Late at night, when your humble blogger is troubled in his sleep because of some crap argument he was making in his day job, some version of this Annie Hall scene plays out in his head:
This is, far and away, my worst nightmare.
During my recent trip to Israel, I had suggested that the choices a society makes about its culture play a role in creating prosperity, and that the significant disparity between Israeli and Palestinian living standards was powerfully influenced by it. In some quarters, that comment became the subject of controversy.
But what exactly accounts for prosperity if not culture? In the case of the United States, it is a particular kind of culture that has made us the greatest economic power in the history of the earth. Many significant features come to mind: our work ethic, our appreciation for education, our willingness to take risks, our commitment to honor and oath, our family orientation, our devotion to a purpose greater than ourselves, our patriotism. But one feature of our culture that propels the American economy stands out above all others: freedom. The American economy is fueled by freedom. Free people and their free enterprises are what drive our economic vitality.
"Double down" is appropriate here, because he went from a speech in which he said there were "other factors" that mattered as well to zeroing in on culture. Again, to be fair, a close read of what Romney describes as "culture" in his essay clearly includes political and economic institutions. To get academic-y about it, Romney is being "conceptually fuzzy" with his terms.
So sure, Romney has been pilloried by political reporters and left-wing columnists and foreign policy writers and former U.S. diplomats and snooty British publications for a bad trip... but they've mostly been focusing on the "gaffes."
This morning, however, Romney is having his Marshall McLuhan moment. In the New York Times, Jared Diamond grades Romney's citation of his book Guns, Germs and Steel:
Mitt Romney's latest controversial remark, about the role of culture in explaining why some countries are rich and powerful while others are poor and weak, has attracted much comment. I was especially interested in his remark because he misrepresented my views and, in contrasting them with another scholar’s arguments, oversimplified the issue.
It is not true that my book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” as Mr. Romney described it in a speech in Jerusalem, “basically says the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there. There is iron ore on the land and so forth.”
That is so different from what my book actually says that I have to doubt whether Mr. Romney read it.
Then there's Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson here in FP, attacking Romney on the conceptual fuzziness thing:
Unfortunately, Romney's views are seriously out of sync with those of the great mass of social scientists. For one, as his more extended argument in the National Review illustrates, he confuses "culture" with institutions. By culture, social scientists mean people's values and beliefs. Romney refers to Americans' "work ethic," which is cultural, but he also claims that political and economic freedoms are the real keys to economic success. But political and economic freedom are not guaranteed by (or even related to) culture but by institutions, such as the U.S. Constitution or its system of property rights. Romney did cite Harvard University historian David Landes, who did indeed argue that values and beliefs are crucial for economic development, as providing the intellectual origins of his views -- but his focus on institutions is much more in line with our book Why Nations Fail than with Landes. Indeed, the facts on the ground in the Middle East illustrate the power not of culture, but of institutions.
Fareed Zakaria weighs in the Washington Post [Wait, he counts?--ed. He earned his Ph.D. in political science at Harvard under Samuel Huntington. So yeah, on this, he definitely counts]:
Had Romney spent more time reading Milton Friedman, he would have realized that historically the key driver for economic growth has been the adoption of capitalism and its related institutions and policies across diverse cultures.
The link between economic policies and performance can be seen even in the country on which Romney was lavishing praise. Israel had many admirable traits in its early decades, but no one would have called it an economic miracle. Its economy was highly statist. Things changed in the 1990s with market-oriented reforms — initiated by Benyamin Netanyahu — and sound monetary policies. As a result, Israel’s economy grew much faster than it had in the 1980s. The miracle Romney was praising had to do with new policies rather than deep culture.
Ironically, the argument that culture is central to a country’s success has been used most frequently by Asian strongmen to argue that their countries need not adopt Western-style democracy. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew has made this case passionately for decades. It is an odd claim, because Singapore’s own success would seem to contradict it. It is not so different from neighboring Malaysia. The crucial difference is that Singapore had extremely good leadership that pursued good economic policies with relentless discipline.
