Saturday, August 15, 2009

Submarines and Space Power

By Nader Elhefnawy

Reproduced with permission from the October 2001 issue of The Submarine Review, a quarterly publication of the Naval Submarine League, P.O. Box 1146, Annandale, VA, 22003.

At the close of his book, The Price of Admiralty, military historian John Keegan presents the vision of an ocean empty of warships, the battle for the seas waged by aircraft and missiles flying above it and submarines sailing below it. While Keegan was writing of the future, the stage was set for that picture in World War II, when the aircraft carrier and the submarine eclipsed the battleship as queen of the high seas.

Against the airplane and the submarine, the traditional gunboat had simply become "senile." Even if reports of the gunboat's impending demise seem greatly exaggerated, its vulnerability to aerospace and subsurface attack have only grown since that time. In the Falklands War, for instance, aircraft were again at the center of the conflict, Britain's task force built around two carriers and Argentina attacking that task force principally with aircraft. American naval actions against Libya in 1986, and Iraqi naval vessels in 1991, were conducted in much the same way, with air power. Submarines have achieved similar successes. In the 1971 Indo-Pkistani War, and the Falklands War, the mere presence of submarines was enough to keep the most powerful ships in a surface fleet out of the battle area.1 And despite the Soviet Union's ambitious surface fleet program, it was always Soviet air power and Soviet submarines that were of concern for the Western planners who had looked to a Third Battle of the Atlantic in the 1970s and 80s.

To the threat from manned aircraft has been added the threat from space, and the anti-ship missile, which was critical in many of the above-mentioned conflicts. In fact, it has made the threat from the air so great that even the carrier is itself under threat. Moreover, these threats are only expected to grow. One of the few lasting trends seems to be that missiles will "continue to become more and more accurate and to have greater and greater ranges at faster and faster speeds."2 In large part, this will be because of advances in technologies permitting surveillance, navigation and targeting from space.3 It is now taken for granted by a great many military experts that future naval wars will be won or lost not on the high seas, but in the higher ground of outer space. As George and Meredith Friedman observe in The Future of War, space-based reconnaissance platforms linked to missiles will be enough to choke the sea lanes.4

However, what their argument misses is that it may not be enough to control space. Wars for dominance of the oceans will also be fought underneath the seas. The reason for this is that the undersea world is perhaps the only area of military operations still impervious to surveillance from space, and which may hope to remain so for the foreseeable future. The sea surface presents a barrier that cleaves the battlespace in two, a surface environment where aerospace power is supreme, and a subsurface one dominated by the submarine. The one way in which this could change is the development of a non-acoustic sensor technology that would render the seas transparent. Efforts to develop such technologies date back to World War II.5 With the appearance of low-frequency sonar, many of them were shelved, but some have been put into practice, such as MAD (Magnetic Anomaly Detection), electronic intelligence and periscope and snorkel detection radar. Efforts continue in other areas, and these became an object of media attention in the recent investigations of Chinese intelligence's penetrations of American R & D.

It is not unthinkable that some of these efforts could achieve a long-awaited breakthrough. However, it should be remembered that history is littered with false breakthroughs in this area, such as laser radar for picking up on underwater objects, or sensors which detect submarine phenomena, like the radar, thermal and magnetic characteristics a submarine produces as it moves through the water. Additionally, the future of non-acoustics is difficult to evaluate, because there are so many disturbances which can mask the movement of submarines, or easily be mistaken for them.6

Even if these techniques meet with some success, submarines are likely to retain much of their inherent stealthiness. Consider, for instance, one of these methods, the location of submarines by the water they displace, the tiny "hump" in the surface of an ocean they make as they pass underneath.7 Undeniably, this is a far smaller radar signature than even the stealthiest of surface ships possess. Laser beams, moreover, can penetrate water down to a hundred and fifty meters but no more, so that present-day subs often cruise outside their range.8

If anything, the submarine's stealth might grow in the future. The same research that might improve anti-submarine warfare techniques cuts both ways. A better understanding of potential means of non-acoustic detection will make it possible to build even stealthier subs.9 Future submarines may also be deeper-diving and quieter, with stronger hulls, so that a revolution in anti-submarine weapons as well as sensors would be necessary.10 Submarines may also have more sophisticated means of defending themselves, such as improved electronic wafare technology.11 The establishment of bases on the seabed, about which some writers have speculated, would allow submarines to stay out at sea even longer than is presently possible.

