‘Do nothing’ is better?

Hurricane Camille had just wiped out a large tract of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and obviously might have done a lot more damage—say, if it had hit New Orleans or Miami. Meteorologists thought they now had a technique—dumping silver iodide into the storm—to reduce the force of a hurricane, and possibly even alter its path. Seeding a hurricane wasn’t a simple matter, however. The moment the government intervened in the storm, it was implicated in whatever damage that storm inflicted. The public, and the courts of law, were unlikely to give the government credit for what had not happened, for who could say with certainty what would have happened if the government had not intervened? Instead the society would hold its leaders responsible for whatever damage the storm inflicted, wherever it hit.

Source: Lewis, Michael. The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed the World (pp. 209-210). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

The implications for what is happening around the world with respect to the handling of the Covid are obvious. In this connection, read the piece by Niall Ferguson in unherd.com

Undoing our minds is not easy

I must thank Tim Harford for his ‘Lunch with FT’ interview with Prof. Kahneman.  Prof. Kahneman’s explanation for vaccine hesitancy vs. the virus was such a simple but brilliant demonstration of intellectual clarity. I had blogged about it on 13th May. I was awestruck on reading that. That prompted me to go to my Kindle and finish reading Michael Lewis’ ‘The Undoing Project’. I am glad I saw the Harford interview.

It will be stating the obvious to call it a fabulous book. Both the subject matter and the writing style are a winning combination. The story of the lives and the relationship between two of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century cannot but be interesting. Michael Lewis was possibly one of the best out there to write about it.

To me, what was most interesting was that the two psychologists too could not undo the impact that human frailties and foibles had on their relationship: competition, jealousy, oneupmanship and ego. In fact, they are part of all relationships including between spouses but there is always the underlying affection which becomes too subtle. Each one thinks that the other is taking us for granted. Some events and triggers have to happen to remind both of how much they matter to each other. Sadly, it had to be Prof. Tversky’s cancer diagnosis that reminded both Professor Kahneman and Tversky how much each of them meant to the other.

In keeping with the subject of the book, I could not help wondering what would have happened to the relationship had cancer not rudely invaded Prof. Tversky’s body.

My gut-feeling tells me that, given Prof. Kahneman’s penchant for collaborating with even his most trenchant critics – a quality that is as admirable as it is worth striving to imitate – he would have eventually found a way to collaborate with Prof. Tversky again. That is, he would have become another antagonist to win over. He might have succeeded too. Who knows? We can only speculate now.

The examples of people’s regret over missing winning the lottery by one number (only the final number on the right) and the story of Prof. Kahneman’s nephew’s tragic death in an air crash are related by one thread. Both give rise to thoughts of ‘if only’ or ‘what might have been?’. In all the cases, as Prof. Kahneman had documented, humans do not imagine all the way back. They only focus on what they believe are decisions taken, actions performed that could be undone. There is a constraint on the undoing imagination, as Kahneman observes in the notes he sends Prof. Tversky.

It comes up even in the simplest example that Michael Lewis mentions, quoting from Prof. Kahneman’s work:

Mr. Crane and Mr. Tees are scheduled to leave the airport on different flights, at the same time. They traveled from town in the same limousine, were caught in the same traffic jam, and arrived at the airport thirty minutes after the scheduled departure time of their flights. Mr. Crane is told that his flight left on time.

Mr. Tees is told that his flight was delayed, and just left five minutes ago. Who is more upset?

“The only reason for Mr. Tees to be more upset is that it was more ‘possible’ for him to reach his flight,” Danny wrote, in notes for a talk on the subject.

The imagination obeyed rules: the rules of undoing. One rule was that the more items there were to undo in order to create some alternative reality, the less likely the mind was to undo them. People seemed less likely to undo someone being killed by a massive earthquake than they were to undo a person’s being killed by a bolt of lightning, because undoing the earthquake required them to undo all the earthquake had done. “The more consequences an event has, the larger the change that is involved in eliminating that event,” Danny wrote to Amos. Another, related, rule was that “an event becomes gradually less changeable as it recedes into the past.” With the passage of time, the consequences of any event accumulated, and left more to undo. And the more there is to undo, the less likely the mind is to even try. This was perhaps one way time heals wounds, by making them feel less avoidable.

The constraint in the ‘undoing’ project that our imagination engages in reflects, in my view, the innate human desire for ‘control’. We focus on those events that we think were in our control and hence could be undone.

