An Illustrated Guide to the US Financial Cycle

Claudio Borio of the Bank of International Settlements is one of the most interesting and original economists of the day. A key innovation of his is the concept of the financial cycle. The idea is that the excess elasticity of the financial sector has dramatic consequences for real activity. Specifically, the supply of credit to the real economy is much more elastic than macroeconomic models have hitherto assumed or would be justified by macroeconomic fundamentals. In good times credit is plentiful and even very dicey borrowers can obtain credit quite cheaply. In difficult times even worthy borrowers find it hard to secure credit.

In order to empirically capture this boom-and-bust cycle, Borio and others developed a measure that uses filtering techniques. The idea is to isolate medium frequency movements in key indicators: credit-to-GDP ratio, total credit to the private sector, and property prices. Borio showed that the comovement of these indicators captures national financial cycles for a number of countries.

Technically: Borio uses a bandpass filter to isolate cycles with length ranging from 8 to 30 years in these three variables and averages them to obtain the financial cycle. Figure 1 displays Borio’s financial cycle for the United States.


Figure 1. Source: Claudio Borio

I recomputed Borio’s financial cycle with more recent data. Figure 2 displays the US financial cycle from 1976-2015. We see that the financial cycle has turned since Borio calculated it.


Figure 2.

US housing has always been a leading indicator of economic activity. Housing-finance is the primary channel through which the excess elasticity of the financial sector propagates to real activity. In what follows, we will see that a single metric of housing-finance, namely mortgage credit-to-gdp, captures the comovement of the components of the US financial cycle quite well. Figure 3 displays raw and detrended US mortgage credit-to-GDP. We can see the extraordinary boom in the run-up to the Great Financial Crisis. Figure 4 displays filtered US mortgage credit-to-GDP from 1951-2016 (using the same bandpass filter).


Figure 3.


Figure 4.

The US housing-finance cycle has become increasingly coupled to credit-to-GDP (Figure 5). It has long been coupled to property prices (Figure 6) and has become increasingly synchronized with the raw credit cycle (Figure 7).


Figure 5.


Figure 6.


Figure 7.

Figure 8 displays the comovement of the US financial cycle and the US housing-finance cycle as measured by mortgage credit-to-gdp. We can observe three closed financial cycles that can be identified either by the three peaks or the four troughs. Mortgage credit-to-GDP (the US housing-finance cycle) barely rose in the first. Then there was a discernible but mild boom in mortgage lending during the late-1980s financial boom. But in the financial boom of the 2000s the two were phase-locked; so to speak. Note the increasing amplitude of both the cycles and the rigidity of the comovement in the last cycle. The past twenty years have witnessed a coupling of the two cycles.*


Figure 8. The US financial cycle and the US housing-finance cycle.

What explains the coupling of the financial and housing-finance cycles? One word: Securitization. Basically, the extraordinary amplitude of the financial cycle in the lead up to the Great Financial Crisis was the result of shadow lending. Figure 9, 10, and 11 show the contributions of banks and credit unions, US housing-finance agencies (“Agency MBS”), and shadow banks (“Private-label MBS”) respectively. Shadow lending accounted for 90% of the increase in mortgage credit-to-GDP during the housing-finance boom of 2003-2007.

Shadow banks here refers to finance companies, ABS issuers, and mortgage real-estate investment trusts (M-REITS), which are essentially artificial firms created by Wall Street to warehouse the raw material (mortgages) used to manufacture financial assets. Thus, securitization brought expanding dealer balance sheet capacity to the housing market and thereby amplified the US housing-finance cycle.


Figure 10.


Figure 11.


Figure 12.

An interesting question for future research is whether housing-finance cycles are synchronous with financial cycles more generally. That is, is this an American peculiarity or is it true of other countries as well? Another open important question is how Borio’s financial cycle relates to Rey’s global financial cycle which is defined in terms of the comovement of global asset prices.

*We know from Rognlie’s work that the growing share of capital income in total income is explained almost entirely by capital gains on real-estate. That’s a third closely-related cycle.



Gary Johnson and the Case for Isolationism


Gary Johnson’s humiliation (“What is Aleppo?”) at the hands of Mike Lauer of NBC has gone viral. Johnson’s remarkable ignorance of foreign affairs is widely seen as disqualifying. This is not an unreasonable judgement but I will argue that it is mistaken. The knowledge and sophistication of the President herself is of secondary importance. What matters first and foremost is the nation’s grand strategy.

The Libertarians, including and especially Johnson (“No more policing the world”), are Isolationists. Because Isolationism has been demonized for decades Libertarian political entrepreneurs try very hard to avoid the label. But that is also mistaken. Isolationism is and will always remain a viable and attractive grand strategy for the United States.

A grand strategy is a state’s core formula for survival and security in a dangerous world. It serves as the organizing principle of foreign policy. Great Britain’s nineteenth century grand strategy was to maintain maritime primacy and act as an offshore balancer on the Continent. Bismarck’s grand strategy in the 1870s and 1880s was to ensure that Germany was always in a “party of three” among the five great powers. Both grand strategies were informed by the geopolitical positions of the state and were thus very effective.

The first fundamental fact about the United States’ geopolitical position is that vast oceans separate the United States from all other great powers. Because of ‘the stopping power of water,’ even if the United States were not the strongest state in the system it would continue to remain extraordinarily secure. The second fundamental fact about the US’ geopolitical position is that it has been the strongest state in the system for over a century.

