The Simurgh fable of democracy

Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha is one of the best novels I’ve read in while, a vivid, emotionally resonant tale of a Tatar woman caught up in the Soviet Union’s disastrous collectivization of agriculture in the 1930s. It was wonderfully translated by Lisa C. Hayden (her blog on Russian literature is great; here is her 2015 review of the novel in the original Russian, written before it went on to win Russia’s Big Book Prize).

The focus is very much on the texture of daily life rather than politics (Stalin is barely mentioned). Ultimately, it’s about how a bunch of kulaks and exiles make a community for themselves amid authoritarian politics and great physical hardship. It’s rather hard to excerpt, but this bit–a tale that Zuleikha tells to a child–captures some of the book’s themes in a more direct way (although most of the book is not at all like this):

Once upon a time there lived in the world a bird. Not just any bird but a magical bird. Persians and Uzbeks called the bird Simurg, Kazakhs said Samuryk, and Tatars say Semrug. And this bird lived on top of the highest mountain. Nobody could see Semrug – not wild animals, nor birds, nor humans. They knew only that his plumage was more beautiful than all the worldly sunrises and sunsets combined. At one time, while flying over the faraway country of China, Semrug dropped one feather, clothing all of China in radiance, so the Chinese themselves turned into skillful picture painters. Semrug was not only splendidly beautiful but his wisdom was as boundless as the ocean.

One time, all the birds on earth flew to a big celebration to revel together and rejoice at life. The festivities were spoiled, though, because the parrots started arguing with the magpies, the peacocks quarreled with the crows, the nightingales with the eagles … And from that great quarrel there arose in the world such a hullabaloo that all the leaves began falling off the trees and all the animals grew frightened and hid in their burrows. A wise hoopoe flapped his wings for three days, calming all the enraged birds. Finally, they settled down and let him speak.

‘What is the use in spending our time and energy on factions and feuding,’ he told them. ‘We need to elect a shah bird among us to lead us and bring quarrels to an end with his authority.’ The birds agreed. But here was the question: who should be elected as their head? They began squabbling again and a scuffle nearly broke out, but the wise hoopoe already had a suggestion. ‘Let us fly to Semrug,’ he proposed, ‘and ask him to become our shah. Who, if not he, the most wonderful and most wise on earth, should be our sovereign?’ This speech went down so well that a large brigade of eager birds prepared right then and there to make the trip. The flock soared into the sky and set off for the highest mountain in the world, in search of his illustrious highness, Semrug.

A flock as vast and black as a cloud soared into the sky and set off for the highest mountain in the world, in search of his illustrious highness, Semrug. The birds flew day and night, not pausing to sleep or eat, until the last of their strength was all but gone, and finally they reached the foot of the mountain they had been seeking. There they had to abandon flight, as the path ahead could only be trodden on foot. For it was only through suffering that they could ascend to the top.

In the Valley of Confusion – which was shaken by thunderstorms – night and day, and truth and untruth were muddled. Everything the birds had come to know through such hardship during their long journey was swept away by a hurricane, and emptiness and hopelessness reigned in their souls. The progress they had made seemed useless to them, the life they had already lived, worthless. Many of them fell here, defeated by despair. The thirty most steadfast remained alive. Bleeding, mortally tired, their feathers singed, they crawled to the final vale. And there, in the Valley of Renunciation, all that awaited them was a smooth, unending watery surface, with eternal stillness over it. Beyond, there began the Land of Eternity, to which there was no entry for the living. …

The birds realized they had reached Semrug’s dwelling place and they felt his approach through the growing gladness in their hearts. Their eyes squinted from the bright light that filled the world and when they opened them, they saw only one other. In that instant, they grasped the essence – that they were all Semrug. Each individually and all of them together.

That is also, by the way, essentially the idea behind the last episode of Game of Thrones (which in fact I rather liked). Of course, ideas don’t make novels great, the writing does–and that’s what Yakhina and her translator very much deliver.

