Saturday, June 30, 2012


Does this count as food p0rn?

One of the joys of travelling around Venezia in particular was the plentiful gelati outlets, with a wide variety in flavours. A couple of scoops could be both a new taste treat and a sugar boost to fuel the pleasurable ambling.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Response to Dr Horwitz's thoughts

Dr Horwitz's thoughtful and generous response to my original post is useful in clarifying what a serious Austrian school economist thinks and correcting some of my misapprehensions. It seems to have been a useful exercise, to provide reactions to Austrian commentary from someone much more familiar with mainstream economics. Even better, I now have something I can point to correct what Dr Horwitz rather nicely calls "consumer Austrians".

Dr Horwitz has also provided useful links, such as Peter Lewin's Capital in Disequilibrium. Though not always useful in the sense of being persuasive. I have never been comfortable with the Austrian framing of action in terms of plans by economic agents, in part because it smacks of responding to socialist touting of plans, a sort of high modernist hangover. Reading Peter Lewin's book has crystallised the rest of my discomfort. Speaking as someone in business, the notion of a specific plan is not how one thinks of capital goods. It is about creating a capacity to produce that will (hopefully) pay its way across the flux of commercial circumstances. You do not have a definitive plan, you have an intent and associated estimations and you manage use of the capital goods as you go.

To invest in capital good(s) is to purchase capacity, capacity that typically expands production possibilities. Production possibilities that are not likely to be fully predictable, as some may only reveal themselves in use or once the capacity is there. One does not purchase a production path (except in retrospect) for that is revealed over time. The hope is that the manifested production path is not, overall, below break even for the cost of the capital good. Having a plan, in the sense of pre-specified actions, is typically a way to retard performance through failing to respond quickly and effectively to new information and possibilities.

If the above is included in what is intended to be covered by the term 'plan', then it is highly misleading terminology and should be abandoned for something clearer.

It remains of concern, the way folk who regard themselves as followers of the Austrian school are so frequently so arrogant and abusive (and, according to Dr Horwitz, often don't understand the school of analysis they are so attached to). They are so, fairly clearly, because they believe they are possessors of "self-evident" truths about matters economic which follow from the inner logic of economic life. Since it is not a matter of competing empirical claims, but of intrinsic logic which has already laid bare by the Austrian school, they are left with only malice and stupidity to explain differences of economic opinion.

This embrace of a self-righteous "self-evident" rationalism is exacerbated by the moral commitments that the Austrian school comes with. Harold Demsetz's rather grumpy response (pdf) to an attack by Walter Block on himself and Ronald Coase provides an nice example of economists discussing the positive economics and being subject to a moralising attack from an indignant Austrian.

So consumer Austrians (to use Steve Horwitz's term) act like Eric Hoffer True Believers. No evidence or argument pierces their armour of self-righteous certitude. There is an Austrian form of political correctnes--political correctness as defined by Matt Ridleyof ought implying is--whereby economic phenomena are treated as if they are the way they ought to be for Austrian analysis to be correct and for Austrian normative preferences to be optimal policy. I vividly remember listening to a young Austrian economist tell his audience that "by definition" what government did could not be investment.

There is also a recurring failure to acknowledge that von Mises and Hayek got the 1930s Depression very seriously wrong (regarding appropriate policy response), as Hayek later admitted. With the result that their would-be acolytes are getting the Great Recession wrong, for essentially the same reasons. It is extremely poor advertising for the virtues of Austrian analysis if it attracts such unfortunate outlooks and behaviour.

On the other hand, as noted above, Dr Horwitz's comments will be a useful rejoinder to such. (Who, as Dr Horwitz implies, much of my original comments were directed to.)

Of course, the "Austerians" (the Austrian supporters of austerity), as they [and other supporters of austerity]  have come to be called, are not the only ones recycling past mistakes. If one reads either version of the paper (pdf) by Barry Eichengreen and Peter Temin, The Gold standard and the Great Depression, and replaces gold standard with inflation targeting, one gets an almost perfect description of the current failures of central banks and the mentality behind such; of the current mentality of the US Federal Reserve (the Fed), the European Central Bank (ECB), the Bank of England (BoE) and the Bank of Japan (BoJ). Particularly when the Eichengreen and Temin say (p.19 of the NBER paper):
policies were perverse because they were designed to preserve the gold standard, not employment.
Replace gold standard with inflation target and that is exactly what has been happening in our own time. Indeed, it was worse than that as the Fed and the Bank of France were not even "doing" the gold standard properly (pdf). Just as the ECB and the Fed are now not even doing inflation targeting properly. In all these cases, the central banks are and were being too restrictive. They acted and are acting, in effect, like conventional monopolists; underproviding their product in order to maximise return--the return being the "sound money" reputation of the officials involved and, after disaster unfolded, in refusing to change course, seeking protection from explicit or implicit responsibility for economic disaster.