Because of these fundamental geopolitical facts, the United States enjoys extraordinary leeway in choosing its grand strategy. Unlike any other great power in the system, the United States can choose its level of strategic engagement outside its home region. Different grand strategies correspond to different levels of strategic engagement. Put another way, the United States can choose to define its national interest more and less expansively and deploy its considerable power resources accordingly. There are five main grand strategies available to the United States which can be ordered by the level of engagement:

  • Pure Isolationism: US forces would be withdrawn to the US homeland. And the United States would strategically disengage from the rest of the world (incl. S. America) leaving it to other powers to sort it out. It would continue to interact with the rest of the world economically and culturally but not in the security sphere. Instead it would husband its own strength.
  • Hemispheric Isolationism: The US defense perimeter would be withdrawn to the middle of the Atlantic and the Pacific; thus strategically isolating the western hemisphere. The US would maintain preponderance in the hemisphere but avoid security interactions with Eurasia unless the western hemisphere is threatened.
  • Offshore Balancing: The US would maintain global maritime primacy and prevent other great powers from replicating its feat of achieving regional preponderance. In practice, this means that the US would strive to maintain a favourable balance of power in the two extremities of Eurasia. However, US forces would not be deployed on Eurasian land unless they were necessary for deterrence (as was the case in Europe during the bipolar era). It would also ignore weak states unless there was a clear threat.
  • Defensive Hegemonism: The United States would play the role of the global policeman. It would take it upon itself to defend the territorial order by the force of its arms; identifying its national interest with the stability and security of the international system. It would seek to contain near peers and grow its retinue of protectorates. US forces would be deployed across the world for deterrence and enforcement of rules multilaterally when it can and unilaterally when it must.
  • Offensive Hegemonism: The United States would play the role of the global policeman. But instead of simply defending the territorial status quo by the force of its arms it would seek to forge a more favourable international order. It would in effect act as a revisionist hegemon, seeking to “roll back” near peers instead of containing them, and conquering and reconfiguring weak confrontation states where possible.

In accordance with Parkinson’s law of international politics, the definition of US national interest has expanded along with its relative power. In the first century of its existence, the United States followed the strategy of Pure Isolationism. During the 1890s the US shifted to Hemispheric Isolationism. In the short twentieth century (1915-90), the United States deployed military forces in Eurasia to defeat and contain a sequence of potential regional hegemons (Imperial Germany, Imperial Japan, Soviet Union) and sought and achieved maritime primacy in accordance with Offshore Balancing. With the capitulation of Soviet Russia and the advent of the unipolar world, the United States has lurched back and forth between Defensive Hegemonism and Offensive Hegemonism.

Pure Isolationism is not a viable grand strategy for the United States; nor has it ever been entertained as such since the United States emerged as a great power. It would mean the end of the Monroe Doctrine; something that is unlikely to be on the table for a very long time. Offensive Hegemonism is also no longer on the table since it is widely seen to have been tried and failed. The lesson that US policy elites have learned from Iraq and Afghanistan is that the costs of stability operations are simply incommensurate with the expected gains. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it:

Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.

We are thus left with (Hemispheric) Isolationism, Offshore Balancing, and (Defensive) Hegemonism. Loosely speaking, Libertarians prefer Isolationism; Realists prefer Offshore Balancing; and Liberals (esp. beltway foreign policy wonks) prefer Hegemonism.

The Policy Tensor prefers Offshore Balancing but that is not because Isolationism is not viable. Isolationism has the virtue of being cheap. Bringing the boys home would allow the United States to cut its wasteful defense spending. More importantly, the United States would entirely avoid meddling in weak states (which is also true of Offshore Balancing). And perhaps most importantly, it would remove a major driver of friction with other great powers.

A key issue in the coming years is whether a rising China should be contained or accomodated. In particular, Whether, and if so when, the United States should surrender maritime primacy in the Western Pacific. Isolationists would argue that even if China were to become preponderant in Asia, it would not threaten the United States. And this is indeed the case if US national security interests are defined exclusively in terms of the defense of the homeland, which would remain protected even after the exit from unipolarity as a consequence of the insularity of the US homeland and strategic nuclear deterrence.

If however, continued prosperity and international influence are seen as vital US national interests, then Isolationism would likely fail to achieve it. In particular, US access to world markets and resources would be subject to the veto of other great powers who would take the place of the United States in the game of world power. The Isolationists would counter that the United States would not suffer very much at all even if China became the dominant power in Asia because the United States would remain a very attractive trading partner and source of technology and innovative ideas. That depends on the state of the world. If the United States poses no threat to other great powers, they may be willing to grant it access to world markets. If they see the United States as a potential threat, they may not. In either case, the United States could easily survive but it might be poorer and marginalized.

The fundamental issue then is whether global influence is a vital interest of the United States. Isolationists argue that global power and influence are unnecessary and probably immoral. I don’t agree with it but is a consistent and ethical position. And it should be up to the American people to choose. The American people have in fact long been denied this choice. I therefore hope that Gary Johnson makes it to the debates.




World Affairs

Spin and Reality in Jarabulus


As Turkish tanks rolled across the border into Syria apparently supported by US warplanes, Western newspapers echoed the official line from Turkey that the twin goals of the incursion were to “clear Islamic State militants from their remaining border stronghold, and roll back recent advances by Syrian Kurdish militias.” The White House called the incursion “an indication of important progress” in the campaign against ISIS. Meanwhile, Biden ordered the Syrian Kurds back across the Euphrates and threatened to withdraw American support if they failed to comply. “In return, the United States got something it has pushed for in vain for years, getting Turkey to take a more proactive stance” against ISIS. What is spin and what is reality?

