A Visit to Northfield

by William Urban

Periodically each member of the faculty goes off to a conference. These gatherings are very important to scholars in a number of ways. Officially, they are to hear new ideas, to learn about teaching techniques, to exchange views, and to return to campus revived and enthused. More often, a conference is an opportunity to talk with others who understands one’s research and study interests, to compare students and deans, and to consume a few beers in good company. Occasionally, it is a "consciousness-raising" session, for those whose social and political views are not widely shared—say, the three Republicans on a faculty; but in that particular case it would a private matter, not an ACM concern, and the individual must pay his (rarely her) expenses and not cancel classes. The sponsors of these conferences believe that the participants will share their findings with colleagues and students. And, yes, this occurs, though often limited to a few comments in lectures or summarized in the formula, "it was a great conference."

Rarely does any scholar actually sit down to write about the actual experiences, either as an aid to memory (though we tell students to do this, or we assign reaction papers) or to inform the college community. This is a national phenomenon, perhaps based on the belief that a scholar should be modest. A former dean once tried to change this attitude by requiring participants to submit a written report that could be shared with colleagues, but his implied threat to send someone else to the conference next time came up against the fact that usually only two or three people were interested in the topic of any given conference. I mention this reticence to write reports now to remind you that my occasional summaries of conferences are worth reading, if not for the information, at least for the experience of seeing something rare and unusual.

My most recent conference was March 3-5, 2000, in Northfield, Minnesota. That small city is famous mainly for shooting the James brothers gang to pieces in seven exciting minutes long ago, but also for two excellent ACM colleges, Carleton with its gigantic endowment balanced by the movie set look of St. Olaf (you should see the new student center/cafeteria!). The conference’s jawbusting title was "Integrating Post-Communist Transformations into the Liberal Arts Curriculum." Sound exciting? No matter. Specialists in eastern and east-central Europe were quick to see that this would be a welcome update on affairs in the post-Soviet world. I knew a good many of the professors who would be there, and I knew they were people worth listening to, so I arranged to make the seven hour drive north with Ken McMillan. Good company makes even the longest drive go quickly. (Quite a contrast to the trip decades ago on two lane roads with Dr. Edina Guillermo, a person I liked very much for an evening’s conversation. We had hardly cleared the city limits when she said, "Ora hablamos espaZol." And we did. Ten hours later, when we arrived, my throat was very, very sore. La misma cosa on the return.)

The opening banquet was a spread! Nothing like the combination of good taste and money to make a good impression, and Carleton College had both. The keynote address which followed was a nice stroll down memory lane. How many theories we had tested over the past four decades, only to find each somehow lacking—modernization theory, supposedly appropriate to post-colonial societies just out from under western oppression; dependency theory, to explain why post-colonial societies weren’t working; transactional theory, to explain why dependency theory was too simplistic; and so forth. All of these were tried out again when the Soviet Union disintegrated, and, surprise! none of them explained very much this time, either.

Scholars are eternal optimists, so we worked through some new theories. And why not? If the alternative is to say that we are very bad at making predictions, how are we to justify the amount of time we put into it, the amount of money our colleges pay us, and the confidence our students show in our confident pronouncements? Life may be a crap shoot, but craps is a mathematically based game; and a batting average of .300 will get you a multi-year contract in the American League.

One presenter described the differing kinds of nationalism in Russia today. For example, ethnic versus civic nationalism is as different as a pogrom and pride; defensive nationalism is not the same as jingoism; and elite nationalism seemed like an interesting idea when I heard it, but I can’t quite remember now which elite it was to reflect, important Russians or non-Russians who had been brought into the system. The latter provide the leadership of several new states in post-Soviet Asia which have not gone in the religious or nationalist directions experts had predicted. This elite was too astute to throw themselves out with the Soviet bathwater (in their lands water is an expensive commodity). And, surprisingly, after violating every rule of thumb and expectation, the new leadership of these states is doing rather well, at least when compared to the bumblers in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and the Islamic fundamentalists and Baath dictators to the south.

Several sessions discussed the situations in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The impact of Soviet-era secularism and Russification there has been more profound than expected, and these trends may be more significant now that the pressure from Moscow has lifted. Muslim identity has been transformed considerably. Guests are greeted with a glass of vodka. The veil has reappeared here and there, but it has not been imposed. The Afghan model seems to have been rejected. In China there is a rediscovery of the individual that contrasts strongly to the collective identity of the past; this trend can be seen in books and movies going back to 1979's Unrequited Love and the more recent Small Well Lane. The Chinese seem to be seeking alternatives to Mao’s community-based programs that had brought economic and social disaster, and the free market and its associated individual liberty seems to be the dominant concept, with religion coming along next.

The drama of social transformation starts with questions such as "Who are we?" The search for authenticity looks for useful traditions, devolves into nostalgia, and redefines citizenship. I was reminded of Katherine Ann Porter’s Ship of Fools, a marvelous study of human foibles and frailties set on a ocean liner en route from Vera Cruz to Bremen in 1938 or so. The passengers identify themselves in various patterns, Christians versus Jews, Catholics versus Protestants, women versus men, collective identities dissolving as smaller and smaller groups converse; envies and jealousies, sexual proclivities and fears, individual hang-ups and downright stupidities come to the surface. No one is spared. Such is one reality of the world in which we live. And yet somehow we have to muddle through. If we refuse to act until we have a society of angels, we might as well individually move to Idaho, live by ourselves, and send packages to those of our former colleagues who are prominent enough to be asked to speak at conferences.

