Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Occupy Tea, plenty of common ground

I wrote last October that the Occupy Wall Street movement was a missed opportunity for those on the left and right of American politics to team up and challenge the corporatist Republican and Democrat parties. Both the right-wing Tea Party and left-wing Occupy movements were enraged by government support for banks and corporations, which they call crony capitalism. Yet they seemed culturally divided, full of scorn for one another and deriding the other movement as a natural rival.

I'm glad that I'm not the only one to see this. James Sinclair, blogger and attorney in Florida, writes:
Occupy Wall Street, at its core, is a reaction to the increasing power and influence of large corporations. The Tea Party, at its core, is a reaction to the government's constant interference with private enterprise. But wait a minute—aren't those things connected?

Bailouts, subsidies, tax breaks, special rights and privileges, regulations designed to restrict competition—to name a few of the many ways the government protects and stimulates corporate interests, and those things are every bit as anti-free market as, not to mention directly related to, the high taxes and excessive bureaucracy that gets Tea Partiers riled up.[3] In other words, aren't these two groups—Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party—raging against different halves of the same machine? Do I have to draw a Venn diagram here?

Oh, alright, I'll draw a Venn diagram.
And he does, a simple thing with the Tea Party circle intersecting with the Occupy circle with the words: 'Large corporations lobby the government to have more power, and in return the government enacts laws and regulations favorable to large corporations'. Yet the American left and right seem to be stuck in a cultural hatred for one another, and remain divided while the corporatist centre stands tall.

Friday, February 24, 2012

BBC mistaken on Japan as third richest country

From the BBC:
The discovery of three bodies that lay unnoticed for up to two months in an apartment in Japan has raised concern over so-called "lonely deaths".... Despite being the world's third richest country, Japan has seen a number of similar cases in recent years.
Japan is a large country, with around 127 million people, and is usually estimated to have the third largest economy in the world. Here World Bank statistics put it just below China, which is below only the US.

But Japan is not the third richest country. Its huge population is a big reason for its huge GDP, which is obviously true for China too, a middle-low income country with a gigantic population. Looking only at GDP is meaningless, since it would suggest that India ($1,727,111,096,363) is many times richer than Singapore ($208,765,019,308).

Instead we need some measure of wealth per capita. This one, simple GDP per person in US dollars, puts Japan 14th. This one, using Gross National Income per person (based on purchasing power parity), puts Japan 16th.

So the BBC writer makes a simple mistake in saying that Japan is the third richest country, by using the wrong measurement.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Exaggerating social problems to worsen social problems

This time last year I suggested that Channel 4's The Joy of Teen Sex, a sex-education TV show for teenagers, might be misleading viewers about the normal behaviour of teenagers by focusing on extreme examples:
Yet it struck me that TJOTS, by focusing on sexually active teenagers, may be distorting the extent to which most British teenagers are active. In their hurry to shake off taboos over teenage sexual activity, they may instead be shifting them onto chastity: increasing the emotional pressure on teenagers to become active, worsening the unhappiness of those who cannot.
Now I see the BBC discussing a similar idea with binge-drinking in the UK:
Bartlett says that exaggerating the problem can have negative effects. It leads to false "social norming" - people thinking that everyone else is binge drinking so why shouldn't they. "One reason university students go on a bender is because they overestimate the amount all their peers are drinking." But publishing the facts can challenge this. Some student unions have begun putting up posters giving the real drinking statistics for students, which are on average often far lower than expected. Once the true figure is displayed, students tailor their drinking accordingly. In other words, it doesn't do any good to hype up the problem.
That makes sense to me. Here in Ireland heavy drinking is sometimes celebrated as a part of national identity, even while it has negative social consequences. Exaggerating the problem might make the moderate drinkers feel that they must rush to catch up and conform with the others.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Unintended consequences in Libya: inertia in Syria

Last year I warned against NATO's intervention in Libya, with a list of horrible possible consequences of it. (I hedged my bets a bit with this admission of a blind spot that probably afflicts me over wars.)

