Thursday, December 20, 2012

Patriarchal religion in a sentence

From here
According to Wahhabi Islam, men must obey Allah and women must obey men. “Fortunately for men,” House writes, “Allah is distant, but unfortunately for women, men are ­omnipresent.”

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Nothing is in walking distance

I recently moved moved house from inner Western Melbourne (Seddon) to outer Western Melbourne (Truganina), hence my absence from blogging. The most direct way to the nice new house (and it is a nice new house, a vast improvement on the decrepit dump my housemate and I were previously renting) is along a road which has newly constructed, and to-be-constructed, suburbs on one side and dusty paddocks with sheep grazing on the other. (The dusty paddocks are, of course, every bit as much the result of human action as the new suburbs but the former have less biodiversity.)

Since I lived in Canberra for 11 years, the made-for-cars layout of the new suburbs is familiar. What is less familiar is how less well-designed they are. First, in Canberra, the linking streets between suburbs were mostly  dual carriageway as a matter of course. The linking streets where I now am are often single carriageway and so easily clog up in peak hour.

Secondly, nothing is in walking distance (and I count something up to 30 minutes walk away as walking distance). Both because, despite the single-carriageway streets, things are more spread out and because there is no shopping centre at the heart of each suburb. Instead, it is the land of streets of franchised megastores and drive-to-malls.

I realise that the push to have developers' pay for infrastructure upfront, so it is included in house purchase prices, is likely to lead to under-provision of infrastructure.  Upfront payment for infrastructure is a pretty silly way to pay for something that will be providing benefits for decades, that is what government debt should be for.

Same spot, different direction
But the point is not to rationally provide infrastructure, it is to maximise the value of land allocated to housing -- so incumbents get wealth effects from rising prices, so tax revenues from land are maximised and so government land corporations can maximise their return from the power to compulsorily purchase and control usage. The combined effect of which is to raise the cost of future infrastructure, because the land value is pushed up so much, and lower the benefit to government of providing infrastructure through higher taxes since it is cheaper and easier to raise the tax value of land by restricting its use.

There was an old joke that, if the Soviet Union took over the Sahara Desert, in five years there would be a shortage of sand. The joke seems much less funny as government ensures that land-rich Australia has the most expensive housing land in the Anglosphere (apart from Hong Kong; rather a special case). Watching designed dysfunction in operation makes it much less funny too.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Have moved house

I have recently moved house from inner Western Melbourne (Seddon) to outer Western Melbourne (Truganina). This has meant a break in posting. I expect to start posting again in a few days.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Coercive competition

A useful way to think of organised crime is as the application of coercion for profit in social spaces where the power of the state does not effectively reach.

It is common to think of organised crime gangs as having "territories".

Such as this map of the territories of Mexican drug cartels.

Obviously, the drug cartels are not the only coercive power in such territory -- the Mexican state still operates. Nevertheless, it make sense to talk of territories and turf wars -- which can be vicious and deadly. So deadly, that law and order can break down if the struggle gets sufficiently intense. Ex-military personnel can be prime recruits for such gangs because they are trained in applying violence.

Researchers have found that American street gang territories in Los Angeles can be modelled by predator-prey equations, with violence concentrated on the boundaries of territories. (Abstract of article here.) Organised crime being a form of competition over scarce resources -- income from crime; in the above cases, primarily from sale of illegal drugs. Though human trafficking is apparently rising in importance as an income source.

Essentially, organised crime gets its "in" because the state fails to maintain a sufficient monopoly of organised coercion. This can be because the state just does not bother (as in various shanty-towns and slums in Latin America or the Philippines). Or because its mediation and enforcement services are sufficiently incompetent, as happened in Bangalore in India, where organised crime provided land ownership enforcement and mediation services more effectively than the slow, complex and corrupt official land ownership registration, mediation and enforcement system. Or because the state bans a range of transactions, thereby withdrawing its mediation and enforcement services from them -- given that said ban fails to eliminate such transactions.

Practitioners captured with tools of the trade
Which is why command economies tend to become, over time, spectacularly pervaded by corruption. So many transactions people wish to engage in are illegal, that huge "black" markets form. Which then creates a demand for mediation and enforcement services that the state refuses to provide for such transactions; demand that is open (and likely) to be fulfilled by organised crime. Since command economies tend to have ruthless enforcement services that -- by a thoroughly Darwinian process of selection -- tends to breed ruthlessly effective organised crime (as they are the only ones that survive). A legacy that can persist (or even be exported) after the command economy has collapsed. Hence the notorious problems with Russian organised crime gangs.

The market for official discretion
Corruption is the market for official discretion, so the more pervaded by regulation based on official approvals the economic life of an economy is, the greater the level of corruption tends to be. In Australia, land markets have long been the major markets most pervaded by official discretions, so have a long history of corruption scandals. Since the Spanish and Portuguese exported highly economically controlling systems of government with elaborate licensing and other forms of official discretion, their former colonies tend to have notoriously high levels of corruption. Up until the mid C18th, English-cum-British politics were also notoriously corrupt. There was then a century or so of repeal of official monopolies, licenses and other regulatory interventions which massively shrank the scope of official discretions. By the mid C19th, British politics had a very high reputation for probity. Shrinking the realm of official discretions naturally shrinks the likelihood of corruption, just as expanding it tends to have the opposite effect.

