Category Archives: Foreign Affairs

Books: 2016

I present my favorite reads of 2016. Since I only read 4 books released last year, I will simply include in my list books that I read. In total, I finished 34 books and started many more.

6: The Way of the Knife:: the CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth (2013) Mark Mazzetti, reporter for The New York Times

This book, by Pulitzer-prize winning Mark Mazzetti, has astonishing anecdotes, literally, on every page. I had my nephew pick a number from page one through 327 and voila – “two hundred” he says. “OSS founder William Donovan was so despondent that President Truman had not named him the first director of central intelligence he decided to set up an intelligence operation of his own. During business trips to Europe he collected information about Soviet activities from American ambassadors and journalists and scouted for possible undercover agents.” When President Truman was made aware of such private shenanigans, he was mad, “calling him a prying S.O.B.” One example from one random page, and it is a good one. I read this book along the way of researching for my final analysis of President Obama’s counterterrorism (CT) policy and the most pertinent quote from the president himself was: “The C.I.A. gets what it wants.” My question is: what president has skirted the power of CIA the most? A muckraking funny-if-it-wasn’t- true expose on the CIA. One con would be that it’s anecdote heavy and hard to pull together a comprehensive understanding of the complex-nature of Intelligence work, the CIA, and the various actors, individuals and states.

5:  Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (2016)
Branko Milanovic, Senior Scholar at the Luxembourg Income Study Center

A fresh, updated accounting on what we know about macroeconomics and what this portends for the future. Milanovic, reforms a classic theoretical understanding of inequality – the Kuznets curve – and coins the Kuznets wave. Succinctly put, inequality rises as economies develop yet the curve flattens out as education, for example spreads. Milanovic adds more lines to the curve and argues that inequality starts to increase once again in developed countries for various reasons, such as high-skilled and information-based job growth. This book is about (1) the rise of the global middle class; (2) the stagnation of the developed world’s middle class; (3) the rise of the global 1%. His prediction is gloomy: we will most likely see increased inequality because the current global climate to tackle this problem is wanting and the task arduous and global governance is limited. “Social separatism” is increasing and this portends a precarious future in our ever-globalizing world.

4: The 1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality (2012)
Thomas Borstelmann, a Distinguished Professor of Modern World History at the University of Lincoln-Nebraska

I keep trying to formulate exactly when much of the world took a right-wing authoritarianism and extreme form; look at photos of Afghanistan in the 1950s-1960s for an example of what I’m conjuring up. I keep getting to 1979. Well, before said year the 1970s was a fascinating decade that so many positive strides regarding civil rights for black Americans and also women. Income inequality started rising precipitously for the developed world in the middle of the decade and the first Islamic revolution of the modern era happened, when the Shah in Iran was overthrown by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This global history, which really is American-centric, is a fantastic read. I think about this book all of the time. For readers of contemporary history, this is a good one that I stumbled upon while perusing the “sale” section at my local library.

3: The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy (2011)
Dani Rodrik, the Rafiq Hariri Professor of International Political Economy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University

We read this book in my proseminar in globalization and out of the ten books we read, this book warranted the most discussion and “thumps up” bar none. Rodrik brilliantly excoriates, at times but with minimal vitriol – his fellow economists and their religious adherence to the Washington Consensus. He provides data to support his argument that some sort of embedded liberalism or a updated version of Bretton Woods is the most secure, fair, popular, and effective way for states to enter the developed strata of states. It’s in this book that he presents the trillemma: you can pick two, but only two. We can either live in a world of deep globalization and democracy; deep globalization and global governance; or global governance and democracy. Rodrik inclines

2: Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis: Second Edition (1999)
Graham Allison, Philip Zelikow, John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and Department of History at University of Virginia, respectively

This essential read for IR students is one I am grateful was assigned; I used the Rational Actor Model and the Governmental Politics model to compare the president’s counterterrorism policy for my capstone research paper. Along with Organizational Structure Model, these 3 frameworks are theoretical kingpins. The case study analyzed was the Cuban Missile Crisis and it was brilliantly done. Essence became the bedrock textbook and the impetus for opening the JFK School of Government at Harvard. If you want to know exactly how the insider process happens, and the complexity and complications of hundreds (now thousands) of actors involved in decisions, this is a great start. A foundational IR text from a heavyweight scholar, Allison, who has since penned many more books that are worth reading.

