Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Conservatives for Change

In the US, knowing how someone votes suggests something about their views on economics.

- Vote Republican: broadly support less government intervention in the market

- Vote Democrat: broadly support more government intervention in the market

This isn't true for Ireland because the two biggest parties have not traditionally been divided by a left/right wing economic affiliation. Over the course of its history the biggest party, Fianna Fáil, has swung from protectionism, even isolationism as they tried to make Ireland self-sufficient, to free(ish) trade and tax cuts to attract foreign investment. Fianna Fáil are a pragmatic populist party, rather than one tied closely to political or economic principles.

So in Ireland the word "conservative" is not tied closely to economic policy. The two main parties explored various policies that seemed useful or popular at the time.

The real struggle for conservatives in Ireland was over religious and social issues. In the early decades after independence there was widespread censorship of cinema and literature, influenced by strict interpretations of Catholicism. Contraceptives could be bought without prescription only after 1985. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993. Divorce was legalised in 1995. Abortion - never. This movement to social liberalism was bitterly contested by the religious conservatives.

So an Irish conservative was likely to desire a return to the old Catholic illiberal approach to sexuality. That same person could be economically anywhere, left or right.

Consistent conservatism
Apart from being socially conservative, early independent Ireland also followed protectionist economic policies, so a consistent Irish conservative would want things to go backward to isolationism, censorship, protectionism, nationalism and Catholic domination. Back to a safe, sealed-off monocultural world with a stagnant economy that would deter any immigrants. They would be happy there, because there would be little reason for change.

American right-wing conservatives are in an odd situation, however, because they want to reverse social changes but they like free trade, capitalism, which facilitates social change at an astonishing rate. How different life would be without cars, internet, aeroplanes, mobile phones - the technological products of broadly free market countries. (Improvements in modern medicine may even have caused the sexual revolution in the US and Western Europe.)

These economic policies are also the reason immigrants pour into the country, sometimes abandoning Communist countries like Cuba or Vietnam, and bringing all their alien culture with them.

Right-wing conservatives seem doomed to never achieve their goal. Their dream of economic liberty will always result in the rapid social change they want to avoid.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Mistaken for a Jew. Again.

The BBC have an interesting article by Tim Franks, until now their Middle Eastern correspondent - and a Jew. Franks describes the clashing expectations people had of him, from Jews who hoped he would put forward "our side of the story" to a friend concerned with the difficulty in balancing Judaism and journalism.

And there are many who believe that, as a journalist, I am also guilty before I have broadcast a word: guilty of being in hock to the all-powerful Jewish lobby, guilty of being in thrall to the Palestinian culture of victimhood, guilty of stirring over-heated controversy out of every spit and whistle in this corner of western Asia.

Franks says he never covered a news story differently because of his Jewish origin, yet many presumed it coloured his views.

This presumption, that Jewishness must alter an individual's journalistic output, was applied to me recently too. Odd, since I'm not Jewish, have never been to Israel, have no Jewish ancestry whatsoever and am not even particularly interested in the region. What I do have is an Anglicised Irish surname - Leavy - that sounds vaguely Jewish.

A friend on Facebook had posted an article about Palestine and I responded by pointing out again that the Israel/Palestine conflict is very small compared with other, underreported conflicts. A mate of my Facebook friend was appalled with this, calling me a "racist zionist". I tried to explain that much outrage over Palestine was selective, since worse oppression elsewhere was often ignored. His response:

Levi fucck off. people like you have no idea.

Levi! I laughed, partly at the absurdity of it but also because "Levi" was a nickname in college, a joke on the similarity of my name to that of Jewish Italian author Primo Levi. So I was "Levi" once again, but this time without humour.

I'm not sure what he meant by "people like you". Was this an anti-Jewish statement? Did he mean that I, as a supposed Jew, could not understand the true situation in Palestine? To be fair this is unclear, he may have meant only people with my opinions. But it makes me wonder if this mix-up with my surname could happen again, and if it could affect how people read some of my work. How frustrating: to be considered part of a great Jewish conspiracy to control global media without getting to benefit from any of their apparent omnipotence!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Getting published... in Russian

I like to question conflicts and issues that are taken for granted by media and the public, and see just how severe they are compared with other, unreported, concerns. The recent uproar over the Gaza aid floatilla helped to highlight this since actual deaths were few compared with other modern conflicts, while debate was furious.