Note that official discretions and regulation are not the same thing. One can regulate by some general rule or by requiring official approval; the latter is a form of official discretion, the former is not. The German Federal Constitution, for example, essentially blocks official discretions from interfering with (pdf) property rights. That effective ban does not stop Germany from having land and environmental regulation, it just forces it to be via open rules. The complication is that any regulation generates some form of official discretion in its enforcement; nevertheless, systems of explicit official discretion are much more vulnerable to corruption than rule-based systems.

While organised crime (in the sense of competing mediation and enforcement services to those provided by the state) and corruption are connected, they are not the same thing. In China, for example, the Communist Party elite dominates both the official state and the market for official corruption, greatly reducing the scope for any competing source of coercive services. Though whether this is a stable arrangement is another question, as continuing sale of official discretion is likely to undermine the social coherence, the asabiyya, needed to make such continuing exclusion of alternatives work. The Gu and Bo Xilai scandal may be the Party leadership drawing "lines in the sand" that organised violence will remain a Party-state monopoly.

Competing mediation and enforcement
Gambling, prostitution and drugs are notorious realms for organised crime precisely because they are banned transactions that the state has thereby withdrawn its mediation and enforcement services from which nevertheless continue to occur. As demand for such transactions are not eliminated by the ban nor such withdrawal, income sources are opened up able to support alternative mediation and enforcement services as neither party in such transactions wishes to attract the attention of the state.

Prohibition was notoriously a hey-day for organised crime precisely because so many people still wished to consume alcohol. This connection between the wish to control other people's transactions and willingness to supply banned services can lead to an effective alliance between the controlling moralists -- the wowsers -- and gangsters; the so-called "Baptists and Bootleggers" phenomenon. The notion that officially banning, or failing to recognise, something will make the thing go away is very attractive. Even if it is not fully believed, it can be a great way to express righteous malice towards others.  A central appeal of political action is, after all, precisely that one can impose costs on others which one avoids oneself. (There is some depressing economic experimental evidence on the power of human malice.)

They will accept us as their new protectors after we smash them
Protection rackets are the most direct form of competing mediation and enforcement services. (Anarchists of various stripes would argue, of course, that the state is just a protection racket that has managed to clothe itself in an aura of legitimacy.) The existence of protection rackets relies on people being either isolated from, or otherwise lacking confidence in, official state protection.

The failure of a state to enforce an effective monopoly of organised violence can have very unpleasant consequences. For example, there was a major drop in homicide rates in Western Europe after the medieval period (pdf) as the nascent modern state became the monopoly provider of organised coercion, rather than relying on that local franchising of protective services which we call "feudalism". Coverage of protective services became less contested, so increasing in clarity and effectiveness. The state acquiring the income and administrative resources to be the monopoly provider being what led to the transition from "franchising" protective services to direct central provision. This led to a serious of inter-related "knock on" effects. As the nobility became less bellicose, its behaviour became more "courtly", generating different social expectations. The expansion of centralised provision of protection led to less reliance on personal honour -- a form of "privatised" protection -- and less tolerance of its effects by state officers and judges.

Neighbourhood self-help group
Conversely, competition in the effective provision of mediation and enforcement, in organised violence, is competition in the ability to apply violence. An obvious way to demonstrate effectiveness is to eliminate the opposition, thereby reaping the benefits of local control. The recurring need to "prove" effectiveness, the dynamics of challenge and response, of displaying "honour" and protecting "standing" as per a system of privatised violence, and the problems of competing ambition both between and within gangs, can lead to high levels of violence.

Whenever territory is the primary source of income subject to coercive capture, border violence is likely to be high. A major reason for the decline of warfare between states in modern times is that land is no longer such a central source of income. Conversely, conflict within states has been plausibly connected to high salience of natural resource income open to territorial capture (pdf).

Intentions and consequences
If one wants to reduce corruption, reduce official discretions and the extent of banned transactions. If one wants to reduce organised crime, ensure that the enforcement and mediation services of the state are effective and reliable -- including well plugged into the local communities -- and minimise banned transactions. Of course, the enforcement and mediation services of the state are more likely to be effective and reliable the less reliance there is on official discretions and the less banning of income-generating transactions.

But the desire to control the transactions of others -- due to malice, righteousness, to generate or protect privilege, to provide income, to some combination of these -- can be strong. And the consequences of high levels of official discretions or of banned transactions can be remarkably easily ignored or denied.

Nor should we underestimate the willingness to inflict costs and misery on others for no other reason than preserve our own cognitive comfort. Particularly when all sorts of fears about what might happen if we don't require official approvals, or ban said transactions, can so easily be conjured up and contrasted with the "manifestly" good intentions of such controls. Especially when we can associate ourselves with said good intentions and deny or ignore the consequences for others. A central appeal of political action being that one can impose costs on others which one avoids oneself.

Coercion is control over others without their consent. That reality is at the heart of organised crime but also of the policy and social failures that give rise to it.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer and at Critical Thinking Applied.]

