Thursday, February 24, 2011

Are businesses not greedy enough?

The BBC have comments by four British businesswomen on how and why businesses should fight the disparity between men and women at management level. Here are quotes from two of them:

Moira Benigson, CEO of The MBS Group, executive search consultancy
I believe that corporate rules need to change. Regardless of the talk about equality, many boards continue to stick to old hiring patterns and prefer to hire people that they are familiar with - they hire in their own image.

This perpetuates a lack of diversity that could, ultimately, damage their business. It is this attitude which needs changing, and if it doesn't then boards could be faced with enforced regulations such as the quota system....

Liz Field, CEO of the Financial Skills Partnership
A key argument for greater board diversity is that it increases a firm's competitive advantage relative to those with less diversity....

Both Field and Benigson claim that greater participation of women in the boardroom will boost the performance of businesses.

If this is so, then businesses with high gender disparity - that is, most businesses - are perversely reducing their own potential for profit. This seems strange to me, so I can think of three possible explanations:

1) Gender disparity doesn't really affect profitability.

2) Gender disparity is harmful to businesses, but most businesses aren't aware of it.

3) Gender disparity is harmful to businesses, but business people aren't greedy enough. That is, the people running businesses care less about income than about other factors which happen to increase this disparity. Considering the common criticism of capitalists being interested only in profit, this seems rather bizarre.

In any case, if the exclusion of women from the business boardroom is harmful for the business, over time we should see the sexist businesses being out-competed by the non-sexist businesses. If this is the case, no top-down intervention is necessary, the market will punish inequality, leaving the gender-diverse companies on top.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Alarming image: Burton backwards on Hoover

Ireland's Labour Party spokesperson for finance Joan Burton explains her party's policies to deal with the recession by comparing them with the policies that led to the Great Depression in the US:

After the 1929 great crash and the tsunami of 4,000 bank failures across the United States, the then US President, Herbert Hoover, came up with a cunning plan to restore the economic fortunes of the US. He slashed Government spending to balance the books. The result was the Great Depression.

Burton's conclusion is to follow the lead of Hoover's successor:

After immense human suffering and the enlightened intervention of his successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with some false starts, a path out of the Great Depression was charted for the US.

So is she right to say that Hoover slashed government spending? First let's look at the US Government's own data for Federal spending and receipts during the Great Depression. Below is a graph from the period 1924 to 1935.

Immediately we see the opposite to what Joan Burton claims is true: rather than cutting Federal spending, Hoover drastically increased it. Here is the same graph with Hoover's time in office highlighted.

Far from slashing government spending to balance the books, Hoover spent lavishly and sank the US budget into deficit.

Hoover's response to the economic crisis was that of a ready interventionist:

He directed all Federal Departments to speed up public works and other projects, in order to create more jobs. He directed the Federal Farm Board to support commodities prices and asked Congress to decrease non-essential government spending and use the money to start new public works. President Hoover called many conferences with industry and finance leaders to encourage voluntary cooperation among businesses to relieve the Depression. Hoover also created the President's Organization on Unemployment Relief to stimulate and coordinate employment and relief efforts.

Hoover's Relief and Reconstruction Act in 1932 supplied those states unable to finance "the relief of distress" with $300 million in loans. It also authorised the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to issue $1.5 billion in bonds to state and local governments for construction projects.

Hoover also increased taxation dramatically with the Revenue Act of 1932. Maximum income tax rose from 25 to 63%. Excise taxes were charged on petrol, cars, luxury goods like furs and jewelry and bank cheques. Estate taxes doubled, corporation tax increased.

He increased taxes on imports with the Hawley-Smoot Tariff, which sought to protect American businesses from foreign competitors but instead sparked a tariff war with other countries. (Readers of my generation may be more familiar with the Hawley-Smoot tariff as the topic being taught to bored students in Ferris Bueller's Day Off: "Did it work? Anyone? Anyone know the effects? It did not work and the United States sank deeper into the Great Depression.")

So what on earth was Burton talking about? Hoover did anything but slash spending.