One thing that struck me was the absence of mention of any interaction with the economists-giants of the era: Milton Friedman, Paul Samuleon and James Galbraith, etc.

One troubling possible implication of their (Kahneman & Tversky’s) work is that because humans commit systematic errors, they need to be directed and controlled. The question that arises is ‘By whom?’. By humans? We are back to square one.

To the extent that those who are doing the ‘controlling’ are also humans, there is no problem that is solved but only compounded. Experts are not exempt from those. Indeed, they could be more vulnerable. More practically, there is really no ‘disinterested’ decision-maker or expert.

Michael Lewis mentions that Cass Sunstein had made use of many of their insights in designing public intervention policies – free school meals for homeless children, texting while driving, etc. Michael Lewis also discusses how Prof. Kahneman was able to help Delta Airlines handle the wrong landings, etc. It was through cockpit empowerment. An example that is also mentioned in the book, ‘Meltdown’. I have started reading that. It is quite good, so far. I had blogged about it here.

The ‘cockpit empowerment’ project provides a clue as to the answer for all the systematic and predictable human behavioural inconsistencies that Prof. Kahneman had documented over the years and captured in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. All human beings can protect themselves or minimise the possibility of being hurt by the consequences of their decision-errors by having a sounding board, a devil’s advocate. Of course, it is easier said than done. At some point, egos will intervene and the devil’s advocate will be seen as an antagonist, a jealous rival, etc. There are no easy answers except the need for awareness of our inherent limitations and the role of chance in our successes mostly. Failures should be more easily attributable to ourselves.

But, humans do the opposite. That is why it is accepted that success has many parents and that failure is an orphan. No wonder we struggle to deal with and accept setbacks and failures.

I will share some two or three interesting excerpts from the book in a separate post.

Overall, I recommend reading ‘The Undoing Project’. The earlier chapters capture life in Israel immediately upon the formation of the nation. No surprise that they are such hardy people. They can survive and thrive.

Postscript: As I finished reading ‘The Undoing Project’, my friend and veteran journalist TCA Srinivasa Raghavan shared his review of ‘Noise’, the latest co-authored work by Prof. Daniel Kahneman. Cass Sunstein is another author. The third author is Olivier Sibony. He strongly recommends reading the book. I don’t know where he has posted his review. When I find out, I will share the link here.

Daniel Kahneman and Tim Harford

There is too much happening in the world. Keeping track of them and then writing about them is becoming much harder. I recommend Daniel Kahneman’s interview (Lunch with FT) with Tim Harvard (‘Undercover Economist’ fame). What struck me about the conversation is this:

Prof. Kahneman is so candid and down-to-earth enough to admit that he attributed the success of his book, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ to luck than anything else. That shows the man’s greatness.

… mostly Kahneman credits chance for the success of Thinking, Fast and Slow. Sometimes a book catches on and its popularity becomes a self-reinforcing loop. Things could easily have turned out differently. It is a modest claim, ….

Second, he gave a beautiful response to the question of why there was so much angst over side effects from vaccination:

I press him instead for a view on vaccines and the risk of blood clots, as someone who has spent a lifetime thinking about how humans respond to small risks. Do vaccine side effects loom too large in our thinking? “It’s a standard example, I think, of a very general feature of how people think. This is a distinction between what is normal and natural, and what is artificial and human-made. The asymmetries are enormous.” Another example, he says, is the self-driving car, which will have to be vastly safer than human drivers. “This is almost without limit. They have to be so close to perfection.” As do vaccines, I offer. “Yes. This idea of somebody dying from a vaccine is really almost intolerable. The idea of somebody dying from a disease . . . ” he shrugs, and raises a single eyebrow. “That’s natural. That’s the world.”

Third, this human angle interests me greatly:

Lewis portrays Kahneman’s celebrated collaboration with Tversky as a true intellectual love affair, full of tantrums, envy and passionate reconciliations. The stormy relationship grew distant, then abruptly ended with Tversky’s death from cancer in 1996.

So, I have begun reading ‘The Undoing Project’ which I have not read till now, even though I bought it a while ago.

