse, the algorithmic processes being used often perpetuate gender and racial biases, and can be manipulated for profit or political gain. While we all benefit immensely from digital services such as Google search, we didn’t sign up to have our behavior cataloged, shaped, and sold.

To change this will require focusing directly on the prevailing business model, and specifically on the source of economic rents. Just as landowners in the seventeenth century extracted rents from land-price inflation, and just as robber barons profited from the scarcity of oil, today’s platform firms are extracting value through the monopolization of search and e-commerce services. more>

Too Much Democracy Is Bad for Democracy

The major American parties have ceded unprecedented power to primary voters. It’s a radical experiment—and it’s failing.
By Jonathan Rauch and Ray La Raja – Americans who tuned in to the first Democratic presidential debates this summer beheld a spectacle that would have struck earlier generations as ludicrous. A self-help guru and a tech executive, both of them unqualified and implausible as national candidates, shared the platform with governors, senators, and a former vice president. Excluded from the proceedings, meanwhile, were the popular Democratic governor of a reliably Republican state and a congressman who is also a decorated former marine.

If the range of participants seemed odd, it was because the party had decided to let small donors and opinion polls determine who deserved the precious national exposure of the debate stage. Those were peculiar metrics by which to make such an important decision, especially given recent history.

Had the Democrats seen something they liked in the 2016 Republican primary? The GOP’s nominating process was a 17-candidate circus in which the party stood by helplessly as it was hijacked by an unstable reality-TV star who was not, by any meaningful standard, a Republican.

Americans rarely pause to consider just how bizarre the presidential nominating process has become. No other major democracy routinely uses primaries to choose its political candidates, nor did the Founders of this country intend for primaries to play a role in the republican system they devised.

Abraham Lincoln did not win his party’s nomination because he ran a good ground game in New Hampshire; rather, Republican elders saw in him a candidate who could unite rival factions within the party and defeat the Democratic nominee in the general election.

Today’s system amounts to a radical experiment in direct democracy, one without precedent even in America’s own political history.

The two major parties made primaries decisive as recently as the early 1970s. Until then, primaries had been more like political beauty contests, which the parties’ grandees could choose to ignore. But after Hubert Humphrey became the Democrats’ 1968 nominee without entering a single primary, outrage in the ranks led the party to put primary voters in charge. Republicans soon followed suit. more>

Ending short-termism by keeping score

By Klaus Schwab – As finance ministers gather in Washington, DC, for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s annual meetings, they will face no shortage of urgent matters to discuss. Fears of a global recession, the US-China trade war, the fallout of the Brexit talks, and a dangerous debt overhang make this the most stressful economic juncture in a decade. These issues must be discussed, and we should all hope that they can be resolved with minimal damage.

All of this assumes an end to the economic short-termism that underpins policymaking today. For that, we should develop scorecards to track our performance on these long-term priorities. To that end, I have three suggestions.

First, we need to rethink GDP as our “key performance indicator” in economic policymaking.

Second, we should embrace independent tracking tools for assessing progress under the Paris agreement and the SDGs (United Nations Sustainable Development Goals).

Third, we must implement “stakeholder capitalism” by introducing an environmental, social, and governance (ESG) scorecard for businesses.

On the first point, we desperately need to change our overall economic frame of reference. For 75 years, the world marched to the beat of the drum called “Gross Domestic Product.” Now, we need a new instrument. GDP gained traction when economies were primarily seen as vehicles for mobilizing wartime production. Yet today’s economies are expected to serve an entirely different purpose: maximizing wellbeing and sustainability.

It is time to consider a new approach. A group of economists from the private sector, academia, and international institutions, including Diane Coyle and Mariana Mazzucato, has already been working on alternate measures and ways to correct for the failings of GDP.

Their Wealth Project, which evolved from efforts initiated by the World Bank, has offered a number of proposals for how we can move forward. more>

The Unwinnable Trade War

By Weijian Shan – There are at least two reasons why Chinese exports to the United States have not fallen as much as the Trump administration hoped they would. One is that there are no good substitutes for many of the products the United States imports from China, such as iPhones and consumer drones, so U.S. buyers are forced to absorb the tariffs in the form of higher prices.

The other reason is that despite recent headlines, much of the manufacturing of U.S.-bound goods isn’t leaving China anytime soon, since many companies depend on supply chains that exist only there. (In 2012, Apple attempted to move manufacturing of its high-end Mac Pro computer from China to Texas, but the difficulty of sourcing the tiny screws that hold it together prevented the relocation.)