There was another president, however, who really did slash spending in response to a recession. Warren G. Harding came to office in 1921, during the severe recession that followed the end of World War I. The government had been cutting back on its massive military spending, and Harding's response was to continue along the same path:

Instead of “fiscal stimulus,” Harding cut the government’s budget nearly in half between 1920 and 1922. The rest of Harding’s approach was equally laissez-faire. Tax rates were slashed for all income groups. The national debt was reduced by one-third. The Federal Reserve’s activity, moreover, was hardly noticeable. As one economic historian puts it, “Despite the severity of the contraction, the Fed did not move to use its powers to turn the money supply around and fight the contraction.”

A graph of the period from 1919 to 1924 looks like this:

For two years the US experienced deflation, but kept cutting spending. Joan Burton says that "when deflation is a greater menace than inflation... fiscal conservatism makes little sense", so presumably she would have opposed Harding's policies.

The policies, though, were followed by dramatic growth. Unemployment fell from 12% in 1920 to 2.4% in 1923. The 1930s was a time dominated by Roosevelt, who Burton sees as a good example for Ireland, yet it is remembered as Depression time today. The 1920s became known as something rather different - the Roaring Twenties.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On order, and why we shouldn't riot

I wrote recently about some calls in Ireland for an Egypt-style uprising. I disagreed, remarking that hundreds of people were killed in Egypt's unrest. Add to that the economic costs - US$310 million every day according to the Finance Ministry:

...and some private analysts have estimated that investors have been withdrawing funds at a rate of about $1 billion a day. Before the protests, Egypt was expected to have 5% annual economic growth; now the consensus is closer to 1%.

Other stories are trickling through about the damage done during the protests. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo was looted of "18 priceless artefacts", including ancient statues of King Tutankhamun. Lara Logan, a senior reporter with American TV network CBS suffered a "brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating" at the hands of a Cairo mob.

Disorder has high costs.

Catholic thinkers in the past listed six principles they believed must be satisfied by a conflict for it to be a "just war". These principles were:

1) A just cause: war could not be fought with loot or genocide in mind.

2) Declared by a legitimate authority (the government).

3) Fought with the "right intention".

4) The last resort after all other means have failed.

5) A reasonable chance of success.

6) Proportionality between the destruction caused by the war and the good it hopes to achieve.

Of these, at least two seem to favour the status quo. The second principle rendered illegitimate those wars waged by non-state actors, the fifth favoured the stronger military power. The Catholic Church was often criticised for its conservatism, its historical suspicion of the radical movements which eventually led to modern liberal democracy. Yet I can't fault their caution (in theory anyway, if not always in practice) towards the use of violence to achieve political goals, their desire to centralise that use of violence in the state.

This sounds rather like English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who believed that a powerful central state was necessary to avoid the chaos of disorder - the "warre of all against all". Hobbes would see disorder on a grand scale in his time, during the English Civil War.
Renaissance thinker Niccolo Machiavelli said:

Wars begin where you will but they do not end when you please.

The consequences of war, and to a lesser extent of all social disorder, are unclear and potentially terrible.

For these reasons I argue that massive popular protest of the kind that inhibits the state's ability to police society must be the second-last resort of desperate people, with violent insurrection being the last. Stable democracies like Ireland offer peaceful, legal ways to acquire power and to change the course of the country's governance, so there is no excuse here for a deliberate assault on the political system from without. The consequences of disorder are too grave for us to seek it without considerable cause.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Are you a bigot?

I am.

Harvard's Implicit Association Test (IAT) is based on the curious discovery that people tend to be faster connecting two concepts they normally associate together than two they do not.

The IAT works as follows. Participants are asked to click either the letter "E" or the letter "I", depending on words that pop up on the screen. For example, an IAT relating gender with career starts by asking participants to click "I" whenever a female name pops up and "E" whenever a male name pops up. So:

Ben: E
Emily: I
Paul: E
John: E
Laura: I

Next the participant is asked to click "I" when a career-related word pops up and "E" when a family-related word pops up. So:

Professional: I
Wedding: E
Parent: E
Job: I

The third section complicates the situation by asking participants to click "E" if a female name OR a family-related word pops up, and "I" when a male name OR a career-related word pops up. So:

Professional: I
Tom: I
Wedding: E
Mary: E

Fourth and last, the situation is reversed. "E" for female name or a career-related word, "I" for male name or a family-related word.

Job: E
Laura: E
Parents: I
John: I

Throughout, the participant is asked to respond as quickly as possible. The idea is that participants who implicitly (even unconsciously) associate women with domestic life and men with professional life will be slower to click "E" and "I" correctly when they are asked to associate women with work and men with family.

