Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Did immigration worsen the recession?

There is an interesting comment in economist Stefan Karlsson's blog about the role of "labour mobility", the ease of migrants to move around for work, in recessions.

...while immigration during booms and emigration during slumps increases and decreases respectively the supply of labor in accordance with the movements in demand of labor, immigration during a housing boom will temporarily further increase housing demand and so help worsen the bubble. Similarly, if foreign (or domestic) workers leave during housing slumps, this will further reduce demand for housing and increase the gult of unsold homes and cause further declines in construction activity.

During the housing boom of these countries, both Spain and Ireland in fact had a massive influx of foreign workers, many of whom worked in the construction industries, something which helped fuel an already unsustainably high level of housing construction activity (as these new workers of course wanted some place to live and so increased housing demand). Now particularly Ireland, but also Spain, are experiencing net emigration of workers, something which will further increase the crisis in the housing sectors in those crisis.
Over the last few years I've heard people make the observation that Ireland was importing immigrants to build houses for immigrants to live in, to build more houses. This was a casual remark to indicate the absurdity of the housing bubble, but Karlsson's remarks show it in another light.

In 2004 the EU expanded into eastern Europe, but most old EU countries placed migration restrictions against citizens of the new member states. Only Denmark, UK, Sweden and Ireland remained open to the new eastern members, and the result was a flood of immigration into those countries, particularly UK and Ireland. That, along with widespread immigration from Britain and scattered immigration from non-European countries, meant that by 2006, 10% of the people living here were non-Irish.

It's an interesting perspective that our liberal immigration policies actually worsened the boom-and-bust cycle. The Poles and Latvians who were employed to build too many houses here during the boom are now leaving them empty, with prices collapsed.

On the other hand I wonder if the present emigration may also have a positive effect in speeding the collapse of house prices so that the bubble bursts more quickly and we can continue building stable wealth? It's a nice thought, but I didn't pay enough attention in university Macroeconomics to be sure, alas!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

We, as a society...

When people say "we, as a society", who do they mean?

This is a common enough phrase in political debate, but at best a vague one, at worst dishonest. See this speech by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin last week:

The deeper question is then is why in the better-times-Ireland, as a society and as an economic model, we all underestimated the fact that the success of an economic model ought also to have been evaluated in terms of the long term sustainability of jobs, mortgages and borrowing, of life style, of education and health care and sustainable opportunity for young people. Such long term sustainability needs broad ownership by all in society.

Who is the "we" that Martin refers to? He says "we all underestimated", so does he mean literally everyone, every single citizen? Probably not, he follows this statement with the remark that during the 1990s he gave a talk "reflecting" on the ability of small government to manage an economic crisis. This suggests that he, at least, was aware of the importance of sustainability of jobs and so on.

If so, what he meant to say was: "I was right all along, and the rest of you should have listened to me." That would have been honest, though still inaccurate since there were plenty people warning about trouble in the global economy. Archbishop Martin was not the only worried one!

Often when people chastise some group or country "as a society", they mean to exclude themselves in the criticism.

"We, as a society, need to reject racism", means "I reject racism, and the rest of you should too. You should me more like me." It's an irritating phrase because it makes this grand generalisation about what millions of people "as a society" believe or do, while sneakily implying that the speaker is excluded from the criticism.

It also implies that other people need to change, not the speaker. Don't say that "we, as a society" need to reject racism or domestic abuse or war. Reject them all by yourself!

So next time someone insists that their country "as a society" needs to change, ask yourself who they really mean. Often enough these people imply that they are already in the right, so everyone else will have to shift direction to conform to their standards. "We, as a society" means you, not me.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Homo/xeno/Islamophobia are not phobia

I suffer from mild arachnophobia, mild because it is reserved for bigger spiders, the tiny ones don't worry me. It's a trait I've had as long as I can remember, a background irritation that bothers me little here in cool, temperate Ireland but occasionally returns to horrify.

I remember riding my bicycle as a child once when a spider crept out from under the seat onto my leg. I noticed and cried out, swerving and braking in one violent movement. I crashed and convulsively brushed my leg where the spider had been, shuddering in panic.