Some export-oriented manufacturing is leaving China, but not for the United States. According to a May survey conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, fewer than six percent of U.S. businesses in China plan to return home. Sixty percent of U.S. companies said they would stay in China.

The damage to the economy on the import side is even more pronounced for the United States than it is for China. Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and elsewhere found that in 2018, the tariffs did not compel Chinese exporters to reduce their prices; instead, the full cost of the tariffs hit American consumers. As tariffs raise the prices of goods imported from China, U.S. consumers will opt to buy substitutes (when available) from other countries, which may be more expensive than the original Chinese imports but are cheaper than those same goods after the tariffs. The price difference between the pre-tariff Chinese imports and these third-country substitutes constitutes what economists call a “dead-weight loss” to the economy.

Beijing’s nimble calculations are well illustrated by the example of lobsters. China imposed a 25 percent tariff on U.S. lobsters in July 2018, precipitating a 70 percent drop in U.S. lobster exports. At the same time, Beijing cut tariffs on Canadian lobsters by three percent, and as a result, Canadian lobster exports to China doubled. Chinese consumers now pay less for lobsters imported from essentially the same waters.

The uncomfortable truth for Trump is that U.S. trade deficits don’t spring from the practices of U.S. trading partners; they come from the United States’ own spending habits.

The United States has run a persistent trade deficit since 1975, both overall and with most of its trading partners. Over the past 20 years, U.S. domestic expenditures have always exceeded GDP, resulting in negative net exports, or a trade deficit.

The shortfall has shifted over time but has remained between three and six percent of GDP. Trump wants to boost U.S. exports to trim the deficit, but trade wars inevitably invite retaliation that leads to significant reductions in exports.

Even a total Chinese capitulation in the trade war wouldn’t make a dent in the overall U.S. trade deficit. more>

Obama’s Idealists

American Power in Theory and Practice
By Peter Beinart – In different ways, each book traces a narrative arc that begins with a vow, made in young adulthood, to use the United States’ might for good and ends with a sober realization about how hard fulfilling that vow actually is. For Rice, the arc begins with her failure, as a young NSC aide, to rouse the Clinton administration to halt the 1994 Rwandan genocide, after which she pledged “to go down fighting, if ever I saw another instance where I believed U.S. military intervention could . . . make a critical difference in saving large numbers of human lives.” For Power, it starts during her time as a war correspondent in Bosnia, where the besieged residents of Sarajevo asked her to “tell Clinton” about the horrors she had seen. For Rhodes, it begins with 9/11 and the Iraq war, which left him yearning to harness the idealism he felt the Bush administration had squandered.

In each book, three moments during the Obama administration play outsize roles in chastening this youthful idealism: the decision to bomb Libya in 2011, the decision not to bomb Syria in 2013, and the 2016 election.

The problem isn’t that Rice, Power, and Rhodes shade the truth to make themselves look good. To the contrary, all three are, at various points, admirably frank about their mistakes. The problem is that by refusing to reveal what happened behind closed doors, they fail to help readers understand what lessons to draw from the Libya debacle. Is the lesson that presidents who lack the stomach for nation building shouldn’t topple regimes? Is it that the United States needs greater diplomatic capacity? Is it that brutal dictatorships are better than failed states? By not explaining Libya’s lessons, liberal internationalists like Rice, Power, and Rhodes make it easier for nativist bigots like Trump to proffer a lesson of their own: that Washington should care less about people overseas, especially if they are not Christian or white.

In each, the saga of disillusionment reaches its nadir in 2016, with Russia’s electoral interference and Trump’s election. After witnessing the limits of the United States’ ability to defend democracy and human rights abroad, Rice, Power, and Rhodes realize to their horror the limits of its ability to defend those principles at home. When Obama asks Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, to issue a joint statement condemning Russian interference in the election, McConnell refuses, a move that Rhodes calls “staggeringly partisan and unpatriotic.”

Although none of the authors puts it this way, it’s possible to read their books not only as tales of tempered idealism but also as chronicles of America’s declining exceptionalism. In retrospect, the belief in democracy promotion and humanitarian intervention that Rice, Power, and Rhodes embraced early in their careers rested on a faith that democracy was stable at home. With that faith now eroded—and the United States battling its own rising tribalism, authoritarianism, and brutality—it is hard to imagine a book like Power’sA Problem From Hell,” a critique of the country’s repeated failure to stop genocide, becoming the sensation it did in 2002.