On a related note, I must say that I should have found this article on ‘Free Will’ fascinating, but I found it tiresome. It felt repetitive and needlessly pedantic. We all know that, at a spiritual level, free-will does not exist or exists in a very limited way. We cannot figure out the boundary between free-will and ‘destiny’ or when other forces act to help or hurt us. Those of us who are at peace with ourselves and know our places in the Universe know the limits of free will. But, to deny free will scientifically is problematic for societies to function. Quite likely it will end in anarchy. We can defend anything and explain anything away. The first thing that comes to people’s mind is Hitler. The article mentions that too.

At a personal level, I am happy to posit this as my balance between ‘fate’ and ‘free will’ or between ‘free will’ and the autonomy of the brain:

Act as though you have it (free will) and accept as though you don’t.

When in doubt, act

I am surprised that I had not blogged on this article the first time it was shared with me by my friend Srinivas Varadarajan in 2013. The article had originally appeared in 2013, of course. Malcolm Gladwell wrote it. It was a review of a biography of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman, a Princeton historian. It took me four years to click on the link that my friend Srinivas Varadarajan had sent and now, four years later, the article is back in my space.

Somewhat interestingly, my friend Gulzar Natarajan shared a paragraph from that article with me yesterday. It is worth repeating it here:

Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be……

……While we are rather willing and even eager and relieved to agree with a historian’s finding that we stumbled into the more shameful events of history, such as war, we are correspondingly unwilling to concede—in fact we find it intolerable to imagine—that our more lofty achievements, such as economic, social or political progress, could have come about by stumbling rather than through careful planning. . . . Language itself conspires toward this sort of asymmetry: we fall into error, but do not usually speak of falling into truth. [Link]

The last line is a gem and it can be interpreted in ever so many ways. It fully reflects the play of human ego. Errors are not ours. They are accidents that are no fault of ours. But, correct solutions are not serendipitous. We engineered them. We don’t stumble into achievements. We actively planned and made them happen. It is beautiful and yet wholly unsurprising that we have even made the language reflect this strong belief of ours: faults are not ours but achievements are!

I am presenting below some extracts from the article and comment on them when I could not resist myself from commenting!

The phrase that Hirschman and Colorni would repeat to each other was that they hoped to “prove Hamlet wrong.” Hamlet shouldn’t have been frozen by his doubts; he should have been freed by them. Hamlet took himself too seriously. He thought he needed to be perfect. Colorni and Hirschman didn’t. Courage, Colorni wrote, required the willingness “to always be on guard against oneself.”…. Hirschman would come to recognize that action fuelled by doubt allows for failures to be left behind.

The extract below resonates with us when we confront choices between ‘tried and tested’ and the unknown. Or, when we look for a new job, between an established employer and a start-up, say. Of course, there is no right or wrong decision. Each one of has to be clear about our preferences and what we are comfortable with. On a whim, Hirschman relocated to Bogota, Colombia.

Of course, eventually it turned out to be a very happy period in his and in his family’s life. I am not sure that we will be writing about it if he or his family members encountered something very harmful in those years. Even he might have called his own decision reckless and his philosophical attitude to experimentation ver. certitude and between doubt and conviction might have evolved differently. Who knows?

Writing to her parents about the family’s decision to move to Colombia, which was then in the midst of a civil war, Sarah explained, “We both realize that you should think of the future—make plans for the children etc. But I think we both somehow feel that it is impossible to know what is best and that the present is so much more important—because if the present is solid and good it will be a surer basis for a good future than any plans that you can make.” Most people would not have left a home in Chevy Chase and the security of a job in Washington to go to a Third World country where armed gangsters roamed the streets, because they would feel certain that Colombia was a mistake. Hirschman believed, as a matter of principle, that it was impossible to know whether Colombia would be a mistake. As it happened, the four years the family spent in Bogotá were among its happiest. Hirschman returned to Latin America again and again during his career, and what he learned there provided the raw material for his most brilliant work. His doubt was a gift, not a curse.

It is not very difficult to relate to this extract:

Obstacles led to frustration, and frustration to anxiety. No one wanted to be anxious. But wasn’t anxiety the most powerful motivator—the emotion capable of driving even the most reluctant party toward some kind of solution?

It is not that difficult to believe that it is the restless mind or that it is the unreasonable person that comes up with extraordinary answers that alter the status quo, that shows a new path, etc.

In other words, what Albert Hirschman is saying is that when there is no conflict between different ideas, when there is no doubt in our heads, when you are so sure of yourself, you make no intellectual progress. Being restless and being anxious and prone to self-doubt is a path to creativity, intellectual growth and progress, according to Prof. Hirschman.