In short, even as space forces battle for supremacy in the heavens, the submarine could retain its freedom of action, which is what has made it so deadly. This will allow submarine forces to accomplish two of any major fleet's primary goals with minimal interference from aerospace forces: attack shipping and to project power inland.

Even were the oceans to become empty of warships, they would not become empty of shipping. No one expects the reliance of the world economy on the sea lanes to end in any foreseeable future: water transport has always been, and probably always will be cheaper than the alternatives. Additionally, where countries once fought for the freedom to travel on the sea, now they fight for the riches of the sea, and the seabed. The right to fish or drill for oil in particular waters has already precipitated several military clashes, and is considered likely to cause many more in the future.12 Ocean mining, should it seriously get under way, will only increase the economic importance of the oceans, and that of the ships traveling across them.

While in recent decades increased attention has been focused on ballistic missile submarines, and on attack submarines dedicated to hunting other submarines, preying on merchant shipping has been the submarine's traditional mission. German U-boats nearly drove Britain to capitulation in the First and Second World Wars. Where the German submarine force failed against Britain, America's succeeded against Japan in the 1940s. While no comparable conflict has been fought since 1945, the blockade has remained an important instrument of sea power, as in the "Tanker War" of the 1980s. While the tanker war was conducted primarily with air- or shore-battery launched anti-ship missiles, the submarine's stealth may make it not merely a superior missile platform, but the key weapon in future blockades. Rocket-powered weapons like the Russian Shkval (which at present has no Western equivalent) may also give the torpedo new significance. Missiles can be seen launching from space; the same can not be said of torpedoes, against which space forces would prove much less useful.

Just as submarines can fire missiles at ships, they can also fire them at targets on land, and have been doing so since the 1991 Gulf War, when American submarines first launched Tomahawks at targets in Iraq. However, submarines have long had one great disadvantage, their payloads, which are much smaller than those of larger, more capacious surface vessels.13 This could also change in the foreseeable future, ironically because of improvements in the technology that has been sweeping the seas clear of gunboats.

It has long been observed that cruise missiles make every warship an aircraft carrier on the cheap.14 At some point, it could make smaller warships a substitute for today's carriers, and it is worth noting that the land-attack Tomahawk cruise missile is now the main armament of the Ticonderoga, Arleigh Burke and Spruance ship classes.15 However, the capabilities of the existing missiles are limited compared with those of manned attack aircraft. Missiles like the Tomahawk are not very versatile: they can not be used to attack mobile or dispersed targets like armored formations. They also carry very small payloads: their one thousand pound warhead falls far short of what an attack plane like the F/A-18 "Hornet" can carry, let alone its replacements. However, improvements in cruise missile design will close the gap between missile and aircraft.

Already, analysts have speculated about a submerged version of the now-canceled arsenal ship, which would have carried Tomahawk cruise missiles as well as a navalized version of the Army's Tactical Missile System which would have allowed it to provide fire support for ground forces.16 In the nearer term, they have also thought about converting nuclear submarines into dedicated cruise missile platforms. It has been calculated that a submarine with seventy-five to one hundred Tomahawks in vertical launch tubes would make an acceptable substitute for a carrier.17 Studies have shown that currently existing ballistic missile submarines could do even better-a properly modified ballistic missile submarine could carry 288 such missiles.18 While this falls far short of the mix and number of weapons a carrier could deliver, it is nonetheless equal to the number of cruise missiles fired during the entire Gulf War.

