Category: Political Science

Putin as a man of ideas

Commentators are drawing lessons from the conflict in Ukraine, but they are missing one key point. Above all, the Russian attack and possible dismemberment of Ukraine reflects the power of ideas.

Read the English translation of the Putin speech to justify Russian’s actions in Ukraine. It is striking how much Putin cites history, going as far back as the 17th century, to justify the Russian incursion.

One of Putin’s core views is that Ukraine is not a legitimate country in its own right. He is clear about this claim and its import: “So, I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia.” Putin himself published a July 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” which goes further back yet and discusses Ancient Rus.

Putin’s speech immerses the audience in detail, citing the history of Stalin, Khruschev, the 1917 October Revolution, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and what Stalin did in 1922 with respect to the People’s Commissar of Ethnic Affairs. The need for the earlier Soviet Union to offer concessions to the nationalists is portrayed as one reason why Ukraine was allowed to have some of its identity as Ukraine. Here is a typical passage: “Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks’ policy and can be rightfully called “Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.” He was its creator and architect. This is fully and comprehensively corroborated by archival documents, including Lenin’s harsh instructions regarding Donbass, which was actually shoved into Ukraine.”

By the time you get to the end of Putin’s speech he is still talking about history, and reciting how Ukraine squandered the wonderful inheritance left to them by the Soviet Union. Furthermore, that same Ukraine has become a tool of Western attempts to disrupt Russia.

Putin is full of ideas about history. You can argue how much these remarks reflect Putin’s own concern with ideas, or the Russian public’s concern or that of foreign audiences, but it is probably all of those. Furthermore, Putin has embraced a coterie of Russian intellectuals, marketing what is sometimes called Eurasianism, who parrot and develop the notion of Russia as a power-deserving Eurasian civilization.

If you think the current version of Ukraine was never a valid nation to begin with, a twisted set of mental contortions might bring you around to Russian expansionism. Russia is just taking back what is rightfully theirs, and by the end of this speech Putin is concluding that: “the possible continuation of the bloodshed will lie entirely on the conscience of Ukraine’s ruling regime.”

The obsession with ideas and also with history is a longstanding tradition from earlier leadership. For instance, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin held an extensive library, amounting to about 19,500 books, which he used as a personal, working archive. Stalin was known for his extensive marginalia and for leaving greasy fingerprints on the book pages. Marxist politics, economics and history were prominent in the library, and after Lenin, the most heavily represented authors in the library were Stalin himself, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Marx, Kamenev, Molotov, and Trotsky.

So Putin is hardly breaking from the mold. We also know, from previous documentation, that Putin considered the dismantlement of the former Soviet Union as a great tragedy. That too is an idea, and it further reflects the continuity between Putin’s efforts and those of his predecessors.

If you write books, whether good or bad ones, and wonder whether your work matters, I suggest the answer lies before you on your TV screen each evening. Russia is a nation of ideas, led by people who are obsessed with ideas. The rest of the world, most of all Europe, will need better ideas in turn.

Addendum: Here is Ryan Avent on the power of ideas.

Ronald Reagan is underrated

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

As I interpret the career of Reagan, he understood another point very well — and that concerns the scarcity of moral capital. Reagan knew there were real “bad guys,” and that it was up to leaders and elites to identify them and stand up to them, both rhetorically and diplomatically. Most of all, it was important to encourage the American public to internalize these same moral judgments. This may all sound corny and dated, but the pending conflict in Ukraine shows it to be an enduring truth.

The complementary Reagan vision was positive, optimistic and focused on what Americans can accomplish when working together. Americans are going to disagree on a lot of issues, he acknowledged, but they should maintain a relatively united front and save their real opprobrium for the truly destructive forces on the global scene.

Fast forward 40 years, and it seems that America has almost completely ignored these strictures. Many on the right seem most upset about the worst aspects of the left, and vice versa. Even when bad forces emerge in the international arena, Americans seem far more preoccupied by their fights with each other.