Anyway, one consequence I hadn't foreseen is related to the way NATO interpreted the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 which called for a ceasefire and the protection of civilians, and under which NATO aided Libyan rebels to overthrow Gaddafi. Russia and China had abstained from the vote when they could have vetoed it, and later protested that it was used by NATO as a pretext for regime change.

Now there is terrible violence in Syria, but this time China and Russia have vetoed a new UN resolution. NATO member states have been shaking fingers at them since:
Mr [British Foreign Secretary William] Hague criticised Russia and China for their "grave error of judgement" over the resolution.

"Such vetoes are a betrayal of the Syrian people," he said.
But one should feel no surprise that the Russian and Chinese governments aren't willing to be tricked a second time into green-lighting another NATO-influenced regime change in the Middle East. It is possible that the sneaky use of the Libyan resolution to overthrow Gaddafi has lessened the likelihood of NATO winning support from Russia or China in the future.

The Syrian situation is still often depicted as a simplistic good (the people) versus evil (the dictator) scenario. However the Syrian government is made up of a Muslim religious minority, the Alawite sect, while the majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims. The Alawite ruling Assad family have been friendly with Shia Iran, and support (Shia) Hezbollah. If NATO manage to nudge Assad from power they might manage to score an important strategic victory: deprive Hezbollah of one of their major supporters, alienate Iran from its neighbours, and bring Syria into the influence of American ally (Sunni) Saudi Arabia. I don't know how sincere NATO member state politicians are when they call for an end to violence in Syria, but I can understand why Russia and China might see this as crocodile tears by Western powers talking humanitarianism while quietly projecting power.

So the regime-changing intervention in Libya may have prevented a ceasefire intervention in Syria.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Democracy the Dandelion II: Power and Peace

I have written a lot here recently about order and instability in society, comparing the chaos of 3rd century AD Rome with modern stability, and wondering what separates them. In Rome the emperor was whoever managed to rush his army to grab the capital first, or whoever bribed the Praetorian Guard the most to murder the sitting emperor. The old republican order that had carefully limited the amount of power any individual could hold was long gone, and any taboo on harming the imperial family had run out in generations of violent upheaval that saw low-born non-Roman soldiers seizing control. Power was up for grabs and governments lasted months before new rebellions and assassinations swept them away.

I also remarked that democracy seems stubborn, tending to stabilise once it is established for a few generations. Democracy has, for some reason, expanded dramatically over the last century, with lots of old autocracies shifting to democracy and few long-term democracies reverting the other way. A year ago I pointed out that the Chinese government's repeated justification of oppressive policies in terms of 'social stability' seemed odd since liberal democracies appear to be more stable:
Yet the unrest in Arab autocracies show how vulnerable those states which prioritise stability can be. Mubarak's Egypt had 100,000 secret police agents, with an estimated 300,000 informers, yet it failed to stand up to popular protest. Decades of oppressive Ba’athist rule in Syria, designed to create stability with an iron fist, may be about to collapse.

Meanwhile fairly low-income democracies like Indonesia, Malaysia, Bosnia and Herzegovina seem to have escaped the revolutions. Far from securing stability, oppressive government policies may endanger it. Liberal democracies have a modern history of high stability with power changing hands peacefully at regular elections. Perhaps the Chinese government should reconsider their antipathy towards "Western" democracy, if stability really is their concern.
Doing a little digging on this last night I started to come across studies which began to tie these observations together.

First, I had noticed that the political instability of the Roman Empire greatly increased its vulnerability to external enemies. When frontier soldiers proclaimed their general Augustus, he would rush his army away from the border to attack the sitting emperor, who in turn had little option but to suck troops away from the Rhine, Danube, or Persian borders to defeat the usurper. Goths, Franks and Persians wasted little time in taking advantage of the regional vacuum created by the vanishing troops to raid Roman territory, prompting further chaos, economic crisis, and rebellion in Rome. The civil wars themselves were often bloody and destructive, with Roman troops even sacking Rome's own cities. In a single dreadful battle between Emperor Constantius II and the usurper Magnentius in 351AD up to 50,000 Roman soldiers were killed.

So, I thought, a stable political system with a clear hierarchy where the military always obeys the government would probably be better at fighting foreign enemies. Right?

