Thursday 30 November 2023

John Cowperthwaite: the thinking civil servant behind Hong Kong's success

 The Guardian Newspaper Reveals New Logo Design -

Alex Singleton

When Sir John Cowperthwaite, who has died aged 90, became financial secretary of Hong Kong in 1961, the average resident earned about a quarter of someone living in Britain. By the early 1990s, average incomes in the colony were higher.

Cowperthwaite made Hong Kong the most economically free economy in the world and pursued free trade, refusing to make its citizens buy expensive locally-produced goods if they could import cheaper products. Income tax was never more than a flat rate of 15%. The colony's lack of natural resources, apart from a harbour - and the fact that it was a food importer - made its success all the more interesting. Cowperthwaite's policies attracted the attention of economists like Milton Friedman, whose 1980 television series Free to Choose featured Hong Kong's economic progress in some detail.

Asked what the key thing poor countries should do, Cowperthwaite once remarked, "They should abolish the office of national statistics." He refused to collect all but the most superficial statistics, believing they led the state to fiddle about remedying perceived ills, thus hindering the working of the market. This caused consternation: a Whitehall delegation was sent to find out why employment statistics were not being collected, but the financial secretary literally sent them back on the next plane.

Cowperthwaite's frugality with taxpayers' money extended to himself. He was offered funds by the Hong Kong executive to do a much-needed upgrade on his official residence, but refused, pointing out that since others did not get a housing benefit, he did not see why he should.

His hands-off approach meant an almost daily battle with Whitehall. The British government insisted on higher income tax in Singapore; when they told Hong Kong to do the same, Cowperthwaite refused. He opposed giving special benefits to business; when a group of businessmen asked him to fund a tunnel across Hong Kong harbour, he argued that if it made economic sense, the private sector would pay for it (as indeed it did). His instincts were revealed in his first speech as financial secretary: "In the long run, the aggregate of decisions of individual businessmen, exercising individual judgment in a free economy, even if often mistaken, is less likely to do harm than the centralised decisions of a government, and certainly the harm is likely to be counteracted faster."

He was helped by having two supportive Hong Kong governors, Sir Robert Black and Sir David Trench, both men with free market sympathies. He was also formidable at arguing his case: as Denis Healey recalled, "I always retired hurt from my encounters with the redoubtable financial secretary."

Cowperthwaite was educated at Merchiston Castle school, Edinburgh, and read classics at St Andrews University and Christ's College, Cambridge. While waiting to be called up by the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), he went back to St Andrews to study economics. This Scottish education imbibed him with the ideas of the enlightenment, especially those of Adam Smith, who had been born in nearby Kirkcaldy. He was a liberal in the 19th-century sense, believing that countries should open up to trade unilaterally.

He joined the colonial administrative service in Hong Kong in 1941. When the colony fell to the Japanese, he was seconded to Sierra Leone as a district officer, before returning in 1946 to work his way up the ranks. He became financial secretary in 1961, holding the post until 1971. His example inspired the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and was a key influence in China's economic liberalisation after the demise of Mao Zedong.

From 1972 to 1981, he was an adviser to Jardine Fleming & Co in Hong Kong. He retired to St Andrews with his wife Sheila, and was an active member of the Royal & Ancient. For many years he and Sheila spent six months of the year travelling the world visiting friends and relatives. He was an old-school civil servant and always resisted requests to write an autobiography, believing that his duty was to serve, not to reveal the minutiae of government business.

Tuesday 24 October 2023

"Empathy can be really bad for conflict resolution"

The Indiana University professor Fritz Breithaupt published a book explaining how stories have facilitated humanity’s development, cooperation and life plans

He believes that narratives are at the core of our humanity. Storytelling helps us to organize the world, to remember what has happened and share it with others, and to better plan for the future. Stories also serve as tools for putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes and allow others to step into ours. The amazing human ability to cooperate was built on stories. A professor of Germanic Studies and Cognitive Sciences at Indiana University (USA), Breithaupt, 56, imagines that narratives had an almost ritual status in tribes and served to hone storytelling skills and empathy and organize the world through stories.

