April 12, 2012
April 12, 2012
Throughout 2011, a rhythmic chant echoed across the Arab lands: “The people want to topple the regime.” It skipped borders with ease, carried in newspapers and magazines, on Twitter and Facebook, on the airwaves of al Jazeera and al Arabiya. Arab nationalism had been written off, but here, in full bloom, was what certainly looked like a pan-Arab awakening. Young people in search of political freedom and economic opportunity, weary of waking up to the same tedium day after day, rose up against their sclerotic masters.
It came as a surprise. For almost two generations, waves of democracy had swept over other regions, from southern and eastern Europe to Latin America, from East Asia to Africa. But not the Middle East. There, tyrants had closed up the political world, become owners of their countries in all but name. It was a bleak landscape: terrible rulers, sullen populations, a terrorist fringe that hurled itself in frustration at an order bereft of any legitimacy. Arabs had started to feel they were cursed, doomed to despotism. The region’s exceptionalism was becoming not just a human disaster but a moral embarrassment.
Outside powers had winked at this reality, silently thinking this was the best the Arabs could do. In a sudden burst of Wilsonianism in Iraq and after, the United States had put its power behind liberty. Saddam Hussein was flushed out of a spider hole, the Syrian brigades of terror and extortion were pushed out of Lebanon, and the despotism of Hosni Mubarak, long a pillar of Pax Americana, seemed to lose some of its mastery. But post-Saddam Iraq held out mixed messages: there was democracy, but also blood in the streets and sectarianism. The autocracies hunkered down and did their best to thwart the new Iraqi project. Iraq was set ablaze, and the Arab autocrats could point to it as a cautionary tale of the folly of unseating even the worst of despots. Moreover, Iraq carried a double burden of humiliation for Sunni Arabs: the bearer of liberty there was the United States, and the war had empowered the Shiite stepchildren of the Arab world. The result was a standoff: the Arabs could not snuff out or ignore the flicker of freedom, but nor did the Iraqi example prove the subversive beacon of hope its proponents had expected.
It was said by Arabs themselves that George W. Bush had unleashed a tsunami on the region. True, but the Arabs were good at waiting out storms, and before long, the Americans themselves lost heart and abandoned the quest. An election in 2006 in the Palestinian territories went the way of Hamas, and a new disillusionment with democracy’s verdict overtook the Bush administration. The “surge” in Iraq rescued the American war there just in time, but the more ambitious vision of reforming the Arab world was given up. The autocracies had survived the brief moment of American assertiveness. And soon, a new standard-bearer of American power, Barack Obama, came with a reassuring message: the United States was done with change; it would make its peace with the status quo, renewing its partnership with friendly autocrats even as it engaged the hostile regimes in Damascus and Tehran. The United States was to remain on the Kabul hook for a while longer, but the greater Middle East would be left to its Furies.
When a revolt erupted in Iran against the theocrats in the first summer of his presidency, Obama was caught flatfooted by the turmoil. Determined to conciliate the rulers, he could not find the language to speak to the rebels. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime, which had given up its dominion in Lebanon under duress, was now keen to retrieve it. A stealth campaign of terror and assassinations, the power of Hezbollah on the ground, and the subsidies of Iran all but snuffed out the “Cedar Revolution” that had been the pride of Bush’s diplomacy.
Observers looking at the balance of forces in the region in late 2010 would have been smart to bet on a perpetuation of autocracy. Beholding Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, they would have been forgiven the conclusion that a similar fate awaited Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, and the large Egyptian state that had been the trendsetter in Arab political and cultural life. Yet beneath the surface stability, there was political misery and sterility. Arabs did not need a “human development report” to tell them of their desolation. Consent had drained out of public life; the only glue between ruler and ruled was suspicion and fear. There was no public project to bequeath to a generation coming into its own — and this the largest and youngest population yet.
And then it happened. In December, a despairing Tunisian fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi took one way out, setting himself on fire to protest the injustices of the status quo. Soon, millions of his unnamed fellows took another, pouring into the streets. Suddenly, the despots, seemingly secure in their dominion, deities in all but name, were on the run. For its part, the United States scurried to catch up with the upheaval. “In too many places, in too many ways, the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed in Qatar in mid-January 2011, as the storm was breaking out. The Arab landscape lent her remarks ample confirmation; what she omitted was that generations of American diplomacy would be buried, too.
