Saturday, October 30, 2010

Globalisation is...

...Three Japanese pop stars singing a Swedish song in English to promote an American product. That's the Japanese electropop band Perfume performing Lovefool by Sweden's The Cardigans, a song popularised originally by its use in the American version of England's great play Romeo and Juilet (the original of which is set in Italy), which was directed by Australian Baz Luhrmann. This time, Lovefool is used to sell a version of the all-American drink Pepsi.

The jumble of linked nationalities is indicative of modern globalising cultural trends. Perfume accompany their performance with a typically Japanese bow and a musical and fashion style distinct to Japan. The song itself is Swedish, but The Cardigans took advantage of the Anglo-American domination of pop music by singing in English, and Perfume's music videos, distinctly Japanese, are still heavily influenced by those of American artists.

Globalisation allow us in Europe to access the distant cultures of Japan, and the rise of manga, martial arts and anime has shifted lots of Japanese culture westwards. But still the overwhelming shift of culture has been mostly in one direction, sprawling out from Hollywood to the rest of the world, often at the expense of indigenous cultures. In that context it seems easy to understand why some nationalists and conservatives reject American or Western cultures with such anger.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Decline in crime being ignored?

The Irish Independent reports on the country's most recent crime statistics with a morose focus on spiralling robbery rates:

Ireland is in the grip of a robbery epidemic with an average of five people being held up every day, official figures revealed today.

More positive trends are pushed further down the article, yet a look at the statistics themselves shows that the overall picture of crime in Ireland is a remarkably good one. The following kinds of crime all saw decreases:

-8.3% for the same quarter last year

Attempts/Threats to Murder, Assaults, Harassments and Related Offences

Dangerous or Negligent Acts

Driving/In charge of a vehicle while over legal alcohol limit

Kidnapping and Related Offences

Human trafficking offences

Burglary and Related Offences

Theft and Related Offences

Controlled Drug Offences

Weapons and Explosives Offences

Arson offences

Criminal damage (not arson)

Liquor licencing offences

Disorderly conduct

Offences against Government, Justice Procedures and Organisation of Crime
almost -27%

The only sections experiencing increases in crime were:

Robbery, Extortion and Hijacking Offences

Sexual offences (the dramatic increase here is 'mainly due to an on-going review of all cases involving alleged sexual offences reported')

Fraud, Deception and Related Offences

So Ireland has experienced an overall widespread decline in crime, which the Irish Independent reports as a "robbery epidemic".

The curious thing is that during the height of the economic boom media were reporting real increases in particular crimes which were directly connected to the population's growing wealth. Higher incomes allowed increased spending on alcohol and recreational drugs. Immigration pushed the proportion of young men (the demographic group most involved in crime) higher, and increased congestion on the roads. The recession has reversed these trends, leading to decreases in several kinds of serious crime.

These positive trends can be concealed by a media tendency to compare official statistics only in the very short-term. Rather than simply comparing each quarter or year with the previous one it may be more useful to extend to period a little further. For example, since 2004, the number of murders each year in Ireland went like this:

Manslaughter has experienced a consistent decline:

Dangerous driving has also caused fewer deaths:

Wondering how closely the declines in dangerous driving deaths and the decline of Ireland's economy correlate, I superimposed Ireland's joblessness rate from 2004 to January 2010 over the above image:

Loss of wealth has caused a fall in alcohol consumption, along with all the social ills that brings. Truck traffic has declined by 13%, and car traffic by 4%, driving down congestion and road traffic accidents. Good news stares us in the face, so it is disappointing that many news media sources still focus on the negative.

As for the robbery figures the Irish Independent called an epidemic, how do they look over the medium term?

Some epidemic: compared with 2004, robbery rates have actually fallen.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Bad prophets

The credit rating agencies have lowered Ireland's rating over the last few years, predicting rising risks in investing in Ireland's economy. So what did these seers predict during the height of the boom, when Ireland's economy was built on sand?

Moody's Investors Service, October 2005
However, we think the relatively broad and sustainable basis for housing demand is set to continue, reflected by strong demographics, substantial real income development and ongoing catching up effects. Therefore, the housing boom seems fundamentally backed.... Furthermore, Ireland’s economic base has broadened and become more stable over the years, indicating substantial resources to cope with risk of correction.... Moody’s notes that the Irish government’s fiscal position remains sound.

Fitch, July 2005
"The challenge for Ireland now is to adjust as the economy shifts to a lower GDP growth path of around 4%-5% per annum from average rates of close to 10% in the second half of the 1990s", said David Heslam, Associate Director in Fitch's sovereign department.

Standard & Poor's, December 2005:
“In the medium term, Ireland’s extremely strong credit standing should remain secure against nearly all foreseeable downside economic, political, and financial risks,” said Mr. Cullinan.

Ratings and Investment Information, Inc (R&I), January 2006:
...strong financial institutions with the ability to weather a recession also are sound. Based on the above factors, R&I has affirmed Ireland’s Foreign and Domestic Currency Issuer Rating at AAA. The Rating Outlook is Stable.

So these are organisations with a track record of failed predictions, yet they help determine nations' economic future. I have to agree with economist David McWilliams on this:

Like the whole economics and finance industry, the acid test of credibility should be how they answer the simple question: ‘‘Where were you in the boom?”