To begin with there was simply no need for US air support. Both because Turkey has plenty of airpower of its own and because Jarabulus was absolutely deserted. ISIS had already fled, as US intelligence was well aware. No shots were fired. The prominence given to close US air support was instead a signal to Putin and Assad. The idea being that this was a joint US-Turkish operation, so don’t even think about resistance. The same concern was behind the timing of the operation which coincided with Kerry’s visit to Turkey, as well as Kerry’s very loud pronouncements of absolute support for the incursion. Forcible alterations of the territorial status quo are never a trivial matter, even if the target state has lost de facto control of the territory in question; especially so because the United States has been staunchly opposed to forcible territorial change in Ukraine, Georgia, the Senkaku islands, Taiwan and the South China Sea.

US warplanes have acted as the Syrian Kurds’ airforce for years; most recently in the recapture of Manbij a week before the Turkish incursion. At that point, Turkish officials said they expected the Kurds to go back east across the Euphrates. Preventing the Kurds from unifying the two Syrian Kurdish statelets into a single contiguous Syrian Kurdish de facto state along the border has been a consistent Turkish policy goal. There are two reasons for this. One is that unifying Rojava, the Syrian Kurdish region along the border, would be big symbolic victory for the Syrian Kurds that is likely to embolden Kurdish separatists inside Turkey. The second, more important reason, is that Kurdish control of the Syro-Turkish border would effectively close the rat line.

The rat line is the principal pipeline through which foreign fighters, money, weapons, ammunition and supplies flow to the Syrian rebels. From the beginning of the Syrian uprising, Turkey has been indiscriminate in regulating this flow. With the evaporation of the moderate opposition, almost all of this flow has ended up in the hands of jihadists. It is what keeps the rebellion against Assad alive. Without the rat line, much of the armed opposition would not survive for very long.

If the Kurds were to gain effective control over the Syrian side of the Syro-Turkish border, they would come to enjoy a veto over the rat line. They would immediately try to shut down the flow to non-allied rebels. That would dramatically alter the balance of power in the Syrian war against Turkish and Saudi proxies. Turkey, of course, cannot tolerate such a scenario.

The Policy Tensor believes that such a scenario is manifestly in the US interest: It goes furthest towards stemming the threat of Salafist Jihadism; the only identifiable US interest in Syria. The Obama administration instead frames the US interest in the context of the US’ geopolitical rivalry with Russia and Iran. Thus, the interests of allies become US interests. So we find the United States providing logistics for Saudi terror bombing of Yemen and diplomatic cover for the Turkish intervention in northern Syria backed by US security guarantees.

It is often claimed that the United States needs access to Turkey’s Incirlik air base, which is portrayed as “a key nexus in the campaign against the Islamic State.” The United States can use air bases in Jordan, Israel, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Baghdad-controlled Iraq and Erbil to conduct airstrikes against the Islamic State. Many of these are closer than Incirlik to ISIS territory and all of them are close enough. The US can also use naval platforms in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. The claim doesn’t even pass the laugh test.

In going out of its way to support the Turkish incursion, the US is seeking to gain leverage against Russia as it negotiates a great power settlement in Syria. Ultimately however, the United States will throw the rebels under the bus. And we can expect it to do that with as much spin as it has just deployed to protect their lifeline.


Parkinson’s Law of International Politics


Without being either the ones who made this law or the first to apply it after it was laid down, we applied it as one in existence when we took it up and one that we will leave behind to endure for all time, since we know that you and anyone else who attained power like ours would act accordingly.

Thucydides, 411 BCE

Thucydides was describing what two thousand years later Frederick the Great called the “permanent principle of rulers,” which is “to extend as far as their power permits.” Later still, Karl Deutsch noted that “a nation’s feeling of insecurity expands directly with its power” which is “a kind of Parkinson’s law of national security.”[1] States, of course, live in anarchy. Since they cannot call 911 when attacked, they fear other powerful states; especially their strong neighbors. As states grow richer, they naturally translate their wealth into power in order to “buy” more security. This they would do even if their conception of national interest were to remain unchanged. The real puzzle is the elasticity of the very definition of the national interest. For reasons that are not obvious, how states define their national interest expands and contracts with their power. Why?

Why do powerful states seek spheres of influence? Why do they patrol the marshes? Why do they coerce and intervene in weak states and try to control their political orientation? How is that supposed to add to their power? If fear is why states seek power, then they should largely pass up opportunities to impose themselves on weak states in peripheral regions, and concentrate instead on achieving a favorable balance of power. For the fundamental fact about great power politics is that spheres of influence, colonies, protectorates and dependencies, add little to a great power’s war-making capabilities.

Not all weak states are equally useless for the accumulation of power. Some are indeed strategically important. For instance, satellites can add greatly to a state’s power projection capabilities if they are located near strategically relevant regions; that is, overlooking important sea lanes or near other great powers. Paul Kennedy observers that the tiny red dots scattered on the map were of great strategic importance to Britain’s world position; whereas the vast landmasses colored red were largely strategic liabilities.

A great power may also fear foreign influence in its near abroad. Specifically, it may fear that a nearby weak state could host a great power adversary’s military force and therefore pose a significant threat. This was precisely the threat revealed by the Zimmerman Telegram and the arrival of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. It is therefore understandable that great powers would try to control at least the foreign policies of weak states in their region. And this may sometimes require controlling their political orientation.  A case can also be made for acquiring influence in states that have large deposits of strategically important commodities.