I am concerned that selective outrage over politically-convenient events worsens polarisation of groups and contributes to lazy simplistic narratives for explaining complex world events. It seems a worthwhile activity to question these simplistic narratives, and I wrote on this for Global Politician earlier this month.

This update is not about the article, though, but about my surprise to see this article republished in some rather odd places.

The World Uyghur Congress published the entire article, presumably because I compared the outrage over Tibet (and Palestine) with general indifference to the Uyghur independence movement in Xinjiang, China. The Uyghur Human Rights Project also republished it in full.

Well fair enough, it's interesting for me since I've never been to China, but it does make sense. This, less so:

Люди обычно думают, что Палестина важна. Ирландские националисты рисуют на стенах в Белфасте палестинские флаги. Испанские школьники шлют в израильское посольство письма с требованием положить конец "убийствам" в Палестине. Люди, не имеющие к ней никакого личного отношения, очень сильно озабочены происходящими там событиями

This is a part of my article, translated into Russian. The entire article is there, in Russian. I have no idea why, or who went to the trouble of translating it. They even supplied me with a Russian name - Шейн Ливи - which, when I put into Google Translate, comes back nicely as Shane Leavy!

The article pops up in Russian here too, as well as on a few discussion forums and apparently, though I can't find a direct link to it anymore, on the Pacific Islands Governance Portal.

I am just amazed at how far this article has travelled. It's cool, but also a reminder of how careful journalists need to be when their work is published online. These words can end up being scrutinised in the most unexpected places: best make them good ones.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

How to make other countries like you:

Don't give them much money.

The 2009 Index of Global Philanthrophy and Remittances shows that the Japanese government gave US$7.68 billion Official Development Assistance (ODA) - state aid to poorer countries - in 2007. This sounds like big money, but it's only 0.17% of GNI. By comparison the UK managed 0.36%, Ireland 0.55% and Norway 0.95% of GNI. In the OECD, only Greece and the US gave less ODA/GNI than Japan.

The US did, however, give a colossal amount of private aid, more than any other OECD country. Other countries sending large proportion of private aid (as a percentage of GNI) include Netherlands, UK and Ireland. Japan sent very little. Calculating total ODA, private aid and "remittances" (private transfers of money my migrant workers to their home country) as a percentage of GNI, Japan comes right at the bottom of the OECD.

The world responds to this lack of aid... with applause. BBC's 2010 world poll asked 29,000 respondents in 28 countries about their views on various countries. Japan's influence on the world was considered positive by 53% of respondents, the second highest result after Germany. Views on Japan were particularly positive in places like Kenya (68% positive), Nigeria (66% positive) and Philippines (77% positive).

So even though Japan was relatively less philanthropic, it attracted much more positive views than more generous countries.

This is not to say that aid cannot improve a country's popularity, but perhaps it is not a major factor compared with others.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The rise of austerity

Here is an interesting graph showing the number of Google searches for the word "stimulus" as a proportion of all Google searches, from January 2008 to today:

And here is the same period, looking at the relative popularity of the term "austerity":

Stimulus peaked twice and now seems fairly stable, while austerity peaked recently and is now still a lot higher than before. I wonder if this indicates a change in narrative over the economic crisis? Instead of stimulating economies with state intervention there is a greater emphasis on cutting deficits.

I'm not sure though. Taken together, the two search terms look like this:

Stimulus is still far in the lead. The words austerity and stimulus also have meanings unrelated to economics, which muddies the data. Still, the rise of austerity searches does seem to mirror an increased emphasis on several European countries - particulary Greece, Ireland and Spain - to slash government budgets and raise taxes in order to reduce deficits.

Am I imagining a change in narrative? Not if Google's news reference volume graph is a reliable indicator:

That's stimulus in red, gradually making fewer news articles, while austerity in blue perks up in 2010. I wonder if the whole debate is beginning to shift.

Friday, June 4, 2010

What if the Famine hadn't happened?

