Thursday, June 14, 2007

Money is not everything…

Just got finished reading Robert Amsterdam's "The Economic Perks of Autocracy". Amsterdam's premise is that Russia's current human rights abuses and their burgeoning autocracy does not seem to be dissuading investor's from both climbing on the bandwagon and showering Putin with praise. He makes it clear that from this perspective, Putin does not seem to be doing anything inherently illogical but that the west seems to be missing the point of its own rhetoric.

    The experience of booming business in Russia accompanied by eroding liberties has revived an old debate - what will happen if and when dictatorships are able to outperform democracies in economic growth? Why bother advocating for rule of law in such a situation? In fact, this has been the principal underlying rationale behind Vladislav Surkov's doctrine of sovereign democracy - that Russians are yet mature enough to be responsible for the selection of their own leaders, and that perhaps after another decade of economic growth under state corporatism can the Kremlin's grip on political and economic power be loosened.

To me the irony here is wasted. I ask you: Do you really think that Russia cares one iota what you think of how they run their country? Do you think they lose any sleep at all about your "human rights" issues? Their manner of doing business, and this also is true of Belarus, is that they take a proposition, figure every possible angle about how to exploit it and then do so. Simplest business plan in the history of the world.

What they do not do is worry about their image. They do not waste money on a bunch of spin doctor type lawyers to deal with potential public backlash. (I guess this is really where the human rights problems comes in because generally, there is no backlash.) They do not have any particular middlemen to worry about because in general, they control the entire system all the way down the line. They also have no particular internal squabbles to slow things down. Or in other words, though we like to decry a socialist approach as being bad for the creative, independent individual, apparently, it kicks ass in business circles.

Mr. Amsterdam also touches on the point that does have some irony in it; The same people who are attacking Russia for being "an immature people" or for moving away from rather than towards some sort western style democracy, are also, surprise, surprise, interested themselves in making a buck. Is the point here that it was a shocking revelation that money could be a motivator towards doing immoral acts? Boggles my mind; Is this possible?

All sarcasm aside, I think what is lacking here is a bottom line. To me the real issue here is that Russia still is communist. Sorry to mess with your head, but it is the truth. Or maybe it is better to say that the country is populated by people who are commies in their souls. Well, there is no across the board pay check or public speeches about how to get along and act socially but if this is not true they are at least completely socialist and for sure don't think of the word communist as being anything dirty.

So having said this, I believe that the problem we have is that Mr. Amsterdam seems to be asking which is more important: The money or the people. I will let you mull over this thought for a moment but to me, this question carries more irony that all the irony in all the irony mines. I say this because this was exactly the point of glasnost and perestroika sixteen years ago. That Reagan is standing there next to Gorbachev yelling "tear down the wall" is only happening because Gorbachev needs something from Reagan. And this of course was money, or at least investment. At that moment, The Soviet Union knew better than they knew how many shots there are in a bottle of vodka that they didn't have a damned thing to sell but their humanity. What they were hoping for was a warm fiscal hand in return for tearing down that wall and dropping the iron curtain; for ending the cold war and the accompanying threat of nuclear holocaust. They just wanted some help feeding themselves.

They…did…not…get… it.

They did not get it for fifteen years actually. What they did get was treated like second class citizens, used for sex tours, denied access to European ports and trade, and exploited for every last thing that could be found including their children. What they did get was carpet bagged, hard-balled, lo-balled and ripped off. These last statements are debatable, but for sure what they didn't get was any sorts of warm, friendly human handshakes. It must have been quite a shock to them. Eventually though they seem to have learned their lessons. Ever heard of a hostile takeover? Ever heard of the phrase 'corporate downsizing'? Ever heard of the phrase 'The bottom line'? Russia didn't invest ruthless business practices (Or the accompanying high profitability) they have simply found a way to exploit a natural resource to catapult them into business, finally, and they seem to be making the most of it.

Having a depressed Russia may have meant a safe night's sleep for all of those capitalists on the move. But for the Russians, it was just depression.

So don't be so surprised if Russia doesn't care what you think. In fact, where is what they are doing any different from how 90% of all westerners would do business if they could? Where is it so unbelievable that there is such a thing as businessmen without any particular moral obligation to their fellow man? Are we saying that this is shocking from them? Where is this so unusual?

I think Mr. Amsterdam uses the word hypocrisy in his conclusion a bit naively. There is nothing going on here business-wise that is not going on all over the world at the moment. And if there is a real irony here it is that the bi-polar argument used to refer to socialism/communism balancing out capitalism, and forcing it to remember that business is not just for profit but also to support labor and consequently communities. Or to put it another way, without the Soviet Union to remind us that it just might be possible to live together, the world might just tear itself apart from greed.

I think the real lesson here, and I think it is obvious as hell, is that it was the west, not the Russians who weren't growing up.