“Maybe the famous nomads in Africa were [at] the same site. They were gathered [together] without [engaging in a lot of] activity. And then they would focus on one individual who would try to communicate what had happened to them, to her, to him, somewhere else. Maybe they had seen a dangerous animal, or they had seen food, or one of their group members was sick or injured somewhere else, or something else... That’s how I imagine it. I don’t assume that language was there. I assume that they would do something like pantomime. And others would understand...They bring a presence to something that’s not present,” explains the researcher. “One of the core [elements] of narratives is that they bring us out of the here and now. We can imagine a past situation. Once you have that effect, these people, I mentioned these early people, start to kind of decouple from the here and now. They can recall an event from the past or imagine and plan for the future, and that opens up a world of possibilities,” he speculates. Breithaup just published The Narrative Brain, a profound essay in which he explains why stories are so important.

Question. In the book you talk about how some people pit stories against scientific thought, how the latter can be a source of reliable knowledge while deception creeps into stories, and you remind us that Plato wanted to kick poets out of his ideal republic because they spread disinformation. But the philosopher was also carried away by the appeal of his own untrue stories.

Answer. We live our own narratives. We don’t notice this… we get carried away. But in other people, we can be very skeptical of them. We expose them as, oh, this is just propaganda… [With] our own narratives, that’s us. But the others, they have just stories and propaganda and words. And they’re all deception and deceiving.

Q. You also talk about the importance of stories in cultivating empathy, sharing experiences and building identity and values. That is a positive thing, but it can also be negative, can’t it? Many stories that reinforce our bonds and shared values among a group do so by pitting them against those of another group.

AEmpathy in principle is so wonderful because it works with everyone. And narratives [are] the same way. If you tell me the story of the experience of anyone far away, and that can be someone who’s politically, geographically, historically far away from me, I still can co-experience their situation. So for me, empathy is [really] about co-experiencing the situations of others. And that’s why it is so close to narratives. Because narratives allow us to do that. So, in principle, this is fantastic. We developed the large brain, in evolutionary respects, not so much to solve problems but to have that ability to co-experience.

Now, here comes the catch.... Narratives can get us to empathize with anyone. But one of the common triggers of empathy has to do with taking sides... When you and I observe a conflict, there’s two others, it can be a couple in the bar. We see a couple, we don’t know them, they’re starting to argue, and we happen to just be sitting there watching… And what humans tend to do... is we take a side. We also see it [in] sports… we don’t even know them, but we pick a side. We see the situation from their perspective. Then we copy their feelings. And the others seem to be enemies, they’re the bad guys, or the other team. But one of the key starting points for that is often this side-taking when there’s a conflict… So empathy is great for individual experiences, transcending ours. We’re not locked in our [own] brain. We are now sharing a space here too. And that means empathy can be really bad for conflict resolution. People always think empathy is good for solving a conflict. No, empathy is making it worse. To make a conflict less potent, we usually have to step back and say, no, not empathy. Let’s be calm. Let’s talk about how you solve this one particular issue here. On that level, empathy is very dangerous. Empathy makes us stuck in one narrative or another one, one side or the other one. It’s not easy to break out of that.

Human evolutionary biologists now basically agree that our brain is an empathetic brain.

Q. Could the ability of narratives to recall the past and predict the future also be the source of many of our mental problems, the depression of being trapped by one’s past or the anxiety of uncertainty about the future?

A. Narratives are super powerful because they… promise us an emotional reward. many of us imagine a positive outcome. Triumph, love. It can be all kinds of things... So in many cases, this is a positive thing... But… some people… get stuck in a negative space… So when they see a situation, they know [it] will end badly. They always come back to this bad memory… It will always be bad. Or some people also get very anxious about… all these things [that] could happen. They have too many narrative versions in their mind… It’s not just predictive brain in the narrow sense… We predict so many different things and that can be a dangerous space…. The solution to the problem in many cases is also a narrative one, namely that you learn to tell your own stories, that you take some agency in it. And there are different strategies for how to do that. Some people try to change the big story. That’s hard. So therapists [and] also people in the political realm who want to change bad narratives [do that]. When you have an [anxious] moment of too many possibilities you’re afraid of, [focusing] on one small [thing] often helps and opens a better door, so to speak.

Q. We are surrounded by stories, novels, movies and shows told by professional storytellers. Is it possible that we’re telling our own stories less often now?

A. I do see that as a huge danger for us: we lose individual storytelling. One of the many places where I would hope that more storytelling happens is in school. In the last 30 years… in school, there’s been a lot of emphasis… on learning math skills.... Young children… don’t get to tell their stories a lot anymore. We don’t have so many places where this happens and even school plays a big role in that… In the schools, there’s pressure on performance and kids telling stories [about] what they did [over] the weekend, that doesn’t sound like it’s a great performance, but it is important. That’s really… a very relevant way to grow up.

