Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

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.

But, particularly in the wake of 2008, a global crisis that technocrats both helped cause and failed to predict, there are also sound reasons not to rely mechanically on technocratic solutions. That’s why it is worth reading a new paper by Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and James Robinson of Harvard University.

In their seminal 2012 book, “Why Nations Fail,” Acemoglu and Robinson offered a powerful new framework for understanding why some societies thrive and others decline – those based on inclusive growth succeed, while those where growth is extractive wither.

The fight over Russia’s future

Chrystia Freeland
Jan 20, 2012 16:04 UTC

Among old Russia hands, the smart thing to say about Mikhail D. Prokhorov, the billionaire who is running for president, is that he is a puppet of the Kremlin. He’s not a real opposition politician, the argument goes, he is merely a liberal-sounding insider who has been given Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin’s blessing to compete to make the race look more legitimate and to split the liberal vote.

All of this is true. But when I interviewed Prokhorov in Moscow a few days ago, I realized that it missed the most important point — what Prokhorov’s candidacy, and the man himself, tells us about the battle raging today inside the Russian governing elite.

When people take to the streets to challenge their regimes, particularly in societies that had been dismissed as apathetic, the most exciting story is the protesters. Many of them are fresh faces, and they can be painted in the idealistic colors of the outsider.

Arab Spring, Russian Winter

Chrystia Freeland
Dec 16, 2011 14:35 UTC

This has been a bad year for dictators, starting with the Arab Spring and ending now with the Russian Winter. If you are one of the autocrats who survived the annus horribilis of 2011, here are three lessons, drawn from some smart Russians and Russia-watchers, of what the unexpected Slavic protests this month could mean.

The first is that authoritarian regimes don’t run on autopilot. To survive, particularly in the age of the Internet, jet travel and global capital flows, dictatorships need to be savvy and effective. We often attribute the success of democratic revolutions to their brave leaders or the spirit of the times, but, as Lucan Way, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, argues, “authoritarian incompetence” can be an equally powerful driver.

That is certainly the case in Russia, where one reason United Russia, the party of power led by Vladimir V. Putin, did so poorly in elections this month is the simple fact that the regime made a lot of political mistakes.

Russia’s “sultan” Putin

Chrystia Freeland
Sep 30, 2011 15:50 UTC

The next Russian Revolution started this month. It will be another two or three or even four decades before the Russian people take to the streets to overthrow their dictator — and the timing will depend more on the price of oil than on anything else — but as of Sept. 24, revolution rather than evolution became Russia’s most likely path in the medium term.

That’s because President Dmitri A. Medvedev’s announcement last weekend that he would step aside next March to allow Vladimir V. Putin to return to the Kremlin was also an announcement that the ruling clique failed to institutionalize its grip over the country.

We have known since 1996 that Russia wasn’t a democracy. We now know that Russia isn’t a dictatorship controlled by one party, one priesthood, or one dynasty. It is a regime ruled by one man.

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