In the nineteenth century, submarines had been attractive to many navies because they seemed to be a way of offsetting the naval superiority of countries with more powerful surface fleets. This may be the case in the twenty-first century if the oceans are not rendered transparent. For instance, a "large peer competitor", finding itself unable to challenge American surface (aerospace) superiority, may concentrate on defeating it through submarine actions, as Germany tried to defeat Britain during the world wars.

Picture a future Battle of the Atlantic, in which air and space forces, satellites and missiles, fight for the skies while submarines sink shipping and conduct missile attacks on land targets. Because the sea surface may continue to present a barrier between air power and submarine power, victory in the sky or in outer space will not necessarily translate into a victory in the submarine war. Surface ships, it has been argued before, will probably find themselves outmatched. In the end, stopping the enemy's submarines will require attack subs dedicated to destroying their brethren, the most effective anti-submarine weapons yet devised. And once again, victory will not be a question of inventing a decisive weapon, but rather achieving the proper mix of weapons, which will conceal one's vulnerabilities while striking at the enemy's-a mix in which the submarine will likely hold a proud place.

1. In the Falklands, the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano by the British nuclear submarine the HMS Conqueror is widely credited with compelling Argentina to confine its surface ships to port.
2. James L. George, History of Warships (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1998), 263.
3. The Tomahawk cruise missile is an example of the connection between missile and space technology. The Tomahawk's terrain contour matching (TERCOM) computer works by matching satellite photographs against the pictures captured by the digital camera in its nose. The Block III version of the Tomahawk also uses a Global Positioning System to get fixes on its location.
4. These, of course, may be succeeded by weapons launched directly from space.
5. Norman Friedman, Seapower and Space (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000), 201-206.
6. Friedman, Seapower, 206.
7. Friedman, Seapower, 210.
8. Ibid.
9. Friedman, Seapower, 205.
10. An interesting discussion of the future of submarine warfare can be found in a paper, "21st Century Naval Warfare" by three Chinese naval officers, Captain Shen Zhongchang, Lieutenant Commander Zhang Haiyin and Lieutenant Zhou Xinsheng. It appears, translated by Michael Pillsbury in his book Chinese Views of Future Warfare (Washington D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1997). This material also appears, summarized, in an article of the same name by Pillsbury in James R. Liley and David R. Shambaugh, eds., China's Military Faces the Future (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1999).
11. Radar provides a useful analogy here. It was supposed to render the sky "transparent," to cut through darkness and bad weather to locate aircraft, but stealth technology and sophisticated defense suppression tactics have gone a long way to nullifying this advantage.
12. The South China Sea is a particularly good example of a scene of such disputes. Since 1988, there have been more than a dozen military incidents in that region.
13. Raja Menon, Maritime Strategy and Continental Wars (Frank Cass & Co., 1998), 187.
14. Menon, 194.
15. Menon, 193.
16. Dennis M. Bushnell, "The Shape of Things to Come," Undersea Warfare Magazine (Winter 2001). In this article, Bushnell describes a highly automated, spherical, deep-water ship designed for stand-off operations and capable of burst speeds.
17. Norman Friedman, U.S. Submarines Since 1945: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute, 1994), 214.
18. Menon, 187.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

New Reviews (Doctorow's Content, Young's The Rise of the Meritocracy)

My review of Cory Doctorow's Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright and the Future of the Future is up at Tangent Online.

The book, which is freely available in e-book form at Docotorow's blog (recently added to my blog list) is well worth checking out.

Additionally, I have published a review of Michael Young's sociological classic The Rise of the Meritocracy here on this blog.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Real Unemployment Rate

As expected, July's stats are out today: a 9.4 percent U-3 for July.

Of course, everyone's excited about the dip in the overall rate (as the U-3 was 9.5 percent last month), but the New York Times offers an important qualifier, namely "that the unemployment rate had only declined because 400,000 people gave up their search for work and left the labor force," so that a month which saw another 247,000 jobs shed looks like a positive trend. Additionally, the "White House and economic forecasters still expect unemployment to reach 10 percent or more before it begins to fall back."

