Technology and society

Pessimism v progress

Contemporary worries about the impact of technology are part of a historical pattern

Faster, cheaper, better—technology is one field many people rely upon to offer a vision of a brighter future. But as the 2020s dawn, optimism is in short supply.

The new technologies that dominated the past decade seem to be making things worse. Social media were supposed to bring people together. In the Arab spring of 2011 they were hailed as a liberating force. Today they are better known for invading privacy, spreading propaganda and undermining democracy.

E-commerce, ride-hailing and the gig economy may be convenient, but they are charged with underpaying workers, exacerbating inequality and clogging the streets with vehicles. Parents worry that smartphones have turned their children into screen-addicted zombies.

The technologies expected to dominate the new decade also seem to cast a dark shadow.

Artificial intelligence (AI) may well entrench bias and prejudice, threaten your job and shore up authoritarian rulers.

5G is at the heart of the Sino-American trade war. Autonomous cars still do not work, but manage to kill people all the same.

Polls show that internet firms are now less trusted than the banking industry.

At the very moment banks are striving to rebrand themselves as tech firms, internet giants have become the new banks, morphing from talent magnets to pariahs.

Even their employees are in revolt.

The New York Times sums up the encroaching gloom.

“A mood of pessimism”, it writes, has displaced “the idea of inevitable progress born in the scientific and industrial revolutions.”

Except those words are from an article published in 1979.

Back then the paper fretted that the anxiety was “fed by growing doubts about society’s ability to rein in the seemingly runaway forces of technology”.

Today’s gloomy mood is centred on smartphones and social media, which took off a decade ago.

Yet concerns that humanity has taken a technological wrong turn, or that particular technologies might be doing more harm than good, have arisen before.

In the 1970s the despondency was prompted by concerns about overpopulation, environmental damage and the prospect of nuclear immolation.

The 1920s witnessed a backlash against cars, which had earlier been seen as a miraculous answer to the affliction of horse-drawn vehicles—which filled the streets with noise and dung, and caused congestion and accidents.

And the blight of industrialisation was decried in the 19th century by Luddites, Romantics and socialists, who worried (with good reason) about the displacement of skilled artisans, the despoiling of the countryside and the suffering of factory hands toiling in smoke-belching mills.

Stand back, and in each of these historical cases disappointment arose from a mix of unrealised hopes and unforeseen consequences. Technology unleashes the forces of creative destruction, so it is only natural that it leads to anxiety; for any given technology its drawbacks sometimes seem to outweigh its benefits. When this happens with several technologies at once, as today, the result is a wider sense of techno-pessimism.

However, that pessimism can be overdone.

Too often people focus on the drawbacks of a new technology while taking its benefits for granted. Worries about screen time should be weighed against the much more substantial benefits of ubiquitous communication and the instant access to information and entertainment that smartphones make possible.

A further danger is that Luddite efforts to avoid the short-term costs associated with a new technology will end up denying access to its long-term benefits—something Carl Benedikt Frey, an Oxford academic, calls a “technology trap”. Fears that robots will steal people’s jobs may prompt politicians to tax them, for example, to discourage their use.

Yet in the long run countries that wish to maintain their standard of living as their workforce ages and shrinks will need more robots, not fewer.

That points to another lesson, which is that the remedy to technology-related problems very often involves more technology.

Airbags and other improvements in safety features, for example, mean that in America deaths in car accidents per billion miles travelled have fallen from around 240 in the 1920s to around 12 today.

AI is being applied as part of the effort to stem the flow of extremist material on social media.

The ultimate example is climate change. It is hard to imagine any solution that does not depend in part on innovations in clean energy, carbon capture and energy storage.

The most important lesson is about technology itself. Any powerful technology can be used for good or ill. The internet spreads understanding, but it is also where videos of people being beheaded go viral. Biotechnology can raise crop yields and cure diseases—but it could equally lead to deadly weapons.

Technology itself has no agency: it is the choices people make about it that shape the world.

Thus the techlash is a necessary step in the adoption of important new technologies.

