Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Property Chute

It has been popular here in Ireland to explain the economic crisis by scapegoating a few individual actors - bankers, builders and politicians - and excusing the public. This attitude neglects the mad choices a great many individuals made during the boom to sink into debt and buy houses they could not afford. I wrote before that a conformist pro-housing zeitgeist in 2000s Ireland helped to inflate the bubble as ordinary people rushed to get on the 'property ladder'.

Dan Gardner's Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear references this conformist psychology to explain events in the US during the same period. He describes a study by economists Robert Shiller and Karl Case who asked housebuyers in San Francisco, 2005, whether they thought their new houses would rise in value, and if so, by how much?

The homebuyers surveyed by Shiller and Case not only expected home values to continue rising, they expected them to soar: The average expected increase was 14 per cent a year for a decade. 'About a third of respondents reported truly extravagant expectations,' Shiller recounts in his book The Subprime Solution. Some actually anticipated increases of over 50 per cent a year.

Of course the construction sector was actually a bubble about to pop, and the value of those homes collapsed over the following years. The property ladder was a chute.

Gardner argues that there could be psychological explanations for the whole experience, explanations that help explain the wider madness of house-buying crowds instead of scapegoating a few elite figures. In particular, he says that people were observing signals coming from others during the boom years, which reinforced a misplaced optimism in the profitibality of property: 'informational cascade': the fact that many people believe something convinces more people of that thing, which settles it for still more people, and so on.

Now add the pernicious influence of confirmation bias. Then add news media reporting that not only failed to expose mistaken beliefs but accepted, repeated, and amplified them.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The miserable people are wrong

When I lived in Australia in 2004 I once had to give a talk in college about Buddhism. I remember taking a walk out to Sydney's Hyde Park to study there under a tree, and finding the text difficult to reconcile with that environment.

A fundamental principle of Buddhism is that life leads to suffering, so individuals should seek through Buddhism to escape the painful cycle of birth and rebirth. It was bright and warm in the park as I read this, and around me happy Australians chatted or threw frisbees. The sky was clear blue, it was fresh and warm for spring. If this was suffering, I wanted more of it.

I pointed this out to my classmates the next day, suggesting that the wealth and health of modern life had removed a great deal of the ancient suffering. I wondered if modern material improvements could make some ancient religions - with their emphasis on escaping material misery - a little less relevant. My classmates disagreed, one arguing that life now is much more stressful than it was in the past, making Buddhism more applicable than ever. We had no smallpox, bubonic plague or Mongol hordes to worry about, yet they were convinced that modern pressures to succeed were greater than the ancient pressures to survive.

I see this pessimism all the time. A great many people are convinced that modern life is violent, dangerous and depressing. I read unhappy Facebook updates by friends complaining that things are so much worse "these days", that nobody cares about anyone else and the world is closing over with corruption and darkness. Yet my instinctive sense of the world was completely different, that without the ancient dangers of famine and plague we were uniquely fortunate, that life was getting better, not worse.

A few years ago I discovered Sweden's Gapminder Foundation, which plots vast quantities of data onto animated graphs. This data illustrates the radical changes experienced almost everywhere during the 20th century. Below, for example, is a graph plotting life expectancy against GDP per capita in 1945, at the end of World War II. With each country as a dot - size determined by population - the world looks like this:

In that graph, every single wealthy country is Western. The countries with the very highest life expectancies are Norway, Sweden and Australia, at 68. Ireland makes it to 61. Indonesia is one of the most miserably poor places on the planet, with a life expectancy of 28.

Fast forward to 2009 and the world looks very different:

Japan, Kuwait, South Korea and Taiwan have rushed up to sit among the Western states with the greatest wealth and longevity. Poorer countries have improved dramatically too: today Madagascar has the same life expectancy as post-war Ireland, while India has already surpassed it at 64. Thailand and the Philippines, considered "developing" countries today, nonetheless have higher life expectancies than the healthiest (Norway, Sweden and Australia) did in 1945. Indonesia has been utterly transformed, with a life expectancy today of 71. There has been an upward rush right across the world, with billions of people escaping poverty.

Years ago when I pointed out the wealth and health of modern developed countries to a left-wing friend, she said that we "exported poverty" to poor countries, that we were growing at their expense. Gapminder's graphs show that this is nonsense: almost everyone has gained very, very rapidly over the last few decades. Those countries that lag behind are almost all sub-Saharan African, many stricken with AIDS and war. Yet these too show major increases in life expectancy, with individual states like Namibia and Botswana showing that African states can compete with the rest. Today Botswana's GDP per capita is higher than East European states like Bulgaria or Romania.

I worked out once the average life expectancy of an English ruler from the 15th to 17th centuries: Edward IV to Oliver Cromwell. These men and women, the richest elite of a powerful European state, managed a pathetic life expectancy of 43.7 years. That is worse than Afghanistan, Zimbabwe or DR Congo today - worse than any country in the world by Gapminder's numbers.

The Simon Community, a charity for homeless people, point out that "in 2009 when we looked at the 62 people that passed away from our community, the average age of death was 40." This is shocking and saddening, but it also puts into perspective the misery of life just a few centuries ago. The poorest and most vulnerable people in Ireland today live about as long as kings and queens of old.