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The dynamics of division

A recent post by Stratfor intelligently discusses the dynamics of US presidential elections -- why they tend to be so even, why low voter turnout does not seem a good indicator of voter alienation, that big [60%+] wins (Harding 1920, FDR 1936,  LBJ 1964, Nixon 1972) have not generally led to historically well-regarded presidencies.

But it misses out on why two-Party system tends to be so even in voter supporter--such that a 55-45 result is a "landslide". It is a result of the dynamics of coalition building.

For, in any political system dominated by two Parties, even a unitary "Major Party" is, in reality, a coalition. Not only a coalition of various shades of political ideology among its activists (who may or may not form as overt factions) but a coalition of voters. The level and strength of support within the various elements of said coalition for a specific Major Party will vary and will be subject to different "triggers" of support or opposition. The weaker that support, the more "floating" considerations -- such as apparent competence -- will become dominant.

As long as enough of the electorate is open to persuasion, trying to build a majority coalition will be somewhat like herding cats. Just as you apparently have one in place, another will wander off. What appeals to one group may be a matter of indifference, or even hostility, to another. And your bids for support are subject to continual competition from your opponents.

Being in office is an advantage, in that one can "deliver", but also something of a disadvantage, in that you are responsible for policy outcomes, so your chances of alienating people tend to accumulate over time. Hence a tendency for the electoral support of Governments to decline over time; for being in office to be a wasting political asset.

So, given a certain political competence and openness, there will be a constant tendency for support for each "side" of politics to converge on about 50% of the vote. This is related to the median voter theorem, but one should be wary of seeing the politics as being captured along a single dimension or axes.

Moreover, such convergence is what one wants. If politics is divided into a permanent majority and minority (as Ulster politics is, for example), the level of alienation among the permanently excluded is likely to be dangerously high. One wants as large a section of the electorate as practical feel that "their side" (someone they voted for) will be in office at least some of the time. That concerns of folk like them get a say.

Which is one of the advantages of the Australian system, in that the proportional representation Senate gives even supporters of Parties not up for gaining a House of Representative majority a vehicle for having some influence without causing political instability.

If one sees the Major Parties as competitors seeking to build a voter-majority across disparate social groups who nevertheless all feel that they are in the same political "game", then the tendency of electoral politics in Two-Party systems to result in remarkably persistent even divisions of total votes is neither mysterious nor problematic.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer and a later version at Critical Thinking Applied.]

Monday, November 12, 2012

Modernism in religion

One of the most enjoyable polemics I have read in recent years is Christopher Beckwith's denunciation of modernism.  Not modernity, but modernism -- the belief that the new is always better than the old. A monstrously destructive delusion that consigns centuries, even millennia, of human experience, striving and achievement to the tediously passe, beneath the concern of the so-much-more-enlightened present.

One of the great ironies of the modern age is that those forms of religion which most proclaim their devotion to the origins of their faith are most in thrall to this delusion. All the experience and wrestling with faith and life that has happened between those origins and now is consigned to the dustbin of history as corrupting pollution of the pristine original faith. That original faith as currently imagined, of course.

This modernism in religion manifests in modernism in architecture. The Wahhabism the al-Saud are allied to is just such a rejection of the history of Islam to return to its alleged roots. A return which includes obliterating historical buildings in Mecca -- even those intimately connected to Muhammad's family and companions -- to build modernist monstrosities, such as the tallest clock tower on top of the building with the biggest floor space overlooking the mosque which holds the Kaaba, the focus of the hajj and the lodestone for the direction of the prayers of believers.

No connection to that history is safe. This obliteration of the past includes:
the house of the prophet's wife, Khadijah, was razed to make way for public lavatories; the house of his companion, Abu Bakr, is now the site of a Hilton hotel; and his grandson's house was flattened by the King's palace.
But more is to come. Much of the Kaaba mosque itself, along with the core of the Old City of Mecca, is to be obliterated to construct 400,000 sq metres of prayer halls notionally able to peer at the Kaaba and to allow 130,000 pilgrims an hour to be funnelled through the holy centre. Stark modernist functionality literally built on the obliteration of the history of Mecca.

There is a profound arrogance involved in this rejection of human experience, achievement and striving in favour of present obsessions. An arrogance which is profoundly destructive. In this case, quite literally and physically so.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Time enough for success

Skepticlawyer's excellent post on the GFC examines the financial crisis. The post below is concerned with the time period for monetary policy. While, as I note below, the collapse in total spending clearly worsened the GFC, this post is more about how to avoid or minimise recessions and, particularly, events such as the Great Recession.

The remarkable success of the Australian economy in avoiding a recession (defined as two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth) for 21 years and counting has been remarkably ignored by economists and policy-makers across developed countries.

It is true that the robust growth of the Chinese economy has been good for Australian commodity exports (the usual reason for dismissing Australia's recent economic success). However, it is also true that the high $A has been less happy for other sectors of the Australian economy -- such as tourism, education and manufacturing exports. Moreover, commodity prices dropped dramatically during the height of the Great Recession -- Australia had a higher (proportional) drop in exports than did the US.

