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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

A Fleeting Chance Of Independence

Brief, emotional essay on voting ‘Yes’, for independence, in the Scottish referendum. “This is our moment and we may not pass this way again. This is our chance to hand a magnificent toolbox to our children and work with them to build the country we can become.” Better, surely, that the decision should be made romantically like this, than on marginal preferences for particular politicians or particular current policies (899 words)

The Invisible Nation: Utilitarianism And Contractualism

Entertaining philosophical essay which follows Plato in proposing rules for an ideal republic, called here the Economists’ Paradise. “In the Economists’ Paradise all transactions are voluntary and honest. All game-theoretic problems are solved. All Pareto improvements get made. Everyone agrees to share the commons according to some reasonable plan. Multipolar traps turn to gardens, Moloch is defeated for all time” (6,000 words)

America In Decay

Magisterial essay on the failure of public administration in America. In brief: The American people do not greatly trust their government; so they hamstring its operations with rules and red tape; which leads to poor performance and easy capture; which reinforces public distrust. There is no easy route to reform. The entrenched actors are too powerful. Major change may require an external shock to the whole system (10,300 words)

A Reader’s Guide To Strategy

Review and discussion of Strategy, Lawrence Freedman’s “monumental” study of theory and practice in war, politics and management. The section on management sits awkwardly; the historical influence of the Boston Consulting Group is scarcely comparable with that of Clausewitz. But still, this is “one the most significant works in the fields of international relations, strategic studies, and history to appear in recent years” (2,960 words)

Why We Fight Wars

In modern times, war doesn’t pay. You destroy what you are trying to save or possess. Yet countries keep fighting. Why? Perhaps political leaders truly can’t do the math; America grossly underestimated the costs of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. But more likely the incentive is that governments expect to gain politically from war, even if the war in question makes no sense in terms of national interests (900 words)

King Of The Islands Of Refreshment

Action-packed history of Tristan d’Acunha, where an American sailor declared himself king in 1811. With a digression on modern micro-nations, including the Dominion of Melchizedek, “created almost entirely to facilitate international crime”, which occupies a handful of uninhabited islands in Antarctica, claims a “mysterious Filipino-American businesswoman” as its president, and is recognised only by the Central African Republic (2,400 words)

The Problem Of Scotland

It’s really a problem of England. Even if Scotland votes No to independence, Britain looks set to devolve more power to Edinburgh. How then will England be governed? If Scottish MPs cease to vote on English issues, the effect will be a seemingly permanent Conservative majority in England — to which Labour can hardly agree. The outcome may have to include regional assemblies for England (Metered) (1,050 words)

Staying Power — How To Prevent Coups

Why do some countries have coups and revolutions while others don’t? It may be a function of military training and military values. It may be a function of the complexity of the country: Centralised states are easier to capture. But the closest correlation is with effective rule of law, which raises the price of treason: “Merely mentioning such a plot is far too risky, so the notion effectively disappears from national political life” (2,337 words)

The Mask Is Off

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban declares his preference for an “illiberal state”. He holds up China and Russia as models. He excites nationalists by dog-whistling support for the restoration of “Greater Hungary”, including territories lost after the First World War. He treats the European Union as an opponent. The EU must respond; but a showdown with Brussels would boost Orban’s popularity still further (2,750 words)

Reflections On Violence

Prescient notes on the technology of warfare and the political history of violence, the main thrust of which is to deplore the renewed glorification of violence by the left-wing would-be revolutionaries of the late 1960s. “The distinction between violent and non-violent action is that the former is exclusively bent upon the destruction of the old and the latter chiefly concerned with the establishment of something new” (13,700 words)

We Tortured, It Was Wrong, Never Mind

President Obama’s admission that “we tortured some folks” is an overdue clarification, but it cannot be the end of the story. Torture was not a moment of madness in the wake of 9/11, but a policy sustained and concealed over many years. “This was a carefully orchestrated criminal conspiracy at the heart of the government by people who knew full well they were breaking the law.” Those responsible should be punished (Metered) (1,030 words)

Singapore: Social Laboratory

Everything that Edward Snowden warned against, and then some, is happening in Singapore, where government put in place total electronic surveillance after the SARS outbreak of 2003, using techniques developed at the NSA. Government can monitor and analyse all data, all communications. The public approves. Singaporeans believe “light-touch repression” helps keep them safe from foreign and domestic threats (Metered) (4,800 words)

