Monday, May 2

Getting Unstuck: Part 5, Stuck at the Intersection of Government and the Mass Age

Michael Wright, an old friend, talks with Pundita about the direction her blog has taken. New readers might want to skim Parts 1-4 of the “Stuck at the Intersection” series (links shown at the end of this essay) before reading the interview.

M: In the essay you refer to as Pundita’s mission statement [1] you set yourself the task of discovering where Americans are now in relation to understanding the world at large outside US shores. I know this task actually began for you on September 11, 2001. You zeroed in on studying broadcast television news media. That led to you sounding an alarm about the general public’s ignorance of the wholesale transfer of US white-collar jobs offshore. I assumed at the time you’d continue in that area. Instead, you focused exclusively on foreign policy and in late 2004 started a blog on the topic. So where is Pundita now? What general trends or major factors have you identified, what’s important to you?

P: Actually, I started the research a couple months after 9/11. I halted in 2003 when I found that I could predict the line-up and how the local affiliates and the Big Three [CBS, NBC, ABC] and [PBS] NewsHour would handle the same headline story.

I haven’t set aside the issue of jobs offshoring; I see what I’m doing now as an extension of my reaction to the incredibly naïve arguments that Bill Gates and other American industry leaders used to defend offshoring.

M: I’d call the arguments “the bottom line.”

P: Then maybe we haven’t read the same arguments. Gates views the individual American hi-tech worker as in competition with individual hi-tech workers in other countries. This simply isn’t the case in the key instances. The worker and the college student in free societies are in competition with authoritarian governments that control the education and work choices of their citizens. I touched on this situation in the Pharaoh essay.[2]

And even in countries such as India and Romania where the citizens can say ‘no’ to their government about job and study choices, the government usually subsidizes education in hi-tech fields and/or supplements by one means or another the pittance that their workers receive from Western firms. In some cases the pittance is actually no pay; the government wants them to work for free for the Western firms just to get the technology/information transfer. All this is a modern version of the Plantation economy.

So how is the American worker supposed to compete with workers who will work for free or for peanuts? This is what the American worker is in competition with—the Plantation and Pharaoh governments, not “individual” foreign workers.

And the ”investments” that Microsoft and other American businesses are making in China and India are naïve to the point of funny if they weren’t scary. India and China will throw them out at the first opportunity.

It’s easy to assume that the arguments put forward by Bill Gates and his counterparts are not naïve but cynical and ruthlessly focused on the bottom line. Yet everything I have learned since 9/11 about Americans’ understanding of international affairs would challenge that assumption. The majority of Americans, and this includes American executives at transnational organizations, are on a steep learning curve about how the world works and the historical forces underlying the worst problems in developing countries.

My most pointed writings verbally shake the reader by the shoulders and cry, “Wake up! This is not 1989!” Every spring and summer I spend half a day on the Washington National Mall, asking visitors from all around the country and the world to give me their views of the world and America. What I find most striking about the replies is that they reflect unrealistic expectations about the American government’s capacity to resolve global situations they view as problematical.

America is and will remain for the foreseeable future the world’s most powerful nation. The catch is that the jobs outsourcing/offshoring trend is but one among many warnings that at some point which is fast approaching, American financial resources will be greatly refocused on domestic concerns.

In case after case around the world, America spent the past half-century pouring trillions—when reckoned in local currencies—into hard luck countries. And trillions of US military dollars were poured into shoring up governments that had great strategic importance for America’s defenses during the Cold War.

However, in this globalized era, precious few countries don’t have strategic importance for America’s defenses. So when that bald fact is weighed against the onrushing need to re-deploy American resources, is plain as day that something’s got to give.

To put that observation in cold-blooded language, the governments in the world’s hard-luck countries had better assume they’ve got less than five years to stop futzing around. They have to address situations they’ve been able to avoid because of their dependency on aid and development bank loans provided by the developed countries. American foreign policy needs to make the same assumption.

But with the exception of the military branch, governments, including the US government, are not set up to solve problems but to manage them--chiefly through strategies of containment. And international organizations such as the World Bank are not set up to save the poorest except via the longest way around, which is trickle-down economics. But trickle-down theory addresses growth, not triage; it’s directed at development not rescuing populations from a train wreck of worst-case scenarios.