The Australian success in avoiding recessions also predates the recent surge in its terms of trade. (Graphs in this post taken from here.)

Like other market monetarists, I attribute the Australian success in avoiding those transaction crashes we call "recessions" to the Reserve Bank of Australia's (RBA) monetary policy.  This is not to deny that decades of reform have made the Australian economy much more flexible, and so responsive to changes in economic conditions. Or that the concern of fiscal authorities to make life easier for the RBA has not been helpful (at the very least, in keeping down debt liabilities of taxpayers).

Furthermore, as Jim Belshaw points out, the ability of the $A exchange rate to respond rapidly to an economic shock was very beneficial to the Oz economy during the GFC -- but that was also true during previous economic shocks, such as the 1997 Asian crisis.

All these things have made it easier for the RBA to run monetary policy smoothly. But it is that policy itself which is at the core of the avoiding of transaction crashes.

The business cycle itself has not been abolished -- this is particularly obvious if one looks at per capita GDP data.  It has, however, been greatly, and beneficially, ameliorated.

At the core of market monetarism is the view that monetary policy is not a mechanical manipulation of monetary aggregates or base interest rates but an exercise in managing expectations through policy signaling. (A useful, quick, lay-friendly summary is here; I would also add in debt as the ultimate "sticky price".)

Within the boundaries set by the level of credibility of the central bank -- credibility that may require commitment to action to maintain --  the same policy instruments may have quite different signaling, and so expectation management, effects depending on the policy framing in which they are embedded.

Balanced credibility
As I have argued elsewhere, the advantage the RBA has is that, unlike central banks who only have credibility on inflation targeting, the RBA also has credibility on total spending (and so income) in the economy. Its credibility is balanced (inflation and spending) not unbalanced (inflation only). Which means that its interest rate shifts positively manage both inflation and spending expectations.

Confidence that spending (and so income) will remain relatively stable means that Australia has not experienced the transaction crashes we call "recessions".

How does the RBA achieve this balanced credibility? It is explicitly an inflation targeting central bank and it uses base interest rate as its policy instrument; its policy signaling device. In this, it is like other central banks.

The key difference is the time period of said inflation target -- it is an average over the business cycle. In the words of the RBA website:
The Governor and the Treasurer have agreed that the appropriate target for monetary policy in Australia is to achieve an inflation rate of 2–3 per cent, on average, over the cycle. This is a rate of inflation sufficiently low that it does not materially distort economic decisions in the community. Seeking to achieve this rate, on average, provides discipline for monetary policy decision-making, and serves as an anchor for private-sector inflation expectations.
As I have also argued before, this means that its policy time-horizon is based on economic conditions, not on some time period imposed over the top of economic conditions. To put it another way, there is no time period constraint operating on the RBA (and its policy signaling) independent of economic conditions.

Since the policy time-horizon is directly connected to economic conditions, this greatly helps signaling (and so expectations management). There is no concern that some arbitrary (time) constraint unconnected to economic conditions will affect RBA policy. A time-horizon based on economic conditions does not impose an arbitrary -- and so potentially dysfunctional -- constraint on policy.

Moreover, because it specifically invokes the business cycle, the RBA's monetary target actively assists maintaining balanced credibility. If the inflation target is an average over the business cycle (as it has to be to be responsive to economic conditions), that clearly implies more strongly than a simple inflation target that monetary policy will be easier if economic activity weakens and tighter if economic activity strengthens; not merely to "keep" the inflation target but in order to "lean against" the direction of economic activity so as to stabilise spending. For, being an average, it clearly implies the inflation target constraint will be (temporarily) traded-off to keep economic activity (or, more accurately, since central banks only directly control matters nominal -- that is in money terms -- spending) up if economic conditions worsen, thereby creating both inflation and spending (and so income) credibility, i.e. balanced credibility, for the RBA. So its interest rates shifts provide credible and positive signals for both inflation and spending.

Supply shocks, money demand and looking forward
This also makes the RBA somewhat more broadly forward-looking than other central banks. Since the target is a band over the business cycle, how inflation has been is considered in terms of expected economic conditions, particularly if economic conditions are weakening. Scott Sumner nicely highlights an example of this.

To put the difference between simple inflation targeting and (implicit or explicit) spending targeting another way, as Scott Sumner points out in his recent (very clear) paper on NGDP targeting (pdf: nominal GDP = GDP in money terms = total spending on/income from output of goods and services), simple inflation targeting responds quite differently to supply shocks than NGDP targeting or some implicit spending targeting. Inflation targeting would lead to tightening monetary policy in response to a negative supply shock, such as a surge in the price of oil (a perverse response to expected conditions making a transaction crash much more likely), while NGDP targeting would lead to easing monetary policy (the correct response if a serious transaction crash is to be avoided).

Supply shocks show up how the RBA monetary policy time-horizon makes inflation-targeting operate like NGDP targeting, for the average-over-the-business-cycle-goal does not sacrifice the overall level of spending to the inflation target if economic conditions weaken due to a supply shock. A similar point operates when there is an increase in demand to hold money (driven, say, by a financial crisis). An inflation-targeting central bank is likely to be limited in its monetary response, as any effect on inflation from an increase in the demand to hold money is likely to be downward. A NGDP-targeting central bank would ease, since money being held is not being spent and so would have a serious downward effect on spending.