On Russia specifically, as recently as several months ago the current military escalation was hardly a topic of discussion among U.S. elites. When Mitt Romney tried to raise the danger of Russia in his 2012 presidential campaign, the point largely fell flat. Former President Barack Obama actually mocked him.

One of my biggest beefs about the status quo is that both the Trumpist Right and the Progressive Left are so willing to run down America’s moral capital in service of their pet partisan projects.

Who has the power?

The WSJ has several good piece on electric power in the United States, many of which are relevant to my recent podcast with Ezra Klein. Starting with the increased unreliability of America’s electric grid.

The U.S. power system is faltering just as millions of Americans are becoming more dependent on it—not just to light their homes, but increasingly to work remotely, charge their phones and cars, and cook their food—as more modern conveniences become electrified.

… Much of the transmission system, which carries high-voltage electricity over long distances, was constructed just after World War II, with some lines built well before that. The distribution system, the network of smaller wires that takes electricity to homes and businesses, is also decades old, and accounts for the majority of outages.

We need more power but are relying on transmission lines we put into places decades ago when we could still build things. The second WSJ article is on the 17-year travail to get a new power cable from hydropower rich Quebec to Boston.

Blackstone made other discoveries that altered the project. Its environmental consultants spent the summer of 2010 watching patches of blue lupine for endangered Karner blue butterflies and frosted elfins, a threatened species. They spotted two Karners and wrote a plan for avoiding damage to the wildflowers upon which the butterflies rely. Arrangements were also made to protect bald eagle nests that might be present during construction and identify shagbark hickories big enough for the endangered Indiana bat to roost.

When it became clear developers wouldn’t get state approval to dig beneath Haverstraw Bay, where endangered Atlantic sturgeon live, they redrew the route again.

These adjustments weren’t enough to stop opposition from several groups that normally aren’t aligned: the Sierra Club, energy companies, a bipartisan group of lawmakers and a labor union. Sierra Club argued that importing power threatened the development of in-state renewable-energy projects and could cause environmental damage in Canada.

That stand put the environmental advocacy club on the same side as the operator of a soon-to-close nuclear power plant called Indian Point as well as the Business Council of New York State and the Independent Power Producers of New York Inc., which fought the line on behalf of entrenched electricity providers.

Lawmakers objected for local reasons, with one saying he didn’t like that the power line’s energy would bypass dozens of upstate counties. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 97 argued it threatened upstate renewable projects, would eliminate the need for additional gas-fired plants and “be deleterious of New York state energy jobs.”

The developers pledged $40 million to train New Yorkers for green-energy jobs and agreed to fund an environmental trust with $117 million. The trust would help pull invasive plants from Lake Champlain, restore oyster reefs around New York City and pay for implanting acoustic transmitters in adult sturgeon so scientists could study the fish.

Blackstone still faces one last step: That supply contract needs the approval of the New York Public Service Commission. One group that still opposes it is Riverkeeper, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Hudson. Riverkeeper initially supported the project before turning against it in 2019, saying the transmission line could lead to additional dams in Quebec that would possibly expose indigenous groups to methylmercury—a neurotoxin created by microbes in freshly flooded soils that can pass up the food chain to people who live off the land.

Hydro-Québec, the supplier of power to Champlain Hudson, has no plans for new hydropower facilities, its CEO said. There have also been no reported cases of mercury poisoning resulting from consuming fish caught in Hydro-Québec’s reservoirs during more than 40 years of monitoring, according to a spokeswoman.

…“The last thing we want is more dams because of new markets,” said John Lipscomb, a patrol-boat captain and vice president for advocacy for Riverkeeper. “We are investigating and will continue to look at opportunities to stop the project.”

So there you have it, a power line that could benefit millions is threatened by a brew of “Baptists” defending a few flowers and fish, bootleggers protecting their rents, shakedown artists trying to get a share of the proceeds and hysterics longing for a return to the state of nature.