So the question is whether the containment approach can work this time around. I don’t think it can. I think we’re at a crossroads that parallels the crossroads with the social security program. The argument about social security is whether to attempt to fix it, or simply wait until the program goes broke then ask, “Now what do we do?” There are arguments for either approach because any attempt at a fix will involve pain.

However, the analogy falls apart if you consider the scope of the global problems that have been propped up and created by governments not addressing their most glaring failures. I think we’re at a place where the US government has to make a sincere attempt to prod the developing world governments to deal with their chief problems, which are remarkably similar. Part of that attempt involves devising and proposing real solutions—

M: What you’re saying is that Americans need to move away from asking, for example, what the government is doing to help African nations and ask instead, “Why, after all the help they’ve received, can’t the nations help themselves?”

P: Well, you can’t just ask that, in the manner of washing your hands—no more than you can tell a dope addict that he’s got no one but himself to blame after you’ve spent years supplying him with low-cost dope. But I’m warning that such questions will come, once it’s unavoidably clear that American resources will need to be shifted more to America’s domestic problems. Actually, such questions have already been voiced but they don’t get a hearing at the government level and with good reason.

M: Okay but in trying to establish Pundita’s approach -- you’re saying that we have to move away from fixes and toward finding real solutions and that part of this involves asking tough questions of other governments.

P: The tough questions have been asked but institutions such as the IMF have been willing to accept evasions for answers. But yes, this is the direction that President Bush has laid down, or tried to. My blog, which was launched within days of his reelection, takes Bush at his word and asks, how do we get from here to there?

If Bush is asking for real democracy to be instituted across the board, if he’s asking for more accountability from the world’s hard luck governments, if he wants those governments to get their act together, how does all this translate for American foreign policy and particularly our policy instruments, such as the World Bank? That’s the patch of ground on which I stand when I look at US government initiatives events that greatly impact US policy.

M: Yet you’ve been critical of Bush in several instances.

P: If US foreign policy comes in line with the general statements Bush has made, I’ll have no major gripes. But so far we don’t have policy in a lot of areas; we have talk. And even the talk has been flagrantly contradicted by some recent State Department actions. If the US weren’t at war, I’d have more criticisms than ones I’ve voiced on this blog. But I have to assume that Bush is getting sound counsel from military advisors, which could explain some of the gaps between public statements and actions.

My concern is that the US war on terror, which I find justifiable in the way it’s been prosecuted so far, will morph into a cold war that provides cover for bad US foreign policy. This time, though, the policy would be playing out in a world that’s vastly changed from the one during the Cold War era. A world that’s vastly more difficult for a few rich nations to control, let alone manage.

M: This is why you’ve made a huge issue out of what you call stage show democracy. Frankly your argument for democracy is taking some getting used to and I don’t know if I accept what you’re saying. It’s almost as if you’re challenging all the traditional arguments for democracy.

P: I’m not challenging the philosophical arguments; I’m saying that there is a purely empirical defense of democracy and that we should line up the execution of policy—planning, financial aid, loans, and so on—behind that defense.

The traditional philosophical arguments for democracy, and even Sharansky’s argument, overlook that the problems of the Mass Age are too numerous and complex for a small number of people—a governing elite—to solve. My argument for democracy is grounded in the empirical observation that true democratic government, which allows many people to participate at the problem-solving level, is the only form of government capable of effectively administering to the needs of mega-populations.

M: [laughing] You’re saying that until AI is a lot farther along, we need many more brains involved in government.

P: If that way of looking at it helps you find where I am, you’re welcome to the idea. But it doesn’t take an artificial form of intelligence to solve the problems that besiege mega-populations. It doesn’t even take a high IQ—a point that I’m afraid was misunderstood in the responses to my essay on the topic.

The intelligence I referred to reflects job experience in a post-industrial society as much as educational background, IQ, and so on. I was saying that many American voters of average intelligence are now more intelligent than the majority of government workers and elected representatives--or at the least, fully as intelligent.

The pyramid of knowledge possession, whereby a small number of informed, educated people rule over large numbers of uneducated, uninformed masses, has been up-ended if not atomized.

