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Book Review: The J-Curve

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This is the last of a nine part series on the Patterson School Summer Reading List.

1. China’s Trapped Transition, Minxin Pei
2. The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs
3. Illicit, Moises Naim
4. In Spite of the Gods, Edward Luce
5. The Utility of Force, Rupert Smith
6. The Box, Marc Levinson
7. Fair Play, James M. Olson
8. Negotiating Change, Jeremy Jones
9. The J-Curve, Ian Bremmer

Ian Bremmer is a Stanford Ph.D. and the president of Eurasia Group, “the world’s leading global political risk advisory and consulting firm.” He has penned The J-Curve, in which he introduces a simple model for thinking about stability. Stability, according to Bremer, is kind of like the letter J; you can achieve it either through repression or opening, but it’s hard to shift between the two. States attempting to move from repressive to open often find themselves in chaos, represented by the bottom dip in the J. The right, or open, side of the J is longer, since truly open states (US, France, etc.) are more stable than truly repressive states (North Korea). The journey from one to the other, however, is perilous, and it’s easier to find short-term stability by climbing up the left, or repressive side of the J. I should note here that I don’t think that Bremmer is trying to make an observation about leftish or rightist politics; it’s just the shape of the letter. Bremmer follows this up with an analysis of a handful of countries at various points on the J-Curve.

What does this book have to offer? I’m pretty much with Dan Drezner (SoH) on this one:

As for the book’s country analyses, they are not so much wrong as banal. The reader learns such nuggets of information as, “Iran is too big and too influential for the world to ignore,” and “A revolution in Saudi Arabia led by religious radicals would send political shockwaves across the Muslim world” and “A Chinese civil war would have catastrophic effects on the global economy and on security in Asia.” Who knew? These chapters provide a quick and dirty version of Troubled Countries 101, but they are light on substance.

For those who have paid no attention to the outside world for the past few years, The J-Curve offers a useful primer for cocktail party chatter. For everyone else, Bremmer’s book should reinforce stereotypes about the genre of the bigthink of consultants.

Also like Dan, I was troubled by his definition of open-ness; it seemed to shift from chapter to chapter, and to involve some impenetrable mix of political and economic liberalization. I was unconvinced that Bremmer had put the his country case studies in the right order, or at the right spots on the curve. And while there’s some value in simplicity and an easily grasped metaphor, Bremmer has to contort wildly to find spaces for Russia and Iran, and essentially gives up on putting China anywhere on the curve. The analyses suffered especially in comparison to the other books we’ve read on the Patterson Reading List; there was no single country that I thought Bremmer had done as well a job of analyzing as any other author on the list.

Bremmer visited the Patterson School last week, and gave an excellent talk on the subject of the book. He’s an extremely knowledgeable guy with much more to offer than what’s on display here. The project of the Eurasia Group, which Bremmer discussed a bit, is really quite interesting. It’s a firm designed to analyze political risk for big investors. Bremmer explained that, when he arrived on Wall Street, there was much room for an economic analyst but little space for a political scientist. On the presumption that professional political scientists could make a contribution to risk analysis that added to what economists could do, he founded the firm. It’s been very successful, but is apparently very expensive. This poses some interesting questions about the kind of work done there, and its relationship with the academic project. One hallmark of academia is supposed to be the open sharing of data and ideas; the point is to get work published in open fora, thus contributing to human knowledge and providing a foundation for the work of future scholars. The Eurasia Group, to my understanding, can’t do this; for obvious reasons, the benefits of its work must remain at least somewhat exclusive to its clients.

I’m more interested by this than troubled by it; there’s nothing wrong, in my view, with selling one’s expertise to the highest bidder. And hey, anything that enhances the non-academic marketability of professional political scientists…

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