Finally, there's the Center for Global Development's Charles Kenny, who is far and away the most supportive of Romney's argument:
Mitt Romney created a stir this week when he pointed to the immense difference in wealth between Israel and the Palestinian territories and explained it with his interpretation of Harvard economic historian David Landes’s work that “culture makes all the difference.”
By now there is wide agreement that Romney used a pretty terrible example to illustrate Landes’s point. And yet the proposition that “culture” is a factor in long-term economic performance is increasingly accepted among development economists. What Romney seems to have missed is that culture is a declining barrier to development worldwide.
Still, three out of four social scientists have flunked Romney's comparative political economy comp. Will this make a whit of difference in the campaign? That depends entirely on whether you believe that voters still respond to cues from elites... so for me the answer is "probably not." This entire episode is nevertheless an instructive parable for graduate students studying for comps everywhere:
1) Define your terms clearly;
2) Make sure you've done your reading and not
staffed it out relied on book reviews or summaries of the Big Arguments -- cause those summaries can be way off base;
3) Don't double down when you make a bad argument.
Your humble blogger went to see Contagion over the weekend for two reasons. First, Slate movie critic Forrest Wickman concluded his review by calling it, "the most believable zombie movie ever made." He's not the only one to make the zombie connection, and well, now I've got some skin in that game. Second, the FP editors have asked me to review other disaster scenarios, so I figured I'd just pre-empt their request and join the legions of moviegoers who
get their ya-yas seeing Gwyneth Paltrow die on film be entertained.
So, let me provide the MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT klaxon here and get to the assessment. How well did Steven Soderbergh and company portray what would happen if a lethal pandemic were to break out?
OK, good news first: in terms of both accuracy and suspense, Contagion is a far, far better film than, say, either Outbreak or The Andromeda Strain. The first reason is that Soderbergh does not bother with the anti-government paranoia that those earlier films possessed in their DNA. Instead, the treatment of the Centers for Disease Control, Department of Homeland Security, and World Health Organization officials is fair. They are depicted as flawed but well-meaning bureaucrats, getting some decisions right and some wrong. They also speak in jargon, a surprising amount of which makes its way into the film. I fully expect to see the term "R-0" bandied about by news anchors the next time a flu bug breaks out. A CDC official utters the two most chilling words in the entire movie -- "social distancing" -- to describe the necessary freak-out by citizens to avoid human contact with other humans as a way of slowing the spread of the virus. That's the perfect dash of bureaucratese.
The second reason is that Soderbergh almost perfectly nails the first stage of the pandemic. Unlike, say, most zombie or other apocalyptic films, Soderbergh doesn't get to the breakdown of social order in the first reel. He takes his time, which helps to amp up the pressure and make it seem all the scarier when things do seem to break down (Matt Damon's character is the perfect vessel here; Damon's best work is in his reaction shots to other people behaving badly). He also deftly demonstrates in the first ten minutes how globalization would abet the spread of any kind of superbug.
Despite this slow ratcheting up, I haven't seen a director kill off so many Hollywood starlets since Joss Whedon.
The third reason is that the movie, intriguingly enough, does not end in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Consistent with the arguments I made in Theories of International Politics and Zombies, humans prove to be just as adaptable as the biological threats to humans.
That said, here are my beefs:
1) Really, the blogger is the Big Bad in the movie? Really? The villian of the piece is Jude Law's crudely-named Alan Krumwiede, who detects the spread of the virus early but hawks a homeopathic remedy to enrich himself. Exactly how he gets rich doing this is not entirely clear -- he has some shady meetings with a hedge fund manager, but it's not entirely clear why, after gaining fame and fortune, he doesn't start acting differently as more attention gets paid to him. It's also presumed that Krumwiede has the monopoly of blogging on the issue -- I'm pretty sure that as he gained popularity, a few other health bloggers would try to cut him down to size.
Neither Soderbergh nor his screenwriter Scott Z. Burns like bloggers, like, at all. At one point the virologist played by Elliott Gould tells Krumwiede, "Blogging is not writing. It's graffiti with punctuation." Hah! That shows what Soderbregh knows -- us bloggers are lucky if we remember to use commas, much less semicolons.