We can extend this notion to nations and societies too. When there is no openness of conflict between ideas and when alternative ideas and views are suppressed, nations do not make progress. Further, when nations undertake policies only when they are sure of themselves, they will never take decisions.

It makes sense to undertake policy experimentation, learn, make changes, improvise, improve and move along. That is why he says, interestingly, that when policymakers think that they got it right when, in fact, they are wrong, that is when creative solutions emerge just as they do, when they are in doubt and still have to act. Of course, it also means that one is simply lucky. The two examples to support this assertion are the case of the Troy-Greenfield railroad. It was an impossible task. But, because the planners did not know how difficult it would, they had ‘recklessly’ begun construction. But, it turned out to be a game-changer for the good, for America! The second example was that of Karnaphuli Paper Mills in Bangladesh.

Sometimes, I admit, it is also difficult to draw the right lessons from these examples for ourselves, except to remind ourselves of our fallibility and of the limitations of our own knowledge and the vastness of our ignorance.

When I reached the end of the review and I saw the story about school vouchers and of the differences between exit, voice and loyalty, I could connect ‘exit’ immediately to passive-aggressive behaviour and voice being the opposite of it. So, it was with a pleasant sensation of being proven right, that I read the sentences below:

Exit is passive. It is silent protest. And silent protest, for him, is too easy. “Proving Hamlet wrong” was about the importance of acting in the face of doubt—but also of acting in the face of fear. Voice was courage.

Exit is also escapism just as passive-aggressive behaviour is. The latter is a sign of unwillingness to hold oneself, one’s own views and actions to scrutiny. We are not confident that they would stand up to scrutiny. Hence, we withdraw and not confront a situation, we don’t engage in dialogue, we don’t resolve it one way or the other, durably. We withdraw, we sulk and we make it worse for all concerned.

In short, I am glad that my friend Gulzar Natarajan brought the article back to my attention and I am glad that I had the time and the mind to re-read it.

One does not have to agree with Hirschman to find him charming. It may be easier said than done to act in the face of doubt and to accept lack of certitude as a permanent feature of one’s thinking. It is not easy. It is  unsettling. Others may find us ‘useless’. Only very few can understand such an attitude as one of intellectual honesty and humility and not as a sign of weakness or incompetence. Further, constant experimentation can also result in failures and sometimes, rather seriously so. So, it is easy to find such an attitude ‘charming’ in hindsight.

But, the admonition that the mistake of Hamlet was that he took himself too seriously is well worth heeding.

Has global finance reformed itself

I was updating my class notes with Rodrik’s ‘Inescapable Trilemma’ of global economic integration. In his original blog post from 2007, he equates ‘global economic integration’ mostly with financial globalisation or financialisation. In the process of re-visiting Dani’s original blog post, I saw this one.

The underlying premise of the blog post that we should not miss the ‘trees’ for the ‘wood’ or that all progress is incremental is well-made. It is actually a short review of a book by Ilene Grabel. The blog post is from January 2018, almost three years old.

In this period, I think, more grounds have emerged to reject the optimism.
In other words, the time lapse gives us a good ‘distance’ perspective. The period that has lapsed since Dani Rodrik’s blog post gives us an opportunity to see more clearly the binding constraint that overshadows these incremental positive developments that Dani mentions in the blog post and which the author appears to have covered.

The Federal Reserve intellectual capital invested in its monetary policy experimentation has to be written down. Only when American intellectual paradigm concedes the folly of the post-2008 policy framework will the European copycats change too. Until then, there is no redemption to the mounting economic, social and political costs of this lunacy.

Katharina Pistor on Piketty

Piketty’s account of history weaves together two intellectual traditions: that of modern economics and that of the progressive (European) left. From economics, he derives the notion of fairly stable social systems that encounter external shocks from time to time (“switch points,” which disrupt the random walk of historical events, bear some resemblance to these shocks). From the left, he takes the belief in the feasibility of fair and effective top-down ordering by a (democratic) state.

Missing in both traditions is a deeper appreciation for the less visible processes of institutional change. These processes often work at cross-purposes to the big ideas that motivate social and political movements or legitimate the actual allocation of power and wealth. Such change may be incremental and difficult to detect with the usual tools of an empiricist. But that does not make them directionless or less relevant. In fact, strategic, well-resourced actors constantly push for change outside the limelight of politics and ideology, and often claim the authority of the law to fend off critique and legitimize success.

