Sunday, July 5, 2015

Balaam and the Power of Words

Yesterday was July 4th, the birthday of the United States of America. It was also Shabbat and on this particular Shabbat the Torah portion read was Balak (which is better known as the story of Balaam. It was the portion I read for my bar mitzvah land I like to re-visit it because it has many lessons. Yesterday I delivered the dvar Torah (the Torah lesson) at my synagogue, and this is what I said:

A rabbi, a priest, and a minister were - no they weren’t at a bar - they were having coffee and talking shop. They were discussing their failing, their weaknesses. The minister admitted that he chased women. The priest admitted he liked to drink. They turned to the last member of the trio, “And you Rabbi, what is your great weakness?”
The Rabbi answered, “Sometimes I get an unbearable urge to gossip.”
I LOVE rabbi, priest, minister jokes. But they are best when they are true and this joke has the virtue of having truth to it. Evil speech, loshon hora, is a great sin in Judaism and it is because we take words so seriously. We are the people of the Book and a book is just a big pile of words.

Consider in how many cultures adulthood is established by going on a hunt, or a quest, or some other physical task? In Judaism the rite of passage is proving, in public, that you can read. We are an outlier, but it seems to work. We are still here 5000 years later, but I haven’t run into any Hittites lately.

This is on my mind a bit since we just read the parsha Balak and it was my bar mitzvah portion sometime last century. One of the great themes of parsha Balak is about words and language. Balak is a king in Moab. He sees the Israelites coming and knows he cannot resist them (these aren’t the  frightened slaves fleeing Egypt, this a new generation, hardened and prepared to do battle.) So Balak hires Balaam to place a curse on the Israelites. Balaam asks for Hashem’s permission. Hashem tells Balaam not to do it, but Balaam keeps asking and finally Hashem tells him he can go. On the way to the mountain where Balaam will make the sacrifices and deliver his curse, an angel appears. Balaam is so intent on doing delivering this curse that he doesn’t notice the angel. However, his donkey does. When the donkey refuses to go forward Balaam begins beating it. The donkey, then miraculously, is given the power of speech and rebukes Balaam. Finally Balaam makes it to the mountaintop and where, instead of a curse, Hashem places a blessing on his lips.

Clearly this is a story where the power of words and language is a theme. But one thing bugged me, who cares about Balaam’s curse. Why did it matter? Later scholars said Balaam was a sorcerer so his words had real power. But we are modern people, do we really believe this?

Then I had an epiphany.

Spoken words can make you laugh, or cry. They can provide comfort, they can change your life.

We are modern people. We live in an age where we know our bodies are made of chemicals and our thoughts and feelings really just come down to chemical reactions - complex and remarkable though they may be. We know we can take pills, cause these chemical reactions, and change our mood.

Now consider, an organ in our throat can vibrate air molecules which then vibrate small organ inside someone’s ear and are then turned into these complex chemical reactions that can have these incredible effects that can cause these chemical reactions.

Pic is from LOTR, but it's sort of how I imagine Balaam

What’s more, we’ve gone even a step farther. We can now transmit these things via little marks on wood pulp. Earlier in the service we read the Declaration of Independence. A bunch of marks on a paper established a great nation. Behind us sits the Torah, a bunch of marks on a parchment has been the spiritual sustenance, that has held us together, for thousands of years.

We’ve taken the magic to a whole new level, we can now transmit these vibrations and marks instantaneously and share thoughts and ideas around the world.

We are all magicians of the highest order. We are all going to Hogwarts! The only question is Hufflepuff of Slytherin.

Will we use our powers for good, or evil? Because, as Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, in a recent opinion citing that noted legal scholar, Spiderman, reminds us, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The Torah serves as a framework to think about this crucial question. It does not always provide clear or direct answers. But it gives us ways to think about it, not only with commandments but with stories. Balaam was a case of man gifted with great power who chose to use it for evil, despite being warned.

As it happens, today’s Haftorah, from the Book of Micah, eloquently addresses this question ending, with those inspiring words:
He has told you o man what is goodAnd what the Lord wants of youTo do justice, love mercyAnd walk humbly with your G-d.
Talk about the power of words.