Incidentally, Canada's job losses last month (44,500) were three times as high as predicted.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Question of Balance (RAND on the China-Taiwan Conflict)

Over at Wired's Danger Room (you can see it in my blog list) David Axe offers a nice summary of a new RAND study, A Question of Balance: Political Context and Military Aspects of the China-Taiwan Dispute. The study's authors (David A. Shlapak, David T. Orletsky, Toy I. Reid, Murray Scot Tanner, Barry Wilson) argue that "Looking to the near future, improved air defense capabilities, including shipboard defenses, a growing inventory of modern fourth generation fighters, and a powerful and flexible force of offensive ballistic missiles place in jeopardy the long-held assumption of the defense’s control of the skies over the Taiwan Strait and Taiwan’s coastline" (p. 118).

The 185 page study, the PDF edition of which can (like much of that think tank's output) be accessed freely online, posits a scenario circa 2013 in which China uses those ballistic missiles to suppress the Taiwanese Air Force and make it a simpler matter for its own modernized air force (which might deploy 350 to 400 generation 3.5 and generation 4 fighters, while benefiting from better electronic warfare and precision guided munitions capabilities) to seize air superiority over the island (especially in the event that the missile attacks hit U.S. bases on Okinawa).

Chapter 3 works out the details with regard to the missile attack, Chapter 4 those with regard to the aerial fighting. This makes for a much more effective assault of any sort, and raises the odds of a successful invasion (the focus of Chapter 5)--but the latter (which the authors acknowledge is the "only . . . military course of action that guarantees China control of Taiwan") remains pretty unlikely. Even assuming the expansion of China's assault fleet in accordance with the scenario described it would have the capacity to deliver only 30,000 troops to the beachheads, far too few to conquer the island--and even these would not be certain of getting there, even with air superiority, because of land-based cruise missiles, mines, helicopters and fire from ground forces on the Taiwanese coast.

As a result, they conclude that "an invasion of Taiwan would, in the face of properly prepared defenses, remain a bold and possibly foolish gamble on Beijing’s part."

And even that may be overoptimistic. As David Axe points out, the study fails to properly acknowledge the impact U.S. submarines (and it might be added, Taiwan's subs as well) could have on the invasion, relegating it to a single footnote on page 118, though conceding that "their firepower would substantially increase the defenders’ odds of success."

It might also be suggested that the assumption of an attack on U.S. bases in Okinawa is a little too pat (as partially acknowledged in the sidebar on pages 86-87), given, if nothing else, the risk that Japan's own very large and very capable air and naval forces would enter the conflict, which would work strongly against China.

And then, of course, there is the broader political context, and all the factors in it that work against any decision to undertake a large-scale attack on Taiwan: that China has prioritized development over military confrontation; that China's trade with Taiwan, the U.S. and Japan approaches $800 billion a year, or about 18 percent of the country's GDP (measured at official exchange rates), and so could not be lightly jeopardized; that the damage China would likely do to its military establishment and its relations with key neighbors and trading partners apart from those it fights in such a scenario would damage its security position and diminish its influence, and its economic growth, for years to come, while likely subjecting the country to even worse internal stresses than a war against Taiwan would be meant to alleviate; and that "any PLA combat with U.S. forces involves China’s tacit acceptance of the risks of fighting a nuclear-armed superpower" (p. 86).

These factors may not make a conflict between mainland China and Taiwan impossible (a move toward formal, permanent independence on Taiwan's part is seen by many as an exception to China's usually scrupulous practice of rational realpolitik, in part because Taiwan's status is seen as an "internal matter" and key legitimacy issue), but I suspect they diminish the likelihood of a major conflict much more than is generally appreciated.