Of course… people are constantly on social media and social media has to do with storytelling, but it is quite different because you’re not telling it live… Social media can have the effect of letting people tell their story [from] far away… So people can find communities where they connect with similar experiences… But the real [issue] is actually not social media [itself]; it’s the time spent on the phone. It’s the time spent away from connecting in real life with real people and sharing experiences. There’s something about being in the same space and saying, hey, how are you?

Some people try to change the big story. That’s hard. Therapists and people in the political realm want to change bad narratives.

Q. Are there some stories that are more natural than others? Are there universal stories that might appear independently at different times in separate human groups?

A. I do not think there is a universal core story. However, in terms of folklore, we know that [there are] probably stories [that] have been with mankind for a long time now. So, it may just be that the same stories have been retold and retold in many different areas. So, I think they’re actually not independent from each other, but rather they go back to some early storytelling. I mean, this is the speculative part. I think our ancestors in Africa may not have had language yet in our modern sense, but they already had some basic theatrical hand-to-mime presentations. So, they had something like a couple of stories, experiences they were sharing, hunting, social ones too… death and all of these things. So, I think there’s a reason why a lot of stories resemble each other… stories spread very well.

Lots of people like Campbell, a scholar 70 years ago, thought all stories are one story. It’s always about a hero [who] goes in the vault and comes back. He said, that’s a basic story. And I thought, how can I get to that? Is there neuroscience for it or is there some experimental cognitive model for that? So… we did story retellings, the telephone game. We wanted to see when people get any kind of story, how they change it in their retelling. So, we look at the large patterns of that. And the idea is that at the end you should have the basic narratives. If there is a universal story, then all stories eventually should move in that direction. And we did that [experiment], and I think ultimately, there is not one core story. It’s more like there’s certain elements of stories that make good narratives. It’s not one basic core story that it comes down to. But the element that constantly plays a role is that stories need to have an end. You have expectations, but you do need this ending point. And this ending point has a lot to do with emotions. There’s an emotional kind of endpoint. And it can be all kinds of emotions. But you do need that happy ending [or] the embarrassing story. It needs to end somewhere or surprise [people in some way]. Surprise is also an emotion on some level. So that’s kind of one of the things that you need to get at. And that means that the emotion isn’t there in the beginning… So, you need change to get to that… So, you have an arc in a story… There’s a lot of other elements too. I mean, I would say there’s no story without… what I call multiversionality.... It could go this way or that way. Otherwise, it is boring.

Tuesday 26 September 2023

China as a model: Who said Asia has ‘low intellectual potential’?


Ramzy Baroud

Rise of China, Asia and Global South challenges historical perceptions and misconceptions

Ten years ago, I visited China as a member of a group representing leading Asian newspapers. After the guided tour, I spent many hours walking alone around the streets of Beijing. This left no doubt in my mind that this was a country experiencing incredible growth in every field.

Neither the skyscrapers nor the abundant expressions of wealth — though the socio-economic inequality was obvious — struck me. Rather, it was the energy of the place — particularly the youthful energy, which spoke volumes about what the future had in store.

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It seemed that for every achievement elsewhere, China wanted to do it much bigger — and better. The environmentally friendly residential buildings, the brilliantly designed theatres and opera houses, the giant libraries, and more are all done with a sense of purpose, enthusiasm and efficiency.

Greatest contributor to scientific knowledge

I have visited many countries prior. But something remained missing in countries that may seem to be experiencing outward growth: the lack of a wholesome approach to development. There are those who are experiencing a substantial enlargement in terms of infrastructure — homes, offices, shopping malls, etc. — but lack homegrown universities with direct contributions to knowledge. They rarely invest in public libraries, museums and scientific laboratories manned by their local talents.

This is hardly the case in China, which is now the greatest contributor to scientific knowledge in the world. The speed at which this change has occurred is as astonishing as the accomplishment itself.While global media had reported on China’s arrival to the far side, or ‘dark side’ of the moon, a few linked that unprecedented achievement to the fact that it was merely a culmination of China’s growth in most areas of science.

Questioning Asian intellect is a reminder of an ugly period in history where such language was either tolerated or accepted as fact.

Indeed, China now has “the highest ‘Share score’ in the Nature Index for the natural sciences, surpassing the United States,” reported.

There are nations that boast of having some of the highest income per capita in the world, yet the socio-economic equality gap remains wide. Compare this to China, where, according to a 2022 World Bank report, “Over the past 40 years, the number of people (...) with incomes below $1.90 per day (..) has fallen by close to 800 million.”