As Americans have grown more preoccupied with, and more pessimistic about, their own country’s moral condition, they have turned inward. As a young woman, Power helped expose concentration camps in Bosnia. Today’s young activists are exposing them in Texas. As of September, foreign policy has barely figured in the Democratic presidential debates. more>

The EU’s rule-of-law test

By Tytti Tuppurainen – In his book The Origins of Political Order, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that the rule of law is the most difficult pillar for a successful modern society to construct.

Organizing government administration and staging elections to a legislative body is relatively easy, and only a small number of failed states have no functioning public administration or legislature. But in far more countries, the absence of the rule of law is the primary source of instability and political decay.

For the EU, the rule of law is of central importance, because the EU is not simply a joint economic undertaking (although, as the economist Hernando de Soto has emphasized, the rule of law is also a prerequisite for a developed market economy). The EU’s raison d’être, like that of its predecessors, is to guarantee peace between European countries and to safeguard human rights within its member states. And the bloc is founded on common values enshrined in its treaties.

The EU’s commitment to the rule of law, set out in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, is straightforward. It stands for legality, legal certainty, the prohibition of arbitrary exercise of authority, the separation of powers, and an effective and independent judiciary. Respect for the rule of law affects different layers of society in very practical ways: at the level of the Union, the nation-state, companies, and citizens.

Within the EU, the rule of law is not a political statement or unattainable moral ideal, but a principle that public officials and courts are responsible for upholding. more>

Updates from Chicago Booth

Whistle-blowers act out of a sense of morality
By Alice G. Walton – Say you witness a coworker subtly misleading a client, or rounding off sales numbers in her favor. Do you report it, or not?

Chicago Booth postdoctoral scholar James A. Dungan, Boston College’s Liane Young, and Northwestern’s Adam Waytz looked at what goes into the calculation people make when considering whether to report bad behavior. Moral concerns figure highly, they find, above employees’ feelings about their employers, fear of reprisal, and satisfaction with the recognition and rewards they receive at their job.

To understand the factors that predict the likelihood of whistle-blowing, the researchers analyzed data from more than 42,000 participants in the ongoing Merit Principles Survey, which has polled US government employees since 1979, and which covers whistle-blowing. Respondents answer questions about their past experiences with unethical behavior, the approaches they’d take in dealing with future unethical behavior, and their personal characteristics, including their concern for others and their feelings about their organizations.

Concern for others was the strongest predictor of whistle-blowing, the researchers find. This was true both of people who had already blown the whistle on bad behavior and of people who expected they might in the future.

Loyalty to an immediate community—or ingroup, in psychological terms—was also linked to whistle-blowing, but in an inverse way. “The greater people’s concern for loyalty, the less likely they were to blow the whistle,” write the researchers.

Organizational factors—such as people’s perceptions about their employer, their concern for their job, and their level of motivation or engagement—were largely unconnected to whether people spoke up. more>

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The Unwanted Wars

Why the Middle East Is More Combustible Than Ever
By Robert Malley – The war that now looms largest is a war nobody apparently wants.

A conflict could break out in any one of a number of places for any one of a number of reasons. Consider the September 14 attack on Saudi oil facilities: it could theoretically have been perpetrated by the Houthis, a Yemeni rebel group, as part of their war with the kingdom; by Iran, as a response to debilitating U.S. sanctions; or by an Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Iraq.

If Washington decided to take military action against Tehran, this could in turn prompt Iranian retaliation against the United States’ Gulf allies, an attack by Hezbollah on Israel, or a Shiite militia operation against U.S. personnel in Iraq. Likewise, Israeli operations against Iranian allies anywhere in the Middle East could trigger a regionwide chain reaction. Because any development anywhere in the region can have ripple effects everywhere, narrowly containing a crisis is fast becoming an exercise in futility.

The Middle East has become the world’s most polarized region and, paradoxically, its most integrated. That combination—along with weak state structures, powerful nonstate actors, and multiple transitions occurring almost simultaneously—also makes the Middle East the world’s most volatile region. It further means that as long as its regional posture remains as it is, the United States will be just one poorly timed or dangerously aimed Houthi drone strike, or one particularly effective Israeli operation against a Shiite militia, away from its next costly regional entanglement.

Ultimately, the question is not chiefly whether the United States should disengage from the region. It is how it should choose to engage: diplomatically or militarily, by exacerbating divides or mitigating them, and by aligning itself fully with one side or seeking to achieve a sort of balance.