On the whole humility is a virtue. But occasionally, it is good to step back from it and consider the awesome powers we all possess.

And that’s the final lesson of this weeks Torah portion, the story of Balaam.

Sometimes, to see the obvious, you need a good kick from your ass.

Coda: My secular and religious lives bump into one another and are intertwined in odd ways. Yesterday was a Shabbat and July 4th, two celebrations in one. Two celebrations of freedom - personal and political. Today, as I write this, it is the Fast of Tammuz (commemorating the first breach in the walls of Jerusalem), which  begins a three week period of morning which ends on Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, remembering the destruction of the Temple. It is said that Jersualem ultimately fell due to evil speech.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Charleston & the Limits to Reason

I have a PhD in Public Policy. So I am interested in what policies could actually affect a problem. Connected to that are questions of whether these policies won’t create more problems than they are intended to solve (as a small c conservative this looms large in my thinking). Because of my particular area of study, I’m also interested in the politics of the problem. That is, what are the solutions our political system can bear. It is a pragmatic, evidence-based approach - kind of like engineering.

When I discuss issues with friends who do not have this background, I am often frustrated because my thinking is rooted in the art of the possible and science of realistic. Most people, when they talk about politics are speaking from emotion. There is a terrible problem and something should be done about it. I consider the toolkit, which is usually limited, expensive, and not well-suited to the task.

Interestingly I just read a piece in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell that discussed this in the context of auto recalls and the exploding Ford Pintos. (I know Gladwell is NOT a social scientist, but rather a talented story teller - in this case that's the point!) Gladwell explains that engineers have to balance a range of tolerances and specifications in building a car, knowing that there are trade-offs - no car can be perfectly safe. At the same time, when there is an accident, engineers focus on the problem. In the case of the Pinto, a small car rear-ended at high speed by a much bigger vehicle has a very high risk of exploding and there isn't much to be done about that because of - well - physics. Unfortunately, when accidents happen this approach is usually not what people want to hear. Congressman Tim Murphy, chair of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations observed, "People don't care what yo know until they know you care."

In looking at politics and policy, I'm an engineer. The horrible murders in Charleston highlight the limits of my approach.

When Jon Stewart delivered his compelling remarks on Charleston, he observed:
And we’re going to keep pretending like, “I don’t get it. What happened? This one guy lost his mind.” But we are steeped in that culture in this country and we refuse to recognize it, and I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount it. In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named for Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road. That’s insanity. That’s racial wallpaper. That’s — that’s — you can’t allow that, you know.

I have absolutely no fondness or romantic ideas about the Confederacy - change the street names, take down the flag!

But I also thought, wait, if having streets named after Confederate generals somehow caused this, then why aren't there a lot more of these kinds of murders? It is obviously all to easy to do (this is the same way I view the shibboleth of Islamic lone wolf terrorism - I’ve been consistent.)

It may be a dead on analytic observation, it offers exactly ZERO comfort especially considering the number of hate crimes, the huge legacy of violence against African-Americans, and the general and profound frustrations African-Americans face in the United States.

My analytical mind does not like to identify trends from outliers. I do big data for a living. You can get trends, but predicting what any given person will do is just not possible. This is an outlier, the overall trajectory for African-Americans has been positive. I can point a thousand examples of improvements big and small.

Yet I know that I'm speaking from a privileged vantage (I'm Jewish - but the impact of anti-Semitism on my life has been just about zip - thanks America!) 

For me to talk about positive trend lines, in light of the awful (and unknown to me) crap that African-Americans have to deal with on a constant basis is unhelpful and irrelevant.

I see the awful stuff Roof posted on Facebook but wonder if we want a society where we lock people up for saying stupid stuff on Facebook and being bigots - this has big implications. 

Of course, we don't seem to have trouble locking up lots of African-American men for not doing much of anything.

I read a few articles about the shooting that were long on passion and, I thought, short on coherence.