1: The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of Global Order (1996)
Samuel P. Huntington, co-founder of Foreign Policy; Professor at Harvard; president of the American Political Science Association (APSA)

I’m linking to my blog post where I opined my feelings of this work. Seminal work here.

Best book released in 2016

Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror
Michael Hayden, former head of the CIA, NSA, and intelligence of the Air Force

Hayden has worked in the U.S. Intelligence community for decades and his part-memoir and part-current affairs review of the world we live in was my favorite memoir I read this year. For an intelligence official, the work was deeply honest, fair, and wide-ranging. The impression you get is of a big mind with big ideas and even bigger secrets; at once, a patriot who wishes he could tell Americans more but he can’t, for their security. I have been going through government official memoirs – I’ve only read a few so far – and this might be my favorite, though Chollet’s and Brooks’ are close. (I haven’t finished Brooks’ yet therefore it can’t be on this list but it’s damn good.)

I’m looking forward to reading so many more works next year – I hope to even finish listening to Moby-Dick!

The Future of Power

I think many conflicting, and seemingly incompatible phenomenon can exist – can be true – at the same time. I just read a book that reveals that nominal paradox in great detail. “The world is neither unipolar, multipolar, nor chaotic – it is all three at the same time,” ends the highly compelling The Future of Power.

The Future of Power by Joseph S. Nye, Distinguished Professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, is quite encompassing and packs a punch that is more than it’s relatively short page length (234 pages). This book is an ambitious work. Dissecting the power zeitgeist in a hyper-globalized world is not an easy task. In particular, Nye examines America’s stature and role in the world. In examining the future of power relations between, within, and among states, NGOS, and individuals, Nye paints a complicated and complex picture.

Power is transitioning away from the U.S. but it is not going to one other country or entity; and it certainly isn’t transitioning away rapidly at all. No one country will be more economically powerful than the U.S. for the next 25 years. Further: the next leading power is the EU which is comprised of 28, or so, allies. The U.S. is going to be fine, especially if the U.S. “rediscover[s] how to be a smart power.” What is smart power?

Smart Power

Nye defines and redefines and references many international relations (IR) terms such as hegemony; soft power; and realism. He coins – or effectively brings to the market of ideas at the very least – a new term for power-measuring in the twenty-first century: smart power. Smart power is “liberal realism.” Smart power, for the U.S., is the “understanding of the strength and limits of American power.” Moreover: The U.S. should “develop an integrated grand strategy that combine[s] hard power with soft attractive power.” Finally, we should lead by example and “encourage liberal democracy and human rights at home and abroad where feasible at reasonable levels of cost,” that also “encourage[s] the gradual evolution of democracy but in a manner that accepts the reality of diversity.” Got it?

Nye likened the state of power relations to a 3D chess game. Dimension 1: Interstate military power is highly concentrated in the U.S. Dimension 2: Interstate economic power “is distributed in a multipolar manner among the U.S., the EU, Japan, and the BRICs.” Finally, Dimension 3: “Issues power such as climatic, terror, and pandemics is “highly diffused.”

According to the State Department, smart power is “the intelligent integration and networking of diplomacy, defense, development, and other tools of so-called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power.”

Nye does a great job of highlighting real examples and evidence of arbitrary and circular understandings or ideas. Nye also gives examples of how the world stage is also comprised of other actors, such as corporations and individuals, that now wield power.

Can smaller states utilize smart power?
Look at Singapore engaging in “active sponsorship of diplomatic activities in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),” while also becoming a regional military power.

An example of a non-government individual of having and using soft power? Nye’s example: In 2007, film producer Steven Spielberg, in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, “sent an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao to use its influence to push Sudan to accept a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur.” It worked when “years of diplomacy could not.” Spielberg recognized the position China was in, and succeeded in his attempt at persuasion. That is soft power in an individual.

I think the best part of the book is just how much importance Nye allows to the Information Revolution. I certainly agree with this. Globalization is an information-based creation. A major reason we are seeing this power diffusion is the Internet. A tension exists between privacy and security; and there is a really good chapter regarding the cyberworld contained within this book.