Right. From The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 2004, (the full article may not be accessible without payment) Democracy and Military Effectiveness: A Deeper Look by Stephen Biddle and Stephen Long:
Why are democracies unusually successful in war? We find that superior human capital, harmonious civil-military relations, and Western cultural background are largely responsible. These traits correlate positively with democracy, and account for democracy's apparent effectiveness bonus.
So, as expected, democracies are better at war, though the authors hesitate to assign clear explanations: the relationship between democracy and human capital, harmonious civil-military relations and so on could be causal in either direction.

It confirms the intuitive sense that a stable and popular political system would be better able to fight external enemies, though, probably in part because it need not fear internal insurrection. In a democracy a strong minority know they need only wait until the next election for their shot at power. In an autocracy their only option is murder and rebellion. From American Political Science Review, 2001, Harvard Hegre, Tanja Ellingsen, Scott Gates and Nils Peter Gleditsch write that:
Coherent democracies and harshly authoritarian states have few civil wars, and intermediate regimes are the most conflict-prone. Domestic violence also seems to be associated with political change, whether toward greater democracy or greater autocracy.... In the long run, since intermediate regimes are less stable than autocracies, which in turn are less stable than democracies, durable democracy is the most probable end-point of the democratization process.
So democracies are better at winning wars and more stable internally. The United States need not fear about rebellion or secession at home while it projects power abroad. (By the way, does China count as an intermediate country experiencing political change, or a stable "harshly authoritarian" state, I wonder? Do its rapid economic and cultural changes make it more stable or less?)

The authors' final suggestion, that the relative stability of democracy makes it the likely end-point of democratisation processes, is a crucial one and related to my earlier observation that established democracies don't tend to revert to autocracy, while established autocracies are under grave threat from the rise of democracy.

Here in Ireland discussions of democracy often focus on the sense of fairness about it, of people being properly or improperly represented by the government. When commentators talk about popular uprisings abroad they use a moralistic language: the people (good) are fighting for freedom from the dictator (bad). Of course democratic governments can be destructive and oppressive too, there is nothing inevitable about the people making better choices than monarchs or dictators.
An underestimated part of democracy, though, is this incidental role in stabilising society. By offering a peaceful change of government every few years it makes civil wars and assassinations fairly pointless except for tiny minority groups who can't win elections. An evicted government knows that it will not be purged by the new government, and they need only wait a few years to get another crack at the throne. In the past they had to get good at killing; now they just need to be good at talking.

When most of us also value democracy for those moralistic reasons about representation and fairness, this seems to be good news. Far from being delicate political systems always under threat from fascist autocracy within and military conquest without, democracies seem to be tough, naturally more resilient than the autocratic alternatives.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Those hip 19th century disco dudes

Playing around with Google's Ngram Viewer, which shows the frequency of words appearing in English-language books scanned onto Google Books since 1500*, I was astonished to see the results for the word 'disco':
As expected, 'disco' shoots up in popularity in the 1970s as the dance music style took off. But see how high it also was in the early 19th century! What disco was exciting people in Napoleon's time?

I pushed ahead with a search in Google Books for the 1800-1808 period and discovered that the 'disco' appearing there seems to be simply the first part of words like 'discourse', 'discover', 'discomfort' or 'discount'. In some cases the 'disco' part is separate because the word was split with a hyphen when it was at the end of a line, with the second half appearing on the next line.

A small disappointment, to think that Wellington and Jefferson were not living in some early age of disco fever! But it's a useful discovery of the limitations of the Ngram Viewer for earlier periods. I guess, though I'm not sure, that words are less often split up as the 19th century progresses, producing less of this confusion.

*As a percentage of all the words appearing in the scanned books at the given period.

Monday, February 13, 2012

RTÉ's pessimism on industrial disputes

RTÉ News runs this story about industrial disputes in Ireland with the downbeat headline: Days lost to industrial disputes up last year.

I was puzzled when I read it because the text seemed initially to say the opposite, that days lost were down:
New figures show that a total of 3,695 days were lost to industrial disputes last year.