Economically, it ranks among the least integrated areas of the world; institutionally, the Arab League is less coherent than the European Union, less effective than the African Union, and more dysfunctional than the Organization of American States. Nor is there any regional entity to which Arab countries and the three most active non-Arab players (Iran, Israel, and Turkey) belong.

Yet in so many other ways, the Middle East functions as a unified space. Ideologies and movements spread across borders: in times past, Arabism and Nasserism; today, political Islam and jihadism. more>

Yes, contemporary capitalism can be compatible with liberal democracy

By William A. Galston – Ever since Aristotle examined the relationship between class structure and regimes of government, political scientists have understood that a strong middle class is the foundation of stable constitutional governance. The reason is straightforward: in societies divided into the rich few and the many poor, class warfare is inevitable.

The rich will use the state to defend what they have; the poor, to gain a bigger share. Sometimes this will be through majoritarian democracy, but is often led by a strongman claiming to act in the people’s name.

By contrast to either of these ambitions, the middle class tends more to prize the rule of law and to seek incremental rather than radical change.

Through much of human history, class structure was a product of chance and force, not policy. Because economic growth as we know it today existed neither in theory nor reality, economies were understood as zero-sum games. Political communities gained through plunder and conquest (or imperial tribute); economic classes gained through redistribution.

It is only during the past three centuries that long-term, secular economic growth, from which in principle all can gain, was conceptualized and realized as part of humankind’s lived experience.

There was nothing natural or automatic about this process. The vibrant markets on which growth depends are systems of rules backed by public power as well as social norms. Wise policies are needed to ensure that the fruits of growth are widely shared. When these conditions are satisfied, market economies tend to generate not only broad improvements in living standards but also growing middle classes that the poor can hope to enter.

Market-driven economic growth tends therefore to support constitutional governance in its modern form, combining elements of majoritarian democracy with protected individual rights and liberties. more>

The Dictators’ Last Stand

differencebetween.netWhy the New Autocrats Are Weaker Than They Look
By Yascha Mounk – It has been a good decade for dictatorship. The global influence of the world’s most powerful authoritarian countries, China and Russia, has grown rapidly.

For the first time since the late nineteenth century, the cumulative GDP of autocracies now equals or exceeds that of Western liberal democracies. Even ideologically, autocrats appear to be on the offensive: at the G-20 summit in June, for instance, President Vladimir Putin dropped his normal pretense that Russia is living up to liberal democratic standards, declaring instead that “modern liberalism” has become “obsolete.”

Conversely, it has been a terrible decade for democracy. According to Freedom House, the world is now in the 13th consecutive year of a global democratic recession. Democracies have collapsed or eroded in every region, from Burundi to Hungary, Thailand to Venezuela. Most troubling of all, democratic institutions have proved to be surprisingly brittle in countries where they once seemed stable and secure.

In 2014, I suggested in these pages that a rising tide of populist parties and candidates could inflict serious damage on democratic institutions. At the time, my argument was widely contested. The scholarly consensus held that demagogues would never win power in the long-established democracies of North America and western Europe. And even if they did, they would be constrained by those countries’ strong institutions and vibrant civil societies.

Today, that old consensus is dead. The ascent of Donald Trump in the United States, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has demonstrated that populists can indeed win power in some of the most affluent and long-established democracies in the world. And the rapid erosion of democracy in countries such as Hungary and Venezuela has shown that populists really can turn their countries into competitive authoritarian regimes or outright dictatorships. The controversial argument I made five years ago has become the conventional wisdom.

But this new consensus is now in danger of hardening into an equally misguided orthodoxy. Whereas scholars used to hope that it was only a matter of time until some of the world’s most powerful autocracies would be forced to democratize, they now concede too readily that these regimes have permanently solved the challenge of sustaining their legitimacy.

The new orthodoxy is especially misleading about the long-term future of governments that promise to return power to the people but instead erode democratic institutions. These populist dictatorships, in countries such as Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, share two important features: first, their rulers came to power by winning free and fair elections with an anti-elitist and anti-pluralist message. Second, these leaders subsequently used those victories to concentrate power in their own hands by weakening the independence of key institutions, such as the judiciary; curtailing the ability of opposition parties to organize; or undermining critical media outlets.

It is too early to conclude that the populist dictatorships that have arisen in many parts of the world in recent years will be able to sustain themselves in power forever. In the end, those who are subject to these oppressive regimes will likely grow determined to win back their freedom. more>