Arguing about infographics with Galileo

I recently signed up for data vizualization guru Edward Tufte’s one-day course, mostly as an attempt to burnish my chart-geek credentials. I got rather more than I bargained for: the course was not really about how to make better infographics, or even about how to give business presentations (though both topics were addressed). It was more of a long ramble through Tufte’s mind and his obsessions–which are not so much data as information more broadly, and not simply vizualization but communication more generally.

This finally became clear to me during an enjoyable but initially somewhat puzzling discussion of his recent visits to his doctor. It seemed like a stream-of-consciousness digression at first, but then it became clear he was thinking through a serious issue: how to best communicate critical information in a stressful setting. (Tufte’s tip: write out all your medical concerns at home before going to the doctor, then hand over the document at the appointment). If you can’t get your doctor to understand what you need, he was implicitly saying, then what hope do you have of getting people to understand anything less important?

But while Tufte’s concerns are not limited to charts, he has spent a lifetime thinking through what he called the “perennial” problem of how to represent a multidimensional world in the two dimensions of the page or screen. At the end of the day, he pulled out a first edition of Galileo Galilei to show how the great minds of the past had grappled with the same issues. He rhapsodized over Galileo’s tiny, in-line sketches of Saturn, which clearly inspired his own advocacy of “sparklines” (tiny charts embedded in text at the same size as the text), as well as some beautifully precise illustrations of sunspots.

Tufte also showed an engraved portrait of Galileo, in which he has appears with an engaging smile, and called him “funny, bright-eyed…a bit like Richard Feynman.” It was clear that he felt he knew Galileo as a person through his work, and felt a deep connection to someone who had been working on the same problems: the rigorous collection of data and its careful presentation.

I was particularly sensitive to this dynamic because I had just finished reading Oliver Sacks’ loving discussion of the great early chemist Humphrey Davy, contained in his posthumous essay collection Everything in its Place: First Loves and Last Tales:

Humphry Davy was a boyhood hero to virtually everyone interested in chemistry or science in my generation. We all knew and repeated his famous experiments, imagining ourselves in his place. Davy himself had had such ideal companions in his youth, particularly Newton and Lavoisier. Newton, for him, was a sort of god; but Lavoisier was closer, more like a father with whom he could talk, agree, disagree. His own first essay, which Beddoes had published, while taking strong issue with Lavoisier, was in effect a dialogue with him. …

When I came to write my first book, Migraine, in 1967, I was stimulated by the nature of the malady and by encounters with my patients, but equally, and crucially, by an “old” book on the subject, Edward Liveing’s Megrim, written in the 1870s. I took this book out of the rarely entered historical section of the medical school library and read it, cover to cover, in a sort of rapture. I reread it many times for six months, and I got to know Liveing extremely well. His presence and his way of thinking were continually with me. My prolonged encounter with Liveing was crucial for the generation of my own thoughts and book. It was just such an encounter with Humphry Davy, when I was twelve, that had originally confirmed me on the path to science.

I do not think my experience is unique. Many scientists, no less than poets or artists, have a living relation to the past, not just an abstract sense of history and tradition but a feeling of companions and predecessors, ancestors with whom they enjoy a sort of implicit dialogue.

Tufte’s on-stage dialogue with a four-hundred-year-old work by Galileo was, among other things, a demonstration of how effective it is to teach and learn about science in a historical way, as a sequence of personalities, problems, and arguments.

The difference between the new and old Cold Wars

The deteriorating US relationship with China is more and more frequently being called a “cold war” and compared to the long-lasting rivalry with the Soviet Union. Even before the latest breakdown in US-China trade talks, it seemed like negotiations would at best produce a settlement of specific economic issues, and leave the broader relationship pretty frosty.

But a true “cold war” with China, if the administration does decide to go down that route, is in practice unlikely to play out in the same way as the US-USSR confrontation. This is for the simple reason that the US and Chinese economies are already intertwined to an enormous degree. By contrast, the US basically did not trade at all with the Soviet Union, and trade with its successor states has remained quite minimal. I find the simple chart below to quite striking. So for the US, a cold war with China is much more economically risky than isolating the Soviet Union ever was.