At its best, it helps frame how society comes to terms with innovations and imposes rules and policies that limit their destructive potential (seat belts, catalytic converters and traffic regulations), accommodate change (universal schooling as a response to industrialisation) or strike a trade-off (between the convenience of ride-hailing and the protection of gig-workers).

Healthy scepticism means that these questions are settled by a broad debate, not by a coterie of technologists.

Fire up the moral engine

Perhaps the real source of anxiety is not technology itself, but growing doubts about the ability of societies to hold this debate, and come up with good answers. In that sense, techno-pessimism is a symptom of political pessimism.

Yet there is something perversely reassuring about this: a gloomy debate is much better than no debate at all. And history still argues, on the whole, for optimism.

The technological transformation since the Industrial Revolution has helped curb ancient evils, from child mortality to hunger and ignorance. Yes, the planet is warming and antibiotic resistance is spreading. But the solution to such problems calls for the deployment of more technology, not less.

So as the decade turns, put aside the gloom for a moment.

To be alive in the tech-obsessed 2020s is to be among the luckiest people who have ever lived.

In search of liberal nationalism

UK prime minister Boris Johnson has a chance to show this is not an oxymoron

Gideon Rachman

Nationalist bricks
© James Ferguson

Last summer, I had a thought-provoking conversation in Moscow with Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the journal Russia In Global Affairs. He mentioned that Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, had argued for a “liberal Brexit”, then laughed loudly. Viewed from Russia, the idea that Brexit is anything other than a savage blow to the liberal cause evidently seemed absurd.

The question of whether Mr Johnson and the Brexiters can, in any way, claim to be “liberal” is of more than academic interest. As Mr Lukyanov’s reaction suggested, it has international significance. The Brexit vote in 2016 saw liberal internationalism — championed by the EU and the Obama administration — take a double blow: first, the Brexit vote, followed shortly afterwards by the election of Donald Trump as US president.

The nationalist tide is flowing just as strongly outside the west. President Xi Jinping’s promise of a “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese people is his version of Mr Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again”. In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s presidential rhetoric is all about making Russia great again; it is the same in India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi promises cultural and national revival.

The new nationalists sometimes describe their enemy as “globalism”. The “globalists”, they complain, are a self-interested international elite, intent on erasing borders and national cultures. Many liberals (me included) reject the label “globalist” as meaningless and sinister, since it often gives way to conspiracy theories about George Soros or the Trilateral Commission.

On the other hand, plenty of liberals would agree that nationalism is their foe. The nationalists’ stress on the interests of a dominant ethnic or religious group often comes at the expense of the individual and minority rights that are dear to traditional liberals. The latest example of this trend has come in India, where Mr Modi’s government has just passed a law on refugee rights that discriminates against Muslims in favour of non-Muslims. The furore caused by the law has now provoked riots in Delhi and elsewhere.

India is not the only democracy that is seeking to prioritise the rights of one group of citizens over another. In Israel, the last Netanyahu government passed a “nation-state” law, formally defining Israel as a Jewish state. This was criticised, at home and overseas, for relegating Israeli Arabs to second-class citizenship.

In Hungary, Viktor Orban, the prime minister, has championed the rights of ethnic Hungarians, built walls to keep out refugees and proclaimed that the “era of liberal democracy is over”. Mr Orban, in turn, is hailed as a hero by Steve Bannon, Mr Trump’s erstwhile chief strategist.

Viewed from today’s perspective, it seems clear that liberalism and nationalism are enemies.

But that was not always the case. As recently as 1989, liberalism and nationalism were allies in causing the collapse of the Soviet empire. In countries such as Poland and Hungary the demand for national self-determination was closely linked to demands for liberal freedoms.

Thirty years later, some of the new nationalist governments in central Europe now see liberalism as the enemy of national self-determination. That is partly because liberal internationalism has attempted to embed some of its central ideas into international laws and conventions — for example the rights of refugees, the independence of the courts or the freedom to trade and invest.

For conservative nationalists like Mr Orban or Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland’s governing Law and Justice party, this institutionalisation of liberalism is unacceptable because it constrains the ability of national governments to make radical changes. As Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes explain in a recent book, The Light That Failed, the central European nationalists reject liberal democracy because it “offers provisional victories only. It denies the electoral winners the chance for a full and final victory.”

