Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

The perils of authoritarian overreach

Chrystia Freeland
Jun 7, 2013 15:16 UTC

The past week has been a lesson in the perils and the apparent inevitability of overreach. The most eye-catching example has been in Turkey, where what began as a few people protesting a planned shopping mall has burst into a mass revolt against the governing of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A second case, in Russia, has been on a much smaller scale but in some ways is even more menacing: Sergei Guriev, one of the country’s most respected economists and university leaders, has left the country, fearing arrest if he stayed.

What is striking about both episodes is how costly they are proving to be for the dominating leaders who have provoked them, and how easily it seems they might have been avoided.

Start with Turkey. All other things being equal, the government would prefer to build a luxury shopping mall in Taksim Square. But that objective obviously pales in comparison with the political damage being done to Erdogan by the escalating protests and the police crackdown.

Likewise in Russia, where President Vladimir V. Putin would prefer to discourage academics – and everyone else – from speaking in support of declared enemies of the state, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, formerly Russia’s richest man, who is now serving time in prison. But it is clear that the criticism provoked by Guriev’s self-exile has far outweighed any benefit Putin might derive from silencing a critic.

Some cracks in the technocrat cult

Chrystia Freeland
May 23, 2013 21:05 UTC

We are living in the age of the technocrats. In business, Big Data, and the Big Brains who can parse it, rule. In government, the technocrats are on top, too. From Washington to Frankfurt to Rome, technocrats have stepped in where politicians feared to tread, rescuing economies, or at least propping them up, in the process.

Technocrats are in vogue within the intelligentsia, too. It is well nigh impossible to pick up a book about any social or political issue nowadays (including, I hasten to admit, my own) without coming across some data-heavy social science research. And the familiar pleas for common sense and a centrist approach, free from the taint of ideology, usually boil down to a call to put the technocrats in charge.

Technocrats have a lot to recommend them. We do, after all, live in the age of Big Data, and ignoring it or not being able to use it is a sure path to either bankruptcy or humiliation – witness the data jock extraordinaire Nate Silver and his legendary smackdowns of columnists who rely on anecdote and intuition.

Prosperity, autocracy and democracy

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 2, 2012 00:00 UTC

To understand the significance of the presidential election this weekend in Russia, read a book by two U.S.-based academics that is being published this month. Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, respectively, is a wildly ambitious work that hopscotches through history and around the world to answer the very big question of why some countries get rich and others don’t.

Their one-word answer, as Acemoglu summed it up for me, is ‘‘politics.’’ Acemoglu and Robinson divide the world into countries governed by ‘‘inclusive’’ institutions and those ruled by ‘‘extractive’’ ones. Inclusive societies, with England and its Glorious Revolution of 1688 in the vanguard, deliver sustainable growth and technological innovation. Extractive ones can have spurts of prosperity, but because they are ruled by a narrow elite guided by its own self-interest, their economic vigor eventually fades.

‘‘It is really about societies that have a more equitable distribution of political power versus those that don’t,’’ Acemoglu told me. ‘‘It is about societies where the elite, the rich, can do what they want and those where they cannot.’’

Predicting the next uprising

Chrystia Freeland
Feb 24, 2011 18:11 UTC

One casualty of the uprisings in the Middle East has been the professionals who didn’t see them coming. The International Monetary Fund has taken a hit for its April 2010 report on Egypt, which praised the country’s ‘‘sustained and wide-ranging reforms since 2004,’’ noting they had made the economy more durable and less vulnerable to external shocks. Ditto the C.I.A., whose director, Leon Panetta, endured the very personal ignominy of seeing his public predictions to Congress proven wrong within hours of making them.

For anyone who watched the collapse of the Soviet Union or the 2008 financial crisis, there is something very familiar about this failure of the experts. There seems to be something about swift, massive paradigm shifts — whether they are the bursting of a financial bubble that has been years in the making, or a popular revolt against a political regime that had been stable for decades — that we find hard to anticipate.

Research by behavioral economists like Dan Ariely of Duke University has suggested that part of the problem may be that when we have a vested interest in the status quo our brains are wired to view it as good and stable. Dr. Ariely’s work has focused on the cognitive blinders our financial self-interest imposes. But a similar bias may shape the views of political experts, who can end up developing a sense of ‘‘ownership’’ of the national elites they study that seems to be nearly as powerful as the proprietary feeling bankers had for the credit derivatives they created.

The Middle East and the Groupon effect

Chrystia Freeland
Feb 18, 2011 14:58 UTC

They are being called the Facebook revolutions, but a better term for the uprisings sweeping through the Middle East might be the Groupon effect. That is because one of the most powerful consequences satellite television and the Internet have had for the protest movements is to help them overcome the problem of collective action, in the same way that Groupon has harnessed the Web for retailers.

“It is a question of co-ordinating people’s beliefs,” said Daron Acemoglu, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who, with Matthew Jackson of Stanford University in California, is working on a paper about the effect of social networks on collective action problems.

Protesting against an authoritarian regime is a prime example of this issue, Mr. Acemoglu said, because opponents of a dictator need to know that their views are widely shared and that a sufficient number of their fellow citizens are willing to join them to make opposition worthwhile.

Foreign Policy Global Thinker: Daron Acemoglu

Chrystia Freeland
Dec 1, 2010 18:48 UTC

Daron Acemoglu of MIT is #88 on Foreign Policy‘s list of the 100 Top Global Thinkers of 2010.  Acemoglu tells Chrystia that his big ideas involve “the relationship between democracy and development” and “the historical roots of economic success and political success, and unfortunately also economic failure and political failure, across nations.”  Professor Acemoglu explains why he disagrees with modernization theory, which states that nations tend to democratize as they get richer. He also disagrees with the thesis of fellow FP Global Thinker Raghuram Rajan that income inequality was a root cause of the most recent financial crisis.  Acemoglu also discusses the prospects for democratization in China, and Russia’s project to replicate Silicon Valley outside Moscow.  His next big idea, he hinted, is exploring the relationship between individualism and society.

Here’s Foreign Policy‘s take on what makes him a top global thinker:

Some Nobel Prize selections are a genuine surprise. The same won’t be true if Daron Acemoglu, already at age 43 one of the world’s 20 most cited economists, eventually takes the award. Born in Turkey and educated at the London School of Economics, Acemoglu quickly made a name for himself with papers and monographs that examined how economic incentives align with political life. His specialty is the analysis of the political conditions under which markets thrive — namely, democracy. It’s a theme Acemoglu has explored in a steady stream of academic papers, textbooks, and op-eds — work that so impressed his peers that he won the John Bates Clark medal in 2005, given annually to an outstanding economist under age 40. Acemoglu’s next book, co-authored with Harvard University’s James Robinson, Why Do Nations Fail?, argues that a real “freedom agenda” will start with democratic rules rather than free markets. “You would not need armies to implement such a scheme,” Acemoglu said, “just a functioning bureaucracy.”

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