The perception is hardly present in the way that China is depicted in many parts of the world, especially as reflected in corporate mainstream media. In that highly politicised perception, China’s economic miracle is often belittled, devalued or reduced to old racist notions. This includes the relentless campaign accusing China of ‘stealing’ Western technology and cutting-edge research.

How China defied Western tropes 

During his term in office, former US President Donald Trump and a large section of the US political establishment advanced the cultural war on China by using such language as the “Chinese virus” — in reference to Covid 19.

Blaming the pandemic and all its horrific consequences on the ‘Chinese’ had numerous consequences, including widespread racism and outright violence, all recorded at length by leading international human rights groups. This was functional racism, carried out with the hope of halting the rise of Asia as a global leader and certainly a leader of the Global South.

This growing frustration, if not outright panic, is the outcome of several factors:

First, the speed of China’s growth makes it impossible to halt or even slow down. The fact that Huawei managed to circumvent US-led sanctions by recently producing its latest smartphone, the Mate 60 Pro, demonstrates that China can be self-reliant in matching — in fact, surpassing — the world’s most sophisticated chipmaking technology.

Only a few decades ago, China was viewed, at best, as a Western vassal state or, at worse, in the words of Winston Churchill in 1902, as a ‘barbaric nation’ that should be partitioned since a united China will one day ‘menace civilised nations’.

Second, unlike early Chinese growth during Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Chinese Economic Reform’, the country’s recent expansion no longer fits into the West’s global paradigm of economic supremacy.

Third, this growth is a direct challenge to the political discourse — that of ‘Western values’ — offering an alternative global leadership, thus changing the political framework which resulted from the outcome of World War II.

Lastly, the rise of China and, by extension, Asia and the Global South also challenges historical perceptions which viewed Asiatic nations as lesser, linguistically inferior and intellectually undeveloped.

Only a few decades ago, China was viewed, at best, as a Western vassal state or, at worse, in the words of Winston Churchill in 1902, as a “barbaric nation” that should be partitioned since a united China will one day “menace civilised nations”.

It is within these economic, geopolitical and historical contexts that many Westerners continue to perceive and criticise China.

Tuesday 12 September 2023

Folly and interdisciplinary mindset are the drivers of geniuses like Elon Musk

Gillian Tett, is chair of the editorial board and editor-at-large, US of the Financial Times

It is late morning on a Friday in Galatoire’s Restaurant on Bourbon Street, New Orleans — a road famous for multicoloured buildings and wild bars — and I seem to be almost the only sober customer in the joint.

On one side of me a group of girls dressed in Barbie pink are shrieking and waving lurid cocktails; on the other, rowdy men are hosting a pre-wedding party. Purple, green and gold balloons hang across the restaurant, which has the ambience of an old-fashioned French saloon.

“It’s a scene!” yells the American writer Walter Isaacson, straining to be heard above the cacophony.

I reflect to myself that it seems like an odd place to meet someone who is famous for tackling high-minded questions such as how to unleash innovation in America or navigate artificial intelligence. Or maybe not. The trigger for our lunch is that Isaacson, 71, has just explored these issues by writing a biography of a man who is as zany, loud-mouthed, unpredictable and wild as any New Orleans bar: Elon Musk. The book’s contents were being kept closely guarded ahead of publication day on Tuesday.

Chasing a controversial innovator was not a novel task for Isaacson: he has already penned hefty, bestselling biographies of Steve Jobs, Jennifer Doudna, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. I ordered these books before our lunch and the resulting stack of paper was almost a foot high.

However, exploring the mind of Musk was “not quite like anything I have ever done before”, he says, as we sit down. “I told him at the beginning [of the project] that if I am going to do this I have to be at your side for two years and I want to talk to you almost every day — I want to be like Boswell doing Doctor Johnson.”

That delivered “a wild ride”, says Isaacson. But it also left him (and everyone else) grappling with big questions: do you have to be half-crazy to be truly innovative, or a genius? And how do you stop a brilliant mind from spinning out of control?

“He told me he thinks he is bipolar — but has never been diagnosed,” Isaacson shouts a few minutes later, as I push the microphone into a wine glass beneath his mouth to contend with the hubbub. “But I think it is more complicated.” Indeed.