So while most Americans are still poorly informed about offshore situations, the expert knowledge derived from the work experience of many 'average' Americans is an untapped resource for solving problems that vex the governing elite.

M: Okay but that up-ended pyramid holds true only for very few countries. But there’s still the traditional defense of democracy to fall back on for the others.

P: I think the phenomenon is more widespread than that. What we’d call the upper middle class is bigger in India than the entire population of the United States. Inclusion in that class doesn’t necessarily equate to job experience in a post-industrial society but trust me when I tell you that the average informed Indian voter—I emphasize ‘informed’—is in many cases just as smart or smarter than the majority of bureaucrats who labor for the Indian central government.

A similar situation is occurring in China, which causes China’s communist party bosses at the central government level unending worry.

M: But this pool of smart citizens doesn’t want to work for government because the money’s not there, or because they’re frustrated with the bureaucratic way of doing things --

P: I don’t want to make generalizations about other countries. I’d say that in America, the challenge is how to connect this pool with the governing process in a more direct way and without crippling the necessary bureaucratic infrastructure of government and raising the specter of anarchy.

Much history can be viewed as one long cry against the failure of elites to effectively and humanely govern large populations. But the alternative--to open up the governing process to large numbers, is also fraught with peril, given the population size in today's largest democracies.

Yet clearly humanity is at a crossroads. Several of today's biggest social problems are highly complex and interconnected via conditions set in motion and reinforced by the policies of transnational organizations and trade practices.

Of course, that observation is the theme song of the anti-globalists. But if governments are to be charged with finding and implementing solutions, they must move away from tradition-bound, rigidly enforced civil service routines and embrace strategies used in the private business sectors. And they must rely less on political ideology and theorizing and more on systems that provide constantly updated data and analysis. That’s something the anti-globalists don’t want to hear—at least, not the ones I’ve spoken with. They still think a gussied-up socialist ideaology can save the world.

M: And you’re saying the tecchies can save the world? This is the new Promised Land? The development bankers and economists failed, so now we try out the systems guys?

P: You lose points if you make Pundita laugh.

M: [laughing] Sorry!

P: You’re making this more complicated than it is, or maybe I could put it more clearly. Here’s an example to illustrate:

A woman outside the government and with no military training came up with a simple idea for how to flummox the terrorists in Iraq with regard to a specific situation. She passed the idea to Paul Wolfowitz during a public email exchange run by the White House. Wolfowitz must have fallen over with excitement when he read the idea but his reply politely turned aside the suggestion. The proposed strategy depended on the element of surprise so of course he was noncommittal.

The military deployed the very same strategy the woman proposed and with great success. I don’t recall whether the woman stated her occupation, but it was the kind of idea that someone very experienced with outfoxing a group of small children—say, a kindergarten teacher—could have thought up with no trouble.

It’s possible that the military came up with the idea independently. But the story illustrates the possibilities with regard to problem solving, once you think in terms of finding and matching relevant experience with a problem.

M: But even if the command in Baghdad got the idea from that woman they would have needed to do analysis. So if you bring more people into the governing process, this can produce more intelligent decisions, but also increases the need to test decisions and analyze plans that rest on intuition rather than data. That’s where communications technology, decision analysis, better intelligence reports, and so on, come in.

P: That’s the idea. Also, the technologies can help match the right people with problems.

M: The technology is out there. The people who can solve the problems are out there. It’s a matter of connecting them.

P: Yes, but it’s also a matter of getting very sophisticated about the downside of problem solving, as applied to large complex systems, which modern societies represent. That’s why I dredged up my recollection of conversations with a computer scientist from decades ago. It’s not enough to come up with a workable idea. You have to factor in how the idea, once implemented, will impact the society and take measures to offset negative consequences. Again, that is where technology comes in.

M: One-half is rocket science. The other half is common sense.

P: Something like that, yes. Of course, there are a few things standing in the way.

M: The World Bank, the IMF, the United Nations, governments, political party machines, policy institutes to mention a few.

P: Don’t forget the industries they’ve generated.

M: I’ve gotten you to come out of the closet and admit you’re a wild-eyed visionary.

P: I’d say I’m also a cold-eyed realist. The problems humanity is facing are enormous. So this is what’s known as enlightenment at the point of a gun.