Given the US$ is the premier global reserve currency, this makes it more important, not less, that the US Federal Reserve target NGDP (or else, like the RBA, has an explicit average-over-the-business-cycle target) since monetary-demand-shocks (for the premier global reserve currency) are more likely and the consequences of a US transaction crash are more serious. The "passive tightening" of the US Federal Reserve during the surge in demand for $US helped make the GFC such a financial crisis (as spending, therefore income, expectations weakened dramatically, worsening fears over debt and leading to a flight to cash) and, through the consequent transactions crash, the Great Recession "Great".
Regarding the time-horizon for policy, there is also an issue with what is known as level-targeting, whether of the price level or of NGDP.

Level targeting anchors longer-term expectations by forcing central bank to, if it follows the target, to adjust to past outcomes or be increasingly exposed as failing to meet its target. It does generate a possible short-run problem if reaction to past outcomes is held to create perverse responses to expected conditions. This is much more a problem for price-level targeting than NGDP-level targeting because the former lacks spending (and so income) credibility and the latter does not.

Repeatable success
So, the central bank having a policy time-horizon which is based on economic conditions allows much better policy signaling and expectations management. Having policy targets whose time periods impose arbitrary constraints unconnected to economic conditions on monetary policy is unfortunate. Having credibility on inflation but not spending makes serious transaction crashes not merely likely but as inevitable as anything can be in economic policy.

The success of a monetary policy target whose time-horizon is based on economic conditions and which has credibility for both inflation and spending is not some happy accident. It is a repeatable success open to any central bank which can bear to learn from antipodean achievement.

POSTSCRIPT: It is sometimes suggested that the RBA has been lucky in that it has not had to confront the problem of the "zero bound" (when base interest rates are 0%pa and so cannot be cut any further: the various quantitative easings [QEs] are attempts to get around that constraint). Australia has persistently run slightly higher inflation than, for example, the US.  Given the long history of Australian labour market rigidity (i.e. strongly "sticky" wages), this seems to be fairly clearly deliberate policy, fortuitously or deliberately making it much less likely Australia would confront the problem of the "zero bound".

Monday, November 5, 2012

The ever-sharpening crisis of capitalism

I like graphs.  A good graph can be very revealing. Such as this graph on US per capita income from the 2012 US Federal Budget (via).

The impact of the Great Depression is very obvious.  But so is the remarkable stability of economic growth in the US over the last 120 years.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

War and peace, order and chaos

We think of the World Wars of the C20th as being unprecedented in their death tolls. That is not true in either total deaths or, still less, death rates.

While the 1939-45 War did have the largest death toll of any war in history, the 1914-19 War does not come second. When one considers the huge increase in population the Industrial Revolution unleashed, they are both well down list in death rates; mostly due to starvation and disease not taking the proportional toll it did in previous major conflicts. The increase in technology -- in productivity, in transport capacity, in administrative capacity, in knowledge of disease and medicine -- created much more robust social orders.

We can see this quite clearly in these estimates of China's population over time (via). While the estimates are subject to all sorts of doubts about level and amplitudes, the pattern is likely broadly correct.

As a new dynasty imposes order on China, the population surges as people have more surviving children due to the expansion in farming production.

If that order breaks down, the population plummets (even taking into account shrinkage of official ability to take censuses) due to starvation and disease as the land people are able to reliably cultivate shrinks. The effect is increased as agriculture is an across-seasons activity and so more vulnerable to disruption.

Hence the supreme importance agrarian societies generally, and China in particular, have usually put on preserving social (and divine) order.

As heirs of millennia of monotheism, it is natural for Westerners to think of the (moral) universe in good-versus-evil terms. A perspective that likely dates back to Zoroaster, who historian Norman Cohn argued was its originator. But there is an older perspective that dates back to the beginning of farming societies and which still pervades Asian perspectives.

That is of order-versus-chaos. When things are ordered (both on earth, and in what the heavens provide -- rain, fertility-renewing floods), then the crops can be cultivated and planted, families get fed, children survive.

If chaos strikes, if order is lost, all that is imperilled. In a very direct and literal sense.

The ancient Egyptians -- running a complex society dependant on the Nile flooding regularly -- had the concept of maat or order. The ancient Mesopotamian religions clearly had a similar perspective of order versus chaos; creation is the construction of order out of chaos.

If order is the supreme social goal, then actions are justified according to how much they preserve, restore or extend social (and divine) order. The historical Chinese notion that if someone committed a sufficiently severe crime, then you killed their entire family, makes perfect sense in this context. That family had failed in its duty to defend order; it had proved itself a source of disorder and needed to be eliminated so that order could be preserved.

This order-versus-chaos perspective can also lead to a more limited notion of law. If families are supposed to take care of their own, and the family will be punished if its fails to do so, then the realm of law can be much more limited. The historical Chinese notion of law as "instructions given to officials" fits in with an order-versus-chaos perspective. You only do enough law to maintain order. Particularly given the lack of a priestly role in law, so no need to separate the righteous from the unrighteous, the "clean" from the "unclean". Being simply a guardian of order is a much less expansive role than being a gatekeeper of righteousness.