Dangerous presumptions
Which brings me to my first specific disagreement with Dr Horwitz, his claim that:

[Read the rest at Critical Thinking Applied and at Skepticlawyer.]

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Queer eye for the religious guy

Getting a thighful
It is a cliche that art has attracted a few queer (as in not heterosexual and/or gender conforming) folk over the centuries. (Are we really surprised that the sculptor of the magnificently homoerotic David was not exactly a raging heterosexual?) And, in past centuries, art was overwhelmingly religious. So, queer sensibility manifests, just occasionally, in religious art. Not only does the male figure above, from a side chapel in a Venezian church, quite gratuitously show a lot of thigh, with a vision of youthful male beauty next to him, but diagonally opposite was another male figure, mostly naked, with very sartyr-like facial features and congruent expression, standing in classic "teapot" camp pose.

Consider this Last Supper, on display at a Museum in Venezia.
The couple at the Last Supper
It does not merely have St John leaning on Christ's breast (that is straight out of the Gospel of St John), the entire picture is framed--in the arrangement of figures, in its use of light--so that we see Christ and John as a couple.

There is a much longer, if somewhat subterranean, tradition of Jesus and John as a couple than people generally realise. For example, St Aelred of Rievaulx, in his Speculum caritatis ("The Mirror of Charity") tells the reader that:
our Jesus himself, lowering (Himself) to our condition in every way, suffering all things for us and being compassionate towards us, transformed it by manifesting his love. To one person, not to all, did he grant a resting place on his most sacred breast in token of his special love, so that the virginal head might be supported by the flowers of his virginal breast, and the fragrant secrets of the heavenly bridal-chamber might instill the sweet scents of spiritual perfumes on his virginal attachment more abundantly because more closely. So it is that even though all the disciples were cherished by the sweetness of the supreme charity by the most blessed Master, still it was to this one that he this name as a prerogative of yet more intimate attachment: that he was called that disciple whom Jesus loved.
Emphasis in the original, translation by Elizabeth Connor, No.17 in the Cistercian Fathers series. To get a flavour of St Aelred's writing, an English translation of the first part of his De spiritali amicitia ("On Spiritual Friendship") is available here [pdf]). Another translation of the key part of the above passage is here. Depending on which is the better translation, St Aelred is implying or stating that Jesus and St John are married in Heaven.

There is also, of course, St Sebastian. The beautiful youth, pierced by arrows yet miraculously saved--as in this painting by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, better known as il Sodoma--(but martyred by being beaten to death shortly after) is such an obvious candidate for homoeroticism in religious art as to be something of an artistic cliche.

The role of queer folk in transmitting culture and (due to their distinct perspective) acting as a creative “yeast” in it has a long history.  Consider Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, CarravagioAlan Turing, to name a few.  Gay author and blogger Bruce Bawer puts it well:
Western civilization, far from being threatened by homosexuality, is to a staggeringly disproportionate degree the creation of gay men and women. Do you want to protect your children from gay influence? … Very well. Destroy the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, silence Messiah and Swan Lake, and burn Moby Dick and The Portrait of a Lady. Gay culture is all around you — and it belongs to everybody.
There are other enriching and preserving passions than the passion for progeny.

Indeed, many cultures take the creative skills (and thus social value) of “third gender” (not conventionally male and female) folk for granted; often specifically in a spiritual context.  By being typically less focused on family, the same-sex oriented can be more focused on the divine, on matters cultural, on wider service.  Many cultures have felt that those oriented towards their own sex were particularly appropriate as shamans or priests (third gender priests turn up in many cultures)—by embracing the form of one sex and the orientation typical of the other, they were deemed to be particularly gifted in connecting to the Otherworld and as intermediaries in this one.

Religious art brings these things together. So it is hardly surprising that we sometimes find a touch of the queer in religious art.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Buddhism on the Maribyrnong

While taking the train across the Maribyrnong River, I have been observing the building of a Buddhist temple on the Western bank the most striking feature of which is a 16m tall gold-painted statue of Mazu, gazing out over the industrial ugliness on the Eastern bank towards Port Phillip Bay.
A golden goddess gazing over industrial ugliness
I have been meaning to walk over and have a look, so this morning I did.

A touch of China in Footscray
I find a new Buddhist temple bothers me much less than a new mosque.  While Buddhism hardly has a perfect record--it has played an invidious role in Sinhalese chauvinism in Sri Lanka and in encouraging militarism in Imperial Japan--it has a much better record of playing nicely with others than Islam.