We are just now really beginning to understand the battle we are in regarding the cyber realm. The Internet is Real.

Compare/Contrast – Moon & Sun:

In 2010, one poll found that 61% of poll respondents thought the country was in decline and only 19% trusted the government. …Over the past few decades, public confidence has dropped in half for major institutions.” [Nye Jr., 2011]

Meanwhile…

75% of Americans feel connected to their communities and say the quality of life there is excellent or good. According to a Pew poll, 111 million Americans say they volunteer their time to solve problems in their communities in the previous 12 months, and 60 million volunteered on a regular basis. 40 % said working together with others in their community was the most important thing they could do.” [Nye Jr., 2011]

Conclusion

Nye’s conclusion is an slightly optimistic one for us: “The United States is unlikely to decay like ancient Rome or even to be surpassed by another state, including China.” He continues: This is “not a narrative of decline.” Power is always shifting and evolving (and devolving, perhaps?) and American hegemony may be a thing of the past. Power transition is happening but not as rapid or in one direction as many argue. Perhaps China will be the next Soviet or Japan: the supposed next great power that settles for regional dominance.

As a careful analyst as he is, he knows the future is not predetermined: “There are a range of possible futures, not one.”

Americans might think that America is entering an era of decay but America is still quite the world power; just not quite as powerful as in the past, that is all. I must say that this book holds up remarkable well for being 5 years old. The U.S. dollar is still king. Check out the great Milton Ezrati on the primacy of the economic power of the U.S. in The National Interest. The U.S. dollar “is by far the world’s most traded currency, involved in 87 percent of all global currency exchanges, up from 85 percent in 2010,” in 2015 he writes. “For now the dollar remains supreme, ” exclaims the economist. America is the strongest individual country in the world.

Nye’s book is a must read for students of international affairs; in particular, for those interested in America’s role in the world; for those interested in China’s rise; and last but not least, those interesting in theory. You can’t understand the world, unless you understand power in all of its multifaceted faces.

Illustrative Example of Obama’s Foreign Policy

I like illustrative examples; specific actions that can symbolize an entire….administration, or decade, or era, or an individuals temperament, for example. Here is good example of what I’m talking about regarding President Obama’s Syrian dilemma. In 2012:

“Obama did ask his military and intelligence chiefs to come up with plans to speed history along, and in the summer of 2012, CIA Director David Petraeus laid out a scheme to arm a group of “moderate” Syrian rebels. The plan, which Petraeus had formulated with Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan and a few other Arab security chiefs, called for shipping small arms, mainly rifles, to a small, select group of the Syrian opposition. …The plan had the backing of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and the Joints Chiefs of Staff. But the president rejected it.

“This was not a winning argument with Obama: he was looking for something that had a chance of succeeding in the near term, and he did not want skin in a game played in the quagmire of a sectarian civil war. While Petraeus was working up the plan, Obama asked the CIA to produce a paper on how often in the past U.S. arms had succeeded in helping rebels oust hostile governments. The answer: not very often. That sealed the case.”

Fred Kaplan, in an well-written essay of Obama’s foreign policy dichotomy between theory and practice, mentions that Obama was worried that this would also drag Iran more into the mix. Kaplan argues that Obama’s preferred tools were – “words, logic, persistent questions, and sequential problem solving.” In a world like this one: good luck, Mr. President.

In 2014:

“In any case, two years later, Obama approved a similar plan. However, when the American-backed rebels started racking up victories on the battlefield and appeared to be closing in on Assad, Obama’s prediction of what would happen next came true: the Iranians redoubled their support for Assad, sending Quds Force soldiers to fight the rebels. And Russian President Vladimir Putin, fearing the loss of Moscow’s sole outpost outside the former Soviet Union, sent tanks, planes, and missiles to support the Syrian army.”

Obama’s foreign policy motto could be: In any case.

This isn’t an attack on President Obama, by the way, more of an assessment on the difficulties of making decisions in an anarchic world. It has been repeated, like a mantra, that in politics, your choices are all horrible. This also illustrates the outsider/insider bias/dichotomy. Outside and without any power, it’s easy to condemn and to say you would have done X over Y if you were in power. Inside: you must make a decision based on imperfect information and the possible black swans, or simple spillover effects, are unknown.