Even violence has waned dramatically. A glance at the Old Testament shows us a brutal world of genocidal triumphalism:

They took the city, its king and its villages, and put them to the sword. Everyone in it they totally destroyed. They left no survivors. They did to Debir and its king as they had done to Libnah and its king and to Hebron.

So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded.
- Joshua 10:39-40

The evidence for historical butchery is widespread. Corpses dug up from peat bogs in Ireland again and again show signs of murder and torture, like the Oldcroghan body found with stab wounds, slashed nipples and holes cut in his arms for a restraining rope. Shane Hegarty's The Irish and Other Foreigners describes written records from the 9th century describing Viking raids on Irish Christian monasteries. These raids are well known, but Hegarty points out that the records mention first raids by other Irish bands instead of the foreign Vikings. Clearly murderous raiding was a relatively common practice at the time.

Ireland was hardly unique, Lawrence Keeley's War Before Civilization argues that wars were more common and more bloody in pre-state tribal societies than they are today. Far from the Noble Savage depictions of eco-friendly folk living in harmony with one another and with nature, most tribes were locked in bitter insecurity and violence. Terrified of their neighbours, they engaged in preemptive raids and occasional massacres. Some tribal peoples caused catastrophic deforestation and environmental collapses, they suffered plagues and famines. A 16th century depiction of Aztec human sacrifice:

People panic today over terrorism, yet terrorists exist only because they are too weak to wage conventional war. Hamas fires rockets at Israeli civilians because Israel kept destroying Arab armies in conventional battles. If Al Qaeda could trundle into the US with tanks and flatten its cities with stealth bombers it would. Instead the best Al Qaeda has ever managed is a bunch of men with boxcutters on aeroplanes, who managed to kill a total of 2,996 people on September 11 2001. The following year diabetes killed 73,249 people in the US. That is, the worst terrorist attack in history was 24 times less effective at killing people than diabetes.

Again instinct should tell us that war is a receding risk today. Ireland has made it from 1923 without a single war. Switzerland makes it back to 1815. There have been no wars within the borders of the EU. East Asia, the graveyard of millions during World War II and Cold War conflicts in China, Korea and Vietnam, is now settled into an uneasy peace, with standards of living rising or already equal to Western Europe. For a large and ever-expanding number of people, war is becoming something that happens to other people. The Human Security Report sought to put numbers on this decline in war, pointing out a sustained decrease in war since the end of the Cold War:

The number of high-intensity conflicts or wars—i.e., those that cause 1,000 or more battle deaths per year—has declined steeply, but unevenly, since the end of the Cold War. The pronounced, though uneven, downward trend in the number of battle deaths has continued.

Paranoia over Islamist violence in the Middle East and South Asia took headlines away from dramatic improvements in Latin America, where peaceful democracies emerged from civil war-ridden dictatorships. The Global Terrorism Database shows a massive decline in terrorism in South America since the end of the Cold war:

Democracy has grown rapidly to the point where almost all countries claim to be democratic, even those highly autocratic states which remain. Dictators have to call themselves democratic because it is increasingly considered the only legitimate form of government. The end of the Cold War only speeded a long-term rise in democracy.

Almost all the trends are positive. The present is more democratic, peaceful, wealthy and safe than the past. Readers should be cheered, and be aware of the constant slow improvements dragging billions of us to ever greater peace and prosperity. For that reason I smiled when I saw the title of Dan Gardner's final chapter in Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. After pointing out the great misconceptions most people have about relative risks, Gardner ended on an optimistic note. His final chapter is called Conclusion: There's never been a better time to be alive. He's right and the miserable people are wrong. Things are getting better.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Madness of Fighting Mad Dog Gaddafi

In March I noticed some Pakistani members of an Orkut online discussion forum discussing the likelihood of a Western invasion of Libya. No, no, I said: the public in countries like US and UK are too war-weary and the exchequers are too empty for their governments to blunder into another war. Days later a coalition of European and American forces were striking military targets in Libya.

This seemed an astonishing move for deeply indebted nations, some already bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are grave risks facing the coalition's involvement in Libya.

Crusader Narrative
Almost immediately after the first strikes Gaddafi started to call the attacks a "colonial crusade" against Libya. Russia's Putin said the same, and I read Muslims on Orkut asking why Americans kept voting for "warmonger" presidents. The intervention lends weight to Islamist and anti-Western narratives that portray the US and its allies as aggressive imperialists.

Remember that the coalition includes Italy, Libya's former colonial power. Weeks ago in Ireland I read graffiti by radical Irish nationalists promising to murder Queen Elizabeth when she visits later this year. Despite decades of peaceful cooperation and generally good relations between Ireland and Britain, some radical Irish nationalists still loathe the former colonial power: I wonder how nationalist Libyans will feel to see the Italian former enemy bombing their soil.

Paul Pillar of The National Interest shares this concern:

Any use of Western and especially U.S. military force in a Muslim country runs the risk of energizing Islamist terrorism. Such use bolsters the extremist narrative of a Judeo-Christian West that is out to kill Muslims, dominate their lands, and plunder their resources.
In that sense I would have been much more comfortable to see leadership of any intervention come from other Arab or African countries, backed if necessary by NATO. This NATO-dominated intervention plays readily into the hands of Islamist propagandists.

