Lord Salisbury’s Lessons for Great Powers

The noise and drama surrounding Putin, Russia and the Ukraine obscure crucial foreign policy principles. In “Lord Salisbury’s Lessons for Great Powers”, Robert Merry takes a closer look at what they might be.

First, avoid promiscuous jingoism of the kind that Salisbury despised—and that suffuses so much American commentary and political discourse today. This kind of talk, particularly coming from national leaders, ultimately undermines any nation’s global authority.

Once embarked upon, this pernicious habit is hard to turn off. Combative political and media constituencies thrive on such melodrama and prudent voices find it ever more difficult to be heard, much less listened to.

Second, avoid geopolitical controversies and crises that don’t affect directly the nation’s true strategic interests. A corollary principle is to avoid moralistic posturing, which only breeds national hypocrisy and leads inevitably to geopolitical overextension.

As Merry points out, “any hegemonic power inevitably will encounter multiple challenges at any given time, and hence it must assess carefully, in terms of its fundamental interests, the clashes it wishes to pursue.” To do otherwise is to court eventual exhaustion and ridicule. Continue reading

Predictions versus outcomes in 2013?

In the last 5 years, I have made a point of giving clear predictions on complex socio-economic issues. I give predictions partially to improve my own understanding of humanity: nothing sharpens the thoughts as much as having to actually predict something. Another reason is as a means of helping my countries (Australia/the Netherlands) understand the world: predicting socio-economic events is what social scientists should do, even if they will often be wrong.

Time to have a look at my predictive successes and failures over the last few years, as well as the outstanding predictions yet to be decided. Let us start with what I consider my main failure.

                 Failed predictions

The main area I feel I haven’t read quite right is the conflict in Syria, as part of the general change in the whole Middle East. I am still happy with my long-run predictions for that region, where I have predicted that urbanisation, more education, reduced fertility rates, and a running out of fossil fuels will lead to a normalisation of politics in a few decades time. But at the end of 2012 I was too quick in thinking the Syria conflict was done and dusted. To be fair, I was mainly following the ‘intrade political betting markets’ which was 90% certain Assad would no longer be president by the end of this year, but the prophesised take-over of the country by the Sunni majority has not quite happened. The place has become another Lebanon, with lots of armed groups defending their own turf and making war on the turf of others. The regime no longer controls the whole country, but is still the biggest militia around.

What did I fail to see? I mainly over-estimated the degree to which the West would become involved. Continue reading

Estimating Habit Formation in Voting. Thomas Fujiwara, Kyle C. Meng, Tom Vogl


We estimate habit formation in voting–the effect of past on current turnout–by exploiting transitory voting cost shocks. Using county-level data on U.S. presidential elections from 1952-2012, we find that precipitation on current and past election days reduces voter turnout. Our estimates imply that a 1-point decrease in past turnout lowers current turnout by 0.7-0.9 points. Consistent with a dynamic extension of the Downsian framework, current precipitation has stronger effects following previous rainy elections. Further analyses suggest that this habit formation operates by reinforcing the intrinsic satisfaction associated with voting.

Paper available here. Which puts me in mind of the great William James – I guess Hume got this sort of talk going – though that’s a guess: Continue reading

Rich countries and happiness: the story of a bet.

Do countries that are already rich become even happier when they become yet richer? This was the essential question on which I entered a gentleman’s bet in 2004 with Andrew Leigh and which just recently got settled.

The reason for the bet was a famous hypothesis in happiness research called the Easterlin hypothesis which held that happiness did not increase when rich countries became even richer. In my ‘Fred Gruen’ presentation on this matter in 2004 I used the following graph to illustrate the happiness income relation across countries:

gruen 2004 image

This graph shows you the relation between average income (GDP in purchasing power terms) and average happiness on a 0-10 scales for many countries. As one can see, the relation between income and happiness is upward sloping for low levels of income, but becomes somewhat flat after 15,000 dollars per person. I championed the idea that this was not just true if you looked across countries, but that this would also hold true over time.

Andrew Leigh’s thinking was influenced by other data, particularly a paper by Stevenson and Wolfers which – he thinks debunks the Easterlin hypothesis. Here’s one of their graphs: Continue reading

The Forgotten Protocols

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer came back into the news on Monday (11 November), with reports[i] on a paper published in Nature Geoscience which finds that reductions in chlorinated fluorocarbon (CFC) emissions achieved under the Montreal Protocol have contributed to the lower rate of global warming since the 1990s. This is because CFCs – and other halogenated hydrocarbons covered by the protocol – are also greenhouse gases, socutting these emissions provides a double benefit for the environment.

According to the Commonwealth Department of the Environment the Montreal Protocol ‘is widely considered as the most successful environment protection agreement’. Well, they would say that wouldn’t they? Them being a federally funded sheltered workshop for greenie policy wonks and all. Put that cynicical idea aside, however, and you’ll find that there are good reasons to hail the Montreal Protocol as a success. I’ll restrict myself to two:

  • First up, the Montreal Protocol is the first international environmental treaty to achieve universal ratification. That’s merely a political success but it does demonstrate that it’s possible to get at least universal lip service to international action to deal with international environmental problems;
  • According to NASA’s Ozone Watch, the Antarctic Ozone hole reached its largest extent  on 24 September 2006 – it’s now a lot smaller, so there was enough genuine commitment on the part of signatories to make the protocol work.

