Saturday, February 23, 2013

Cultural Amnesia: We Must Invest in STEM or We Will Lose the Future!

. Saturday, February 23, 2013

[E]ven in the lower grades I found evidence of a much stronger emphasis on science than we give in the US. It is quite probable that within a generation Russia may have twice as many well-trained scientist as we. Russian resources are separated by vast distances. Her climate is exceedingly difficult. Transportation problems will always be most serious. But much of her soil is rich in the elements which when combined with a severe climate produce a most vital type of human being.
This could have be said by almost any politician in the US today, with the possible substitution of China for Russia. But, via Brad DeLong, it was actually said by Henry Wallace in 1952. There was a lot of threat inflation concerning the USSR in the 1950s and 1960s, and much of it was related to the knowledge economy and how that translated into national security ("missile gap", etc) combined with a sense that the US had underestimated the USSR in the 1940s. Not all of this was unreasonable, as Tony Judt recounted in a wonderful 1997 essay in The New Republic on the Chambers/Hiss affair (it's collected in Reappraisals but I can't find it online), but it got blown out of all proportion: without Hiss (and Chambers' special pumpkin) there wouldn't have been McCarthyism, and in the end McCarthyism mostly served McCarthy. In a similar, now we know that many of the principles that dominated US foreign policy from 1960-1990 -- brinksmanship, domino theory, MAD -- were simply unnecessary dangers, as the Soviet Union was not nearly as capable as the US leadership imagined it was.

Is there a lesson to be learnt? Towards the end of the Cold War we heard a lot about institutional superiority -- "end of history" and all that. Some of it was hyperbole, but there is some shred of truth in it as well. We genuinely believe that some form of democratic capitalism produces better outcomes than other systems, and we genuinely believe that societies which have norms of liberté, égalité, et fraternité, even if they are imperfectly applied, fare better than those which do not. Maybe we should take our own rhetoric seriously, for once: maybe we should worry a lot less about scores on science exams of 13 year old Chinese, and focus instead on translating the principles of liberté, égalité, et fraternité into practice.

P.S. the whole speech by Henry Wallace linked above is well worth reading, and could possibly be useful in an Introduction to International Relations course. There's a lot packed into a short document: commitment problems, asymmetric information, perception/misperception, etc.

UPDATE: Thanks to Noah Smith for driving traffic here. For new readers I should note that, contrary to what Smith wrote, as a quantitative social scientist I have nothing against math and science education. To say the least. I do have an issue with politicizing math and science education as a national security imperative, however, particular when done in a zero-sum "either we win the future or the Russians Chinese win the future" way. I thought I'd made that clear, but perhaps not.


Anonymous said...

I love your posts Kindred, but how in the name of God can the logic of this post so shortly follow the argument set out in 'Against Ceteris Paribus Theories of International Relations, A Prelude'.....?

Kindred Winecoff said...

Arg; typed out a response that was eaten. I'll try again.

Anyway, thanks for the compliment. I think, although I could be wrong, that the two are not contradictory. Let's consider two views of how the Cold War was "won":

1. The US had superior institutions. Through command-and-control the USSR was able to massively mobilize under-utilized resources in society. This initially led to speedy growth, but set the stage for inefficiency, corruption, malinvestment, and so on. Eventually those would come back to bite. The USSR model, then, was rotten to the core. To "win" all the US had to do was consolidate, maintain *deterrence* force in W Berlin and elsewhere, and wait.

2. The US had superior leaders. The Cold War was "won" because Kennedy stared and Khrushchev blinked, and then Reagan stared and Gorbachev blinked. To win, the US had to maintain *compellence* force, which forced the USSR to take long gambles which they ended up losing.

While not strictly mutually exclusive, I believe the more accurate reading of history suggests #1 is a better explanation. Neither one is really a "ceteris paribus" view, along the lines suggested by folks like Quiggin, which claims that there would have been more or less no effect if the US hadn't existed at all or just disappeared from the international stage (as it sort-of did post-1918).