Working my way through that particular test I found myself smiling for, despite myself, I did indeed fumble over the fourth section. Try as I might, I kept confusing the words when I tried linking women with work. Professional-sounding words just naturally seemed associated with men.

At the end of the test I was given this result:

Your data suggest a moderate association of Male with Career and Female with Family compared to Female with Career and Male with Family.

No surprises, yet I had thought myself pretty open-minded and past conservative assumptions about women being connected to domestic life, men with work. Deep down in me somewhere, it seems, linger prejudices I'm barely aware of.

I am not alone. For this test, 32% of all respondents had the same result as me, of a "moderate association" of men with career and women with family. Another 24% had strong associations and 20% had slight associations. A total of 76% of respondents connected women with family, men with work, compared with only 6.3% connecting men with family and women with work.

What other bigotries lurk within me? Many!

Another test uses silhouettes of fat and thin people, matching them with either positive or negative words like "joy", "terrible", "happy", "nasty" and so on. My result:

Your data suggest a strong automatic preference for Thin People compared to Fat People.

Once more, I'm not alone, I belong to the 25% of participants with strong preferences for thinner people. In total 70% have preferences for thin people, compared with 12% with preferences for fat people.

The next test associates images of white American faces and black American faces with either harmless objects or weapons. The weapons here are comical - medieval mace, extravagant battleaxe, cutlass, cannon, handgrenade and so on - yet I could feel myself hesitating to associate them with white people! My result:

Your data suggest a moderate association of Black Americans with Weapons compared to White Americans.

Once again my results are indicative of wider results, with 72% of respondents associating black people with weapons.

I could go on and on. I've sat several of these tests and they usually indicate some kind of horrible prejudice on my part. Apparently I am anti-black, anti-Muslim, anti-Buddhist even!

That I (to my knowledge) don't behave aggressively towards women, blacks, fat people and so on is important of course. We may control our prejudices and override them. But it could be that, beneath the layer of politically correct rhetoric that dominates modern public discourse, most people are harbouring dark prejudices they may not even be aware of.

So it would be particularly intriguing to see if anti-racism or anti-sexism advocates also implicitly hold negative views of those they represent.

Try a few tests yourself here!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Is Egypt's example useful for Ireland?

Astonished recently to see Irish people pointing to the uprising in Egypt as a positive example for Ireland, I thought I'd gather some data on the two countries. Thus we can compare the two and see if Irish radicals are right to demand a popular overthrow of our government too.

Life expectancy
Ireland: 77.9
Egypt: 70.1

Infant mortality
Ireland: 3.5 per 1,000
Egypt: 18.2 per 1,000

Inequality (measured by the Gini Index)
Ireland: 30.7 - 108th most unequal country
Egypt: 34.1 - 90th most unequal country

Access to improved sanitation
Ireland: 99%
Egypt: 94%

Incidence of tuberculosis per 100,000
Ireland: 9
Egypt: 20

UN Human Development Index
Ireland: 5th highest in the world
Egypt: 101st

So indicators of health and standards of living are strongly in Ireland's favour. Perhaps most relevant here is the political situation, however.

Press Freedom (Reporters Without Borders)
Ireland: 9th most free in the world
Egypt: 127th most free

Length of rule by latest leader
- Irish President
Mary McAleese was elected in 1997, has served 13 years and will step down and be replaced with a new elected president this October.
- Taoiseach (Prime Minister)
Brian Cowen was elected as a member of parliament in 1984 and elected to Offaly County Council in 1985. He was re-elected to parliament in 1987, 1989, 1992, 1997, 2002 and 2007. In 2008 he was the only candidate in his party's internal election for leader and thus became Taoiseach. Only three years later Cowen stepped down from leader of the party and announced his political retirement after this February's election, at the age of 51.

- Egyptian (former) President
Hosni Mubarak started in the Egyptian military and was appointed Vice President by Anwar El Sadat in 1975, replacing him as president in 1981. Since then there have been numerous elections, but with claims of fraud by observers. Turnout in the 2010 election was around 10% of Egypt's total population, with scenes of violence recorded at polling stations. It is difficult to know how fair Egyptian elections are, however, since international observers were often prohibited. Ireland's Cowen ruled for three years, Egypt's Mubarak for three decades. Cowen retires at 51, Mubarak at 82.