The constraints imposed by international law are particularly tight inside the EU. The Brexiters consistently argued that Britain can only regain full control of its immigration policy by leaving the EU, which imposes a legal requirement to accept free movement of people within the bloc. Those restrictions on national freedom of action allowed Mr Johnson to campaign for Britain to “take back control” of “our laws, our money and our borders”. For Mr Johnson and his tribe, Brexit is a liberal cause largely because it allows the UK to re-empower its national democracy.

Many will continue to regard Mr Johnson’s claim to be a liberal as either patently insincere or delusional. But he is now set for five years in government with which to justify his claim. So far, the signs are distinctly mixed. On the international stage, his record does not suggest that he intends to align himself fully with the new nationalist agenda.

For example, he has taken “liberal” positions on climate change and the World Trade Organization, supporting international treaties and institutions.

At home, however, Mr Johnson’s henchmen are making worrying sounds about reining in the BBC and the courts.

But nothing is written yet.

Over the next five years, Mr Johnson has a chance to demonstrate that liberal nationalism need not be an oxymoron.

Let us hope he takes it.

The Unspoken Mission of the Lebanese Army

By: Hilal Khashan


Since its founding in 1945, the mission of the Lebanese Armed Forces has evolved. Gen. Fuad Shihab, who led the army from 1945 until parliament elected him president after a brief civil war in 1958, never envisioned that his troops would play a role in the region’s enormous conflicts.

Mindful of the sectarian divisions that had long plagued Lebanese society, Shihab focused the army’s mission on maintaining law and order without using brute force or antagonizing any religious sects. He did not, for example, heed presidential orders in 1952 and 1958 to quell public protests. He instead saw the LAF as the builder of an authentic Lebanese national identity that integrated all strata of society.

Shihab’s presidential successors, however, have failed to insulate Lebanon from the region’s turmoil, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict and inter-Arab rivalries. In 1967, Lebanon found itself immersed against its will in the Six-Day War. Since then, several regional actors such as Syria, the Palestine Liberation Army and Saudi Arabia have meddled in Lebanon’s internal affairs – but Iranian involvement, especially since 1982, has proved to be the most consequential.

What distinguishes Iran’s intrusion from all others’ is its creation of a homegrown Lebanese movement, committed to the ideology of the Iranian Revolution, that became the country’s dominant political and military force. Hezbollah came to the fore of Lebanese politics following the end of the civil war in 1989. It was initially seen as an occupation resistance movement but later became a controversial and powerful player in Lebanese politics.

Hezbollah’s Surge

Shiites, who represent one of the three major religious sects in Lebanon (the Maronites and Sunnis are the other two) rose to power in Lebanon following the country’s protracted civil war. In September 1988, outgoing President Amin Gemayel appointed army commander Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian, as interim prime minister after parliament failed to elect a successor.

Six months later, Aoun declared a “War of Liberation” to remove the Syrian army from Lebanon, but in October 1990, Syrian forces defeated Aoun’s forces and stormed the presidential palace. Aoun sought refuge in the French Embassy and spent 15 years in exile in France. His defeat ended the Maronites’ hold over the LAF, creating a vacuum that was then filled by Shiite and Greek Orthodox officers loyal to Syria and Hezbollah.

Hezbollah managed to bring the Amal Movement, its main Shiite rival, under its wing and used it as a facade to promote its interests in the religiously divided country. Shiite veto power and Syrian backing prevented Sunnis and mainstream Maronites, who mostly boycotted Lebanese politics between 1989 and 2008, from limiting Hezbollah’s control and from blocking its military wing from gaining pseudo-legitimate status.

U.S. Backing for the LAF

The Lebanese army, especially since Gen. Joseph Aoun became commander in 2017, has been critical of Hezbollah’s role in Lebanese defense. The army sees Hezbollah’s claim to protect and defend the country through its own armed faction as an impingement on Lebanese sovereignty and the state’s entitlement to a monopoly on military power. The LAF has received support from many U.S. administrations, from George W. Bush to Donald Trump, which have viewed the LAF as an essential ally and, therefore, a key part of achieving U.S. strategic objectives in the Middle East. One of these objectives is to return Lebanon to its posture prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, which pulled the country unwittingly into regional conflicts.