Addendum: Oh yes, the third relevant piece is about how Americans are turning to their own generators and batteries (expensive and not exactly environmentally friendly) to try to deal with the unreliable grid. I will be getting one of these systems for my own home, which also came up in the podcast with Klein.

Model this Afghanistan policy

But in both the sanctions and the seizures, you can see an almost Kafka-esque madness in the American position. They are expending all this effort to ameliorate the consequences of a sanctions regime they are implementing. They are desperately brokering deals to preserve foreign reserves that they are freezing. When I ask why they continue to impose these policies at all, the administration says that the Taliban has American prisoners, that it is a brutal regime that murders opponents and represses women, that it has links to terrorists, and that our sanctions grant us much-needed leverage.

Here is more from Ezra Klein (NYT) on the debacle of starvation unfolding in Afghanistan.

Woke, feminized CIA sentences to ponder

From River Page:

The CIA, likewise, has been most successful in its own kind of culture war, whether it be through the CCF, anti-Soviet propaganda, or the lead-up to the Iraq War. Regardless of their failures, both the CIA and the professional class use their adeptness at culture war as a means of self-justification. The CIA utilizes the new dialect of power because it grants the agency legitimacy within the ruling elite; the Left and its professional-class van­guards cry foul because they do not want to admit their own involvement in the credentialing and reproduction of this elite.

Right-wing critics acknowledge the power of wokeness but, like leftists, mistakenly believe that it is a bona fide political project capable of changing institutions rather than merely reifying them. The conservative commentator Sohrab Ahmari’s dystopian fantasy about a future Kamala Harris presidency, in which America is in danger because, among other things, “the vast majority of our spooks spend their days analyzing their identities along intersectional lines of race, gender and sexuality,” presupposes a level of competence in the pre-woke CIA that is far beyond what it deserves given the historical record—the pre-woke spooks hardly kept America safe from danger. There is, however, an illuminating portion of Ahmari’s hypothetical that reveals an essential truth about “wokeness.” In the future imagined by Ahmari, the Ameri­can military is ill-prepared to execute its mission, having been busy naming and renaming bases. When discussing Guantanamo Bay—now appropriately called Naval Base Mumia Abu Jamal—a staffer passively notes that the mission of the base hasn’t changed. This suggests that even the most aggressive right-wing critics of “wokeness” question its ability to change anything beneath the surface of American politics; it can change appearances, not purposes.

And this:

As the public face and self-understanding of the CIA has changed, sympathetic popular culture depictions of the organization have relied on similar themes of feminism, wokeness, and self-actualization to por­tray the agency’s work as morally complicated but necessary.

Here is the full piece, and for the pointer I thank a loyal MR reader.

Wokeism has peaked

Virginia has gone Republican (temporarily, because of school-related issues), San Francisco recalled its school board by a decisive margin, Joe Rogan wasn’t cancelled, and there may be a significant war in Ukraine.  That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column.  Excerpt:

The turning point for the fortunes of the woke may be this week’s school board election in San Francisco, where three members were recalled by a margin of more than 70%. Voters were upset that the school board spent time trying to rename some schools in a more politically correct manner, rather than focusing on reopening all the schools. There was also considerable opposition to the board’s introduction of a lottery admissions system for a prestigious high school, in lieu of the previous use of grades and exam scores.


Another trend is how relatively few immigrants are woke. Latinos in particular seem more open to the Republican Party, or at least don’t seem to have strong partisan attachments. More generally, immigrant political views are more diverse than many people think, even within the Democratic Party.


Wokeism is likely to evolve into a subculture that is highly educated, highly White and fairly feminine. That is still a large mass of people, but not enough to run the country or all its major institutions. In the San Francisco school board recall, for instance, the role of Asian Americans was especially prominent.