This perspective of there being delinquent families is alive and well in the operation of the North Korean police state (pdf), for example.

Of course, Leninism is a particularly intense version of the politics of salvation, so the full deal can be deeply concerned with controlling just about all aspects of life -- as was true in Maoist China and is still true in North Korea under the Kim Family Regime. But the more Leninism becomes a social game to signal acceptance of ruling authority (pdf), the more law in post-Leninist Asian societies is likely to shrink back to its more conventional role of whatever is needed to maintain order.

Which makes the apparent spread of Christianity in China a disturbing development for the emerging social order there. (Islam is a much smaller in numbers and much more connected to border problems.) Importing a strong good-versus-evil perspective does not sit well with "keep order, and that's enough". The regime's apparent interest in promoting a revival of Confucianism -- very much an order-versus-chaos worldview -- makes a great deal of sense in such a context, beyond Confucianism being indigenous Han in origins and so lacking any implied foreign connections or loyalties.

But just looking at that graph makes the deep Chinese fear of disorder make perfect sense.

[Cross-posted at Critical Thinking Applied and an earlier version at Skepticlawyer.]

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A startling development

One of the things that has been strongly associated with the modern age is for increasing life expectancies.

So, it is startling to discover that life expectancies for low-educated whites in the US are declining.

It is apparently not clear why, but the effect is clear, particularly for low-educated white women:
The steepest declines were for white women without a high school diploma, who lost five years of life between 1990 and 2008, said S. Jay Olshansky, a public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the lead investigator on the study, published last month in Health Affairs. By 2008, life expectancy for black women without a high school diploma had surpassed that of white women of the same education level, the study found.
I have always scoffed at suggestions about how "unhealthy" modern living was on the basis of increasing life expectancies.  Clearly, the story is now more complicated.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Complexity strikes

One of the frustrating things about trying to have an intelligent debate about matters Islamic is the tendency to simplistic polarisation.  One is the "nothing to see here" version, where raising any concern about trends within Islam and Muslim communities is dismissed as alarmist and likely racist or otherwise bigoted. Any concern or suggestion motivated by same is immediately reconstrued so as to fit into the latter framing.

While I get that this is all about displaying conspicuous virtue, it is also childish and stupid. Both because it is closing one's eyes to real issues and because it leaves the public debate open to being dominated by more extreme views who get credence precisely because they are the only people apparently willing to talk about genuine problems.

Problems such as what journalist Michael J. Totten well-characterises as the terrorists' veto (over free speech).  Part of the massive sense of entitlement that belief in the One God often generates; a sense of entitlement that, in contemporary Islam, repeatedly degenerates into murder. A sense of entitlement both generated and inflamed for reasons of power and authority.

More mundanely, it generates claims against ordinary legal processes and decorum, such as refusing to stand when the judge enters. That Appeals Court threw out all but the first contempt of court conviction on the ground of seeking a "least disruptive" way of maintaining order; which implicitly does generate special claims over normal procedure. (Which then becomes grist for claims of creeping Sharia.)

The second form of simplistic polarisation is the "it is just Islam" approach where Islam is treated as a monolithic thing incapable of evolution or variety. This flies in the face of history and evidence. For example, this study (pdf) which found that anti-Americanism was far more connected to elite competition within Islamic countries than Islamic piety.

An excellent example of such complexity recently occurred in Benghazi where a large angry mob of protestors stormed a militia headquarters; anger apparently sparked by the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi which killed the US Ambassador.  
There has been a wave of hostility towards the militias since US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others Americans died in last week's attack on the Benghazi consulate.
"I don't want to see armed men wearing Afghani-style clothes stopping me in the street to give me orders, I only want to see people in uniform," said university student Omar Mohammed, who took part in the takeover of the Ansar al-Sharia compound.
Many Libyans have expressed outrage at the attack on the US consulate. Ansar al-Sharia denies being behind it.
"Angry Muslim mob storms militia HQ in outrage over attack in US consulate" does not quite fit into the "it is just Islam" simplicities.

Of course, as one commenter notes here
Intimidating a town that faced down Qaddafi's entire army would be a Herculean task.
Also, it was Qaddafi's murderous threats to Benghazi which prompted the NATO intervention in the first place. 

As political scientist Walter Russell Mead points out in this useful short essay, the complexities of the Middle East have been a constant trial for the US since the days of President Jefferson. He provides a cautionary summary:
Since Thomas Jefferson’s original unhappy encounter with the ambassador of the Barbary States, the U.S. has suffered one setback and disappointment in the Middle East after another. Our good intentions have often gone awry and we seem to sow dragons’ teeth no matter what we do. Yet at the same time, the United States has managed through thick and thin to advance and defend our core interests in the region and over time, some core American values have gained a tenuous foothold. In the Middle East, the United States has a record of failing forward.
It is not a particularly glorious or inspiring track record, but no outside power has done better.
More broadly, it is the lack of simplicities which makes the issues surrounding Islam and Muslim migration so complicated and resorting to self-congratulatory simplicities (in either direction) is the opposite of a useful response.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Dark Satanic Mills

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Since Blake's poem is clearly invoking the legend that Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain -- indeed even brought a young Jesus with him on an earlier visit -- the popular reading of the "dark Satanic Mills" as being the factories of the early Industrial Revolution does not make a great deal of sense.

