The economics of espionage
If you wanted to infiltrate a Western economy, where would you place your agents? Microsoft and Barclays don’t make much sense. The Russian spy ring that was uncovered in the United States last month chose those two companies as their targets. The successors to the KGB clearly don’t have a clue about how the modern economy works.
The story of how Russian agents burrowed into ordinary communities has kept the world enthralled for weeks. At least two had found their way into important businesses. It recently emerged that a 12th member of the group worked as a software tester for Microsoft. Earlier, we learned that Anna Chapman, when she wasn’t making sure there were plenty of pictures of herself in lingerie ready to fill the newspapers and blogs after her eventual capture, worked for Barclays in London.
Now we know why PowerPoint takes so long to load up, and usually puts your graph upside down on the screen: It’s a plot by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to make every middle-ranking executive die of embarrassment.
Russia was going after the wrong guys. Microsoft is a big lumbering beast of a company that seems to have forgotten why it exists. Barclays is a retail British bank that was lucky to survive the credit crunch, and while it may be expanding its investment banking, it isn’t at the cutting edge of anything.
If you really want to go undercover in the global economy, and manipulate it to your own ends, here’s where to go:
Goldman Sachs: The U.S. investment bank is on the inside of every deal. It is ahead of most trends. And its alumni network is the most powerful in the world. Infiltrate it successfully, and within a couple of decades you should have one of your spies running at least one of the major central banks, and probably a finance ministry or two.
Harvard Business School: Get one of your agents installed at the world’s most influential center of learning and you can wreak havoc for years. Teach a whole generation of bright and ambitious students some crazy theory — that options trading makes markets safer by spreading risk, for example — then sit back and watch the financial system collapse 20 years later when your moles are running it.
A debt rater: As we saw during the Greek debt crisis, ratings companies have the real power to make or break economies. Even better, they can just make this stuff up. One minute Greece was investment grade, the next it was junk, although not much had changed about the country in the meantime. Choose a nation that you want to destroy, then get your agents installed as analysts at the three main assessors — Fitch Ratings, Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s. At the right moment, pull the trigger, whack it with three downgrades, and watch the implosion. It will be much easier than nuking the place.
Apple: Apple has taken control of a whole generation. If you release a brand-new app the same day you invade one of your neighbors, everyone in the West will be too busy downloading it to respond. Or perhaps even notice. Microsoft is hardly at the cutting edge of anything these days — the Xbox 360 was its last hit product but unless you want to take over the minds of a few million 13-year-old boys, that is hardly a target worthy of your spy ring. Apple is a different story, and not just because your agents should feel right at home in an organization that worships a control-freak leader, and is intolerant of criticism.
Of course, maybe the agents at Barclays and Microsoft were just a clever double-bluff — a ruse to throw the Central Intelligence Agency off the scent. A whole troop of attractive interns may be sitting down at their desks at Goldman and Moody’s this summer, making coffee, doing perfect photocopying, and starting their sinister rise to the heart of the economic system. They may become the CEOs of tomorrow.