Looking back at the experiences in many countries, over several centuries, that Piketty presents in his book, one is struck not by change but by continuity: inequality persists or, rather, is reconstituted quickly even after switch points that proclaimed a more egalitarian future. Piketty honestly recounts how struck he and his collaborators were when discovering how quickly inequality reemerged after the French Revolution. Nonetheless, in Capital and Ideology, the institutional processes that were at work in the production of private wealth and inequality receive relatively short shrift.

And yet, in Piketty’s own account, the seeds for the undoing of the ideas of the French Revolution can be found in institutional change that was forged during the revolutionary period. Specifically, the revolutionary notion of property rights as an autonomous owner’s abstract right to a thing made it possible to extend the same legal protections that had been created for land and other tangibles to financial assets, that is, to expectations of future returns. These intangible assets took on ever more complex forms, from stocks and bonds to asset-backed securities and their derivatives, but their institutional roots can be traced back centuries.

It is, of course, true that property rights—indeed, the entire legal order—are not only human made but of the state. But it does not follow that the state can simply remake them. The reason is that the legal orders that have coevolved with capitalism have decentered public power and enabled private power, rendering the notion of an all-powerful autonomous state all but illusionary. For private-asset holders, the state is not another actor they confront, but a resource they can tap into for the creation and protection of their private wealth.

Still, for Piketty, as for many progressives, a state that is capable of social ordering and of redistributing private wealth is at the very center of their reform strategies. They assume something that would have to be first (re-)created for their ideas to work. [Link]

Induction or deduction or both

Last night, had an interesting e-conversation with my friend Gulzar Natarajan. He wondered if some of the recent articles/books that I had been sharing on the historical cycles and the patterns they reveal were a case of inductive logic – theorising or deducting patterns out of random events – or theorising from observation. Quite possible. I don’t even know if there is a way of figuring out. One way is to come up with equally numerous and/or weighty evidence from the past that disproves the deductive logic.

To a large extent, his argument reflects and is reflected in this short but sharp critique of the first work of Neil Howe and William Strauss, ‘The Generations’:

As history, “Generations” does not make the grade. It pretends to offer a new interpretation of the past, but it is too contrived to be taken seriously. And as a guide to the future, it is about as reliable as the neighborhood fortuneteller.

There you go.

But, humans do adopt both inductive and deductive logic at the same time to make sense of social phenomenon. In fact, they make far larger and more frequent use of the former to make sense of complex social, economic and political events.

Of course, there is the risk that historians, once they find patterns from history, then switch to deductive logic where they try to fit the current reality to their historical pattern or theory or make predictions.

I remember a very good speech by Dr. D. Subbarao, former RBI Governor, in 2010, delivered in Bangalore. He makes the point that causality often ran from empirics or experience to theory when it came to economics. I would say, social science, in general:

In economics, on the other hand, where the human dimension is paramount, the progression has necessarily to be one way, from empirical finding to theory. There is a joke that if something works in practice, economists run to see if it works in theory. Actually, I don’t see the joke; that is indeed the way it should be. [Link]

In other words, inductive logic is how it will be, when it comes to making sense of social phenomena of which economics is one.

In that sense, these kinds of patterns – whether elevated to the level of theory or not – serve as useful points of departure for analysis. Whether we arrive at them as destinations is a matter of our luck, intuition and intellect and, of course, above all, circumstances as to how closely they resemble historical episodes.

Therefore, predictions for 2020-30 (the climatic decade of 80-year cycles or 50-year cycles or 250-year cycles of the empire) derived from historical episodes from the 500+years of the discovery of the land mass that is now called America, I can believe in the following:

Where the authors fit things into a pattern, we can choose to be sceptical. But, the idea (and the fact) the long periods of stability leading to instability (Minsky) or the feeling that central bank policies have been building up to a climax consistent with the notion that fiat currency (purely paper and not convertible into anything else) regimes do not last for ever or that companies themselves become sclerotic or the notion of Yugas in Hindu religious books are all consistent with ‘cycles’ or circularity of history.

In fact, Howe and Strauss begin their book (‘The Fourth Turning’) pointing out that this – a recognition of cycles being the characteristic of human life and societal lives – has been evident in non-western societies. These authors are actually talking to their Western audience that their ‘linear thinking’ glasses are not the right glasses. In that sense, they are not creating a new theory but challenging a western orthodoxy.