I thought it was insane — Musk doesn’t have empathy and so Twitter was not a good fit for him We have met in this unlikely venue because Isaacson is a local luminary: his family have lived in the city for several generations and he grew up close to Bourbon Street, a historic district known for its tourist crowds and Creole culture. “I had a magical childhood,” he confides, with a slight southern twang. “Very different from Musk.”

 As a young adult, Isaacson studied at Harvard and Oxford, fell in love with journalism and, after working for Britain’s The Sunday Times and a New Orleans paper, moved to New York, where he had a storied career: he became editor of Time magazine and chief executive of CNN before running the Aspen Institute, a think-tank, and transforming its fortunes.

But when Hurricane Katrina hit his hometown in 2005, it left him aching to reconnect with his roots. So he moved back a few years ago and now teaches history at Tulane University, while tirelessly championing the city and its icons.

Galatoire’s is an upmarket French Creole-inspired restaurant founded in 1905. “It’s a piece of history,” declares Isaacson as we arrive and the restaurant manager and waiters rush up, greeting him as a regular. The Democrat strategist James Carville — another New Orleans local — appears at our table, eager to swap gossip about US president Joe Biden. Then other guests swarm in, escaping the August street heat: 35C with 90 per cent humidity.

“What’s good to eat?” I shout, yearning for a light salad.

A waiter called Billy dumps big white bread rolls on the table and recommends starters of a local crab dish and shrimp remoulade, followed by fish. Lemon fish, red fish or pompano? Isaacson chooses pompano; I settle on red fish. Vegetables? Isaacson shakes his head, so I furtively order spinach. Cocktails? I mentally prepare to embrace the Creole spirit. But Isaacson orders a modest glass of white wine — “it’s a house blend, very good” — and I follow suit.

Menu Galatoire’s Restaurant 209 Bourbon St, New Orleans, LA 70130, US Crab with anchovies and mushrooms $20 Shrimp remoulade $15 Pompano $43 Red fish $44 Side of spinach $6 Glass of white wine x 2 $30 Total (incl tax) $174.52 As the wine arrives — mercifully crisp and cold — I ask Isaacson how he persuaded Musk to back his project. When he wrote his biography of Jobs, a decade ago, the Apple co-founder was willing to chat because he was battling cancer and mindful of his legacy. But Musk is young and still in a feverish expansion mode; why talk now?

“In 2021, I was kicking around looking for my next book, and a lot of friends, including Mike Bloomberg, said I should do Elon,” Isaacson explains. “So someone set up a phone call with him and we talked for an hour and a half, and I told him that if I do this I need total access, and you have absolutely no control over the book. None.”

Did he accept that? Musk is (in)famously obsessive about controlling even the small details of his life.

Isaacson nods. “He just said “OK!” Then he asked me if I minded if he told other people [about the book] and, of course, I said no.” Then, a few minutes later, Isaacson met up with friends who told him that Musk had dispatched a tweet — even during the phone call — announcing that Isaacson would be his biographer. Isaacson was shocked. “It was the first example [I saw] of him being totally impetuous.”

Why did Musk agree? “He loves history and he has a big enough ego that he thinks of himself as a historical figure — and he has a desire to surprise people with his openness and brutal honesty,” Isaacson says. Had Musk done his research before agreeing, by reading Isaacson’s searing biography of Jobs (which Jobs’ family disliked)? “No.”

A creamy dish of crab festooned with anchovies, mushrooms and green onions appears, next to orange-coloured shrimp remoulade. Both are delicious, but also very rich.

 Isaacson duly started shadowing Musk, expecting “this to be easy”, since his new subject was riding high. A decade earlier two of Musk’s companies — Tesla and SpaceX — had almost drowned in debt. But by 2021, Tesla had sold almost 1mn cars and SpaceX made 31 successful launches. That rebound had made Musk the richest man in the world; and Time magazine and the Financial Times named him “Person of the Year” for his vision in transforming green transport and space travel.

But then “everything was going so well that [Musk] became uncomfortable”, Isaacson says. “He doesn’t like things when they are going well. He is addicted to drama.” So, perhaps out of boredom, Musk hatched a plan to take over Twitter, the social media giant now known as X. “When I heard that, I knew I would have a rough ride [as his biographer],” Isaacson notes. “I thought it was insane — Musk doesn’t have empathy and so Twitter was not a good fit for him.”

Quite so. In the spring of 2022, Musk offered $44bn for Twitter and plunged into a damaging war with its staff, the media, users and liberal politicians. But Musk did not kick his biographer out; instead, Isaacson says, “I sat week after week on the sidelines taking notes. I was in the conference room at all the corporate meetings, attended his Zoom calls. I was at family dinners with his kids.”

