Friday, January 30, 2009

Putin on the Ritz

[Media] As reported in the U.S. financial media, Russian P.M. Vladimir Putin's seemingly brutal response to computer CEO Michael Dell's comments at the World Economic Forum was either another example of Putin being a dickhead or, more charitably, the regrettable result of a cross-cultural miscommunication.

Russian P.M. Vladimir Putin:
Hunkier than you thought.

Obviously, it takes an unusually perceptive and insightful observer to make sense of such an event. And who better to turn to for a perceptive, insightful report than the rah-rah, all-hail-the-free-market American media?

According to Fortune, Putin is a mean, mean man with a "tough, demeaning streak." He rebuked Dell's praise of Russia's technological prowess and even his selfless, generous offer of help with a "withering" "slapdown":
"We don't need help. We are not invalids. We don't have limited mental capacity."
Such an unexpected reaction demands a multitude of wild interpretations by people holding varying economic philosophies--especially those who weren't actually in Davos, Switzerland, at the time. Here are some of my picks:

The Indignant Free-Market Fundamentalist Explanation

What an ingrate! After all, Dell was only offering to help. Belligerent unwillingness to take advantage of win-win synergistic solutions will be Russia's downfall.


The Thoughtful Capitalist Approach

When you think about it, economists, businessmen and politicians live in their own rarefied, artificial, abstract worlds. So when corporate executives and politicos gather at an event organized by bean-counters--all speaking through interpreters in different mother tongues--it's amazing that they manage to communicate at all.

Maybe it was all just a misunderstanding stemming from Russia's regrettable ignorance of How Things Are Done in the modern business world. Despite Putin's blistering indictment of the U.S. financial situation, Dell was not shaken. After all, Dell wouldn't be where he is today without that good, old-fashioned, optimistic, American can-do attitude! Sparkling visions of fresh, new markets danced before his eyes and he asked, "Now, come on, Vladimir. How can we help you develop your nation's IT sector?"

This was not the patronizing, unfavorable assessment of Russia's technological prowess Putin thought it was. It was just standard, feelgood, let's-be-friends sales jargon, akin to "Now, what do I have to do to put you in this '92 Toyota Tercel today?" People in the U.S. are accustomed to tuning out and toning down this kind of sales pitch, but Russia's capitalistic culture is still in its infancy: Putin simply doesn't have any frame of reference for all that Dale Carnegie happy crap.

The Paranoid Wingnut Viewpoint

Who's to say Putin really misunderstood? He's no idiot; in fact, he could be an evil genius. What if he only pretended to misinterpret Dell in order to signal Russia's intention to exploit the United States' weakened economic situation? And, boy, wouldn't France and all those other America-hating socialist countries in Europe just love that?

Putin's Actual Speech

Any of the above interpretations may seem plausible if you rely on secondhand reports in financial publications. However, if you take the time to read Putin's opening address and view the exchange with Dell, a very different picture begins to emerge.

Putin's got it goin' on for a P.M.: Who knew?

Now, some reports describe Putin in his speech as a "born-again capitalist" embracing the unregulated free market with all the fervor of an 11th grader who just completed a unit on Atlas Shrugged. But aren't they overstating the matter just a tad? Those who have particularly strong memories of the Cold War seem unable to let go of the fear that Russia could, at any moment, fall back into its old ways--so when the leader of a former Soviet state speaks knowledgeably on economic issues, it still seems like an earthshattering event.

It's been nearly 20 years since the collapse of the USSR, and the Red Menace is unlikely to rear its ugly head anytime soon. A critical mass of world leaders is settling on balanced, regulated capitalistic economic policies, fitted with European-style democratic-socialist political models. Being outliers, American lasseiz-faire economists--who are taught to have very strong convictions--must find it disagreeable to operate within today's world. But, until they master their emotions long enough to recognize that they no longer hold the dominant view, they're liable to misinterpret events such as these. That's why so many U.S. financial publications get it wrong.

In his speech, Putin addresses the global economic crisis, stating his disdain for the popular, new international party game Pin the Blame on the Americans. Even so, he couldn't resist reminding everybody that, only a year ago, Bushies at the conference were still crowing about the "cloudless prospects" of the fundamentally sound U.S. economy. Ouch!

Putin says this crisis is the result of a highly stratified division of wealth in "certain countries, including highly developed ones," as well as the "excessive expectations" of both corporate interests and consumers. (Sound like anybody you know?) Still, he warns against the abandonment of "responsible macroeconomic principles" and excessive protectionism. Both unrestrained governmental deficit spending and "adventurous stock-jobbing"--which, presumably, are what got us into this mess--are equally damaging.

