Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Income inequality in Ireland: bounces WAY back up

I wrote here before the surprising observation that income inequality seemed to have been falling in Ireland since 2006. I now see the preliminary results from the Central Statistics Office's Survey on Income and Living Conditions has another surprise:
There was an increase in income inequality between 2009 and 2010 as shown by the quintile share ratio. The ratio showed that the average income of those in the highest income quintile was 5.5 times that of those in the lowest income quintile. The ratio was 4.3 one year earlier.
That seems a stark shift in direction! Further results show that the Gini coefficient, which had fallen year on year until 2009, shot back up in 2010, to its highest level that these results - dating back to 2004 - show. So my talk about falling inequality rates that nobody seemed to be noticing is turned on its head: inequality seems to have bounced back.
The general look in this report is gloomy. The consistent poverty rate was up in 2010 to 6.2%, though oddly this is lower than it was in 2006, at the height of the boom. The deprivation rate (that individuals have experienced two or more types of listed forms of deprivation) is way up to 22.5%, from 17.1% in 2009 and a recent low of 11.8% in 2007.

It's not surprising, perhaps, to see rising poverty rates in a climate of high unemployment. The jump over a single year in inequality is a strange one, though. Any thoughts on explanations? Did the rich mostly get richer, or the poor mostly get poorer?

Some people were amazed, others annoyed, when I pointed to the drift towards greater equality. I suppose many had an instinctive sense that inequality was increasing, and I dismissed that instinct in the face of CSO's data. But maybe the instincts were right, the data simply too dated (back to 2009) to be relevant.

The Fall of the West?

I often read right-conservative warnings that the Western world is about to collapse. They emphasise the following:

1) Demographic decline
Western countries have low fertility rates and several are already declining in population. Poorer non-Western countries have soaring populations. This means economic disadvantages for the West, as an ever-increasing population of pensioners is supported by an ever-decreasing population of workers. It also means military disadvantage as the West simply runs out of young people for soldiering, while non-Western countries experience youth bulges. Finally it means that the Western population is becoming a shrinking proportion of the world population.

2) Cultural cringe
Westerners are accused of having lost confidence in their traditional cultures and values. This perspective argues that Westerners have become so apologetic for the abuses of colonisation and historical racism that they have become self-loathing, contemptuous of their own cultures yet obsessed with celebrating the cultures of others. This argues that Western multiculturalism is allowing assertive and aggressive cultures (especially jihadist Islamism) to conquer Europe.

3) Pacifism: The strong anti-war sentiment especially of some European countries is presumed to strengthen more aggressive enemies.

4) Immigration: The combination of low fertility rates and mass-immigration from non-Western cultures fills the cities of Europe and North America with non-Western populations, who might eventually outnumber the natives.

Perhaps there are some reasonable concerns here. The bulk of this, though, seems entirely backwards: it is the non-Western cultures that really need to fear. The non-Westerners face a global, growing, utterly dominant wave of culture that has already driven languages and traditions to extinction. The West isn't vanishing, it has already won.

The Fall of the Old West
A thousand years ago Ireland was a cluster of rival kingdoms, speaking forms of early Irish and Viking Norse. The legal system was based on Brehon Laws, with no courts, prisons, executions or juries. Almost the entire population was rural and agricultural, there was no parliament or police, the land was heavily forested.

Today almost everyone speaks English, we have a parliamentary democracy with a justice system inherited from English common law, the population is mostly urban and literate, most people work in services and industry, the land is a patchwork of grassy farms intersected by a huge road network. An Irish peasant from the 11th century would see this modern country as a foreign land.

Two major events caused these changes. First was the expansion of Anglo-Norman and later English power into Ireland, the deliberate subjugation of Irish traditions and replacement with English law, language and culture.

The second was a series of technological, cultural, and economic changes that swept both England and Ireland, destroying traditional cultures and handicrafts, largely alien to both places. This was modernity. Industrialisation, secularism, centralisation of government power, democracy, the welfare state, liberalism, urbanisation: products, and drivers of the shift to modernity experienced sooner or later by all west European states.

These changes sped up after independence: we are only a few generations in Ireland away from arranged marriages and rural rituals to avoid provoking invisible fairies.

When people talk about the West today they're usually talking about modernity, not about the agricultural, religious societies that preceded it. Enemies of Western cultures are usually enemies of these modern cultures, not of traditional cultures. Sayyid Qutb, one of the founders of modern Islamism, saw it that way in 1943, complaining that the West is 'based on science, industry, and materialism . . . is without heart and conscience'.

During the Cold War, the 'West' was used to refer to the liberal, democratic NATO countries. Yet the East then was also following the modern European ideology of industrialised Communism. If we include the authoritarian Western ideologies along with the liberal Western ideologies we see that Euro-American political ideas have swallowed the world.

Political Legitimacy
The modern nation state that exists almost everywhere now is a child of Europe. Superficial evidence comes from the official names for countries:

Republic of Zimbabwe
Republic of Angola
Socialist Republic of Vietnam
People's Republic of Bangladesh
Togolese Republic
Federative Republic of Brazil
Republic of Yemen
Republic of Cuba
Republic of Niger
Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste
Republic of Indonesia

Even (the Islamic Republic of) Iran seeks legitimacy through the language of republican democracy. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently boasted of Iran's superior democratic system:

“Human rights are being violated in Europe. The same situation is in the United States, in Asia and Africa.”