Trumpism is Global

In a previous blog post, I laid down some thoughts regarding the phenomenon of Trump and how I feel like you can look at it through the lens of identity politics. Well, today I was reading an excellent interview by Foreign Affairs with the French ambassador Gérard Araud and he expressed a similar understanding regarding Europe when he was asked about the far-right party in France known as Front National:

It’s the same thing as Trump. Of course, Trump has his personal genius, but it’s basically the same crisis. The lower middle class feels frightened by globalization, frightened for the future of its children, frightened for its moral and social values. They have the impression that the elite are cut off from them. So they want to try something new. So it’s the Front National in France, or the extreme right in the Netherlands, or Mr. Trump. It’s the same solution: building walls, closing borders. And it’s the same scapegoat: the immigrant. It’s sad.”

Identity politics needs a scapegoat; an Other. As countries become more and more unequal as the share of income gains and wealth goes to a smaller and smaller slither of people you will see un-channeled rage that, demagogues like Trump, exploit for their own good to the continued detriment of almost everyone.

France, Europe, and the Future

Some thoughts on #Paris and its implications for the world.

The worst has yet to come, says political analysts and spokesmen for ISIS alike. You can count on the fact that this is true.

The Schengen Agreement in Europe is in jeopardy; reading the words of European leaders after last night’s Paris attack, and you clearly get the feeling that this will be a turning point for geopolitics. Many of our borders will likely become more militarized. War is in the air. “France will be merciless towards these barbarians from ISIL,” remarked French President Hollande last night. Echos of George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11/2001. Orban and Hungary have already acted draconian and nationalistic regarding refugees and this event will surely rally more support for policies based on fear, worst possible outcomes, and xenophobia and intolerance. [Just look at how quickly U.S. politicians, on Twitter, used this event for domestic political purposes.] Now with reports that one of the commandos was from Syria and did migrate recently, expect horribleness all around. With so many places destabilized and on the brink of failing, such as Libya and Syria, there is now an even bigger incentive to make sure that Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, for example, do not become weakened. This means realpolitik and the stifling of any dissent: expect the U.S. to supply Saudi Arabia and Egypt with all of the weapons, intel, and support they need because the alternatives are unthinkable. In fact, if Saudi Arabia starts seeing signs of civil war, then we can start being scared about World War III. I’m serious: you do not want that country to have a power vacuum.

Political scientist Benjamin Barber wrote a prescient and gloomy book called Jihad vs McWorld released just prior to 9/11 actually, that rings in my mind after a night like last night. As observers have pointed out, these attackers targeted dense population cities rimmed with 21st century highlights and activities – globalized and cosmopolitan. There is a war against modernity and ISIS is proud of that war. France will remain a key target; especially factoring in Frances’ involvement in Mali, recently, and historically as a colonizing force as well. Jihad experts expect Italy to also be a likely target in the near future. Many people see ISIS as a new phenomenon when it’s been in the making for a long time. There is a war on modernity and its adherents are True Believers who welcome the apocalypse. (This is also a war on women; other Muslims; children; the West; each other; sex; lust; humanity; etc.)

This will likely go down as “the 9/11 of France” which has all kinds of implications. Observers thought the Charlie Hebdo attacks would be the spark that changed France; it was only the beginning. This time it feels different because…it is. One thing is certain: this event will have a geopolitical impact in a time of overwhelming crisis and in a time when leadership is desperately needed. Our institutions are not suited and built for the challenges of the 21st century. Until they are, expect chaos, anarchy, and contingent actions without strategy. Fear changes people, countries, and policies, to be sure. The War on Terror has entered a dangerous and potentially catastrophic period. Keep to this space for more frequent updates, analysis, and insights from someone who reads way to much about all of this for his own good. I’ll be more frequent – perhaps weekly – with these updates to flesh out what I have said here and to illuminate the bigger picture for folks who don’t stay abreast in all things national security and war.

US-Pakistan: Magnificent Delusions: Part 2

Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, The United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding
by Husain Haggani. PublicAffairs. 413 pp.