But these understandable cases account for a minor fraction of Parkinson’s Law of International Politics. None of these can explain the European scamble for Africa. All of sub-Saharan Africa could’ve fallen to a single power without upsetting the balance of global power. What power in the name of God was Belgium—an artifact of the European balance of power whose very independence was the result of British policy—accumulating in the Congo? The fallacy of power accumulation by colonialism was exposed when the struggle against Germany ensued. A world’s worth of colonies were no use against a continental power with almost no colonial territories to speak of.[2] None explain the hundreds of interventions in Latin America by the United States either. The US’ ability to exclude outside powers from the hemisphere was a consequence of its regional preponderance, in which controlling Latin American polities played virtually no role. As Secretary of State Richard Olney explained in 1895,

Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects… [because] its infinite resources combined with its isolated position render it master of the situation and practically invulnerable as against any or all other powers.

Why, then, the need to constantly meddle in other American states? And precisely what US interests were going to be secured by the interventions in Indochina and Iraq are yet to be identified.[3]

I don’t want to suggest for a moment that Parkinson’s Law of International Politics can only be explained by policymakers’ mistakes or imperial ideology. Such a systematic component of human history cannot be explained by appealing to idiosyncratic errors or historically-contingent ideational developments. Imperial ideology is best seen as apologia for imperialism; not its driver.

Classical realists believed that statesmen’s lust for power was inherent in human nature. Neorealism discarded that assumption by relocating the ultimate cause to the systemic level; that is, in the interaction of states. Neoclassical realists have since smuggled it back in. For instance, Fareed Zakaria argues in From Wealth to Power that,

Nations try to expand their political interests abroad when central decision-makers perceive a relative increase in state power.

He shows that the weakness of the American state prevented the emergence of the US as a great power in 1865-1890. Specifically, Congress thwarted the executive’s efforts to project power and extend American influence abroad by refusing to pay for it. More generally, he argues that national war potential is not enough. In order to be a great power, a state must be institutionally capable of mobilizing society’s resources to generate state power. And specifically in the case of the United States, he shows that we can rule out systemic pressure for expansion:

The United States did not expand against strong states that posed a great threat to its security but largely against areas that were weak and in which expansion would entail a small cost.

But if fear, that is to say, systemic pressure, was not the cause of US expansion, then what is left? He dismisses economic explanations out of hand. Indeed, in Zakaria’s treatment, statesmen’s lust for power functions as an exogeneous assumption; playing precisely the role it played in classical realism; without a word, of course, about man’s dark nature.

Economic explanations cannot be so easily dismissed. After all, not all great powers sought influence with the same vigor. This was largely a game played by sea powers not land powers. Athens had dozens of colonies; Sparta had none. The sea powers on the Atlantic coast established colonies and sought influence all around the world. The continental great powers developed no such appetite until they too became navalist. Both the American and Japanese spheres of influence too came with naval power. And all the sea powers, of course, were commercial trading states. Indeed, in the initial phase of European expansion, capitalism was in the driver’s seat. The Dutch, British and French acquisitions were manifestly for commercial reasons. Even American gunboats followed on the heels of the likes of the United Fruit Company. Dismissing this history requires some serious intellectual “discipline.”

But even if one were able to cover much of this feverish activity with geostrategic and commercial logics, that still leaves a susbtantial portion of Parkinson’s Law of International Politics unexplained. Both Rome and Assyria were unipolar powers that routinely intervened on their periphery for hundreds of years. Our present unipole is no different. Why would they do so uniformly across space and time in the face of no threats or commercial opportunities? I don’t have an answer but somehow it reminds me of Sebald’s take in Austerlitz:

Their body temperature will then be thirty-six degrees Celsius, like that of mammals, and of dolphins and tunny fish swimming at full speed. Thirty-six degrees, according to Alphonso, has always proved the best natural level, a kind of magical threshold, and it had sometimes occurred to him, Alphonso, said Austerlitz, that all mankind’s misfortunes were connected with its departure at some point in time from that norm, and with the slightly feverish, overheated condition in which we constantly found ourselves.


[1] Parkinson’s original formulation was a dig on bureaucracy: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

[2] The exception which proves the rule was the Indian army, paid for by the colony, which was somewhat useful as cannon fodder on the killing fields.

[3] The US veto over gulf energy does not require control of any major state in the region. The US can shut off the flow of oil to China, Japan, Germany, or whoever because it controls the sea lanes.

World Affairs

The Plot to Kill President George H.W. Bush


Screen Shot 2016-07-23 at 3.08.00 AM

Source: New Yorker

THE ROAD TO THE IRAQ WAR began not with 9/11, nor with Bush’s election, nor even with the Project for the New American Century. It began instead with the capitulation of the Soviet Union.

Once it became clear that the Cold War adversary was going to knuckle under, the US military became extremely worried about the political sustainability of the military budget and the forward deployment of US forces around the world. For without the Communist threat, how was the US taxpayer to be persuaded to pay for garrisoning the planet? The solution that was hit upon—as early as 1988—was to inflate the threat posed by confrontation states. The idea began with talk about the “military sophistication of Third World dictators,” later morphing into the need to confront “outlaw states,” “backlash states,” and the one that really stuck: “rogue states.” The rogues’ gallery included Iran, Syria, Libya, Cuba, and North Korea. But the poster child was unambiguously Iraq, in light of Saddam’s impressive record of military aggression, chemical weapons use, and human rights abuses.

For twelve years between the two wars, a considerable portion of US diplomatic and military muscle was deployed towards the containment of Iraq; featuring not only the most brutal trade embargo in history, but also the imposition of no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq and the de facto partition of the country; thousands of airstrikes and cruise missile strikes; and covert operations to topple Saddam Hussein. This low-intensity war on Iraq was supported by a bipartisan consensus in the United States on the threat posed by Saddam to US security interests. So when W looked to reconfigure the Middle East by force after 9/11, Iraq under Saddam offered the path of least resistance.