“We have an independent judiciary and we have transparent legal proceedings,” he stated. “We have mass media, we have free press. They criticize the government.”

He also said that Iran is “among the best in the world in this respect.”
Tyrants like Saddam Hussein held mock elections, trying to win support by association with democracy. That his democracy was skin deep was less significant than his attempt to appear democratic, his implied acknowledgement of the moral authority conferred by Western-style elections. Almost all the world's countries today use the language of republican democracy, a sign of the global attractiveness of West European republicanism.

In real terms democracy has boomed over the 20th century. In 1900 almost no independent states had universal suffrage. By 2000 dozens did. In the 1990s and 2000s democracy spread rapidly into eastern Europe and Latin America. A 2011 Pew Research Center survey found that democracy was widely valued in Muslim-majority countries too:

Democracy is widely seen as the best form of government, especially in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, where more than seven-in-ten hold this view. Moreover, people in the Muslim nations surveyed clearly value specific features of a democratic system, such as freedom of religion, free speech, and competitive elections. And publics in many Muslim countries increasingly believe that a democratic government, rather than a strong leader, is the best way to solve national problems.
Signs of the dominant Western political narratives and symbols are everywhere. An odd one is the measurement of time. Today the Gregorian calendar, introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, is internationally recognised. Whenever we fly across world time-zones with Greenwich Mean Time slashing a line down the earth from London, we experience the lingering effects of the British Empire's political and technological world domination.

A final signal is the appearance of world leaders. Here is the Chinese Emperor Guangxu, who reigned until 1908:
And this is the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party today, Hu Jintao:
Nice and neat in his Western suit. Lest any doubts linger, look at the 2000 United Nations Millenium Summit image, showing the world leaders of the day:
None of the Western leaders are wearing traditional Asian or African clothes, most of the Asian and African leaders are wearing European-style suits. Europe's suits have, along with its flags and anthems, become standard for most of the world's political cultures.

Soft Power
British historian David Starkey caused controversy after the London riots by saying that Britain's youth had embraced 'black' culture. No doubt Britain has been influenced by the cultures of the Carribbean and South Asia, but the flow of culture has been mostly in the opposite direction. I checked the most popular recent films in various non-Western countries earlier this year for a clue:

Nigeria, August 12–14: Bad Teacher
China, August 1-7: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part Two)
Indonesia, May 27-29: The Tourist
United Arab Emirates, August 11-14: Horrible Bosses
Bolivia, August 11-14: The Smurfs
Venezuela, August 12-14: The Smurfs.

All these countries flocking to the cinema to watch American and British films. The same is not true in reverse. When I turn on the television I see The Simpsons and the BBC News, not some Arab or Bolivian comedy.

One reason for this export of Western cultures is technological: the early domination of Hollywood, advantaged partly because World War I inhibited its European rivals, beamed pictures of American culture into theatres around the world. I grew up watching Batman and Superman, as have children in Asia, Latin America and Africa, anywhere that television has helped speed the flow of American cultural exports.

Likewise the rise of communications technologies in the industrialised West had important impacts on culture there. For example cameras that could perfectly reproduce an image made realistic artists redundant, pushing artists towards less representational art. Before the gramaphone, the only way a consumer could hear music was by paying a musician to perform, or learn to play. After the gramaphone consumers could listen to the recording of some distant musician, pushing their local performers out of business. Technology changed culture, and with time that technology would head east and south, changing the culture of non-Western countries in similar ways.

Hence the number one single in Argentina today sounds like something that would play comfortably on Irish radio. In China the number one single is Miley Cyrus's Party in the USA: so the West is in decline?

Chinese industrial output has grown, certainly. But industry itself is Western, a product of Western Europe's Industrial Revolution. Far from rejecting Western systems of production, countries like Japan and China have instead become incredibly adept at embracing them. Their old agricultural societies have vanished.

This is what Shanghai looked like around 1891-1900:

And this is Shanghai today:

If China is outpacing the West, it is by being Western.

The Universal West
There is nothing to gloat about here, since the rise and rise of Western industry, culture, politics and economics is hardly a projection of natural European culture. European cultures were the first victims of modernity; the Europeans today boasting about human rights and personal freedoms are descended from witch-burning bigots, serfs, slave-traders, imperialists and the like. From Edward MacLysaght's Irish Life in the Seventeenth Century:
At that period in the upper classes family alliances were often concluded by the marriage of quite young children. After the ceremony the bride and bridegroom were forthwith taken back to their respective nurseries or schoolrooms to await an age more fitting to matrimony.... Thus Mr. Berry, in his article on the Jephson family of Mallow, states that the grandmother of William Jephson, who himself was married at twelve yaers old in 1686, was a bride at twelve and had her first child - his father - at fifteen.
Today traditional cultures are criticised for arranging child marriages, but that was Europe's past.

With the bad has gone the good: traditional agricultural skills, folk medical knowledge, endless songs and poems and arts. Before any Australian Aboriginal languages were threatened by English there vanished the dialects of Europe.

Now the technologies that rendered rural Europe's traditions redundant are sweeping the rest of the world. The political systems that emerged from increased complexity and urbanisation are being adopted - good and bad - in other countries. The very division of countries into discrete tax-collecting states is Western, the result of political reforms which destroyed the old kingdoms and empires of Europe. The symbols of statehood - flags, coats of arms, presidents and embassies - are ubiquitious.

