Friday, September 30, 2011

Ireland's employment rate: not terrible

Here is a Eurostat map showing EU and other European countries by unemployment rate in June 2011:
Ireland here has an unusually high unemployment rate, at 14.4%. The countries with the worst unemployment rates are:

Spain: 21%
Greece: 16.7%
Latvia: 16.2%
Lithuania: 15.6%
Ireland: 14.4%

The EU average is 9.5%. But there are other ways to measure participation in the workforce, because unemployment rate measures only those seeking work. That means that non-working students, for example, are not considered unemployed, even though they might have chosen study because they had failed to find a job. Likewise, large proportions of women in more traditional societies who work at home appear neither as unemployed nor employed.

So another way to measure labour participation is by looking at the employment rate for adults from 15-64. Below is the Eurostat map for employment rate in 2010:
In this case, Ireland is still below the EU average (64.2%), but not by very much. Where Ireland has the fifth highest unemployment rate, its employment rate is 15th lowest (where lower is worse).

Macedonia: 43.5%
Turkey: 46.3%
Croatia: 54%
Hungary: 55.4%
Malta: 56%
Italy: 56.9%
Lithuania: 57.8%
Spain: 58.6%
Slovakia: 58.8%
Romania: 58.8%
Latvia: 59.3%
Poland: 59.3%
Greece: 59.6%
Bulgaria: 59.7%
Ireland: 60%

So the ratio of workers to non-workers here may not seem as desperate as it initially appears.

I had noticed economist Stefan Karlsson using both employment and unemployment figures on his blog so I asked him for a comment. He adds this observation:
The reason is likely simple, Ireland has a higher labor force participation rate. Since the employment rate is a function of employment relative to population while the unemployment rate is a function of unemployed relative to the number of unemployed and employed and because non-employed who aren't actively seeking jobs aren't considered "unemployed", a higher participation rate can explain a higher level of both unemployment and employment.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pornonomics: the Economics of Porn

In 2010 the world's highest grossing film was Toy Story 3, which was made in the United States; a browse through the rest of the top grossing films shows massive American dominance of world cinema. There are various cultural and linguistic reasons for this. For example the very fact that so many of us foreigners have grown up watching American films may reinforce their advantage because of our familiarity with and fondness for American cultures. An American film may seem a safe bet, an Estonian film a risk.

But how about pornography? If much pornographic material is visual in images and video, and the emphasis is on immediate sexual content instead of narrative, might not non-American porn producers compete successfully against the Americans?

I presume technological costs could be kept relatively low anywhere. But labour costs might be lower in poorer developing countries than in high-income United States. So this got me thinking that perhaps there is an economic opportunity for pornography producers in low-income countries. Possible barriers could include:
- Poor internet access. World Bank statistics list countries by the percentage of internet users. In Bangladesh, for example, only 0.4% of the population are internet users, while 58.7% of Jamaicans are. So we might expect more pornography production from countries with reliable broadband.

- Cultural barriers. Sexually conservative countries might have high personal costs for actors, which could inhibit filming.

- Legal barriers.

- Racial preferences of consumers. Pornography consumers may prefer particular racial groups, excluding actors from some countries.
These aside, I see no real reason why non-Anglophone pornography producers in developing countries might not compete and even out-compete those in the wealthy countries. So will the California of tomorrow be somewhere in Africa or Latin America? (Is it already?)

A side point about Pornonomics relates to this blog, The Harvest. Blogspot gives me the option to track the statistics of blog-readers, and quite a few of them clearly arrived here on a quest for filth! Apparently 17 page-views came from people searching for 'teen sex porn' - probably ending up on my criticism of British TV show The Joy of Teen Sex. The second most popular post on the blog is this one questioning the idea that 'brutal rape porn' is necessarily sexist, while the post Just how kinky is Pakistan? (which concludes that it seems little kinkier than anywhere else, based on pornographic search terms that internet users were seeking via Google) was also popular.

So I'm guessing that simply writing blog posts with words like 'sex' and 'porn' and 'teen' will boost the number of people visiting. Must be very frustrated once they arrive here, though.

Open bigotry, hidden bigotry

Since various studies have shown that people face discrimination over unexpected things like height or attractiveness, as well as the more famous ones of race, sex and religion, I wondered why the latter are so much better known.