In addition:

The woke also are likely to achieve an even greater hold over American universities. Due to the tenure system, personnel turnover is low, and currently newer and younger faculty are more left-wing than are older faculty, including in my field of economics. The simple march of retirements is going to make universities even more left-wing — and even more out of touch with mainstream America.

I hereby inscribe this prediction in The Book of Tetlock.

A simple model of Putin and the Ukraine crisis

I think the correct model here is “Putin has put down so many chips, he can’t walk away with nothing. He wants to wreck Ukraine (more than taking territory per se).  He will do the minimum amount he can that leaves him with a strong probability of having wrecked Ukraine, and no more.”

That still leaves a broad range of possible outcomes, but at the moment that is my mental model for updating with new information.

Bram Stoker, Dracula, and Progress Studies

The Dracula novel is of course very famous, but it is less well known that it was, among other things, a salvo in the direction of what we now call Progress Studies.  Here are a few points of relevance for understanding Bram Stoker and his writings and views:

1. Stoker was Anglo-Irish and favored the late 19th century industrialization of Belfast as a model for Ireland more generally.  He also was enamored with the course of progress in the United States, and he wrote a pamphlet about his visit.

2. From Wikipedia:

He was a strong supporter of the Liberal Party and took a keen interest in Irish affairs. As a “philosophical home ruler”, he supported Home Rule for Ireland brought about by peaceful means. He remained an ardent monarchist who believed that Ireland should remain within the British Empire, an entity that he saw as a force for good. He was an admirer of Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, whom he knew personally, and supported his plans for Ireland.Stoker believed in progress and took a keen interest in science and science-based medicine.

3. The novel Dracula contrasts the backward world of Transylvania with the advanced world of London, and it shows the vampire cannot survive in the latter.  The Count is beaten back by Dr. Van Helsing, who uses science to defeat him and who serves as a stand-in for Stoker and is the de facto hero of the story.

4. One core message of the novel is “Ireland had better develop economically, otherwise we will end up like a bunch of feudal peasants, holding up crosses to fend off evil, rapacious landowners.”  At the time, the prominent uses of crosses was associated with Irish Catholicism.  And is there a more Irish villain than the absentee landlord, namely Dracula?  Dracula is also the kind of warrior nobleman who, coming from England, took over Ireland.

5. In the novel, science and commerce have the potential to defeat underdevelopment.  Stoker’s portrait of Transylvania, most prominent in the opening sections of the novel, also suggests that “underdevelopment is a state of mind.”  And it is correlated with feuding sects and clans, again a reference to the Ireland of his time, at least as he understood Catholic Ireland.  Here is more on Stoker’s views on economic development and modernization for both Ireland and the Balkans.

6. Stoker was obsessed with “rationalizing” (in the Weberian sense) the employment relation and also the bureaucracy  His first non-fiction work was “The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions.”  Progress was more generally a recurring theme in his non-fiction writings, for instance “The Necessity of Political Honesty.”  He called for an Ireland of commerce, education, and without “warring feuds.”

7. For Stoker, sexual repression is needed to further societal progress and economic development, and in this regard Stoker anticipates Freud.  Dracula abides by most laws and norms, except the sexual/cannibalistic ones.  Dracula and Lucy, who give in to their individual desires, end up as the big losers.  For the others, societal order is restored, and the lurid sexuality that pervades the book is dampened by the restoration of order.

8. Christ and Dracula are mirror opposites (the stake, the cross, resurrection at dawn rather than sunset, the role of blood drinking reversed, the preaching of immortality in opposite ways, the inversion of who sacrifices for whom, and more).  A proper societal outcome is obtained when these two opposites end up neutralizing each other.  Stoker’s vision of progress is fundamentally secular.  (See Clyde Leatherdale on all this.)