But the consensus did not emerge overnight. In fact, early in the Clinton administration there were significant moves towards a thaw in US-Iraq relations. The week before he took office, Clinton gave a wide-ranging interview on foreign policy in which he mused that he was not “obsessed” with Saddam.

REPORTER: But you don’t take the view that there can be no normal relations with this man or with Iraq as long as he is in power?

CLINTON: Based on the evidence that we have, the people of Iraq would be better off if they had a different leader. But my job is not to pick their rulers for them. I always tell everybody, “I’m a Baptist; I believe in deathbed conversions.” If he wants a different relationship with the United States and with the United Nations, all he has to do is change his behavior.

It was, of course, politically trecherous for a Democrat in the White House to back-off from confronting a brutal dictator that the men and women in uniform had fought not too long ago. The administration was not on the verge of bringing in Saddam from the cold, “if for no other reason,” opined Leslie H. Gleb in New York Times, than that “they know this would mean political suicide.” Still, signs of hope continued to flicker. The Pentagon said on February 3 that the Iraqis “had changed their behavior.” In mid-February, Saddam reached out to Clinton for a reset, and went out of his way to cooperate with UN inspectors. By the end of March, Clinton was saying he wanted to “depersonalize” the conflict with Iraq. New York Times reported on March 29, 1993, that

The United States and Britain have begun to move away from their insistence that the trade embargo against Iraq cannot be lifted while President Saddam Hussein remains in power.

But these early moves towards bringing Saddam back in from the cold came to naught when a plot to kill President George H.W. Bush, allegedly masterminded by Iraqi intelligence, came to light in May. The break in diplomatic momentum towards a thaw in relations was immediate and permanent. The plot therefore marked a decisive moment in the long road to the Iraq War.

THE ALLEGED IRAQI PLOT against Bush was in reality a fraud perpetrated by the Kuwaitis, who had been watching the emerging thaw in US-Iraq relations with increasing panic. Kuwait had arrested 17 drunk bootleggers near the Iraqi border for smuggling whiskey; a serious crime in Kuwait but a common enough practice along the Saudi-Iraqi-Kuwaiti border.

Four days later, one of the bootleggers suddenly confessed to a conspiracy to kill President H.W. Bush during the former president’s visit to Kuwait that was underway. The confession was later retracted in court and the defendant alleged that it was extracted under duress. As a consequence of the confession, the Kuwaiti police said they were able to locate a two-hundred-pound bomb in the suspect’s vehicle that had been in their custody for four days. The Kuwaiti foreign minister alleged that the defendant was a Iraqi intelligence officer and had been ordered by Saddam to assassinate President Bush.

But the Kuwaitis were not exactly known to be reliable. Kuwait had earlier moved the UNSC alleging a territorial violation by Saddam that turned out upon investigation to have been a violent dispute between smugglers. As for the foreign minister himself: His daughter had given an eloquent testimony to Iraqi crimes involving the killing of babies during the Iraqi occupation that later turned out to be fraudulent.

Still, in light of the serious nature of the allegations, the White House tasked the FBI and the CIA to investigate the matter. While some hawks in the White House, including Sandy Berger and Martin Indyk, were claiming that there was highly reliable evidence tying Iraq to the plot against Bush, official White House policy was to wait for the investigations to reach a conclusion. “We’re still in the middle of the investigation,” said George Stephanopoulos, the White House Communications Director. President Clinton himself was skeptical of the case; as was the Attorney General, Janet Reno.

But in May and June, a number of reports in the Washington Post and the New York Times, citing anonymous officials (probably Indyk), claimed that there was strong evidence pointing to Iraqi sponsorship of the assassination attempt. By late June, the President had lost all control of the media narrative. Finally, on June 24, the FBI report came out and provided what the White House considered to be sufficient evidence of Iraqi complicity. Clinton ordered a barrage of 23 cruise missile strikes on the headquarters of Iraqi intelligence—to near-universal applause in the media. On that day, any possibility of bringing Saddam in from the cold vanished into thin air.

Seymour Hersh’s report debunking the government’s evidence appeared in the November 1, 1993 issue of the New Yorker. A big part of the forensic evidence tying the bomb to those known to have been put together by Iraqi intelligence, outlined by Madeline Albright, was that the remote-control firing device found in the Kuwaiti car bomb has the same “signature” as previously recovered Iraqi bombs. Hersh spoke to a number of forensic bomb experts.

[All seven experts] told me essentially the same thing: The remote-control devices shown in the White House photographs were mass-produced items…

 The fact that the two devices were similar is simply not that significant, I was told by Donald L. Hansen, a twenty-eight-year veteran of the bomb squad of the San Francisco Police Department, who has served as the director of the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators… and is widely considered to be one of the top forensics experts in the field. “They’re very generic devices… If these circuit boards are what they’re hanging their signature issue on, they’re really stretching the envelope.”

The FBI also concluded that the defendants were not coerced after their arrest, despite their testimony in court that they were indeed beaten and forced to confess. The only American reporter at the Kuwaiti trial, Miriam Amie, reporting for the German news agency DPA, told Hersh that the main suspect, Wali al-Ghazali, showed up on the first day of the trial with “a fresh scar on his forehead and a blackened nail on his thumb.” James E. Akins, former US Ambassador to the Saudi Arabia, told Hersh:

Either the investigators were idiots or they were lying. It boggles the imagination. There’s no way the Kuwaitis would not have tortured them. That’s the way the Kuwaitis are, as anyone who knows the Kuwaitis or the Middle East can tell you.