The brooding monuments of Britain's pagan past make more historical sense, particularly as there is even sketch evidence from Blake's papers.

Oxford and Cambridge is another possibility.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Hanging markers of humiliation

One of the less pleasant sights of Melbourne is sneakers tied together and hanging from overhead wires.

These are trophies of some kid being jumped on, his or her sneakers removed and tossed where they cannot get them back. The hanging trophies of persecution can remain for weeks or even months, an enduring reminder of humiliation.

Kids can be horrid.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Thoughts on wage stickiness

Based on a comment I made here.

Nominal wage stickiness is about contracts being written in nominal terms. But, given heterogeneous consumption/investment bundles/preferences, how else could contracts plausibly be written?  Money is not only a (largely "the") transaction good, it is, in effect, the common language of transaction and so of contract -- hence a sort of "network" effect of being the unit, indeed medium, of account where your income contract is tied into your expenditure contracts.

Given utilities and debt contracts are also in the same "language", and given we are social beings very concerned with status and standing (our notions of fairness are often about status while a strong element in bargaining is not losing "standing" for future interactions), there are powerful reasons for wage stickiness. Even when one hires new workers.

Possibly, in earlier times, when many industrial workers were ex-agrarian workers and used to rising and lowering prices for products across seasons, wage flexibility was more acceptable.  But once we got plugged into debt, utilities, etc; not nearly so much.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Something obscurantist this way comes

I recently had the unexpected experience of reading a book that appalled me; this is not a reaction I can remember having to a book before.

The book has a title I agree with: Ideas Have Consequences. Regarded as a classic text of  postwar American conservatism, the book is a long jeremiad at the corruption of culture and social life stemming from the nominalism of William of Ockham (him of Occam's Razor).

I have no problem with someone finding things to admire in medieval society and thought. But the notion that the passage of human history has, since the C14th, been a story of decline is such appalling nonsense that I am stunned any intelligent person can offer it seriously.

The Wikipedia entry on the author, Richard Weaver, tells us that he was both a Platonist and a defender of Southern culture. The former brings to mind Etienne Gilson's observations about Platonism in his The Unity of Philosophical Experience:
Begotten in us by things themselves, concepts are born reformers that never lose touch with reality. Pure ideas, on the other hand, are born within the mind and from the mind, not as an intellectual expression of what is, but as models, or patterns, of what ought to be: hence they are born revolutionists. And this is the reason Aristotle and Aristotelians write books on politics, whereas Plato and Platonists always write Utopias (Pp54-5).
Extending that point, as Gilson says, in his God and Philosophy:
Truly to be means to be immaterial, immutable, necessary and intelligible. That is precisely what Plato calls Ideas. (p.24)
Naturally, if ideas are so wonderful, then they are more “real” than mere transitory people: to have a “true grasp” of such wonderful ideas gives on a status far beyond that of ordinary mortals. Platonic Guardians here we come. Hence the politics of “my ideas are more important than people”. Not merely in the sense of ways of making people lives better, but in the sense of disregarding the actual consequences of one's ideas for people, of requiring people to conform to the ideas.

Willful blindness has consequences
Ideas Have Consequences does not argue, so much as assert; often in such rotund generalities that following how, if at all, it connects to reality is somewhat murky, to put it politely. There is a deep hankering for a sense of lost certainty that Weaver seems to believe reached some apotheosis in the C13th and began to be lost from the C14th onwards. For someone so clearly steeped in Western culture, Weaver has a remarkably poor sense of history. Far from being accidental, this poor sense of history appears to be necessary to protect his particular sensibility.

This hankering for lost certainties pervades the work, as in comments such as:
But the Symbolists retained a Romantic's interest in the intimate and in the individual, with the result that their symbols came not from some ideology universally accepted but from experiences almost private (p.82).
The notion that art based on private experience is somehow decadent or otherwise problematic is based on a conception of people as problem. The work is pervaded by a sensibility deeply reminiscent of Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor; people have to be controlled and moulded by their betters -- particularly in their beliefs. As when Weaver asks whether literacy has value (p.94), holding that truth can only be effectively conveyed by personal teaching (thereby limiting it to the elite with the leisure to undertake it). Obscurantism as self-satisfaction is not a pretty sight.

But this distrust of people goes with the horror of nominalism, for what would encourage a sense of the power of the particular more than taking people -- in all their variety of experience and sensibility -- seriously? Weaver again and again denounces manifestations of modern life as egotism and manifestations of a "spoiled child psychology". Yet, behind the jeremiad seems to be a disappointed scion of a culture fallen on hard times who resents that the modern world took his social toys away.