Another way to look at the US trading relationship with China is not to compare it not with historic rivals, but with other major trade blocs. It is a simple but important point that the majority of US trade is with friends and allies: Canada and Mexico, Europe, and the Asian democracies of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. The US has allies in the Middle East, but these alliances can be somewhat uncomfortable ones given the autocratic nature of the governments (Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia). In any case the US economic integration with the Middle East is really quite small. China stands out for how it is, at the same time, both a political rival to and economically integrated with the US.

So from one perspective, the US economic relationship with China is too large and important to be casually endangered, even if it does need repairing. From another perspective, China is too different politically from the US to be permitted this degree of economic integration. I don’t know which perspective will end up dominating.

What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Frank Kimbrough – Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk. Obviously, a lot of Monk: all 70 compositions are given full and respectful readings by a jazz quartet, for more than five hours of music. Less obviously, it’s also a lot of bass saxophone. Scott Robinson, who occupies the horn chair in the quartet, is almost as promiscuous in his multi-instrumentalism as Anthony Braxton, and like Braxton shares a love for the low-end instruments. Hearing the supposedly cumbersome bass sax lightly dance through the quirky angles of Monk’s tunes is one of the highlights of this tribute. 
  • John Luther Adams – Four Thousand Holes. A gorgeous piece of minimalist composition, which is indeed built from very simple elements: piano, percussion, a bit of electronics. Adams is one of my favorite contemporary composers. 
  • Melba Liston – Melba Liston And Her ‘Bones. The first (perhaps only?) prominent female trombonist in jazz, Liston was also a gifted arranger and in her later career worked extensively with the great Randy Weston. This package collects some of her work from the mid-50s, and her interesting arrangements lift the material above other mainstream jazz of the period. 
  • Keith Hudson – Playing It Cool. An amazing piece of dark, rhythmic dub experimentalism from 1981. Almost everything I’ve heard by Hudson is absolutely essential, funky, compelling and strange in equal measures. 
  • Charlie Haden – Not In Our Name. Haden’s 1968 Liberation Music Orchestra is one of the classics of radical 60s jazz, but (whisper it) I actually like this 2004 follow-up recording even better (the orchestra itself is entirely different, sharing only Haden and pianist/arranger Carla with the original incarnation). Jazz compositions are intermixed with Bley’s transformations of quintessential American musical pieces such as Amazing Grace and bits of Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Dvorak’s New World Symphony. 

Yasheng Huang on historic human capital in China and India

The always interesting MIT professor Yasheng Huang has done a long podcast for the University of Pennsylvania’s China series. He starts off by criticizing people who compare China and India to argue that China’s authoritarian state capitalism is better for growth than democracy, and dives into economic history to explain why that isn’t right (quotes are from my notes, lightly edited for readability):

If you want to make an apples-to-apples China and India comparison, you need to control for other differences between the two countries. And the basic thing you need to control for is the quality and quantity of human capital. I would argue that unambiguously, China has done a thousand times better than India in terms of human capital development: public health, public education. Historically speaking, in part because of the exam system, China has always had a very strong tradition of literacy, being able to read and write. There is some evidence to suggest that China’s mass literacy in the 17th and 18thh centuries was comparable to that in Britain. This is going way back. I do see that as a huge strength.

A lot of the growth differences between India and China and India are really explained by that. So there is a fundamental attribution error that many people have committed. When they look at the differences between China and India they say, one is a democracy and one is an authoritarian system, one has better GDP growth and the other has worse. Little do they know that there are other differences. It’s these other differences that explain the growth difference between China and India. I would say that human capital explains 80% of the differences. Maybe we should take that more seriously.

China has always had something behind its back to have good, solid economic performance. Even in the 16th and 17th centuries they had pretty good performance by the standard of that time. In that sense, I’m not a free market fundamentalist. I see the state as being absolutely critical in building the human capital base. This is what the Chinese did historically, and also what the Chinese did during the Communist period, and also what the Chinese state is doing today. For that I give them an A-plus, I celebrate their achievements.

Huang said he is working on a new book that will investigate these historical foundations to China’s growth today (and also said he is working on an updated edition of his well-known bookCapitalism with Chinese Characteristics to incorporate post-2008 events).