Then I thought that the latter were all openly discriminated against. Racists in the past defended their views with reference to confused Darwinian ideas. Sexists called on religious or crude scientific evidence for the political exclusion of women. Religious bigots denounced their sectarian rivals for heresy.

But discrimination against individuals based on height or attractiveness is probably subconscious: people may not even be aware of their own prejudices. Hence feminism and anti-racism are so prominent. The short, ugly people were never confronted with justifications for their poor treatment, they might never have realised they were victims of discrimination to start with.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Ireland bounces back to swift growth

I don't normally just repeat news stories but this one seems quite a happy one. Ireland's GDP and GNP growth results for Quarter 2 of 2011 have been released, and they are far better than had been expected.

GDP: 1.6%
GNP: 1.1%

In Quarter 1 there had been GDP growth but GNP decline, and some commentators had been gloomy about the implications. This time Ireland seems to have grown fairly well.

By comparison with other developed countries this rally is impressive. More results of GDP growth in Quarter 2:

Britain 0.2%
Eurozone 0.2%
Italy 0.3%
Spain 0.2%
Portugal -0.6%
United States 1%
Australia 1.2%
Canada -0.1%
Sweden 0.9%
Netherlands 1.6%
Japan -0.5%
South Korea 0.9%
Denmark 1%

So this is positive news for Ireland indeed. Another interesting point is that Ireland's construction sector might have finally stopped shrinking. Construction has shrank every quarter since Q1 2008, and for three consecutive quarters before that. This latest result shows a quarterly increase of 0.1%.

Quarter 3 has seen a struggling global economy, which might hit Ireland's crucial exports and push the country back into recession. But it is a huge relief to see Ireland actually out-growing its neighbours again. For a while someone else has to be the sick man of Europe.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Religion in Britain: poverty and crime

I noted earlier that various religious groups are disproportionately represented in Britain's prisons, with Buddhists, Muslims and those of no religion over-represented. Thinking about this later I realised that another group generally over-represented in prison are the poor.

This 2010 An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK by Britain's National Equality Panel gives us this graph comparing hourly pay by different ethno-religious groups. The number zero here is what white British Christian men get paid.
So Sikh men earn around the same as Christian men, while Sikh women earn around the same as Christian women. In the other figures we saw that the number of Sikhs in prison was absolutely proportional for the Sikh population of England and Wales, while Christians were under-represented.

Hindu men earn slightly less than Christian men, while Hindu women actually earn more than Christian women. In the other figures we saw that Hindus were under-represented in prison.

Jews in this study earn more than Christians, and Jews are under-represented in prison.

So far we're broadly seeing a trend: the richer religious groups are those with below average representation in prison. Likewise Muslims are over-represented in prison, and they earn less than the white Christians. After this the results are a little harder to follow. The National Equality Panel report gives no statistic for Buddhist income, though the 'Chinese no religion' group do earn less. A wider view of nonreligious people is also missing.

Another National Equality Panel document gives us this graph, showing employment status of each religious group:
This is a little less clear, but again Muslims and Buddhists have the highest levels of non-employment. Jews, Hindus and Christians do well, while Sikhs and 'any other religion' come in between.

If relatively poorer people and unemployed people are more likely to be involved in crime, then the higher proportion of Muslims and Buddhists in British prisons might be explained partly by the higher proportion of Muslims and Buddhists earning less or out of employment.

But that just shifts the explanation further down the line a little. I still haven't shown why these religious groups have lower levels of employment and income than the others in Britain. If you have any thoughts, feel free to comment, thanks.

Peace is weird

I argued before that it might make more sense to ask why riots don't happen all the time, instead of asking why they do happen occasionally. Many people seem to view peace as an inevitable norm, while crime or unrest is an exceptional situation, a surprise.

So I liked this observation from Enmity into Amity: How Peace Breaks Out by Charles A. Kupchan:
As Thomas Hardy once observed, "War makes rattling good history; but peace is poor reading." When wars occur, there is all too much action, noise, and drama. When peace breaks out, nothing happens; there is no action or noise, and often little drama. The diplomats do their work, but often behind the scenes. For most observers, peace is a non-event – the dog that does not bark – and is therefore chronically understudied.
Lawful peace should not be seen as some kind of default setting that all peoples return to when the exceptional events of wartime cease. Life in the past was much more bloody; there is nothing inevitable about our happy experience of peace.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Anglosphere

The 'West' is quite an unclear construct, with uncertain geographical borders. Is Poland Western? Is Russia, or industrialised Japan? Even 'Western' culture is unclear: does it mean Christianity? Secularism? Consumerism?

