Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Get Yer Rogoff

Much later in my career, when I became Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund, I again found chess very useful.

Ken Rogoff, interview in New In Chess 2011/1, p. 33

The IMF attack gave those who were there a chance to see firsthand the IMF's arrogance and disdain for people who disagree with its perspectives. The IMF's unwillingness to engage in meaningful discussions is something many people in developing countries have seen. For those involved in making the arrangements for the forum - in which the IMF had repeatedly given the assurance that it was to be a discussion of substance - it provided another instance of that institution's duplicity. So did its approach to the press: after asking that the discussion be off the record (I believe that such meetings should be on the record, but in the hope that it might facilitate greater openness, I deferred to their conditions), the minute the session was over, the IMF faxed and e-mailed the remarks of their chief economist, Kenneth Rogoff, to the press. They chose to include neither my remarks, those of the World Bank's chief economist, nor those of the commentators who followed. Rogoff's remarks were described by the IMF as an "open letter", which was itself a sham: the letter was certainly never received by me and almost surely was never sent to me.

Joseph Stiglitz, Globalization And Its Discontents, Afterword to the Penguin Edition, Penguin, 2003, p. 272-3.

It was Denis Healey who once likened being attacked by Geoffrey Howe to being savaged by a dead sheep. I often feel the same about Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam's interviews, which occasionally stray closer to "O Great One, tell us what makes you so great" than one might like. One such occasion was the interview with Ken Rogoff in the latest New In Chess.

It's some years since I saw JFK, but I have a recollection of Kevin Costner, as Jim Garrison, reading the Report of the Warren Commssion and saying to himself "ask the question! ask the question!" whenever something that should have been challenged goes unchallenged. Reading Dirk's Rogoff interview was something like that.

Ask the question, Dirk!

Actually, reading anything by Dirk is something like that: you could write a piece like this about almost any interview of his. Rare is the answer that fails to stroll, unmolested, past Dirk's respectful baa.

It's not as if an interview has to be an interrogation: it's just that when an interviewee's answers beg a further question, it's going to be a better, more searching interview if you ask it. So, for instance, when Rogoff tells Dirk:
there's an area of economics called game theory, and some of my work makes use of it.
This, of course, is true. But it like game theory itself, it's not so simple: one's inner Costner starts muttering "ask the question!". What sort of question? Perhaps something like this:
"Is that actually a good thing? Isn't there a strong critique of modern economics which criticises the influence of game theory? Not least because it it's alleged to have led to a over-reliance on theoretical, rather than real-life models of economic behaviour?"
Rogoff might well have replied "no, I don't think so". Or he might have said "yes, but I don't agree". Or he might have offered us some kind of "maybe". The precise answer is not the point. The point is that at least the question would have been asked.

As it might have been a short while later, when Rogoff says:
I also do a lot of work on financial crises and that too involves game theory. Because when countries default on their debt, it's almost never because they can't repay it, it's because they don't feel like it.
Well, maybe. But I cannot have been the only reader to have wondered which countries Rogoff was thinking of. Or what exactly he meant by "can't" - and for that matter, by "don't feel like it". (Or, indeed, if Rogoff knew what he sounded like when he talked like that. He reminded me of the time I was in a pub with a chap from the IMF who described Albanians as "the most ungrateful people in Europe". But I digress. Or perhaps I don't.) Dirk, however, didn't wonder. He doesn't wonder often.

Now at this point you might be inclined to defend Dirk, on at least three possible grounds. One, that Dirk is not understood to be knowledgeable about economics, and hence couldn't reasonably be expected to know what, in Rogoff's answers, might have invited a second bite. Two, that it might not actually be Dirk's job to do this - that there's different ways of interviewing a subject, not all of them resembling an interrogation, and it might not be such a bad thing to ask some questions and let the interviewee set out his stall. Three, that New In Chess is a chess magazine, and discussing controversies in economics is not its primary job.

Don't ask me!

Which would be fair observations - up to a point. But there's another view, which is that if an interviewer doesn't ask the questions that occur to the moderately knowledgeable reader, then the reader is surely not going to be well served by the interview. An interview is not a questionnaire: some answers do need to be followed up, to flesh out the subject's opinion as well as to satisfy the attentive reader. Dirk may be easily satisfied, but his readers, perhaps less so.

But as for Dirk's knowledge of economics - the introduction to the interview (which, as Editor-in-Chief, we can assume Dirk either wrote, or approved) reads, in part, like this.
His recent bestseller,This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly....makes it clear why Rogoff is consulted by political leaders and policy makers all over the world.
To my eyes, it's hard to see how it could "make it clear" unless Dirk had read the book and been impressed by its learning and analysis. Now this judgement wouldn't be worth very much, unless Dirk has at least a layman's knowledge of the subject area with which it deals - otherwise, on what basis is he impressed? (Of course it's possible that Dirk either hasn't read it, or has read it but doesn't know enough to judge whether it's good or bad, and the comment is in fact no more than a genuflection. But I would hope we can rule out both possibilities.)