On an earlier post about Niger's high population growth rates, a reader argued that Niger's food crisis is caused not by population growth, but by "oligopoly and grain cartels" controlling the food supply.

I was reminded of debates about Ireland's Great Famine of the 1840s, when the potato crop failed and around one million people died. Many blamed British rule for the disaster. One particular concern was that food was being exported from Ireland even while people were starving.

Yet Ireland in the decades leading up to the famine was experiencing unsustainable growth. It is hard to get good data from the period, but Gapminder gives us some estimates. I will compare Ireland's population growth with that of the UK. (Numbers for Ireland are estimates for the Republic of Ireland; numbers for UK are estimates including present day Northern Ireland.)

1604 Ireland: 737,861
1604 UK: 5,527,939

1704 Ireland: 1,492,466 (102.3% increase)
1704 UK: 7,495,000 (35.6% increase)

1804 Ireland: 4,561,550 (206% increase)
1804 UK: 14,987,584 (100% increase)

1845 Ireland: 6,045,905 (32.54% increase)
1845 UK: 21,994,095 (46.7% increase)

A Gapminder graph comparing the two countries' population growth from 1604 to 2008 looks like this:

So there was extremely rapid population growth in Ireland before the famine, although after around 1820 UK began to accelerate its own growth, ending the convergence of populations.

Clearly population growth in itself is not a famine risk. UK kept growing and now has food security. Unlike industrial Britain, however, much of Ireland was desperately poor in this period, with large proportions of the population relying directly on the potato crop. Population growth itself is not the problem, but population growth in an agricultural, subsistence-farming society is a grave concern indeed. (Note that in Niger, 90% of the labour force is involved in agriculture today, much of it subsistence farming.)

The Great Famine is the most obvious phenomenon on the above graph, causing a deep dip in Ireland's population which, thanks largely to emigration, has yet to recover.

But supposing the British had blocked exports and made a greater effort to stave off starvation. They did this in 1782, when bad weather coincided with a foreign economic slump to cause a food shortage in Ireland. Food exports were controlled and public funds were provided to feed thousands of people every day. Famine was avoided.

Great! But Ireland's population continued to soar, almost doubling by the time the potatoes failed in 1845, and pressure on the land for food became worse. Farms were subdivided and each generation had less area to work than the last. Avoiding famine in 1782 had saved lives, but not fixed a long-term problem. I wonder how Ireland would have fared if the 1840s famine was also avoided. Would the great emigration wave have kicked in with such force? Or would the country have continued growing uncontrollably, only to face an even greater collapse some time in the future?

Foxconn suicides exceptionally low for China

I wrote before about the need to place statistics in context to make them meaningful. The recent news coverage of a spate of suicides in a Chinese Foxconn factory shows us why. Foxconn produces several Apple products, including the iPad, and there has been some concern among consumers that they are paying for a cruel work system. The Telegraph had this to say:

The reasons for the sudden spate of suicides remain unclear. However, the military-style working regime at Foxconn's Longhua plant, in which more than 300,000 people work, has been heavily criticised.

Workers are forbidden to talk on the production line, even in their short breaks, and many have complained of feeling lonely and alienated inside the giant factory.

In addition, the enormous demand for some products – including the 2m unit-selling iPad – appears to have placed an intolerable strain on Foxconn workers, who are quitting the Longhua factory at the rate of 15,000 a month.

Well that does not sound promising. Foxconn has had 16 attempted suicides so far this year.

Yet the number out of context is meaningless. The first question journalists should ask is: how does this suicide rate compare with non-workers? Bloomberg Business Week thought to ask:

But among the flurry of reports about Foxconn in the international media, one thing appears to have been missed: The suicide rate among the company's workers is well below the national average.

Between 2000 and 2006, China averaged 15.05 suicide-related deaths per 100,000 people in the country, according to a Nov. 2008 research paper published in The Lancet medical journal. The 10 deaths so far this year at Foxconn put it far below the national average considering it employs over 540,000 workers in China.

This isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card for Foxconn - conditions may still be rough there - but it throws the whole debate into a new direction. Foxconn workers are less likely to commit suicide than others, so why the uproar?