On The Risk of Sino-Indian Confrontation

I remember a decade ago hearing about a Sino-Indian competition for influence in the Indian Ocean-not an entirely new thing then, but quite different with the loss of the old Cold War context (inside which China and India fought a month-long war in 1962, and China aligned itself with Pakistan while the Soviets sided with India), and the rapid growth of China's economic and military weight (providing it with a regional influence not seen in centuries). In particular there was a widespread impression that Myanmar was fast becoming an extension of China, and that very soon the Chinese navy would become very visible indeed in the Indian Ocean.

Talk about this competition seems to be heating up again with China's combat deployment of a naval unit to the western Indian Ocean to fight pirates (something India also did, one result of which was a reported stand-off that may have been overblown in the press), and recent Chinese projects aimed at developing port facilities in both Pakistan and Sri Lanka (widely interpreted as potential bases for the Chinese navy, though as ex-Indian Cabinet member B. Raman acknowledges in this paper, the Hambantota facility in Sri Lanka is not slated to become a base, nor likely to be used against India, even if the interest is "more strategic than purely commercial").

The launch of India's first nuclear sub last month seems likely not only to be viewed in this context, but also to be taken as another data point testifying to the rising danger level.1 As implied by the ambiguity of much of the above data, the talk strikes me as overblown. There are real conflicts between them (over border claims in the Himalayas and the status of Tibet), but the relationship between the two nations is more complex than implied in such discussions, considerable cooperation also taking place (in their negotiations with the industrial nations over matters like trade and climate policy, for instance), and some real signs of improvement, not the least of it the reopening of Nathu La (closed after the '62 war).

Additionally, predictions about the development of the military capability of both these nations consistently overestimate the rate of their expansion, and both of them have other, bigger concerns closer to home. Even overlooking the pressing domestic problems that (certainly in an age of climate change and potential energy scarcity) could make their economic booms go the way of the Brazilian miracle, their biggest military/security considerations are domestic upheaval and the collapse of neighboring states (Pakistan or Bangladesh in India's case, North Korea in China's). Even where the list of potential conventional conflicts is concerned, a Sino-Indian fight is far from the top of the list, and in particular a big sea war in the Indian Ocean. (As things stand, China lacks the means to control the Taiwan Strait, let alone project enough power into the Indian Ocean to fight the much bigger Indian Navy and Air Force at their home base; and of course, the nuclear element in the situation is likely to constrain the moves of both actors.)

Laying out a base prediction for the next century last month, my guess was that
generalized economic stagnation (and the tendency toward short-term thinking reinforced by the economic culture) will encourage cautious, conservative statesmanship, risk-averse and commitment-shy (even if governments find it politically expedient to rattle their sabers and play up the foreign menace for the benefit of domestic consumption) . . . Accident, blunder or the hijack of foreign policy by fanatics inside of a key power will pose a bigger danger than any "inevitable" collision of essential state interests-[but] it is not to be taken lightly.
That certainly holds for the situation in the Indian Ocean basin.

1. My analysis of the Arihant's launch can be found here. I emphasized in it that the sub does not yet represent a credible capability-as the ship will not be operational for some years, that a force of several subs is usually required for a continuously functional deterrent, and that the range of the missiles on-board is limited. This quickly attracted criticism, not all of which I agree with, but I do acknowledge the regional nature of the deterrent, the expectation that the missiles will be replaced with longer-range weapons, and that more subs are under construction, all of which may make it operational by the middle of the next decade.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Nuclear Navies in the News

Nuclear navies have been much in the news as of late. The biggest item has, of course, been the launch of India's first nuclear sub, but other navies have also been in the news.

* The French navy's carrier Charles de Gaulle will no longer carry nuclear weapons on board in "normal circumstances." (The principal weapon would be the ASMP cruise missile, presently carried by Super Etendards, due to be replaced next year by the upgraded ASMP-A version, to be carried by navalized version of the Rafale.)

In the view of analyst Hans M. Kristensen, "The French acknowledgment marks the end of peacetime deployment of short-range nuclear weapons at sea" (the U.S. and Soviet Union having declared such withdrawals early in the post-Cold War, and Britain also retired its nuclear depth bombs about the same time).