Pessimistic Western conservatives warn about the Islamification of Europe, yet Europe's marital customs are nowhere returning to the early marriage, high fertility patterns of traditional Asian or African societies. Instead the opposite is happening: fertility rates are plunging in the developing countries, once again following the lead of Western Europe:
In wealthy East Asia the changes are most obvious, explained here by The Economist:
Although attitudes to sex and marriage are different from those in the West, the pressures of wealth and modernisation upon family life have been just as relentless. They have simply manifested themselves in different ways. In the West the upshot has been divorce and illegitimacy. In Asia the results include later marriage, less marriage and (to some extent) more divorce....

The first change is that people are getting married later, often much later. In the richest parts—Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong—the mean age of wedlock is now 29-30 for women, 31-33 for men (see chart right). That is past the point at which women were traditionally required to marry in many Asian societies. It is also older than in the West.... The second change is that, among certain groups, people are not merely marrying later. They are not getting married at all.
The Economist goes on to explain that divorce rates in East Asia are still lower than in the West because 'divorce has been common in the West for decades', but that Asia was catching up. Actually in this sense Ireland, with a divorce rate of only 0.8 per 1,000 population, is more Eastern than the East: Japan has 2.5 per 1,000, 3.5 in South Korea and around 2 in Asia as a whole. Malta, having just legalised divorce, is starting from zero.

The most obvious alternative superpower shows little sign of out-growing the West. China's total fertility rate is 1.8 children per woman. The US has 2.1, UK has 2, France is 2. China's birth rate is 12 per 1,000 population. US is 14, UK is 13, France is 13.

Politics and war
When I make these arguments I meet two criticisms. First, people point out that industrial, modernising China is nonetheless not democratic, and could pose a real challenge to the security and domination of Western powers. If they take some aspects of the Western, modern world, they may be using them to undermine the political power of NATO.

This may be true. Non-Western powers could expand and dominate by being better at Western modernity than the Westerners, especially if they can do so without the liberal stream of Western politics.

The second criticism is that I exaggerate the influence and importance of Western technology and popular culture, and that young Muslims, for example, who wear Western clothes and listen to hip hop, are still wedded to the old, illiberal religious beliefs.

I'm not sure about this. There have been changes in fashion in some Muslim-majority countries in recent decades, with a revival of the hijab for example. I'm not sure if this is indicative of a real Islamic cultural revival of the sort that rejects the Western alternatives. Yet it still seems to be emerging via modern technologies, the same technologies that overturned the traditional cultures of Europe.

So is the West in decline? Culturally it seems ascendent, with rising economic powers quick to mimic at least its materialist, modern aspects. Religiously it is holding its own, the decline of Christianity in Europe countered by growth in Africa. Politically, democracy is probably more widespread than ever before and though the rise of China may offer an alternative, that alternative bears little resemblence to traditional Chinese imperial government, taking its cues partly from European authoritarian experiments like communism.

Demographically most of North America and Europe continue to experience population growth, though at a slower pace than developing countries and heavily affected by immigration. If the West means white-skinned racial groups then its proportion of world population will indeed fall, though few people accept that old racist idea: today an African or Asian immigrant who embraces liberalism and secularism is Western.

Economically the handful of industrialised European and North American countries that led the way in terms of wealth have been joined by Asians like Japan, South Korea and Singapore, with a great raft of middle income countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America rising after them. This means that the centre of balance is shifting east, but not because Eastern economic systems turned out to be superior. Rather Eastern countries became better at Western industry and capitalism than the West. The game is the same, but non-Western countries have learned how to play.

Militarily the rise of China could pose a challenge to American hegemony. But the rising China is industrial, not traditional, and communist, not imperial. The rise of China is the rise of another West, albeit informed by illiberal ideologies.

If I was a conservative Arab or Chinese person or Latin American, I would be despondent about a future that looks likely to be heavily influenced by Euro-American modern cultures. The rest of the world is experiencing the modernising, homogenising wave that destroyed the traditional cultures of Europe long ago. So the future looks Western, no matter whose capital it is governed from.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ireland and the alien West

I argue often that 'Western' values and norms developed in Western countries at the expense of their own traditional values and norms. There is nothing inevitably or naturally European about religious tolerance, democracy, liberalism and the like, and they replaced traditional cultures which were often oppressive and illiberal.

Likewise the pop music and cinema today so associated with the West were once alien and feared by the national and traditional thinkers of different European countries. I just stumbled upon this remarkable article from the Meath Chronicle, a local newspaper for Ireland's county Meath, from 1930. A quote, with my emphasis:
Irish-Ireland nights are far too few during the past few years, and more is the pity. They are a steadying invigorating influence to the minds of the young, pointing in unmistakeable fashion to the fact that it is not necessary for the country to borrow its amusements from the dens of either Paris or London, that “O’Donnell Abu” is a sweeter air than any of the vulgarities now passing as music, and praised and laughed at in the spirit of exaltation by a number of people in this country, still anxious to ape foreign mannerisms and habits. The year, 1931, must find the Gaelic Athletic Association doubling its efforts in support of its praiseworthy mission. In the fight between an Ireland fostering a native culture and an Ireland whirling in the vortex of a Pagan and corrupt civilisation, it must bear a big share of the battle. Modern conveniences, the radio, the cinema, etc., all are lending their aid to crushing in the hearts of the Irish race a... (text missing) of the beautiful and characteristic traits which without, this country must accept the role of a nation enslaved in mind and thought.
Eighty years later I can confirm that the Pagan and corrupt modernity has won, utterly, the minds that this old nationalist fought for. Were I an anti-Western conservative in Iran or China I would not be hopeful; I suspect people in those places will embrace alluring modern decadence in due course too.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Occupy evictions spark Google searches