The selective nature of the intervention could backfire too, as the old Libyan enemy is confronted with military action while violent repression in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is not. Claims of hypocrisy and double standards could further undermine respect for the coalition and stir up another wave of anti-Western terrorists.

If Gaddafi Wins
Some discussion of the intervention has been based only on moral concern with allowing Gaddafi to massacre Libyan civilians. That international intervention will be successful in preventing this seems to go without question, yet there is no obvious reason to believe that Gaddafi is going to lose.

Already Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy have announced the Gaddafi must be removed from power in Libya: expanding the original goals of the intervention into a far more ambitious regime change. All Gaddafi needs now to claim victory is survive, and if he does then the allies face a dreadful set of options:

1) Accept the outcome and seek peace with Gaddafi. He may not agree to this, though. Having shown that they are untrustworthy, Gaddafi has every motivation to recommence a nuclear weapons programme to prevent a future NATO intervention. He could also restore his historical support for international terrorism. He would have little to lose, knowing that the coalition will turn on him at the first opportunity.

This situation would also humiliate NATO/the coalition and might encourage other world powers to challenge them.

2) Escalate, set troops onto Libyan soil, wage a long-term war. This could become extremely bloody and costly, another Iraq War in North Africa. Remember that the Iraq War was predicted to cost between $50 billion and $60 billion, with higher estimates of $200 billion considered "the upper end of a hypothetical" by a White House director. Last year a report for the US Congress estimated the total military costs for the US in Iraq at $751 billion. George W Bush claimed victory in Iraq just 41 days after the invasion began, yet by far the bloodiest year for coalition troops was 2007, four years later. Removing Saddam was relatively easy while building a new government was extremely hard: peace in Iraq killed many times more troops than war.

A large-scale invasion could also further damage the reputation of the US and its allies, especially among Muslims. The arrival of old colonial enemies like Italy and France into North Africa could provoke deeply negative responses.

If Gaddafi loses
Even the capitulation of Gaddafi would bring no certainty of true victory, when so little is known of the Libyan rebels. If the rebels turn out to be no more interested in peace and cooperation than Gaddafi, the coalition are left with another set of nightmarish problems. If they support a new tyrannical government they will take a propaganda hit, suggesting hypocrisy in their rhetoric about democracy and liberalism, and killings of Libyan civilians could continue. Many revolutions in the past have replaced old autocrats with new autocrats.

Or the rebels might disintegrate along internal divisions and a new civil war would replace the old. The potential role of Islamists in Libya's new regime is also troubling. A report by US West Point Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center found that Libya contributed by far the most Al Qaeda fighters in Iraq per capita, while Libya's rebel leader has already admitted that some of these Al Qaeda fighters are now with him fighting Gaddafi.

Attempts to implant foreign democratic structures in Iraq and Afghanistan have been costly, bloody, and resented. Similar efforts on Libya may turn out no better.

A message to tyrants
In the 1980s and 1990s Gaddafi sponsored international terrorist groups, including the Provisional IRA. He also had a programme to build chemical and nuclear weapons, a programme he abandoned along with his support for terrorism in the 2000s. Several Western countries reestablished diplomatic relations with Libya and a new era of cooperation began.

But Gaddafi's new friends swiftly turned on him this year, despite the ending of his nuclear and terrorist activities. North Korea has nuclear weapons to deter foreign invasions but since Libya had dismantled its own the coalition felt confident enough to bomb.

The message to other autocrats is to speed their nuclear weapons programmes. Selig S. Harrison from The National Interest:

As he faces the US-NATO onslaught in the weeks ahead, will Muammar Qaddafi conclude that he made a disastrous mistake when he gave up his nuclear weapons program in 2003 in return for Bush administration promises of aid and improved relations?

An official from North Korea says he clearly did, and “it is now being fully exposed before the world that Libya’s ‘nuclear dismantlement,’ much touted by the U.S. in the past, turned out to be a mode of aggression, a way of coaxing the victim with sweet words to disarm itself and then to swallow it up by force.”
Governments who fear American intervention, like the Iranians, will see the need to build nuclear weapons, this move could promote rapid proliferation in autocracies around the world.

What if nobody wins?
With half-hearted military support from the coalition, the rebels have not yet been defeated. Neither has Gaddafi stepped down. The intervention may only have served to prolong the conflict, increasing the ultimate body count and extending the global economic shock of the reduced oil output caused by the war.

The risks of this intervention are very great, the likelihood of success - the swift replacement of Gaddafi with a friendly democratic government - is low. For countries already stuck in other military and economic quagmires the wisdom of this move is questionable. And simply by becoming involved the coalition will be blamed if things go badly.

I have described before my strong dislike of war and potential blind spot in discussions about it: I want war to be ineffective at solving problems. This may colour my interpretation of events in Libya to date. But I refer in the end to the wisdom of Niccolò Machiavelli:
Wars begin at the will of anyone, but they do not end at anyone's will.

Monday, April 25, 2011

More Spirit Level confusion

Here is a line in Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson's The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, arguing that following the decline of infectious diseases in the 20th century:

...we are left with the so-called diseases of affluence - the degenerative cardiovascular diseases and cancers.

Later they explain this:

As we described in Chapter I, when infectious diseases lost their hold as the major causes of death, the industrialized world underwent a shift, known as the 'epidemiological transition', and chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, replaced infections as the major causes of death and poor health.