Nearly two decades later I moved to an apartment near the edge of a vast, hot, humid Japanese forest. One evening after leaving my bathroom window open I found a massive black arachnid racing up the wall. I slammed the door shut and fled to the opposite end of the apartment; there I paced about in indecisive fear for long minutes, staring at the door lest the spider creep out, too revolted to approach it but knowing I absolutely had to get it out. This was a nightmarish, instinctive and deeply irrational fear. Only the terror of sharing the night with it motivated me finally to grab my hoover out and venture back in, armed thus! I sucked it into the vacuum cleaner and left the motor running for minutes until I was sure it was dead.

This pathetic arachnophobia is deeply emotional. My Japanese colleagues had already explained that the snakes and centipedes were more dangerous, yet I was thrilled by the smooth beauty of the snakes, revolted by the spiders. I had no control over my reaction to those big spiders, my fear was not just irrational but pre-rational, an emotional response that preceded any reasonable thought.

Knowing this, I puzzle over modern usage of the suffix 'phobia' to describe political or cultural bigotries.

Is homophobia a true phobia? I can't imagine that the homophobe reacts to gay people as I do to massive spiders - with sudden, immediate terror and panicked retreat. Likewise a true xenophobe should flee any room rather than share it with a foreigner, sobbing or shuddering if they were forced to actually touch one.

My time in Japan also showed me another aspect of phobia, that regular exposure to large spiders gradually desensitised me so that the fear I felt towards them lessened over time. Do xenophobes feel happier about immigrants when they start to outnumber the natives? I don't think so.

Islamophobia too seems to get worse as more Muslim migrants arrive, not better! Again I question the suffix 'phobia' here. People may indeed have a negative reaction to Islam or Muslims, but surely this is a political conviction, not the kind of helpless instant terror I feel for gigantic spiders.

Islamophobes don't behave as people suffering phobias would be expected to behave. I avoid large spiders and my first reaction is horrified flight. The recent threats by a Christian pastor in the US to burn the Quran would be like me deciding to buy a tarantula, keep it in my house for a few weeks and then publicly execute it.

Of course I won't do that! A true phobia-sufferer would avoid the object of his or her fear, not obsess about it. I know one arachnophobe who feels horror even at the sight of the printed word 'spider' - such a person would not spend hours reading blogs about dangerous spiders in the way that supposed Islamophobes read about Islamist terror on Gates of Vienna. So I suspect homophobes, xenophobes and Islamophobes don't really suffer true phobias. Bigotries, sure, but not phobias.

Middle Eastern scholar Professor Fred Halliday argued against using the phrase Islamophobia, instead suggesting 'anti-Muslimism'. This latter sits much more comfortably alongside other historical bigotries like anti-Americanism or anti-Semitism as a hatred of a people, not fear of an ideology. The word 'Islamophobia', he argued, was too easily used to silence all critical thought about Islam or interpretations of Islam.

Pondering this, I was interested to discover this article by Professor Frank Furedi of the University of Kent, who argues that calling prejudices 'phobias' is deeply misleading for five reasons. To summarise:

1) Phobias are individual mental health problems
'Of course, there are prejudiced people out there - people who are mistrustful and scathing of homosexuals, Muslims, blacks and others - but such prejudice does not represent a mental health issue.'

2) Calling people phobic silences debate
'Today, promoting the concept of Islamophobia is about setting up Islam as a criticism-free zone.... Worse, the use of this term erodes the distinction between criticism of Islam and discrimination against Muslim people.... In today’s phobic imagination, it seems people are not allowed to have negative or hostile views of other people’s lifestyles or cultures. The term phobia implies that if you dislike a certain lifestyle then you must be an irrational bigot.'

3) Phobia rhetoric makes interpretation of debate subjective
'Macpherson defined institutional racism as a problem of the mind, arguing that it ‘can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people’. The key word here is ‘unwitting’: an unconscious response driven by unregulated and untamed emotions. In a world where ‘unwitting racism’ replaces real racism, every act has the potential to be diagnosed as prejudicial or ‘phobic’.'

