Book Review: Imperium by Robert Harris

The Roman Republic has always had an unusual place in the pages of world history. Indeed, we attribute a great deal of importance to the Roman culture that stands as an example to modern society. From it’s political structure of self-governance and bicameralism to the idea of “innocent, until proven guilty; its principles are known for shaping the ideas of citizenship, justice and politics.

Thus, Robert Harris’s endeavor, by tapping into the exciting period of Roman History produced his most famous novel The Imperium. First, of the trilogy, the novel traces the political journey of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great statesman, orator and advocate.

Harris has a brilliant knack for turning insipid events of history into a stimulating fictional drama. Though Harris wrote the novel, the narration is in first-person by Tiro, Cicero’s slave but also his secretary and confidante. Cicero was an astute thinker and his composition of books, letters and speeches are the finest works of literature in Roman history. Tiro, the inventor of shorthand, remained loyal and always by his side. He described his life with Cicero as “ exciting, then astonishing, then arduous, and finally extremely dangerous.”

Cicero was considered a self-made man of his time. Often, there is a great admiration for a person with grit and perseverance. He cleverly outmanoeuvred his rivals to succeed to the most powerful position in Roman politics- the consul.

Not everyone is born successful. Even Cicero had to struggle with his health and stutter. With the professional help of Apollonius Molon, the Greek rhetorician, he became one of the powerful orators in Roman history.

A philosopher and an orator, Cicero’s fame was not unknown to the Romans. His sharp memory of remembering names, his public affection for his daughter Tullia, and his idea of fair justice were simultaneously on par with his insecurities, jealousy and his ruthless ambition.

According to Tiro, Imperium is “the power of life and death as vested by the state in an individual” and Harris emphasized on how power politics requires a man, who without a credible background had to risk his principles to reach the high level of political power of Imperium.

Cicero believed in the Roman judicial system, and as the book records, Cicero was determined to bring justice to the people who were cheated and robbed by Gaius Verres (governor of Sicily), which gained him the reputation of people’s champion. But at the same time, he was also afraid to ruin his image in the eyes of the Romans. His motive, in the end, was to achieve consulship, even if he had to defend the corrupt Marcus Fonteius, the former governor of Further Gaul.

However, Harris clearly shows that a true politician needs to be shrewd and pliant. Throughout the novel, Cicero found himself tangled between different social circles.

Despite all the efforts and endurance in collecting the evidence and witnesses against Verres, Cicero knew that the only way to win the case was to gain the support and friendship of Pompey. He even manipulated the Senate and the Romans to pass the two important laws Lex Gabinia and Lex Manilia in favor of Pompey. It eventually led to the fall of Roman Republic.

Such was the power of the aristocracy that the Roman Republic stood only for its name. Though each Roman class had voting rights, only the high-class aristocrats had a say in elections. The political system of Rome did not guarantee equal participation. What made Cicero popular amongst the people was his achievement without any aid, great wealth, powerful family and or a commanding army.

Cicero’s brothers, friends and Tiro- all played an instrumental role in his political career. But an exceptional and always a forgotten character in history is Cicero’s wife, Terentia. Though he married her only for money to become the senator, she was both supportive and critical of his tactics. Cicero often had to prove himself to her and twice in the book (the idea of short speech during Verres’ prosecution and her idea to form an alliance with the aristocrats to outplay Crassus and Catiline) had helped him surmount his struggles.

In the words of Tiro, “Cicero did not always emerge as a paragon of virtue” but his voice was so impactful that it was essential, to tell the truth about his dangerous and tactful venture in Roman politics.

Harris did a great job to prove the words of Tiro. His persuasive style creates a profound link between the story and its readers. A fast paced novel as this is sure to woo even to those who are uninterested in studying history.

Mexico: A Beginning of the Debt Crisis in 1980’s

1980’s was a watershed period for the Latin American economies especially Mexico that faced major financial and economic crisis from the late 1970s to 1980s. It is often known as the period of lost decade due to defaulting on sovereign debt by Latin American countries.