The Economist's annual Democracy Index
Ireland: 12th best democracy in the world
Egypt: 138th

Ireland has one of the highest GDPs per capita on the planet, with among the best standards of living and a very high degree of individual liberty. Considering Egypt's revolution has cost hundreds of deaths, when Ireland is just weeks away from a general election in which power will change hands without the loss of a single drop of blood, violent protest now seems insane. We have everything to lose by violent instability and the breakdown of the historical democratic process: the Egyptian example has little relevance for wealthy, healthy Ireland.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

On not predicting economic fortunes

One of the main criticisms of Ireland's present government is that they blew a decade of economic growth, leaving Ireland in debt through extravagant spending with apparently little thought of preparing for the inevitable rainy day.

Yet the government did plan for an economic decline, with the Special Saving Incentive Account (SSIA) launched in May 2001. The SSIA was a state-funded scheme to encourage saving with very high interest rates (25%), planned to prevent the economy over-heating during the boom years. It was popular, with around €14 billion put back into the economy when the scheme matured in 2006-07.

So here was a scheme designed specifically to counter the business cycle, to keep savings high during boom times so that there would be money to spend for the inevitable recession. Yet the SSIA ran into problems immediately, as the global economy was already slowing due to the popping of the IT bubble and later the 9/11 attacks, just as the SSIAs came on stream. Here is Ireland's inflation rate over the period:

And here is Ireland's quarterly economic growth for the period:

At the time there was some derision for the government's SSIA plans, since they seemed to be sucking money out of the economy just as it was going into decline. Nonetheless growth (albeit unsustainable, construction-based growth) continued in the early 2000s, and when the SSIAs finally did mature between May 2006 and April 2007 we were at the height of an economic bubble:

The SSIAs were mistimed. Instead of increasing savings during the boom and releasing them during the bust almost the opposite happened. Ireland's household saving rate collapsed after 2004 so that when the crisis hit in 2007 savings were exceptionally low. As the recession gathered pace, household savings soared, slowing the economy even further as consumption dried up:

Perhaps if this scheme had been over a different timescale the maturing SSIAs could have been released onto a credit-starved recession economy, instead of a construction-fuelled bubble. Yet the government could not know when the decline would kick in. For a group criticised for being too optimistic about Ireland's economic future, in this case they were too pessimistic, expecting decline before it happened.

So it is extremely difficult to predict and manipulate the market. Confident claims by politicans that they can "create" jobs and boost the economy with top-down interventions need to be viewed with deep scepticism.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Joy of Teen Sex update

I posted recently some criticisms of the Channel 4 TV show The Joy of Teen Sex, criticisms shared and elaborated on by several British health professionals. A significant number of these have written to Channel 4 complaining about the programme. The letter, and Channel 4's response, are here on the blog of Dr Petra Boynton, should anyone want an update.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Is the far right far left?

Those movements called far right often have radical left wing economic policies.

The British National Party, for example, advocates economic protectionism: taxes on imports that would dissuade British consumers from buying cheap foreign goods. Here BNP's member of the European Parliament Andrew Brons denounces free trade:

The problems that the developed world faces is not too many trade barriers, but too few. That is, too few barriers against the products from emerging countries like China, with its low wage rates, grossly undervalued currency and its artificially impoverished home market.

The BNP use very collectivist language; I have highlighted examples from their economics policies described below:

We further believe that British industry, commerce, land and other economic and natural assets belong in the final analysis to the British nation and people.

To that end the BNP will restore our economy and land to British ownership and will take active steps to break up the socially, economically and politically damaging monopolies now being established by the supermarket giants.

Fully cognisant of the reality that economic growth is driven primarily by true free enterprise, a BNP government will seek to give British workers a stake in the success and prosperity of the enterprises whose profits their labour creates. Such schemes are the only guarantee of workers being motivated to ensure the success of their employers.

So they talk of supporting "free enterprise", but call for government interventions to attain it. They identify as the aim of the market the welfare of the British nation and people, whereas a true economic rightist might argue that industry and resouces belong only to the individual owner - regardless of race or nation - not to the collective "people".