Meanwhile, back on May 23, 1993, Boston Globe reported that it had obtained a copy of the CIA Counter Terrorism Center’s report concluding that the alleged plot was a Kuwaiti fraud.

Kuwait, the report says, “has a clear incentive to play up the continuing Iraqi threat” to Western interests, and hence may have “cooked the books.”

To support this contention, it cites US diplomatic reports earlier this year that the Kuwaiti government was expressing “frustration” that the Western coalition was not taking a tougher line against Saddam Hussein and concern that the Clinton administration might abandon Kuwait in favor of better relations with Iraq.

Usually rabbit holes have a way of ending with Seymour Hersh’s reporting. Not this time. The FBI’s forensic investigation in the alleged Iraqi bomb plot was led by Frederic Whitehurst, a forensic chemist specializing in explosive residue analysis, described by the New York Times as the agency’s “top bomb-residue expert,” who provided expert testimony in the O.J. Simpson trial among many other high profile cases. He later became America’s first FBI whistleblower exposing extensive forensic fraud at the FBI crime lab.

During the investigation into alleged misconduct at the FBI crime lab it emerged that Whitehurst’s superior, J. Christopher Ronay, had misreported Whitehurst’s findings in the alleged Iraqi plot to kill Bush. The 1997 DOJ enquiry reported that,

Whitehurst alleges that he compared the explosive material in the main charge of the Bush device to explosive materials in known Iraqi devices and told Explosives Unit Chief J. Christopher Ronay that the explosives were different. Whitehurst claims that Ronay purposely misinterpreted these results in order to link the explosive material to Iraqi agents. Whitehurst further asserts that very possibly his results were changed to support the retaliatory missile strike by the United States.

Neil Gallagher, Chief of the FBI Counter Intelligence Section, told the DOJ that

The FBI could not connect these explosives chemically or say that they came from the same shipment, sources, or country.

Yet, the DOJ enquiry continues,

Subsequent reports on the matter tended to ignore such chemical differences. Moreover, even after the missile strike, the FBI and CIA continued to report simply that PE-4A plastic explosive had been identified in the Bush device and other Iraqi explosive devices, including those from Southeast Asia.

Thus: The FBI misreported the findings of the agency’s top bomb residue expert, mistook the congruence of mass-produced remote-control firing devices as the signature of a common Iraqi source, and took confessions extracted from suspects using torture at face value. Meanwhile, the CIA’s accurate conclusion that the plot was a Kuwaiti fraud was simply ignored. Hersh again:

When Clinton finally acted, on the afternoon of Saturday, June 26th, he was not leading the nation, as was widely assumed and reported, but merely following the path of least bureaucratic and political resistance.



State, Market, and Civil Society


ONE USEFUL WAY of thinking about modernity is to think of it as the historical period of validity of a certain tripartite division of society—State, Market, and Civil Society—the domains of politics, economics, and sociology. This tripartite division was originally understood to apply only to the West. Non-Western high civilizations (Islam, Far East, India) had to be studied in their totality; this was the domain of Orientalism. Regions of the non-West lacking in high culture—lacking especially in cannons of great antiquity—were also to be studied in their totality; the domain of anthropology. This denial of modernity to the non-West could be sustained rather effortlessly through the nineteenth century, but become increasingly problematic in the twentieth century until it was throughly discredited by the postmodernist revolt from the sixties onwards. Nevertheless, the disciplinary division survived surprisingly unscathed.

There are two unrelated sets of uses of this tripartite division. One set is internal to the disciplines: Isolating relatively coherent domains of investigation allows for the development of analytical tools, organizing principles, theories, and so on, tailored to the specific fields of investigation. The other set is external to the disciplines. It consists of the now de facto forbidden, indeed almost unthinkable, task of characterizing national development. Whether or not it is acceptable in polite conversation, this is an important task. For the absolute and relative strengths of State, Market, and Civil Society inform overall national capabilities; tell us a great deal about societies’ exposure to various national pathologies and the attendant risk of societal failure; and offer insights into their historical and future evolution.

Roughly speaking, the most benign form of modernity obtains when all three are well-developed and in rough balance. Unbalanced development—especially when the State or the Market overshadows Civil Society—is a recipe for stagnation at best and national catastrophe at worst. It exposes societies to pathologies of political instability, extremism, dictatorship, ultranationalism, and militarism. And if an umbalanced society is lucky enough to escape such pathological fates, it is likely to end up in the cul-de-sac of arrested development.

DURING THE EARLY MODERN PERIOD, the Spanish State was stronger than the Market while Civil Society was nonexistent. Italy had the opposite configuration: The State barely existed while Civil Society was strong but not quite as strong as the Market. In Holland, Civil Society and especially the Market were considerably more developed than the State. Civil Society was equally strong in England and France, but the State was stronger in France whereas the Market was stronger in England—despite the great absolute strength of the English State. The State was relatively strongest in the garrison states of Prussia and Russia. In Austria, the State and Civil Society were strong relative to the Market. Outside the two great powers in the great checkerboard of Germany, the State was exceptionally weak—consisting of Grand Dutchies and so on—whereas Civil Society and the Market were well-developed. In sum, we find the European powers at the turn of the century with very different internal balances. These differential configurations played a decisive role in determining their fates as the trials of the early twentieth century fell on the Continent.