Google searches for "Occupy" and "Occupy Wall Street" had peaked and were falling by the time various authorities started to evict the protestors. On November 15 police evicted protestors at Wall Street. Result?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Google's amazing Ngram, and terrorism trends

Google has a wonderful and fun project called Ngram, which searches the vast collection of books on Google Books for given words or phrases. For example let's compare the relative likelihood of finding the words "sensual" or "sensuous" in any of the huge literature Google Books covers, from 1800 to 2008:
So what on earth would cause this rise of "sensuous" in the late 19th century? This:
1640s, "pertaining to the senses" coined (from L. sensus) by Milton to recover the original meaning of sensual and avoid the lascivious connotation that the older word had acquired by Milton's day, but by 1870 sensuous, too, had begun down the same path. Rare before Coleridge popularized it (1814).
So "sensuous" started heading down the same lascivious path as "sensual" in the Victorian era, and promptly increased its share of mentions in English literature!

One other Ngram image for tonight. This is the frequency of the word "terrorism" since 1970:
I wondered for a moment why the slopes looked familiar. Then I remembered this graph from the Global Terrorism Database, showing the frequency of terrorist attacks around the world between 1970 and 2007:
They don't match perfectly, partly because the Global Terrorism Database shows only the frequency of attacks, not their severity, but we do see a similar rise in the 1970s and 1980s, a decline in the 1990s, and recovery in the 2000s. This makes me wonder if Ngram can indicate other real world trends. Absolutely intriguing.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Hobbes and the global Leviathan

Listening to an Open University podcast about the realist school of foreign policy, I heard one of the speakers make a remarkable point about 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

First, they explained that from the realist foreign policy perspective, countries exist in a state of anarchy. To understand, let's think about individuals. People in modern nation states have to obey the rule of law; if I attack my neighbour, the state's agents of justice will stop and punish me. The state maintains internal order, justice, and stability.

But outside the state there are not institutions strong enough to police countries, say the realists. While individuals living in states grow relaxed and trusting, knowing that the state will prevent their neighbours from predatory behaviour, countries remain insecure and feel they must doubt the intentions of their neighbours. They need to make sure they can survive if the neighbouring country cuts off trade, or even wages war. The one line I loved, a throw-away remark by the narrator, is this:
In Chapter five the analogy is made with Hobbes's idea of a state of nature. Internationally we have an international state of nature with competing sovereigns.
Hobbes's state of nature is anarchy, his idea formed during the chaos of the English Civil War that without a government all individuals would live in such insecurity and mutual suspicion as to be 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short':
In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Hobbes's solution for ordinary citizens was the state, but the projection of this concept onto a global stage is intriguing.

I have sometimes thought that West European countries have, like individual neighbours in a neighbourhood with high social trust and a sense of community, grown to drop their guards and lose their mutual suspicion and fear. I mean, the West European countries that had spent centuries fighting each other have gone in peaceful cooperation for long enough to greatly increase mutual trust. Just as trusting villagers can relax their guards and cooperate, share and save money that would otherwise be spent on security, these countries have become more comfortable with reducing internal border restrictions and increasing trade. Good.

This did not happen under a superstate (unless the EU counts?) but it did happen under the shadow of American military supremacy, and during a time when the West Europeans were united in fear of the communist East. Perhaps the dominant United States here serves a little like Hobbes's state.

So, back to Hobbes. His solution to the state of nature was government. But can - or should - we apply this to the whole world? I see bitter debates about the idea of a global government. It seems impossible now, with such vigorous cultural and economic divisions between peoples, and complaints about a democratic deficit in such supernational bodies like the EU. So we will probably continue to live in a state of nature, though maybe the overarching power of the US can keep down interstate wars between smaller allies. Perhaps Hobbes is too pessimistic, and countries have grown peaceful towards one another without the threat of justice from some higher superstate Leviathan.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Governments experimenting with people

The consequences of new government policies and interventions are never obvious or fully understood in advance. I've read a lot recently about 'unintended consequences', even 'the law of unintended consequences' described by Rob Norton at the Library of Economics and Liberty:
...that actions of people—and especially of government—always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended.
Some commentators take this 'law' to a sceptical extreme, arguing that since the full consequences of government policies can never be predicted, it makes sense for governments to do nothing.

So I can think of two ways of looking at that: libertarianism and conservatism. Libertarianism simply keeps the government as small and inactive as possible so that it does not get involved in the market in the first place. Conservatism is possibly even more sceptical: by viewing change as a risk of unknown significance it seeks to simply avoid change. Governments in that view should simply continue doing what they have always done.

But it occurs to me that this determination to retain old government policies unchanged neglects the fact that the environment in which they are functioning does change. So an attempt to avoid experimenting on citizens with new policies is vain. Keeping policies exactly unchanged is also a form of experimentation on the citizens as the social and economic environment keeps shifting about.

(A historical example comes to mind from 19th century Japan. In the 17th century the Tokugawa clan seized power and organised a military dictatorship ruled by the samurai military class. Taxes paid by peasant farmers to the samurai families were set at specific levels of rice - absolute levels, not percentages of total rice production - while samurai were forbidden from farming.