9. From Hollis Robbins: “Britain’s economic prosperity in the nineteenth century was largely dependent on the adoption of international standards such as Greenwich Mean Time and the universal day, which ensured smooth coordination for trade, legal transactions, railroad travel, and mail delivery. Dracula, whose powers are governed by the sun and the moon rather than clocks and calendars, works to destabilize social coordination. His objective is not only literally to “fatten on the blood of the living,”6 but also more broadly to suck the lifeblood of a thriving commercial economy at the dawn of a global age. Under Dracula’s spell, humans forget the time, becoming listless, unproductive, and indifferent to social convention. At heart, the fundamental battle in Stoker’s Dracula is a death struggle between standard time as an institutional basis for world markets and planetary time governing a primitive, superstitious existence.”

10. In an interview Stoker once said: “I suppose that every book of the kind must contain some lesson, but I prefer that readers should find it out for themselves.”  There are numerous ways to take that remark, not just what I am suggesting.

What does the Truckers Convoy want?

Freedom?  Well, it depends what you mean by that concept.  Here is one relevant bit from from The National Post, hardly a left-wing rag:

“Freedom convoy” supporters convinced that the Governor General can dissolve Parliament on a whim have “absolutely inundated” Rideau Hall with calls over the past week, National Post has learned…

The callers are participants and supporters of the so-called “freedom convoy” that has been occupying the streets around Parliament for a week, demanding that the Trudeau government put an end to all public heath measures (even though the majority of them are under the provincial government’s purview.)

Last week, organizers also published a manifesto billed a “memorandum of understanding” demanding that the Governor General and the Senate unite to force all levels of government to end any COVID-19 measures and vaccine passports, and re-instate all workers laid off due to vaccine requirements.

That has seemingly pushed protesters and their supporters to flood Rideau Hall’s phone and email lines demanding that Mary Simon act, going as far as demanding that she dissolve government and remove Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from power…

It’s useless for protesters to be “calling Rideau Hall or pressuring senators to do something, that’s not how things work,” he added. “It’s a democratic system, and neither the senate nor the Governor General are elected, so they don’t have the democratic legitimacy” to dissolve government.

Originally those memorandum demands came from a group called Canada Unity, a major force behind the Convoy.  Canada Unity has since withdrawn their proposals for a non-democratic transfer of power.  Good for them!  Still, “we withdraw the demands for an anti-democratic coup d’etat that we were promoting a few days ago” is hardly a reason for enthusiastic affiliation.

By the way, here are the responsibilities of the Canadian Governor General.

I’m not suggesting that all of the Convoy members have this particular political vision (though 320,000 signatures on the memorandum were reported), or even that those promoting this idea necessarily “mean it.”  Maybe for many of them it is just a way to stir up trouble.  Still, you can take this as another sign of “incipient knuckleheadism” in the movement.

By the way, I am myself opposed to the idea of governmental mandates for Covid-19 vaccines.  (In part because I feared exactly this kind of backlash, but for liberty reasons too.)  But it is very far from the worst governmental mandate the Canadians have!

Do you know what those people in the trucks actually should do?  Go get vaccinated.

A related group for a while shut down the Ambassador Bridge, which carries 30% of the U.S.-Canada trade.  The Convoy and associated movements are doing a great deal to restrict the free movement of goods and of people, hardly my idea of freedom either.

So I am happy to double down on my previous post.

What should I ask Chris Blattman?

I will be having a Conversation with him, rooted in his forthcoming book Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace.  Though not only!

Chris is a political scientist at University of Chicago, but with training in other fields as well and indeed he is also an economist.  He has done extensive fieldwork in Colombia and East Africa, both on conflict and also on cash transfers.  He is active blogging and tweeting, and is a Canadian too.

Here is my previous Conversation with Chris.  So what should I ask him this time around?

You want to have strong analytical abilities on your side

No, you don’t always have to agree with the majority of the educated people, but I would say this.  For whatever set of views you think is justified, try to stick to the versions of those views held by well-educated, reasonable, analytically-inclined people.  You will end up smarter over time, and in better places.  Peer effects are strong, including across your ideological partners.

