Saturday, February 17, 2018

How is the world ruled?

It is Saturday evening and snowing in New York. I have nowhere to go, I do have things to do (my book!) but my memories take over.

Like for example, the simple question of how is the world ruled. I think that lots of misunderstanding among people in the world comes from inability to visualize how organizations and countries are managed: people either overestimate their singularity of purpose and scheming, or try to convince themselves that there is a full freedom of action and that things are decided on merit. Neither is true. The truth is complex, elusive and lies somewhere (somewhere!) in the middle: it is what Nirad Chaudhury called in a broader context of human history “Libertas in imperio”.

I can describe it, I am afraid, best using the examples that I know well, from my life and long association with the World Bank.

Proposition 1. The world is ruled by a cabal.
Around 1989 when Yugoslavia was in its death-throes (which were not obvious to the naïve types like myself) when on vacation there I wrote an article for an economics and politics weekly in Belgrade that argued that the best privatization strategy, under the last (sensible and brilliant) Yugoslav PM, Ante Markovic, should be such that vouchers  be distributed to all citizens of the country and citizens be allowed to buy shares in enterprises in whatever part of the country they wished. It was an utterly quixotic proposals because the national nomenklaturas were precisely then working on the break-up of the country and the last thing they wanted was to cooperate with each other which they would have to do if their citizens owned shares in companies in the other republics. So, the proposal was dead on arrival.

But one afternoon, in the weekly’s nice boarding room, I explained the proposal in detail to one of weekly’s main writers on social issues.  The writer was a Serbian fascist (I am using the term not in a derogatory but strictly political sense) enamored with Italian fascism. (German was I think a bit too heavy for his taste.) He was a painter, who studied and lived in Italy, was proud of his relationship with MSI leadership, admirer of Mussolini. He also looked the part: could have been on any of the bas-reliefs that adorn Euro city near Rome: tall, well-built, square-jawed, straight posture, walking always straight with head held high. A real bell’uomo. In Rome in 1934, he would have been Mussolini’s favorite barbarian painter.

But he was, when at home, a Serbian nationalist.  So after carefully listening to me and basically nodding his head during most of the conversation, a couple of days later he came with a stinging two-page attack on my proposal titled “The World Bank sends its CIA spy to sell Serbian enterprises to foreigners”.

Now, was he mad? Not at all. He was, I am convinced, a smart guy, but he saw the world and organizations in it as an immense plot within which everything was strictly hierarchical:  ordinary people had no ideas or will of their own. So if I was  then in Belgrade arguing X, it must have been not only cleared by my superiors, but ordered by them.  And by superiors’ superiors and so forth all the way to the US Secretary of the Treasury, and perhaps Wall Street and perhaps the Jews.

The truth was that I was even risking reprimand from the World Bank because I had no business doing anything with Yugoslavia, publishing articles or creating trouble while on vacation.

But what was the reverse of this view?

Proposition 2. The world is ruled on merit.
This is the view that many people hold about their own involvements and that of institutions they work for. (Academia is a bit different, so I will leave it out). But this view of moral and intellectual rectitude is widely shared in think-tanks (and I worked in one in Washington), international organizations and probably many others (like Oxfam, Medecins sans frontiėres, Open Society etc.).

But is it true? Here I could ply the readers with numerous examples, but I will choose the one that, like the Belgrade story, sticks in my mind.

I was in the Research Department, and thus fairly independent from World Bank’s hierarchy, but it was desirable that I spend a given number of weeks annually working on concrete “operational" issues. It happened that the offer that I got involved a study of how heating and transportation subsidies in a Central Asian country affected its income distribution. It was easy to do and I promptly came back with the conclusion that they were pro-poor and should be kept.

But this was not the policy of the World Bank. The year was 1994 or 1995 and everybody believed in Fukuyama and Larry Summers. So the decision or rather the diffuse feeling (because you do not need a formal decision on matters like these to know what the “correct” answer is) was made before the report was even started that the subsidies should be eliminated. The leader of the group, not the most brilliant person, was smart enough to know what the desired conclusion was and that his/her career would be helped if the empirical analysis supported it.

So when it did not, he/she totally ignored it, and after several endless meetings where I was supposed to be somehow convinced that the data must surely be wrong, that part of the report was either not included or totally ignored. (I cannot remember what happened.) Because I was not brave or stubborn enough, I gave up a (hopeless) struggle after a couple of attempts and went back to my numbers and equations.

I was outside that particular hierarchy; so I was relatively free. But I then thought: let’s suppose that I was hierarchically under the project leader and that I was courageous enough to stick to my guns. What would have happened? My arguments would have been ignored; I would not have been demoted or fired. But in my next annual review, I would have been given the lowest possible grade, salary increase would be nil, my promotion prospect would be zero, and the explanation would never address the substantive issue: it would be that I was not collegial, failed to work in a team spirit etc. It could be even that I would have been asked to attend “team building” seminars like the Soviet dissidents were sent to psychiatric asylums.