THE FIRE THIS TIME
The revolt was a settlement of accounts between the powers that be and populations determined to be done with despots. It erupted in a small country on the margins of the Arab political experience, more educated and prosperous and linked to Europe than the norm. As the rebellion made its way eastward, it skipped Libya and arrived in Cairo, “the mother of the world.” There, it found a stage worthy of its ambitions.
Often written off as the quintessential land of political submission, Egypt has actually known ferocious rebellions. It had been Mubarak’s good fortune that the land tolerated him for three decades. The designated successor to Anwar al-Sadat, Mubarak had been a cautious man, but his reign had sprouted dynastic ambitions. For 18 magical days in January and February, Egyptians of all walks of life came together in Tahrir Square demanding to be rid of him. The senior commanders of the armed forces cast him aside, and he joined his fellow despot, Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had fallen a month earlier.
From Cairo, the awakening became a pan-Arab affair, catching fire in Yemen and Bahrain. As a monarchy, the latter was a rare exception, since in this season it was chiefly the republics of strongmen that were seized with unrest. But where most monarchies had a fit between ruler and ruled, Bahrain was riven by a fault line between its Sunni rulers and its Shiite majority. So it was vulnerable, and it was in the nature of things that an eruption there would turn into a sectarian feud. Yemen, meanwhile, was the poorest of the Arab states, with secessionist movements raging in its north and south and a polarizing leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had no skills save the art of political survival. The feuds of Yemen were obscure, the quarrels of tribes and warlords. The wider Arab tumult gave Yemenis eager to be rid of their ruler the heart to challenge him.
Then, the revolt doubled back to Libya. This was the kingdom of silence, the realm of the deranged, self-proclaimed “dean of Arab rulers,” Muammar al-Qaddafi. For four tormenting decades, Libyans had been at the mercy of this prison warden, part tyrant, part buffoon. Qaddafi had eviscerated his country, the richest in Africa yet with an abysmally impoverished population. In the interwar years, Libya had known savage colonial rule under the Italians. It gained a brief respite under an ascetic ruler, King Idris, but in the late 1960s was gripped by a revolutionary fever. Iblis wa la Idris, went the maxim of the time, “Better the devil than Idris.” And the country got what it wanted. Oil sustained the madness; European leaders and American intellectuals alike came courting. Now, in 2011, Benghazi, at some remove from the capital, rose up, and history gave the Libyans a chance.
The Egyptian rulers had said that their country was not Tunisia. Qaddafi said that his republic was not Tunisia or Egypt. Eventually, Assad was saying that Syria was not Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya. Assad was young, not old; his regime had more legitimacy because it had confronted Israel rather than collaborated with it. He spoke too soon: in mid-March, it was Syria’s turn…
A few weeks before the 2008 election, Democratic strategists were running out of ideas for how to help Al Franken. His race against incumbent Minnesota senator Norm Coleman was a stubborn one: Even after some of the country’s highest ever per capita spending, the contest remained close, with a small number of undecided, seemingly unbudgeable voters.
The job of pollsters in these situations is to figure out who the undecided actually are and what could make them move. Often, they focus on demographics (playing to older suburban women) or issues (talk of school reform). But one pollster working for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Mark Mellman, felt it might pay to look for more primal distinctions.
Mellman added to his Minnesota polls a battery of questions inspired by research in psychology and neuroscience, borrowed from personality tests and designed to separate those with more rational processing systems from those who relied on emotion in their decision-making. Here polls did discern a latent split: Franken led Coleman by one point among those they identified as “feelers” but lagged by seven points among “thinkers.” The committee changed its ad strategy in response. Highly stylized television spots, like a movie spoof that showed Coleman as a fugitive fleeing George W. Bush, were replaced by messages that were “a little more flat, a little more factual, a little more sourced,” Mellman said. One defended Franken against Coleman’s charges with a calm narrator reading off a checklist of straightforward rebuttals under the words “The Truth.” Franken won, after a long recount, and in 2010 Mellman used the same battery of questions to shape media strategy for Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer.