Part 1 covered the years 1947-1951. Part 2, below, covers 1951-1959.
_____

The early beginnings of Pakistan were tumultuous and ripe with realpolitik, propaganda, and every side, whether it was the US, India, Pakistan, the Soviet Union, were playing all sides. We begin this part 2 where I left off: it’s the Korean War and it’s a time where the future of Pakistan is up for grabs, in all ways imaginable.

The Truman Administration was hesitant to make many promises to Pakistan. The next administration, under Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during WWII, was more likely to help Pakistan due to Eisenhower being “tougher” about geopolitics. Eisenhower viewed Pakistan strategically and has “a more aggressive anticommunism stance throughout the world.” His Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles thought the same way. Dulles thought that Hindus were susceptible to communist ideology; he thought Muslims were inherently the opposite. Of course, this is nonsense but it’s illustrative of the type of thinking that prevailed, even (some would say especially) from Very Smart People, during the Cold War. Almost 60 pages into this book, and Haqqanis words on the great Secretary of State, are his most critical yet. The combination of hawkish Red Scare anticommunism Ideology and the rising political class in Pakistan, desperate for external help to build their military and economy, provides fragile ingredients prone to delusional thinking and this is also an example of what political scientists call path-dependency.

A brief note: *Some of these name here are considered some of the most important US officials of all time. The same can be said for the Pakistani names. This was a crucial time for the world.*

Food For Support in This Ideological Age
Pakistan faced an impending grain shortage and the US sent “seven hundred thousand tons of wheat” under the Wheat Aid Act. This, Haqqani writes, “marked the first major success in Pakistan’s wooing of America.” The Pakistani ambassador to the United States Muhammad Ali Bogra succeeded where Liaquat – one of the “Founding Fathers” of Pakistan failed. However, Pakistan wanted military aid and Iskander Mirza, Pakistani Defense Secretary and army commander General Muhammad Ayub Khan (Ayub from here on out.) had bigger plans. A common them in Pakistan is for their leaders to say one thing publically while simultaneously doing the exact opposite in real life. “Reports that my government is negotiating with the U.S. Government for military assistance in return for American bases in Pakistan are absolutely unfounded and baseless,” declared Ghulam Muhammad, who was now the governor-general. Haqqani points out that this “was a blatant lie.”

Richard Nixon
Nixon was Eisenhower’s vice president and he traveled to a dozen countries in the East and had an outsized influence in foreign policy in Eisenhower’s Administration. Nixon did not like the Prime Minister of India, Nehru, very much. However, he did think Pakistan deserved our help. “Pakistan is a country I would like to do everything for,” remarked Nixon. Nixon only visited Pakistan for three days and even though “he met only people who had carefully choreographed what to say to him,” according to Haqqani, he believed that their anticommunist views were real. Admiral Arthur Radford was charmed, himself, by Ayub.

*Richard Nixon’s name will be seen in this space in subsequent parts; albeit with a little detour to really explain a bit about this horrendous man, and how we are still facing consequences from his 30 + years in public office.*

Coincidence or Conspiracy
US Ambassador Hildreth, a former Republican governor of Maine, also supported giving military aid to Pakistan as he viewed this as in Americas best interest. Hildreth became friends with Mirza. Mirza’s son, Humayun actually “married Hildreth’s daughter Jospehine.” Let the speculation begin. If you read part 1 you read that after 1951, Pakistan had a internal political mess. This opened up many positions and gave power to unelected nonpoliticians. Mirza, who had many roles, became president later on in 1956, was now the Defense Secretary and Pakistan got what they wanted, more or less.

“The US and Pakistan signed a Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement on May 19, 1954,” lays out Haqqani. This assured that Pakistan would assist the US in their anticommunist mission. Also: “Pakistan affirmed that it ‘would not undertake any act of aggression against any other nation.” Pakistani leftists were not happy. This gave the US more reason to support Mirza and Ayub and the elites because the alternative could certainly be an anti-American government rising to power. The US government was not concerned that the Pakistani parliament was ineffectual and the new nation-state had no constitution. America was considered about anticommunism support, and that is basically it. In fact, there wouldn’t be direct elections in Pakistan until 1970.

