January 1, 2013

Why Geography and Economic Ethics Matter

The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate

by Robert D. Kaplan. 2012. Random House.


This book was recommended by David Ignatius, foreign affairs columnist for the Washington Postand a keynote speaker at MSCI’s Economic Summit Forecast 2013. He promised it would explain much of what is going on in the confusing modern world. It does.

The simplified version is that geography still matters. Natural boundaries separate and protect people, cultures and religions more effectively than artificial lines on a map. Climate, access to export routes, natural resources and land mass determine a country’s destiny more surely than conquest and colonization.

When the conquerors leave, after they carve countries up in ways that make no sense, geography remains. People can “only be what they were,” Kaplan writes—still Kurds somewhat safe behind their mountains in modern Iraq, still Shias now trapped inside an artificial boundary with Sunnis, still fundamentally anarchists living on the featureless Russian steppes. For a reader patient enough to stick with the verbosity, this is a book that makes you stop and say, “Of course, why didn’t I see that?”

Flat, almost featureless Russia, for example, became an imperialist regime because of “the vague hope of a warm water outlet.” Although it dominates the continent’s landmass, Russia’s tiny population is surrounded by the world’s four largest populations: Europe, India, Southeast Asia and China. Its paranoia results from permanent preparedness for attack from within or without, but its increasingly accessible natural resources enable the country to remain a force in the increasingly Asian-dominated world order. In the absence of “uplifting ideas,” indeed of “ideology of any kind” from its leaders, all Russia has is geography, Kaplan says, “and that is not enough.”

India, with “the hottest climate and the most abundant and luxuriant landscape” of any population center in Eurasia has no need for urbanization and the political structures that come with it. The Indian subcontinent makes geographic sense but its borders, most notably with the ideologically created Pakistan, are weak, and protecting them saps “vital political energy.”

China, blessed with a temperate climate and geographic diversity, still lacks many natural resources and, given its “core national interest—economic survival and growth”—is not picky about what it has to do to get them. China’s lack of political squeamishness may, in fact, help stabilize some of the future’s most explosive places. “Already mining for copper in war-torn Afghanistan,” Kaplan writes, “China has a vision of Afghanistan (and of Pakistan) as a secure conduit for roads and energy pipelines that will bring natural resources from Indian Ocean ports, linking up with Beijing’s budding Central Asia dominion-of-sorts.”

As insightful as all this is, Kaplan does not make it easy for his readers. The million-dollar vocabulary sometimes obscures a clear message. There are no pat conclusions at the ends of chapters. Rather, the kernel of his reasoning about each country or region is buried in the prose, waiting for the careful reader with a highlighter to uncover. Only halfway through the book, he says pretty much everything in a couple of sentences. “Just as geography is not an explanation for everything, neither is it a solution. Geography is merely the unchanging backdrop against which the battle of ideas plays out.”

How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life

by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky. 2012. Other Press.

What constitutes the good life? And, how much do you need in order to afford it? John Maynard Keynes, subject of five of Robert Skidelsky’s 10 books, put the figure at $74,500 in today’s dollars. But, what is the good life really? If it i

s simply more stuff as measured against the “ever-shifting fortunes of the Joneses,” we never achieve it.

The authors argue that capitalism is “founded on a Faustian pact” with the devil. “Avarice and usury” are allowed to run rampant with the understanding that they will go away when everyone has been lifted out of poverty. Except that they haven’t. Of course not everyone has been lifted out of poverty yet either.

The authors are neither Marxists nor utopian thinkers—redistribute the wealth and all will be well—but they sound rather wishful in their thinking. There is no argument with their definition of what constitutes the good life: health, security, respect, personality, harmony with nature, friendship and leisure.

They spend some time defining why these things and not others but, suffice it to say, the list does not include an indoor pool and a five-car garage. They argue convincingly that the good life isn’t about acquisitiveness. “What matters, in most cases, is not just the capacity to lead a good life, but the actual leading of it.”

So far, so good. Now comes the wishful part. An economic system that would guarantee the good life for all would, obviously produce enough goods and services to meet “everyone’s basic needs and reasonable standards of comfort.” That means reducing the amount of work we do (remember leisure), a “less unequal” distribution of wealth (so we have what we need but don’t need or want to work any harder), and, they say, greater emphasis on living locally (rather than globally).

I don’t know about you, but I can’t picture it. The factory just shuts down when it’s made “enough”? We all go home to our friends and our leisure and are content? Much as I dislike being considered avaricious, I’m with Baudelaire: “Everything considered, work is less boring than amusing oneself.”

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

by Michael J. Sandel. 2012. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Money can’t buy you love or happiness, but these days, it can buy you a kidney, access to your doctor’s cell phone number, the right to drive in the carpool lane even if you’re alone, or a better prison cell.

This is a more thoughtful, even readable book than How Much Is Enoughand makes the bigger, less wishful point. By allowing society to evolve to a point where everything has a price tag, we have not just allowed greed to run rampant, as the authors above argue. Sandel argues that we have lost the moral and ethical underpinnings a healthy society should have—and we have instead become a mall. Everything is for sale, even the things that shouldn’t be.

The market passes no judgment, but we should. “Markets don’t wag fingers,” Sandel says. When anything is for sale—sex, vital organs or a car—the market only asks, “How much?” We, on the other hand, should have the difficult ethical and moral discussions that determine whether this is the way we want to live. “Our politics is overheated,” Sandel says, “because it is mostly vacant, empty of moral and spiritual content. It fails to engage with big questions that people care about.” Another excellent point in a book full of them.

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