There is perhaps a tinge of motivated reasoning here, as Huang is clearly looking for ways to explain China’s economic growth miracle without giving the credit to Chinese state capitalism. But I’m sympathetic to the idea that pre-1949 China, rather than being the backward feudal hellhole of Communist propaganda, was in fact pretty well equipped for modern economic growth–at least, once it could manage to put an end to foreign invasion, civil war, and aggressively backward government policy. Indeed, Huang’s arguments echo points made by the great economic historian Dwight Perkins, who also emphasized the importance of pre-20th-century China’s functional bureaucracy and solid education:

China’s capital city had a population of over one million people as early as the Song Dynasty, if not before, and supplying such a city required tens of thousands of merchants, transport workers and the like. Commerce on this scale requires records, and to use records an individual must be able to read at least numbers and some characters.

We do not yet have a reliable estimate of the level of literacy in 19th century China, but among males a basic level of literacy could have been as high as 30-45%. Among the highest income 5-10% of the population, literacy must have been nearly universal, and for many at this level literacy went way beyond basic.

A relatively high level of literacy by pre-modern standards did not lead to sustained economic growth prior to the 20th century, but it did lay the foundation for the creation of a modern high-quality education system, at least when one compares the education system that existed in China in 1949 with what one found in much of the developing world on the eve of that world’s attainment of independence from colonial domination.

(The source is Perkins’ The Economic Transformation of China, pp. 7-8.)

The challenge, of course, is to produce more rigorous measures of historic human capital and educational achievement that could test these impressions. It will be interesting to see what Huang comes up with.

The Belt and Road is about domestic interest groups, not development

Andreas Fulda on Twitter pointed out a useful new piece on China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative by CSIS research Mark Akpaninyie. It seems that Mark and I have been thinking along similar lines, and the resulting online exchange helped me clarify my thinking.

It’s become increasingly clear that the “debt-trap diplomacy” meme started by Indian commentator Brahma Chellaney is not an accurate description of how the Belt and Road actually operates, despite the fervent embrace of this idea by China hawks. Basically, China is not actually organized enough to come up with such a clever and nefarious plan, and there is no evidence that there is a deliberate strategy to trap other countries in debt. A detailed examination of debt transactions by Rhodium Group also found that in many cases borrowers were able to get China to write off or renegotiate their loans.

The flaw in the debt-trap diplomacy theory, and with many other analyses, is that it mistakes the Belt and Road for a for a “highly centralized and coordinated” initiative. In reality, it is more of a slogan attached to the decentralized actions of state-owned enterprises and banks. Here is how Mark Akpaninyie describes it:

Little evidence actually suggests that Beijing coordinates a unified strategy to lure the developing world into unsustainable debt.

Instead of a state-led strategy, Chinese firms — motivated by profit and abetted by a toxic combination of bureaucratic disorganization, incompetence, and negligence at the state level — have exploited poor nations, which are dependent on cheap, and sometimes bad, loans. These companies, knowingly or unknowingly, persuade countries to pursue projects where benefits to the firms far outpace the benefits of the host nation. …

This practice does not trap recipient countries into taking on unsustainable debt. Instead, it allows Chinese companies to profit from often crooked deals building much-needed infrastructure in some of the world’s poorest countries, exploiting the undersupply of financing and these countries’ appetite for infrastructure projects.

The broader point here is that looking at the Belt and Road through the lens of “grand strategy” or “geopolitics,” as so many commentators do, or even portraying it as some kind of new philosophy of economic development, is quite misleading. All of these grand concepts are justifications invented after the fact for a pattern of actions that was already well underway before Xi Jinping made his 2013 speech about the Belt and Road.

The Belt and Road is really the expansion of a specific part of China’s domestic political economy to the rest of the world. That is the nexus between state-owned contractors and state-owned banks, which formed in the domestic infrastructure building spree construction that began after the 2008 global financial crisis (and has not yet ended).