With German unification, the garrison state of Prussia had been grafted onto a flourishing German Civil Society and Market that had hitherto been largely unshepherded. The German statelets in the north and the west were, of course, no match for the formidable German Civil Society unparalleled elsewhere in Europe including England; and they were no match either for the great German capitalist combines of great antiquity from the Fuggers down. The conquering Prussian State—with its independent social base in the Prussian nobility—maintained its institutional, social and cultural distance from the otherwise extraordinarily well-developed German Civil Society and Market; leaving them unmolested; and in turn, jealously guarded its absolute autonomy in high politics.

The basic observation here, which is not really up for debate, is that the German Imperial State (i.e., Prussia) on the one hand, and German Civil Society and the Market on the other (both based far away from Prussian power in the East), grew up entirely disconnected and independent of each other. This novel configuration—Germany’s “special path”— had no counterpart anywhere else in the world. It did not entirely survive the crushing defeat of 1918. But it played a decisive role in the unraveling of the Weimar Republic when, in the midst of the escalating crises of 1927-1933 and panicked by the communist threat, the deep state, i.e., the Prussian nobility, threw its weight behind one Adolf Hitler.

In Russia, defeat in war resulted in the takeover of the extraordinarily-strong Moscovite State by radicals who set about destroying whatever rudimentary Market and Civil Society that still existed. Spain too predictably succumbed to dictatorship. Having never regained their former military primacy on the Continent, the French continued to indulge in fantasies of military and imperial glory, until they too surrendered to the Nazis. Only England, with its exquisite balance of forces, survived the extraordinary trials of the early twentieth century relatively unscathed.

IN THE UNITED STATES, the Market has always been stronger than the State and Civil Society. This was certainly the case in the Early Republic when the State was essentially premodern. With the Civil War the State caught up with Civil Society, but the Market continued to dominate both. Around 1890, the US could still be characterized simultaneously as an economic and industrial giant and a military, intellectual and cultural midget. After the turn of the century, the Market continued to develop almost continuously; whereas the State and Civil Society developed rather discontinuously; in quantum jumps that can be dated quite precisely.

America had been an intellectual, scientific and cultural backwater until World War I. American mass culture first gained global currency in the 1920s. But it was really from 1933 onwards—with the mass influx of German intellectuals—that the United States became an intellectual, scientific, and artistic superpower. The United States has, of course, remained a magnet for foreign talent ever since.

The great leaps forward for the State can be dated even more precisely. In 1898, the United States suddenly emerged as the hegemon of the Western Hemisphere and a great power on the international stage. Even after the turn of the century however, the State remained relatively underdeveloped; both with respect to the development of the Market as well as internationally. Indeed, the administrative, fiscal, and military capabilities of the United States lagged behind those of the European powers all the way to the Second World War. It was only during the course of that war that the State, with an unprecedented expansion in capabilities, closed the gap with both the Market and Civil Society. By 1945, a rough balance of forces had obtained in the United States.

The strength of the State, Civil Society and the Market grew rapidly and roughly proportionately during the early postwar period. This precarious balance of forces was fatally undermined by the neoliberal counter-revolution which elevated the Market over Civil Society; and to a lesser extent, over the State as well. The ascendancy of the Market over the State and Civil Society has continued unabated since; despite the impressive acquisition of capacities by the State after 9/11. The current political instability—evident in the crisis of the GOP—is in this sense an artifact of unbalanced development.

IN THE GLOBAL SOUTH the State has been, as a general rule but with important exceptions, either ultrastrong or ultraweak. The former usually led to dictatorship and/or mass terror; the latter to chronic instability. In sub-Saharan Africa, with few exceptions, the extraordinary weakness of the State has thwarted the development of both the Market and Civil Society. In the Middle East, the State is everywhere stronger than the Market and Civil Society; with the obvious exception of Israel, a colonial society with European roots. In the oil monarchies of the Arabian peninsula, Civil Society simply does not exist; whereas the strength of the Civil Society in Iran and Egypt continues to offer hope that they will one day be able to escape from their predicament. Iraq, Syria, and Libya have paid the highest price for their imbalance of forces: With the unraveling of the State, Civil Society and the Market have also been destroyed. The imbalance was least marked in Tunisia. Not surprisingly, Tunisia is the only Arab state to have experienced a somewhat successful transition during what used to be called the “Arab Spring.”

The Korean peninsula offers an instructive natural experiment. The State was strong in both North and South Korea. In North Korea, the world’s last totalitarian regime condemned its society to permanent arrested development. But whereas the Market was crushed in the North, the American presence allowed its full development in the South. It is this that allowed South Korea to eventually escape from authoritarianism and revive its Civil Society. And despite the impressive recent gains by Civil Society, South Korea remains at risk of recidivism. The same configuration and historical trajectory obtained in the other Asian Tigers: Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The most threatening case of unbalanced development is, of course, China. After going through the cycle of mass terror, Chinese communism escaped the traditional fate of totalitarian states by successfully engineering an unprecendented development of the Market. Meanwhile, the repression and underdevelopment of Chinese Civil Society continued unabated. An interesting comparison is with the other Asian giant, India, where the State and Market are much weaker than their Chinese counterparts but Civil Society is considerably more developed. And it is the strength of Indian Civil Society that allowed the nation to shrug off its brief experiment with dictatorship and continue on its balanced path. Pakistan and Bangladesh too, unlike Burma, have vibrant Civil Societies that have survived intermittent reigns of military juntas relatively unscathed.

These cases underline the need to look beyond democracy and dictatorship; beyond economic development; beyond indices for human development, economic freedom, ease of doing business, corruption, and so on and so forth. Long term outcomes and societies’ resistance to national pathologies depend on balanced development; especially the strength of Civil Society. The problem, of course, is that while it is relatively easy to quantify the strength of the State and the Market, it is fiendishly hard to do that for Civil Society. But that may be just as well. More often than not, numerical metrics are unlikely to provide anything more than an illusion of precision.