The Central Statistics Office says this compares to 6,602 in 2010 and to 329,593 days in 2009, the majority of which related to public sector disputes.
At the end of the short article, however, it adds that in the last quarter of 2011, the number of days lost to industrial action were higher than in the last quarter of 2010. My guess is that a sub-editor perhaps noticed that finding and quickly concluded that the days lost were 'up', even though over the course of the year they substantially declined.

The longer term trends show no major increase in days lost to industrial action. In fact 2011 had the fewest days lost of any year over the entire 2003-2011 period covered in the official CSO statistics. Even the high fourth quarter had the 7th fewest days lost of any quarter since 2003 - and two of those other quarters were also in 2011. While that may be affected by a general decrease in employment, it could have been presented as really good news: industrial relations at a modern high!

It shows how new statistics are better understood if they are placed in a bit more context than just a one-off comparison with last year's equivalent.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Men from Venus, and other confusions solved by statistics

I remember that after starting college in my late teens I was sometimes bothered by generalised descriptions classmates made about men and women, rich and poor, Irish and British and so on. When people said that 'women' had one characteristic and 'men' had another I was full of doubts because I saw exceptions everywhere. There were gentle men and aggressive women, grasping women and submissive men, monogamous men and promiscuous women. Classmates based entire arguments on their understanding of 'human nature', but there were selfish people and selfless people, homicidal people and suicidal people. Which of these represented the 7 billion others?

I thought: generalisations are useless because when one meets a member of a particular group one cannot know if this individual is typical of the group, or an exception. I dismissed off-hand any argument based on human nature because I thought no single human nature could exist when individuals were unpredictable, behaving in diverse ways.

It was easy to take this perspective because the generalisations being made were often clumsy and did not match my own experiences. I remembered being irritated listening to some radio pundit remark that: 'I think all teenagers hate their parents.' I didn't! It was common to hear unsupported generalisations about nationalities, classes, and age groups, especially winking and back-slapping over the heavy alcohol-use associated with Irish culture. I didn't drink at all at that stage so this stereotyping seemed ridiculous.

Yet I did see that lots of Irish people did drink a lot, and short trips to France and Italy showed me that this particular culture of binge-drinking was not universal. So is it true to say that 'the Irish' drink heavily or not?

Statistics to the rescue
It took me a long time to reconcile the fact that there are both trends and exceptions and that, if I'd been honest with myself, my day to day life took account of both already.

Let's go back to alcohol with the Survey of Lifestyle, Attitudes and Nutrition in Ireland; A profile of drinking patterns and alcohol-related harm from SLÁN 2007. Respondents to this survey were asked how often they had an alcoholic drink over the previous year.
The left-most bar of people saying they consumed no alcohol in the previous year is the one I used to belong to. It seems to be quite a big exception: 19%. One in five Irish people don't drink! This would bring me back to my initial concern with generalising: how can people say that 'the Irish' like to drink when a fifth of the adult population have not touched the stuff over the last 12 months?

But there's more to it than that. First, drinking patterns differ between men and women. Only 15% of men reported never drinking, compared with 23% of women, so as a man who didn't drink I was in a slightly smaller minority.

Next, age. Below are two graphs, the first showing drinking rates for people between 18 and 29, the second showing rates for people over 65:

Only 11% of the younger group said they drank no alcohol in the previous year. So instead of belonging only to the fifth of Irish people who didn't drink, I also belonged to the tenth of young people who didn't drink. This again showed that I was yet more unusual, to be young and male and still never drinking.

(The comparison with the drinking trends for older people is interesting for a few reasons. First, why the discrepancy? Do people drink less as they age, and they move out of the binge-drinking party culture? Are older people carrying on the cultural patterns of another time, when people drank less? Or did the heavy drinkers just die off before they hit 65? Perhaps the moderate drinkers did if not the heavy - the proportion of people who drink over four times a week is actually higher among the elderly group than among the young.)

Seeing the stark differences between the old and the young, is it fair to say that younger people 'drink more' than older people?

Nah, not really, and it's that kind of generalisation that irritated me when I was younger. On encountering a young man we still don't know if he is part of the 11% who never drink or the 34% who drink 2-3 times a week. That older lady we bump into could be one of the 10% of over-65s who drink four or more times a week and has a hip flask buried in her handbag. How would we know?