This is a little unclear because it does not explain whether or not cancer and heart disease are caused by modern affluence. Dan Gardner's Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear describes multiple examples of confusion over this very thing, explaining that declines in infectious disease lethality simply left more survivors to get cancer. Gardner gives the example of Canadian biologist David Suzuki, who argued that industrial chemicals were increasing cancer rates to the point where cancer had surpassed heart disease as Canada's 'number one killer':

But it is not true, as Suzuki seems to assume, that cancer's rise to leading killing means cancer is killing more people. It is possible that heart disease is killing fewer people. And that turns out to be the correct explanation. Statistics Canada reported that the death rates of both cardiovascular disease and cancer are falling but 'much more so for cardiovascular disease'.

Risk of developing cancer soars as individuals get older. As a result, rising deaths from cancer could actually indicate massive improvements in health, as more young people manage to survive into old age. A World Health Organisation comment that 'Deaths from cancer worldwide are projected to continue to rise to over 11 million in 2030' could actually imply global improvements in health.

We can compare a developing country with a richer developed country for an example. In 2009, the leading causes of death for males in England and Wales were as follows:

1) Ischaemic heart diseases 17.4%
2) Malignant neoplasm (cancer) of trachea, bronchus and lung 7.2%
3) Cerebrovascular diseases 7.1%

Comparing this with male deaths in South Africa we see that cancer drops way down the list:

1) HIV/AIDS 23.5%
2) Interpersonal violence 8.4%
3) Tuberculosis 6.8%
...13) Trachea, bronchus and lung cancer 1.7%

Someone could observe that lung cancer is the thirteenth highest cause of death for men in South Africa, but the second highest cause in England and Wales, and guess that Britons face greater danger from cancer than South Africans do. But the truth is that England and Wales are protected from TB, violence, AIDS and a range of other causes of death. In South Africa many people never get the chance to age long enough to develop cancer or heart disease.

So The Spirit Level's description of a 'shift' of risk from infectious disease to cancer and heart disease seems a little unclear. Rather than a shift there was a decisive decline in many lethal diseases, letting people grow old enough to develop other ailments. That's a 'shift' we should celebrate.

Friday, April 22, 2011

How narratives warp news

I wrote before about the role of wider narratives in deciding what events become major news stories and what events are ignored. The tendency to tie individual events into wider narratives can distort our understanding of how the world works, greatly inflating the importance of some conflicts or risks while downgrading much worse ones.

Dan Gardner's Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear explores this further with a number of useful examples. By the early 1990s the first successes in managing the AIDS epidemic had been experienced, but terror of African disease was reinforced when author Richard Preston released a book in 1994 describing a true incident in which ebola-infected monkeys were taken from Africa to the US. Despite the fact that no American outbreak followed (and this strain of ebola was not lethal to humans), Preston's book helped to make horrible jungle diseases from Africa become a media narrative. The 1995 movie Outbreak continued the trend and then ebola really did break out in DR Congo:
...reporters rushed to a part of the world that is generally ignored. The coverage was massive, but the 1995 Ebola outbreak didn't lead to chaos and disaster. It just ran the usual sad course, killing about 255 people in all.

For the people of Congo and central Africa, however, chaos and disaster really were coming. In 1998, a coup led to civil war that sparked fighting across the whole region and civil authority collapsed. It's hard to know precisiely how many lives were lost, whether to bullet, bomb, or disease, but many authorities suggest three million or more died over the first several years. The developed world scarcely noticed. The war fit no existing narrative, and without any obvious relevance to the rich world it couldn't start one, so the media gave it a tiny fraction of the attention they lavished on the 1995 Ebola outbreak - even though the war killed roughly 11,700 people for every one lost to Ebola.
Gardner goes on to look at other shifting narratives, like that of the white anti-government radicals in the US which briefly made up most discussions about terrorism after Timothy McVeigh bombed Oklahoma City in 1995. For years media reported on 'cranky gun enthusiasts', a trend reversed by the 9/11 bombing. Since 2001 discussions of terrorism in the US have been dominated by concerns with radical Muslims.

Gardner describes Joel Henry Hinrichs III, a 'disturbed white guy with a thing for explosives' who blew himself up outside a packed stadium in Oklahoma in 2005. In 2007 six white men were arrested with an arsenal of weapons including a machine gun and hand grenades, allegedly planning a machine gun attack on local Hispanics. Because these stories failed to match the dominant terrorism narrative at the time they were barely covered by media.

Gardner's talk of narratives is particularly useful because it can explain apparent media bias without denouncing journalists and editors for explicit bigotry. Perfectly well-intentioned journalists could cover stories because they seem relevant, editors run them because they will attract alarm or attention. No bias is necessary to produce stories which accidentally misinform readers.

This explains the wave of alarmed articles in the 2000s about Muslim women in Europe wearing hijab or niqab. Muslim girls who refused to remove hijab in school become symbolic of wider anger - anger at Muslims for failing to integrate and anger at Europeans for for stamping on other cultures.