The Pakistan Problem: Path Dependency
All in all Pakistan received over $1 billion from the US between 1954-1959. Eisenhower became suspicious of how expensive, for so little promise in return from Pakistan, this bilateral relationship had become. “…[This] tendency to rush out and seek allies was not very sensible,” remarked President Eisenhower. At the beginning of Eisenhower’s second term, his new ambassador to Pakistan Jim Langley also saw how much of a mess this whole thing was. Did it matter? No because Pakistan allowed for an NSA-CIA listening post and interception facility to intercept Soviet radar. Thus, the money kept pouring in.

Ayub Rises
Back to Ayub: The Pakistani Commander-in-Chief had many tricks up his sleeves. Ayub convinced US leaders that not only is India a threat but so is China, and Afghanistan, claiming that these countries were “getting enormous quantities of aid.” The pace of this book is a middling one; many details and with no rush to get anywhere in particular. However, towards the end of this chapter, Haqqani speads up some of the story: President Eisenhower “realized that he had disagreed with Ayub on all substantive issues.” This, however, did not stop the US from supporting Pakistan and Ayub, who grabbed power through a coup in which Ayub was the chief martial law administrator and prime minister. Later, Ayub consolidated power even more by combining the offices of president and prime minister. Eisenhower might have realized that Pakistan faced no immediate threats he still decided to bolster their military and to continue the status quo. “By the end of Eisenhower’s term as president the United States had helped Pakistan’s army equip 4 infantry divisions and one and a half armored divisions, including M-47 Patton tanks,” writes Haqqani. Moreover, the Pakistan navy received “12 vessels including destroyers and minesweepers.” The air force “received 6 squadrons of aircraft.”

I will pause here even though the chapter is not over. I think a clean break here before the Kennedy/Johnson Administration is necessary.
____
This was a review/summary of the first decade or so of Pakistan-US relations, mostly focusing on the Ayub-Eisenhower exchange parts of Magnificent Delusions. The years discussed were 1951-1959. Part 3 should be up in a few days.

Thoughts on Foreign Affairs July/Aug 2015 issue: Hi, Robot

Foreign Affairs has become one of my favorite publications, in general, and regarding U.S. international relations and comparative politics, in particular. What follows are some of my thoughts regarding their latest feature which is on robots and technology and their implications regarding well…..everything. More accurately this issue is about the coming – or is it? – Robotic Revolution, a.k.a the Age of Automation.


MIT professor Daniela Rus, in the lead essay titled ” The Robots Are Coming,” surveys driverless cars, and more-or-less paints an optimistic view of the future, at least regarding technology. Her main big claim: The objective of robotics is to find ways for machines to assist and collaborate with humans more effectively. A new term, for me, that was used was “pervasive robotics” which describes a time when robots will be so common and seamless in our lives that we won’t even think of them as robots. This harken backs to Carl Sagan’s notion from A Demon Haunted World that the reason we don’t understand science is because when it works, you don’t have to think about all of the details. We are living in a time that, for me, seems to be on the cusp of this pervasiveness when it comes to robots. I appreciate her optimism for autonomous cars: “Imagine a mass transit system with two layers: a network of large vehicles, such as trains and buses, that would handle long-distance trips and complementary fleets of small self-driving cars that would offer short, customized rides, picking up passengers at major hubs and also responding to individual requests for rides from almost anywhere“, she writes.

I did have a negative feeling after reading about robot dog walkers; this feels dystopian. Especially now since so many Americans are feeling lost and alienated and dogs and loved ones provide all of us with so much joy. Walking a dog shouldn’t feel like a chore and shouldn’t be equated with cleaning a room or something. Do I want robots to clean my room? I don’t care. Do I want robots to walk my dog? Not a chance. Professor Rus does admit that this pervasiveness is years, if not a couple of decades, away. She is also correct that “consequences will be profound” when robots are seen as so commonplace that we won’t remember getting around or cleaning, for ex., without them. A great introductory essay. Robots should be designed to enhance our lives. On the surface: who could argue with that?


The next essay is titled in question-form: “Will Humans Go the Way of Horses?” by two other MIT professors, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. “No,” humans won’t they answer. This essay is asks profound political and social questions regarding the “possible mass displacement of labor.” There used to be a domesticated horse population of 21 million prior to ubiquitous engines. We used horses to “carry goods and people.” The inserted photo of a horse-drawn fire engine from 1914 will stick with me. This blew my mind. This essay is basically a rift and rebuttal to the Nobel economist Wassily Leontief who remarked that “the role of humans as the most important factor of production is bound to diminish in the same way that the role of horses…. was first diminished and then eliminated.” This brings us to another useful term: light-labor economy. An forthcoming economy that doesn’t need all that much labor from humans. Sounds utopian and dystopian to me. Also: robot dividend – a “more widespread ownership of robots and similar technologies, or at least a portion of the financial benefits they generated.” Now I really like this idea.