When it comes to real life phenomenon (and that includes stock markets), to me, mean reversion is far more compelling than either random walks or random walks with trend.

I need to write a bit more on the inferences from ‘The Fourth Turning’ or from Sir John Glubb’s classic paper, ‘The Fate of empires’. I shall do so.

In the meantime, here is a teaser from another author, Peter Turchin:

Very long ‘secular cycles’ interact with shorter-term processes. In the United States, 50-year instability spikes occurred around 1870, 1920 and 1970, so another could be due around 2020. We are also entering a dip in the so-called Kondratiev wave, which traces 40-60-year economic-growth cycles. This could mean that future recessions will be severe. In addition, the next decade will see a rapid growth in the number of people in their twenties, like the youth bulge that accompanied the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s. All these cycles look set to peak in the years around 2020.

Records show that societies can avert disaster. We need to find ways to ameliorate the negative effects of globalization on people’s well-being. Economic inequality, accompanied by burgeoning public debt, can be addressed by making tax rates more progressive. And we should not expand our system of higher education beyond the ability of the economy to absorb university graduates. An excess of young people with advanced degrees has been one of the chief causes of instability in the past. [Link]

The above is an extract from a short piece he wrote for ‘Nature’ in 2010. ‘Time’ has picked it up now.

The Intelligent Economist award

Prateek Agarwal who maintains the ‘Intelligent Economist’ website and who diligently scours the internet for useful economics blogs has picked this blog site for the second year in a row to feature in his 100 top economics blog sites. You can see it here. I am very happy about it.

The citation reads as follows:

Written by economist Anantha Nageswaran, The Gold Standard Blog focuses on Indian economics and financial markets, as well as international economics with a focus on the Indian economy. This is a great blog for anyone wanting a unique perspective on the economics of India or insight on how the Indian economy relates to the global economy. 

Of course, this blog covers as much international stuff as it examines issues pertaining to India, if not more.

Lately, I have not covered much of the goings-on in the Indian economy. Largely because I think far more epoch-making and civilisationally important things are occuring outside.

I have finished reading ‘The Fourth Turning’ by Neil Howe and William Strauss. Learnt that William Strauss had passed away earlier in the millennium due to pancreatic cancer. The book was published in 1997.

I also recently finished reading George Friedman’s ‘The storm before the calm’. George Friedman writes that the book has been in the making for five years. It was published this year. In his view, the institutional cycle (80-years) and the social-economic cycle (50-year cycle) converge this decade in America to make it tumultuous and turbulent. He predicts a happy ending.

His institutional cycle coincides with the Saeculum that Howe and Strauss present and discuss. Howe and Strauss predicate a happy ending upon competent and far-sighted leadership being there to guide the nation during this decade.

To get a sense of what Fourth Turning is about, you can read my Mint column here or listen to this conversation Neil Howe has with Grant Williams. Time usefully spent.

Then, this classic paper by Sir John Glubb is possibly one of the best readings you could do in this lockdown. Many of the points that Sir John Glubb makes are highly worthy of separate discussion and they accord well with the concluding remarks that Howe and Strauss make in their book.

So, you can see that, in this post too, I am discussing matters other than India. I should make amends in a separate post. There is plenty to write about, these days. But, before that, there is plenty to read and reflect upon. The latter always takes priority.

The contest for Indo-Pacific

Visiting the twitter handle of Rory Medcalf, I came to know of an extract from his recent book, ‘The Contest for the Indo-Pacific’. It is a long one running into seven pages. Worth a read. Found myself nodding my head several times.

A paragraph on mental maps:

Mental maps matter. Maps are about power. How leaders define regions can affect their allocation of resources and attention; the ranking of friends and foes; who is invited and who is overlooked at the top tables of diplomacy; what gets talked about, what gets done, and what gets forgotten. A sense of shared geography or “regionalism” can shape international co-operation and institutions, privileging some nations and diminishing others. The late 20th century notions of the Asia-Pacific and an East Asian hemisphere excluded India at the very time Asia’s second most populous country was opening up and looking east. This was not just unfair; it was untenable. The Indo-Pacific fixes that, although it is important to correct the assumption that this way of seeing the world is all about India: it is principally about recognizing and responding to China’s widening strategic horizons.

