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February 24, 2008
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Climate Change?

With the Russian presidential election coming up next Sunday, I have been paying more than usual attention to Johnson’s Russia List (JRL), which arrives nearly every morning at my desk via email, with the complete texts of yet another thirty or forty news stories about what is happening in Russia, mostly from the English- and Russian-language press, but with plenty of European and Israeli dispatches thrown in. I groan a little each time I call up a new packet.

 

JRL is the one-stop kiosk for anyone interested in what is happening in Russia.  It is one of those miracles of the Web that more people should know about and more people should support. Let me explain what it is and how it works.

 

David Johnson, sixty-ish, workaholic, resumes the work of the previous evening each morning when his teacher wife leaves for school. A similar service, in a somewhat more edited format, for people interested in the US newspaper, magazine and broadcast news industries, is performed weekdays, by Jim Romenesko, a long-time newspaperman operating out of Chicago. The Poynter Institute, an influential St. Petersburg, Florida, journalism think tank, pays Romenesko to do his work; Johnson subsists on donations from many sources, large and small. There must be many other such prodigies, but these are the two who follow sectors that are of interest to me.

 

I skim down Johnson’s story list, pick out the two or three articles that attract me, and read them. He has access to various sources that translate Russian and other foreign-language media, several US government agencies probably among them. So I read Pravda one day,  the Moscow Times the next, Interfax and perhaps Bloomberg the day after that; a Haaretz dispatch one day, a Chronicle of High Education dispatch another (its correspondent, Anna Nemtsova, being an especially useful member of the Moscow press corps). In this fashion did I learn last week (from Christian Lowe, of Reuters) that Vladimir Putin does not plan to hang Dimitry Medvedev’s portrait on his office wall after next Sunday’s election, “breaking with the standard etiquette for Russian officials to display portraits of the serving head of state.”

 

A birthright Quaker (his father was for many years an official of the American Friends Service Committee in New England), Johnson studied Russian in high school, traveled there first in 1962.  After college at Brandeis University and graduate study at Harvard, Johnson moved to Washington in the 1970s and went to work for the Center for Defense Information (now the World Security Institute) when it opened for business in 1972. He started JRL in the spring of 1996,  alert to the possibilities of the Internet and “uncomfortable with the policies of [Boris] Yeltsin and the usually uncritical support given to Yeltsin both by the US government and most US media,” and has been at it with scarcely an interruption ever since.  A interview, from which these quotations and details are taken, appeared in Moscow News last year. “While I am not particularly religious,” Johnson told Robert Bridge, “I do think that Quakers strive to understand those regarded as enemies….and highly value the need to learn about foreign cultures.”

 

Western economists, you’ll remember, split broadly into two camps in the 1980s, gradualists and those who counseled one form or another of “shock therapy.” The latter, “market Bolsheviks,” in Peter Reddaway’s description, quickly gained the upper hand in the feverish atmosphere of the 1990s, as Boris Yeltsin, following a centuries-old pattern of government-led development (Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Nikolai Lenin, Josef Stalin), sought to create a new privileged class of committed supporters – in this case, a relative handful of vastly wealthy robber-barons. Books like The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia, by David Hoffman, of the Washington Post, and Sale of the Century: Russia’s Wild Ride from Communism to Capitalism, by Chrystia Freeland, of the Financial Times, chronicled the market reformers’ stories, but have otherwise failed to keep up with the times.

 

The original parties to the controversy today are somewhat fatigued, their accounts of their battles inevitably tinged by self-pleading. (An exception is the indefatigable Marshall Goldman, of Wellesley College and Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian Studies, about to publish his sixth book of narrative since 1983, Petrostate: Putin, Power, and the New Russia.) We must wait for a new generation of scholars to come of age, steeped in archival sources on all sides, Bush and Clinton, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, in order to form firmer opinions.

 

Meanwhile, we will make do with what we’ve had all along: a carefully-chosen and well-seasoned press corps, whose veterans advance regularly into the senior editorial ranks of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The Economist and The New Yorker, where they continue to refine their opinions of what is happening in Russia. In my view, what comes through from the continual wash of news contained in Johnson’s Russia List adds up to something very close to Johnson’s own appraisal:  Putin is receiving perhaps too dark a portrayal; the Yeltsin reforms are still painted in too-cheerful tones. This Newsweek takeout by Owen Matthews sounds about right to me. It is no easier to know what to expect in the next couple decades in Russia than it is in China – or, for that matter, the United States.

 

Indeed, the expected outcome of the Russian election is useful not just in terms of thinking about Russia, but in thinking about what comes next in Cuba as well.  When Fidel Castro announced last week that he would step down, US policy towards Cuba immediately became bone of contention in party politics.