M: You’re envisioning a world where a farmer in say, Mongolia can get on a sat-phone or computer and dial up a data bank of agricultural extensions and farmers who’ve dealt with the kind of problem he’s got with his soil. And another data bank where he can look up funding for the soil additives or farm implement he needs. You’re a visionary.

P: I think a lot of people have had the same vision. And what you’re talking about is already here, in some form. If you’re a doctor anywhere in the world with access to a computer and the Internet, you can access databanks that discuss the kind of symptoms you’re analyzing in a patient and look up research on the disease and cures. Of course there are counterpart databases for the legal profession and others.

The trick is to include this kind of approach in the governing process. That would save tons of tax revenue by distributing it more efficiently than done now.

M: It’s a new chapter, not the end of history.

P: Before you get carried away, there is a specific set of recurring problems in developing countries that’s best studied as a system—one that’s so far proven almost impossible to dismantle. That’s why I’ve gotten interested in complex systems and want to talk with decision analysts. I’m also trying to scare up conversation with retired cops and officials, inside and outside the force, who were directly involved in fighting corruption in the NYPD back in the 70s. The Serpico era. I’m beginning to suspect that the systemic problem of government corruption in developing countries is intractable because the wrong people have been consulted for solutions.

M: Is that why you suggested Eliot Spitzer for the job of World Bank president? [3]

P: Yes, but all that for another day.




Stuck at the Intersection series
(In order of publication)


mark said...

Hi Pundita,

There's a lot I like in this piece but in the interest of comment section brevity I'll stick to one small but important section that you began with the Wolfowitz email example.

Our government like all systems handling information has its gatekeepers. They serve an important function of screening out nonsense for the decision-makers whose time is not only finite but a very rare commodity.

Unfortunately, in the aggregate mean, our government gatekeepers do not have the knowledge base to discern the crank from the humble unknown with a brilliant idea.

So the gatekeeper uses some convenient mental shorthand to decide on access which usually amounts to three things - does the petitioner have real money, credentials or clout ?

None of these things guarantee a useful contribution but they do help prevent political harm for the decision-maker by not aggravating a petitioner who might have the influence to someday retaliate for being snubbed. It is a " first, do no harm policy" of information access when we need a " first, do some good" policy.

Wolfowitz, a guy whose intellect does not respect neat, little, official boundaries, is unusual in that he allowed himself as a decision-maker to be open to out-of-channel information flows and unlike a gatekeeper, had the knowledge base to recognize the wheat from the chaff in substantive terms.

As a system, our government's information flow needs radical re-engineering.

Unknown said...

Quite a bit in this post really rang true with me. Some years back I was in a rather high-powered meeting at a major company. Attendees included the International Manager, an Exec VP, and some other fairly upper-ups. The subject was the company's plan to put a substantial investment into China. I believe one of purposes of the meeting was to get me to sign on and go over there. After listening politely to the presentation I stood up and said
“If I'm not mistaken I'm the only one in this room who reads, writes, or speaks any Chinese. Believe me, these guys are going to take you to the cleaners and you'll never see a dime of profit from your investment. There's a very simple reason for this: the guys in charge over there have very different objectives from yours and they're smarter than you are. You see a market of a billion people. Wrong. The market is a couple of hundred very rich people.”

Mark, I agree with your characterization of the gatekeeper functionality. It has a fundamental flaw: it does not encourage excellence. It doesn't promote success it just reduces the likelihood of total failure. It's a minimax strategy. We need both minimax and maximin strategies.

What are Tom Barnett's qualifications for being a horizontal thinker? I'll answer: he doesn't have any because there is no credentialling process for divergent thinking (and probably
never will be). He has great qualifications as a vertical thinker because that's credentially does. And the unfortunate concommitant is that it tends to weed out divergent thinkers.

Anonymous said...

3rd post!

alpha beta gamma hat!

epsilon man to the rescuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuue!


mark said...


An excellent observation about China matched by an even better one about horizontal thinking.

Horizontal thinking and a credentialling process would collide like matter and anti-matter.

Pundita said...

Regarding the hieroglyphs posted by Anonymous, I thought I stipulated there should be no critter outhouse stories.