When the world is divided into chunky civilisations of West and East I wonder if a more useful global civilisation is the Anglosphere.

The most obvious candidates are UK, Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Each of these have major ethnic populations descended from Britain and Ireland. They all speak English and thus share lots of (especially British and Ameican) cultural exports like movies and literature.

The cultural connection is obvious. How about economics? The Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom lists the six obvious Anglosphere countries as follows:

3) Australia
4) New Zealand
6) Canada
7) Ireland
9) United States
16) United Kingdom

Eight of the top ten are former colonies of Britain: Singapore, Hong Kong and Bahrain being the others. So we see that these are all considered highly free market economies. French president Nicholas Sarkozy seems to have noticed, complaining about the 'free-wheeling Anglo-Saxon' economic model.

Of course these states are scattered between NATO, EU and so on, with no common political policies. Still, I don't see the Anglosphere being discussed much but it seems a much clearer reason to put countries together than many others.

I suppose the borders here are vague too. Do we count Hong Kong and Singapore? India and South Africa? Any thoughts?

*Image from Iamvered on Wikipedia

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

What is a human life worth?

It seems crude to place a monetary value on human life, but governments have to do this all the time, spreading limited resources over a population facing unlimited threats. Benjamin H. Friedman tries to do this in this article, criticising the US government's response to the terrorist threat as being too generous. Emphasis is mine:
Cost-benefit analysis of counterterrorism policies requires first knowing what a policy costs, then estimating how many people terrorists would kill absent that policy, which can involve historical and cross-national comparisons, and finally converting those costs and benefits into a common metric, usually money. Having done that analysis, you have a cost-per-life-saved-per-policy, which can be thought of as the value a policy assigns to a statistical life—the price we have decided to pay to save a life from the harm the policy aims to prevent.

Then you need to know if that price is too high. One way to do so, preferred by economists, is to compare the policy’s life value to the value that the target population uses in their life choices (insurance purchases, salary for hazardous work and so on). These days, in the United States, a standard range for the value of a statistical life is four to eleven million dollars. If a policy costs more per life saved than that, the market value of a statistical life, then the government could probably produce more longevity by changing or ending the policy.
Politicians may feel uncomfortable admitting it, but they can never reduce risk to zero and must always balance various risks off one another. This is, as Friedman explains, because every penny spent fighting one risk is not spent on another. When the US government spends money on reducing the risk of terrorism they must either reduce their spending in other areas - healthcare, for example - or increase taxes, which has its own economic risk.

Sooner or later this means that political leaders need to put a number to the amount of money they're willing to spend on protecting each individual: the value of life.

A really interesting look at this idea of humans having finite value comes from this old video of another Friedman, economist Milton Friedman debating with a student over Ford's decision to put a relatively dangerous car on the market. Rear-end collisions supposedly caused this car's petrol tank to explode, simply because they had chosen not to install a $13 plastic block in front of the tank. The student explains that Ford estimated that this decision would cost about 200 lives a year in deaths, at a cost to the company of around $200,000 per death in lawsuits. Ford supposedly weighed up the costs and decided that it was more profitable to accept 200 deaths a year than spend $13 per car on the block, so in the seven years since the car was produced, over 1,000 lives were (allegedly) lost.

The student was disturbed that Ford seemed to value a human life below $13 per car. Friedman's response is intriguing. First he asks whether the student's objection would remain if the cost per death was not $200,000 but rather $1 billion.
Friedman: You're not arguing about principle.... nobody can accept the principle that an infinite value should be put on an individual life. Because, in order to get the money involved, in order to get the resources resolved - it's not money - they have to come from somewhere.... You cannot accept the situation that a million people should starve in order to provide one person with a car that is completely safe.... You're just asking, you're just arguing whether Ford used $200,000 was a right number or not....

Supposing it was $200 million dollars, what should Ford have done?
Friedman's point - a little unclear when put into text - is that the student is not bothered by the principal of valuing a human life, but only that Ford puts the value so low. If Ford had calculated the cost at $200 million per life, the student would, he thinks, not object. Friedman uses this high value because at that cost Ford could not produce cars at all, unless money were somehow diverted from other people (the million people he suggests are staving because their money was taken) to help them make a perfect car.