4) Dissenting views treated as diseases
'In Western societies, phobic individuals are not incarcerated – they simply face being stigmatised and pushed out of polite society. But how long before ‘unwitting’ phobics are encouraged to participate in anger management classes or pressurised to have their ‘awareness’ raised and remoulded?'

5) 'Phobic' individuals presumed immoral
'The homophobe or the Islamophobe is a sick individual whose arguments and beliefs need not be taken seriously. As unwitting phobics, they cannot help but behave the way they do.'

These phobias aren't phobias, but prejudices - products of societal conflicts rather than individual psychology, so it would be useful to be wary of this use of language.

How terrorists make local struggles global

Terrorist groups sometimes have difficulty in winning popular support for their campaigns. The narrow nationalist interests that concern them may not interest foreigners: why should anyone care about Basque or Northern Irish independence?

One way that these groups gain global support is by depicting their struggle as a local front of a global battle. For small nationalist groups, this struggle is often portrayed in populist anti-imperialist terms. In recent decades these terms were often associated with socialist movements, so they came to include anti-capitalist rhetoric too.

Earlier this month the Real IRA invoked this global anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist trend with the topical addition of some populist anger against the bankers:

The role of bankers and the institutions they serve in financing Britain's colonial and capitalist system has not gone unnoticed.

Let's not forget that the bankers are the next-door neighbours of the politicians. Most people can see the picture: the bankers grease the politicians' palms, the politicians bail out the bankers with public funds, the bankers pay themselves fat bonuses and loan the money back to the public with interest. It's essentially a crime spree that benefits a social elite at the expense of many millions of victims.

This simplistic anti-banker rhetoric must seem attractive to many people who have suffered during the economic collapse, not just in Ireland but also abroad.

Meanwhile Iranian President Ahmadinejad attacked the "discriminatory order of capitalism" in his UN speech. Both Islamist Ahmadinejad and nationalist Real IRA are seeking to widen their support with such talk, to find foreigners who also identify with anti-capitalist perspectives and render their own local causes global.

Were they to come into direct competition, these Islamists and secular nationalists, they would make bitter enemies, not allies. So it is worth being wary of solidarity that stretches across borders, when that solidarity is based only on vaguely common enemies rather than true common ground.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What the internet was made for

Earlier today I read a very serious debate about the idea of applying gender quotas to Irish politics to get a higher proportion of women represented in government. This was a sincere and rather bitter discussion between those who supported it and those who did not.... And then I blundered into a Pakistani discussion forum where the members, male and female, were discussing the mechanics of very fat people having sex.

Thread starter: With huge tummies, is it possible to do sex. Is anyone here with a BMI of 30 or more. How do you find it difficult, or keep difficult aside, rather possible to have sex ?

A few of my favourite comments, with the names removed for privacy:

Boy 1: Fat males usually have a shrunken pipi. And they have problems in getting blood to their pipi's.

Girl 1: u can still have it if u want it bad enough , so dont worry [thread starter], stack up on those pizzas and desserts ,, wont hurt a thing :P

Boy 2: [quoting] "Fat males usually have a shrunken pipi. And they have problems in getting blood to their pipi's."
- words of an experienced man :D

Boy 3: fat guy in missionary position? thats gonna suck for the girl
she is fucked, both literally and metaphorically

Thread starter: [quoting] "fat guy in missionary position? thats gonna suck for the girl
she is fucked, both literally and metaphorically [2]"
- [Boy 3], I am a humanist, I care for my fellow humans :d

Boy 4: missionary position would be like road roller rolling on the road. :-|

Girl 2: obese ppl look ugly even if they are dressed up , imagine how wud it be like wen they are not , sux !!!!
P.S no hard feelings for fat ppl , one shud work out for fittness, health is wealth remember

Boy 5: fat or thin, as long as u have huge package, fatness doesn't matter

Thread starter: [quoting] "fat or thin, as long as u have huge package, fatness doesn't matter"
- How huge is huge ?
how huge should the package be to defy a 10-12 inch tummy ?