The encouraging thing (to me) is that if #1 is more correct than #2, then there was no need for McCarthyisn, the Red Scare, and blacklisting. There was no need for the depositions of Mossadegh and Pinochet and attempts against Castro. There was no need for escalation in L America/Caribbean and SE Asia (although things might have gone better in Korea had the US not reneged on its earlier commitment to provide security). There was no need for Nixon and Kissinger (or even Kennedy). Possibly those actions were necessary for deterrence in order to demonstrate "resolve", but I think the evidence of that is slight. Demonstrations of "resolve" didn't dissuade the Vietcong nor other groups. The "successes" in the Cold War came generally from a quid-pro-quo -- as in the Cuban Missile Crisis -- rather than "dancing towards the cliff", as Schelling put it.

So yes, the US deterrent threat was probably necessary for things to work out the way they did. However, the aggressive actions probably were not. And the Cold War wasn't "won" because we treated primary education as an arms race.

Projected into today, that still means an emphasis on deterrence rather than aggression, particularly w/r/t BRICS, while providing paths to integration into the global system and counting on the likelihood that their domestic institutions will either undergo reform (they already seem to be) or their ascension will be stunted.

At least, that's the way I'm thinking. I don't think that's a "ceteris paribus" view. But I could definitely be wrong on any of these points.

LFC said...

There was no need for the depositions of Mossadegh and Pinochet

Ideally I'd like to leave a longer/broader comment, but I'll limit myself to this one point. I was in high school (11th grade to be exact) when Pinochet was deposed, with the help/connivance of the CIA, on 11 Sept. 1973.

Sometimes it doesn't help to get moralistic about foreign policy, but sometimes it's really unavoidable. The deposition of Pinochet is such a case. It was a criminal, immoral act inasmuch as it overthrew a democratically elected govt that, if it was doing things Chileans didn't like, shd have been gotten rid of in a constitutional fashion.

So yes, I'd say there was "no need" for it. (Ditto for some of the other things you mention.)

Also, i don't think it even did what Kissinger and Nixon wanted it to do, ie demonstrate U.S. resolve and stop left-wing penetration of the hemisphere. It just made them look like criminals.

[But a provocative post, as per usual. Which I guess is what posts shd be.]

JR said...

Good post, good discussion, etc etc... but there's a bit of a brain-fart going on here: Assuming we're using the political definition of "deposed" (as in "to remove from power"), Pinochet was not the one deposed; Allende was.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Oh hell, you're absolutely right. How did I (much less the estimable LFC) not catch that.

It will be corrected, pronto. Thanks!

LFC said...

Yes, I meant Allende, not Pinochet. Of course.

Thks to JR for the correction.

LFC said...

"The estimable LFC" could try to mobilize various excuses but none of them really works. :(

Anonymous said...

Indeed US society should focus more on putting "liberté, égalité, et fraternité into practice." At the moment, we have one political party vehemently disparaging the latter two items, and the other too often agreeing; the increase in productivity going to the "1 percenters" since Reagan, increasing inequality, and "liberté" under attack by the "war on terror."--
During the cold war, the western countries were proud to show that their workers were doing so much better than those in the presumed "worker's paradise," their labor unions not a sham... With the fall of communism, it seems no longer necessary to maintain a now-disparaged "welfare state" to show the world a model better than communism.--
If the US can maintain a society with "liberté, égalité, et fraternité," it would indeed not have to fear China; after all, even the children of many party functionaries like to come to the US for fear of instability at home, brought on by extreme inequality in wealth and political power.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response to my post at 1 Kindred. I had something written up the other night when I came home from the pub in reply but can’t make heads nor tails of it I’ll just say I largely agree with everything you’ve said here.
I’m not sure Quiggins point was that " there would have been more or less no effect if the US hadn't existed at all or just disappeared from the international stage”, post WW2, (or at least if he was saying that, he was engaging in hyperbole to make a point.) If that is his position, I don’t personally agree, but there is considerable room to look at US military spending during and after the Cold War, and revaluate how much is needed to maintain international order (if that’s your aspiration) or at least to meet the ‘threats’ the US faces. (I’m closer to the position that there was never really a threat from an expansionist Soviet Union, even in the early years of the Cold War, and that the conflict was encouraged by a mutual misreading of the strategic postures both sides took, for want of a better term)
I don’t know though.
There is something to say about US policy towards the Middle East specifically, though. I think it’s difficult to argue that US policy towards the region in the last 40 years has been towards ‘providing paths to integration into the global system and counting on the likelihood that their domestic institutions will .. undergo reform’, and my reading of Quiggin was that he was speaking more specifically to the Middle East, and the extent to which US military posture towards the region has been counterproductive. (And doesn’t even make sense in light of how the global oil market has evolved in the last 40 years) But there doesn’t seem to be, (from what I can see anyway), a huge amount of sophisticated political economy, rather than historical narratives, written on that relationship.
On Allende, there’s a new book out that revaluates the US role in bringing Pinochet to power that’s quite interesting. (Reviewed here, but behind a pay-wall)

