The Answer to Political Straw Men in Turkey? Investment in Education

By: Ezra Mannix, THO Non-Resident Fellow

There was once a time when Erdogan really enjoyed being a politician. Kissing hands of the elderly, embracing his friends, members of his own party genuinely gave the leader professional fulfillment. Rattling on his stump speech about outside forces trying to destabilize and provoke, rattling on about how his giant base of salt-of-the-earth, heartland voters had been forgotten for the sake catering to political elites or the military. Now the job is getting old. There isn’t a lot of upward mobility at the top. So he has turned to attacking the one area of political orthodoxy that he didn’t dare question before: economic orthodoxy.

A Fletcher School classmate, reflecting on his days at the University of Chicago, once told me that the joke at his alma mater’s famed economics department was economists are like a do-no-harm physician. Got interest rate pain? Take an aspirin and things will sort of sort themselves out. Except taking aspirin is boring. Kicking and screaming about how that aspirin is a tool of Western manipulation is a lot more fun.

Erdogan and a lot of autocratic leaders on the rise share a lot of things in common. But a thing often overlooked is that they all are smart. Not quoting Proust at a dinner party or solve equations in their head smart, but understanding playing people off one another and the ability to stay in the headlines, knowing what provokes a lesser educated electorate and what keeps them interested, and how to get predictable reactions from the media.

Erdogan and the current government understand that given the lack of critical thinking skills and journalistic freedom wrought on his citizens thanks to education system founded by predecessors who did not value critical thinking, so politicians’ words are taken as gospel. Journalistic integrity has long been undervalued in Turkey, so corroboration and confirmation of “Erdonomics” is not necessary to score points. Mainstream Western media, in theory, cannot entertain bizarre notions the way Turks can (something President Donald Trump is slowly changing in the U.S.).

Erdogan knows that raising interest rates doesn’t cause inflation. He also knew that saying that would draw gasps from anyone who has taken an undergraduate level economics course. He also knew that the central bank would inevitably raise interest rates.

So why say it? In short, malaise. Most knew he would coast to an electoral win. He’s locked in the votes of multiple generations of voters who do not question his abilities and credentials. Attacking economic orthodoxy is a fresh way of keeping the strawman alive, and his electorate will not question it.

He doesn’t want to focus on the positives. There is some good news. Turkey is going all in on making Istanbul a global hub for business travelers with the opening of a new airport. Tourism was up in Istanbul and coastal resorts this year thanks to the cheap lira (though it meant higher prices for local tourists).

These short-term and perennial strengths of the Turkish economy will always be there, barring a major domestic security attack that drives tourists and business away. But these will keep Turkey a developing country in perpetuity. Turkey needs to get out of the habit of claiming its natural strengths are the ways to maintain economy security and grow a more robust and diversified political economy.

The short-term fixes are few, but for the long-term sake of Turkey’s prosperity, the country ought to invest on significant research and development, foster and encourage the private sector and industrialists to incubate technology firms on a large scale, provide professional development for a nimbler and flexible workforce, and radically change its education system to foster critical thinking. Turkish millennials have travelled and come into contact with foreigners like never before thanks to recent economic prosperity, but economic woes are derailing opportunities for the next generation.

Perhaps, then, the media would simply be better served doing what we all do when someone tries to get attention: ignore him and reach for the soft power.

Educational development is what I see as key to Turkey’s long term prosperity. I believe Turkey has a lot going for it in the education realm to train a generation of more critically minded youth than the one currently entering the workforce. In my more than five years working in and with higher education in Istanbul, I saw budding signs of greatness and have taught a number of bright international and Turkish students.

With this as a driver, the U.S. government could solidify relations with the Turkey by encouraging American universities to open satellite campuses not unlike “Education City” in Qatar (and, let’s face it, Istanbul is a far more exciting city for a student than Qatar) and offer subsidies and scholarships for American university students to study at them. This would encourage Turkish universities to raise their standards to compete for partnerships with U.S. institutions, or to raise their own standards, and develop campuses like Middle East Technical University’s Technopolis in Ankara.

Letting successes of economic do-no-harm liberalism speak for themselves and adapting the education would render Erdogan…boring, but it’s how most highly educated societies prosper. Instead, Erdogan is incentivized to stay ahead of the curve by resorting to trick plays from the autocrat’s playbook while soft-power wielding bureaucrats and technocrats keep the world spinning.

With a more educated population, the relatively recent spate of so-called authoritarianism will be just that…a spate. Turkey, a relatively strong democracy, will continue to be so, albeit one with a more informed electorate.