The conversation (helpfully transcribed here) bounces back and forth for a while and then the student makes clear his position:
Student: I don't see Ford spending $13 less on each car at the cost of 200 lives a year as being a principled position to take.

Friedman: Suppose it would had been one life a year? ...would it then have been okay for Ford not to put in that block?

...Everyone of us separately in this room could, at a cost, reduce his risk of dying tomorrow. You don't have to walk across the street. The question is, is he willing to pay for it?
For Friedman the solution was for consumers to decide as individuals if they were willing to accept the increased risk of death in a cheaper car, or reduce the risk on a more expensive car. I don't know if Friedman's free market solution is the right one but that debate did help me think more clearly about the awkward need to value a human life in money.

An honest politician would have to admit at some point that they could no longer spend money on protecting citizens from a particular risk, because the cost would increase other risks. This sits very uncomfortably with my own sense that human life should have a sanctity that transcends economics, but I see no alternative.

Recession without democracy: what would China do?

I wrote before about Ireland's former taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern, who had controversially claimed to be a socialist. I showed that Ahern did drastically increase spending on social welfare, but did so by taking advantage of rising tax revenue, not by increasing tax rates. Ahern wanted it all: lower taxes and higher spending.

One result of this avoidance of difficult trade-offs was the remarkable popularity of Ahern, leading his party to three consecutive electoral victories, in 1997, 2002 and 2007. Time Magazine has this bizarre observation of his popularity in 2007, just before the elections:
The people of Navan, northwest of Dublin, respond to their Taoiseach — the official title of Ireland's Prime Minister — not with fatigue or ill temper, but with an awe and affection usually reserved for rock stars.

As Bertie Ahern kicks off his campaign for elections expected within weeks, he remains startlingly popular for a man seeking a third consecutive term.
This is hilarious because within a year or two Ahern's stack of cards had collapsed, the country was in dire economic distress and Ahern had retired, leaving his party to be decimated in the next elections, losing nearly 72% of its seats.

In the boom times Ahern and his government could fling money at problems, funding large expansions in spending without worrying about undesirable tax increases. Once the tax revenue dipped during the recession, the government had to start desperately cutting costs, destroying their popularity.

I thought about all this again when I read this article by John Quiggin in The National Interest, pondering the sustainability of China's government:
The spectacular economic growth of the past two decades has made the resolution of policy disagreements relatively easy. Simply put, there has been enough surplus to satisfy all important interests and still allow rapidly rising incomes for the mass of the population, or at least those in urban areas who might pose a threat to political stability.

Again, the example of the Arab Spring suggests that a slowdown in economic growth can bring about a sudden break in what seemed like an established political order. In democracies, economic shocks typically result in electoral defeat for the incumbent government, which at least provides the public with someone to blame, and a test of the hypothesis that the crisis was the result of mismanagement.

In a closed oligarchy like that of China, there is no such mechanism. The system could break down from within, as factional disagreements within the central committee spill out into the broader party and the public at large. Alternatively, large-scale public protests, combined with disagreements over the extent to which repression is desirable and feasible, could bring about a rapid breakdown.
In Ireland Ahern's own party were annihilated in the last election and although the coalition that has replaced them has continued with their difficult cost-cutting programme its senior partner Fine Gael remains popular. Perhaps Irish voters simply needed to feel that they were punishing the guilty party which had caused the economic mess in the first place. Their sense of justice sated, they settled down to the painful budget cuts and tax hikes necessary to return to economic health.

As Quiggin points out, China lacks the electoral system that can give a satisfying punishment to unpopular leaders. If China's economy hits trouble and the government have to slash spending and increase taxes, how will angry citizens respond?