BNP also oppose inequality, according to their 2005 Election Manifesto:

It is no secret that since Thatcher, economic growth in this country has tended to flow to the top of the income scale.... Of course, it is no secret that the old-style socialist methods of redistributing income down the scale turned out to have harmful effects, so unfortunately it is not just a matter of taxing income away from the rich and towards the working class. But there are other policy tools that can be used to reduce income inequality. The BNP will use all non-destructive means to reduce income inequality....

If ordinary Britons increase their savings rate and invest the money in British industry, it will over time transpire that they are the owners of British industry. This has been called “pension-fund socialism,” and it combines the efficiency of capitalist private ownership with socialism’s ideal of worker ownership of the means of production.

So the BNP emphasise the protection of workers from globalisation and the reduction of income inequality with worker-owned industry. Oh, and they are uneasy with giant supermarket chains.

Now let's look at the far left. Britain's Socialist Party here attacks the IMF for demanding an end to economic protectionism:

The dismantling of tariff barriers which were used to protect national economies, the privatisation of state industries, and the cutting back of food subsidies and essential services, were all conditions of the loans.

From the same article, the SP attack globalisation for causing income inequality:

Globalisation has also led to the increased polarisation of wealth within the advanced capitalist countries. An estimated 45 million people in the US live below the poverty line, and 32 million have a life expectancy of less than 60 years.

SP dismiss protectionism alone, on the grounds that it also benefits "national capitalist interests". As for giant supermarket chains, however, lo and behold they share BNP's scepticism.

In Ireland the Socialist Workers Party echo this far left dislike of globalisation, blaming Haiti's poverty on American pressure to remove protectionist trade tariffs.

So the far left and far right share anger towards globalisation and towards the economic liberty they blame for modern inequality. Yet far left are supposed to be the opposite of the far right, surely!

For historical reasons the extreme right today is defined by its anti-immigration or racist policies. Yet in economics, right wing usually means something totally different: lower taxes, the weakening of state controls of the economy, the opening of borders to trade and even sometimes the opening of borders to labour, like the open immigration policy proposed by libertarian think tank Cato.

Right wingers like globalisation and free trade, unlike the far right, who hate them. Even Nazi Germany intervened aggressively in the market, with major public health campaigns and huge public works to fight unemployment. Nazi, after all, means National Socialism, and Hitler remarked in Mein Kampf that capital should "remain the handmaiden of the state". He sometimes attacked relatively free market UK as a "plutocracy" - Nazi Germany was supposed to control the market for the collective good of its people.

Perhaps what far left and far right have in common is a belief in collectivism, even if the right reserve collectivist ideals for ethnic or national insiders: their compassion ends at the border.

Why does this matter? I fear that the association of extreme immigration policies with the far right reflects badly, and unfairly, on the economic right. During angry political debates I sometimes see people complain about migration policies being "right wing". Yet open borders that flood the market with cheap labour can be compatible with some right wing perspectives!

So, yep: the far right are often far left.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Socialist International's Strange Bedfellows

I remarked before that until this January the ruling parties of Egypt and Tunisia were members of the Socialist Internation, a global organisation of left-wing parties that includes the Labour parties of Britain, Ireland and Australia, along with a host of mainstream parties in other developed, democratic countries.

Surprised to see moderate centre-left parties sharing an organisation with dictators, I browsed Socialist International's list of parties to see if I could find other odd members.

I did. Côte d'Ivoire's Ivorian Popular Front is a member. This is the party of Laurent Gbagbo, the Ivorian president who rejected as fraudulent the results of the latest election - which were won by his rival:

The UN Security Council has urged all parties in Ivory Coast to recognise opposition leader Alassane Ouattara as president and extended the mandate of the peacekeeping force for six months.

Incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo had ordered the 10,000-strong force to leave the country after the UN said he lost November's disputed run-off vote....

There are widespread fears that the election dispute could reignite civil war in the world's largest cocoa producer.

About 50 people have been killed in recent days, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay.

She said she had received reports of hundreds being snatched from their homes by people in military uniforms. Some were later found dead.

Presidential terms in Côte d'Ivoire last for five years, Gbagbo managed to extend his without election to ten, and then refused to budge when he appeared to lose. Meanwhile:

Armed forces in Ivory Coast who back incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo have conducted a campaign of violence that has included execution, kidnapping, torture and rape, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.

