Sunday, July 11, 2004

Thurow on the new knowledge economy, the Arab world, and terrorism

M.I.T. economist Lester Thurow, in his book Fortune Favors the Bold presents some interesting theories regarding the increasing economic backwardness of the Arab world, and its potential to fuel future terrorism against the West. Thurow's boot did receive some harsh reviews on Amazon, but he does have some thought-provoking ideas relevant to this blog.

I wrote a past post on why the U.S. should spend resources on Arab-language "propaganda" like the Al Hurra satellite T.V. channel, which broadcasts out of Washington, D.C. at U.S. taxpayer expense.

Council on Foreign Relations fellow Steven A. Cook recently argued in The New York Times that Al Hurra isn't doing very well, in part because it is perceived as propaganda in the Arab world, and in part because it is too similar to other Arab-language news channel offerings. Cook points out that coverage of Rumsfeld's testimony during the U.S. Senate hearings on Abu Gharib "transfixed many Arabs," because Arab political processes were notoriously opaque, and Arab political leaders were almost never accountable to anyone, let alone elected representatives.

Cook suggests that, instead of broadcasting news, Al Hurra should start carrying Arabic language translations of selections of C-SPAN programs likely to be of interest to Arabs. (For my non-U.S. readers, C-SPAN is a group of public service cable T.V. channels that carries live deliberations in the U.S. Congress and other U.S. government bodies. It is available for free to all U.S. cable T.V. subscribers.) Eventually, Al Hurra might obtain permission and resources to broadcast the normally closed deliberations of Arab government bodies as well. This would distinguish it from other Arab news broadcasters, and provide programming of proven interest to Arab audiences (the workings of democratic government in action).

However, in his book, Thurow cites some remarkable statistics about the Arab world.

I found the same remarkable U.N. statistics on Aljazeera: although there are approximately the same number of Spanish and Arabic language speakers in the world (270 million), more books are translated into Spanish in a single year than have been translated into Arabic in the last millennia!

Thurow argues in his book that, while in the past the vast fortunes and wealth have been created through the command of natural resources, today the great creator of national (and personal) wealth comes through command of ideas and technological know-how. He argues that, just as there were regions that were big losers and big winners in past economic revolutions (e.g., the Industrial Revolution), there will be regions that will be big losers in this new knowledge-based revolution. While most other regions of the globe are thoroughly plugged into the modern world, if you're an Arab who only speaks Arabic (the majority) then you don't have any idea what the modern world is like since nothing gets translated into Arabic! (Thurow is proud to point that two of his own books have been part of the tiny number (10K!) of books translated into Arabic over the last millennia, so at least Arabic speakers are reading his particular argument!)

This would suggest how the U.S. might spend its resources on the most effective Arab media. (I argue in this past post why this is important, but there has been a wide-ranging discussion on what T.V. would be the best to translate into Arabic: news, Carl Sagan, "Leave It To Beaver," or the ever-popular "Dallas"?) Rather than subsidizing an Arab-language T.V. channel, which is expensive, the Pentagon might just air-drop machine translations of the international best-sellers over the Arabian peninsula. Those of you who speak another language and have tried the Babelfish translation buttons in the right-hand corner on these pages know there are problems with machine translation. But, my sources in the loop with the Pentagon inform me, after all, that the Pentagon has the best unclassified machine translation systems around -- definitely an improvement over Babelfish. And, the Pentagon has people that believe media penetration is good for promoting democracy and U.S. interests, so this is the sort of thing they would probably be inclined to do.

Unfortunately, the Aljazeera page goes on to point out that, even those few novels written or translated into Arabic tend not to be read. Despite the huge number (270 million) of Arabic speakers, a best-selling novel in Arabic will have a run of only 5,000 copies, compared to hundreds of thousands of copies when printed in a language such as Spanish, with a comparable number of speakers!

This latter statistic probably goes a long to explaining why virtual no books get translated into Arabic: Arabs, it seems, don't like to read books much, even the ones printed in Arabic. Even if the Pentagon air-dropped the latest international best-sellers over the Arabian peninsula, they might not actually pick up the books and read them. It seems they do, however, watch Arabic-language satellite television (and surf the Web), so we're back to determining the best content for Al-Hurra.

Given these statistics, I have to agree with Thurow, however, on his assessment for the Arab speaking world: if your people don't read, they can't possible take advantage of the knowledge-based economic revolution that is sweeping the globe. This means continued poverty for most of the Arab world, and that, in turn, means a continued problem with terrorism for the West. (Aljazeera continues with devasting quotes from the U.N.'s report: "educational curricula in Arab countries that 'bred submission, obedience, subordination and compliance rather than free critical thinking.'" Yuck. No wonder the Madrasses cause so many problems for the West.)

Thurow also makes one interesting point regarding my state, California, whose economy is heavily dependent on technological innovation. The most recent round of free trade talks in Cacun failed spectacularly when the first-world (most notably the U.S.) failed to offer the third-world concessions on agriculture in exchange for stronger global protection for intellectual property. Thurow argues persuasively that the future of the U.S. economy (and the current California economy) is a knowledge-based economy that is heavily dependent on intellectual property protections. Yet, with the failure of the Cacun talks over agricultural concessions, the U.S. sacrificed its future economic interests in favor of its past but vested agricultural economic interests. (And, Thurow argues, most Californias haven't even realized what a disaster this failure was for this state's economy.) Thurow argues this failure happened in part because only 2 U.S. Senators represent the 35+ million Californians, while 50 Senators represent 25 heavily agricultural states having a combined population smaller than California. Under our Constitution, the President and U.S. Senate, of course, largely determine U.S. foreign policy, so U.S. foreign policy is heavily influenced by agricultural interests, while Thurow believes tech-economy interests are the future and therefore should have a more dominant voice. When the Constitution was ratified, the largest state had a population only four times larger than the smallest state; today the population of the largest (California) is more than 100x the smallest (Wyoming), yet all states receive equal representation in the Senate. As California's economy continues to grow faster than the rest of the United States, the lack of representation (or the existence of single state with such an enormous chunk of the total federal population) is likely to continue to present problems to the federal system. The California legislature does have the right, under the 19th century federal act that admitted California to the Union, to split into two states, but that would only add two Senators, and it is not clear if this is the best solution for California or the U.S.

The problem of terrorism resulting from an increasingly economically backward Arab world is the most pressing immediate problem for the United States. Thurow's book presents the problem in stark relief.