However, there remain plenty of long-range weapons, including the SLBMs deployed by French subs-as well as the ballistic and cruise missiles carried by American, Soviet, British and Chinese ones-and perhaps Israeli and Indian ones as well, if not now, then soon. And,

* Russian nuclear submarines have been reported patrolling the western Atlantic, a few hundred miles off the U.S.'s east coast. Long-distance operation is, of course, one of the main reasons why nuclear subs are built, and such activity was routine back in the Cold War when the Soviet fleet. Like the resumption of long-range bomber flights, it seems to be an attempt to show that Russia is back as a military superpower, mainly by operating old assets out where people can see them (an issue I touched on in the Space Review last November, and on this blog in December and May).

Rather than any real elevation of belligerence, my worry would be the consequences of an accident.

The Launch of the INS Arihant

India launched its first nuclear submarine-and also its first SSBN-the INS (Indian Naval Ship) Arihant, on July 26 this year.

Up to now only the club of established nuclear powers had SSBNs, the United States, the Soviet Union/Russia, France, Britain and China, and in the latter two cases that status has been tenuous. Britain's SSBNs have used American-built missiles (first the Polaris, then the Trident), while the actual operability of China's Xia class subs has long been in doubt.

The acquisition of SSBNs in all these cases has had two purposes.

The first is a more robust nuclear deterrent. Bombers are more flexible, while land-based missiles have higher performance and greater accuracy, but submarine-based missiles, because of their mobility and the stealthiness of their platforms, are the hardest for an enemy to target, giving their owners a "second-strike" capability.

It may be particularly significant that the "Advanced Technology Vessel" project apparently began with the intention of producing a nuclear-powered attack boat, and only later sought to produce an SSBN. Three years ago, I argued in The Submarine Review that
submarines are likely to increasingly be used in niche, asymmetrical or supporting roles, in smaller and poorer navies as well as the wealthier ones finding themselves without traditional challengers,
rather than the traditional sea denial mission, given their high cost and relative inefficiency in that role.

The second is prestige. From a traditional "realist" perspective, nothing says that a country has arrived as a world-class naval power, a nuclear power and a just plain global power quite like these systems. (Indeed, SSBNs have been justly compared to early twentieth century dreadnoughts by some writers.) This matters because of India's ambitions as a global power (particularly in, but not limited to, the Indian Ocean basin), and because doing nuclear and rocket-type things remains a cheap and easy way for governments to look modern, powerful and important to others, and to their publics-rather than, for instance, delivering quality public services or appreciably raising living standards.

Nonetheless, the launch of the Arihant does not realize those two objects quite so fully as it might seem to at first glance, because

* The sub is a smaller vessel than the other nations mentioned above operate, displacing just 6,000 tons; and while it is carrying a dozen missiles, their performance is comparatively limited. The figure generally given for their range is 750 kilometers. By comparison, the Trident II missile the U.S. uses has a range of over 11,000 kilometers, and that with a considerably larger payload. In short, the Arihant carries fewer missiles with a much shorter reach and a lower overall punch (though in all fairness, comparisons of megatonnage and throw-weight do get absurdly theoretical in a hurry).

* India's construction of the sub was not only belated (the program began in the 1970s), but dependent on Russian support, the full details of which have not been clarified, but one important aspect of which is that the training of the Arihant's crew will actually take place on a rented Russian submarine, the INS Chakra, a Russian Akula II. (This is not the first Chakra, India having operated one from 1988 to 1991, also a rented Soviet sub, a Charlie class SSGN.)

Simply put, it is not necessarily an example of successful indigenization, even calling to mind the country's experience with the Arjun tank-which arrived late, overbudget, heavily dependent on German design and German components (half the Arjun's components were actually Germany-made, according to a report from a few years ago), and left the Indian army still dependent on imports (Russian tanks likely to remain prominent in its armory in the future, as Russian-and German-subs will remain in its navy).