Over the centuries the peasants greatly expanded their rice production with improved agricultural technology, and the merchant class likewise grew and prospered. Low level samurai families were in the strange position of having high social and political status, but relatively falling economic wealth, because they were still living off 17th century-era tax rates.

Simply by staying the same the Tokugawa samurai paved the way for their own relative decline. By failing to modernise their weapons they also rendered Japan vulnerable to the Western imperialists. In the mid-19th century the Tokugawa government was destroyed. Standing still was a failed experiment in the changing world of the 1800s.)

Any thoughts, readers? It seems that some experimentation by the government on its people is inevitable under any kind of political philosophy.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Roger Scruton: why are there so few riots?

In August I asked why people were surprised by the riots in English cities, arguing that the pleasures of recreational violence and robbery make rioting very profitable and desirable to many young men. I was interested, then, to hear conservative writer Roger Scruton being interviewed on a BBC podcast and making the same claim. Riots are not unusual and baffling, they are the default behaviour for many young men. More from Scruton on The American Spectator:
Rioting is natural to human beings, and is a frequently observed effect of our inherent savagery. Young men are particularly prone to riot: and in the conditions of the hunter-gatherer it is to be assumed that, between sleeping, copulating, and eating, they didn't do much else. Young men lapse into riot as soon as there is something to be gained from doing so, and whenever there is nothing serious to be lost. What needs explaining is not the fact that they riot, but rather the far more extraordinary fact that on the whole they don't. What is it, down the ages, that has contained the energies of our youth, and ensured that they respect the lives and property of others?

The answer is "civilization."
I don't really buy into Scruton's wider argument on that article but I'm glad I was not the only one wondering why people were so surprised by the chaos.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Google and the rise and fall of political movements

Since 2007, compare Google searches for "tea party" and "occupy wall street":
And over the last 90 days, looking at "occupy wall street" and just "occupy".
Even though the word occupy has much wider applications than the political movement, it's interesting to see it correlating here with the OWS movement, showing how strongly that term has taken off. But we also see a peak, followed by decline. Will it recover, or peter out like the tea party searches seem to have?

Finally, interesting to see how the Occupy rhetoric about being 'the 99%' also caught on to the extent that searches for "99%" and "1%" correlate with searches for "OWS":

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Do foreigners share a knowing nod?

I lived for a year in a small town in the south of Japan, where I appeared to be the only non-Asian. People stared at me as I walked into town. Children gasped and giggled, two little girls saw me once, hesitated, panicked, and fled in terror.

But when I went to the local city, Nagasaki, there was also the chance of seeing other white tourists or workers, and I found this oddly uncomfortable. One reason was because I knew a few of the foreign teachers who worked in Nagasaki so, statistically speaking, there was a pretty good chance that any white person I saw was someone I had already met and should, therefore, greet and chat with. So I ended up double-taking and staring at white people.

But there was another very, very strange sensation. On one occasion while walking down a street in Nagasaki I passed a middle-aged white man walking in the opposite direction. Just before I passed he smiled and gave me a knowing nod! I had no idea who this guy was but I was completely amused and somehow knew what he meant. That nod was a sort of acknowledgement that both of us were clearly outsiders here, and that gave us some tiny thing in common.

Odd! I wondered then do Asians or Africans in Ireland feel like that if they see someone from the same continent? Especially in the smaller towns, still quite monoethnic, do Chinese immigrants share a surprised nod as they pass one another on the street?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Ireland and inequality, back to the 1990s asked me if they might republish my post on the surprising fall of income inequality in Ireland, and it appears, slightly edited for an Irish readership, here. I am a little amused to see the headline - 'Column: The boom made Ireland a more equal society. Surprised?' - since this is not really what I argued! Actually the figures for 2006-2009 cover only the tail end of the bubble years and the beginning of the recession.

That is an occupational hazard in journalism, though: many readers may not be aware that headlines are coined by editors, not by the journalists, so there can be discrepancies! Anyway I'm flattered editors took an interest.

But it did get me wondering what Ireland's income inequality trends look like a little bit further back. From the 2008 Statistical Yearbook and 2006 I can add the Central Statistics Office data for 2003, 2004 and 2005. The combined picture now looks like this:

Gini coefficient
2003: 31.1
2004: 31.8
2005: 32.4
2006: 32.4
2007: 31.7
2008: 30.7
2009: 29.3

Income distribution (income quintile share ratio)
2003: 5.0
2004: 5.0
2005: 4.9
2006: 5.0
2007: 4.9
2008: 4.6
2009: 4.3

Inequality steady or rising slightly until 2006, then falling. I find it difficult to get earlier data, but this ESRI presentation says that Ireland's Gini coefficient remained around 32% from 1994 to 2000, which seems consistent enough with the data I have here. (It concludes that 'Income inequality was not dramatically changed by the economic boom.') Certainly no sign of any strong shift towards income inequality.