But didn’t that breach commercial secrets? My mind boggles at what Tesla shareholders, say, might think. “I worried about that [privacy issue] more than he did,” Isaacson notes tartly, explaining that he was there during the intense internal debates when Musk decided to change Tesla’s approach towards self-driving cars away from one that used pre-designed rules for the artificial intelligence (say, to not run red lights) into one that studied Tesla video feed from onboard cameras to see how humans actually drive, and mimic them (even if, say, this means sometimes crossing a red light).

Even more explosively, Isaacson watched Musk embark recently on a hitherto-secretive drive to create an AI company, where he apparently hopes to use the vast stores of data from Twitter and Tesla to leapfrog other AI companies such as OpenAI. This could have huge commercial significance for the AI sector.

More controversial still, Isaacson observed Musk’s negotiations with the Ukrainian government in late 2022, when its army was using SpaceX’s Starlink communications system to support its military. Musk prevented the system from being used in areas claimed by Russia. “I have these [messages] in real time as he is turning off Starlink around Crimea because there was a secret drone attack,” Isaacson tells me, noting that Musk gave him all the encrypted messages with [Mykhailo] Fedorov, the Ukrainian digital minister, seemingly without asking the Ukrainians, and some of these are in the book.

I am shocked. Might that not put lives at risk in Ukraine? Or hurt the country’s western backers? “These text messages are a few months old. If there would have been operational [issues] I would not have published them,” Isaacson insists, noting that SpaceX subsequently cut a deal with the Pentagon that puts control into the hands of the US military. (Musk and Isaacson have been revising the details of the story in recent days, suggesting that the service was already deactivated in Crimea at the time of the attack.)

Recommended War in Ukraine Elon Musk gave biographer top Ukrainian official’s private messages without permission Musk fell into the habit of calling or texting him late at night to reflect on whatever dramas he was engaged in that day. “Elon is very mercurial, but he never told me not to put anything in the book.”

Did you ever feel like you were becoming his therapist, rather than his biographer? At the Aspen Institute, Isaacson was famously skilled at stroking powerful egos, even while challenging them intellectually. Isaacson bristles. “I never wanted to be either his therapist or adviser.” Fair enough. But their relationship does highlight the challenge of writing about a living person: how do you get close enough to capture their essence without being captured yourself?

“I learnt not to fill his silences,” Isaacson explains. “Sometimes it would be Elon and me alone after a [company] meeting and I would ask him a question and he didn’t answer, and there would be four or five minutes of silence where he was processing. That is hard — we journalists sometimes don’t have the ability to stay silent for four minutes!”

At first Isaacson was baffled by this. But then “Shivon Zilis [an executive at Musk’s Neuralink company who has had twins with him] told him that “Musk engages in batch processing — he sequentially processes information and at times he zones out”.

This makes him sound like a computer, I reflect. But this robotic analysis was interspersed with wild mood swings. “In front of me he would go into multiple Elon Musk personalities. There are times he gets really dark and he goes into what Grimes [the Canadian singer who is Musk’s on-off girlfriend] calls ‘demon mode’.” He will become angry. “But then when he snaps out he will hardly remember what he did in demon mode and turns from Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde.” Yikes.

Why? In a recent New Yorker profile of Musk, the writer Ronan Farrow suggested that excessive ketamine use might explain his volatility. But Isaacson disagrees: “I don’t think it’s a medication issue — he has been this way for a long, long time.” Instead, he cites the “pain of his childhood”: Musk grew up amid violence in apartheid-era South Africa, and had a difficult relationship with his father; he was left “feeling like an outsider” and haunted by a need to prove himself.

 “He is driven by demons,” Isaacson calmly notes — and then points out that this is not so unusual since many of the brilliant innovators he has previously studied were also haunted by feeling marginalised, whether it was the Jewish Einstein in early 20th-century Germany or the female Doudna operating in a male scientific world, or the illegitimate Leonardo.

Billy the waiter collects our dishes, and I realise that I have eaten most of the crab; it was deliciously succulent. Then two plates of fish, smothered in more crab, appear; I gingerly poke at mine, already feeling bloated in the summer heat from the heavy food.

Do innovators have to be a psychological mess to have the drive to succeed? Isaacson pulls a face. “I was born in a magical place with truly wonderful parents,” he says, gesturing around him. “And I am never going to send a rocket to Mars.” He pauses.

