So RBC community: What would you ask the American and Russian drug czars?

And yeah, maybe “czar” isn’t the best nomenclature here….

I am moderating the below event at the Chicago Club tomorrow evening. And I need help. Fortunately, who better than the RBC community to suggest burning or important questions? Oh yeah, you are welcome to come, though there is a door fee. The blurb and details are below the fold. The most incisive suggested question wins a prize.

Drug trafficking, Counternarcotics, and Law Enforcement: A report on renewed U.S.-Russia cooperation

R. Gil Kerlikowske, Director, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy
Victor Ivanov, Director, Federal Drug Control Service of the Russian Federation

Moderated by Harold Pollack, Codirector, University of Chicago Crime Lab and Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago Continue reading “So RBC community: What would you ask the American and Russian drug czars?”

The road from serfdom

Ilya Repin´s painting of Volga boatmen is not one of serfs.

Brad deLong illustrates his contribution to a discussion on Hayek´s The Road to Serfdom with this picture by the 19th-century Russian/Ukrainian artist Ilya Repin. [Russian added from comments]

High-resolution image from Wikimedia here.
I can´t get very interested in Hayek´s obsolete polemic, but Repin´s painting is a masterpiece and worth thinking about.

First of all, Brad is wrong to think it´s a picture of serfs. The painting dates from 1873; serfdom was abolished in 1861, and there´s no indication that this is a laudatory piece about the the bad old days. The subjects are burlaks; free but very poor migrant workers. In 1870, many were no doubt former serfs.

The formal merits of the piece are obviously very great, but I´m unqualified to comment. The wedge-shaped composition in the letter-box canvas points off to the right, creating an impression of the vastness of the Volga and the Russian plain it flows through, and the interminable nature of the labourers´ task. The beauty of the summer light and pale blue sky contrast with the misery of the humans.

What I can respond to is the psychological and social commentary. Repin was an acute observer, for my money the finest psychological painter since Rembrandt. You may find his messaging overbearing, but it´s far from trite – see this other famous picture about the disruptive return of a Siberian exile to a household that has reorganized itself without him.

The Volga painting says several different things to me.

1. The burlaks are brutalized and degraded by their narrow and poverty-stricken lives. (In England, barges were hauled along canals by horses, not men.) It´s not that the road to serfdom is easy, it´s that the road from serfdom to citizenship is long and hard. Compare the parallel legacy of American slavery. Russian intellectuals tended to romanticise the peasantry; Repin is asking them to face the sordid reality. Distributing the land to Russian peasants will not instantly turn them into Athenian or Yankee citizen-farmers. Though once they had the land, they had the commonsense not to vote for Lenin, the one time they had a chance in 1917.

2. The burlaks are strongly characterised, distinct individuals, struggling to retain their dignity as human beings. They are very far from a formless, plastic mass – in fact they are so individualistic that they seem to have a hard time of pulling together in an effective way. Not surprising that revolutionaries like the Peoples´ Will signally failed to organise them politically.
Repin may well be distorting reality a bit to make this point. See this actual photograph from the 1900s, showing well-coordinated and purposeful labour. But then again, people pose for photographs.

3. The painting is sometimes given the English title of ¨convict boatmen on the Volga¨, but this seems a mistake. Chains and guards are not in evidence – though the burlaks are as badly off materially as convicts. The coercion here is that of poverty, not state repression. Repin is making a straightforward plea for economic progress and justice.

PS: Vaguely relevant older musings from me on the Tsarist katorga here.

Where is Europe?

Whatever Manzi thinks, Europe does not stop at the Urals,.

The infamous passage from Jim Manzi’s mercantilist essay on preventing America’s decline:

From 1980 through today, America’s share of global output has been constant at about 21%. Europe’s share, meanwhile, has been collapsing in the face of global competition — going from a little less than 40% of global production in the 1970s to about 25% today. Opting for social democracy instead of innovative capitalism, Europe has ceded this share to China (predominantly), India, and the rest of the developing world.

On the economics, I’ve nothing to add to the demolition jobs by Jonathan Chait and Paul Krugman on this passage.  Manzi apparently forgot that in 1970 Eastern Europe was not in fact operating under social democracy. Ahem.

As an aside, both he, and less forgivably Krugman, seem to think that you can look up time series of GDP data from Belarus in the 70s and 80s from USDA or wherever and hopper them into a spreadsheet for comparisons. You really can’t. Soviet era economic statistics were a branch of Kremlinology. In the Red corner, you had Gosplan and clones, publishing data in a neo-Marxist conceptual framework incompatible with Keynesian national income accounts. The raw numbers were generated by managers and officials with very strong incentives at every level to fudge them. In the Blue corner, you had the CIA and its affiliates, trying to correct these numbers and shoehorn them into the Western framework for comparison.  This involved exercises like guessing the market value of exploding Russian televisions and East German Trabants – junk valued by their governments at input prices -, of ICBMs and tanks which worked fine but were concealed as state secrets, and services ranging from the Bolshoi Ballet to the empty-shelved corner shop, which were treated as transfers. The margin of error here was closer to 50% than 5%. The Soviet system collapsed in 1989-1991. The new régimes duly introduced Western national accounting, but in conditions of chaos. (Has Belarus done it at all?) Any numbers before say 1995 can only be accepted as guestimates.