So why do these authors assert that humans won’t go the way of horses? Well, because humans won’t go quietly, for one. Horses couldn’t organize to fight for their jobs; horses can’t vote. People are not “meek” and won’t take irrelevance sitting down. Democracy is why. Also, technology is not ready yet; they write that “humans can do many valuable things that will remain beyond the reach of technology.” Their examples? Restaurant busboys and a child sorting a bowlful of coins. Really? Busboys are already paid by their fellow co-workers in many states supplemented by minimum wage from their employer. (I work in a restaurant and busboys are not happy at all.) Also: in a truly robotic future world do you think that we will have coins to sort? How much does this happen now? These examples are weak. They do argue that its our minds that are great. This is true but great minds doesn’t produce shrinking inequality – as we now know. They are on to a good point when they mention that we value social experiences which can’t be replaced by robots. One more reason humans won’t go the way of the horse regarding labor: capital. Or capitalism. Humans own shares and capital and can invest; horses couldn’t do this. Ignore the current realities regarding capital and wealth and inequality.

They are not flippant though, I hope I’m not coming across as otherwise. They warn that “the world may not be able to maintain the industrial era’s remarkable trajectory of steadily rising employment prospects and wages for a growing population.” Piketty was referenced and so was a Credit Suisse 2014 study that suggests that “the richest one percent held 48% of the world’s total wealth.” This is a crisis. My question is: how worse can robots make this already dire situation?

They emphasize goals. And values. This is what we should emphasize. But – like the aforementioned time I brought this up – this is of course what we should do. This essay had good history, a compelling take, and interesting points. However, their solution they articulate is that “the best way to help workers in today’s climate is to equip them with valuable skills and to encourage overall economic growth.” Really? Duh. What? No, seriously. We know this already.  I enjoyed this essay a lot though.


Same as It Ever Was,” by Martin Wolf is the third essay. Wolf is the Chief Economics Commentator for the Financial Times. Wolf compares the techno-optimists to the pessimistic possibility of “supremely intelligent and even self-creating” machines. He refers to economist Robert Gordon and his work regarding productivity growth. “Who really cares about the Internet when one considers clean water and flushing toilets?,” he writes. Yes, this is a response in some ways to the prior essay; Wolf even references Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee and their latest book, The Second Machine Age.

I didn’t read this essay before typing my thoughts about the previous essay. I should have: this guy has my same concerns and same attitude. “All of this has repeatedly been true since the nineteenth century.” Yep. “An ancient Roman would have understood the way of life of the United States of 1840 fairly well. He would have found that of 1940 beyond his imagination.” I love when I have this feeling. It’s so amazing to be anything at all, you know?

Wolf’s brief synopsis of the Second Revolution was to compare it to the Information Revolution – the Internet, and e-commerce. The former altered “entire patterns of habitation.” This essay is an attempt to put the current discussion and possible future in context. A few sentences that illuminate this point succinctly: “Yes, robots can do well-defined human jobs in well-defined environments. Indeed, it is quite possible that standard factory work will be entirely automated. But the automation of such work is already very far advanced. It is not a revolution in the making. Yes, it is possible to imagine driverless cars. But this would be a far smaller advance than were cars themselves.” Wolf is skeptical of the techno-optimists but also asserts that “techno-feudalism is unnecessary,” as well. We may get more of the same but this is all up to us, writes Wolf. I enjoyed this very realistic take on the issue. One more point: Wolf can’t imagine the singularity as a state of the world. I have been thinking this for awhile now. I read Abundance – for example – and we have yet to see what they are imagining. (Abundance is not a book about the singularity, per se, but it’s an example of economic utopianism that has yet to happen.) Will we spread the abundance or will it be concentrated? For the umpteenth time, this is a great read.
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These essays have all become more and varied. This next essay, “The Coming Robot Dystopia,” by Illah Reza Nourbakhsh, is the most pessimistic. Basically, he does not welcome robotic relationships or a world where we share our ecosystem with super intelligent robots, writing: “a robotic vacuum cleaner shouldn’t tell its owner that it misses him when he’s at work.” I couldn’t agree more. Human relationships can never be replaced. For those who crave anthropomorphic robots well, there should be accountability, and roboticists should “grow up.” “People must be able to question these machines about their knowledge, their goals, their desires, and their intentions.” The weirdness of all of this is really hitting me after reading these essays; this essay in particular.