Naturally, he hates newspapers, radio, cinema, the mass technology of communication (Pp93ff); not for him Jefferson's preference of newspapers without government over government without newspapers. We are offered the banal observation that the great works of intellect are better than journalism (Pp98-9).

Naturally, Weaver also hates Jazz (Pp85ff); holds that music has been in decline since Beethoven while Impressionism is a similar sign of the degeneration of art (Pp83ff).

The book's sensibility rests on a frozen concept of social order and a hostility to cultural difference and the range of human experience. Weaver may be steeped in Western culture, but he has remarkably little sense of other cultures (which, of course, then limits his sense of his own). When he suggests that the growth of landscape painting as a sign of a loss of sense of divinity (p.88), do the rich traditions of Chinese and Japanese landscape paintings make this at all a sensible judgement?

This deeply limited sense of the past leads to a poor sense of the present, and of future prospects. Thus, the growth of democracy rather contradicts his expectations of despotism (p.91) and he is deaf to any sense of the genuine moral progress that Pinker has documented. He is blind to experience beyond that of the cultured, and privileged, Western male. So, for example, he appears utterly unaware of the imposed nature of female subordination (p.178) in what he regards as their "natural" role.

Weaver dislikes machines -- he is clearly unaware of the medieval fascination with them. He offers a ludicrously metaphysical analysis of the Great Depression and responses to it (p.144).

But this sense of loss certainties is itself deeply ahistorical. That, for example, Aquinas's thought was seriously controversial when it first appeared seems to pass him by. To the extent there were social certainties, they were certitudes based in part on ignorance and often defended by brutality.

For any serious outbreak of new knowledge and capacity encourages nominalism as previous verities and categories are exposed as inadequate. Nominalism was as natural a result of the expansion in knowledge of the natural world and technological possibilities in the C12th Renaissance as it was to the Hellenistic Scientific Revolution or to the expansion in knowledge from C16th global exploration and the second Scientific Revolution it kicked off. Nominalism, breaking things down to specific manifestations, is a way of absorbing the new information and reconstructing categories better able to handle them. This is also why becoming a nexus civilisation -- a civilisation newly connected to a range of other cultures -- so regularly leads to artistic and intellectual flowerings; it is a positive effect of the shock of the new.

If the previous conceptualisations were such eternal verities, further knowledge and experience would confirm them.  The problem is that expansion in knowledge and experience repeatedly undermined them.  For such verities and categories are creations of particular historical circumstances and rely on exclusions and ignorance to make them seem unchallengeable. The more limited and specific experience/available information, the easier certainty is because the more constrained one's experience of possibilities.

But there are also consequences for moral sensibilities and social possibilities from expanded knowledge and capacities. As the background constraints change, so do the possibilities and interactions we want to protect. Moral perspectives and social possibilities change according to constraints, possibilities and conceptions. There is nothing surprising about this.

Credence but not authority
The book encapsulates, in a particularly intense form, the difference between giving credence to the past and giving it authority. Far from being the same thing, they are, to a large degree, opposites (or, at least, antinomies). For to give authority to the past is to fail to give it full credence. To give authority to the past is choose which parts of it to give credence to. It is to impose a congenially selective sense of significance on it.

For example, how many of those opposing current claims to equal protection of the law -- often on the basis of defending tradition -- are beneficiaries of previous decisions that mere persistence through time is not enough? Traditions are not eternal things, they are responses to circumstances. Those responses might have been broadly based, or they might be exercises in social power. If we cannot revisit how and why they evolved, we attempt to make history the permanent possession of a given set of victors.

Due to the cognitive limitations of the human mind, reality is always going to be more complex than what the mind can grasp. The problem comes when the human mind insists on reality as conforming to those simplicities it finds congenial. The alleged respect for the past and experience usually conceals a willful refusal to inquire into the realities of that past and what experience counts, or does not.

As I have noted before, conservatives turn out to be regularly very bad at learning from history. They tend to idolise the past in much the same way that progressives idolise the future. They are just different ways of ignoring and discounting human experiences, of sacrificing giving credence to the past in order to selectively give it authority (positively or negatively).

Not that the progressivist-modernist approach of giving the past negative authority is any improvement. On the contrary, the more such a view is taken, the more disastrous and oppressive the results are likely to be, as it gives little or no credence to the past, thereby making current theory the only reference point while cutting off from consideration warnings and achievements from past experience. (Consider the way Leninism utterly disregards millennia of experience of the problems of political power.) The modernist impulse has been vastly destructive.
A form of destruction that Platonist worship of ideas feeds. Consider the society in Plato's Republic; is it not profoundly modernist, profoundly based on imposing a theory on human possibilities with pervasive discounting of past experience and institutional learning?

But obscurantism and modernism are not our only choices, no matter how much politics tends to devolve into Bagehot's stupid party versus silly party. Grounding our ideas in human experience -- all of it -- is a great barrier to sacrificing people to ideas.

Ideas do have consequences, and Weaver's massive discounting of human experience in the service of the authority of a past so selectively considered as to be a grotesque work of fiction is no way to understand the past, the present or prospects for the future. Weaver's book may have helped kick off postwar American conservatism but it is also a window into its flaws and limitations.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer and at Critical Thinking Applied.]