Everywhere is going to hell... except here

People tend to have much more pessimistic views about crime trends for their country as a whole than for their local area, a phenomenon I noted held true for statistics from a survey here in Ireland. Browsing a paper by Alex C. Michalos and Bruno D. Zumbo in Social Indicators Research, called Criminal Victimization and the Quality of Life, I found this remark, observing the same effect in Canada:
Just as people typically report that, for example, there is a deterioration in health care all over the country but the care they get from their own physicians is fine, only 41% of our respondents thought that crime had increased in their own neighbourhoods although almost twice as many (78%) thought it had increased in the whole city, 74% thought it increased in local schools and 64% thought it increased in Canada. In fact, according to the most recent report of the Ministry of the Attorney General for the Province of British Columbia (1997: p. 130), the official crime rate per 1000 residents in Prince George decreased every year from 1993 to 1996, and according to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (1996: Table 3.1) the official crime rate per 100000 inhabitants in Canada decreased every year from 1992 to 1996.
I wonder does this hold true everywhere? In particular, might it break down in regions with high illiteracy or limited access to news media? (I presume that the disproportionate reporting of crime by news media is one of the big reasons that people feel more concerned about their wider communities than about their own localities.)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Income inequality in Canada's provinces

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson's The Spirit Level compares countries by their Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, and also breaks the United States down into its states to compare those.

So I broke Canada down by its provinces too, using Gini data from Harvard's Center for European Studies, from 2005. The data is listed for the ten provinces, though unfortunately not for the three territories. (NOTE: On rechecking this source I realise it is not as accurate as I had hoped, with the Gini coefficients calculated with data from 1980 to 2003. I hope this will continue to have relevance into the 2000s but I realise this could create a lot of noise. Unfortunately I thought to double-check this only after the rest of the blog post was written - keep reading, but take with a pinch of salt.)

The Harvard data is also split into 'pregini' - income inequality at market level before government taxes and transfers are included - and 'postgini' - income inequality after transfers. Below I will look at both measures, and compare them in scatterplots with other social phenomena.

Remember what we are expecting to see here. If Pickett and Wilkinson are right, we should see correlations between income inequality and a host of social problems. I am reproducing here the same kind of graph they use repeatedly in the book. As far as possible I will aim for 2003 statistics. These graphs will include a regression line calculated by Excel, a statistical device Pickett and Wilkinson also use to show 'the line which best fits the trend through the data points.'

First, obesity, from Statistics Canada, the official statistics office, 2004.

Pregini and Obesity
Postgini and Obesity
This is a curious result. Before wealth transfers like social welfare are taken into account, there seems to be a strong correlation between income inequality and obesity. After transfers, this correlation is much weaker. Why?

Something makes one Canadian province have higher income inequality than another, before the state intervenes to create greater balance. Perhaps that unknown factor is what causes obesity, rather than actual income inequality.

I have suggested before that Pickett and Wilkinson use income and status interchangeably, and wondered if they should. I argued that there have been people with low status and high income, or high status and low income.

If Pickett and Wilkinson are right, that income inequality increases the rate of obesity, maybe it is the low status associated with poorer socioeconomic groups that is the problem, and not the actual amount of money they have after transfers. It seems plausible that one might be living comfortably enough on a council estate, but still be viewed as low-status by those living in private accommodation.

If this is the case then a large welfare state that addresses income inequality without somehow reducing pre-transfer inequality won't make much difference.

This is not an argument of Pickett and Wilkinson, who instead say that a welfare state is one successful way to reduce inequality:
Sweden does it through redistributive taxes and benefits and a large welfare state. As a proportion of national income, public social expenditure in Japan is, in contrast to Sweden, among the lowest of the major developed countries. Japan gets its high degree of equality not so much from redistribution as from a greater equality of market incomes, of earnings before taxes and benefits. Yet despite the differences, both countries do well...
Let's look at a few more results. Next infant mortality, 2005.

Pregini and Infant Mortality
Postgini and Infant MortalityWe see the opposite trend. Before transfers the highly unequal provinces do slightly better, while after transfers they seem to do worse, which challenges my earlier idea. Let's see some more, homicide rate, 2006, next.

Pregini and Homicide
Postgini and Homicide
Another puzzling one! Before transfers, the unequal provinces are safer. After transfers the unequal provinces are more dangerous! I'm really not sure what to make of that. Is there something inherent to those provinces which create initial market inequality that keeps homicides low (but makes people obese)? Next life satisfaction (percentage satisfied or very satisfied) from 2007.

Pregini and Life Satisfaction
Postgini and Life Satisfaction
Again, before transfers the unequal provinces are happier, after transfers the equal provinces are happier. The negative correlation between actual income inequality and life satisfaction is what Pickett and Wilkinson would have predicted. The other correlation - well I'm not sure what that means, if anything. (Any ideas?) Next perceived life stress ('quite a lot') in 2007.

Pregini and Perceived Life Stress
Postgini and Perceived Life Stress
And finally sense of belonging to local community (somewhat strong or very strong) in 2007:

Pregini Sense of Belonging to Community
Postgini Sense of Belonging to Community
Just to toy with us, this time inequality is slightly correlated with a sense of community!

Well at this stage I am sorely confused. For some factors we see the opposite of what The Spirit Level would predict. For most we do see post-transfer income inequality correlating with negative social traits.

Of course there could be unseen causes for all of these phenomena, causes which sometimes correlate with inequality and sometimes do not. Interesting though. Should I be eating a little humble pie since The Spirit Level's predictions hold true for a few of these indicators? Or gloating that they don't for all?

Dissatisfied with this result, I am going for two final graphs. The first compares annual charitable donations per person in 2004 in Canadian dollars with postgini:Different provinces have different levels of wealth and I'm not controlling for that so the result (which shows that people in more unequal provinces give more) may be skewed. Hence this, showing hours volunteered in 2004:

People in more unequal provinces volunteer more? Again independent verification of The Spirit Level's predictions eludes me. If income inequality harms social cohesion, why are people in less equal regions giving more time and money to help others? I remain sceptical.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Born animist

I sometimes read atheist commentators arguing that all infants are born atheist, and that religious belief exists only because parents socialise or brainwash children into religiosity. In this view religion is artificial, atheism the natural default.