This essay is not all gloom. Nourbakhsh predicts that “thanks to robotics, the next two decades will likely see the end of the wheelchair.” This is a bold claim. Ambiguously he writes that “it is merely a matter of time before human-robot couplings greatly outperform purely biological systems.” This brings us to another term: transhumanism; “a post-evolutionary transformation that will replace humans with a hybrid of man and machine.” I must say though that their will never be a epoch that is post-evolutionary; this is an interesting abstraction and categorical idea but it can never be a reality. (In my I-understand-evolution-rooted opinion.) Nourbakhsh reminds us of the potential that Big Data has; we can choose a democratic and transparent way forward or not. We have a choice. Those who assume that Big Data equals Big Choices, shouldn’t; we can already see how all of our own data is being used to manipulate us in a myriad of ways.


The final essay is one that is the nearest to my heart. I remember when I first learned of flexicurity; it was in the first couple of weeks of my comparative politics class at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. This essay is about social policy. Nicolas Colin and Bruno Palier write about the future safety nets in the digital age. They write in “The Next Social Policy” that social policy will therefore have to cover the needs of not just those outside the labor market but even many inside it. The biggest challenge is “mass intermittent employment” and they argue that “the task of twenty-first-century social policy is to make a virtue of necessity, finding ways to enable workers to have rich, full, and successful lives even as their careers undergo great volatility.” This is precisely true. I am glad they mentioned a Universal Basic Income (UBI) which is amassing quite the amount of literature as of late. U.S. President Richard Nixon, 40 years ago, mentioned that we might need a income given to every citizen uncoupled from employment. They don’t analyze the idea but they simply put it that a UBI won’t be comprehensive enough. I asked the writer and UBI advocate Scott Santens what he thought about this essay’s framing of the UBI. He said that UBI is a type of flexicurity which I couldn’t agree more; he also wrote that this essay assumes that the UBI would “replace everything.”

A more effective, the authors argue, tactic could be in the regulatory realm. A government dedicated to lowering “legal barriers” to facilitate economic growth. His example? Uber. This is distressing and would amount to another attack on unionized transportation work. Their claim that governments should help and not work in competition with entrepreneurs is faulty. Moreover, governments do already work with entrepreneurs and this has always been the case. If I was some how in front of these gentlemen I would point them to the work of the Professor of the Economics Mariana Mazzucato and her essay in this very same publication from earlier in the year called “The Innovative State.” She is also the author of the book The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs Private Sector Myths.

Back to flexicurity. Flexicurtiy or flexible security is “separating the provision of benefits from jobs.” Ok. Actually, I think this term is so incredibly important that a block quote is in store:

“The essence of flexicurity—shorthand for “flexible security”—is separating the provision of benefits from jobs. If the government can guarantee citizens access to health care, housing, education and training, and the like on a universal basis without regard to their employment status, the argument runs, people won’t be so terrified of switching jobs or losing a job. This, in turn, would allow the government to deregulate labor markets, leaving decisions about hiring and firing of employees to be made by firms themselves, according to economic logic. The result is greater efficiency, dynamism, and productivity, all built around workers’ needs rather than on their backs.”

I agree with their main claim: 21st century social policy involves more “state activism”, not less than the 20th century. One point: their categorization of the UBI as not a form of “flexicurity” is strange. It of course is a type of flexible security. Worker’s needs are citizen’s needs; if they aren’t met in a very real way, I would expect the type of unrest that Brynjolfsson and McAfee predict as a possible future if our policies don’t meet the realities of the New Economy.

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These essays were great and I recommend reading them if you have the chance. If not, I hope my loosely organized and always changing thoughts on these pieces illuminate in some minor way.