Saturday, March 10, 2007

The J Curve

I've decided to start writing short summaries of (some) books I read. Please do not expect literary pieces here -- this is not my attempt to sneak into the book review section of the New York Times, nor is it an attempt to make up for a few missed book reports in grade school.

Had I started this two years ago, I would have definitely blogged about "The World is Flat" by Tom Friedman. Too late now. But I think this book should be required reading for anyone interested in data management (either in research or industry). Just read that book and imagine all the data management services we need to invent to support the flattening of the world. Of course, the book has other merits too.

The J Curve by Ian Bremmer, is essentially a framework for discussing the stability and openness of countries and how you can understand political events in the context of moving on the curve. You need to imagine the letter J rotated about 45 degrees clockwise to get the full effect. The X axis of the J curve is the degree of openness of a country (e.g., travel restrictions, freedom of the media, economic openness, the presence of independent political institutions). The Y axis is the degree of stability of the country (i.e., whether certain events would cause great chaos or not). If you're on the top left of the curve, you're closed but stable (e.g., North Korea). If you're on the top right, you're open and stable (e.g., USA, western Europe). If you're China, you pose an interesting challenge to the curve (more on that in a moment).

One of the main points the book makes is that for countries to go from the left to the right they will have to first go down the curve and therefore suffer some considerable instability. The world can help these countries by raising the entire curve, i.e, make the depths of the curve stable enough so countries will survive the transition. (In practice, that observation lets Bremmer criticize many of the policies the USA has taken w.r.t. some countries).

The book goes through a few examples of countries in each part of the curve. It starts with North Korea, Cuba and Saddam's Iraq as examples of stable but closed. It discusses Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia as countries that have the potential of sliding down the curve from the left. He shows South Africa as an example of a country that made it through the transition successfully and Yugoslavia as one that didn't. He takes Turkey, Israel and India as examples of countries founded on the right hand side of the curve and who have maintained it that way (though they do face challenges going forward). Finally, there is a chapter on China, where Bremmer argues that despite its economic openness, China is still on the left side of the curve.

What I liked most about this book are the brief yet insightful summaries of the relevant history of each of the countries discussed. The summaries give you the background for why things are the way they are now and let you understand better the challenges facing the countries. I'm finding that it's easier for me now to put current news into context, and in fact, that the curve does give a pretty good framework for thinking about today's world events.

That being said, the chapter on the country I am most familiar with, Israel, was a bit disappointing, so perhaps people from other countries would say the same about their respective chapters. I enjoyed reading about all the complexities in Yugoslavia, though I wished he would have spent a page or two describing some of the main events of the war there (he stopped just before it saying it would be too complicated).

In discussing the book with Donald Kossmann, he wonders whether corporations can also be classified according to their openness. For example, a company who has a very closed set of programmatic interfaces to their products (and I won't name the names he mentioned) may be considered a North Korea of countries. An interesting thought to develop.

In summary, I would definitely recommend this book. If you're an expert on world affairs and attended all your history classes in school, you may find less of a payoff from reading it.

I'm moving on now to Wikinomics.