Embarrassment and Riches
What George Soros Is Betting On
George Soros is famous for two things: making money and giving it away. Sometimes he acts like the hard part is giving it away, not only since he has so much—estimates top 10 billion dollars—but because philanthropy does not satisfy his idealistic ambitions. It turns out that a billion does not go very far when the goal is national political reform or world peace. If you're still sulking over that $100 you dropped on the Kerry Campaign, maybe you can relate. Soros spent $20 million trying to turn out voters for Kerry, and he was very disappointed with the results. That historic donation is one of many investments detailed in his new book, The Age of Fallibility: The Consequences of the War on Terror, a political treatise that reads like a cross between a college philosophy paper and a money management handbook.
The book is anchored by Soros's "conceptual framework," a guide to spotting false assumptions in society and anticipating their consequences. The idea is that by denying the inherent uncertainty in life, most people reinforce fictions that feed on themselves but eventually fall apart. So false expectations form a sort of stock-market bubble that reality eventually bursts. While traditional economics assumes people behave rationally, Soros explains that many important economic and political events depend on delusion—a "lack of correspondence" between people's views and the facts. He characterizes these "reflexive situations" as "initially self-reinforcing, but eventually self-defeating, boom-bust processes." This "boom-bust" framework can be applied to everything from globalization to the Bush Doctrine. Soros offers the example of Bush exploiting the fear of terrorism after 9/11 to deceive the public, squash dissent, and intimidate the press, creating a false bubble of support that could not, in the end, be sustained by facts. It came too late for the election, but now Bush is unusually unpopular and unlikely to rebound. Soros wants leaders and the public to be on the lookout to prevent similar "reflexive situations."
Even if this analysis is correct, it seems simple and coincidental. The ideas and skills that made the author rich also happen to be perfect for addressing the world's problems? It reminds me of working on the Kerry presidential campaign, when I met many supporters who were convinced their expertise would advance our electoral goals. In Los Angeles there was a "Yogis for Kerry" group offering their studio for voter recruitment, a fine gesture the campaign did not discourage, although there were greater needs than further consolidating our grip on the yoga vote. Sometimes the book takes a similar tone: Downward dog works for me, surely it can help swing an election.
Then Soros drops the stock-market analogies and talks geopolitics. He urges Americans to rethink "our role in the world" and abandon the "single-minded pursuit of national self-interest" in favor of action in the "common interests of humanity." What exactly are those common global interests? Turns out, Soros and his nemesis in the White House have the same answer: spreading democracy. While Soros says he was "tempted" to welcome the democracy talk in Bush's second inaugural address, he could not support applying it by force. After all, his foundation, the Open Society Institute, funds peaceful, local democracy programs in more than 60 countries.
But that leaves Soros attacking Bush's foreign policy while reinforcing its underlying ideology. Many people critique Bush for being incompetent, as if his execution is worse than his objectives. Yet Bush is not simply executing poorly—his entire foreign policy is built on the twin fallacies that a reckless offense is the best defense and the world wants (and hates) our freedom. Breaking with the Bush Doctrine starts by breaking with those ideas. Not every oppressed global citizen is pining for American democracy, just as not every despot is cowed by Iraq. Neoconservatives insisted that exporting democracy made the U.S. safer, but most people aren't buying it. In fact, there has been a dramatic "revival of isolationist sentiment" in public opinion, according to a recent nonpartisan Pew poll, which found that when Americans were asked to rate their foreign-policy priorities, spreading democracy came in "dead last." The public is looking for an alternative that emphasizes security at home, not democracy abroad. That will require toning down the idealism across the political spectrum.
Ultimately, The Age of Fallibility never explains how a greater awareness of "fallibility" will actually prevent the next bubble. Soros made a bundle betting against bubbles because he had a rare ability to anticipate the effects of misperceptions. The body politic is not nearly as swift at correcting itself.