Over the past 30 years, the LAF leadership’s evolving mission has been to redress the circumstances that led to Hezbollah’s political and military rise. (The 1989 Taif Agreement, which ended Lebanon’s 14-year civil war, called for disarming all militias in the country except Hezbollah’s, citing its role as an anti-Israel resistance movement that was mainly uninvolved in domestic political affairs.)

The United States’ unwavering support for the LAF is aimed at, in addition to combating Sunni militants, discrediting Hezbollah’s claim that it is the only defender of Lebanese territory against foreign threats. In fact, the U.S. believes that the LAF has widespread public support in Lebanon as the only legal and legitimate military in the country.

The United States supplies more than 80 percent of the LAF’s weapons and, since 2005, has provided $2.29 billion in military aid. Relations between the Pentagon and the LAF are strong, and senior Lebanese military officers frequently visit Washington to meet with U.S. military and political officials.

The Defense Department’s commitment to supporting the LAF is part of its policy to establish a U.S.-friendly balance of power and refute Hezbollah’s claim that it alone can defend Lebanese territorial integrity. (While Hezbollah insists that the Lebanese army lacks the ability to defend the country against Israel, the group has grossly overstated its own military strength.

It claims to be on par with the Israeli military, but a few thousand fighters, no matter how tenacious they are, would not be able to take on the Israel Defense Forces – especially when you consider that a combination of major Arab armies failed to do so in several wars.)

In addition, the growth of the LAF and its focus on counterterrorism training pose a threat to Hezbollah, which views with suspicion the LAF’s acquisition of A-29 Super Tucanos, light attack planes that are particularly effective in guerrilla warfare. In August 2017, the Lebanese army launched Operation Fajr al-Joroud (Dawn of the Barren Ridges) against the Islamic State along the northernmost stretch of the Bekaa Valley.

The precision of the operation stunned Hezbollah. Struggling to maintain its claim to being the superior military force in the country, Hezbollah struck a unilateral deal with IS that allowed IS to withdraw from Lebanon so that Hezbollah could claim credit for the operation’s success.

The Lebanese army command seems determined to assert its authority throughout the country. It has instituted an integrated border management strategy to seal the border with Syria and stop smuggling and human trafficking. U.S. and EU support has been instrumental in the formation of five land border regiments.

The EU funded the establishment of a border management training center in Rayak air base near the Syrian border, and the U.S. continues to supply the LAF with border security equipment, including UAVs, radios, night-vision goggles and heavy machine guns. The border regiments aim at stemming the flow of contraband across the border, which Hezbollah nearly entirely controls. The ultimate objective, however, is to cut off Hezbollah from its Syrian lifeline.

In South Litani, the Lebanese army, along with U.N. peacekeepers, is developing a new military force called “the model brigade” that will eventually take charge of security in the area when the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, which has been operating there since 1978, finally leaves the region.

Pressure on Hezbollah Mounts

As protests, soaring inflation and government paralysis continue, cracks in Hezbollah’s Shiite base are beginning to show. Hezbollah’s dwindling financial resources – under strain due to cuts in Iranian funds and decreasing revenue from illicit sources, including money laundering – have severely undermined its ability to provide for Shiites and win their loyalty.

The group has also been under increasing pressure from the United States. In October 2018, the U.S. Justice Department – which has long considered Hezbollah a terrorist group and a bigger threat than Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps thanks to its comprehensive network of sleeper cells spanning five continents – even labeled it a transnational criminal organization.

Hezbollah believes it is facing a massive pro-U.S. coalition – consisting of the Lebanese army command, the central bank, the banking association and the Saad Hariri-led alliance known as the March 14 coalition – aimed at draining the group financially and isolating it politically. If the policy of containment goes well, Hezbollah runs the real risk of losing its ability to financially support Shiites, which would severely impact its ability to recruit partisans and fighters. (As the saying goes, an army marches on its stomach.)

And despite its anti-Israel rhetoric, Hezbollah understands very well the catastrophic consequences for Lebanon in general, and Shiites in particular, of provoking the IDF into an open military confrontation.