Yet when I was in school in 1990s Ireland we had students who also got into trouble for breaking the school's dress code. We had a pretty relaxed uniform - no tie or blazer for my humble school! - but boys were forbidden from shaving their heads. Being teenagers, some boys deliberately broke this rule, arrived into school as skinheads, and were suspended for it. They broke the rules to win status and approval from their own adolescent gang, and the principal defended her authority by kicking them out of school for a few days.

Nobody noticed these events outside our school. Once I remember minor controversy when another school forbade some students from sitting important exams because they broke its dress code. Without a wider narrative few people were going to lose sleep over it, though, while Muslim schoolgirls wearing hijabs had pro- and anti-Muslim perspectives already formed and ready to connect. Something similar happened when there was brief controversy in Ireland over the police force's prohibition on a Sikh officer from wearing his turban. Unlike Islam, too few people had opinions about Sikhism in the first place for this story to go far.

A final example is the constant media attention given to child abuse by Catholic priests, which is a major narrative in our time. Despite no evidence that priests are more likely to abuse children than any other men, the narrative of the paedophile priest has seeped through to mainstream humour and cinema. See the child-abusing priest in Alan Moore's V for Vendetta, or the popular joke that someone is 'sweating like a priest in a playground'. Every new story about child abuse by a priest reinforces that narrative, while stories about child abuse by others do not.

I don't blame journalists or editors particularly for pandering to narratives the public find interesting. Yet it strikes me that there is space to undermine these narratives and throw events into a new light. A less conformist publication, that opens up new narratives to rival those of its competitors, could be great.

Monday, April 18, 2011

An Inconvenient Truth

I don't like war, I don't like the idea that it can sometimes be necessary, and I'm aware that I sometimes interpret new information in ways that reinforce that preconception.

When the Sri Lankan government finally defeated the Tamil Tigers in a major military operation I noticed that some foreign commentators were using this as an example of how to defeat terrorism. I was sceptical, thinking that the military victory might conceal continued terrorist attacks by the Tigers, or by spliter groups driven underground. If terrorism continued despite the military failure of the Tigers, it could undermine the narrative of those supporting the 'War on Terror'.

Yet the inconvenient truth is that Sri Lanka's war really does seem to have succeeded in ending most terrorist violence. From the South Asian Terrorism Portal, here are deaths from terrorism violence since 2000:

2000: 3,791
2001: 1,822
2002: 15
2003: 59
2004: 109
2005: 330
2006: 4,126
2007: 4,357
2008: 11,261
2009: 15,565
2010: 0
2011: 0

There may still be moral and strategic concerns with the military action, but I don't see any support for my scepticism about the success of the war. Challenging one's preconceptions with data that appears to disprove them is never pleasant, but to avoid being brainwashed it is necessary. In this case it seems I was wrong.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Christian right and secular left unite

I wrote before about the Socialist International's strange membership, which included until recently the governing parties of autocracies in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as the party of Côte d'Ivoire's Laurent Gbagbo. I was surprised because the Socialist International also included mainstream centre-left parties around the world, like Ireland's Labour, UK's Labour, Germany's SDP and so on.

The National Interest Magazine points out that Gbagbo had other unexpected allies, however, of a different ideological strain. Republican Senator James Inhofe is involved in the evangelical Christian National Prayer Breakfast - as is Gbagbo - and he called for new elections. Radical Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson also supported Gbagbo:

The U.N. has said the other guy won. Well, that may be, but the problem is that this is a country now that has been run by a Christian that is going to be into the hands of Muslims. So it’s one more Muslim nation that’s going to be building up that ring of Shariah law around the Middle East.

So right-wing Christian conservatives saluted a member of the left-wing Socialist International and, perhaps, a tyrant. The complexity of these global alliances always fascinates me.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Beauty is in eye of beholder, Ugliness is in Jail

19th century descriptions of criminals sometimes pointed to physical attributes supposedly common to them. This was part of the popular scientific concept that behaviour was determined mainly by inherited traits, so that certain racial and socio-economic groups would be forever locked in ignorance, criminality and barbarism. Angela Bourke explains in The Burning of Bridget Cleary (1999):

'Savages', with high cheekbones, protruding jaws and low morals were to be found not only in Africa, or even in Ireland, but in the white urban underclass of Britain itself.

Bourke quotes Italian physician and pioneer of criminal anthropology Cesare Lombroso, who thought criminals could be detected simply by their appearance. On looking at a famous brigand's skull, Lombroso thought:

...I seemed to see all of a sudden, lighted up as a vast plain under a flaming sky, the problem of the nature of the criminal - an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals. Thus were explained anatomically the enormous jaws, high cheekbones, prominent superciliary arches, solitary lines in the palms, extreme size of the orbits, handle-shaped ears found in criminals, savages and apes...

This perspective, and the racist prejudices it empowered, would be discredited in later decades so it is fascinating to read this study arguing that criminals do indeed have common physical traits. Naci Mocan and Erdal Tekin from the University of Colorado and Georgia State University respectively point out that criminals tend to be uglier than average. Rather than ugliness itself signalling a criminal personality, they point to the tendency for more attractive people to earn more and enjoy better opportunities compared with uglier people:

Being very attractive reduces a young adult’s propensity for criminal activity and being unattractive increases it. Being very attractive is also positively associated with wages and with adult vocabulary test scores, which implies that beauty may have an impact on human capital formation. The results suggest that a labor market penalty provides a direct incentive for unattractive individuals toward criminal activity.

One consequence of this is that the outdated old Victorian assumptions about certain people looking "shifty" and seeming likely criminals may have had a little value after all, if not for the reasons they assumed.

Another implication is that there is a disadvantaged group in modern society who get little attention or support. While inequalities in race, sex or sexuality are denounced, the disproportionate poverty of ugly people is rarely mentioned.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Rape, Murder and Paedophilia: Hilarious

Nostalgic TV shows looking at life in the 1970s or 1980s sometimes linger on the weird controversies of the day, like the gasps of outrage in 1971 when condoms were brandished on Ireland's Late Late Show, or the fury over a rather chaste gay kiss on 1987's EastEnders. What was considered shocking then would quickly become normal and unremarkable.

When I was growing up I was aware of these rapidly changing norms, with the boundaries of behaviour pushing ever outwards. At first not particularly comfortable with this abandonment of the comforting Catholic conservatism I'd been reared with, I gradually became desensitised enough to enjoy it. By the time I got to university I was surrounded by irreverant young people who considered few topics taboo, joking readily about sex, violence and prejudice. This wild new frontier of funniness was liberating and enjoyable, though the more extreme classmates continued to shock the rest of us with ever more gruesome humour.

One strange and relatively tame example was the wave of racist jokes prompted by a friend's observation that my Irish surname Leavy sounded like the Jewish author Primo Levi. I was henceforth known as Primo, Levi, or "the Jew" and, despite no Jewish ancestry that I know of, attracted wild anti-Jewish humour that played on historical stereotypes of Shylock, the cunning and money-grubbing loan-shark. If someone mentioned that they needed to visit the ATM for money, another friend might remark: "Ask Levi for a loan". The worst (that is, best) example of anti-Semitic humour that I remember was when a mother of one of the boys died and we attended her funeral. Another classmate spotted me outside the church afterwards and said: "What are you doing here, Christ-killer?"

Genius! For these jokes did not reflect any true anti-Jewish sentiment, but rather a mischievous amusement in messing with it. Anti-Semitism seemed to us an odd, largely abandoned, prejudice of 1930s weirdos. The hilarity came from attributing Jewishness to me and then exaggerating the stereotypes that went with it to a ludicrous extent.

We could do this openly because anti-Semitism had ceased being an issue among this group of anti-racist and tolerant liberals. Since we all knew the whole thing was a joke, anything went: I could demand a pound of flesh and get only sniggers.

Of course this kind of humour might not play so well in regions where anti-Jewish racism is still strong and violent. A former workmate once repeated a French comedian's views to me: that you can joke about anything, but not with anyone. There is wisdom in this: our absurd jokes over Shylock and Christ-killing were acceptable in our context, but making them in the smouldering ruins of an Israeli house after a Hamas rocket attack would probably backfire. The audience is everything.

Nonetheless truly gruesome and deliberately offensive comedy have entered the mainstream in Britain and Ireland today. The wonderful American cartoon South Park constantly smashes through social norms with grotesque violence and sexuality, like the episode in which the child Eric Cartman tricks an older boy into eating chilli made from the corpses of his own parents. When the boy discovers his mother's finger in the food he starts weeping, and Cartman joyfully licks the tears from his face. South Park dismantles deeply-held religious and political beliefs with glee. To give a few examples:

- In the episode "Bono is Crap", Randy Marsh produces the world's largest piece of human excrement, only to be replaced by U2 singer Bono, who makes one slightly bigger. The episode features scenes of noisy defecation.

- In "Britney's New Look", Britney Spears attempts suicide with a shotgun, which instead blows off most of her head and leaves a gurgling, living stump. The people try to push her into suicide as part of a Pagan ritual to produce good crops.

- "Over Logging" involves Randy Marsh's addiction to internet pornography. Scenes include this middle-aged man masturbating while watching Japanese girls vomit in one another's mouths.

- "The China Probrem" features George Lucas and Steven Spielberg raping Indiana Jones, playing on the idea that they had ruined the Indiana Jones franchise by adding the unnecessary fourth film. It also features them raping a Stormtrooper: nodding at the poorly received Star Wars prequels released in recent years.

South Park was followed by other comic shows that used disgusting and offensive humour. Welsh prank comedy Dirty Sanchez featured a man nailing his friend's penis to a block of wood, for a laugh. English comedian Jimmy Carr regularly jokes about murder, rape, child abuse and disability, like:

- "Say what you like about those servicemen amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we're going to have a fucking good Paralympic team in 2012."

- "I was raised as a Catholic. I hated going to church when I was young; stand up, sit down, kneel, God I wished the Father would pick a position and just fuck me."

- "You know a girl's too young for you when you have to make an aeroplane noise to get your cock in her mouth."

Then there's Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle, regular contributor to BBC's Mock the Week, who imagines Queen Elizabeth II saying: "I am now so old that my pussy is haunted." Or the brilliant Canadian comedy mocumentary Trailer Park Boys, which had to negotiate with the TV company over the number of "fucks" used in early episodes, and went on to use constant "shit analogies" like: "You feel that? The way the shit just sticks to the air? There's a shit-blizzard comin." Or Channel 4's excellent Peep Show, which featured a bemused man being raped by a female soldier, and an eager teenage boy manipulated into giving oral sex to an older male musician he admired.

To watch such cheerfully offensive material on mainstream television I gradually got the impression that we lived in a truly liberal age where anything went, no topic remained untouchable from humour. Necrophilia, child abuse, genocide, poverty, rape, suicide, cannibalism - all got their shot in a new age of unrestrained comedy. Depravity was now funny.

This experience, and probably the experience of debating with Islamists, communists, anarchists and other radicals (the maddest of whom openly called for genocides) on online forums, seems to have dramatically reduced my capacity for outrage. All the old taboos are ditched and nothing is sacred. The only guidance is that French comedian's assertion that even though all topics are open for jokes, one needs to control who one tells such jokes to.

Yet my complacency is not reflected in the wider public, if the regular outbursts of moral rage are anything to go by. Most of these controversies puzzle me in our apparently post-prudish age, for the outraged people today are as often young liberals as old conservatives. British commentator Charlie Brooker deals with this beautifully by pointing out that outrageous comedy of the past would become loved and influential with time. Brooker's Screenwipe programme shows a 1970 Monty Python clip in which characters discuss cooking and eating the corpse of a dead mother, along with grubbily sordid humour in a bunch of other much-loved British comedy classics. Brooker's clip from Steptoe and Son shows the pair playing Scrabble: the board is covered with dirty words including bum, spunk, cock, nipple, tit, enter and rape. Yes, that was a rape joke on mainstream television back in 1972.

This post is inspired by an absurd incident here in Ireland, when several police officers were accidentally recorded discussing a female protestor they had arrested. The audio clip, available here, shows the men joking about raping the woman. After noting that she seemed North American, they continued:

Garda B: “Well whoever, we’ll get Immigration f**king on her.”

Garda A: “She refused to give her name and address and told she would be arrested.”

Garda B : “.......and deported”

Garda A: “And raped.”

Garda B: “I wouldn’t go that far yet….. She was living down at that crusty camp, f**k sake, you never know what you might get.”


Garda A: “Give me your name and address or I’ll rape you.”


Unidentified garda: “Hold it there, give me your name and address there, I’ll rape you.”


Garda A : “Or I’ll definitely rape you.”

Unidentified garda: “Will you be me friend on Facebook?”

This incident differs from the others I've described because the men are, as police officers, representatives of the state and presumably held to higher standards while at work than other people. When the trust of the population is important for effective policing and when sexually abusive police are not unknown, this kind of talk is unwise and foolish.

Yet when I heard the audio clip I thought I recognised the same kind of absurd humour I see on television or hear from my friends all the time. The leap from arresting a woman, to deporting her, then all the way to raping her is so extreme, so ludicrous that the men laugh in surprise. Like the Monty Python clip discussing the consumption by undertakers of a man's mother, or the South Park episode in which Cartman photographs himself with another boy's penis in his mouth (to prove that the other boy is gay), it is the madness of it that makes it funny.

This interpretation - the first and most obvious interpretation to me, given the modern tolerance for filthy humour - has been rejected by many observers. Instead the story has become massive news with several commentators insisting that joking about rape is "not funny". Yet comedians like Jimmy Carr joke about rape and child abuse and are loved for it. Joking about anything at all can be funny, the more gruesome and disturbing the better, sometimes.

My response is not outrage at all this outrage, but bewilderment. Where have these people been all this time? Did they entirely miss the way culture had shifted in recent years, that programmes like South Park regularly joke about rape and murder? Were they unaware that when young adults sneakily change the Facebook statuses of their friend they call it "frape": Facebook rape?

Amusement at male rape inspires the regular comic movie "don't drop the soap" scenarios when male prison inmates are terrified of being raped by over-sized cellmates. In Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanemo Bay, for example, the boys are ordered by a gigantic bearded prison guard called Big Bob to accept his "cock-meat sandwich". Perversion and abuse are all regular parts of mainstream humour, so why the silence for years and then sudden moral panic over one incident, plucked for outrage from hundreds of others?

In this case the men were on-duty police, so any outrage should emphasise that. But as ordinary people such humour is unremarkable and is as likely to end up on evening television as in shocked newspaper columns.

In time this outrage will fizzle out, but another will follow soon. Large groups of people seem to swing from one outrage to the next, carefully ignoring massive quantities of disturbing public material to selectively pick individual scandals to denounce. This is tiring, puzzling and bizarre.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Democracy for Strength

In 2005 I made a radio documentary about Falun Gong, a Chinese religious group banned in China. Falun Gong practitioners are scattered over dozens of countries but the movement is called an "evil cult" by the Chinese government and there have been allegations of torture and religious persecution by the authorities. Over the course of researching for the documentary I kept coming across a phrase repeated again and again by the Chinese government: social stability. From the Chinese Embassy to the United States website:

As an evil force, the Falun Gong cult has disrupted social stability, endangered the safety of the State and damaged the bodies and minds of those who believe in it. The official ban and investigations into its crimes are significant steps towards rooting out Falun Gong. But additional efforts need to be made in order to wipe out the hotbeds for cults.

And from, a state-authorised website:

Before the ban, Chinese across the country had expressed their deep concern over the cult's harmful affect on families, the health of the Falun Gong practitioners themselves, China's social stability as well as its illegal profits made by the ringleaders headed by Li Zhongzhi, the official said....