The crisis culminated due to mismanagement of fiscal and monetary policies of different government regimes of Mexico that proposed such policies.

Post World War II, Mexico followed an economic policy based on Import Substitution Model (a model that focused on internal development strategy by limiting the imports and encouraging regulated domestic markets in the country). Thus, from 1954 to 1972, Mexico claimed to have an era of Stabilizing Development (SD) or Mexico Miracle. It was a period of high economic growth and low inflation (3.5%). The major economic policies were introduced under President Miguel Alemán Valdés’s (1946-52) to maintain an overall price stability and a fixed exchange rate (fixed at 12.5 pesos per dollar). It allowed an economic structure that included private capital accumulation to stimulate industrial expansion along with high growth rates of agricultural output.

The high economic stability underwent a radical change under the presidential administration of Luis Echeverría Álvarez (1970-76). Under his regime, expansionary fiscal policy increased public spending in social development projects. In the succeeding five years, general government employment doubled and the share of total public sector spending in GDP jumped from 20.5 percent to 30 percent.

However, according to macroeconomic principles, as much as expansionary fiscal polices increase the aggregate demand that in turn helps in increasing the employment rates in the economy and high economic growth, if undeterred at the full capacity of the economy, it can cause high rates of inflation and fiscal deficit. Consequently, inflation rose above 20% in 1973-74 and another side effect of the fiscal policy was the crowding out. Since the government spending concentrated in the public sector, it led to a negative impact on private investment that slumped from 14 percent of GDP (at 1970 prices) in 1971 to 12.7 percent in 1975. The situation worsened with the disequilibrium of the balance of payments that led to a current account deficit of $4.4 billion in 1975.

Thus, Álvarez’s economic policies were a complete failure. Under his regime GDP grew at only 3.1%, slightly less than 3.7% under previous governments. An expansionary fiscal policy with high spending on education and other productive projects helps in long-term productivity. But the government failed to make such projects, as the priority was more on state-owned enterprises. The deterioration of the balance of payments led to a sixty percent devaluation in the peso at a fixed exchange rate of 12.5 peso per dollar.

Mexico was predominantly an agricultural economy with phases of industrial expansion undertaken by the government and a net importer of oil but this changed under President Lopez Portillo.

Years Real GDP per capita growth Inflation Current Account Deficit
1954-72 3.7% 3.5% -1.5%
Post 1972 3.1% 20% -2.9%

Source: IMF

In 1976, due to several unstable economic pressures, President Lopez Portillo replaced the political regime of Álvarez. To overturn the economic situation, Portillo made an arrangement of a stabilizing program of fiscal austerity with the IMF under Extended Fund Facility over the next three years (1976-79).

Positive Impact of IMF Intervention Pre 1976 1979
Fiscal Deficit (%of GDP) 9.9 6.7
Inflation (%) 27.2 20
Current Account Deficit $4.4 billion $2.2 billion

Source: IMF

The IMF intervention helped Mexico regained its reputation as one of the promising developing countries. The main reason for this positive impression was the two oil shocks in 1970’s and the discovery of oil reserves in Mexico. This placed Mexico in an advantageous position because in the period of oil shocks, Mexico became the primary exporter of oil. Moreover, the developed countries like the US encouraged by Mexico’s successful stabilizing program and economic growth extended bank loans to Mexico.

However, Portillo’s administration entered in an economic quagmire where rampant corruption and mismanagement prevailed and soon buoyed by the oil wealth, the IMF program was dropped and replaced by new expansionary fiscal policies. This was one of the first mistakes in the policy implementation due to the over optimistic picture of oil revenue wealth that eventually led to a fiscal deficit.

The new policy continued the Álvarez’s Public Expenditure-Led Growth (PELG) plan that entailed large development plans to increase real government spending. It also stimulated private sector investment from 11.7% to 14.1% in 1981.