 

Here’s how The Economist framed the issue:

Look a bit further ahead, and two broad scenarios seem possible in Cuba. The first is one in which the Communist Party oversees the introduction of capitalism while retaining political control—in the mould of China, Vietnam or, closer to home, Mexico in the heyday of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. That seems to be the route favored by senior figures in the regime, few of whom show any signs of being closet democrats. The other scenario is the one long dreamed of in Miami and in Washington, of the regime’s sudden collapse and, it is assumed with a confidence many Iraqis may find worryingly familiar, a swift move to liberal democracy.

Note, however, that in all likelihood, that “dream in Washington” is about to change, decisively (and the dream in Miami is no longer what it was even a decade ago, when Cuban expatriates formed a single intense generational bloc). Washington had little influence in the 1980s as both China and Vietnam “grew out of the plan.”  It was mainly on the watches of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton that the US came to feel a responsibility to help manage the transitions of formerly centrally-planned states in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. A president who honed his skills as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago is apt to view the matter differently.

 

Here’s how Cuba came up last week in the debate between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. She wants a sequence of behind-the-scenes negotiations; he wants to reverse right away the Bush ban on travel and remittances. Obama capped his remarks this way.

I do think it is important, precisely because the Bush administration has done so much damage to American foreign relations, that the president take a more active role in diplomacy than might have been true 20 or 30 years ago. Because the problem… is if we think that meeting with the president is a privilege that has to be earned, I think that reinforces the sense that we stand above the rest of the world at this point in time, and I think that it’s important for us, in undoing the damage that has been done over the last seven years, for the president to be willing to take that extra step. That’s the kind of step that I would like to take as president of the United States.

So many things change when the political rudder is thrown over, as seems likely soon to be the case. Then the van of history itself comes about, and sails off on a different tack. I’ll admit to being nervous about Obama.  But let’s see what he can achieve.

 

Throw the tiller over!  Come about!

 

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As expected, James Poterba, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, last week was named president and chief operating officer of the National Bureau of Economic Research.  EP already has said much of what there is to say. But the general excellence of the choice cannot be affirmed too frequently.

 

Poterba’s own research over the years in public economics has been interesting enough. His editorship of the Journal of Public Economics was exemplary. But he also has been a superlative teacher. Among the better-known economists he advised as graduate students are Jeffrey Brown, of the University of Illinois (nominated to be a public trustee of Social Security & Medicare); David Cutler, of Harvard University (health care outcomes research); Amy Finkelstein, of MIT (health care demand and social insurance); Austan Goolsbee, of the Graduate School of Business of the University of Chicago (chief economic adviser to Obama); Steven Levitt, of the University of Chicago (Freakonomics); Brigitte Madrian, of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government (author of a seminal paper in behavioral economics, “The Power of Suggestion,” about opt-in vs. opt-out);  Mark McClellan, of the Brookings Institution (former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration); Emmanuel Saez, of the University of California at Berkeley (expert on evolving US income distribution); and  Luigi Zingales, of the GSB of the University of Chicago (Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists).

 

One of the things that made Martin Feldstein so successful during his thirty years as NBER president is that, with his economist wife, Kathleen, he lived, breathed and served economics at the dinner-table. So, too, do Poterba and his economist wife, Nancy Rose, also of MIT. Like the Feldsteins, they are a familiar presence in suburban Belmont, together a potent node in the force that keeps world economics headquartered in Cambridge.

 

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Peter S. Albin, a deep thinker and a lively man, died last week after a long, gallant struggle with an injury to his brain. He was professor emeritus at the City University of New York; had been a visiting scholar at Cambridge University, the University of California at Berkley, the University of Paris and Oxford University; and was on the verge of accepting a distinguished professorship at Bard College and its Levy Institute when, in 1991, a stroke robbed him of his strength.

 

Albin was the author of three books — The Analysis of Complex Socioeconomic Systems (1975); Progress without Poverty: Socially Responsible Economic Growth (1978); and Barriers and Bounds to Rationality: Essays on Economic Complexity and Dynamics in Interactive Systems (1998). He was the central figure in my own The Idea of Economic Complexity (1984). He was a shrewd proponent of indicative planning, but even then, I didn’t find it easy to explain what I thought he did. I came to think of him as the Jane Jacobs of mathematical sociology.

 

He had a loving family and many friends, among them Hyman Minsky, Janos Kornai and Eileen Applebaum. No colleague served him better, though, than Duncan K. Foley, of the New School for Social Research, who, after Albin had ceased to be able to work, edited and wrote the introduction to his third book.

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