Monday, September 12, 2011

For Irish debt, no news is good news

Here is a Google Insights for Search graph, showing how often Google users searched for 'Ireland debt', 'Ireland economy' and 'Ireland crisis' over the last 12 months:
So attention soared at the end of last year when the IMF and EU had to intervene. Now let's look at Ireland's bond 10 year yield for the same period:
We see a steadily worsening situation, followed by a steep reversal in fortunes as bond yields dramatically dropped. Next, here is 'Ireland debt' versus 'Greece debt':
And finally, Greece's bond 10 year yield:
Rising, recovering only a little and then continuing to rise. Now Greece's 10 year yield is far higher than Ireland's, and Google users are searching for information about Greek debt much more than Irish debt. If we restrict the Google Insights for Search data to just users in the US (thus removing Irish Google users searching for information about their own country), the gap widens even further. So it seems likely that no news can be a good thing in Ireland's case, as negative attention shifts elsewhere and interest or concern over Ireland's debt abates.

Made in Ireland

One concern sometimes expressed over the economies of developed countries is that they have shifted from manufacturing to services, thereby losing job opportunities to poorer countries who can manufacture more cheaply.

I have often seen this concern expressed as the question: 'When was the last time you saw a product with "Made in USA" written on it?' I use the US just as one example, but I see this regarding other countries too. In the last two or three weeks I have seen online debaters ask this question of Ireland and Sweden, implying that they believe that both countries have negligible manufacturing industries.

In fact both Ireland and Sweden have quite strong industrial sectors, with industrial employment taking up 26% of all employment in Ireland in 2008 and 22% in Sweden the year earlier. The latest available figure for China, from 2002, is only 18%.

In terms of the value added by industry as a percentage of GDP, China has a high 46%, compared with 31% in Ireland, 25% in Sweden and only 21% in the US. Ireland has a massive trade surplus with the US, selling five times as much exports to the US as it buys in imports from the US so far this year. Sweden's trade surplus with the US is more modest, selling about twice as much as it buys, while even China's surplus is relatively smaller than Ireland's, selling about 3.8 times as much to the US as it buys.

So why do we not see 'made in Ireland' on everything if our industrial sector is so strong? Partly it is the nature of these exports. A good deal are agricultural or mining exports, while a massive section is made of pharmaceutical and medical products. So most ordinary, healthy consumers aren't going to see a 'made in Ireland' except on their beef steak. Chinese products, on the other hand, often end up in the hands of end-user consumers, and probably seem to make up a disproportionate amount of the market.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

God-fearing: religion in Britain's prisons

Britain's Ministry of Justice produced these figures listing the prison population of England and Wales by religion. The figures go up to 2008 but I'm going to take a snapshot of prison population in March 2001 since the last British census was held that year so we can see which religious groups are disproportionately represented.

Prisoner populations of each religion, as a percentage of total prison population
All Christian - 59.16% (Anglican - 37.8%, Catholic - 17.47%)
No religion - 30.92%
Muslim - 7.47%
Buddhist - 0.69%
Sikh - 0.63%
Hindu - 0.41%
Jewish - 0.25%

Here is the Office for National Statistics Census Results for 2001, dealing with the sizes of various populations. With a full population for England and Wales of 52,041,916 in 2001, we get the following results:

Percentage of population in England and Wales of each religion
Christian - 71.7%
Buddhist - 0.277%
Hindu - 1.06%
Jewish - 0.5%
Muslim - 2.97%
Sikh - 0.63%
No religion - 14.8%

Unfortunately the Census did not break down Christians into various denominations, though I suspect Catholics must be overrepresented among prisoners.

Underrepresented religions among prisoners

Overrepresented religions among prisoners
No religion

We need more data really, to make sense of this. For example, some of these religious groups are probably associated with fairly recent immigrant groups, who perhaps have a younger population, or a greater proportion of males, than others. We also don't know how strong the religiosity is of each group.

Still, it is interesting. Why are Muslims, Buddhists and nonreligious people disproportionately likely to be in prison?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Muslim organisations make 9/11 statement

A group of British Muslim organisations has released a statement in time for the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. It announces:

- Sympathy for victims of 9/11 attacks and other terrorist attacks.

- Acknowledgement of the tragedy of terrorist attacks since then, like the 2005 London attacks, and the tragedy of 'conflicts resulting from 9/11 in different parts of the Muslim world'.

- The rejection by the British Muslim community of terrorists, 'the emptiness of their words and the futility of their actions'.

- The observation that peaceful political change brought about by protestors in North Africa proves that terrorism is not the only way to achieve change.

- Hope for a world free from terrorism and injustice.