The expansionary fiscal policies led to following changes:

Years From 1976 To 1981
Real GDP per capita (in US $) 4,973 6,467
Real GDP growth rate (%) 6.82 0.91
Inflation 27.20 28.61

Source: IMF

Though the policy reform led to some changes, it didn’t bring about a structural economic change. The inflation began to increase from 1978 and reached to high levels of 28.61% in 1981.

By early 1981, the share of Mexican oil market and export prices of oil began to decline, as the world economy entered a recession. This led to a sharp increase in the interest rates on short-term loans in contrast to near zero interest rates that the US commercial banks offered Mexico earlier. However, without analyzing the risk of borrowing more loans, the national oil company, PEMEX in the hope of continued demand for high quality of oil exported it without lowering down the prices.

The increase in fiscal deficit was offset by the reluctance of the banks to lend money and borrowed only at high interest rates. From 6.7% (in GDP), the overall fiscal deficit grew to 14.7% in 1981. By the end of 1982, the foreign debt grew to $81 billion. Inflation increased with an annual rate of 100 percent and real per capita GDP declined 8.1 percent.

In late 1982, Mexican Finance Minister Jesús Silva Herzog revealed the situation of the unsustainable debt crisis and that Mexico failed to service its debt to the lenders. The revelation brought out a bigger picture of the World debt crisis in 1982 and the incautious approach of the commercial banks to extend loans without considering the high risk of deficit involved. It also marked the end of new foreign lending and Import Substitution Model in Mexico.

Several efforts were made to leverage the economic situation that was marked by rising stagflation, high interest rates, and increased outflow of money from Mexico. Portillo responded by nationalizing the banks, introduced a system of exchange control, and devalued the peso by more than 260 per cent.

With the end of Portillo’s regime, the new President De La Madrid, restarted the structural reform program with IMF and with it Mexico’s economy set on a transition from ISM to the neo-liberal model of economy. Fiscal discipline was rigidly enforced and the consolidated public sector deficit relative to the GDP was halved from 17.6 percent to 8.9 percent. Drastic measures were taken to expand the export earnings and cut back the imports. This helped in trade surplus that rose to $12.8 billion.

Years From 1982 To 1985
Inflation (%) 98.87 63
Real GDP per capita growth rate -8.12 1.76

Source: IMF

However, such reform policies could not reduce the inflation rate that accelerated to 105% post 1985. The causes of the rising inflation were the contraction of domestic output and continued devaluation of the peso. Moreover, the situation worsened with another oil shock in 1986 and two earthquakes in Mexico post 1985. As the fiscal policies provided hardly any improvement in the economy, two Pacts- Pact for Economic Solidarity and Pact for Stability and Economic Growth were signed in 1987 to introduce a fusion of orthodox fiscal and monetary policy with income policy (limiting of the nominal wage increase to control the inflation) in short-term phases.

Hence, the economic changes along with the government policies moved Mexico to make a transition from inward-looking development strategy to outward and open market policies. The periodical fluctuation in the inflation and current account deficit rates show that poor policies of the government without considering the precautions and risks of the fiscal policies can have a negative impact on the economy along with the impression of distrust in foreign markets.

Bibliography

  • Buffie, Edward, and Allen Sangines Krause. “Mexico (1958-86): From the Stabilizing Developement to Debt Crisis.” Developing Country Debt and the World Economy (The National Bureau of Economic Research), 1989: 141-168.
  • International Monetory Fund. “The Mexican Crisis: No Mountain too High?” The Crisis Erupts 1982.
  • Gould, David M. “Mexico: Looking Back To Assess the Future.”
  • Kim, Kwan S. “Mexico: The Debt Crisis and Options for Development Strategy.” (The Helen Kellogg Institute of International Studies) September 1986.

Behind the Fog

When secrecy can harm the very purpose of having an intelligence organization in a State

Sitting in a café with friends sometimes makes one want to talk of complex global concerns. If for nothing else, then just to sound erudite to the person sitting on the table next to yours. And then there are times when this royally backfires.