Chances are
The answer is probability. If we know of an individual who is Irish, our best guess is that there is a one in five chance that he or she did not drink any alcohol over the last year. With extra information we can narrow it down. Is the person male? Then only a 15% chance of not drinking over the previous year. Is he young? The chance decreases further. Piling on additional information gradually improves our estimate for how an individual can be expected to behave.

We are still uncertain. Now, though, we can quantify our uncertainty a bit better, work out the likelihood that our individual shirks the trend or not.

Of course I was doing this already. If I had to enter a street with a group of female pensioners on one side and a group of teenage boys on the other, I would probably have made a snap decision to join the pensioners because deep down I judged the teenagers a greater risk. Rightly, of course: the vast majority of violent crimes are committed by young men. With further information I might reverse that decision: if the teenagers seemed quiet, or the pensioners drunk and noisy, I might push on through the youngsters.

There will always be exceptions and as children we had also always been taught not to base guesses about a person's probable behaviour on such things as race or sex. In the classroom we were given grim stories about slavery and the Holocaust and told that discrimination was wrong, but outside we got informal messages about spotting trouble by people's appearances. So I had always been weighing up our cultural aversion to discrimination against impulsive common-sense guesses about how people will behave.

Perhaps this all seems obvious - really I'm saying that most members of a group may have certain characteristics, but not all - but some of the subtlety is lost in public debates. When, for example, wage differences between men and women are discussed, it is the mean wages that are considered. The mean is made of data from the combined incomes of a great many individuals, divided by the number of individuals. That the male mean is higher than the female mean does not mean that 'men earn more than women' because there will be high-income women and low-income men. But, knowing nothing more than a person's sex, our guess about their likely income is slightly improved. The probability of finding a high-income man is higher than that of finding a high-income woman, more or less. So generalisations can be useful, so long as the extent of uncertainty is considered.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Rising US - recovering Ireland?

There has been some positive economic news from the US lately, falling unemployment in January for example. This is probably good news for Ireland, because Ireland is a major trading partner of the US.

The United States International Trade Commission ranks the trading partners in the US by the value of their combined exports and imports. Ireland comes 17th, which is pretty remarkable for a tiny country. The US trades more with Ireland than it does with Russia, Australia or Indonesia.

The great bulk of that trade is in exports from Ireland to the US, exports worth nearly $34 billion in 2010. Ireland exports more to the US than Italy or India.

Ireland's imports from the US are relatively much smaller, only $6.5 billion. So Ireland's trade surplus with the US is huge, around $27.3 billion.

This is actually gigantic for such a small country. Of 233 listed trading partners with the US Ireland has the 6th biggest trade surplus! Only Canada ($69.6 billion), China ($278.3 billion), Mexico ($97.2 billion), Japan ($64.2 billion) and Germany ($36.5 billion) have trade surpluses with the US larger than Ireland's. Considering that the least populous of those is Canada, and that has a population over 8 times bigger than Ireland (and shares a border with the US nearly 9,000km long, while Ireland is separated from it by a huge ocean), this is quite a surplus! Ireland even exports more than many of the oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia or Venezuela.

So all this gives me some hope that a recovery in the US could cause rising demand for exports from Ireland.

As to what Ireland exports to the US, there is this breakdown of 98 categories of trade, topped by 'organic chemicals' and 'pharmaceutical products'.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Too much pessimism over East Asia

BBC reports that the Indonesian economy grew at its fastest pace in 15 years last year: 6.5%.

Great. What a success for Indonesia, and for anyone who cares about poverty.

There is not enough acknowledgement of the really great economic improvements in many Asian countries. When the rich Western countries are growing fast I see complaints about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Now that most Western countries are nearly stagnant and many Asian countries are booming, there is alarmist pessimism and complaints that the global centre of power is shifting east.

Will there never been a celebration of the rise of Asian economies? These are drastic reduction in poverty enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people. Sure the rise of China might provoke strategic fears, but anyone who cares about poverty should surely be delighted to see vast numbers of Chinese people climbing out of it. Good for them.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Why is there order?