Thinking in terms of policy, I want to do stuff, but what? Preventing gun crimes is very hard in current political climate. Changing attitudes I support whole-heartedly, but it takes a long time. Improved schools or economic opportunities are great - we don't actually really know how to do these things. Political passion makes me nervous because things are promised that can't be delivered.

Yet as I read these essays - which continually cited the KKK which is basically defunct (and yes it was absolutely a terrorist organization in every sense of the word) and other injustices recent and not so recent - I saw. This is not necessarily a policy manifesto, it is a demand for acknowledgement. That what happened in Charleston is part of a long line of real crap that keeps dropping on African-Americans.

It is an acknowledgement that is well deserved. Taking down the flag is a nice gesture.

We are seeing the best possible response to Dylan Roof’s mad dream of inspiring a race war - an outbreak of comity.

This is all good, but my policy wonk re-emerges. This is where emotional politics make me nervous, because great things will be preached and promised. I like an inspiring speech as much as the next person, but I worry about what happens when reality intrudes.

African-American pundits have pointed out that they believe racism on an individual level has declined, but that institutional racism continues. These are knotty problems to fix. Reforming police procedures and the criminal justice system are excellent things to do. But they are highly technical endeavors that will then need to be adapted to the thousands of jurisdictions around the country. They will then need to be implemented. This will take time, there will be mistakes - some of which will be costly.

I doubt there is a politician that would not sincerely like to fix inner-city schools. It is easy to say we must roll up our sleeves and get to work. But hard work is easy. Trade-offs are hard. Fixing inner city schools will require resources which have to come from somewhere else. Where? (Read this piece on efforts to reform Newark’s public schools for a sense of why policy-makers and the public are leery of tossing money in that direction.) Even given resources, how will we actually achieve this? Inner city public schools did not reach their crisis state over-night. Are there clear paths to improvement and how can they be implemented given the existing “legacy systems" (as President Obama put it in his recent interview with Marc Maron).

I see the limits of reason, calculating but without vision. Emotions come from the root word of motion, they are that which moves us. If the tragedies of recent months move us to make change, so be it. But unfettered emotion too has its limits.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Sad State of Public Diplomacy @State

The Washington Post did a huge front-page story about the faltering U.S. efforts to conduct public diplomacy against ISIS, particularly the doings of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC), which was established as a war room to counter al-Qaeda and ISIS online.

We, us, taxpayers should be horrified.

Much of the article focuses on disputes about the content on U.S. counter-ISIS messaging. One public diplomacy chief, Ambassador Alberto Gonzalez (who I met briefly at a DC think tank thing) wanted to use the kind of grisly imagery that ISIS uses against them. This rankled rankled some and he was retired and his replacements focused on snark.

In journalism there is something known as the "inverted pyramid." The biggest most important facts are at the beginning of an article and the details are towards the end. The article on public diplomacy was a bit more a long form piece so in that sense the inverted pyramid was not essential. But there was a sort of inverted pyramid in terms of the focus of the article and the importance of the subject in terms of U.S. public diplomacy.

The Media is the Message?
Most of the article was about a fight over the content of the U.S. diplomacy messaging. People understand content (because it is meant to be understood - that's why it is content.) Reporters, particularly understand content. But in public diplomacy, as in everything else, there are lots of mistakes, false starts, and blind alleys. If we don't have the perfect response each time, so be it. If some salvos miss, there should be plenty more ammunition.

The Institution is a Mess
But there isn't. The CSCC is still establishing its organizational culture. It has already cycled through 3 directors (and overall the broader public diplomacy effort is not much better off.) They have a tiny budget and have to fight for office space. When the plan for the CSCC was proposed, President Obama was furious, "This is what I've been asking for -- why haven't we been doing this already?"

When the CSCC's first director took office, 9/11 was nearly a decade past. His wife asked, apparently incredulous, "You're doing this now?"

I've gone to about 2000 DC think tank things on terrorism over the past decade and a half and at every single one, speakers have discussed the need to "win the war of ideas." But no one seemed to have a clue how to do this. Now, almost 15 years after 9/11, we still don't have a clue. My wife, with her own snark, noted, "Welcome to government."

But it only took a year for us to gear up and invade Iraq!