Girl 3: a lot of people in this commmunity dont look good with clothes on, and they will eventually get laid. so dont worry about the fat ones.

At this point one of the members made a spelling mistake that seemed to imply she was suggesting the thread starter marry several obese women.

Boy 5: One obese woman is enough to squash him into pulp.. how can he think of several obese women.

Wonderful stuff! When I lived in Japan I noticed sometimes that they seemed to lack the politically correct sensitivity that has grown stronger here. In Ireland, like some other Western countries, many people are concerned about racism, sexism, homophobia and so on, concerned to the point where any sign of support for such prejudices is quickly stifled. Good or bad, this sensitivity is limiting, a bit wearying.

The Japanese hadn't quite accepted this, cheerfully voting into office as governor of Tokyo the unabashed bigot Shintaro Ishihara whose tirades against Chinese and Africans would astonish most Europeans. In Tokyo joke shops one can buy the "gaijin setto" - a massive pink false nose, fake glasses and furry yellow eyebrows, to play at being white. Am I offended? Of course not.

It's for the same reason that the careless irreverence of this discussion so amused me. Insensitive, harmful, hurtful, hilarious :D

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

More porn, less rape

Some feminist thinkers have opposed the growing acceptance and availability of pornography on the grounds that it normalises the sexual objectification of women and may increase the risk of rape. The 1988 policy statement of the Campaign against Pornography and Censorship reads:

We believe that pornography is the most extreme portrayal of women as less than human and less than equal. We believe that pornography reinforces women's unequal status by presenting them as only sexual and 'sexualized' objects for men's titillation and gratification and perpetuates their unequal status... We believe therefore that pornography is propaganda against women which perpetuates sexism, sex discrimi­nation and sexual violence.

This simple argument, that pornography perpetuates sexual violence, should be demonstrable by a direct correlation between exposure to porn and tendency to sexually abuse victims.

But this correlation does not seem to exist in reality. In fact the rise of liberal attitudes and policies towards pornography correlates instead to a dramatic decline in sexual abuse, a decline observed in several countries. In 1999 a University of Hawaii study had this to say:

Presently in Japan, sexually explicit video tapes, books, and magazines which cater to all sorts of erotic interests and fetishes are readily available.... However, this availability of modern pornography is relatively new. Essentially since the end of World War II with the imposition of American military rules, which lasted until 1951, there was prohibition of any sexually explicit material. This continued under the Japanese government into the late 1980s; images or depictions of frontal nudity were banned as were pictures of pubic hair or genitals. No sex act could be depicted graphically.

The situation began to change markedly at the turn of the present decade.... Over this period of change, sex crimes in every category, from rape to public indecency, sexual offenses from both ends of the criminal spectrum, significantly decreased in incidence.

Most significantly, despite the wide increase in availability of pornography to children, not only was there a decrease in sex crimes with juveniles as victims but the number of juvenile offenders also decreased significantly.

The team added that studies in Denmark, Sweden, West Germany and the US showed a similar trend: as laws prohibiting pornography were liberalised, sexual violence either declined or showed a slight increase which, because awareness of sexual assault was increasing, may only have indicated an increase in reporting. Sexual violence against and by minors experienced a particularly strong decline. Gang rapes also declined in Japan and West Germany.

The last two decades have been an opportunity to explore a massive increase in availability of pornography with the rise of the internet. Now men can search for any fetish at low or no cost, and with a high degree of privacy. If watching pornography perpetuates sexual violence then this vast increase in access to porn should have been accompanied by a disastrous rise in sexual violence.

It has not. The 2007 study below by Todd Kendall of Clemson University explained that the rise of the internet is associated with a decline in rape, particularly rape committed by men aged 15-19. Kendall explains that there may be some negative changes in attitude by men who repeatedly watch pornography, such as a weakening of inhibitions towards rape. However he points out that there is another, stronger, mechanism at play: potential perpetrators use pornography as a substitute for rape.