Does this explain China’s recent belligerence?

For China, in particular, there is a troubling thread between the domestic and the international. For Xi and the Communist Party to maintain their grip on total power, they have found it necessary to raise the Chinese people’s expectations that their nation will be great abroad, and will successfully handle resistance. Yet China’s expansive policies mean that its problems overseas are accumulating, and the chances of a major misstep are thus increasing. In turn, this puts Xi and the Communist Party at particular risk, because China alone among the great powers has staked much of the legitimacy of its political system on success abroad. When things go wrong, the Chinese system could suffer grievously — especially if crises of security, politics and economics intersect in ways hard to predict and impossible to manage.

This is intuitively correct and also accords with what one should expect after a pandemic and with the United States and Europe entering their ‘Fourth Turning’ (that is a subject of another post):

Contrary to turn-of-the-century dreams of globalization, economic interdependence is no longer just about breaking down borders and letting all states rise together: it has become a tool of power and influence, captured in the newly popular catch-all term, “geo-economics.”

This reminds me of pages 313-316 of Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’:

China and the US have entered a state of comprehensive struggle, amounting to full-spectrum rivalry. The situation could deteriorate further, through miscalculation or coercion. There have long been four well-known flashpoints in East Asia: Taiwan, the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Korean Peninsula. But beyond these, there are now signs that conflict is increasingly conceivable in the wider Indo-Pacific. The US is only one of China’s potential adversaries: China-India and China-Japan relations will remain fraught and fragile. The flashpoints may not even be geographic, but could involve interventions in the information realm, such as cyber intrusions or disputes over freedom of expression. A conflict that begins in East Asia could escalate across the region, for instance, through distant naval blockades, cyberattacks and economic sabotage.

Reminds me of my point (3) in my previous blog post:

… given China’s great strategic weight and temptations toward hegemony, the Indo-Pacific idea is empowering for other countries, encouraging them to build new and defensive partnerships across outdated geographic boundaries…..

…..Whatever happens, nations need to build their resilience and harness all elements of their power for a long phase of contestation.

The notion of a ‘Middle Kingdom’ is untenable:

This is consonant with the ancient Asian concept of the mandala, originating from Hindu cosmology, which with many variations defined the universe according to circles and a central point. In the mandala model, as opposed to the “middle kingdom” worldview of China, centrality does not bestow superiority. Rather, the model recognizes a world of many places, many islands. In modern parlance, this equates to multipolarity, equal sovereignty and mutual respect — many belts and many roads.

The book may be worth buying.

Wheels of history never stop turning

From John Gray’s review of Alexander Lee’s book on Machiavelli

Machiavelli’s unpardonable sin was to reveal that, if they are genuinely practised and not just hypocritically professed, Christian humility, loving kindness and trust bring ruin to any state that honours them. In contrast, what Machiavelli called virtù – a pagan resolve “to do whatever may be necessary for the attainment of civic glory and greatness” – enables the state to achieve republican self-government, which he considered the supreme political good….

…If Machiavelli’s life and thought unfolded in any particular direction, it was known to him only in retrospect, if at all. He had no more foresight than anyone else. …

…His objection to Christian morality was that, taken seriously, it was incompatible with the necessities of power….

…He dismisses the very idea of perfection in ethics and politics. The two moralities he distinguishes are incomparable, and one is not better or worse than the other. Choose between them as you please, he tells us, and pay the price….

… The Christian gospel of universal salvation extended moral concern to sections of humankind the pagan world ignored. But this had a dark side, for it meant Christian values were binding on everyone. The early 19th-century Italian poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi believed this universalism produced what he regarded as the peculiar barbarism of Christianity, for it licensed the Church to destroy classical civilisation. Liberals claim a similar licence when they look forward to a universal civilisation ruled by personal autonomy and human rights. Here as elsewhere, liberal humanist values are Christian values in secular clothing.

Yet the greater danger at the present time is not that liberalism will destroy other ways of life. Rather, a hyperbolic liberal ideology is unravelling the liberal way of life itself. A generation of alt-liberals believes the liberal West is the epicentre of evil, injustice and oppression. In their moral frenzy they are not unlike the early Christians who destroyed the classical world. The irony is that the liberal world these neo-Christian zealots are bent on demolishing was itself a Christian creation.

As Machiavelli knew too well, the wheel of history never stops turning.