The case study on the bureaucratic politics of the failure to build an effective public diplomacy operation after 9/11 should be fascinating.

The Measuring the Message
The bureaucratic failures are the subtext to the fight over content. Fine, but buried in the article is the truly crucial detail.
And for all the viral success of "ISIS Land," [a State Department produced anti-ISIS video] even the center's defenders could never determine whether it accomplished its main object: discouraging would-be militants from traveling to Syria
Later chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce added, "If we can't measure the impact of what we're doing, how do we prove it's effective?"

This is the buried nugget. We don't know how to do public diplomacy because we can't really figure out what about it we can measure. There is a strategic problem - what can public diplomacy actually do and how do we know if we are doing it? There is also a technical issue: how do we understand and measure online activity to make our efforts effective. A couple hundred twitter users should not be able to drive the goverrnment of a super-power bonkers. And the inability of our government to manage this problem (not necessarily solve it - droning bloggers seems out of proportion) makes us appear ineffectual.

These are hard problems with no permanent solutions. But the fact that this is where we are almost 15 years after 9/11 - when the challenge of public diplomacy has been front and center throughout that time - is absolutely ludicrous.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Foreign Policy of Diogenes: More Thoughts on Corruption

Sometimes, one gets to the end of a writing project and realizes that was just the beginning. That is exactly what happened after my review of Sarah Chayes' Thieves of State was posted. It was an excellent book.

I have long been interested in questions of development - particularly institutions. The U.S. invested hundreds of billions of dollars hoping to build decent governments in Iraq and Afghanistan. It didn't take. On a smaller scale the U.S. has invested heavily attempting to do the same sorts of thing all over the world - with limited results.

Reading Chayes book crystallized the fundamental problem as being corruption. That is the state (and the individuals who staff its institutions) are primarily focused on extracting money. They do this to the exclusion of providing any services. Redistributionist policies don't work because usually the richest people - no matter how wealth they are - do not have enough money to make up for the poverty of others. But what does happen, I'm paraphrasing the Nobel Laureate economist Douglass North, is that the very wealthy control institutions that allow them to become very wealthy at the expense of keeping most people poor.

Identifying a problem does not make it any easier to resolve. The U.S. with its relatively efficient and honest bureaucracies defines corruption very broadly. But in many societies the social guts are work by what we would call corruption. But they may be more or less functional webs of obligation - with an equilibrium hammered out over centuries. Finding ways to work with these systems (without falling prey to a corrupt guide) seems essential.

I just described pre-modern societies which - by our standards - are corrupt, but are functional. Let's not romantize them. Chayes cites a very deep literature known as Mirrors for Princes, advice written for rules. The fact that so many of them exhort rulers to avoid the temptations of corruption suggest that this is not a new problem. At its core, I recall Aristotle and distributive justice. One is due a certain amount, taking more than what one is due is unjust. Of course the king can be wealthy, but if the second assistant to each minister is also wealthy, than perhaps they are taking more than their due.

Here Comes Modernity
In my studies, one of my great eureka moments was in studying international economics and understanding the physics of money. Not micro-economics - how our more or less rational pursuit of goods - shapes our behavior in often predictable but also surprising ways. But in macro-economics is more about the shape of money - the way money works changes and can how that shapes behavior. I don't have a great handle on this, but clearly there is a lot going on.

Here's my impression. When a modern society engages an undeveloped society it will, merely through contact, drop insane amounts of money on the pre-modern society. Money on a scale this society cannot possibly absorb and that skews whatever equilibrium is developed.

If the clans with which the west engages an undeveloped society can suddenly get their hands on millions of Western currency, than their every incentive is to get as much of that currency as possible and ship it someplace safe (Dubai, Europe or where-ever.) Their incentives to maintain the complex web of obligations are shot. Engagement with the West has changed the shape of money. This happened in the colonial period, but the age of modern banking means that the scale and velocity of money moved is far, far greater.

Hunting for the Honest Autocrat
Chayes focuses on the morality of the kleptocrats, but if that's the focus than we will be adopting the foreign policy of Diogenes, hunting for an honest man with a lamp. (Apparently, Diogenes father minted coins and Diogenes was banished from his hometown for debasing currency...huh!) Point is, good luck. Our ability to foster virtue is limited.