Behind The Scenes In Putin’s Court

Engrossing, intimate, stylised portrait of the Russian president — daily routine, entourage, travel, meetings, protocol. “There are no stories of extravagance: only of loneliness. The President has no family life. His mother is dead. So is his father. His wife suffered nervous disorders, and after a long separation, there has been a divorce. There are two daughters. But they are a state secret and no longer live in Russia” (3,060 words)

The Good Tsar Bias

19C Russians proverbially believed that the Tsar was good but his underlings let him down. Many Germans felt similarly about Hitler. This delusion seems to be common in, and peculiar to, authoritarian regimes. Why so? Perhaps because, when a leader successfully captures the sense of national identity, to blame him for bad outcomes undermines one’s own identity; more comfortable to scapegoat underlings (1,870 words)

Hague’s Two Faces

Successful politicians have to manage two personae: the courteous clear-thinking manager who runs policy, and the street-fighter who wins elections. William Hague had both to an extreme. His management skills, developed at Insead and McKinsey, were overlaid on street-fighting instincts honed as a teenage Conservative in south Yorkshire. But the two Hagues never bedded down into one legible personality (Hard) (1,050 words)

If Scotland Votes “Yes”

Alex Salmond wants Scottish independence to take effect in March 2016, if the referendum goes his way; but 2018 would be more realistic, given the practical problems. Scotland’s scope to continue using Sterling will be one heated issue. Britain will want a ten-year transition to relocate its nuclear submarines. The British power grid will have to be divided. +424 is the likely Scottish dialling code (1,900 words)

Are The Authoritarians Winning?

Authoritarian regimes, led by China and Russia, are “aglow with arrogant confidence”. Democracies are wracked by “envy and despondency”. But the authoritarian vision of prosperity without freedom is unsustainable. “The saving grace of democracy is its adaptability. It depends for its vitality on discontent. Discontent leads to peaceful regime change, and as regimes change, free societies can discard failed alternatives” (3,730 words)


Might something like the Google PageRank algorithm be used to rank real-world qualities in human beings, such as moral fitness? For example: “A moral person is someone who cooperates with other moral people, and who refuses to cooperate with immoral people”. It’s a circular proposition, you need definitions, but, as with PageRank, you can find an equilibrium — and explore it using game theory. Here’s what happens (6,400 words)

The War Dividend

The economic benefits of war are overstated. In theory, the rise of nationalism in times of danger may help the policy process by encouraging coalitions — “reducing transaction costs” — among political parties, and by encouraging a general focus on the national interest rather than the individual interest. But it is much easier to find models of prosperity and innovation in times of peace than in times of war (Metered) (1,600 words)

A Conversation With Ralph Nader

Rare example of an interview in which the questions are as informative as the answers, if not more so. Nader denounces crony capitalism — “this combination of Wall Street and Washington, the corporate powers and their political allies, converging across party lines to perfect this corporate government against the wishes of a majority of the American people”. Cowen nudges him usefully to clarify and qualify (2,536 words)

Philippe Legrain Explains Europe

Former economic and strategic adviser to European Commission president José Manuel Barroso makes clear why he quit this year: “Particularly within the Eurozone, under instructions from Berlin, the EU has imposed catastrophic policies — excessive collective austerity that has caused a terrible recession, a failure to tackle the banks and opposition to debt write-downs — that has led to a plunge in support for the EU” (3,790 words)

The Absolutist

Full-length portrait of Ted Cruz, US Senator, Tea-Party Republican, likely presidential contender in 2016, brilliant debater, “best appellate litigator in the state of Texas”. He denies man-made climate change, opposes comprehensive immigration reform, rejects marriage equality, wants Obamacare repealed. “His message is that, on the issues, a Cruz Presidency would be roughly identical to a Sarah Palin Presidency” (8,570 words)

More Punk, Less Hell

Most uplifting political story of the year so far. How Icelandic anarchists won control of Reykjavik city hall after the 2008 crash, ran the capital for four years — and made a great success of it. Their political strategy was wu wei — do nothing, let your opponents make the mistakes. Their campaign promise: “We can promise more than any other party because we will break every campaign promise” (h/t Longreads) (4,000 words)

Our Libertarian Age

Essay on the decay of ideology. “Ours is a libertarian age by default: whatever ideas or beliefs muted the demand for individual autonomy in the past have atrophied. Since the Cold War ended we have found ourselves in a world in which every advance of the principle of freedom in one sphere advances it in the others, whether we wish it to or not. The only freedom we are losing is the freedom to choose our freedoms.” (4,690 words)

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