- A call for unity with non-Muslims to defeat divisive terrorists and crime:
Our common humanity, our spirit of community, the values we share as human beings, will give us the strength to confront those who seek to divide rather than unite us, now and in the future. We will continue to stand together in troubled times, not just against terrorism but against all forms of criminality that pervade our society - as we saw during the riots that spread across the UK in recent weeks. Only together can we defeat such problems. Only together can we work to build communities whose unity honours the memory of the victims of September 11th and victims of conflicts and terror around the world.
This is apparently signed by a long list of 57 Muslim organisations, though I have no idea how representative these are of British Muslims.

It seems like a straight forward and decent statement anyway, and welcome.

Who is the media really biased against? Adolf Hitler.

This morning I read this article in The Irish Times by journalist John Waters, who calls it a 'left-liberal newspaper', and then this response which argues that the newspaper is in fact quite right-wing. This is a very common kind of debate, with politically-minded people of all sides utterly convinced that the news media are biased, and never in their favour. Journalists and editors are always presumed to be pulling for the other side.

So who is the media really biased against? Well let's think about Adolf Hitler.
When was the last time I read a pro-Hitler article? When have I ever seen a BBC journalist start a sentence with: 'One of the things I loved about Nazism was...'? Never! Ireland and Britain's media are unashamedly anti-Nazi.

That is, media in this case, strongly reflect public opinion. Journalists here don't like Hitler because almost nobody likes Hitler.

This explains some complaints about media bias. People with extreme, minority views are likely to be disappointed by news media if it reflects more mainstream views. I guess that many critics of journalism are indeed people with stronger political opinions than average so if media generally represents the mixed, sometimes contradictory, centrist views of ordinary people, then such critics of left and right will always be irritated. Of course maybe media really does not represent the views of ordinary people, but I will discuss this another day.

*Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

BBC's sad face over happy news

I have written before about the odd way that many business editors label uncertain economics data with simplistic headlines. This is another example, from the BBC website:
A downbeat headline about falling shares, accompanied by evidence of comfortably rising shares.

The important thing is the section in bold where the BBC try to explain the falling shares as a consequence of Eurozone debt and the fears of recession. So what about rising shares? Are they also signals of concern over debt and recession? If not, perhaps this interpretation was never right in the first place.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Bad ad, great timing

Now and then online advertisements that accompany articles are gloriously mismatched. I was amused this morning to see this advertisement on the Irish Independent website, beside an economics article:

The one that got away, though, was an advertisement I saw months ago on an anti-Muslim propaganda website. Alongside an article warning of the imminent conquest of Europe by Muslim barbarians was a photo of a smiling young couple - hijab and beard - under a link to a Muslim matrimonials website. Perfect.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Magic and religion in Ireland and Japan

Walk the paths in the woods near Unzen town, high on a mountainside in southern Japan, and you may find yourself on one shady track with Buddhist statues on either side. Some draped with cobwebs, others bearded with moss, these eighty-eight stone figures sit in serene meditation under the trees. The path terminates at a temple, with wooden sliding doors.

Slip inside this and a massive golden Buddha figure towers above you. Like a European church, here too the air is still and silent. Before the statue are two collections of candles, one group blank and the other with Japanese writing scrawled on them. The latter are essentially prayers, requests to the heavens for help: some ask for health, some ask for money, some ask for safety.

To the right there is a worktop with a number of small Buddhist charms for sale. There may be nobody there to give money to, so you can just drop the coins down an offertory slot if you choose to buy some. One is a small mobile phone decoration, said to bring good luck. Another is shaped like a sort of cloth purse, bright red and gold, and is supposed to protect pregnant women.

One tiny charm is shaped like a frog, in Japanese: kaeru. The word is pronounced the same as the Japanese word for 'return', and this little green fellow placed into one's wallet or purse is supposed to ensure money spent will return again. There are charms to help the elderly from losing their memory and charms (shaped like tiny schoolbags) to protect children.

So here is Buddhism being interpreted by hopeful followers as a good way to achieve worldly benefits, be they long life, health, wealth or success. Yet the original Buddha Shakyamuni's idea was that one must reject worldly desires in order to become enlightened. So his rejection of worldly desires turned into a means to achieve them.