IN LIEU OF A CONCLUSION, I’d like to offer some meta-observations. This frame of reference is only one of many reference frames through which modernity and national development can be analyzed. It leaves out large and relevant parts of reality by necessity, since, in order to bring some aspects into sharp relief others must be left out of focus. There is after all much more to modernity than the bureaucratic state, the market, and civil society. For instance, can we really talk about modernity without ever mentioning the death of God?

The issue is not whether this is the correct frame of reference—there is no such thing. The issue is whether this framework is useful. I believe it has the virtue of being parsimonious enough not to be unwieldy, yet superior in its flexibility to its discredited one-dimensional predecessor.

World Affairs

Brexit and the Fundamental Trilemma of the European Union

The explanations are coming thick and fast. Writing in the New York Times, Tony Blair blamed Brexit on hostility to globalization. There can be little doubt that the dire straits of provincial England can be blamed on finance-led neoliberal globalization. The addition of Asian labor pools to the effective global labor market has suppressed wages in rich countries, but it does not follow that Brexiters were motivated by hostility to globalization.  Globalization cannot be blamed for either the bankers getting away with murder or the counterproductive self-imposed austerity. Globalization also did not discredit the elites. It was the financial crisis that delegitimized the City as thoroughly as the Iraq debacle delegitimized Tony Blair’s leadership. And the seemingly neverending stagnation since the recession—exacerbated by neoliberal austerity—undermined whatever prestige and authority still accrued to policy elites. As Michael Gove quipped, “people in this country have had enough of experts.”

In poll after poll, Brexiters instead cited immigration as their principal concern. England is, of course, famous for its hostility to its South Asian immigrants.[1] What is novel is the hostility to immigrants from Eastern Europe; mainly Poland and Romania; whence the decision to leave the European Union. Migration from the accession countries started in earnest in 2003, and then really took off in 2013. In 2014, half of all migrants into the UK came from countries that joined the EU after 2003. These healthy, young migrants were quite obviously net contributors to the UK economy and welfare system. But facts don’t vote; people do. And the English people beg to disagree with the facts.

Provincial England is quite possibly the most xenophobic region in Western Europe. Any lingering doubts about this matter have now been put to rest. For what the distribution of the vote in the British plebiscite revealed first and foremost is the chasm between cosmopolitan and provincial England. That Scotland and Northern Ireland would vote Remain was never in doubt. In England, the only region to vote Remain was London. Beyond London, outward-looking counties voted overwhelmingly to stay (e.g., Oxford and Cambridge), while the rest of England voted to go. A second important cleavage was between the young and the old. Actuarially speaking, those who have to live with the consequences the longest got screwed over by those with one foot in the grave.


In the aftermath of the Second World War, the impetus for the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) came from a confluence of interests in key Western European states. Back then, coal accounted for 90 percent of Western Europe’s primary energy consumption and steel was the backbone of industry. France imported most of its coal from Germany but was wary of a bilateral commitment with a state that had attacked it thrice in living memory. The Germans were desperate for economic and political rehabilitation—which meant forging close ties with the French. The Dutch on their part needed the German market to recover.

At first, the French sought British participation to balance the weight of Germany, but Britain was not interested. However, as the Cold War started in earnest and it became clear that the Americans were not going to retreat from Europe, British security guarantees and participation in the trade agreement became unnecessary. A Continental solution thus emerged with six founding states (West Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg) coming together to form the ECSC in 1951. British engagement with the community was thus, from the get go, conditional and uncertain.

And when in 1963 Britain applied to join the EEC, de Gaulle vetoed it as part of his general resistance to Anglo-American hegemony. But when the great postwar Western European economic miracle ran out of steam ten years later, and with de Gaulle out of the way, France dropped its opposition to Britain’s entry into the community. Despite the onset of the stagflation crisis, the decision to include Britain, Denmark, Norway and Ireland in 1973 made sense. They were Western European states at roughly the same level of economic development as the member states. The enlargement to the Mediterranean countries (Greece, Spain and Portugal) during the 1980s may have been ill-advised—and indeed, Mitterrand thought they weren’t ready—but they could be digested without much pain given their minor weight in the union.

By the end of the Cold War then, almost all of Western Europe had been absorbed into the union. With the sudden capitulation of the Soviet Union, the post-Communist states of Eastern Europe demanded inclusion, while the United States sought to expand Nato and the EU almost all the way to the border of their former superpower adversary. Faced with these external pressures and blinded by post-Cold War triumphalism, Western European elites failed to see the fundamental trilemma of the European Union: You could have at most two of democracy, enlargement, and ever-closer union.

More precisely, national sovereignty over membership, inclusion of Eastern European countries, and unrestricted migration between members of the union were fundamentally incompatible. What Tony Judt called the ‘grand illusion’ was the idea that you could have all three simultaneously. He predicted that labor market disruption due to unrestricted migration from the East would sooner or later prompt an exit by the most xenophobic rich member of the union. This is indeed what has obtained.

The Brexit debacle is far from being the only Western crisis that owes its origins to the hubris of the early post-Cold War era. The humiliation in Ukraine, the Never-Ending Greek Debt-Slavery Saga, and now Brexit, all stem from hubristic decisions taken at the peak of Western triumphalism in the 1990s. Perhaps it is time for Western elites to take some responsibility for what they have wrought.


[1] Here’s a sample racist English joke.

Q. What do you do if you have a gun with two bullets, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and a Paki in a room?

Ans: Shoot the Paki twice. Make sure he is dead.