Local governments discovered they could borrow basically without limit to fund infrastructure projects, and despite many predictions of doom, those debts have not yet collapsed. The lesson China has learned is that debt is free and that Western criticisms of excessive infrastructure investment are nonsense, so there is never any downside to borrowing to build more infrastructure. China’s infrastructure-building complex, facing diminishing returns domestically, is now applying that lesson to the whole world.

In Belt and Road projects, foreign countries simply take the place of Chinese local governments in this model (those who detect a neo-imperial vibe around the Belt and Road are, in this sense, onto something). Even the players are the same. In the 1990s, China Development Bank helped invent the local-government financing vehicle structure that underpinned the massive domestic infrastructure boom. Now, China Development Bank is one of the biggest lenders for overseas construction projects.

Those who defend the Belt and Road against the charge of debt-trap diplomacy are technically correct. But those same defenders also tend to portray the lack of competitive tenders and over-reliance on Chinese construction companies in Belt and Road projects as “problems” that detract from the initiative’s promise. They miss the central role of the SOE infrastructure-complex interest group in driving the Belt and Road. Structures that funnel projects funded by state banks to Chinese SOEs aren’t “problems” from China’s perspective–they are the whole point.

The fact that this model was dubbed the “Belt and Road Initiative” and turned into a national grand strategy by Xi Jinping effectively gave the SOE infrastructure complex carte blanche to pursue whatever projects they can get away with. These projects were no longer just money-makers for SOEs, but became a way to advance China’s national grand strategy–thereby immunizing them from criticism and scrutiny.

None of this means that the Belt and Road will not change or evolve. But I suspect that the trajectory it will follow will be similar to that followed by local-government infrastructure projects in recent years. The central government does actually worry about excess debt and bad projects, and so the building and funding of infrastructure have become gradually subject to more discipline and central scrutiny. But this has been done in a way that does not shock the entrenched domestic interest groups, and overall economic growth, too badly.

After last week’s forum, it does look like the Belt and Road is also on the way to becoming a bit more organized. But given the driving role that domestic interest groups have always played, hopes that it will be turn into a benevolent and technocratic global economic-development program are going to be disappointed.

William James on the value of doctorates and diplomas

Greg Ip at the WSJ has a nice piece responding to the ruckus over the nominations of Stephen Moore and Herman Cain to serve on the Federal Reserve Board. It’s obvious from the Fed’s own history that the mockery of Moore for not having published peer-reviewed journal articles, or not having a Ph.D. in economics, quite misses the point. As Greg nicely puts it, the real question to ask about someone who is may need to make economic policy decisions is whether they are a disciplined thinker, not whether they have a certain credential.

By coincidence, I also recently read an essay by William James entitled “The Ph.D. Octopus,” originally published in the Harvard Monthly in March 1903 (it was reprinted in his essay collection Memories and Studies which is out of copyright and freely available). Some of James’ sentiments still ring quite true:

America is thus as a nation rapidly drifting towards a state of things in which no man of science or letters will be accounted respectable unless some kind of badge or diploma is stamped upon him, and in which bare personality will be a mark of outcast estate. It seems to me high time to rouse ourselves to consciousness, and to cast a critical eye upon this decidedly grotesque tendency.

James worried that the institutionalization of graduate degrees, and in particular their use by employers to screen potential hires, would cause all kinds of negative consequences:

To interfere with the free development of talent, to obstruct the natural play of supply and demand in the teaching profession, to foster academic snobbery by the prestige of certain privileged institutions, to transfer accredited value from essential manhood to an outward badge, to blight hopes and promote invidious sentiments, to divert the attention of aspiring youth from direct dealings with truth to the passing of examinations…

James was deeply aware of the tension between universities’ avowed mission of free intellectual inquiry and their economic function as producers of credentials, and hoped that the former would discipline the latter:

Our universities at least should never cease to regard themselves as the jealous custodians of personal and spiritual spontaneity. They are indeed its only organized and recognized custodians in America today. They ought to guard against contributing to the increase of officialism and snobbery and insincerity as against a pestilence; they ought to keep truth and disinterested labor always in the foreground, treat degrees as secondary incidents, and in season and out of season make it plain that what they live for is to help men’s souls, and not to decorate their persons with diplomas.

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