To the west Christ was also unconcerned with wealth and health in this life, but that never deterred Christians from praying to the saints for material intercession. Patrick Kavanagh put it in his Lough Derg:

Solicitors praying for cushy jobs
To be County Registrar or Coroner,
Shopkeepers threatened with sharper rivals
Than any hook-nosed foreigner.
Mothers whose daughters are Final Medicals,
Too heavy-hipped for thinking,
Wives whose husbands have angina pectoris,
Wives whose husbands have taken to drinking.

That Buddhism in Japan took this worldly bent is unsurprising considering its official entry to the country via Korea. At the time, around 538 A.D, Korea was torn apart by internal war. One of the kingdoms, the Paekche, desperately wanted Japanese assistance in defeating their rivals and so in that year their king presented the Japanese imperial court with an image of Buddha, some scriptures, and ceremonial ornaments. He urged the Japanese to adopt Buddhism on the grounds that it would bring blessings, but the noble families of Japan were divided. Some feared the Shinto gods they already worshipped would be offended by the newcomer, but eventually one family was allowed to worship the Buddha image as an 'experiment'.

The experiment was deemed a failure when a pestilence broke out - a sign of anger among the Shinto deities - so the image was thrown in a canal. Already they were looking at it in terms of what it would do for them in their ordinary lives, and since it seemed to annoy their native gods, they dropped it.

Soon, though, a pro-Buddhist emperor took the Japanese throne and started to promote the religion widely. Far from its origin in India, the Japanese clergy repeated Buddhist scriptures written in Chinese by rote, often without understanding what they actually meant. Leaders encouraged this, hoping that the actual act of repeating and copying the scriptures would have positive magical effects in their realm. Professor Joseph Kitagawa writes in On Understanding Japanese Religion:

A large number of Buddhist scriptures were introduced, and the government established bureaus for copying those scriptures. The court asked the clergy to recite appropriate scriptures for practical, mundane benefits… to bring rain, relief from pestilence, safe child-birth, recovery from illness, and good fortune… To most people in Japan, copying the scriptures was in itself a meritorious act, and reciting them effectuated their magical potency.

Back in Europe at the time only a few centuries had passed since the Roman Emperor Constantine had converted to Christianity. Was it because he was struck by Christ's message of compassion, peace and charity? No, according to the legend he had a vision in which he was told he would win an approaching battle if he fought under the sign of the cross. Constantine too was concerned with worldly affairs, in this case the vulgar one of destroying a rival claimant to the Roman throne.

So with Jesus and Shakyamuni we had two founders of great religions, one which started in Israel and spread west into Europe, the other which started in India and spread east into eastern Asia. Both rejected worldly desires as primary goals for life. Both eventually had huge numbers of followers who, while venerating these men, nonetheless ended up praying to them to satisfy the very worldly desires they had dismissed.

Today, though, both movements are struggling in richer countries. The decline of Christianity in Europe is stark. Buddhism in Japan too faces challenges. I wonder if one reason may be that ordinary Christians and Buddhists no longer see their religions as useful ways to achieve worldy satisfaction.

How does the promise of a land of milk and honey excite in a land where milk and honey are both cheap in the local grocers? Modern technologies mean we already live in a kind of heaven on earth in the world's wealthy countries, rich with surplus food and labour-saving devices. The things people want in ordinary life – health, wealth, love and family – are best secured by participating in modern civilisation. If you want health, see a doctor. If you want wealth, work hard and seek promotion. If you want love – well that one is still a bit tricky.

Oddly enough this might be good for religions, shifting them away from magical rituals in pursuit of worldly benefits to their original otherworldly goals. That would mean a loss of much public interest, a declining status for clerics and, I imagine, less risk of corruption.

I was reminded of these thoughts today when I visited the ruins of the 13th century Rosserk Friary, and spotted nearby a holy well called Tobar Mhuire. Built over this well in 1798 was an unusual small stone chapel:
On a small window in the chapel, pilgrims have left a cluster of coins, prayers and rosary beads:

I smiled to myself because this pick 'n mix offering reminded me of similar scenes many thousands of miles east in Japan, like the bottles of green tea donated to the supernatural inhabitants of this Shinto shrine in Unzen:

Or this, in the village of Tomitsu, not far from my old home:

Separated by two continents, Irish and Japanese pilgrims of different faiths ended up making independent little offerings at their sacred places. That kind of materialistic religiosity, trying to make magical deals with deities, may be disappearing, though.