So I was a bit surprised to find myself having a negative reaction, while I was looking at the temple, to the fact that every piece of writing was in Chinese. It seemed an almost deliberate distancing from the society around it. Because religious figures in emigre cultures are about traditions  "back home", they can often be a barrier to integration; particularly as the role of a cleric is so often to be a "gatekeeper of righteousness".

Of course, there was an extra little touch.
Stating where we are
On the way back, I came across an Asian man (probably in his 30s) rugged up in Demons beanie and Parramatta Eels jacket fishing alone on the river bank. He had clearly embraced his Australian tribalism!

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Boys and their toys

The only place during our week in Venezia my business partner and I deliberately went back to to have another look was the Naval Museum.
Naval Museum Venice
It was full of things we found greatly engaging, such as C17th relief maps of various fortifications of the Serene Republic mounted on walls and lots of excellent models of ships from ancient history to the present. There was some unexpected things too--half of the top storey was about Swedish naval history and the connection between the Kingdom of Sweden and the Serene Republic (which continued with the Kingdom of Italy). The Swedish connection being a result of them both having to deal with an aggressive imperial power (the Ottoman and Romanov Empires) in an enclosed sea (the Mediterranean and the Baltic).

When we went back for a second time, they were preparing for an anniversary exhibition. In tents out the front they had the two largest models of modern warships I have seen. A model of one of the Italian Navy's two aircraft carriers.
INS Guiseppe Garibaldi: yes, the guns move and the helicopter blades go around
And one of their amphibious transport docks.
INS San Guisto
While they were lots of fun, the historical models were what I really enjoyed. The highlight of which was a model of a Korean turtle boat.
A C16th Korean ironclad aka turtle boat
These turtle boats were the first ironclads.  Apparently invented by Admiral Yi Sun-sin, they did considerable damage to Japanese shipping during Toyotomi Hideyoshi's invasions of Korean in the 1590's.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi had come out on top of in the penultimate round of Japan's C16th civil wars. Which meant lots of samurai suddenly without much to do and various supporters to reward. So, he did what many military leaders have done in that situation, he looked for somewhere to invade. If you are Japanese, that means Korea.
Japanese armies were very likely the most effective in the world at that time (apart from their lack of decent cannon). They had had lots of practice (against each other). So, at first, the invasion went quite well. But then Admiral Yi came up with his turtle boats, and things started to go downhill for the Japanese.  Including one of the most dramatic victories in naval history.

The turtle boats were a remarkable innovation and being able to look at an excellent model up close was an unexpected highlight of my trip to Venezia.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Monday, June 18, 2012

The taxman cometh (but only for what he can see)

There have been two great transformations in human affairs. One is the Neolithic Revolution, the transition from foraging to farming. This is a transformation which is still going on, as there are still some foraging groups around the planet (though it is a vanishing way of life). The second is the Industrial Revolution, the shift from reliance on what is produced by land (farming), a factor of production managed but not created by humans, to reliance on factors of production produced by humans, the produced means of production (capital), such that farmers change from being about 80% of the workforce to less than 5%.

Compare and contrast
Both transformations are technological and involve expanded use of energy, setting off dramatic population increases (the second much faster than the first). In the foraging-to-farming transition, humans no longer merely took food from the environment around them; they deliberately grew food. This food was typically storable, so able to cope with variations in food production across the seasons.  Farming both increased the (food) energy to humans and allowed it to be stored for later use, to be actively managed across time. (Hence the very different attitudes to time between foraging and farming cultures.)

Industrialisation used wind, water and (particularly) steam energy to produce things which produced things. Increased agricultural production allowed increased production in general, with expanding sources and use of energy, ushering the creation of, not merely mass prosperity, but increasing mass prosperity. This is in stark contrast for the foraging-farming transition, where it is likely that general standards of living actually fell and, with some exceptions, remained stagnant for thousands of years.

Another contrast is that the foraging-farming transition lead to hierarchical societies with elite-dominated rulerships--whether autocratic, monarchic (i.e. containing powerful noble elites) or deliberative. The last were polities run by elite assemblies, the most democratic of these being some Mediterranean city-states where as much as a third of the adult population got to vote--i.e. male citizens; women, slaves and resident foreigners being excluded. Outside the Mediterranean, assemblies were also important in cities in Lower Mesopotamia and in the kshatriya republics of India. Conversely, with some hiccups, the Industrial Revolution has led to much more broadly-based forms of political life. Another contrast is that the share of output taken by taxation tended to be fairly constant across farming rulerships but has been steadily increasing in modern states.