Putin puts forth a number of practical suggestions--a systematic method for writing off bad debts, the elimination of "virtual money" and the adoption of transparent national monetary policies--as necessary steps toward recovery. (His proposal that the world's reliance on a single reserve currency be abandoned in favor of a system of multiple reserve currencies no doubt prompted the E.U. delegation's bowler hats to bob up and down in polite, approving nods. Meanwhile, visions of greenbacks being burned for heat by the truckload must have triggered a volley of tiny vomit-burps in the mouths of nervous U.S. bean-counters.)

Putin finished up his speech by pimping Russia's natural-gas industry as the ultimate future supplier of clean energy to the E.U.--once the necessary infrastructure is in place, of course.

Dell's Offer of "Help"

In the video recording, Dell doesn't seem to offer praise and assistance--or even a sales pitch--so much as he seems, by his tone of voice, to needle Putin, challenge his free-market cred and possibly even belittle Russia's sense of pride in its technological achievements:
Mister Prime Minister, you spoke of the dangers of excessive government involvement, and I found myself really struck by that comment and surprised to hear that comment. Six months ago, I would have never imagined hearing that comment from yourself, but I have to say I completely agree with you. [Rrrrowr!]

Now, to my question: When I look at the IT sector, you’ve made some pretty considerable progress, bringing computers into schools, bringing government services online, bringing better Internet access across Russia. But when we look at the level of scientific and technical talent, there is still room to further utilize the IT sector. [Meeeow!]

So, my question to you, really, is: How can we, as an IT sector, help you broaden the economy as you move out of the crisis and take advantage of that great scientific talent that you have?” [Fft! Fft! Hsss!]
Maybe Dell was only nervous, overawed and overcompensating--or maybe this is just a flat recitation of a prepared, memorized question which only seems to come across as arrogant, accusatory and patronizing. But, if he said this to me while I was in a particularly defensive frame of mind, I'd assume he was calling me out.

Putin's Response

According to Russia Today *, the conference translator got all confused by Putin's "metaphorical language" regarding invalids, etc., and what he really meant to say was this:
"We’re not someone in need of help. We’re not invalids. Help is something that you should give to poor people, to people with limited capacities, to pensioners, to developing countries ..."
Well, same diff. You say "pensioners," we say "retards." (What the hell is a pensioner anyway? 'Round these parts, we work our old folks until they die. Serve's 'em right for not investing in the stock market. Hell, if you hold out on food, housing and health care long enough, sometimes you can even get them to dig their own graves! Takes a long time, though, with no shovel and those crazy arthritic fingers.)

Basically, though, Putin was saying that Russia expects its economic partners in Europe, America and Asia to treat it on equal footing--instead of acting like condescending bastards. At the same time, he made a not-so-subtle jab at the United States' dysfunctional inability to care for its disabled, elderly and poor.

The Lesson to Be Learned

Now, I'm not a big Putin fanboy. Like most Americans, I actually know very little about him (except that he's a mean, mean man!) But he didn't seem all that terrifying during his speech. Just pragmatic, and about as opportunistic as any American businessman.

Not only am I not an America-hater--I'm an America-lover. I love this big ol' country of ours. I want us to succeed. Once we were "a beacon unto the world." We stood for something: the good, human values of dignity, freedom, equality, optimism, opportunity and a fair reward for hard work and innovation. I want us to be that beacon again.

We can do much better than we've been doing. The economic elites are still so frozen in Cold War-era anti-red propaganda that, instead of dealing with the way things are, they keep trying to find a substitute player to fill the Soviet Union's villainous role. And, all the while, our workforce is languishing while the rest of the world reaps dividends we don't even know exist.

Instead, our MBA programs have turned out a generation of emotionally insecure, irrational, stridently hyperreactive corporate drones who are incapable of understanding--much less competing on--the world economic stage. Our economists cling to statistical models based on assumption that are so outdated and flawed, they might as well have been reading tea leaves and casting chicken bones for the past 10 years or so. Our financial journalists--at least the ones who are still old-school enough to bother checking original sources--are too superstitious to interpret their sources accurately. The rest get their information directly from the blogosphere and Wikipedia.

The American economic elites are suffering from a Cold War hangover, and this hair-of-the-dog remedy they've been using for two decades doesn't work. The rest of the world is already up and at 'em. It's time to sober up.