I've touched on this before, but it's still a puzzle to me. Why is there order in society? Why so little rioting? Why the predictable elections? Why is the peaceful transfer of power seen as unremarkable?

Some people seem surprised when I take this view, and challenge my pessimism about human nature. But it's not all humans I'm worried about, just the unscrupulous and impulsive section that I presume exists in all societies. Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test features psychologists who argue that a significant minority (a bit less than 1%) of people are psychopaths, incapable of empathy and content to manipulate and terrorise others for their own gain. In my own teenage years I saw enough low-level cruelty and disorder to learn that some section of a population will loot, steal or destroy for pleasure if they don't see consequences.

I'm prompted in this post now because of two things that have brought it back to mind. First is Mike Duncan's excellent podcast series The History of Rome, which explains how the old Roman Republic (which had never been democratic in the modern sense of equal and universal suffrage, but which did at least spread power amongst a few instead of centralising it under one man) had gradually fallen towards autocracy. A common theme was of political taboos being broached, and finally laws simply ignored.

The consulship, for example, was a powerful office to which two men were elected by the republican Senate for just one year. Reelection was not allowed for a further decade (and at some stage reelection was outlawed completely), so these rulers had little time to establish a tyranny. I don't remember which consul first broke with the tradition, but Gaius Marius certainly did.
Taking advantage of wide popular support and fear of Germanic invasion, Marius won elections to the consulship seven times. The way Duncan tells it, this was the breaking of a legal and cultural taboo, which delegitimised the system, showed that it was not sacred, that it could be challenged successfully.

Marius's populist reforms eventually brought him into conflict with Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a brilliant conservative general and politician who eventually seized power by marching his own army on Rome itself.
Sulla wanted to defend the Republic from populist tyrants, but his march on Rome was another taboo broken, another indication that the system could not defend itself, that rules could be bent or ignored. Corruption.

Another charismatic general was reported to have considered Sulla's march on Rome with the words: 'Sulla potuit, cur non ego?' If Sulla could do it, why can't I? That observer was Pompey the Great, who would break more rules, like becoming consul without being a senator and essentially diving the Republic between himself, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Julius Caesar. Today we talk about a point of no return as 'crossing the Rubicon'. The Rubicon was a river in Italy over which generals were forbidden from marching their armies, and which Julius Caesar did indeed cross it with his soldiers, prompting a civil war which he would win, kicking another scaffold away from the republican edifice. The Senators murdered Caesar but they were too late to save the Republic. From then on, power went to whoever could kill or bribe their way to it.
At least the Empire occasionally enjoyed competent leaders like Trajan and Hadrian, though these were interspersed with sadistic brutes like Nero and Caligula, who pissed away Rome's wealth on luxuries and games. By the 3rd century new emperors rose every few years, sometimes every few months, as conspirators killed into power and died at the knife of their replacements. Assassination or civil war were normal ways to determine the throne.

The emperor's bodyguard, the Praetorian Guard, grew increasingly destructive. Conspirators needed the Guard's aid to murder the emperor, so promised them great raises and gifts on taking power. Having bribed them thus, the new emperor was forced to keep buying off the Guard lest some other conspirator promise them the same. The Praetorian Guard was complicit in many murders when emperors failed to satisfy them. In one case the Guard confronted the new emperor Pertinax, who, after 86 days in power, was declining to raise their wages because there simply wasn't enough money to go around in the near-bankrupt Empire. A guard lashed out and killed the new emperor on the spot. The disgraced Praetorian Guard then auctioned off the position of Roman Emperor to the city's rich, rewarding Didius Julianus eventually with the position. Julianus was dead within three months.

The armies were no less corrupt and demanding. Emperors bribed them for loyalty with pay increases. When the pay hikes ceased, the armies hailed their generals as a new emperor and marched on Rome. How do we build an army to protect the interests of the state and not a state to protect the interests of the army? Whenever a new emperor bribed the Praetorian Guard or army for support against the old emperor, he was destroying whatever taboos survived about leadership. Now anyone with enough weapons and wealth could seize control, so long as they kept taxing ordinary people to feed the parasitical military.