So Chayes is right that kleptocrats use the modern financial tools and institutions the developed world foist upon the developing world to commit their theft. But her primary policy responses involved legal recourse. Here I think of the baby-sitters co-op: a bunch lawyers on Capitol Hill in 1970s arranged for a baby-sitting cooperative. If one baby-sat another couple's kids they got a coupon they could use to get another family to baby-sit their kids. A good system, but no one wanted to go out in the winter and everyone wanted to go out in the summer, leading to all kinds of hoarding and other sub-optimal economic behaviors - the system wasn't working and no one was going out. Being lawyers, the co-op made rules to get things back on track. But it didn't work, it was an economic problem. When the organizers changed the frequency with which coupons were issued and created opportunities to borrow coupons things got back on track. It was a monetary problem not a legal one. The shape of money.

So my key though is, how to engage developing societies without dropping so much money on them that their behaviors are skewed completely out of whack. If you flood the desert you get a swamp. How can we irrigate it so that it can bloom long-term: t
he alchemy of development.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Aaron Mannes Review of Thieves of State in War on the Rocks

The terrific strategy blog War on the Rocks published my review of Sarah Chayes' new book Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security. Chayes makes a pretty compelling argument that corruption fuels extremism and instability worldwide and that the Western habit of embracing a local fixer (whether a guide or a president) and turning a blind eye as they acquire vast wealth has a certain amount of blowback. The beginning of my review is here:
In 2009 Sarah Chayes had an epiphany. A former NPR reporter who had fallen in love with Afghanistan while covering the U.S. invasion, Chayes had stayed on to run an NGO and then established a small business in Kandahar. Narullah, one of her employees, told her how his brother Najib refused to pay a bribe at the outskirts of Kandahar. After the soldiers hit him and smashed his phone, Najib paid but then called Narullah, who had previously been a policeman. Narullah called the local police chief who scoffed, “Did he die of it?” After relating this story to Chayes, Narullah declared, “If I see someone planting an IED on a road, and then I see a police truck coming, I will turn away. I will not warn them.”
For Chayes, everything fell into place as she realized, “Afghan government corruption was manufacturing Taliban.” From that revelation others followed. The Afghan government was not a weak state. In fact, it was all too effective at its core function — extracting wealth from the people of Afghanistan. Further, the United States government tolerated and often facilitated this corruption, assuming that this was simply how things were done. Looking beyond Afghanistan, Chayes saw an international problem in which developed nations tolerated and abetted corruption, which in turn fueled extremism and fostered instability.
You can read the rest here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

What if U.S. Politics worked like Israel's System?

I've written before about how Israel's political institutions shape the political outcomes. It is really easy to focus on particular politicians and personalities, and ignore the structural factors behind election results and political culture more broadly. This article, on the juvenile tendencies of Israeli voters, is a good example of the former.

But Israel's system has two features that push voters away from the center and towards the fringes. It creates incentives for fringe parties. This is bad, because parties are how you convert public preferences into policy. Too many parties is bad for sustainable, governable democracy.

First, in the Israeli system you only need a bit over 3.5% of the popular vote to sit in Knesset. Second, the whole country is a single district. Each vote is effectively for all 120 members of the Knesset. What this means is that a mid-level political entrepreneur with a decent following has every incentive to leave the party and start his own party. With his own party he can extract more for his core constituents by joining a coalition with the ruling party (and threatening to leave when he doesn't get his way) than working within then party. Further, this fringe party's very success builds the core constituency, which only cares about certain specific issues.

It might be useful to illustrate how this would play out in the U.S. if our system worked that way. Look at the clip from the poll above. It is a recent poll of potential presidential candidates.