My main point here is however Manzi’s use of the “dictionary definition” of Europe, which is de Gaulle’s l’Europe de l’Atlantique à l’Oural. This is wrong today and has been for 450 years.

Map of Europe from Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia Universalis (1544).
Manzi defends his use of aggregate instead of per capita GDP on political grounds:

I believe it [absolute GDP] is, rather, a measurement of long-run geopolitical power potential.

If that’s the line, you have to take some set of European states that could plausibly exercise such power together someday. That means the EU (now 27 states). I used to work for the Council of Europe, which now includes Russia, and it is powerless by design outside the European Convention on Human Rights. There is no prospect of Russia joining the EU: neither side is in the least interested.

More, the Urals are not a frontier. I have more news for Manzi: Siberia is part of Russia. De Gaulle’s definition of Europe ceased to be useful in 1552 when Ivan the Terrible destroyed the Tatar Khanate of Kazan. As a barrier, the Urals a litle further east are less impressive than the Appalachians, and presented only a trivial obstacle to Russian empire-builders. Small forces of Cossacks swept aside the shadowy Khanate of (Western) Siberia in 1582  and pressed east along the three vast river systems, reaching the Pacific as early as 1639. Siberia has been in Russia ever since. There isn’t even a Siberian independence movement, as opposed to local demands for more autonomy from the bits that have the most natural resources.

In politics you can have a Europe without Russia, roughly the current EU and the Balkans, stopping on the Bug*; or a Europe with Russia, and it goes to the Bering Strait. Since Russia is currently in an Asian as opposed to a European cycle, the second looks a very unlikely prospect. But you’d be a fool to rule it out completely.
*Or a bit east. The Bug is the Polish frontier with Ukraine and Belarus, not Russia. But in the long run Belarus is unlikely to stay independent.

Why did Obama write that letter to Medvedev?

Could it have been to help Medvedev in his power struggle with Putin? If so, I approve.

If I had to list the three most important objectives for U.S. foreign policy in the short-to-medium run, my list would be:

1. Pakistan: Helping Zardari beat the ISI, the military, and the jihadists.

2. Iran: Helping reform-minded forces gain power, even if it’s not possible to defeat Ahmadi-nejad in the upcoming elections.

3. Russia: Helping Medvedev against Putin. (Medvedev may be no great prize, but he never served in the KGB.)

In deciding what to say and do about Pakistan, Iran, and Russia, a central consideration ought to be helping those less hostile to us (and less inclined to be tyrannical at home and aggressive abroad) make progress as against our committed enemies.

The split between Medvedev and Putin seems like good news. I wonder to what extent the Obama-Medvedev letter on missile defense was intended to add a card to Medvedev’s hand in domestic politics?

Note that the story broke first, not in the New York Times (which would have suggested a leak from somewhere in Washington) but in Kommersant, which suggests that someone in Russia thought it might be useful to have news of the letter get out.

Who in Russia? Generally speaking, Kommersant reflects the views of the market economist/technocrat faction now coalescing around Medvedev as against those of the security goons and kleptocrats who constitute Putin’s power base. That suggests that Medvedev wanted it to be known that he and his American counterpart are pen pals, and that the Americans are making nice.

If that’s what’s happening, I’m all for it.

The Statue of Despotism

The Bronze Horseman and the Summum case.

Jonathan Zasloff’s very sound attack on policy “czars” (tsariks?) reminds me of the latest developments in the entertaining Summum case. Mark wrote:

Adherents of a religion called “Summum” are suing a Utah town with a Ten Commandments monument in its park to insist that it put up a monument to Summum’s “Seven Aphorisms …”

The case has reached the US Supreme Court. From Dahlia Lithwick in Slate, we learn that CJ Roberts asked Summum’s lawyer the hypothetical:

You have a Statue of Liberty; do we have to have a statue of despotism?

St Petersburg has a statue of despotism: the Bronze Horseman, a gigantic equestrian statue of Peter the Great put up by Catherine:

Bronze Horseman.jpg

The Statue of Liberty and the Bronze Horseman were both designed by Frenchmen, Falconet and Bartholdi –

Continue reading “The Statue of Despotism”

If Putin wills it, it is so

Ahh, the Russian press. Making the Washington Times look nonpartisan since 2000. Kommersant, in an item about the first presidential debate headlined “Obama Foresees New President for Georgia,” writes

At the same time, Obama called Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili a weak figure politically and forecasted that Georgia would have a new president because of it.