Yet I noticed that I was responding strangely whenever when my computer misbehaved. Misbehaved? I mean, when it malfunctioned for some reason, slowed down or crashed. I became angry and admonished the unthinking machine with foul language. On particularly bad days I would resist throwing it at the wall and sit seething instead, muttering: WHY WON'T YOU FUCKING WORK?

With less sophisticated tools I did the same thing, becoming briefly enraged at a woodcarving gouge if it slipped and scarred the wood. How strange to spit curses at the innocent metal gouge, projecting blame onto the tools. I was responding to inert physical objects as though they were people.

I thought further back, then, to my early childhood when I treated some of my toys as almost sentient individuals. There was an ambiguity about this, since we did have 'teddy fights' in which my brothers and I bombarded one another with teddy bears, but, still, I religiously tucked my favourites in at night! These bears had characteristics in my mind, and there was a right and wrong way of treating them. Again I was casting human traits onto non-human objects.

Was I alone? I didn't think so. Ancient mythologies of several countries describe people interacting with non-living objects as though they had sentience. Joseph Kitagawa's Kitagawa’s On Understanding Japanese Religion quotes the beautiful 8th century AD Japanese poetry collection Man'yōshū, with this section of poetry by a man mourning his dead wife:
Now I know not what to do or say,
Vainly I seek soothing words
From trees and stones...

Over Mount Onu the fog is rising;
Driven by my sighs of grief,
The fog is rising.
Kitagawa argues that this talk of seeking solace from trees and stones is not artistic symbolism, but rather a sign that the poet believed that the trees and stones were kami - Shinto gods. Another ancient Japanese text, the Kojiki, actually says that trees and stones could converse in primitive times before a kami silenced them.

If I, as a young child, seemed to easily see human behavioural traits in objects, and I as an irritated adult threaten unthinking objects with curses, and ancient Japanese thought that the stones and trees were alive and speaking, might the real default setting for humans be a kind of anthropomorphism?

If so, I can imagine that early animist tribes would have explained most or all natural phenomena by reference to the emotions of nature's spirits. The loving sun being friendly on a cold day, the furious tempest taking revenge on disrespectful sailors and so on. Interaction with such natural phenomena might have included sacrifices in a bid to win good terms, or charms to scare and defy them.

Mulling these thoughts, I was surprised to discover that psychology has indeed a concept developed by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget saying that children understand the world in animist terms. From GW Oesterdiekhoff in the Croatian Journal of Ethnography and Folklore:
How can we explain the ubiquity of magical-animistic thinking in pre-modern societies and the evolution of mechanical philosophy in the early modern times in Europe? The prevalence of magical-animistic thinking in pre-modern societies is not a result of a lack of knowledge but of prevailing elemental cognitive processes....

Empirical surveys in developing regions have found out that not only children but even illiterate adults remain bound to magical-animistic representations and do not master the transformation to the mechanical-causal understanding of the world and to concomitant formal operations. Throughout their entire life-time they continue to believe that sun, moon, clouds, mountains, woods, and rivers are animate and conscious...

Children in pre-modern and modern societies answer in the same way as illiterate adults in pre-modern societies. This fact gives evidence to the basic idea of developmental psychology that animism is not a result of socialising processes but a part of lower stages of cognition.
I do not know how contentious this concept is in psychology. I have emailed a couple of psychologists for their opinions and I will post any answers I get in due course. In the meantime it seems tempting to conclude that people are born neither atheist nor monotheist, but animist, living as though in a complex community of thinking anthropomorphic spirits, rather than a mindless mechanism.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Is Ireland sexist or not?

Two interesting reports have come out in recent days that rank the world's countries by their perceived gender gaps.

First the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2011 ranks Ireland as the fifth highest in the world for gender equality, beaten only by Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden. By their reckoning, Ireland's gender gap has closed every consecutive year since 2006, when Ireland was only 10th highest in the world. So Ireland has improved, and improved faster than some other high-ranking countries.

The other report is the United Nation's 2011 Human Development Index. The report actually gives Ireland an excellent overall score: seventh highest in the world for its mix of health, educational and income indicators. Here we see how Ireland started off below the OECD HDI average and leapfrogged it during the boom of the late 1990s.
So far so good. Things become strange, though, when we scroll down to the UN's Gender Inequality Index, which rearranges the world's countries based on their perceived gender inequality. Ireland, ranked 5th in the World Economic Forum's index, drops to 33rd in the UN Gender Inequality Index! By this measure, Ireland has lower gender equality than Greece, South Korea, Spain, Macedonia, Singapore or Poland.

The UN's gender index is based on these subheadings:

Labour force participation rate. The odd thing about this is that it ranks some very poor countries extremely highly. In Burundi and Rwanda, for example, the proportion of working women is higher than working men. The list of countries doing best for this indicator is a list of very poor or developing countries: Ghana, Laos, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Papua New Guinea and so on. Perhaps I am showing my prejudices, but I struggle with the idea that mass female participation in the labour markets of Papua New Guinea and Ghana really indicate a narrow gender gap! The highest ranked Western country is Norway, which still comes below Ethiopia and Azerbaijan.