(Brandon Burt)

* [Addendum: Media critics have questioned Russia Today's objectivity in view of its close ties to Russian government. As far as I can tell, it seems to be a state-funded news organ, in some kind of loopy, roundabout way, although some of its bureaus claim to enjoy some degree of editorial freedom. PBS or Pravda? Who knows? So you might want to take Russia Today's stories about Putin with a grain of salt.]


  1. you're fucking joking right? Use your brain before you start defending a fascist asshole.

    Why don't you ask your colleagues at Novotya Gazeta about Putin. They just lost two more this month, and that douchebag is probably behind it somehow.

    BTW, Russia Today is owned by the state, AKA Putin.

    If you ask me the USA is not tough enough on Putin and his regime.

  2. Hey, Mehul. You're right about Russia Today--I didn't learn that it is a Russian state-propaganda organ until later. If I had known that RA has no more credibility than Fox News, I would have thought twice before sourcing the alternative translation.

    As I said, like many Americans, I know less about Vladimir Putin than I probably should. And, as I also said, I'm not necessarily a big Putin fan. (Maybe the ironic photo captions--which were meant to be humorous--were misleading. That might have been a bad choice, but how in the hell do I illustrate a blog entry about Putin and Michael Dell? I always hope that people read my words instead of just looking at the pictures.)

    Russia's not what I would describe as a great American ally, but then, who is these days? Even so, I'm reluctant to bandy about words like "fascist," considering how lax our own checks and balances against corporate-military control have been in recent years. (Don't forget Congress repealed the Posse Comitatus Act between 2007 and 2008!)

    Anyway, let's acknowledge that Vladimir Putin isn't really All That, and Russia doesn't necessarily have America's best interests at heart. (So, what else is new?)

    The accounts in Fortune and the Silicon Valley trades mostly reported that, 1. Michael Dell made a generous offer of help, in response to which, 2. Putin got all нападающий up in Dell's grill.

    On deeper inspection, it really seems that, 1. Dell wasn't necessarily acting as the bright, rainbow unicorn of beneficent sunshine these reporters make him out to be, and 2. In light of this fact, Putin's gruff response is a lot more comprehensible.

    As for U.S. policy toward Russia, I'd have to see specifics on what you mean by getting "tough enough on Putin." Whatever Putin's deal is, though, Fortune and the tech trades dropped the ball on this story.

  3. What good things has Putin done for Russia during the recent ten years? Every
    time, when I hear people saying this, it surprises me how quickly people
    can forget things. It seems that they have forgotten a lot about the
    1990s. Do they remember the crisis of 1998, when the dollar skyrocketed from 6 to 20 rubles in less than one month? Do they remember the faces of those people who had considerable debts in dollars? Just for comparison, the
    dollar rate changed just for a couple of rubles from January 2000 up
    until now. If someone had promised during the 1990s that the ruble rate
    would be practically still for ten years - no one would have ever
    believed that person. Do they remember the mobsters who would race their
    Mercedes cars in the wrong lane? Would anyone try to stop them back then
    as they try to stop official vehicles now? Now one can make videos of
    these races and upload them on the Internet. If someone tried to film
    mobsters during the 1990s, they would either be injured or just killed.
    Do they remember the morale which we had during the second half of the
    1990s? Everyone would think that tomorrow would be much worse than
    today. When Putin was saying that the national GDP would double,
    everyone thought that he was just joking.Do they remember the grocery stores of the 1990s? They were not Soviet- like anymore, but they were not Western-like either. They were tiny, dirty and there was not much to choose from. Do they remember so-called shuttle traders who lived at the expense of the underdeveloped commercial system? Do they remember the total absence of consumer loans, credit cards, large supermarkets and many other types of consumer infrastructure? Do they remember the average salary of $100, which would make such things as buying new cars and booking holidays abroad a luxury? Do they remember the Russian style of business which was prospering during the 1990s? Commodity bases in dirty basements, big and bald-headed guys in tracksuits, illegal salaries in dollars - do they
    remember?Do they remember that infamous jealousy to Europeans and
    Americans, who had to work for just one month to afford a powerful
    computer? Do they remember the Internet which which was ten times as
    faster and ten times as cheaper in the West? A lot of things have changed in the country, people, really a lot.Russia today is a normal European country which is quite affordable for living. Of course, the country has too many problems, but it is not the impoverished Russia, in which the average pension was $20. It is not the country where the IMF can be the boss.


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