The most interesting exchanges came in the session on Sins of Economists. The speaker admitted that the economic collapse of Yelstin’s Russia had not been foreseen, but he pointed out the awkward fact that no one had foreseen the political collapse of the Soviet empire, either. His suggestion that economists were not as guilty as usually charged brought waving hands from the audience, with questions such as "did you never ask a historian about Russian culture?" Indeed, the failure of past efforts to turn around Russian economic habits was seldom mentioned, though surely everyone had heard of Peter the Great’s energetic but ineffective methods of persuasion. The economist responded that the lost decade of growth and the negative figures in production, health and life expectancy were not the results of the wrong model, but in having the wrong assumptions built into the model. Jeffrey Sachs had correctly said that institutions develop quickly in a market economy. A commerce code, good accounting and a tax code should not have been that difficult to draw up, but psychological and political factors prevented their appearance. Those who were in charge of Russian industry and agriculture, the nomenklatura, understood that true reform would bad for them. The big shots of the Soviet era had acquired power through politics, not competence; they feared losing their jobs and summer homes. Those at the bottom waited for the state to tell them what to do; they were paralyzed by socialist dependency; the mafias, which had been the great entrepreneurs of the Soviet state grabbed the short-term opportunities to enrich themselves rather than make long-term investments. In other countries, such as Poland and Estonia, where the politicians were willing to move swiftly toward liberalization, all indicators are very positive—the growth rate is up, inflation is low, life expectancy is increasing. States which tried a middle road are doing better than Russia, but not as well as Poland.

All my personal experience leads me in the direction of blaming Russian culture for the perennial backwardness of the economy and several unhappy social practices such as drunkenness and mistreating women, but I find myself uncomfortable thinking that environment and circumstances determine individual choices so completely. Down that road wait racism and sexism. I would prefer to give the economist another try. So I thanked the airline-quality seats in the small auditorium for keeping me awake while the speaker elaborated on the specifics of the economic disaster.

The discussion of the "law of one price" and opportunity costs lost a few members of the audience, but the general thrust of the argument was clear—investment in Russia is difficult because of the existence of "noise" caused by inflation, fraud, and the lack of any ability to enforce contracts. In an atmosphere of lawlessness "sunk costs" will rise. In short, investors lack sufficient information to make economic judgements and, if they make money, are liable to be ripped off by the mafias and the government. On the positive side, kiosk capitalism seems to be alive and well. If that can grow, perhaps the benefits of liberalization will extend beyond the 10% who genuinely are better off today than under communism.

Central to the breakdown of the reform efforts was the failure to develop a banking system that could make loans to small industry and individual farmers and workmen. Many banks were founded, but they were used to transfer abroad the funds stolen from foreign aid and depositors. The mafias expanded from an essential though unobtrusive part of the Soviet economy to a dominant open presence; they had always worked with corrupt party members and police—their private sector activities were always criminal by definition, but then the bolshevik government itself had been criminal in practice from the very beginning.

The breakout discussions following this were lively, with most scholars agreeing that psychology is more important now than economic statistics. Nobody is starving in Russia, there is plenty of food available, and the market for cars stolen in western Europe is thriving. On the other hand, few have the money to take advantage of the consumer goods that were formerly not to be had except as provided illegally and expensively by the mafias. So there is a disparity of reality and expectations that bodes ill for the future. Similarly, real liberalization of the economy is difficult because the politicians can blame the suffering of the past decade on capitalism; since politicians can play on decades of anti-American and anti-free market indoctrination, as well as poor memories and the genuine grievances of groups such as pensioners, there is little chance that the public will look past their propaganda. Many remember the successes of socialism—education, health and sports; few remember the failures—breakfast, lunch and supper.

On the other hand, Putin seems firmly in power in Russia, and there is little likelihood of returning to Communism. For one thing, too many former communists have profited from the new system. Like Henry VIII’s nobles who got the lands confiscated from the monasteries, they are reluctant to offer back their winnings (and perhaps their heads as well). For another, Putin has played the Russian nationalist card very cleverly. Especially regarding the Chechins, who were big-time mafia players as well as a major threat to disrupt the empire; worst of all, the Chechins had injured Russian pride—the nation that had beaten Hitler had been bested by a handful of Islamic extremists. A drubbing in Afghanistan was one thing. In the Caucasus, it was something else.

Discussions about teaching provided some interesting exchanges. The discussion of a "one size fits all" curriculum did not last long—professors have differing backgrounds, experiences and interests, teach somewhat differing student bodies, and like to have courses reflect topics of current interest. There was criticism of the "touristic amateurism" of some semester abroad programs and a discussion of books that had been found useful (or not)—most prominently the Czech authors, Havel and Klima; but these professors were too well read and too widely traveled to need much guidance, and too experienced to worry about providing a good educational experience for their students.

In short, "it was a great conference."