Perhaps it would have been more helpful to compare actual incomes of women and men in these countries. When the OECD do this, they show that Japan and South Korea have far bigger income gaps than the OECD average, with Belgium and New Zealand showing the lowest.

Adolescent fertility rate. Again we see pretty bizarre results. The country with the third lowest adolescent fertility rate, and so the third highest ranking here, is Libya. Tunisia comes 6th. The country with the very best score here is South Korea, which also happens to have a major imbalance in its sex ratio because of sex-selective abortion or infanticide. That is, parents choose to abort or kill potential daughters in favour of sons. Once more I wonder if adolescent fertility is a sensible indicator of gender inequality. By this measure, New Zealand is deemed more unequal than Uzbekistan, Oman and Tunisia.

Population with at least secondary education (ratio of female to male rates). The curious thing here is that many countries have massively greater proportions of girls in school than boys. So first place in 2010 goes to Gabon where 1.553 girls were going to school for every one boy. In Ireland the ratio is almost 1:1, which I presume is healthier, though it shoves the country far down the list!

Shares in parliament. This one seems reasonable.

Maternal mortality ratio. Another more obvious one, with the top countries a more familiar mix of developed countries. Ireland comes second highest with only three maternal deaths per 10,000 live births.

Even here, though, Gapminder graphs show that maternal mortality strongly correlates with life expectancy and infant mortality, suggesting that what the UN is really measuring here is health in general, rather than a specific enlightened emphasis on maternal health.

So I do wonder if the UN's indicators for gender inequality are sensible and indicating any real phenomenon or not.

I realise I have questioned only the UN's methodology. The World Economic Forum's methodology is described here and, at first glance, does seem to be more complex and subtle. For example, the WEF look not only at female participation in the workforce but also their remuneration compared with men. Instead of simply looking at parliamentary presence, the WEF look at the 'ratio of women to men among legislators, senior officials and managers, and the ratio of women to men among technical and professional workers', as well as 'the ratio of women to men in minister-level positions and the ratio of women to men in parliamentary positions'. Unlike the UN they do consider the sex ratio at birth, which shows up the massive 'missing women' phenomenon of south and east Asia.

So the WEF's way of exploring gender inequality seems more thorough than the UN's way.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Local equality, national inequality, and The Spirit Level

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson's The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone argues that countries with higher levels in income inequality tend to suffer a number of social problems like higher crime, obesity, mental illness and so on. Their book also breaks the United States down into its states and compares these, seeming to show that those states with higher income inequality suffer greater social problems.

But should we stop at state level?

I stumbled across this blog post, which argues that China is unequal mainly between its provinces, not within its provinces. That is, inequality is low in any given local area, but the wealth of each area varies widely, so inequality between regions is very high.

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this claim but it did make me think more about the level on which inequality is visible. Pickett and Wilkinson seem to presume that the individual's awareness of inequality is strong at the level of a small to medium-sized country: the level of tens of millions of people.

But is this true?

When I was growing up in rural Ireland I had no sense of belonging to a socio-economic class, no sense of class identity, and no sense of significant income inequality in the area. There were few obvious indicators of wealth or status. There was a local council housing estate but the students who grew up there were, in my school, peers and equals to everyone else. Since the towns were small and spaced many kilometres apart, the vast majority of us simply went to the nearest school; there was no sense of a rich school or 'rough' school that would segregate the classes. I did not know what the parents of most of my classmates did for a living, it was not discussed and nobody seemed to care. We all wore school uniforms so there was little peer pressure over appearance.

If there was a sense of inequality, it was a sort of West of Ireland camaraderie and defiance towards Dublin. For example, when Dublin had major transport infrastructure projects including a light rail system (LUAS), the western counties demanded the reopening of a disused railway along the western seaboard. I remember posters reading something like: DUBLIN GETS LUAS, WHAT DOES WEST GET?

There was a sense in the west of abandonment by a Dublin-centric elite. People complained about the 'D4' media - referencing the upper-middle class Dublin postal district containing the offices of the state broadcast company. People argued that a few flakes of snow in Dublin made national news while blizzards in the west were ignored.

There was some truth to these complaints: I lived in a region with much lower wealth per person than that of Dublin. But is this the kind of income inequality that Pickett and Wilkinson were describing?

Ours was a completely different experience of inequality than that experienced in big cities. Every person I knew seemed to be of roughly equal wealth and economic status as me, so there must have been less of the everyday stress (assuming Pickett and Wilkinson are right about inequality causing stress) of being compared with the wealthy. If there was indignation towards a supposed Dublin elite, I did not notice any particular sense of shame over it.

In cities this experience must be more immediate. In Dublin I can distinguish between individuals by socio-economic class by their accent, clothes and posture. There are known wealthy suburbs and poorer 'rough' council estates. The classes rub shoulders on public transport every day, so they can see the limit of their community's identity and the higher or lower status alternative.

I don't know if Pickett and Wilkinson are correct with their claims about the negative social and health effects of wealth inequality. Supposing it is true, I do not see how it could function in the earlier description I gave, of local equality and national inequality. If the relative poor only deal with their economic equals, will they still feel a sense of insecurity and stress?

And this makes me think differently about indicators of national income inequality like the Gini coefficient. A local boom for one city could push the Gini result up, without exposing most people elsewhere to any first-hand experience of income inequality. It might be useful to keep breaking Gini scores down into smaller regions, where possible.