Duncan remarks in one podcast that while many people ponder the fall of Rome, the real surprise is that it survived the 3rd century at all. Yet when I look around Ireland today, I see strong, strong surviving taboos. Electoral democracy is alive and well. Crimes are detected and punished. Murderous conspiracies are unknown. Even now, in a rough economic climate, there are not riots and chaos and assassinations. Why?

The second inspiration was this jarring article from n+1 magazine, alleging the abandonment by the American political system of the huge imprisoned criminal population. I was prompted by this remark on the Detroit riots:
In 1967, riots broke out after city police arrested eighty-four revelers at a party given for a pair of African American veterans who had just returned from Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson sent in an army division to pacify the city, resulting in forty-three deaths and the destruction of 2,000 buildings.
What! 43 deaths to stop a riot in a modern, developed country! Yet again I think (like Pompey) if then, why not now?
It's this sense of wonder at the order and stability of today that informs my uneasiness over civil disobedience and mass resistance in liberal democracies. I was disturbed when I saw Irish socialists suggesting that we should follow the lead of rebelling Egyptians, even rioting Greeks. I argued that we simply didn't need to, since we already had a representative democracy and, unlike the Egyptians under Mubarak, would be peacefully booting out the government in the election last spring anyway.

But I was also worried about breaking taboos there too. If a mass-movement of angry citizens did manage to overthrow the government, could an active radical minority do so too? If they don't have to wait for election day I worry there would be rising after rising by rival factions, looting by opportunistic thugs during the disorder, economic chaos, a downward spiral. I think we should protect order by keeping the legal taboos that have given us our modern peace and stability.

The only fair concern I can think of is if mass-disobedience is necessary to prevent the corruption of the political system from within. When Irish voters rejected the Nice Treaty in a referendum, the government just ran another referendum, as they did with the Lisbon Treaty, worrying some people that governments might side-step the will of the people by forcing on referenda until the people caved and gave the required response. There was a lot of rage about crazy decisions made by the previous government which saddled us with a gigantic national debt, too.

Still, though. I don't see any greater hope amongst enraged mobs destroying the law, so I want my change to happen within the legal framework. I'm not a historian so I hope I'm wrong about this, but when I do read history I see nearly every form of government ever tried as incompetent, cruel, unstable, exploitative and violent. What we have in modern liberal democracies is Utopian by comparison. Let's not throw it away lightly. No marches on Dublin, please.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Nice right-wingers

Chatting with a friend last weekend, he remarked that he could forgive and understand communists even if communism fared poorly in practice, because at least they were acting out of a good impulse. They saw poverty and injustice and wanted to improve it. But he saw no redeeming features for right-wingers who seemed, he said, 'just mean'.

I have come across those 'mean' right-wingers over the years. Some were proud hybrids of Ayn Rand and Ebeneezer Scrooge, who presumed the worst in all others and thought any charitable act was a cynical bid for attention. These were suspicious people who feared outsiders and were eager to resort to war as an early response to every international challenge. Aggressive, rude and cruel: mean.

But they were a minority and lots of the right-wingers I would come across held subtle and complex perspectives. Many were polite, friendly and introspective, some more willing to admit uncertainty and reconsider their opinions than their left-wing equivalents. The very first blog post on The Harvest explored some of those right-wing perspectives, especially paleoconservatism and libertarianism.

So here I'll say something about the nice and well-intentioned libertarians I've come across, their views and attitudes.

On War
Here is libertarian economist Bryan Caplan, arguing against war. Not any specific war, all war. Caplan believes that even 'defensive' war is morally unjustifiable, and he defends this argument on pragmatic grounds:
1) The immediate costs of war are clearly awful.
2) The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain.
3) For a war to be morally justified, its long-run benefits have to be substantially larger than its short-run costs.
Caplan is a pacifist. He thinks war is never acceptable. And here he is, strongly supporting the arguments of the 'far left' on Christopher Colombus, who he denounces as 'a brutal slaver' and 'a pioneer of slavery'. He sounds like a hippie.