So as my friend and I sat discussing intelligence agencies around the world, he mentioned China and that one word brought a hard-stop to the discussion. None of us could name the Chinese intelligence agency. Not that we are encyclopedias and that our not knowing, was a total shocker but still we could recall no mention of it in newspapers or in broadcast news. Anywhere!

I quickly made a run-through of all the intelligence agencies that I could recall- CIA, Mossad, R&AW, ISI but all the mind-palace efforts couldn’t help me stumble on the name. So finally, we pulled out our smartphones to clear the mystery.

-Ministry of State Security.

MSS was formed in 1983 and oversees counter-intelligence, amassing data from around the globe and political security. Not so astonishingly, it can even arrest citizens on violation of state security matters, unlike other intelligence agencies around the globe.

The MSS doesn’t work for the welfare of the people but for the maintenance of the Communist Party’s autocratic rule.

The Chinese name for MSS is Guojia Anquan Bu or GAB and it handles operations for Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, spy handling, cyber security technical intelligence and foreign liaison.

During its initial years, Deng Xiaoping didn’t want the MSS to recruit spies but to employ businessmen, journalists who would have a natural existing cover to aid questioning of any sort on the international front. He thought that operating from under the MSS would have more information fall into China’s lap than via a façade of institutions, which would end up raising more eyebrows and investing in cover-ups than actual work.

There is a second civilian intelligence agency called MPS- Ministry of Public Security which supports information security research and engages to a lesser degree in domestic intelligence operations. Military intelligence, on the other hand falls under PLA(People’s Liberation Army).

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Most countries with populations more than 5 million have intelligence agencies asset up. Even Hong Kong had managed to set up a “political department’ to cater to such needs before it was returned to China’s control. But in a county of 1.3 billion such as China, talk of such an organization is taboo and non – existent in mass media conversations or official documents.

How do the citizens perceive the ‘intelligence agency’ which has transformed into ‘secret service’? Many concerned netizens have asked for reforms urgently to ensure transparency and instill a supervising mechanism in place for the Chinese intelligence. But first of all, China needs to officially admit the existence of such agencies which can allow for accountability by people or even relevant government agencies.

It has become a trend for scholars of comparative politics to overlook intelligence agencies as mere components of government information processing units. They miss the crucial role played by them in maintaining state power and in formulating international policies. The matter of policy interventions by an unchecked intelligence community, functioning on certain biases will lead to misguided decisions that can spell disaster for the country.

Taking US’s example, its intelligence agencies moved from “non-existence” to public scrutiny after the1960s, which led to unearthing of many scandals and direct control by the White House and Congress. Now, however damaging, be these scandals, they are atleast proof of the checks in place and reflect on the active-passive state of the agency.

But then yet again, ‘transparency’ in a secret service organization seems incompatible. Doesn’t the nature of the work itself incorporate discretion ? Also, the Snowden leaks have revealed, how little tabs governments can actually place on top intelligence bodies.

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China differs in another aspect — of reporting the information to the government. It does not have an official way of integrated reporting into considered strategic analysis, or the ability to distill assessments into a single holistic view. Chinese intelligence agencies, both military and civilian, also have components that operate at the provincial level, leading to regional differences in their analysis, performance and equipment. With multiple layers between the intelligence sources and China’s leaders, it’s probable that what reaches the top levels has been influenced by multiple procedures and biases, leading to a less reliable finished intelligence product. It’s important to remember that an authoritarian system isn’t necessarily a unified one.

The primary purpose of the MSS today is to be the panopticon in China. In Michel Foucaults’ Discipline and Punish, he mentions the Panopticon to be a circular building with a tower in the middle from where an observer can watch anything and everything – Non-stop surveillance. But for Foucault, panopticism wasn’t an intrusive term but an encouragement to economic productivity and social harmony.

But what he doesn’t take into consideration is what happens when the watchman starts abusing such all prevailing power, which is exactly the case with MSS and MPS today.

Hope China clears the fog.