The poll found 60% of Democratic voters supported Hillary Clinton for the nomination, 13% supported Joe Biden, 12% supported Elizabeth Warren, and 5% supported Bernie Sanders. On the Republican side 19% supported Jeb Bush, 18% supported Scott Walker, 10% supported Mike Huckabee, 9% supported Ben Carson, 7% supported Rand Paul, 6% supported Chris Christie, and 5% supported Marco Rubio. For our thought experiment, let’s translate 3% points of support into 2 seats in the “Washington Knesset” (and we’ll round up). To become Prime Minister, the candidate needs at least 61 seats supporting him or her.

Hillary starts off in a pretty good position with 40 seats supporting her directly (more than Likud got in Israel’s elections). Warren, Biden, and Sanders would have about 21 seats combined, so there you go - a majority and premiership. But Hillary has a good relationship with Wall Street and will need to work with them to govern. Whenever Hillary threatens to do something Socialist Bernie Sanders doesn’t like, he can threaten to leave the government, effectively bringing it down. To avoid having her government held up by Bernie Sanders, she might look at others she could work with. Chris Christie would also have about four seats in the Knesset and he is not hard-right on social issues and might be willing to join a Hillary-led government. Of course there is a cost, he’d want a major portfolio with which to provide benefits for his core constituency - maybe Defense for the prestige and lucrative contracts. And, Hillary would need to treat him well, otherwise he’d bolt the coalition. Of course Hillary would also need to keep Warren and Biden happy, which might be hard with economic conservative Christie in the government.

Hillary’s obvious choice would be a grand coalition with Jeb. Both are relatively moderate and could probably work together. But together they’d only represent 55 votes, they’d still need to keep Biden or Warren in the government, where each of the coalition partners would exercise outsize power. Every major decision would require painstaking compromises. Besides, Hillary’s voters wanted her in power, not Jeb. An alliance with him would hurt her with her base of support. Scott Walker wouldn’t be an alternative. Since one of his primary programs is anti-labor, it is unlikely pro-labor Biden or Warren (to say nothing of Socialist Bernie Sanders) would be wiling to join him in the government.

Now, here is where things get very interesting. Some of the smaller parties might see an opportunity. Mike Huckabee would have about 7 seats. Maybe, in exchange for a key portfolio and regular support to his constituency (say large social programs run through churches) he’d be a fairly docile member of the coalition. Maybe Marco Rubio with 4 seats, and primarily interested in foreign affairs could be partner - in exchange for a major national security portfolio. But that would pull the government in different directions on national security issues.

Finally, there is Dr. Ben Carson with 6 votes. In the American system as it currently works, a candidate like Carson is weeded out in primaries (remember when Herman Cain was the GOP front-runner?) But in the Israeli system, a mercurial celebrity can run, garner votes and sit as an independent party in the legislature and reap benefits as the major parties attempt to woo him.

Pretty ugly scenarios? Welcome to Israeli politics. Netanyahu has less than half the seats he needs to govern. Even with his two key allies he only has 44 seats (and these allies need care and feeding in their own right.) Even a grand coalition with the second largest party would only give him 54 votes - not enough. The most likely scenario is a government with his core allies, the two religious parties, and one of the new centrist parties. But this won’t be easy. The centrist parties tend to be secular and don’t like the religious parties.

It is easy to blame Netanyahu for his lack of vision, his pandering or his particular policies (and it should be emphasized - he has his flaws!) It is also easy to say that Israel's democracy is failing, that Israeli voters have turned extremist. But look at the system and how it shapes incentives and outcomes.

No political system is perfect. The U.S. has its share of gridlock and constituencies that benefit disproportionately from government policies. But, at its the core the separation of powers means there are a great many things the president can do without congress, but at the same time congress is empowered to check the president. In most parliamentary democracies the Prime Minister also has a very broad scope of things he or she can do. But in Israel, because of the political fragmentation, the Prime Minister is constrained at nearly every turn. As an experienced Israeli foreign policy hand observed, “the prime minister must strike a deal with the minister of defense every morning."