Hezbollah will likely resist any changes to the status quo and, as a last resort, may even try to split the army. In recent years, however, the army command restructured the composition of the brigades to prevent any one sect from prevailing. The redistribution of the troops into multireligious units makes vertical defections unlikely.

Only a handful of Sunni soldiers defected during the army’s campaign against al-Nusra and IS. Moreover, the benefits for Shiite officers of joining the LAF far exceed what they might receive from Hezbollah. Shiite defections are also unlikely because the army command has already ruled out initiating a conflict with Hezbollah.

At the recent International Institute for Strategic Studies summit in Bahrain, the Lebanese prime minister’s military consultant said the government had urged the Lebanese army to prepare for a possible showdown with Hezbollah six months before the beginning of the uprising that started in October.

The new balance of power does not aim at strengthening the LAF’s military capabilities to take on Hezbollah; Gen. Joseph Aoun has made it clear to U.S. officials that military action against Hezbollah is extremely unlikely because of the heavy human and political toll it would take. Instead, the army is hoping to build up its own capabilities, which would in turn diminish Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanese politics.

The Army’s Comeback

The key to U.S policy in Lebanon rests on promoting the LAF’s efforts to end Hezbollah’s influence within its ranks. Despite Lebanon’s numerous political and civil upheavals since independence in 1943 and the disintegration of the army on three occasions (in 1976, 1984 and 1990), military units on both sides never opened fire against each other. Military officers have managed to set aside their sectarian affiliations – which created splits in the army during the country’s protracted civil war – because of their strong sense of camaraderie.

The new army command is keen on avoiding the mistakes of the past. If a military showdown does occur in Lebanon, it will have to be started by Hezbollah. And if this happens, it is difficult to imagine that the U.S., which sees the Lebanese army as one of its regional priorities, would not to act, either directly or indirectly through the IDF.

Time To Sell The News?

by John Rubino

Global stock (and bond and real estate) markets have been on a tear this year, apparently in anticipation of three big events. And last week they got them all, sort of:

The US and China announced a “trade deal” that is flimsy but a deal nonetheless; the Fed promised to refrain from raising rates until (official) inflation bursts through the 2% target and stays there – which might be a really long time; and Britain handed its pro-Brexit Conservatives a massive parliamentary majority, pretty much guaranteeing that departure from the EU is finally imminent.

The effect of all this closure is to remove what the markets see as the main outstanding risks, thus clearing the way for financial asset prices to rocket to the moon in 2020.

In other words we’re witnessing a classic “buy the rumor, sell the news” setup, because the trade war, Brexit and the Fed weren’t the real risks. Nor was their expected resolution the real reason stock prices have been hitting records.

What is the real reason? Insane levels of credit creation in the third quarter of 2019. Here are some of the highlights, culled from Doug Noland’s latest Credit Bubble Bulletin:

• Total US credit (financial and non-financial) jumped by $1.075 trillion in Q3, the strongest quarterly gain since Q4 2007’s $1.159 trillion, ending September at $74.862 trillion (348% of GDP).

• Non-financial debt surged $835 billion – double Q2’s growth — to a record 250% of GDP, up from previous cycle peaks of 226% at year-end ‘07 and 183% to end 1999.

• Federal government borrowings rose at a 10.4% pace.

• U.S. Mortgage Lending increased $185 billion, the strongest quarterly gain since Q4 2007.

• M2 money supply surged an unprecedented $1.044 trillion over the past year, or 7.3%.

This tsunami of newly created currency had to go somewhere, and the path of least resistance was financial assets. Year to date:

The S&P500 has returned 28.9%.
The Nasdaq Composite is up 31.6%.
The Semiconductors (SOX) index is up 55.5%.
The Nasdaq computer Index up 45.8%.
Banks (BKX) gained 31.3%.
Treasury bonds (TLT) returned 16.9%.
Investment-grade corporates (LQD) returned 17.5%.
Junk bonds (HYG) returned 13.3%.

So either this debt binge continues or liquidity dries up and financial assets get sold. Which means chaos of one kind or another is heading our way.