With the mass market introduction of the world wide web in the late-1990's, both pecuniary and non-pecuniary prices for pornography fell. The associated decline in rape illustrated in the analysis here is consistent with a theory, such as that in Posner (1994), in which pornography is a complement for masturbation or consensual sex, which are themselves substitutes for rape, making pornography a net substitute for rape.

Kendall adds that more research is needed, but argues that his research indicates that "liberalization of pornography access may not lead to increased sexual victimization of women".

Kendall doesn't spell out the substitution effect of pornography for rape, so I will suggest a casual explanation. Sexual desire drops immediately after sex or masturbation, and there is a limit to how many times any man may ejaculate in a given period. If the potential rapist has already ejaculated repeatedly while watching pornography over the course of a day he will be biologically incapable of doing so with a rape victim.

More porn means more masturbation. More masturbation means more of a man's limited ration of ejaculations are wasted in private, leaving the rapist with a lower level of sexual desire and weaker biological ability to rape. Absurd as it sounds, perhaps feminists should be relieved to know potential rapists are masturbating alone in their rooms over degenerate pornography, rather than living out their brutal fantasies in real life.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? IT DOESN'T MATTER.

I mentioned before the argument some make that media cannot control what people think, but can control what people think about.

Over the last few weeks journalists have followed the absurd case of a radical American pastor who said he would burn copies of the Quran on September 11th. This man is the head of a tiny church of around 50 members, yet with his silly stunt he has commanded global media attention and sparked bitter arguments between left and right. Should he burn the Quran? Should he be allowed burn the Quran? Is he endangering American troops by provoking Muslims?

It doesn't matter, it is a non-issue. One man. Fifty followers. 1.57 billion Muslims. In himself he is impotent, only the complicity of media has given him clout.

The debate about the morality and legality of this incident supports the idea that media cannot decide what people think - since there are dissenting views on the issue - but can help determine what people think about. Every inch of newspaper spent discussing this is wasted not discussing greater issues.

Sometimes the only right comment is no comment: wading in with another opinion simply stregthens the narrative that this incident matters while other world events do not. So it may be wiser not to engage this subject at all, but rather to discuss more important things and deny the pastor the attention he craves.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Why the US isn't quite like the Roman Empire

In August Rome marked the 1,600th anniversary of the Visigoth sack of the ancient capital. Rome hadn't been successfully invaded in 800 years and it was a massive psychological blow to the Empire; the Western Empire lasted only a few more decades before being finally destroyed by 'barbarian' Germanic tribes.

In modern times the might of the United States has been compared with that of Ancient Rome: the long-standing peace of US-dominated NATO sometimes called 'Pax Americana' in memory of Pax Romana, the relative peace enjoyed within the borders of the Rome-dominated empire.

The future of this US domination has also sometimes attracted gloomy comparisons with Rome, from commentators of both left and right. This anti-socialist critic blamed a crude early social welfare system and government intervention in the ancient market for Rome's downfall. While this writer makes a list of comparisons between Rome and the US, including the sense of exceptionalism, the military advances into regions whose cultures they did not understand and the farming out of military duties to 'barbarian' mercenaries.

A common claim among opponents of American militarism is that the US is stretching its military might too thin and, like Rome, will crumble beneath the weight of taxation needed to pay for it. From the opposite perspective some right-conservative critics say the declining fertility rates in North America and Europe are opening the West to invasion from the ever more populous Africans, Asians or Latin Americans as, they claim, depopulated Rome was conquered by the more fecund Germanic people.

All this is interesting and it is always worth remembering history to understand the present. But there is one critical difference between Roman times and today: nukes.

No matter how depopulated, decadent or indebted the US becomes, so long as somebody has a finger hovering above the deploy button an outright conventional invasion is impossible. The Visigoths could sack Rome because they were fighting ordinary men who they could defeat in battle. For the barbarians to take Washington DC today would mean sacrificing their own capitals to nuclear holocaust.

This doesn't ensure American domination by any means, but it could be that there will be a more gentle decline and withdrawal instead of a catastrophic collapse. Nuclear weapons seem to change the rules of the game completely.