* The Arihant is not a commissioned, in-service vessel, but currently on sea trials, an actual operational vessel "still three years away" (c. 2012)--and even that would represent a tenuous dimension of its arsenal. Other navies generally need several boats to keep one continually on station, as a really credible second-strike capability (such as that enjoyed by Britain and France) generally calls for, and that goal is even more distant.

In short, what India has is an untested vessel that is not only of modest performance in comparison with its American, Russian, French and British equivalents, but still a long way from giving it the really operational "second-strike" capability sought after, and even that was achieved with what may have been a very high level of foreign assistance.

This is not terribly surprising, in light of the constraints on Indian economic and industrial capabilities, despite the popular image of a booming, rising India. India's GDP at official exchange rates is still just $1.2 trillion, or about $1,050 per head. Counting in Purchasing Power Parity, the result is a more impressive $3.2 trillion, or $2,800 per capita--but this still leaves it ranking just 168th in the world according to the CIA World Factbook.

Looked at another way, India is a country where sixty percent of the population is still working in agriculture.

Simply put, an SSBN program (certainly one comparable to that long taken for granted by the permanent members of the UN Security Council) on this base is a matter of overreaching, all the more unfortunate given that there are any number of worthier and more pressing projects toward which the money could have been put.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033: The New Elite of Our Social Revolution, by Michael Young

New York: Random House, 1959, pp. 160.

Michael Young's The Rise of the Meritocracy is, of course, the book that brought that word into the language, presenting the titular event and its consequences as a piece of future history, composed by a sociologist of the 2030s, as a way of commenting on a current issue.

This future history imagines post-war Britain undergoing a very thoroughgoing scheme of social engineering, intended to make it internationally competitive in an age of intense scientific-technological-industrial competition, by closely connecting social position with merit. Here "merit" is essentially a function of IQ test score (as the nation's psychologists, apparently, have succeeded in eliminating the causes of underachievement), with the high scorers unfailingly streamed through the most lavish schooling available to elite positions, creating a hierarchy of affluence and status neatly in line with the hierarchy of intelligence and ability.

In his much more recent study of the history of standardized testing, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, Nicholas Lemann (who devotes a full chapter to discussing Young's earlier book), rightly points out that Young seems naïve in expecting that
inheritance of wealth and position would be abolished, that government would fund education so abundantly that private schools would wither away, that scientists would rule the society, and that schoolteachers would be highly paid.1
Indeed, one could say that the degree of centralization, systematization and rationalization seen in the book (and also, the optimism about what applied social science would soon permit) appear awfully dated.

Nonetheless, like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World or George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, this kind of story (and at one point, Young had intended to present it as a novel, on the advice of Leonard Woolf) is typically written with the purpose of taking an idea to its logical conclusion, rather than really plausible extrapolation--with the idea in this case the meritocratic principle. Young's point is, above all, the unavoidable problems to which inegalitarianism leads, even when it is more rationally arranged, and the need to diminish inequality rather than just rearrange it.

Some of the problems the book envisions could only rise in the kind of thoroughgoing meritocracy no real-world society has ever achieved, like the anxiety of parents knowing their children will do less well than they did (and knowing this from earlier and earlier on in their upbringing), not because of a weakening economy or increasing downward social mobility, but because of their lesser abilities on a genuinely level playing field; and the compromises and personal sacrifices entailed in the eugenics program intended to maximize the next generation's share of desired talents. Others, however, are only too familiar to our time, like the frustration of women, particularly educated, high-status women, who find themselves torn between child-rearing and family on the one hand, and career on the other; the narrowly utilitarian basis by which "merit" is judged in his future ("the ability to raise production, directly or indirectly"); the argument that "common" workers do not deserve, and ought not be afforded, a share of the gains in economic productivity; the push by a radical right-wing of the political spectrum for an acceptance of greater inequality on the grounds that earlier concessions to a more egalitarian society were wrong-headed and unnecessary; and the invocation of the imperatives of international competition as an excuse for harsh treatment of the lower orders.