That kind of science may seem alien to the war room, but Mellman’s hunch, that the differences in how people process politics may be more innate than we’ve thought, is becoming the default assumption in research labs worldwide. There, over the last decade or so, scientists have been extending to politics the imperious insights of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology that have so shaken other social sciences.
At the vanguard of this movement is Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist whose best-selling new book, The Righteous Mind, collects his own experiments—testing biases, prejudices, and preferences—and the work of like-minded colleagues to unmask much of our political “thinking” as moral instinct papered over, post facto, with ideological rationalization. We may tell ourselves that we believe welfare is just or that abortion violates the sanctity of life, but we’re really using borrowed language to express much more visceral attitudes, oriented around one of six moral dials—harm, fairness, loyalty, authority, liberty, and sanctity. Much of what passes for the daily scrum of electoral politics, he says, is merely an effort to find language that can help citizens justify these instincts. “Once people join a political team, they get ensnared in its moral matrix,” Haidt writes. “They see confirmation of their grand narrative everywhere.”
But the new science of primal politics goes quite a bit deeper than psychology. Over the past few years, researchers haven’t just tied basic character traits to liberalism and conservatism, they’ve begun to finger specific genes they say hard-wire those ideologies. If that work is to be believed, it would mean that an individual’s path to a political identity starts not with a series of choices but with long-ago genetic mutations, and that our collective experience of politics may be less a battle of ideas than a Darwinian contest in which we are all unwitting participants. After a team of geneticists claimed in a 2005 American Political Science Review article that they had evidence of DNA’s influence on politics, Duke political scientist Evan Charney rebutted that their findings “would require nothing less than a revision of our understanding of all of human history, much—if not most—of political science, sociology, anthropology, and psychology, as well as, perhaps, our understanding of what it means to be human.”
The thing most in need of revising may be our reflex for self-flattery. We revel in the idea that personal politics are perfectly deliberative, never more than in a year when Barack Obama and Mitt Romney—two dispassionate rationalists with great confidence in their skills of persuasion—will cross the country to win over their fellow citizens’ hearts and minds. But the comforting metaphor of a grand national debate to determine where the swing voters will end up has never seemed so out of sync with trending science. After all, what is the point of everything that happens between now and November 6 if our wiring dictates how we vote?
In 2006, as political scientists fixated on the country’s red-blue divide, NYU psychologist John Jost delivered a paper titled “The End of the End of Ideology.” For years, scholars had believed that the differences between liberals and conservatives were both trivial and superficial—that the two major American political parties weren’t all that far apart and that voters’ loyalties to them were simply arbitrary. Some had become convinced that people attached themselves to an ideology merely to assert their sophistication, picking a side to show they were capable of articulating a coherent worldview—that, as Haidt suggests, partisanship was merely an intellectual superstructure.
But Jost believed there was something deeper to political identity, something that might explain why there has been so much continuity, and so little shape-shifting, in the politics of the modern West. Ever since French parliamentarians decided their seating arrangements in the eighteenth century, the two-way split between left (concerned with inequality and eager for social change) and right (guardians of tradition and satisfied with an uneven spread of resources) has remained remarkably constant across time and place. As new issues have emerged, opinions on them have lined up very neatly with the old patterns—patterns so consistent they cannot be arbitrary and so peculiar it’s hard to believe they are fully rational. Why in the American system were the people who opposed the death penalty almost always the ones who believed that rich people should pay more in taxes? Why are those concerned with Net neutrality the same people obsessed with local produce? Why do support for strong regulation of abortion and weak regulation of the financial sector seem to go together?
Jost wanted to find out and, with a group of colleagues, set off to map the psychological infrastructure of politics. They didn’t bother asking people about cap-and-trade or gun control, but focused on jazz, masturbation, and gardening. What they discovered was a series of contrasts: Conservatives approved of documentaries and going to bars; liberals looked favorably upon motorcycles and singing songs. In earlier studies, liberals had been shown to be unpredictable and uncontrolled, conservatives conscientious and trustworthy. Jost found that liberals embraced those considered outside the social mainstream, like lesbians, “street people,” and atheists; conservatives approved of fraternities and sororities, politicians, and Caucasians. Conservatives were fonder of children, liberals of professors. Among women, conservatives were more into sex; among men, Jost and his colleagues found the opposite.