Look, as a founding member of the International Brotherhood of Policy Bloggers, I can't claim that actors like Krumwiede don't exist. My skepticism is over whether they'd really wreak as much havoc as Soderbergh thinks. Myths and rumors can spread on the Internet, but so can the corrections of those myths. In the end, someone like Krumwiede would affect a very narrow, already paranoid subculture -- the larger effect would be minimal.
Even if Krumwiede is an absurd villain, I also didn't buy it when the DHS official let him go free once he made bail. At a minimum, they'd hold this guy for 48 hours without charging. I'd also wager that they'd try to deport him too.
One final note: I'd love to see Lee Siegel hire Sodebergh to direct and Aaron Sorkin to write a movie about the Internet, just to see the final dystopic product.
2) Where the hell is the Chinese central government? The most absurd subplot is when a WHO official gets abducted by her translator as collateral to protect his infected village. She's held hostage for at least six months -- during which time she goes native -- until the WHO barters some (fake) vaccine for her life.
Apparently during this entire time, the Chinese central government does not bother to intervene to try to rescue her. This seems juuuuuuust a bit implausible. It also leads to the next problem....
3) Where the hell is the rest of the WHO? Beyond Marion Cotillard's character, the WHO does not really appear in the film. It's the CDC's show, and only their show . They act in Contagion pretty much how they promised they would act if the zombies arrive. Maybe that's how things would play out, but I suspect other governments and IGOs would still matter more than this film suggests. Given that the movie virus started in China, and that the head of the WHO is also from China, they might be useful in this kind of situation.
4) Few second-order effects. The virus leads to looting, crime, and other social ills, but I wish they had said something about the total economic devastation that would have occurred. At one point after a vaccine has been developed, Matt Damon's character walks through a mall to buy his daughter a prom dress -- and 80% of the mall looks to be closed. Soderbergh suggests a bunch of unions going on strike because they don't want to ge sick. I'm curious what happens once they find themselves unemployed as well.
Forget the domestic discord however, there's also...
5) No international conflict whatsoever. After the first 15 minutes, almost all of the action takes place in the USA. Once a vaccine is discovered, there is no discussion of the international wrangling that would take place over scarce supplies. No diversionary wars happen. And so forth. Soderbergh doesn't really address possible problems in world politics. Because of this, the film implicitly assumes a liberal institutionalis kind of a world. I hope he's right, but I'm not so sure myself.
To be fair to Soderbergh and his collaborators, I'm not sure it's possible to get everything right in such a film. Unless it's a television series I'm not sure it's possible to get all the nuances and complexities right. Given these limitations, Contagion is a movie worth seeing. Just bring your own Purell.
Chinese overlords alien visitors robot masters zombie hegemons post-apocalyptic historians:
Greetings. My goal in this message is to explain to you why the most powerful country in the world committed financial seppuku in the summer of 2011 AD*.
To set the stage: by now you know that the U.S. Congress was obligated to increase the debt ceiling in order for the United States government to continue to function normally. President Obama, Democrats in Congress, and most of the Republican leadership recognized the gravity of the situation. The GOP leadership, however, wanted to use the debt cekiling vote as leverage to get President Obama to commit to significant deficit reduction. After much haggling over "grand bargains," there was a recognition that no such deal could be passed. As a backup, leaders from both parties reluctantly advocated a bill that hiked the ceiling and put off questions about long-term deficit reduction to the future.
The problem was, a political faction emerged that some called "debt kamikazes." These were politicians and interest group leaders -- all Republicans -- who genuinely believed that nothing of consequence would happen if the debt ceiling wasn't raised. There were a few others who did believe it and were nevertheless copacetic with that outcome -- I'll get to that group later.
Sounds absurd to your futuristic ears, you say? Consider my evidence. The Daily Beast's John Avlon detailed the position of the 2012 GOP presidential candidates:
There were also interest group coalitions called "Tea Party" organizations that pressured their members of Congress not to raise the debt ceiling. As CNN's Shannon Travis chonicled, these organizations believed that the effects of more government spending were far more disastrous than defaulting on the debt:
Similarly, Red State blogger Erick Erickson wrote an open letter to the House GOP that boiled down to "do not believe the doom and gloom."