“Musk goes through manic mood swings and deep depressions and risk-seeking highs, and if he didn’t have that risk-seeking maniacal personality he would not be the person who launched EVs and got rockets into orbit.

“So my key point and conclusion is that all people have light and dark strands, whether that is Da Vinci or anyone else. We celebrate the light ones while decrying the dark ones. But those strands are entwined and you can’t disentangle them.”

To put it bluntly: Isaacson thinks that Elon’s demons are also his inspirational angels.

Of course, Isaacson adds, this is not the only key to genius: the other trait that many of the people he has studied also share is a passion for interdisciplinary study. Leonardo, say, explored the arts, humanities and science in combination, while Jobs used the principles of calligraphy to design computers. Isaacson argues that building interdisciplinary curriculums is one secret of unleashing more innovation.

“At Tulane we try to make sure that everyone has a double major in science and humanities — we need kids who are creative, not just those who can code.” Indeed, he believes that the crazy, artistic whirl of New Orleans, where boundaries are made to be broken, is the perfect cauldron for these collisions.

But could Musk’s “demons” overwhelm him? Isaacson hedges his bets. “I always think he is going to go off the edge with that maniacal intensity — he is spread far too thin,” he admits, noting that Musk is now in charge of six companies: the social media platform X, Tesla, SpaceX, Neuralink, the Boring Company — and his secretive AI group, xAI. “I thought he would blow Twitter up. But every morning I wake up and see it’s turning into, which is what he always wanted,” Isaacson adds.

So, too, in Musk’s private life; he has had 11 children by three mothers. “He has this maniacal belief in having lots of children.” But some of his children are by IVF. “It’s not like he is having all these romantic affairs.” Many, like him, are based in Austin, since “he likes having his children around. But it’s not a Norman Rockwell painting.” Do the mothers get on? “Not with each other,” Isaacson jokes. And sometimes not with Musk: Grimes recently revealed tensions over their kids in a subsequently deleted message on social media, and it emerged that she has more children by him than previously realised. Cue (yet) more drama for Musk — and Isaacson.

The decibels around us keep rising as more drinks are consumed. My redfish is half untouched. Isaacson takes a mouthful. “It’s good — more crab!” A waiter notices that our wine glasses are empty and offers more. We demur — and I explain that I will need to leave soon for the airport, because I am grappling with the summer travel hell of cancelled flights.

Did you end up liking Elon, I ask. Isaacson pauses for a long time; the writer is not someone who sees life in black and white, but — like his hometown — he admires complex shades. “‘Like’ is such an anodyne word — it doesn’t describe the intensity of reactions that Elon can provoke in a person,” Isaacson replies. “There are times he is fun to be around and times he is an asshole. I try to show all of these Elons in the book and then let people judge.”

So did he surprise you? “Yes.” He ticks off the shocks: the intensity of his moods; his obsessive addiction to, and focus on, engineering; the fact that “he became more intensely political, [since] he had not been when I started writing about him”.

Recommended FT Weekend’s best long reads of 2022 Elon Musk: ‘Aren’t you entertained?’ Contrary to popular perception, Isaacson insists that Musk “doesn’t like [Donald] Trump — he thinks he is a conman”. However, Isaacson concedes that Musk has now developed “an anti-establishment populism that you can see in Robert F Kennedy Jr and Vivek Ramaswamy — a conspiratorial mindset about the establishment”. That seems alarming to me with the 2024 election looming and Musk running X.

The bill arrives, and as we walk out into the scorching heat, I ask Isaacson who he could possibly write about next that would be as interesting. Over lunch, the names Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos were tossed out. “But I haven’t decided,” he quickly retorts. “All my headspace is Elon right now.” The same could be said of much of corporate America today; maybe we are all addicted to drama.

Thursday 3 August 2023

Unlike China, India Cannot Be an Economic Superpower

 Project Syndicate Logo 

Ashoka Mody, Visiting Professor of International Economic Policy at Princeton University 

Beginning in the mid-1980s, the prevailing belief among Indian and international observers was that the authoritarian Chinese regime would mismanage its economy, while democratic India would emerge as the bigger and more developed of the two. Instead, India is now paying the price for underinvesting in its human capital.

In March 1985, the Wall Street Journal showered India’s new prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, with its highest praise. In an editorial titled “Rajiv Reagan,” the newspaper compared the 40-year-old Gandhi to “another famous tax cutter we know,” and declared that deregulation and tax cuts had triggered a “minor revolution” in India.