When I hear that a particular group defends liberty, such as the Ottawa truckers’ convoy, while this is partially true it makes me nervous.  As a whole, they also seem to believe a lot of nonsense and to be, in procedural terms, not exactly where I would want them on scientific method and the like.  Fair numbers of them seem to hold offensive beliefs as well.  Whine about The Guardian if you like, but I haven’t seen any rebuttal of this portrait of the views of their leaders.  Ugh.

I recall taking a lot of heat for my 2007 critique of Ron Paul and his movement, but that example illustrates my points perfectly.  Those people did defend liberty in a variety of relevant ways, but so many of them have ended up in worse spaces.  And that is exactly what I predicted way back when.

Look for strong analytical abilities, and if you don’t see it, run the other way.

Here is a defense of the Freedom Convoy.  You can read it for yourself, but it doesn’t change my mind.  Here is I think a wiser account.  I’ll say it again: “Look for strong analytical abilities, and if you don’t see it, run the other way.”  I’m running.

Ireland fact of the day

…one statistic stands out from a census comparison from the first decade of the twenty-first century.  Just 2.1 percent of the population in Northern Ireland were born in the South, and just 1.3 percent living in the South were born in the North.

And that is with rights of free migration.  That is from Brendan O’Leary, A Treatise on Northern Ireland, volume 3, Consociation and Confederation, a very good series of books I might add.

What is the central political question of our day?

No, it is not about The Woke.  From my latest Bloomberg column, here is the core argument:

How to respond to climate change is often postulated as the central question of our time, and while that’s undeniably important, I have another nomination: How will we stop our new and often splendid technologies from being weaponized against us?

I use the term weaponization quite literally — drone attacks, cyberattacks, hostile uses of artificial intelligence, and attacks from space, bioweapons and more. It’s good that the world is emerging from a period of technological stagnation, but therein lies a danger: It is a general principle of world history that new technologies, even the most beneficial ones, are eventually used either as weapons themselves or as instruments of warfare. That was true of the horse, the railroad, the airplane and, of course, nuclear power. It likely will be true for these new developments, too…

Most current ideologies are unprepared for this coming new world. These problems do not have obvious solutions, nor do they offer any obvious way to confer political advantage. The U.S. hasn’t even made much progress on preparing for the next pandemic, and that is with more than 2,500 Americans dying a day from Covid-19.

Here is another point:

There are ideologies that address parts of the weaponization problem. Effective Altruist circles, especially those that focus on the dangers of artificial general intelligence (AGI), are afraid that super-smart AI will develop a mind of its own and impose its will on us, or otherwise engage in evil activities.

That may be a valid concern, but my fears are more general. If AGI is so powerful, then it stands to reason that intermediate products could, in conjunction with human efforts, cause a lot of military conflict. The problem isn’t necessarily Skynet going live. It’s that 40% of Skynet will be plenty dangerous.

The Luddites also have an ideology, namely that the development of new technologies should be stopped altogether. One could debate the benefit-cost ratio of that decision, but suffice to say that China, Russia, and many other rival nations have no such plans, and the U.S. has no real choice other than to try to stay ahead of them.

China is discussed as well, recommended.

Yellow Vests, Pessimistic Beliefs, and Carbon Tax Aversion

I have become increasingly skeptical of the prospects for a meaningful carbon tax, here is a new study:

Using a representative survey, we find that after the Yellow Vests movement, French people would largely reject a tax and dividend policy, i.e., a carbon tax whose revenues are redistributed uniformly to each adult. They overestimate their net monetary losses, wrongly think that the policy is regressive, and do not perceive it as environmentally effective. We show that changing people’s beliefs can substantially increase support. Although significant, the effects of our informational treatments on beliefs are small. Indeed, the respondents that oppose the tax tend to discard positive information about it, which is consistent with distrust, uncertainty, or motivated reasoning.

That is from new work by Thomas Douenne and Adrien Fabre.