Saturday, October 16, 2010

To change a person

I remember when I was making my radio documentary on Falun Gong, the strange new religious movement banned in China, one of the practitioners said something that stuck with me. Zhao Ming was describing the miraculous changes, biological and behavioural, that supposedly occurred in Falun Gong practitioners:

In society, in anyone's life, what's most difficult thing? The most difficult thing is to change a person.... How to change a person from cancer, from addictions to bad habit. But all these are happening, just everywhere, all cases are like this among our fellow practitioners in China.

Ming's point was that decades of government interventions to dissuade citizens from engaging in harmful behaviour like smoking or drug abuse tended to fail where, he said, Falun Gong succeeded.

The most difficult thing
In modern societies governments are constantly trying to alter the behaviour of their citizens, with campaigns for road safety, responsible alcohol use, drug probitions and so on. As Ming observed, these campaigns have often failed at great cost.

In Britain the Young People's Development Programme was designed to reduce teenage pregnancies. At a cost of £2,500 per participant, the programme saw the rate of pregnancy substantially increase instead. The programme also failed to reduce drunkenness or cannabis use.

The British example is not unique, another study from Canada's McMaster University found in 2002 that 26 sex education trials 'do not delay the initiation of sexual intercourse, improve use of birth control among young men and women, or reduce the number of pregnancies in young women.'

Communist ambition
Much more ambitious and aggressive experiments in behaviour-control often faced similar failures. After decades of religious repression in Communist eastern Europe, the east European states were no less religious than those in the liberal west. According to Gallup's religiosity index (log-in necessary to access figures), respondents to a Gallup survey on religion were more religious in Poland and Romania than any other European Christian-majority country but Malta. West European states that made no effort to repress religious faith experienced collapses in religiosity.

Of course the same thing happened in Ireland as centuries of Protestant oppression left the Catholic Church utterly dominant while a few decades of independence saw it collapse. Meanwhile, well-intentioned attempts to reverse racial discrimination in the US with affirmative action may have worsened racial prejudice against black business managers.

Examples of failed interventions are all around us. I remember in secondary school one teacher giving an impassioned fact-heavy talk on tobacco use, explaining the known effects of carbon monoxide, tar, nicotine and so on. After this lecture a large minority of my classmates went straight to the school's handball alley for a smoke. More started smoking in the following years. The modern faith seems to be that teenagers, given information, will choose to make the correct decisions. I saw that this was rarely true.

Of course my teenage peers deliberately rejected top-down values coming from teachers or the government so the very act of outlining prohibited behaviour inspired them to embrace that behaviour. Even when information was given to my peers in thoughtful and unjudgemental ways many of them shrugged off the rational application of that information and still behaved like fools. Because it's hard to control people, and predict their behaviour to incentives.

That's not to say that incentives must fail, rather that it is extremely difficult to predict how individuals will respond to them. There are examples of success, like the road safety efforts that saw a 42% decline in road deaths in Ireland since 2005.

But too often education and top-down social engineering projects are seen as panaceas. Like the demand that 'the government should do more', commentators demand extra classes in schools to solve social ills or fines to enforce positive behaviour. I have even read people arguing that "citizenship classes" in Ireland would have prevented the economic collapse: education is seen as the heal-all!

Be sceptical of government plans to alter the behaviour of their citizens. Even if the policital will is strong, the application such plans is always difficult and unintended consequences are a-plenty.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Why people like Chilean miners

Anyone following the news story about trapped Chilean miners may wonder what makes that particular story so popular when more important stories are ignored. Virgil Hawkins, author of Stealth Conflicts: How the World's Worst Violence Is Ignored, lists six factors that determine what world events are covered in the news.

- national/political interest
- geographic proximity/access
- ability to identify
- ability to sympathise
- simplicity
- sensationalism

National/political interest
There doesn't seem to be major political importance in the story, unless it fits some kind of environmentalist or anti-corporate narrative. We see relatively little debate about political consequences of this incident, bar the occasional suggestion that the incident has bolstered an internal sense of Chilean unity.

Geographic proximity/access
From Europe, Chile seems distant indeed, but Latin America is sometimes referred to as the "backyard" of the US. The mine itself is not far from the large town of CopiapĆ³.

Ability to identify
Spanish-speaking Chile is recognisable to most Westerners. The maze of sub-Saharan African countries, or the central Asian "-istan" countries are much less so.

Ability to sympathise
Chile is industralised and the miners are using high tech equipment to rescue their colleagues so the Chileans can seem culturally similar to readers in other high-tech societies. This is one of the strongest factors at play: the miners are seen as innocent victims so it is easy to sympathise with them and their families.

This is an exquisitely simple story. In 1992 The Simpsons ran an episode featuring Bart Simpson pretending to be a boy called Timmy O'Toole who was trapped down a well. In that case the locals rally around the trapped boy and Sting records a charity single to help out! So, for some reason, people being trapped underground makes other people sympathetic.

The story is not scandalous, except that the miners got caught in the first place. Rather it is a feel-good story, at least since the rescuers started removing the first miners.

Altogether the ability to identify and sympathise with the miners makes this a strong human interest story. This scene, of the father embracing his sobbing child after two months trapped underground is a real tear-jerker.

If organisations around the world want to draw attention to their causes, perhaps they need to study this. A handful of innocent, modern people escaping near-certain death to happy embraces will sell copy, where statistics about mass-rapes and genocides will not. That way your story can end up looking like this:

Instead of being relegated to just this: