Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Black Swan: uncertainty, news media and Greece

In Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Black Swan he argues that journalists will sometimes try to connect unrelated events, explaining economic news in terms of a particular political event for example. This, he claimed, was often foolish as the twists and turns of economies are massively complex and unpredictable, and the cause-and-effect journalists imply may not exist in reality.

Earlier this morning I noticed headlines on economic news pointing to rising share prices across Europe, supposedly because of the upcoming deal between the EU and Greece:

Europe's Markets Gain Ground
Wall Street Journal - Andrea Tryphonides - ‎1 hour ago‎
LONDON—European stocks were trading higher Tuesday, led by banks after a draft proposal by French banks to roll over the majority of their Greek debt exposure eased concerns ahead of Greece's parliamentary austerity vote on ...

Yet just now I see the exact same story flipped on its head:

European shares edge lower on Greece; telecoms down
Reuters - Atul Prakash - ‎25 minutes ago‎
LONDON, June 28 (Reuters) - European equities edged lower on Tuesday ahead of a crucial vote on unpopular austerity measures by Greece's parliament linked to more aid, while a slump in Cable & Wireless Worldwide led telecom shares down. ...

So is the Greek issue sending shares higher or lower? Perhaps this is a perfect example of Taleb's observation, with journalists/editors trying to create simple narratives that explain bafflingly complex events.

Monday, June 27, 2011

New ways to talk politics - Bullshit Detectors

It can be a frustrating experience to watch political debates on television. Rival politicians push party agendas, blatantly avoiding difficult questions from journalists or distorting the arguments of their opponents. Like children in the schoolyard they sometimes argue to score political points against one another, not bothering to really explore important topics. Occasionally participants flip out, voices get raised, faces redden and the whole thing falls apart into childish quarrels.

I lack the patience for this nonsense yet the excellent TED talks show that video really can be used to share politically-relevant knowledge. Hans Rosling's amusing and informative presentations of the Gapminder animated graphs are especially fact-heavy but still accessible and fun.

So I have been wondering about more functional ways to share information and politics. In TED, participants give one-way presentations (often using PowerPoint or props) to a passive audience. The problem of course is that their claims are not questioned. The televised debates I criticised are combative, with journalists and political rivals constantly interrupting and challenging arguments. I find those interruptions irritating, but they do at least serve to undermine nonsensical claims.

Are there other ways, though, of challenging political claims? How about this:

1) The participant gives a speech like those on TED, using PowerPoint or some other technology that allows them to back up their claims with graphed statistics, video footage and so on.

2) A team of researchers watches this presentation (or, to save time, could be given the presentation before the show) and systematically explores the data for errors, searches for relevant articles, scientific papers, etc.

3) The team announces any useful results. If, for example, the politician makes some claim about a historical event then the fact-checking team can show that this is correct or otherwise, can even show their sources. If a politician makes a scientific claim - 'studies show...' - the fact-checkers can browse scientific studies to verify or refute the claim.

The good thing about this is that it takes the combative element out of the picture while still challenging claims. There would be nothing personal about it, no raised voices, but fact-checkers could expose political lies and distortions simply by presenting factual evidence instead.

The down side is simply that many things are still unknown. A politician might discuss the causes of the Great Depression and while fact-checkers could find alternative interpretations, they might not be able to show which interpretation is correct. Fact-checkers could check facts, but not interpretations of these facts.

So let's look at further ways to explore politics.

A constant problem is that many politicians and lobbyists lie. Normally, journalists challenge and harass their interviewees in order to expose these lies. But there are psychological ways to get to the truth too.

One interesting (and fun) test worth thinking about is the Implicit Association Test, which I wrote about here. The test gets participants to quickly associate apparently unrelated concepts. When participants already link those concepts in their minds, they tend to be very quick and accurate in responding. When they don't link them their responses are slower.

For example, a participant may be asked to associate positive words (joy, happiness, great) with white people and negative words (sad, pain, anger) with black people. If the participant has an unconscious preference for white people over black people, this will be very easy and they will respond swiftly. If, however, the same participant is asked to reverse and associate black people with positive, white with negative words, they slow down and make mistakes. They struggle to override their implicit prejudices and the computer records that hesitation, exposing the hidden racial preference.

This test shows the implicit preferences and prejudices we harbour, but one needn't act on such prejudices. Someone might be a raging racist deep down but, aware of the unpopularity of such views, might never act on such racism.

Still it would be fascinating to test the entire political spectrum to see what implicit prejudices are associated with each party. If we could spot a pattern, with advocates of a particular politics having particular prejudices we might be able to better understand, or undermine, their political beliefs.

This post was inspired by a rather brilliant idea by the libertarian economist Bryan Calpan. He was responding to this article by left-leaning economist Paul Krugman:
A liberal can talk coherently about what the conservative view is because people like me actually do listen . We don't think it's right, but we pay enough attention to see what the other person is trying to get at. The reverse is not true. You try to get someone who is fiercely anti-Keynesian to even explain what a Keynesian economic argument is, they can't do it. They can't get it remotely right. Or if you ask a conservative, "What do liberals want?" You get this bizarre stuff - for example, that liberals want everybody to ride trains, because it makes people more susceptible to collectivism. You just have to look at the realities of the way each side talks and what they know. One side of the picture is open-minded and sceptical. We have views that are different, but they're arrived at through paying attention. The other side has dogmatic views.
Calpan suggested that there was a way to test this claim:
Put me and five random liberal social science Ph.D.s in a chat room. Let liberal readers ask questions for an hour, then vote on who isn't really a liberal. Then put Krugman and five random libertarian social science Ph.D.s in a chat room. Let libertarian readers ask questions for an hour, then vote on who isn't really a libertarian. Simple as that.

My challenge: Nail down the logistics, and I'll happily bet money that I fool more voters than Krugman.
Calpan's idea would show whether or not individuals understand the perspectives of their ideological opponents well enough to convince strangers that they actually subscribe to that ideology.

This is intriguing. Often in online debates I see individuals who are indoctrinated into political perspectives and who have never seriously considered the views of their opponents. They understand their rivals only in terms of daft caricatures and distortions. It is likely that such individuals would not pass this test.

I would love to see politicians, lobbyists and outspoken journalists take this kind of test! Let's see if they even understand the perspectives they so despise. How would I do? I think I could pass myself off as a casual follower of libertarianism or democratic socialism - I have some of the buzzwords down from these - but would struggle to convince a panel that I had in depth knowledge (because I don't). Feminism would be harder; most of my reading has come from blogs and articles rather than books so I still struggle to understand the arguments. I have general ideas about kinds of Islamism but I lack the Arabic vocabulary to be convincing.

Anyway some of Calpan's readers are already exploring his proposed test, like Ilya Somin here.

More important than this actual test, though, is Calpan's idea of putting ideas into action to test their strength. In a conventional debate one individual would make Krugman's point, arguing that the other side is closed-minded and dogmatic. The other side would angrily deny this and say that in fact it is Krugman's side which is closed-minded. There would be no significant evidence either way, just angry words: all heat and no light. Calpan tries to side-step this with some kind of objective way to measure the veracity of ideas.

And that is the spirit of this post too. I weary of political discussions made up of childish accusations and denunciations, egged on and interrupted by aggressive journalists. I think politics could be both more colourful and more rational by taking alternative approaches to it, removing the interpersonal anger and arguments and making it easier to expose bullshit for what it is. Tests and fact-checking might help to do this.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Medical technology making Iraq look less bloody

This 2010 report for the US Congress compares various American wars in terms of deaths and injuries suffered by the American military.

For example, 116,516 American soldiers died in World War I, with 204,022 wounded. This is a deaths/wounded ratio of 1:1.8. By World War II war had become more fatal to American soldiers, killing 405,399 and wounding 670,846, a ratio of 1:1.65. A few other wars by deaths/wounded ratios:

Korean War 1:2.8
Vietnam War 1:2.6
Persian Gulf War 1:1.2
Afghanistan War 1:4.4
Iraq War 1:7.3

We see a dramatic shift in the ratio of deaths to wounded, with far fewer troops dying by comparison with those injured. In World War II for every one man killed barely another was wounded. By the Iraq War for every one man killed another seven were wounded.

This makes sense if we consider that emergency medical technology has improved over the period. Injuries which would have killed soldiers in the past are today treated with high tech medicine, leaving soldiers alive.

Another implication is that modern wars may seem less serious than earlier conflicts simply because soldiers are now surviving horrible injuries. In the Iraq War 31,430 American troops were wounded, while 4,301 were killed. If this conflict had the same death/wounded ratio as World War II the US would be dealing with 19,048 deaths, making it appear a much more bloody struggle.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Irish economy: booming or doomed?

Ireland's Central Statistics Office just released figures about the state of the economy. First the annual results for 2010 show that GDP fell by 0.4% in constant prices while GNP rose by 0.3% in constant prices last year. This is slightly better than had been previously believed, since earlier data had suggested a decline of GNP of 2.1%.

Secondly the quarterly national accounts show a decline of GNP of 4.3% in the first quarter of 2011, and growth of GDP by 1.3% The official statistics add that exports grew strongly while domestic demand declined.

So here are mixed bits of positive and negative news about Ireland's economy. What interests me is the response of different media; below are news stories arranged by the tone of the headline.

Bloomberg - 'Irish Economy Grows Fastest in Three Years'

AFP - 'Irish economy officially returns to growth'

Businessandleadership.com - 'Irish economy grew 1.3pc in first three months of 2011'

RTT News - 'Irish Economy Expands In Q1'

Finfacts - 'Irish Economy 2011: GDP up 1.3% in Q1 on exports boost; GNP down 4.3% in quarter as domestic demand dipped'

Wall Street Journal - 'DATA SNAP: Irish 1Q GDP Up 1.3% On Quarter; Down 1.4% In 4Q'

Irish Independent - 'Consumers still not spending but exports continue to shine'

Irish Examiner - 'Exports performance overshadowed by domestic slump'

RTE - 'GDP grew by 1.3% in Q1, but GNP down'

Belfast Telegraph - 'Irish economy suffers big slump'

Irish Times - 'Domestic demand remains weak'

By just glancing at headlines one gets completely different impressions of Ireland's economic situation, depending on the source. A reader that relies on just one media source for news could walk away with quite a distorted understanding of economic reality.

Lots more news media have covered this story by now. From Google News here are a few more sample headlines:

Most stories have positive headlines in these examples - which is nice! Yet others are restrained or even, like the Belfast Telegraph's 'big slump', deeply negative. Perhaps this shows the value of reading widely and not relying on one source of news.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Local and universal ideology

This interesting article by Abbas Milani points to tensions between Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Iran's religious Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad, sometimes seen here as a religious fanatic, is apparently not fanatical enough:

He stands accused of advocating Iranian nationalism—something anathema to conservative clerics who promote ummat (spiritual community) over mellat (nation). He was criticized for lauding past kings, particularly Cyrus, praised in the Bible for freeing Jews from their Babylonian captivity. Cyrus may have been lambasted by the infamous “hanging judge,” a close ally of Khomeini, as a “Jew boy” and a “sodomite,” but the president went out of his way to praise him for his promulgation of human rights. Ahmadinejad was further criticized for celebrating the Persian new year, Nowruz, considered pagan by the pious and the subject of numerous attacks by Khamenei himself.

Political leaders in 19th century Europe sometimes struggled to compromise the universalist ideology and identity of Christianity with the exclusive, local ideology of nationalism too. It must be a tricky one to balance. They want to belong to a wider community or civilisation from whom they may draw support and a sense of moral legitimacy. But they also want a sense of internal cohesion and a justification for the existence of controlled borders.

The same was true for communist countries. Workers of the world were called to unite, but ethnic-nationalist loyalties rumbled under the surface. In China the European tradition of Marxist communism has shifted to a more free market model tempered with the memory of ancient Chinese glory. 'Lacking the procedural legitimacy accorded to democratically elected governments and facing the collapse of communist ideology, the CCP is increasingly dependent upon its nationalist credentials to rule,' argues China expert Peter Hays Gries.

Saddam Hussein shifted from ideology to ideology as suited him. In 1982 Hussein began to reconstruct the ancient Babylonian palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II. By 2003 Hussein was wise to the rise of political Islam and dropped his Babylonian nationalism in favour of Islamist rhetoric before the US invasion:

The aggression that the aggressors are carrying out against the stronghold of faith is an aggression on the religion, the wealth, the honor and the soul and an aggression on the land of Islam.

It will be interesting to see if Muslim leaders will begin to shift away from religious language in favour of some other ideology in the future, as Ahmadinejad is alleged to have done. Will Pakistani Muslims remember mighty Mughal Emperors, or even Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilisation? Could Egyptians emphasise the glory of Ramesses II and other great pre-Islamic leaders? Might Indonesian politicians boast about Hindu and Buddhist civilisations that predated the arrival of Islam there?

Closer to home we see ideological clashes of our own, albeit less dramatic, in the economic troubles of the EU. How much will populations in various EU member states be willing to risk to aid their fellow Europeans in stricken, but foreign, states? The struggle of local, civilisational and universal ideology continues.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Rich, sexy, elderly, rural people don't murder, sadly

British TV detective series Midsomer Murders got into controversy earlier this year when its producer said that it 'wouldn't work' if they included non-white actors and that it was the 'last bastion of Englishness'. Of course there was some annoyance about this, and allegations of racism.

It occurred to me, though, that Midsomer Murders could be unintentionally biased in quite a different manner, all because the show is about crime.

In the upper-middle class county of Midsomer, murderers and victims can be male or female, young or old, respected citizens or troubling outsiders (just not black or Asian). The means of killing are as bizarre as possible, so that by 2009 the murders included people battered with:
...a cricket bat, bludgeoned by a fire iron, clubbed to death with a saucepan, electrocuted by a faulty microphone, strangled with cord of a camera light meter, a candlestick, a doped horse, a pitchfork, a Celtic spear, liquid nicotine, a syringe, a billhook used by woodcutters, toxic fungus, a necktie, a slide projector, a switchblade razor, a drinks cabinet, a plough, a hammer, hemlock, vintage claret, bottles of relish, death by poisonous frog, a longbow arrow through the heart, a French guillotine, a prop theatrical knife, pinned to the wall by a family dagger, King Neptune’s trident, a hatpin through the ear, an Iron Maiden … and alien abduction.
Actually Midsomer's killings involve such a democratic bunch that they little resemble reality. Midsomer Murders has a host of female killers, elderly killers, even on occasion child killers. Its victims are equally democratic with all kinds of people suffering gruesome death.

The reality of violent crime in Britain is much less exotic. In 2007/08 men were twice as likely to be victims of crime as women, with the risk highest for men aged 16-24, declining slowly with age.

Midsomer consists largely of respectable upperclass English people plotting horrible crimes on one another from their beautiful country homes. In reality unemployed people are about three times more likely to suffer violence than employed, and people living in detached houses are half as likely to be victimised than those in flats. Perpetrators of violent crime were suspected of being under the influence of alcohol in nearly half of all attacks.

A viewer obsessively watching Midsomer Murders would come away as terrified by rich, old, cold-hearted women as by poor, impulsive teenage boys. But by 2008/09 homicide suspects were overwhelmingly (93%) male and the most common circumstance of homicide was 'Quarrel, revenge or loss of temper', followed by 'In furtherance of theft or gain'.

Finally, from 2004-09 the two regions with the highest homicide rates in England and Wales were London City (20.6 per 1 million inhabitants) and the Welsh county of Gwent (23.1/million). Midsomer is a fictional county, but much filming is done around the police area of Thames Valley (5.9/million).

Of course Midsomer's emphasis on smouldering tensions among the rich - horny housewives with murderous agendas, repressed husbands with filthy hidden fetishes - is understandable. The reality of crime is grim and pathetic: miserable, poor, drunken young men battering each other to death outside decrepit flats.

So sadly real murderers aren't middle-aged, kinky and repressed rich folk living in massive country mansions or quaint cottages in Oxfordshire. Next time you see a posh-looking middle-aged blonde, don't flinch! The hoodied teenager with a Stanley knife behind her is the more likely killer. Which is... a whole lot less interesting I guess?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Dumb right-wingers giving the right a bad name

When I was in college I was surrounded by left-leaning people, students and professors, and our discussions of world events were informed by a popular, broadly left-wing perspective.

This was in the early 2000s, with George W Bush in the US and the American military in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2003 I joined my friends and tens of thousands of others in marching through Dublin against the invasion of Iraq. I didn't know a single person who was in favour of it and we were pretty confident that we understood what was going on, buying into simplistic talk of Iraq's invasion being an imperialist oil-grab.

To us being left-wing seemed natural and obvious. We cared about poor people and the left promised to end poverty with wealth redistribution. We were peaceful and the radical left were the most vociferous campaigners against the most famous wars - Afghanistan and Iraq - at the time. We opposed sexual inequality and homophobia.

By contrast the right seemed clueless and bigoted. Ireland lacked a strong left/right division so debates tended to revolve around British or American examples. Right-wing Americans - led by the ineloquent Bush - seemed to be backward in every possible sense: bloodthirsty, Creationist, homophobic, sexist, racist, and determined to serve the wealthy corporations above ordinary citizens. To call someone's beliefs 'right wing' was to insult them.

I had some doubts in college, bothered by the left-wing consensus of a place that complained loudly about a supposed right-wing consensus in media, and wondering sometimes if I was missing something. Generally, though, I bought into the centre-left ideas of my peers, and I wasn't seriously exposed to right wing alternatives until after I graduated.

An important step was meeting libertarians online. These people agreed with left-liberals on most social issues: calling for the legalisation of illicit drugs, sexual freedom, secularism and peace. Some libertarians were almost paranoid about war, denouncing conscription as slavery and attacking the US as an 'empire'. Their solution was capitalism, a much freer market in which individuals would compete with one another without states intervening. They opposed the bailouts of huge companies as much as the welfare for the poor.

One libertarian argued that left-wingers boasted about being 'liberal' - favouring drug decriminalisation and religious and social liberties - while simultaneously calling for higher taxes and stricter regulations in business. That is: less economic liberty. Meanwhile the right boasted about economic freedom, while demanding tighter drug controls, sealed borders, prohibitions on gay marriage and so on. Only the libertarians, he argued, called for true individual freedom. In college I had the impression that the left wanted to steal from the rich to aid the poor while the right wanted to steal from the poor to aid the rich. The libertarian idea of not stealing (taxing) at all had been mostly unconsidered.

As well as libertarianism I found intelligent conservatism, informed not by kneejerk bigotry but by an appreciation of humanity's incapability to predict consequences of social change. I came across realist foreign policy debates that side-stepped the tone of moral outrage I found with both far-left and far-right discussions. I found calm American conservatives who opposed war in Iraq only because it was not in America's own interest. Another well-travelled online conservative was able to challenge left-wing ideas about colonialism by pointing to the divergence between former colonies after independence: Singapore and Hong Kong boomed, Malaysia grew steadily, Zimbabwe collapsed.

Then I discovered a few critical books that further challenged my views. Freakonomics by Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner showed how well-intended policies could result in negative side-effects by creating harmful incentives. For example, to boost blood donations one authority decided to offer a small payment for each donation. Instead of increasing, donations decreased. The Freakonomics team suggested that the payment altered public perceptions of blood donation, changing it from a charitable practice that decent people choose to do, to an act of desperation that pathetically poor people do for money.

Freakonomics showed that positive intentions were not enough. That left-wingers were claiming to help the poor did not mean that they were successful at it.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Black Swan continued in this vein, emphasising further our inability to understand or control the world. Taleb showed that critical world events went unpredicted until they happened - like World War I or the September 11 attacks - yet afterwards journalists and historians tried to make them appear inevitable. Taleb emphasised the cognitive biases which make humans struggle to see reality clearly.

These books showed that the good intentions of socialists could backfire spectacularly. I already knew this was true for the extremes of communism as Utopian dreamers created societies that collapsed into famine and oppression. Now I was reading about the unintended consequences of policies on a smaller scale.

Of course this right-wing concern with unintended consequences applied just as well to foreign policy. How surprised I was to find that the most determined and rational anti-war argument would come from passionate capitalists like economist Byran Calpan, and that their pacifism would be perfectly consistent with their capitalist libertarianism. Calpan's argument is simply that the costs of war are immediate and certain, while the benefits are vague and uncertain:
Pacifism, similarly, is the radical notion that before you kill innocent people, you should be reasonably sure that your action will have very good consequences.
Then there was Thomas Friedman's Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention:
No two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain, like Dell’s, will ever fight a war against each other as long as they are both part of the same global supply chain
Friedman believed that global capitalism made war unprofitable and increasingly unlikely. Right or wrong, here were capitalists and conservatives who found intellectual oppositions to war that often sounded more rational than the emotive slogans - "No Blood For Oil" - of the more populist left.

I also found right-wing libertarians more internationalist than any I'd seen on the left, calling for completely open borders to immigration. I even found anarcho-capitalists calling for the collapse of borders completely so that we could all live in a single global capitalist market.

These examples stood in start contrast with what Paul Pillar calls 'the airhead wing of the Republican Party, as represented by Sarah Palin'. Yet it was the airheads that we were most exposed to. There were bizarre conspiracy theorist radicals like Glenn Beck, trying to terrify Americans into believing that: 'The radicals are at the top.' There were bloodthirsty religious bigots like Ann Coulter, calling for holy war and mass-murder of Muslims. There was the lumbering rule of George W Bush, an administration that left the US in two wars and almost bankrupt. Bush and Sarah Palin were candidates for the 'ordinary man': dumbed-down.

Here is British commentator Charlie Brooker's amusing (and not balanced) take on the radicals of American media:
Terrified and enraged, these right-wingers promote a hilariously distorted view of reality. What terrible representatives of right-wing perspectives they are. These ignorant right-wing fearmongers are the reason the right takes so much criticism. They blame 'liberal media', and they do tend to get a hard time from media commentators, but they attract contempt and amusement with their own absurd behaviour. I understand left-wingers who view the right with contempt when their exposure to it is mainly through foaming-at-the-mouth xenophobes.

I'm not sure why this brand of foolish radical right is so prevalent when intelligent and tolerant right-wingers are a-plenty. The US will have its next presidential election in 2012. Are the Republicans going to pick another dumbed-down candidate like Sarah Palin or George Bush? If so I expect further polarisation, with centre-left moderates understandably dismissive and centrists forced to pick a side or abandon politics completely. Which would be a shame.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Puzzled: why do poor improve and rich decline?

Here are World Bank figures for Gross National Income per capita from 2006-2009, looking at the richest countries in the world. I have circled those countries which have experienced declines in GNI at any point over the four-year period:
And here is the same thing for the very poorest countries:

65% of the richer countries experienced declines while only 10% of the poorer countries experienced decline.

I struggle to understand these figures. Does this mean that the poorest countries have economic advantages over the rich? Did their poverty mean that they avoided the speculative bubbles that troubled the rich states? Or is their growth really so humble that it makes little difference to their poverty? Any thoughts? I'd love to know why the poorest countries in the world seem to have experienced economic growth while the rich have run aground.

Anti-Religious Illiberalism of Revolutionary France

I wrote a few days ago that illiberalism was not an inevitable part of religion, nor was liberalism an inevitable part of secularism. By coincidence I just read a section from Norman Davies's Europe: A History that bears this out quite well.

Davies describes the French Revolution, when early constitutional reformers were replaced by waves of ever more radical revolutionaries. Within a few years the radicals were tearing apart Catholicism in France. A new calendar was developed without Sundays, priests and bishops were forced to swear allegiance to an anti-clerical constitution, Church property was nationalised and religious orders destroyed. Disobedient priests were executed or deported, and thousands of them fled France.

In some parts of France, religious peasants became ever more upset with the anti-religious turn of the new government. Gangs of 'urban republicans' blundered into rural areas to loot churches, while the state enacted conscription laws which forced Catholic peasants 'to die for an atheist Republic which they had never wanted in the first place'. A counter-revolution emerged in the Vendée to the west of France armed with 'scythes, pitchforks, and fowling-pieces'. The government's response was genocidal. A French general reported to the government in 1793:

The Vendée is no more... I have buried it in the woods and marshes of Savenay... According to your orders, I have trampled their children beneath our horses' feet; I have massacred their women, so they will no longer give birth to brigands. I do not have a single prisoner to reproach me. I have exterminated them all. The roads are sown with corpses. At Savenay, brigands are arriving all the time claiming to surrender, and we are shooting them non-stop... Mercy is not a revolutionary sentiment.

The French had difficulty in killing prisoners fast enough, so they jammed them onto a fleet of ships, which they sank at night, refloating them for the next cargo of doomed people the next day.

So one of the first staunchly secular governments in modern history was more barbaric and brutal than the religious state it replaced. This suggests again that a defence of liberalism is more important than an assault on religion.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

American pop music from Islamic Africa?

1) European-American settlers brought millions of African slaves to America. Some were likely Muslim; Alex Haley's influential Roots, tracing his ancestry back to The Gambia, depicts his enslaved ancestors as literate Muslims.

2) These Africans took their traditional cultures with them to the US, including African musical traits like call and response:
spontaneous verbal and non-verbal interaction between speaker and listener in which all of the statements (‘calls’) are punctuated by expressions (‘responses’) from the listener.
3) Black Americans adopted European instruments like piano, banjo and guitar, and distinctly African-American forms of music emerged from the mix.

4) Some whites were outraged and disgusted by the popularity of black jazz music. The president of the General Federation of Women's Clubs identified jazz as a terrifyingly foreign force:
Jazz was originally the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarians to the vilest deeds. The weird chant, accompanied by the syncopated rhythm of the voodoo invokers, has also been invoked by other barbaric people to stimulate brutality and sensuality.... its influence is wholly bad.
5) Despite, or because of, the shock that black American music invoked in conservatives, it spread and spread. Rock 'n Roll became its most important export, with white interpreters like Elvis Presley introducing African-American music to international audiences. Within a few decades rock music, with its roots in black blues, was dominant in the US and much of Europe.

By the 1980s another wave of black American music was emerging in hip hop, and there were quickly rapping imitators all over the world. Italians were rapping against the Mafia. Inuits were rapping about the domination of the Danish language in Greenland. Aboriginal Australian kids were rapping about swimming and fishing in the local river ('Jump off the bridge and I'll play the didge/And when I catch a fish, I put it in the fridge').

African folk call and response had come full circle and conquered the world.
6) Of course the spread of apparently American culture has provoked irritation and outrage among foreign nationalists and conservatives. Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini derided Western music:
Music dulls the mind, because it involves pleasures and ecstasy, similar to drugs. Your music I mean. Usually your music has not exalted the spirit, it puts it to sleep. And it destructs our youth who become poisoned by it, and then they no longer care about their country.
In Pakistan an official with the Islamist party Jamaat-i-Islami had similar views in 1995:
Michael Jackson and Madonna are the torchbearers of society, their cultural and social values... that are destroying humanity. They are ruining the lives of thousands of Muslims and leading them to destruction, away from their religion, ethics and morality.
7) Considering this Islamist contempt for "American" music, I'm captivated by the possibility that American popular music has its roots among African Muslims! How appropriate for cranky Islamists to be denouncing their own cultural heritage.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Scoring political points with women

Years ago I noticed that some young men in online debates denounced foreign cultures for the treatment of women in those cultures. Western men told horror stories about Muslim women being forced to wear 'mobile tent prisons' - burqas - and being enslaved by abusive and elderly husbands. Pakistani Muslims attacked Indian troops for 'torturing innocent & unarmed Muslims in Kashmir, raping Muslims women and killing and burning them', and insulted the sexual liberalism of the West. Indians reminded Pakistanis of violence during Bangladesh's war for freedom and of Pakistan's 'raping close to a 400000 Bengali Muslim and Hindu women'.

I wondered then if these men cared less about the well being of the women they were so furiously defending than simply scoring points against their foreign rivals.

I'm wondering the same thing now as stories and allegations are leaking out of Libya about mass-rape by Gaddafi's forces. Right now, here are the most read stories on BBC:

The Pakistani story deals with a case in which men forced a woman to parade naked through a village because her son was alleged to have committed adultery.

This is not to say that these stories are fantasy. But I wonder at the sudden excitement over alleged rape of Libyan women when a coalition are trying to justify their intervention there to war-weary populations.

Steady as you go, Somalia

A bizarre graph from the World Bank, supposedly showing Somalia's infant mortality rate from 1986 to 2009:

Perfectly straight! I guess this is the World Bank's way of saying they don't really know what infant mortality rate Somalia has, perhaps because it is impossible to determine in Somalia's decentralised anarchy. I have posted a question with Google Public Data Explorer, who publish the World Bank data, and I will add the reply here if it is useful.

Friday, June 10, 2011

For liberty, not against religion

Religions are often blamed for oppressive tendencies and the censorship of original ideas as heresy. The popular narrative of European history is that the Roman Church was restrictive in medieval times, slowing the pace of technological and philosophical development until Reformation and Renaissance loosened its grip. As the Church split and weakened, Europeans could finally question religious dogma and the modern era of liberalism began.

The sense here is that liberalism was a default value to which Europeans would revert once Christianity was crippled. I wonder, though, if this is anachronistic: looking at historical events with modern eyes.

Throughout history governments and usurpers sought to imprint upon their societies ideologies which reinforced their power:

In primitive groups the sense of "groupness" comes "mechanically" (instinctively) from ties of blood and kinship. In State level societies, however, people are very heterogenous, that is, they are not unified on kinship, cultural or economic grounds. The ruling class is professional and outside the obligations of kinship and has great coercive powers. Loyalty to such a system must be produced by a legitimating ideology (e.g. divine right of Kings, special relationship to Gods etc).... While coercion may sustain order, it is costly and, in the final analysis, ineffective. Ideology that establishes "moral validity is a less costly and more effective approach".

For example some historians argue that ancient Mayan elites took their legitimacy to rule from their religious duty to intercede with the gods. The apparent failure of this elite to intercede properly to secure favourable weather and ward off disease could have incited peasant riots, which eventually ripped the civilisation to pieces.

In Japan emperors claimed to be direct descendents of the sun goddess, starting with the legendary Emperor Jimmu:

And later Japanese shoguns claimed legitimacy by retaining these emperors as symbolic leaders, even while robbing them of any real political power.

Rulers of Christian kingdoms sought to likewise place themselves between God and the people. The Byzantine Empire absorbed the Orthodox Church completely, uniting church and state into a single autocracy. Byzantine artists depicted emperors being crowned by Christ himself, while lavish processions and parades took place on Christian feast days. From Norman Davies's Europe: A History:

Imperial acclamations were accompanied by the chanting of Biblical texts and political slogans.... The Imperial Profectio or 'departure', especially for battle, was marked by the distribution of alms, by the veneration of the Standard of the True Cross, and by the consecration of the army and the fleet.

In the west, Catholic Crusaders were given Papal blessings to fight Muslims in Spain and the Middle East, Pagans in Lithuania and Christian Cathar 'heretics' in France, while internal inquisitions and witch-burnings kept dissidence down. Kings and queens tried to use Christianity to legitimise their rule: the Christian cross crept onto flags in Switzerland, Britain, Norway and Sweden.

But these stamps of Christian authority used by medieval leaders were mixed with pre-Christian or secular symbolism. The Russians named their kings 'czar', the Germans 'kaiser' - both deriving from the Roman Caesar. Rome's imperial eagle would make it to flags around Europe from Albania to Austria. The Orthodox Emperors of Byzantium were raised on a shield during coronation, a tradition started by the Roman Emperor Julian, who copied not from Christ but from Germanic Pagans.

Likewise conflicts between fellow Christians included attempts to demolish rival cultures and political - as opposed to religious - systems. In Ireland the Brehon legal system had been functioning for well over a thousand years, through Paganism and Christianity, before the English colonial power finally replaced it. Conquerers were as quick to attack the languages and traditions of their victims as their religions.

So blaming all of this repression on religion seems unfair. We are looking at a period where almost everyone would have been religious, and all natural phenomena were understood in religious terms. Religion and political ideology were indivisible. If religions were the only ideologies, and powers were always striving to stamp convenient ideologies onto populations, then religious repression was inevitable. This conflict and oppression was not necessarily caused by religion, it was caused by the illiberal norms of the day. Rulers didn't want their people to be free, they wanted them to be obedient.

In the 20th century secular communist and fascist governments did the same thing, brutally supressing free speech and seeking to control society by diverting all creative energy into the promotion of political ideology.Chinese artists were forced to paint stirring scenes of industrious peasants, Soviet composers had to write pounding military beats to encourage the revolutionary spirit.

That is: the illiberal spirit often blamed on religion thrived in anti-religious societies too.

Perhaps the important thing here is really the development of liberalism, not the decline of religion. Supposing religion had collapsed in medieval times and been replaced by atheism. Would medieval kings and queens have tolerated radical political and philosophical dissent? I have difficulty imagining it. Without the consensus of modern liberalism, some other absolutist ideology would have taken the place of Christianity.

The founders of European liberalism were, after all, religious. John Locke, sometimes called the Father of Liberalism, was a devoted Christian. In The Reasonableness of Christianity, as Delivered in the Scriptures Locke wrote:

The evidence of our Saviour's mission from heaven is so great, in the multitude of miracles he did before all sorts of people, that what he delivered cannot but be received as the oracles of God.... the works of nature, in every part of them, sufficiently evidence a deity.

If one of the great liberal thinkers could also be a great religious believer, attacks by modern liberals on religion seem misguided. Religion can be liberal. Atheist ideologies can be illiberal. Do not fight against religion, so, fight for liberty.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Good, bruising, childhood games

Away from politics and economics for a minute. Today I started to remember the old games we used to play as children, mad school games we inherited from older siblings or improvised as improvements on those we already knew. I wonder how local these games were. Did we play the same thing as children all around the world? Let's look at a few.

Combining brute force with agility. Two people touch fists. One person begins by trying to whack his opponent's fist as hard as possible with a downward blow. The opponent tries to avoid this blow by flinching backwards.

However the attacker can also just fake his attack by twitching his fist and not following through. If the defender flinches at this non-attack, the attacker is given one free blow, to which the defender was not allowed to flinch. Painful knuckles ensue!

Last Man Back Football
In school nobody wanted to be goalkeeper, with no chance of glory and goal-scoring. One solution was the 'last man back' rule, which simply meant that whatever team-member was closest to the goal had the right to touch the ball with his hands. A moment later he could rush back out into the game and become a striker! We totally neglected the off-side rule in this too, playing football in a trapezoidal field that grew into a knee-deep meadow in summer. One of the goals was made up of two rocks on the ground, and the wire fence running around it had multiple holes through which we wriggled whenever the ball was shot over.

Gun Fights
Supremely simple. Children spread out around the garden or schoolyard. If they spot an opponent they shout 'BANG, you're dead!' I think the 'dead' child has to count to 30 before returning to the game. In reality the dead child often vigorously denies that the killer had seen him at all, in which case the game turns into a brief and bitter argument.

Sometimes we used toy guns for this, otherwise just fingers pointed in a gun shape. My brother and I used to make 'guns' from pieces of wood nailed together; the trigger was just a nail crudely hammered into the base - bigger guns included sights made of staple nails. Pine cones were hand grenades. I invented a 'smoke gun' once, consisting of a 2 litre plastic bottle half-filled with sand. By punching the side of the bottle, a puff of dusty 'smoke' would emerge: all critical to the happy fantasy violence of gun fights.

Another one that tended to collapse into anarchy. Usually the boys flee from the girls. If a girl 'catches' a boy by grabbing him, she brings him to the 'jail' (in my school this was the gap between two trees). The other boys try to free their captive friend by rushing into the jail and slapping his hand. The main problem in my time was that boys tended to cheat, wriggling out of the girls' grip once caught. We ruined many a lunch break for our teachers with complaints and counter-complaints about cheating with this game!

Our 'jail' was on earthy ground that turned into a filthy soup of mud in winter. One of my happiest childhood memories is of a classmate skidding in that and emerging with a white grin behind a full-body mask of muck.

A genuinely brilliant game, invented by my brother and I. We had a narrow corridor in our house with a bedroom door at one end and a radiator at the other. Sitting at either end (in Japanese seiza, as it happens), we would whack a small rubber ball as hard and fast as possible so as to score goals against the door or radiator. Speed and strength were important, but there were other skills, like knowing how to cup one's hand properly to 'scoop' the ball over our opponents. Carpet burns were a regular affliction: destruction of household ornaments was another.

I credit Scoop for my unusual ability to sit in seiza for long periods. Noticing this at a staff party in Japan, one of my Japanese colleagues said I should have been a Buddhist monk. Not so: I should have gone pro with Scoop.

A primitive one. Two people intertwine their fingers and seek to push their opponent's hand downwards so that his or her fingers are bent painfully backwards. The loser shouts 'MERCY!' when this pain becomes too much to bear!

First One Caught
An upgrade to the simple Tip game, where one child is 'on' and has to tip another child to make them 'on'. In First One Caught, the second child joins the first in hunting the others. Every captured child joined the 'on' team, in a kind of viral explosion. This was a sneaky game because you do not know if a friend is on or not. Trust nobody! Once everyone is captured, the second child (the 'first one caught') is 'on' and it starts again.

Tip With the Ball
As it sounds. One person is 'on' and has a football. He or she tries to strike other children with the ball. Whoever it hits is then 'on'.

Not really a game at all, this was just a mad fantasy developed by one of my classmates and I when we were four or five years old. Inspired by a tiny Ladybird book about deserts, we imagined cacti that not only produced water, but also commercial soft drinks like 7UP and Coca Cola. Reading that deserts had periodic rainstorms which rejuvinated the land every few years, we decided that they also had snow storms: I can remember the two of us pretending to ski through imaginary desert snow in our schoolyard!

Dead Arms
Two competitors take turns to punch each other as hard as possible on the upper arm. I don't remember how this was won, I guess the competitor who begged to stop first lost!

So, many of our beloved games were wild and rough. Knees were skinned. Noses bloodied. Bruises gained and shown off.

I hear sometimes of modern parents so terrified that their children might be hurt that they drastically limit their freedom to explore and experiment. When I was four years old our school finished at 2pm, while the older children finished at 3pm. This meant that I and a few of my classmates had a free hour to hang about the school with no supervision. Usually our teacher remained inside while we raced about the schoolyard, bumping into each other and skidding on sand and having fun. I've heard that this is no longer possible in most schools because paranoid parents demand constant supervision for their kids.

What a shame! I hope this generation of children will still find space to get the bruises, burns and cuts we earned before them.

How about you readers, did you play these kinds of games as a child? Did you invent games? Were my experiences universal or local? Thanks!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Left and Right: Venezuela versus Chile

In my last post I mentioned Chile's rapid rise in GDP per capita since 1969, compared with Venezuela's decline. Some critics of free market capitalism argue that it tends to shift wealth towards a rich minority, so that the poorer masses benefit little from growth. Apparent increases in average income could be caused by massive increases of income among the superrich and stagnation among the rest.

So I thought I would double-check Chile's numbers with statistics that told us more about the general health of the population. Below is a World Bank graph showing infant mortality in Venezuela and Chile since 1969:

This is quite difficult to interpret. Chile's infant mortality declined very quickly between 1970 and 1975 (the only points for which the World Bank has data), yet this time period covers both the socialist government of Salvador Allende and the right-wing dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. It continued to fall under Pinochet and Chile's infant mortality sank beneath that of Venezuela in the late 1970s.

Life expectancy shows a similar trend, with Chile overtaking Venezuela also during the late 1970s. Between 1970 and 1990, Venezuela added only 6.1 years, Chile added 11.6 years.

Not very conclusive. At least we can see that Chile's shift to the right and its economic growth did not inhibit improvements in health, even if it did not necessarily cause them.

So let's compare Chile and Venezuela for a few other indicators, taken from the UN's Human Development Report:

Adult literacy rate
Chile: 96.9%
Venezuela: 95.2%

Public expenditure on health as a percentage of GDP
Chile: 3.7%
Venezuela: 2.7%

Gender Inequality Index
Chile: 0.537 (where 0 is no inequality)
Venezuela: 0.572

Homicide rate per 100,000
Chile: 8.1
Venezuela: 52

Human Development Index
Chile: 0.783 (where 1 is perfect and 0 is terrible)
Venezuela: 0.696

Percentage of population with internet access
Chile: 32.5%
Venezuela: 25.7%

Maternal mortality per 100,000 live births
Chile: 26
Venezuela: 68

Gini Coefficient (income inequality)
Chile: 52 (where 1 is absolute inequality and 0 is absolute equality)
Venezuela: 43.4

We see that Chile has greater income inequality than Venezuela, but that it also performs better for multiple indicators of wellbeing. So it seems fairly reasonable to guess that Chile's economic growth has indeed benefitted the population as a whole. Despite having a massive headstart in wealth, Venezuelans today experience lower standards of living than citizens of relatively free-market Chile.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Economic growth trends since 1969

Fiddling about with the Economic Research Service's data from 1969 to 2010 I see a few more fascinating trends.

Ireland's economic boom of the 1990s, for example, really was remarkable. Here is Ireland's real GDP per capita (in billions of 2005 US dollars) pitted against UK, Denmark, Sweden, USA, France and Germany:

By far the most spectacular event here is the rise of Ireland, from easily the poorest to the second richest, just below Denmark. The US and Sweden grew fairly steadily. UK grew a little more slowly. But the two old economic powers of France and Germany really decellarated: overtaken by both Ireland and UK.

Ireland's rise is followed by far the steepest fall during the economic crisis but by 2010 it was still well ahead of the rest, bar Denmark. It will be interesting to see how significant Germany's recent boom will be over the next few years.

This is another interesting one, comparative economic growth in Latin America.

The two big trends here are the explosive rise of Chile and the decline of Venezuela. Chile's economy has grown almost threefold: 193%. Venezuela's wealth per capita shrank by nearly 7%.

The story of South America seems to be one of divergence, with countries like Chile and Uruguay soaring ahead of Bolivia and Guyana. These latter two started at the same point as Paraguay, which rushed ahead in the late 1970s and retains a mild lead.

Other countries showing improvements are Colombia (131%), Argentina (38%), Peru (50%) and Brazil (141%).

So what caused Venezuela's unique decline? The rot kicked in around 1976-77, the same year Venezuela's government nationalised its oil industry. Venezuela is one of the world's great oil exporters - by 2009 oil made up around 80% of Venezuela's export revenue - and when oil prices crashed in the 1980s they took Venezuela with them. Soaring oil prices before this provoked massive government expenditure:

The government spent more money (in absolute terms) from 1974 to 1979 than in its entire independent history dating back to 1830. Increased public outlays manifested themselves most prominently in the expansion of the bureaucracy. During the 1970s, the government established hundreds of new state-owned enterprises and decentralized agencies as the public sector assumed the role of primary engine of economic growth.... In 1975 the government nationalized the steel industry; nationalization of the oil industry followed in 1976.

A very human series of errors: euphoric growth prompting a mad spending spree that ended up with massive public debt. Hugo Chavez came into power in 1999 and GDP per capita continued falling rapidly until 2004, since when it has rebounded considerably. Chavez's rule has been controversial but the major declines happened before he came to power.

Chile is interesting too, coming from the opposite direction. Dictator Augusto Pinochet ruled until 1990, guiding the country to long, sustained growth. Today Chile has the 11th highest economic freedom in the world, according to the Heritage Foundation, by far the highest economic freedom of Latin America. (Venezuela comes fifth lowest.) It's tempting to interpret this as evidence that Chile's economic liberty outperformed Venezuela's socialism - though this may be too simplistic.

Another graph from Latin America now, this one pitting Dominican Republic against Haiti. The two nations share the island of Hispaniola, and they begin with relatively similar levels of wealth:

Extraordinary divergence here. Dominican Republic's economy has exploded, Haiti has spiralled down and down. (Dominican Republic, incidentally, has an economic freedom ranking of 90th, to Haiti's restricted 133rd.) Jared Diamond explores this divergence in Collapse, pointing both to geographical factors - like the fact that eastern Dominican Republic gets more rain than western Haiti - and political factors. The French colonial power filled western Haiti with slaves, while the Spainish colonial power neglected the east:

As a result, Haiti had a population seven times higher than its neighbor during colonial times — and it still has a somewhat larger population today, about ten million versus 8.8 million.

But Haiti’s area is only slightly more than half of that of the Dominican Republic. As a result, Haiti, with a larger population and smaller area, has double the Republic’s population density.

The combination of that higher population density and lower rainfall was the main factor behind the more rapid deforestation and loss of soil fertility on the Haitian side.

In addition, all of those French ships that brought slaves to Haiti returned to Europe with cargos of Haitian timber, so that Haiti’s lowlands and mid- mountain slopes had been largely stripped of timber by the mid-19th century.

Later economic and environmental policy differences between the dictators of either nation exacerbated these differences. Dominican Republic remains poor, but it is rising. Haiti is in real trouble.

Finally let's look at China's rise in the Far East. Below I compare China with Indonesia and Philippines. From a position of abject poverty in the 1960s, China bounds past its neighbours in the late 1990s. Indonesia, in turn, overtakes Philippines, slowing only briefly during the economic crash of the late 1990s. Here China's growth seems worthy of the praise and attention it has received.

Yet if we compare it with other neighbours we get another picture. Here is China versus Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong:

The old Asian economic heavyweights remain far out of reach. China may have the second biggest economy in the world but this is shared across a gargantuan population. The average Chinese individual is still far poorer than individuals in their smaller neighbours.

Old Europe in terminal decline? Nah.

Just spotted this alarming image from the blog of Dr. Mark J. Perry, professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan, a graph comparing large economic regions by their share of world GDP.

In 1969, the EU15 had by far the biggest share, about 36% of the world's total, with the US in second place at about 28%.

Over the next forty years the world economy changes dramatically. The US stays about stable, maintaining a share of around 26% of the world's total economy. Asia and Oceania soars from 15% to 26% and the EU15 plunges from 36% to 26%.

The implication is that the US is holding its own, East Asia has boomed, and the EU15 are dwindling down to irrelevance.

Yet I knew something was wrong with this graph. Despite periodic right-wing claims of European decline, standards of living have still risen and most European economies have continued growing. Wondering why this graph looked so dramatic, I realised that 'share of GDP' tells us nothing about standards of living because an economy can grow simply by increasing its population. Mass-immigration or natural population growth would bloat a country's GDP without necessarily increasing the GDP per capita.

In this case the EU15 countries have experienced relatively lower fertility rates so their natural population growth is low or negative, and relatively lower immigration rates compared with the US. I turned back to the data, taken from the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, this time looking at GDP per capita.

United States GDP per capita
1969: $21,021
2010: $42,517
Percentage Growth 1969-2010: 102%

EU15 GDP per capita
1969: $15,383
2010: $32, 531
Percentage Growth 1969-2010: 111%

Far from lagging behind, the average citizen of the EU15 would have experienced faster income growth than their American equivalent. This is a little misleading because higher percentage growth from a lower starting point can produce lower actual growth compared with low percentage growth from a high starting point. In fact the gap between the EU15 and the US increased slightly. Nonetheless, EU15 growth has been sustained and faster than American growth.

(By comparison, Asia and Oceania experienced a whopping 216% growth per capita. Impressive, but this leaves them with a GDP per capita of only $3,534. Had they not also experienced massive population growth their share of global GDP would be pathetic.)

So is the earlier measure - share of global GDP - useless? Not quite. In military terms a larger economy supports a larger military. Rising populations offer a population resource for the army: more soldiers. So various countries in Asia have probably experienced economic conditions that give them greater military and diplomatic punching power.

But the average individual is still a hell of a lot better off in Denmark (GDP per capita, 2010: $48,193) than China (GDP per capita, 2010: $2,802).

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Oscar Wilde's outdated socialism

In 1891 Oscar Wilde wrote the bizarre essay The Soul of Man under Socialism, calling for the establishment of a socialist anarchy. Wilde was an unusual socialist because he lacked any instinct for collectivism, instead seeing in socialism the perfect society for individualistic development. He thought his contemporaries were wasting time trying to help the miserable poor with charity:

They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation.... They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

This, he argued, was futile, even harmful. Instead of aiding those rendered poor by 'the institution of private property', one should simply banish that institution. Socialism would end poverty and great individuals could stop worrying about the poor people in their midst. Yet Wilde feared authoritarian socialism as much as authoritarian conservatism:

For while under the present system a very large number of people can lead lives of a certain amount of freedom and expression and happiness, under an industrial-barrack system, or a system of economic tyranny, nobody would be able to have any such freedom at all. It is to be regretted that a portion of our community should be practically in slavery, but to propose to solve the problem by enslaving the entire community is childish.

Wilde believed that crushing poverty was excluding most people from developing their individual genius. Under his property-free Utopia, individuals would no longer bother accumulating wealth and property, and would be free to simply live, 'to be'. This romantic ideology even interprets Jesus as an advocate of individualism, advising his disciples to give up their property not in God's name but because it 'hinders Individualism at every step'. Wilde describes the ideal Christian:

He may be a great poet, or a great man of science; or a young student at a University, or one who watches sheep upon a moor; or a maker of dramas, like Shakespeare, or a thinker about God, like Spinoza; or a child who plays in a garden, or a fisherman who throws his net into the sea. It does not matter what he is, as long as he realises the perfection of the soul that is within him.

Wilde wanted to end government, arguing bizarrely that the more severely criminals were punished by the justice system, the more crime there was. 'When there is no punishment at all, crime will either cease to exist,' he wrote, 'or, if it occurs, will be treated by physicians as a very distressing form of dementia, to be cured by care and kindness'. With no private ownership of property, crime would vanish because criminals are simply ordinary people who don't have enough to eat.

We get an amusing glimpse of Wilde's idea of the future in his passage about public ownership of machinery:

Machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious or distressing. At present machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man.

Today the machinery of communications technology do 'run messages', but perhaps far more efficiently and speedily than Wilde had imagined - and we've moved a bit beyond steamers!

In all this socialist rhetoric Wilde is dismissive of the poor classes he seeks to liberate. They are ignorant amd unexceptional, incapable of self-expression and terrified of those great individuals who resist conformity. The public in general demand bland and obvious art. They are all poisoned by their acceptance of authority.

The fact is, that the public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing.

Wilde's essay is long and rambling, but interesting for a few key points. First he assumes offhand that socialim will solve poverty and that this easy fix will allow all humans to develop and express their innate excellence.

Second, his descriptions of Victorian poverty seem weirdly out of date. This is how he imagined his Utopia:

If a frost comes we shall not have a hundred thousand men out of work, tramping about the streets in a state of disgusting misery, or whining to their neighbours for alms, or crowding round the doors of loathsome shelters to try and secure a hunch of bread and a night’s unclean lodging.

Well that sounds like what we have today. Ancient religions dreamed of milk and honey, both of which can be bought cheaply in any local grocery store today. Victorian Wilde dreamed of a bad winter that doesn't cause mass-hunger, which we had in Britain and Ireland for the last two winters in a row. Crop failures in wealthy developed countries do not cause famines, because people have enough money to import food from abroad. When Wilde was writing, the average Briton could expect to make it to 44 years of age. Today that's more like 80.

Wilde complained that 'Man will kill himself by overwork in order to secure property', but the products of that overwork are today the technologies that keep us from the excesses of poverty he so loathed.

Perhaps this has important implications for modern debates. Oscar Wilde was a Utopianist, admitting that 'A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at', and he thought only radical social change could solve the social problems of the day. History proves him wrong. Since Wilde's time most developed countries did develop layers of social welfare so that the loss of a job does not lead to immediate starvation, but these changes have been gradual, not radical. These changes also happened under the same old flawed democracy that he derided as 'the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people'. Today's Utopian dreamers should take heed: evolution, not revolution, is the better path.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Revolution: 1848 to 2011

In February I compared the uprisings going on in Arab countries with the 1848 revolutions which shook much of Europe. In 1848 the revolutions had brief success but the mixtures of contradictory ideologies - ethnic nationalism, socialism, liberal capitalism - quickly divided and weakened them. Emperors and kings soon seized back most of the power ceded to the short-lived rebellion.

Since 1848 had largely failed, I wondered if the Arab uprisings, likewise drawn from loose alliances of contradictory ideologies - liberalism, nationalism, Islamism, sectarianism - might also collapse. After months of public optimism, events seem recently to have stagnated.

Paul Pillar writes in The National Interest:

One aspect of the 1848 events worth noting is that they resulted in inconsistent, and from the revolutionaries' viewpoint mostly disappointing, political change. A monarchy in France was overthrown in favor of the short-lived Second Republic , and peasant serfs in the Austrian Empire found some new freedoms, but other than that the yield was meager. Another aspect to note is that the uprisings, although significant enough in intensity and scope to warrant a major place in the history books, had pretty much run their course in the space of a year. And this was before the event-accelerating effects of social networks and other modern electronic media. Map the timeline of 2011 on that of 1848 and it is reasonable to ask whether we are getting close to halfway through this thing.

It would be foolhardy to declare that we are and that we have seen the peak of the Arab Spring, but it would be foolish not to admit the possibility that might be the case.

So have we reached the end? Or just the end of the beginning?

Ethnic divisions: Africa and elsewhere

Why is most of Africa so poor? One popular theory blames European colonial powers for dividing the continent into arbitrary states, paying no attention to the ethnic groups or tribes who lived there. Ancient ethnic enemies were forced into one state, tribes were carved in two by irrational borders. There followed decades of dreadful ethnic war.

The puzzling thing about this point is how rarely it is applied to developed countries. The presumption seems to be that African ethnic groups cannot live in harmony with one another within the borders of political states. Yet the same idea applied to developed countries is often derided as racist.

Supposedly Hutu and Tutsi cannot live in peace together in Rwanda, but both may settle happily into Parisian suburbs. Muslims and Christians cannot share Sudan, but they can share Bradford. I'm not sure why the difference in views here but it seems contradictory. Either ethnic groups can live together in peace and prosperity, or they cannot.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

War, Libya and the Blind Spot

In 2003 I marched with 90,000 protesters through Dublin against the imminent invasion of Iraq. I was still in university then, and taken with its centre-left simplifications about the upcoming war. We parroted the posters stuck on college walls by student socialist organisations, blaming the invasion on American neo-imperialism: No Blood for Oil! My opposition to the war was framed in left-wing and moralistic anti-war language.

Three years later Israel invaded Lebanon and once again I found myself erring on the side of peace. This time, though, my language was less moralistic, more pragmatic: after weeks of fighting I can remember remarking on an online discussion forum that both Israel and Hezbollah were still standing, implying that the violence had been in vain for both parties.

Recently I noticed something odd about my response to the Western intervention in Libya. Same as before, I was siding against intervention, against a military solution, yet my language had lost the moralistic tone of my college days. In these new discussions I never bothered to address the moral question at all, framing the debate entirely in strategic terms. That is, I was taking a sceptical line more common to libertarians and paleoconservatives than socialists, by questioning the humanistic justification for the war.

I asked questions often posed by realist conservatives. If Gaddafi continues to destroy the rebels, will intervention escalate? Will we see troops on Libyan soil? Could the rebels form another harmful authoritarian government? Will the arrival of old colonial powers like France and Italy play into the hands of Islamist propagandists, already calling this a Crusade? In online debates I described already overstretched European and American armied getting bogged down in Libya, a civil war escalating into a major conflict like Iraq.

This self-interested rhetoric, concerned more with the strategic wellbeing of Western powers than the protection of foreign civilians, was a radical change for me and a consequence of reading conservative perspectives on international politics. Yet the implication of my argument was the familiar old one: that war should be avoided.

With Libya, as with every single war I had lived through, I advocated peace, even if the consequences of that peace were potentially dreadful. That my justifications had altered while the implication of peace had not, suggested something troubling: that I was deluding myself in all of this, justifying an irrational attachment to peace.

That attachment, so stubborn in resisting compromise, probably comes from my childhood. Raised in a tolerant post-Vatican II Catholicism, where the Fifth Commandment was translated as ‘you shall not kill’, rather than the less equivocal ‘you shall not murder’, I had a strong sense of an absolute moral order which prohibited killing. Even as a child I was bothered by the mixed messages of adults who insisted simultaneously that we Christians turn the other cheek, while retaining armies to defend against foreign invasion.

For me a compromise between the absolute prohibition of killing I understood from religion with the pragmatic need for defensive violence may have been offered, ludicrously, by Saturday morning cartoons. The animated Batman threatened and battered criminals, but Batman never killed. Going back further I watched the A-Team spraying bullets from machine guns at easily-routed enemies who nonetheless always crawled, unharmed, from the wreckage of their vehicles. These shows retained the taboo on killing while embracing cartoonish non-fatal violence, perhaps influencing my own maturing grasp of morality by compromising the need to fight with the aversion to killing.

That was why, years later, I could argue against war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Libya without considering myself a naïve pacifist. Yet deep down I had simply ruled out killing as an option, so my arguments against war were simply excuses to justify that. An apparent development from naïve moralism to toughened scepticism actually disgusied a paralysis, a deeper stubborness against new ideas.

War and killing were my blind spots. We all have some of these, and it can be useful to introspect a little about it. What are the deeper dogmas you hide behind political justifications?