Three months later, on the eve of Gandhi’s visit to the United States, Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati was even more effusive. “Far more than China today, India is an economic miracle waiting to happen,” he wrote in the New York Times. “And if the miracle is accomplished, the central figure will be the young prime minister.” Bhagwati also praised the reduced tax rates and regulatory easing under Gandhi.

The early 1980s marked a pivotal historical moment, as China and India – the world’s most populous countries, with virtually identical per capita incomes – began liberalizing and opening up their economies. Both countries elicited projections of “revolution” and “miracle.” But while China grew rapidly on a strong foundation of human-capital development, India shortchanged this aspect of its growth. China became an economic superpower; projections of India as next are little more than hype. The differences have been long in the making. In 1981, the World Bank contrasted China’s “outstandingly high” life expectancy of 64 years to India’s 51 years. Chinese citizens, it noted, were better fed than their Indian counterparts. Moreover, China provided nearly universal health care and its citizens – including women – enjoyed higher rates of primary education. The World Bank report highlighted China’s remarkable strides toward gender equality during the Mao Zedong era. As Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn note in their 2009 book Half the Sky, China (particularly its urban areas) became “one of the best places to grow up female.” Increased access to education and the higher female labor-force participation rate resulted in lower birth rates and improved child-rearing practices. Recognizing China’s progress in developing human capital and empowering women, the Bank made an unusually bold prediction: China would achieve a “tremendous increase” in living standards “within a generation or so.” Rather than tax cuts or economic liberalization, the World Bank report focused on a historical fact recently emphasized by Brown University economist Oded Galor. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, every instance of economic progress – the crux of which is sustained productivity growth – has been associated with investments in human capital and higher female workforce participation.

To be sure, market liberalization greatly helped Chinese and Indian growth. But China built its successful development strategy on the twin pillars of human capital and gender equality, areas where India has lagged far behind.

Even after it became more market-oriented, China invested impressively in its people, outpacing India in raising education and health standards to levels necessary for an internationally competitive workforce. The World Bank’s 2020 Human Capital Index – which measures countries’ education and health outcomes on a scale of 0 to 1 – gave India a score of 0.49, below Nepal and Kenya, both poorer countries. China scored 0.65, similar to the much richer (in per capita terms) Chile and Slovakia.

While China’s female labor-force participation rate has decreased to roughly 62% from around 80% in 1990, India’s has fallen over the same period from 32% to around 25%. Especially in urban areas, violence against women has deterred Indian women from entering the workforce.

Together, superior human capital and greater gender equality have enabled much higher Chinese total factor productivity growth, the most comprehensive measure of resource-use efficiency. Assuming that the two economies were equally productive in 1953 (roughly when they embarked on their modernization efforts), China became over 50% more productive by the late 1980s. Today, China’s productivity is nearly double that of India. While 45% of Indian workers are still in the highly unproductive agriculture sector, China has graduated even from simple, labor-intensive manufacturing to emerge, for example, as a dominant force in global car markets, especially in electric vehicles. 

China is also better prepared for future opportunities. Seven Chinese universities are ranked among the world’s top 100, with Tsinghua and Peking among the top 20. Tsinghua is considered the world’s leading university for computer science, while Peking is ranked ninth. Likewise, nine Chinese universities are among the top 50 globally in mathematics. By contrast, no Indian university, including the celebrated Indian Institutes of Technology, is ranked among the world’s top 100.
Chinese scientists have made significant strides in boosting the quantity and quality of their research, particularly in fields such as chemistry, engineering, and materials science, and could soon take the lead in artificial intelligence. As the figure shows, Chinese researchers, both in academia and industry, are rapidly generating high-quality patents.   

Since the mid-1980s, Indian and international observers have predicted that the authoritarian Chinese hare would eventually falter, and the democratic Indian tortoise would win the race. Recent events – China’s harsh zero-COVID restrictions, rising youth unemployment, and the adverse repercussions of the Chinese authorities’ ham-handed efforts to rein in the country’s overgrown real-estate sector and large tech companies – seem to support this view.

But while China, with its deep well of human capital and greater gender equality, stands poised at the frontiers of both the old and the new economies, Indian leaders and their international counterparts tout an ahistorical ability to leapfrog over a fragile human foundation with shiny digital and physical infrastructure. China has a plausible path through its current muddle. India, by contrast, risks falling into blind alleys of unfounded optimism.