Kindred Winecoff said...

Good points. I think there was a danger that the USSR might have pushed westward post-1945 without the US's presence there, and had designs on W Berlin at least until the Wall went up. But I agree that overall the USSR was not interested in directly challenging the US, and tried very hard not to do so on a number of occasions.

I guess what I'm saying is that *if* the US presence had a causal impact on events in Europe post-1945, and *if* US presence has had an important role in shaping the Middle East (for good or ill) since the Suez Crisis, then such a dynamic may be generalizable.

And so, *if* (e.g.) the impact of the US having 50% of the world's naval power is that other countries don't feel the need to invest in their navies -- either because they don't feel threatened by the US or because it would be impossible to meaningfully compete -- *then* the relative lack of ROW naval spending *is conditional upon* the US maintaining such a huge advantage. The global distribution of naval spending would necessarily change if the US slashed its naval budget -- Quiggin suggested cutting it to zero, or thereabouts -- and it's not clear (to me) that the overall global figure would end up being lower. Maybe it would be, but that conclusion requires at least a theoretical argument (which Quiggin has not yet provided) rather than an assumption that what the US does has no effect on what everyone else does.

But I think you get that. Quiggin's whole case here is similar to Nuclear Zero advocates; it's problematic because it ignores the structure of the strategic interaction.

I similarly disagree with Quiggin's take on MENA and the importance of global oil markets. He has suggested both that there have been zero positives from US involvement in the Middle East, and that it's really irrelevant because oil doesn't matter for the global economy anymore. His evidence for both is slight, I think. There is certainly empirical evidence that oil prices (and esp oil shocks) can have substantial effect on economies around the world.

As for possible positives to the US's role in the region, there is theoretical, quantitative, and qualitative evidence that the US has pacified at least some security dilemmas which otherwise could have tipped over into conflict (Israel v Egypt, Saudi Arabia v Iran), not even including its role in pushing the European powers out in 1956 and dissuading the USSR from meddling thereafter. I don't mean to suggest that everything the US has done in MENA (or anywhere else) has been positive... far from it. But it's equally absurd to claim that none of it has been.

Anonymous said...

Just a quick point on the successes in stabilising the Israel/Egypt and Saudi/Iran relationships, doesn’t the research on this stress the importance of non-military pressure (ie arms sales, aid, market access etc)over the US military as a deterrent/stabilising force? – ( as an addendum, I could be wrong but I think the area studies stuff complicates this story, ie Sadat wanting greater US influence in the region in 73, the GCC being more willing than the US to ease tensions with Iran – also could be wrong what the PE research says on this topic though)

John Quiggin said...

"There is certainly empirical evidence that oil prices (and esp oil shocks) can have substantial effect on economies around the world. "

This is true only in the sense that it's also true of food prices, metal prices, stock prices, land prices and lots of other things. There's nothing special about oil, and no reason for the US in particular, to use military force to control supplies.

Cultural Amnesia: We Must Invest in STEM or We Will Lose the Future!




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