As far as whether or not readers of a chess magazine are interested in economics per se, one answer is that if we're not, why is Rogoff being asked about it in the first place? But more than it's possible that these questions might still interest us, precisely because Rogoff's invocation of game theory, and his insistence of the insincerity of debt default, are linked, by Rogoff himself, to his experience as a chess player.

So possibly a more assiduous interviewer, if we can imagine such a person, might have used the opportunity to turn some assumptions on their head. They might have asked whether a background in chess might be altogether a good thing, whether it might bring with it handicaps as well as advantages, whether it might bring a problematic perspective rather than a beneficial one, whether it encourages people to think in terms of games and strategies rather than in terms of people and the effect on them of IMF recovery programmes. That might have been interesting: it might have been a fruitful discussion. But Dirk lets it pass, and misses the opportunity.

He also lets pass the major controversy of Ken Rogoff's career, the one to which the quote from Joseph Stiglitz, above, refers. Stiglitz, holder of a Nobel Prize for Economics, wrote a powerful critique of the International Monetary Fund, attacking its policies and modus operandi in a number of countries, but particularly Russia. I refer the interested reader to his book, but a summary might be: the IMF go to a country, stay in the most expensive hotels, operate in conditions of secrecy, treat with contempt local knowledge, experience, opinion and conditions, impose the same one-size-fits-all package on that country that they favour everywhere else, cause great damage in doing so, and then treat critics with arrogance and contempt.

Now it would be unfair to Rogoff, and for that matter to Stiglitz, to characterise Stiglitz's attack as being one on Rogoff personally, rather than the institution which he served as Chief Economist. Moreover Rogoff was actually prepared to debate openly with Stiglitz, rather than behave as the IMF had done. Nevertheless it was an attack on an institution to which Rogoff's contribution was a central one, and hence a crucial moment in Rogoff's career, if not a career-defining one. Either Dirk doesn't know about it, in which case he should, or he does, but chooses to let it go unmentioned. Which is a bit like interviewing Tony Blair without mentioning Iraq.

Dirk at work

The point I'm trying to make is that if you're going to interview somebody, even on a subject outside chess, and they say things like
I like to study the international financial crises, I don't like to cause them
then the response "but didn't Joseph Stiglitz accuse you of doing very much that?" is pretty much called for - if you're seeking to provide the public with a proper interview. Similarly, if Rogoff says
there are certainly principles we have that we know, and economics is always advancing
you really want somebody to say "but didn't mainstream economics just suffer an enormous intellectual and practical disaster? Isn't that widely agreed to have been down to 'groupthink'? Wasn't that groupthink very much the assumption by everybody concerned that they "knew" certain principles? Wasn't in fact Ken Rogoff's old employer very much guilty in precisely that way?"

You want somebody to say this, because those are things that a well-informed reader must be thinking. Or, if they're not thinking them (or you don't think they are, because this is a chess magazine) then, again, one asks - why, actually, in a chess magazine, are you asking an economist questions about economics?

The thing is, New In Chess, as far as its interviews are concerned, is no better than Hello! magazine, possessing neither the capacity nor the will to do anything quite so daring as ask a difficult question. But if you're not going to ask properly, why ask at all? What is the point of asking people about their careers without even mentioning the controversies in which they have been involved, or of inviting them to comment on a subject and then moving on whenever they say something that's problematic - which is to say, whenever they say something that's genuinely interesting? Nobody's expecting blood on the carpet, but is there really no middle ground between that, and rolling out the red carpet like Dirk does?

I could probably choose almost any Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam interview to make this point. It happened to be this one that caught my eye, probably because (as will be obvious) I don't like Kenneth Rogoff or the IMF very much, and because I happen to know just enough - not a vast amount, but just enough - about the subjects involved to know where some follow-up questions could usefully have been asked. But Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam won't ever ask them. I like his magazine, much of the time, but he's not so much an interviewer as a courtier, and all he's really interested in doing is asking chess celebrities to show us round their homes, their trophy cabinets and their wonderful intellects, and inviting the rest of us to gawp at how clever and wonderful and rich they are.

There's a particularly dim example of the practice quite early in the interview, where Dirk invokes the American bank Bankers Trust, which, Dirk says
"tried to recruit employees among chess grandmasters"
and even put
"adverts on the back cover of New In Chess aimed specifically (at) top-level players.
"Wow", says Rogoff. Dirk continues:
"Would you say this was a successful campaign?"
Well it depends on what you mean by "successful", Dirk, or put another way, "successful for who?".