The New York-based watchdog group said an "in-depth investigation" of allegations of human rights violations in Abidjan, the main city in the world's top cocoa producer, had revealed an "an often-organized campaign of violence."

Then there is Ghana's National Democratic Congress, founded by Jerry John Rawlings, who ruled as a military dictator and elected president:

In 1982, three judges and a retired army officer were abducted.

They were killed gruesomely at a military range in circumstances that have led to accusations of complicity being levelled at Rawlings and his wife.

An official enquiry at the time exonerated them, but there are growing calls from families of the victims for fresh investigations.

That is not the only allegation of murder and torture by Rawlings.

So this is puzzling indeed. Tunisia and Egypt's parties were expelled this January when protests were met with oppression; does SI make this decision based only on the extent of news coverage following its autocratic members?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Revolution! "Whose last word is the dagger"

In 1848 a wave of revolutions uprooted Europe's monarchies, established constitutions, destroyed serfdom and nearly smashed Europe's old empires.

Nearly. 1848 was a bad year for European economies. The potato blight that had Ireland in the height of a disastrous famine caused a food shortage elsewhere, exacerbated by tough weather conditions. Unemployment soared in the cities. The continued growth of industrialisation rendered traditional skilled artisians obsolete and angry. The kings kept control at swordpoint, silencing rebellious mutterings of liberals and radicals with strict censorship, yet anti-monarchist ideologies were recruiting supporters among the literate classes.

The 1848 revolutions were decentralised and disorganised, bursting out spontaneously in one city when news arrived of a rebellion in another. Rebellions spread from place to place.

The monarchs were initially staggered by the events, and terrified. Many remembered the butchery of the French Revolution, and the disorder and violence of nationalist France under Napoleon, and this caused them to fight the rebels with caution. Some used soldiers as police, scattered throughout the city, yet these struggled to control violent rebels throwing up barricades. Most monarchs ended up surrendering some power to parliaments, aggreeing to constitutions and freedom of speech and religion - power shifted to the new middle class liberals.

Yet the rebels were doomed because of two competing ideologies that threatened triumphant liberalism. The first came from early socialists, often disorganised and lacking any central doctrine, driven by the fierce poverty of the unemployed. The liberals were so petrified by the threat of "anarchy" caused by looting peasants and proletariats that they united with their old conservative enemies to crush the new rebels. This time the monarchists were confident and resurgent, meeting opposition with brutal force. In Vienna the army withdrew and bombarded their own city, executing the rebel leaders once they had reestablished control.

The other danger came from a central premise of the liberal worldview: ethnic nationalism. German intellectualls spoke of the Völkerfrühling - Springtime of Peoples - a dream of Europe's ethnic groups divided into discrete nation states, coexisting in peaceful harmony. Much of Europe at that time belonged to great empires of Austrian Habsburg, Russia and Ottoman, sprawling multiethnic empires that contained irritated nationalists of Serb, Croat, Hungarian, Romanian, Pole and so on. Some of these minority groups demanded independence and the foundation of smaller ethnic nations. In other regions the opposite trend was emerging: Italy and German's small city states began looking at unification into greater nations.

Nationalists had to redraw the old borders, cutting through the old empires and clusters of city states, and they immediately clashed. Denmark defeated an alliance of German states in Schleswig. Hungarians demanding liberty from the Habsburg Austrians were attacked by Romanian, Slovak, Serbian and Croatian nationalists who feared Hungarian supremacy. Russians and Ottomans were drawn in to the east, and the Habsburgs played off the Poles and Ukrainians against one another.

The end result was a revival of conservative powers, the swift destruction of much of the liberal reform, the survival of the old empires and the rise of violent nationalist spirit. By postponing the foundation of nation states in east Europe, the counterrevolutions sowed the seeds for the chaos of World War I.

Well, that was 1848 and this is 2011, with almost all European countries now liberal democracies coexisting peacefully with little serious threat to the political systems in place.

To our south, however, a new wave of uprisings have been kick-started by an economic crisis. In Egypt, just as in 1848 Europe, the anti-government forces are a mixture of contradictory ideologies. Then it was liberal nationalists and socialist radicals, now it is democrats and Islamists.

Pondering this, I emailed Dr Mike Rapport, author of 1848: Year of Revolution, and asked him if he thought the similarities between the Arab uprisings and 1848 were superficial or if there was value in comparing them.

