Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

Statecraft via Twitter

Chrystia Freeland
Apr 5, 2012 21:36 UTC

It turns out you can govern in 140 characters. Social media is often accused of coarsening our public discourse and of making us stupid. But some innovative public leaders are taking to their keyboards and finding that the payoff is a direct and personal connection with their communities.

To understand how statecraft by Twitter works, I spoke to three avid practitioners, who are spread around the globe and work at different levels of government: Carl Bildt, the foreign minister of Sweden; Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia; and Naheed Nenshi, the mayor of Calgary, Alberta.

Bildt is a veteran blogger, but he was dubious about Web 2.0, as the social-media revolution is sometimes called. “I was rather skeptical on Twitter,” he told me. “I thought, ‘What can you say in 140 characters?’”

But Bildt, who has more than 116,000 followers , soon found Twitter to be “very useful” and also “fun.”

“As a matter of fact, you can say something in 140 characters,” he said. “The restriction isn’t as absolute as I had thought.”

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.

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