Am I cheating with Caplan? Surely this is a half-hearted right-winger, still keen on public health and welfare for the poor? Absolutely not, Caplan is about as far to the right as possible, deeply opposed to any government interventions to help the poor.

On Poverty
Sometimes right-wingers are seen as lacking in compassion for the poor, blaming them for their own poverty and making little of that poverty. Caplan seems guilty here:
It may seem strange, but when leftist social scientists actually talk to and observe the poor, they confirm the stereotypes of the harshest Victorian. Poverty isn't about money; it's a state of mind. That state of mind is low conscientiousness.
Mean! Caplan blaming the poor for their own poverty! Well yes, he does explain some modern First World poverty by looking at the behaviour of the poor, and he uses the controversial concept of 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor:
If I sound harsh, notice: by my standards, many of the poor are clearly deserving: low-skilled workers in the Third World, children of poor or irresponsible parents, the severely handicapped.... Starving Haitian children really do deserve your help more than almost any American.
On Immigration
But Caplan isn't without compassion for those deserving poor. He thinks the government has a role to help them, not in what it should do, but what it shouldn't. Governments shouldn't control immigration:
The Third World contains hundreds of millions of deserving poor: desperate people who would love to work as a janitor for $25,000 a year. If we owe charity to anyone, we owe it to people who struggle to earn a dollar a day. But when First World governments hand out charity, the deserving poor in the Third World get next to nothing. Foreign aid's about 1% of the budget. Indeed, First World governments actively prevent the world's deserving poor from helping themselves: They make it illegal for them to move to the First World and accept a job from a willing employer. Even if we owe charity to no one, the least we can do is stop kicking the world's deserving poor while they're down.
Not mean! Caplan wants open borders, to give the absolute poor of the world the same chance at climbing out of material poverty that people in the First World enjoy already.

It's about freedom
So why the collage of judgement and compassion? How do we make sense of this? At the heart of it is the libertarian belief that taxation, because it is involuntary, is oppressive. Some argue that taxation is simply armed robbery, even if the tax-collector is empowered by a democratic state. The state in this narrative becomes a Mafia gang, offering 'protection' to its people and sending aggressive agents (police) out to anyone who refuses to buy into the racket. So there are libertarians (and some other right-wingers) who think that forcing other people to give up their money is unacceptable. There is no generosity in putting a gun to one's neighbour's head and demanding that they surrender some of their income to help someone else.

So taxation is out. Wealth redistribution is out. No social welfare, no housing projects, no public health or public schools.

But giving, voluntarily, is good. Caplan's colleague at Econlog, Arnold Kling, explains:
From a libertarian perspective, your generosity is reflected in what you do with your own money, not in what you do with other people's money. If I give a lot of money to charity, then I am generous. If you give a smaller fraction of your money to charity, then you are less generous. But if you want to tax me in order to give my money to charity, that does not make you generous.... But being libertarian does not mean you have to have a cold heart. You can be a bleeding heart, but you show it by what you do, not what you advocate forcing other people to do.
Are the libertarians correct in this moral opposition to taxation? I don't know, but at least see that for many of them their opposition to social welfare systems isn't about cold, cruel hardness, but about gentle opposition to coersion.

This is a very simple beginning. There are other shades of right, with other justifications and explanations of their views, pragmatic or principled. Plenty of them are nice, caring people who worry about poverty and the environment and fairness. Some have argued passionately with me that free market capitalism is better at reducing poverty than other economic systems, and that government regulations and welfare that is intended to help the poor only creates economic drag and hurts them in the long run.

There are a few real dickheads, sure. But there are dickhead hypocrites in any movement, like the occasional socialist I see publicly wringing hands over the poverty of the working classes and privately complaining about scumbags and skangers, and deriding the popular culture of the people they claim to represent. Not all the right-wingers are mean. They're just not always very good at pointing that out.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


I'm glad to see that page views for The Harvest are still gradually heading up - thanks readers. I'm really not sure how many of these page views result in people following through to actually read the posts. Some of the more popular posts are heavy in images, which makes me think that people stumbled across them by accident through a browser image search.

Anyway for those who do pop in to read, thanks for your time, always feel free to share your thoughts in the comments or email :)