Growing Out of Poverty: A World Bank report makes clear how free markets- and U.S. leadership- have led millions to better lives.
April 12, 2012
The most significant events often escape media attention. How many would know from reading their daily newspaper or watching television that we live in an unprecedented economic period when the number of people living in extreme poverty is declining fast? According to a just-published World Bank report, the percentage of people living on less than $1.25 per day—or its local equivalent—has plummeted from 52 percent of the global population in 1981 to 22 percent in 2008. The World Bank doesn’t provide more recent data, but other indices show that the 2008 financial crisis did not interrupt this trend. For millions of households, crossing the symbolic $1.25 threshold means leaving destitution behind and moving toward a more dignified life—no trivial achievement. Moreover, this escape from poverty happens while the global population continues to grow. Doomsday prophets who warned about a ticking “population bomb” have not been vindicated, to say the least. Global warming messiahs, beware: human ingenuity proves able to cope with the predicaments of Mother Nature.
Thirty years ago, half of the planet lived in utter misery, and many commentators argued that poverty was destiny. At best, most pundits conceded that pockets of poverty could be alleviated through international aid. Only a handful of economists begged to differ: Theodor Schultz, Milton Friedman, and Peter Bauer were the mavericks advocating free-market policies for every nation as the way out of poverty. They have been proven right. China’s economy has been growing since the mid-1980s—when Deng Xiaoping, its de facto leader, abandoned central planning, opened the borders for foreign investment, and promoted entrepreneurship at home.
In 1991, after the Soviet economic model proved bankrupt, India left behind its socialist ideology, opened its borders to foreign competition, and deregulated its economy. The economies of the two most populous countries on earth have grown without interruption ever since. Remember, too, that South Korea and Taiwan understood the virtues of free markets long before China or India discovered them. Many smaller countries, across a huge range of cultures, soon followed suit. African governments, too, converted to free-market economics with significant results— Kenya, Uganda, Senegal, and Sierra Leone, among others. The International Monetary Fund, though useless as a lender, has proven beneficial in Africa by persuading local leaders to create independent central banks, which now manage reliable and stable currencies. The central banks, among other free-market institutions, have ignited economic growth in Africa, formerly ravaged by hyperinflation. The reconversion to monetary stability has also played a decisive role in rekindling Brazil’s economy, which had been stalled in the 1970s by monetary follies.
Global growth, thus, is not a miracle, but the outcome of sound economic policies. This confirms what free-market economists have been writing since 1776, when Adam Smith published his Wealth of Nations: economic policies based on entrepreneurship, open borders, and competition, prove successful. Socialism, promoted throughout the twentieth century as a way to bridge the gap between poor and rich countries, has failed everywhere. The debate is over, or should be. Humanitarian aid has helped alleviate misery in specific conditions, but it is no substitute for sound economic policy.
In spite of this undisputed record, prominent economists, public intellectuals, and columnists continue to deny reality and tout various alternatives. The iconic Columbia University professor, Jeffrey Sachs, who had been a candidate to chair the World Bank, still argues that massive international aid will lead Africa out of poverty. With support from conscience-plagued Western donors, he funds Potemkin villages, mostly in Malawi, where movie stars fly in for photo opportunities. In a just-published and well-reviewed book, Why Nations Fail, two Harvard University professors, Daron Acemoglu and James Robison, argue that equality is the basis for economic development. Through a compelling collection of historical vignettes, the authors suggest that more egalitarian countries grow faster than elitist countries. True enough: what they call inclusive institutions—rule of law, property rights, and reliable justice, as found in most democratic countries—are far more productive than the extractive institutions found in despotic regimes, which exploit local resources and people for the benefit of the elite. This is common wisdom. But Acemoglu and Robinson jump to a purely ideological conclusion: that social equality is a precondition for sustained growth. In fact, the reverse is true. Equality is the outcome of economic growth. Some Harvard academics are clearly not ready to reconcile themselves with observed reality when it doesn’t fit their agenda…