The problem would never even be mentioned to have consisted in a disagreement on substance. Rather it would have been treated as some  maladjustment problem on my part; perhaps I was harassed when young or had a difficult childhood. Because, of course, the institution is not closed to different viewpoints and welcomes diverse opinions and “vibrant” or “robust” (these are the preferred terms) dialogue.

This is how the weeding out of undesirable views would have proceeded.  

So who was right: the Mussolini’s admirer or the Washington consensus believer? Or nobody. Your call.

Friday, February 16, 2018

“Fake news”: reaction to the end of the monopoly on the narrative

Very few people can make sense of the current “fake news” hysteria and almost nobody is willing to look at it in a historical context and to understand why the problem arose now.

The reason why the hysteria has spread, and especially so in the United States, is because this is (to some extend understandable) reaction to the loss of global monopoly power exercised by the Anglo-American media especially since 1989, but practically from 1945 onwards.

The reasons for the Western quasi-monopoly between 1949 and 1989 (call it Phase1) were manifold: much greater amount of information provided by outlets like BBC, and later CNN, than national outlets in many countries; much broader reach of large English-language media services: they were covering all countries when national media could barely pay correspondents to be located in  two or three top world capitals; spread of English as the second language; and last but not least, better quality of the news (say, greater truthfulness) than found in national sources.

These advantage of Western media were especially obvious for the citizens of the Second World where governments maintained tight censorship and thus the USSR had even to go to the extremes of jamming Western radio-stations. But even in the rest of the world the Western media was often better than local  media for the reasons I mentioned.

A careful reader will have noticed that so far I contrasted global Anglo-American media to national or local media only. This is because only the former had a global reach and the rest of the media (due  to lack of finances or ambition, government control or small languages) were purely national. So the US and English media fought a rather one-sided battle with small national newspapers or TVs. It is no surprise that the global Anglo-American media was then able to control, in many cases fully, political narratives. Not only were Western media totally able to influence  what (say) people in Zambia thought of Argentina or the reverse (because there was probably next to zero local coverage available to somebody living in Zambia regarding what is happening in Argentina; and the reverse); more importantly, because of Western media's greater openness and better quality, they were able to influence even the narrative within Zambia or within Argentina.

The global competitors that the West faced in that period were laughable. Chinese, Soviet and Albanian short-wave radios had programs in multiple languages but their stories were so stultifying, boring and unrealistic that people who, from time to time, listened to them did it mostly for amusement purposes.

The Western media monopoly then expanded even further with the fall of Communism (call it Phase 2). All the formerly Communist countries where  citizens used clandestinely to listen to Radio Free Europe were now more than willing to believe in the truth of everything being uttered by London and Washington. Many of these outlets installed themselves in the former Eastern Bloc (RFE is headquartered now in Prague).

But that honeymoon of global Western monopoly began to change when the “others” realized that they too could try to become global in a single media space that was created thanks to globalization and internet. Spread of the internet insured that you could produce Spanish- or Arabic-language shows and news and be watched anywhere in the world. Al Jazeera was the first to significantly dent, and then destroy, the  western monopoly on the Middle Eastern narrative in the Middle East. And now we enter Phase 3. Turkish, Russian and Chinese channels then did the same. What happened in the news was paralleled in another area  where Anglo-American monopoly was also total but then got eroded. Global TV series that were exported used to be only US- or UK-produced; but soon they got very successful competitors in Latin American telenovelas, Indian and Turkish series, and more recently Russian. Actually, these newcomers practically pushed US and UK series almost altogether from their “domestic” markets (which, for example, for Turkey includes most of the Middle East and the Balkans).

Then came the Phase 4 when other non-Western media realized that they could try to challenge  Western news monopoly not only outside but  on the Western media home-turf. This is when Al Jazeera-US, Russia Today, CCTV and others entered with their English-language (and then French, Spanish etc.) shows and news directed toward global, including  American, audience.

This was indeed an enormous change. And this is why we are now going through a phase of hysterical reaction to the “fake news”: because it is the first time that non-Western media are not only creating their own global narratives but are also trying to create narratives of America.  

For people from small countries (like myself) this is just something totally normal: we are used to foreigners not only appointing our ministers but being present throughout the media space, and even influencing, often because the quality of their news and scholarship is better, the narrative about country's own history or politics. But for many people in the US and the UK this comes as a total shock: how dare foreigners tell them what is the narrative of their own countries?

There are two possible outcomes. One is that the US public will have to realize that, with globalization on, even the most important country like the US is not immune from the influences of others; even the US becomes, compared to the world as a whole, “small”. Another possibility is that the hysteria will lead to the fragmentation  of the Internet space as China, Saudi Arabia and others are already doing. Then instead of a nice global platform for all opinions, we shall be back to the pre-1945 situation with national “radio stations”, local internets, bans of foreign languages (and perhaps even foreigners) on national NatNets—basically we shall have ended globalization of free thinking and gone back to unadulterated nationalism.

PS. You will not find pieces like that in your local news. And that’s why internet (and not NatNet) is great.