In April 1999, He Zuoxiu, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, contributed an essay to a journal published by the Education College of the Tianjin Normal University that criticized the cult....

The government's ban and crackdowns on the Falun Gong Cult have legal basis and are meant to safeguard social stability and protect people's life and property - which is the government's main responsibility, he stressed. A cult is a social cancer, he said.

Some observers have pointed to disastrous civil wars in Chinese history, often sparked by religious fanaticism, as motivation for the government's fear of Falun Gong. Yet "social stability" permeates Chinese government language and just days ago the CCP referenced it during its latest Five-Year Plan:

Moreover, president of the Supreme People's Court Wang Shengjun pledged in his NPC report that the courts would "diligently uphold social harmony and stability". "We will strengthen and be innovative about social management so as to bolster social harmony and stability," Wang said. "We will severely punish criminal activities that jeopardize state security and social stability."

Meanwhile China's Foreign Ministry said it hoped Libya would "restore social stability and normalcy as soon as possible". This obsession with stability seems to be used as a justification for oppressive politics in China, like the prohibition of Falun Gong.

Yet the unrest in Arab autocracies show how vulnerable those states which prioritise stability can be. Mubarak's Egypt had 100,000 secret police agents, with an estimated 300,000 informers, yet it failed to stand up to popular protest. Decades of oppressive Ba’athist rule in Syria, designed to create stability with an iron fist, may be about to collapse.

Meanwhile fairly low-income democracies like Indonesia, Malaysia, Bosnia and Herzegovina seem to have escaped the revolutions. Far from securing stability, oppressive government policies may endanger it. Liberal democracies have a modern history of high stability with power changing hands peacefully at regular elections. Perhaps the Chinese government should reconsider their antipathy towards "Western" democracy, if stability really is their concern.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Doubts about Equality: Part II

This Vanity Fair article argues that American society has become dysfunctionally unequal in wealth. This inequality, writes Joseph E. Stiglitz, has numerous negative side-effects, including a reduced appetite for government expenditure on "infrastructure, education, and technology":

But America has long suffered from an under-investment in infrastructure (look at the condition of our highways and bridges, our railroads and airports), in basic research, and in education at all levels. Further cutbacks in these areas lie ahead.
Let's explore this claim a little more. First, look at expenditure on transport infrastructure, from the OECD's International Transport Forum:

As expected, inland transport infrastructure spending is lower in unequal United States than relatively more equal Western Europe (WEC). Yet Russia, which the Vanity Fair author identifies as being similarly unequal to the US, has much higher transport infrastructure expenditure. Another graph shows that spending in the US and Western Europe is fairly flat, with slow increases since 1995. Yet spending in fairly equal Japan has collapsed and in unequal Russia has soared:

This is not what we should expect if Stiglitz is right in associating spending on transport infrastructure with equality. Let's dig a little deeper. This graph shows OECD's figures from 2005 for public expenditure on educational institutions of all kinds (vertical axis) and gross domestic expenditure on research and development (horizontal axis), both as percentages of GDP. Each dot stands for a country, the size representing population and colour representing gini coefficient: income inequality.

Stiglitz's argument seems to break down. Highly unequal Mexico spends more as a percentage of GDP on public education than highly equal Slovakia. The United States has relatively high educational expenditure, higher than the social democracies of Netherlands, Japan or Germany. Likewise there seems to be no correlation between spending on R&D and inequality (though these figures include private and public spending). If the US has really suffered under-investment in education, then the more equal social democracies of Germany and Netherlands seem to suffer even worse.

Supposing, however, that high expenditure on elite university students distorts the statistics for the United States. We can look instead at public educational expenditure for primary education - that education which children of all socio-economic backgrounds experience - only. The World Bank collects such statistics:

It is a little difficult to see by this shading, but the US government spent more on primary education per student, as a percentage of GDP per capita, from 2005-2009 than most of the West European social democracies. To give a few examples from 2007:

United States: 22.4%
Australia: 17.7%
Austria: 23.1%
Belgium: 20.8%
Finland: 17.5%
France (2006): 17.1%
Germany (2006): 16.1%
Japan: 21.6%
Netherlands (2006): 17.8%
Norway: 18.4%

Nowhere do we see a correlation between income inequality and under-investment in public primary expenditure. For secondary education the US is more in line with other developed countries, spending more than Germany, Japan and Australia but less than France and Netherlands.

It is troubling that an opinion piece that seeks to convince readers that income inequality is harmful, would list off-hand these claims, which seem on examination untrue. Income inequality does not appear to significantly impact spending on education, transport or research.

One final note of concern is Stiglitz's explanation of American inequality. He lists several factors, like globalisation and industrial technology that makes American blue collar workers compete with low-paid foreign workers, or with machines. He adds that "one big part of the reason we have so much inequality is that the top 1 percent want it that way", arguing that tax policies have rewarded the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Yet there is another major factor in understanding American inequality: immigration. The US has experienced sustained mass-immigration from low-income Latin American countries. This means that the poorest proportion of the American population is constantly being renewed by poor immigrants. Even if these immigrants do rise in income, more poor immigrants follow. The strange outcome is that success - poor immigrants growing wealthy and attracting more immigrants - could look like failure as internal inequality appears to grow.