The Montreal Protocol isn’t the only international protocol on the environment that has been a success: the Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution has been equally successful in dealing with the problem of acid rain. It’s worth remembering these lessons of recent history in the current political climate where it seems so many are advocating, as their bottom line on dealing with climate change, that the responsible position for Australia to take is ‘We won’t ‘til you do and so there’.

[i] Such as this one from National Geographic and locally, this one from The Australian.

Perverse Consequences of Well Intentioned Regulation: Evidence from India’s Child Labor Ban

by Prashant Bharadwaj, Leah K. Lakdawala, Nicholas Li – #19602 (CH DEV)


While bans against child labor are a common policy tool, there is very little empirical evidence validating their effectiveness. In this paper, we examine the consequences of India’s landmark legislation against child labor, the Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986. Using data from employment surveys conducted before and after the ban, and using age restrictions that determined who the ban applied to, we show that child wages decrease and child labor increases after the ban. These results are consistent with a theoretical model building on the seminal work of Basu and Van (1998) and Basu (2005), where families use child labor to reach subsistence constraints and where child wages decrease in response to bans, leading poor families to utilize more child labor. The increase in child labor comes at the expense of reduced school enrollment. We also examine the effects of the ban at the household level. Using linked consumption and expenditure data, we find that along various margins of household expenditure, consumption, calorie intake and asset holdings, households are worse off after the ban.

The paper is here.

Tiptoeing through the taboos of vox pop democracy

Schumpeter’s two chapters on democracy in his great book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy provide the best framework I know of articulating the things that trouble me about the current state of democracy.

The chapters assert the following propositions:

  1. Rousseau’s idea of the will of the people is an illusion for the simple reason that that will is distilled from a chaos of conflicting interests.
  2. Democracy arrives at decisions by way of a process by which factions of the political class vye for the consent of the governed.
  3. When considering politics, people are in a highly abstract world that’s usually far from their own concrete experience. They also know that their own singular vote amongst millions gives them an infinitesimal chance of influencing political outcomes. So their practical knowledge and their incentive to exercise care are both gravely diminished compared to situations where they are making decisions about their own welfare. This invites voting which is at least as much expressive as it is deliberative. In Schumpeter’s words, “In politics the typical citizen . . . argues and analyses in a way which he would readily recognise as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again. His thinking becomes associative and affective”. Schumpeter draws attention to the similarities between this and the process by which advertising is addressed to manipulating the unconscious.
  4. In all things organisational, whether from the Federal Government to the local tennis club, a division of labour is necessary for the organisation to function effectively. Schumpeter puts it this way. ”Collectives act almost exclusively by accepting leadership — this is the dominant mechanism of practically any collective action which is more than a reflex.”. Schumpeter thus grafts the idea of leadership onto this division of labour and perhaps he is right that one needs leadership, but one doesn’t even need anything as strong as that to make the point.  We need a division of labour. And that calls for delegation. Right now I am reliably informed that the polity is in the lengthy process of investigating how to deal with Food Derived from Reduced Lignin Lucerne Line. I’m thinking we need delegation here. Getting us all to come up with an opinion on Alan Jones show just won’t cut the mustard. Thus we have any number of agencies in our society that do this kind of stuff, or advise governments and all the rest of it. But the people remaining sovereign have the power to overrule their delegates.  That’s as it should be. But if the thing is going to function tolerably the people need to give due regard to the fact that they don’t know the details – the people we delegated the issues to know the details.

Alas as time has passed since Joseph Schumpeter shared his dyspeptic but insightful thoughts with us, two things have been exacerbating the tensions in this system. Continue reading

Kludge and how think tanks and policy wonks make it worse

Think tank scholars and policy wonks strive to be both practical and clever. Being practical means proposing policies that have a good chance of getting taken up by government in the short term. And being clever means policies that generate big benefits at little or no cost. But according to American political scientist Steven Teles, the short term benefits of practicality and cleverness have long term costs.

Continue reading

Appeal to General Dempsey | Consortiumnews

MEMORANDUM FOR: General Martin Dempsey, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity [1]

SUBJECT: Syria and Our Oath to Defend the Constitution

Dear Gen. Dempsey:

Summary:  We refer to your acknowledgment, in your letter of July 19 to Sen. Carl Levin on Syria, that a “decision to use force is not one that any of us takes lightly. It is no less than an act of war.” It appears that the President may order such an act of war without proper Congressional authorization.

As seasoned intelligence and military professionals solemnly sworn to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, we have long been aware that – from private to general – it is one’s duty not to obey an illegal order. If such were given, the honorable thing would be to resign, rather than be complicit.

Who knows if this appeal (h/t SST) will strike a spark. The trend these retired intelligence professionals are trying to bring to an end is long-standing and backed by powerful interests. Nevertheless, its issuance alone is a critical marker of how deep the disaffection runs.

It’s true too that for once, a touch of optimism may be in order. Public opinion is strongly against any further military actions in the Middle East. The Obama administration’s unseemly rush to judgement and action also leaves them very exposed. The question of why there’s no time for proper evaluation of the evidence and open discussion of the potential consequences isn’t an easy one to avoid. And then there’s the UK Parliament which on Thursday took the radical step of voting against any British participation in punitive actions in Syria.

The imperial presidency that’s become the regrettable norm in recent decades may at last have tactically overreached. Continue reading