Now, future historians, you might argue that neither Tea Party activists nor presidential candidates (Bachmann excepted) were in Congress and therefore did not matter. However, what's important to understand is that these views were prevalent inside the House GOP caucus as well. The Washington Post's David A. Fahrenthold provided a detailed description of the members of the House of Representatives who thought a default wouldn't be such a big deal. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) offered the most extreme example of House GOP thinking:
Lest you think the view that a default was not such a big deal was limited to backbenchers, Outside the Beltway's Steven Taylor found House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan telling CNBC that a "technical default" of a few days wouldn't be a big deal:
Now, at this point, I'm sure you, future post-apocalyptic historians, must be scratching your
third eye heads, thinking the following:
Why, why did these human beings maintain these beliefs in the face of massive evidence to the contrary? Why did these people continue to insist that default wasn't that big a deal when Federal Reserve Chairman Benjamin Bernanke (a Republican first appointed by Republican president George W. Bush) insisted that there would be a "huge financial calamity" if the debt ceiling wasn't raised? Why did their belief persist when Moody's, Standard & Poor's, and Fitch Ratings all explicitly and repeatedly warned of serious and expensive debt downgrades if the ceiling wasn't raised? Why did they stick to their guns despite news reports detailing the link between the rating of federal government debt and the debt of states and municipalities? Why did they stand firm despite the consensus of the Republican Governors Association and the Democrat Governors Association that a failure to raise the debnt cailing would be "catastrophic"? Why did they refuse to yield despite bipartisan analysis explaining the very, very bad consequences of no agreement, and nonpartisan analysis explaining the horrific foreign policy consequences of American default? Why did they not understand that even a technical default would cost hundreds of billions of dollars**, thereby making their stated goal of debt reduction even harder?
Most mysteriously, why did these people throw their steering wheel out the window despite witnessing the effect of the 2008 Lehman Brothers collapse, which revealed the complex interconectedness of financial markets? Treasuries were far more integral to global capital markets than Lehman, but the debt kamikazes refused to recognize the possibility that a technical debt default would have unanticipated, complex, and disastrous consequences. Why?
I would like to be able to offer you a definitive answer, I really would, but I can't. The implications listed in the previous paraqgraph seemed pretty friggin' obvious to a lot contemporaneous observers at the time. As near as I can determine, there are four partial explanations for why the debt kamikazes persisted in their belief that nothing serious would happen: One explanation, which I've detailed here, is that the debt kamikazes refused to budge because refusing to budge had yielded great political rewards in the past.
Another explanation is that the debt kamikazes convinced themselves that no possible alternative was worse than the federal government accumulating more debt. They looked at countries like Greece and Portugal and decided that the U.S. was only one more Obama administration away from such strictures.
A third explanation was the general erosion of trust in economic experts during this period. To be fair to the debt kamikazes, many of the prominent policymakers who warned about calamities if the debt ceiling wasn't raised had pooh-poohed the effects of the housing bubble in 2005, or the collapse of that bubble in 2007.
The final explanation goes back to those people who acknowledged that a default might be a big deal, but were nevertheless OK with the outcome. These debt kamikazes had undergone a fundamental identity change. That is to say, despite all their protestations to the contrary, they were no longer loyal Americans. They were loyal to Republicans first and Republicans only. Erick Erickson made this logic pretty clear in his open letter to Congress:
As Outside the Beltway's Doug Mataconis explained in response:
That's the best set of answers I can give you. I'm sure, future post-aopocalytpic historians, that you have devised new and sophisticated methodologies to unearth the mysteries of the past. I hope you can solve this historical puzzle -- because me and my contemporaries are thoroughly flummoxed.
I wish you the best of luck, and once again, apologies for the whole collapse-of-Western-civilization-thing that happened in 2011. Our bad.
*To translate into your time scale, 15 B.B. (Before Lord Beiber, Praised Be His Hairness)
** 100 billion U.S. dollars = 15 BieberBucks
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.