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The End of Russia and What it Means for America - My review and other thoughts on the iron lsws of demographics

Last year I reviewed Ilan Berman's terrific Implosion: The End of Russia and What it Means for America in The Middle East Quarterly. Demographics has long fascinated me and I'll have some additional comments at the end. But first, here's the review:
With Russian president Vladimir Putin playing an outsized role on the world-stage, any book discussing "the end of Russia" is quite the intellectual outlier. But Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council and an experienced Russia hand, looks to the field of demographics (too often ignored by students of international affairs) to observe that Russia's population is on the precipice of a rapid decline and that its current economic strength rests on weak foundations. Berman has done an enormous service in pointing out this deep trend in international affairs. 
Russian birthrates are well below replacement levels; life expectancy has declined, and Russians are rapidly fleeing the corruption and lack of opportunity in their homeland by emigrating to the West. Russia's depopulation is particularly problematic in the Far East where a resurgent China covets the vast resources of this enormous region. As Russians leave Asia, Moscow will be hard-pressed to enforce its authority in the face of China's growing presence. 
Meanwhile, in European Russia, Muslims are the fastest growing segment of the population and, thanks in great part to Russia's heavy-handed counterterror policies, are isolated from broader Russian society and turning towards radical Islam. Berman suggests some nightmare scenarios were these trends to continue, but more importantly, he raises the fundamental question of what will become of Russia when Russians are a minority in their own country.
While the Russians have proven adept at exploiting their Soviet-era arms, nuclear, and space industries as well as the country's vast energy reserves to woo and pressure other states, the author also shows how other Soviet legacies, such as a decayed social and physical infrastructure, are rapidly hollowing Russian power.
After sketching out these trends, Berman prudently avoids making predictions, but a more in-depth analysis would be welcome. Are there no opportunities for the United States and the West in Russia's coming implosion? And how can Washington best position itself to take advantage of them? Finally, Russia is not the only Eurasian country facing a demographic collapse: How will aging Europe and Japan factor into Russia's future?
First, it is worth noting some key stuff that Berman got dead on - most notably the fundamental ricketiness of the Russia economy. With oil prices low, their economy is in free fall. The increased aggression of a Russia seeking to hold on to its place on the world stage is another key point.

But beyond that, I've been interested in demographics since reading Ben Wattenberg's The Birth Dearth I've been fascinated by demographics. Not the short-term growth and decline of towns and cities (although that is interesting) or the changing ethnic make-up of a region - no, I'm interested in the big stuff. Where is a nation - or all of humanity - going?

Most of the developed world is heading into population decline (Japan is already there) and birth-rates across the world have slowed dramatically. On the whole, this is for the good. For centuries population growth was slow because disease took such a heavy toll. The number of people who served childhood was small and then there were innumerable opportunities to die. Infections and injuries were easy to acquire and tough to survive. Even modest improvements in health care and sanitation lead to explosive and unsustainable population growth.

But leveling off is one thing, what about outright decline. Does youth provide a certain energy and push for innovation that might be lacking in an older society? Intuitively, this seems right, although it may not be true. The U.S. with modest population growth is a world center for innovation. Japan is the world leader in population decline, and their economy is in the doldrums, but that hasn't prevented them from inventing and creating. On the other hand, population growth leaders like Pakistan and Nigeria are hardly centers of innovation and creativity.

If there is a happy medium, it is probably the United States which maintains a just below-replacement level birthrate augmented by relatively generous immigration policies. Through immigration the United States regularly welcomes the most capable and resourceful people from the rest of the world. This may not be a planned strategy to maintain American strategic advantages, but it sure works out that way.

With Europe heading towards decline will that lead to the slow end of Western Civilization - that amazing thing that started with the Greeks and has been an engine of liberty and wisdom for thousands of years? Or do these ideas have a power and resonance that extends beyond any ethnic group? I loved my time at St. John's College in Annapolis and hate to think that these profound ideas will fall into the dustbin, ancient texts of little relevance.

In the short-term, population contines to grow. But the trends are slowing. I grew up reading science fiction in which a sprawling, brawling humanity spread across space. I imagine we'll still explore, but with low population growth will there be a real incentive to colonize? (In fairness, colonization here on Earth was a mixed bag for many, particularly the original inhabitants.)

Maybe we'll keep out own planet tidy, visit around as tourists, and focus on self-acualization. It is a vision of humanity growing up.