The thing about Bankers Trust, you see, is that they fulfilled the first half of their name rather more completely than the second, as the relevant sections in the Wikipedia entry tell us. These are not difficult to look up, though it's too difficult for Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam. Though he might not know that something bad happened at Bankers Trust. In which case, for somebody who's asking questions about them, he doesn't know very much.

What precisely happened at Bankers Trust remains unclear to this day: murky, might be another word for it. What is reasonably clear is that it some of the themes (notably impenetrably-complex trading in derivatives) which were later to be crucial to the crash of 2008, were played out at Bankers Trust a decade and a half earlier.

These things may be too complex for most of us to fully understand, let alone to satisfactorily summarise or paraphrase. Still, the matter is simply and abruptly put by Karen Ho. ("Situating Global Capitalisms: A view from Wall Street Investment Banks", in Inda and Rosaldo, "The Anthropology Of Globalization: A Reader", Wiley-Blackwell, 2008, p.147.)
At the height of its success, it was caught swindling Proctor and Gamble, one of its corporate clients.
So, Dirk and Rogoff are discussing Bankers Trust, and their recruitment of chessplayers, without either of them alluding to the fact that shortly after this occurred, the bank involved found themselves on the wrong end of racketeering charges as the result of a major fraud.

Now nobody has suggested that the former chessplayers were involved in the fraud. But they might very well suggest that given the nature of the fraud (in part, the construction of instruments too complex for the clients to understand) it is at very least tendentious to discuss the bank's recruiting policy, during that very era, without asking whether the bank were, actually, looking for the right people, for the right reasons.

But Dirk doesn't give a stuff about this: all he cares about is that they were recruiting chessplayers, in New In Chess. So they must be brilliant.

Dirk might at least have the excuse of ignorance. Rogoff, however, does not: he knows what went on at Bankers Trust and what that organisation's business ethics were like in the early Nineties. But he - the great Ken Rogoff, this great and influential economist - has nothing more searching to say than "wow".

Which - like the interview itself - is a very long way away from good enough.

[Rogoff picture: PasĂ­vne Investovanie.]
[Dirk picture: Chessbase]

[Thanks to Matthew Turner - not the GM! - and Andrew McGettigan.]


Jonathan B said...

Not asking the obvious questions. Perhaps it was ever thus.

Jonathan B said...

Interviews are difficult to do in all sorts of ways - one reason why I don't do so many of them - but hopefully the interviewer can at least avoid excessive brown nosing and fawning.

I remember Chess publishing a 6 or 7 page interview with Eric Schiller at the time of the 1st London Classic. This could have been extremely interesting, but since it was conducted by Sean Marsh it was not.

One question went along the lines of "occasionally you get some criticism in the chess world. How do you respond to that?" and Schiller replied saying that he only received negative comment from people who hadn't achieved anything themselves.

"What nomarks like Tony Miles, you mean?" was the unasked, but obvious follow up. Mind you, given Sean Marsh's tendency to enthusiasm for blowing Fred Friedel every time Chessbase release a DVD it was hardly surprising he didn't take offer Schiller anything but medium paced long hops pitched outside leg stump.

drantos said...

Dirk is the Barbara Walters of chess. Like the American news presenter he is good at getting interviews, then deferential when asking questions (so he'll get the next interview). Remember when he interview Kramnik after Elista and didn't ask him if he cheated.

Jack Rudd said...

What relevance does Game Theory have to chess, anyway? If my business relied on Game Theory, I'd probably want to hire people who were world-class at poker or Diplomacy, games where you need to choose between your possible moves based on what your opponent is simultaneously doing.

hylen said...

Brilliant post. Is there a better chess blog than this one?

Stiglitz rules.

Sean Marsh most assuredly does not.

Anonymous said...


Are you Bulgarian?

Because I sure don't know of anybody outside that country who ever believed Danailov/Topalov's ludicrous claims on that subject.

Withour defending DG in any way, he was not wrong to neglect to ask VK that in any way - given that no remotely serious person believes it.

drantos said...

I'm not Bulgarian, noth that theyre's anything wrong with that.
My point is that a good journalist would ask the iobvious question. At Elista, Kramnik had not denied he was cheating and no one asked. Instead, his manager issued what is known in the spin trade as a non-denial denial, saying it was insulting to accuse Kramnik. That's not a denial.
That left the rest of the world to jump to conclusions without any information at all.

Anonymous said...

He has denied it on lots of occasions. Don't be silly.

Unknown said...