My thoughts exactly! So much depends upon what Mubarak - or, more accurately, the military - now does. If they stand aside, then there could be a situation akin to Petrograd in February 1917. If they stand firm and people are killed, then we could be looking at Paris or Berlin in 1848. Either way, I don't think the president can survive this one: his position, I think, is similar to Metternich's in 1848. Although, unlike Metternich, he is actually talking about concessions, it does seem that, like the Austrian Chancellor in 1848, any concessions which he does make without stepping down from power will be too little, too late. As you say, we've already seen one uprising (Tunisia), sparking others (Egypt, Yemen), so, to press the 1848 parallel further, has Tunisia played the part of, say, Sicily and Naples - the first thunderclap in 1848 - leaving Egypt to take the role of France - from where the revolutionary storm will be unleashed on other parts of the Arab world? If so, what role will Israel or the US take on? Non-committal, but seeking international stability above all else - like Britain in 1848 - or 'counter-revolutionary' - like Russia in 1849?

Metternich here is Klemens von Metternich, Chancellor of the Habsburg Empire until the 1848 revolutions. The European revolutions would sputter out, and this led the way to the Great War trenches. Back then, though, democracy was still weak and limited to a few countries; Metternich himself mocked the idealism of rebellion in Naples:

"A people who can neither read nor write, whose last word is the dagger - fine material for constitutional principles!... The English constitution is the work of centuries... There is no universal recipe for constitutions."

Today there are multiple democratic templates for Egyptians to choose from and young Egyptians are increasingly literate. Yet today's Egypt, like 19th century Naples, lacks a history of stable democracy.

Either way I wish them the best! Let's hope there is a peaceful solution to the troubles of Egypt and the other Arab states, and more functional forms of government emerge from the disorder.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Imperialism and Egypt Narrative

One reason the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia attract lots of attention is because they fit into various simple global narratives.

The United States has poured aid into Egypt - "$28.6 billion since 1975" - and Egypt's government has been depicted as a stooge of American imperialism. Meanwhile some Western observers have warned that "the alternative to Mubarak is the Muslim Brotherhood". So Egypt has consequences for how people think about Islam, democracy and American foreign policy.

Considering that, I was surprised to discover that Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's party, the National Democratic Party, has been a member of the Socialist International since 1989. They were removed only on 31st January 2011 on the following grounds:

The current massive calls being made today by the citizens of Egypt for freedoms and rights point to the dramatic failure of the Egyptian government to deliver to its people and to the failings of the NDP to live up to its promises. The use of violence, with scores dead and injured, is totally incompatible with the policies and principles of any social democratic party anywhere in the world.

This follows decades of alleged human rights abuses in Egypt. From the Amnesty International 2008 Report:

Around 18,000 administrative detainees – people held by order of the Interior Ministry – remained in prison in degrading and inhumane conditions. Some had been held for more than a decade, including many whose release had been repeatedly ordered by courts....

Torture and other ill-treatment continued to be widespread and systematic, and reportedly led or contributed to at least 20 deaths in 2007.... Journalists and bloggers faced harassment, prosecution and, in some cases, jail for the peaceful expression of their views or for carrying out their work as journalists.

The Socialist International, who waited until this January to finally abandon Mubarak's rule, includes many mainstream social democratic parties around the world, including Ireland's Labour Party, Northern Ireland's SDLP, Britain's Labour Party, Australia's Labor Party and Germany's Social Democratic Party. So stooge of American imperialism or not, it was the centre-left who stood alongside Mubarak during decades of oppression. And Tunisia? Yep, Tunisia's ruling party the Constitutional Democratic Assembly was also a member of the Socialist International for decades, until they were finally booted out... on the 17th January.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

My blog image - the Rolling Sun

Since the start of The Harvest, I have been using the following image as my profile picture:

This is actually by an artist friend of mine, Joseph McCafferty, who edited a photograph of me into this comic book effect, adding (because I was in Japan at the time) the image of the torii Shinto gates and a schoolgirl from the violent Japanese movie Battle Royale, all over the World War II Rising Sun flag.

For many more examples of Joseph's work, try his DeviantArt profile, MySpace or his blog. A few samples follow:

And finally the man himself: be afraid, be very afraid!