Hmmm, I don’t recall Obama saying that. Let’s go the tape:

OBAMA: Because part of Russia’s intentions here was to weaken the economy to the point where President Saakashvili was so weakened that he might be replaced by somebody that Putin favored more.


Alaska and the Bear

Has Russia a reversion right to Alaska?

An idle thought. Suppose the Alaskan Independence Party had its way. Alaska was part of the Russian empire for a century up to 1867, when the Tsar ceded it to the USA to keep out the Brits. If the USA no longer wants Alaska, surely it reverts to Russia. Wouldn’t Putin and Medvedev, as legal successors to the Tsars, have an arguable right to seize the place, overcoming the doubtless heroic and futile resistance of the Alaskan National Guard? The claim would be stronger than to recently annexed South Ossetia. Watch out for Russian agents distributing free passports in Nome.

Seward’s Day is a public holiday in Alaska, so I’m sure its Governor has an informed view.

Update: Robert Farley beat me to the Russian nightmare by five hours. But only the RBC brings you the link to the original treaty, with contemporary version in French to prove it was Serious.

An entangling alliance

The standoff in Abkhazia continues, and the rhetoric escalates. Whether arms and men are also building up, I couldn’t tell you, but you can find someone to posit whatever you want to be true.

Russia started this latest dustup in reaction to NATO’s assuring Georgia of an offer of membership…some day. (By the Caucasian version of Occam’s Razor—never adduce a transparent explanation when a conspiracy is at hand—Russia’s moves are being orchestrated by hardliners, to test the mettle of the not-so-hawkish-as-they’d-like incoming President Medvedev; and Saakashvili is wagging the dog in advance of parliamentary elections) Whatever their motivation, Moscow has been surprised by the unusually concerted response of the international community, which, while “calling for all sides to act responsibly,” has put the onus on Russia.

Meanwhile, some Americans think that it’s none of our business. Robert Farley is

extremely leery of allowing Georgia into NATO anytime soon. Long story short, the Western Alliance really doesn’t need to get mixed up in an obscure border dispute between Russia and Georgia; there’s much to be lost and little to be gained.

Where to begin? Georgia doesn’t expect to be joining NATO any time soon. The issue at Bucharest was whether to offer Georgia a MAP, which isn’t a guarantee and sets no timetable (Albania was in MAP for nine years before receiving an invitation in Bucharest).

The dispute is not over the Russian-Georgian border; both parties agree where that is. But Russia ignores it and has de facto annexed a large part of Georgia, while insisting that it’s done no such thing. And local disputes are obscure only until you can no longer afford to ignore them. “Hoy hoy. Archduke who? Was shot where? It’s 3 a.m. my good man! Don’t bother me with such obscure events.”

No time to go wobbly

US policy on Georgia is bipartisan. Europe’s is bipolar.

As Russia tightens the screws on Georgia, Joe Biden and Dick Lugar call for the Euro-Atlantic alliance to stand up for Georgia.

But Georgia cannot win this standoff alone. A peaceful solution will require U.S. leadership, and engagement by the rest of NATO. Those NATO members who thought they could appease Moscow by denying Georgia a MAP [Membership Action Plan—J.K.] have already learned a hard lesson. Days after the summit ended, the Russian government took further steps to pry the two breakaway regions from Georgia.

The trans-Atlantic community must understand that Russia’s actions are not directed solely at Georgia. They are also aimed squarely at NATO itself, whose peaceful expansion Russia has long opposed. Russia hopes to instigate confrontational responses and prolong the territorial crisis to further complicate Georgia’s NATO aspirations.

Georgia is a small country on the edge of Europe, not obviously central to American interests. But support for Georgia is solid across the foreign-policy establishment (not a pejorative, Glenn Greenwald notwithstanding). And Georgia has become a whipping boy for the America Firsters at The American Conservative and the America Lasters at

Several readers have asked why I take such an interest in Georgia (and, by implication, why they should). I live in Georgia, because I like it and care about its welfare. Many other expats could say the same about their adopted home, and it doesn’t make a prima facie case for why the country merits the west’s support, in the face of strident Russian opposition. But Georgia is an important test case for the west’s commitment to freedom and democracy, however devalued that notion is to so many who associate it with Bush administration arrogance. Georgia has demonstrated, in word and deed, its Euro-Atlantic orientation. Russia recognizes this and—crude and absurd as their rhetoric often is—will skillfully exploit every lapse in western solidarity. Whether this tension rises to the level of a new cold war, it must be taken seriously.

If you visit here, it’s hard to come away not liking Georgia and the Georgians. But you don’t need to have any personal investment in the place to want your country to stand by a vulnerable, embattled country that has stood by yours.