The same goes for the idea of the gap in sympathy and concern between the ruling elite and the mass of the people whose lives they run, which the meritocratic rationale widens. Young's son, Toby Young (who of course does not deny his being a beneficiary of Britain's class system), noted in his book How to Lose Friends and Alienate People that the meritocratic idea (which as he notes, is undeniably powerful in the United States, despite its hugely flawed application, as Lemann also succinctly shows in the afterword to his own book) gives elites an excuse to wash their hands of those who fail to thrive, to look down on the "losers" of the world.

Thinking about that, I find myself coming back to Ayn Rand's most famous work, Atlas Shrugged (1957), which appeared at almost the same time, espousing a view toward the subject of meritocracy that is a hundred and eighty degrees away from what the elder Young set forth in his book. Rand's novel is by far the better known book among the general public in the United States today, and ironically, is becoming even more popular in the midst of an economic crisis that in other quarters has led to the widest and deepest questioning of the prevailing version of capitalism seen in some time.

Make of that what you will.

1. Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999), p. 118.

Second Quarter Growth, 2009

The Bureau of Economic Analysis has released its latest figures.

Interest naturally is focused on the country's second quarter performance. As predicted, U.S. GDP shrank again, for the fourth straight quarter.

However, this was not the only data awaited, the big once-every-five years update of the whole statistical base also appearing.

According to the BEA's National Economic Accounts the U.S.'s GDP shrank about 1.9 percent during 2008, when measured in chained 2005 dollars-mote than twice the estimate current before this latest recalculation, which had it at 0.8 percent. (Incidentally, the CIA's World Factbook officially lists U.S. GDP as having grown 1.3 percent that year, a very substantial difference.)

When the time frame is shifted just one quarter forward, to cover the twelve months between March 2008 and March 2009 (and three quarters of contraction), the U.S. economy appears to have shrunk by about 3.3 percent using the same measure (compared with 2.5 percent in the earlier calculation). Between June 2008 and June 2009, after four full quarters of economic contraction, it shrank by about 3.9 percent, about evenly divided over the two years.

In short, things were worse than they said.

Of course, bad as this looks, the "conventional wisdom" (I'll say it again: certainly conventional, but so rarely wise) is that we've seen the worst of it, noting that the drop in GDP slowed markedly in the second quarter (the economy contracting at an annual rate of just 1 percent, instead of the 5-6 percent rate of the three previous quarters), and the third quarter of 2009-this one, the one we're actually living in-will end with a return to growth in the U.S. and much of the world.

My take: the business press has been too quick to breathe a sigh of relief. As Rex Nutting of Marketwatch reports, consumers-constrained by still rising unemployment (into the double digits) which even optimists do not expect to see come down for a long while, the flat wage growth that goes along with that, and the maxing out of consumer credit-are in no position to generate the kind of demand that will keep real growth going, barring continuous, unsustainable stimulus injections of the kind that quadrupled U.S. Federal debt in the 1930s, and ran Japan deep into the red in the 1990s. (Indeed, the recent data suggests the drop in consumer spending was sharper than earlier recognized.)

Quite naturally, Larry Doyle asks "Are We in the Early Stages of a Economic Depression?" Of course, some might argue that we are already there, at least in some countries (Ireland, for instance, according to Ernst & Young), but what he means is the continued, prolonged deepening of the national and global economic contraction. No one wants the answer to be "yes," but taking the question too lightly could make that outcome more likely.

The Real Unemployment Rate-And What It Means
Economic Update (OECD, Joshua Holland, Tim Hanson)
Global Finance Development 2009
More On The Economic Crisis (Eichengreen and O'Rourke on Industrial Output, Wolf on Eichengreen and O'Rourke, Austerity?)
Is the U.S. the New France?
The Human Cost of the Economic Crisis
The Real Unemployment Rate-And What It Means
On Consumer Spending
On the Global Economic Mess

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