Why did farming lead to hierarchical societies dominated by controlling elites? The standard answer has been increased production of food led to a surplus above subsistence which allowed a more differentiated society. The problem with this is, why there was any such surplus? Why did not population just increase to consume the surplus? What blocked population increase sufficient to allow the creation of the food surpluses that sustained these elites?

The second problem is, even if there was a food surplus, why did that not just lead to increased specialisation? What happened such that population was blocked from rising to consume the food surplus and that surplus was largely appropriated by a narrow, controlling elite? And, moreover, elites of differing sizes, with different land tenure systems.

Expropriating what you can see
Three Israeli economists have produced a paper (pdf) which provides an elegant answer. Their argument is that the key element is transparency; both in stored food and in expected production. Food had to be stored across the seasons, which made it more vulnerable to expropriation. In their words:

[Read the rest at Skepticlawyer.]

Friday, June 15, 2012

We are Normans, see us build

This is the (small) castle at Acicastello, on the Sicilian coast north of the Roman and Aragonese capital of Catania, from a distance.
A castle on a volcanic spur
This is a model of the castle on display inside the castle.
A modest little castle
This the approach to the castle.
You only get in if I say so
The castle is a case of sheer determination frozen in stone and brick. The contrast, back in Catania, between the finish of the Greek and Roman brick and stone work (even after two millennia) with the much rougher looking medieval brick work built around a millennia later was a bit sad. Until you come to a place such as the castle at Acicastello. Suddenly, the energy and determination of the Normans, who wrested Sicily and Southern Italy from the Rhomanoi (the Eastern or Greek Romans) and the Saracens stands revealed.

The Norman Kingdom of Sicily was a brilliant flowering of art, literature and enquiry. It faltered a bit under their Hohenstaufen successors, though more due to the centralising of Frederick II Stupor Mundi, who the Sicilians call Frederick di Svebia (Federick of Swabia) and make something of a fuss over (because it was the last time Sicily seriously mattered). Frederick himself was a crowned polymath who presided over a brilliant court and who can seem very "modern". He was also an orphaned control freak who left little in the way of positive legacy.

The brilliance of the Norman and Hohenstaufen kingdom came to an end due to the French, in the person of Charles of Anjou. Given Papal dispensation to replace the existing king Manfred, Frederick's illegitimate son, he defeated and killed Manfred in 1266 at the Battle of Benevento. Arrogant and grasping, Charles as King managed to enrage the Sicilians into revolt, the infamous Sicilian Vespers of 1283, which saw every last French person in Sicily slaughtered or driven out. (Though Charles did better than the Revolutionary French in Malta in 1798; it took them less than three months to enrage the Maltese into revolt--the French held out in Valletta, behind the greatest fortifications in Europe, slowly starving and eventually surrendering to the British, a much more attractive option than surrendering to the Maltese.)

After the Sicilian Vespers and subsequent war, Sicily passed into the hands of the Kingdom of Aragon. The first King of Aragon and Sicily was Peter III, who was married to Constance, daughter of Manfred and granddaughter of Frederick. Thereafter, Sicily remained an appendage of first Aragon and then Aragon-Castile (which became Spain) until the C18th. At first, the Kings of Aragon actually preferred to reside in Sicily, but its comparative economic decline (in part a product of control-freak Frederick's suppression of any possibility of merchant power) saw it relegated to rule by viceroys. Though Aragon's experience in such rule was put to good use as a model of governance when the Spanish Empire came to dominate much of the globe.

But the story starts with the sort of thrusting energy that built the small castle on the volcanic spur at Acicastello.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The law tells it as it was

One of the more irritating historical memes is the preposterous notion that the American Civil War was not "really" about slavery, it was about tariffs and states rights. Fortunately, it is easy to demolish this claim for the historical canard it is.

All one has to do is to read the Constitution of the Confederate States of America. In particular, since it was an amended version of the Constitution of the United States of America, read it in clause-by-clause comparison.

There are some changes which arguably made for better governance. In the words of the commentator providing the aforementioned comparison:
The President's term limit and line-item veto, along with the various fiscal restraints, and the ability of cabinet members to answer questions on the floor of Congress are all innovative, neutral ideals whose merits may still be worth pondering today.
Then there are the shifts in the power of the states. Confederate States actually lost more powers than they gained:
At least three states rights are explicitly taken away--the freedom of states to grant voting rights to non-citizens, the freedom of states to outlaw slavery within their borders, and the freedom of states to trade freely with each other.
States only gain four minor rights under the Confederate system- the power to enter into treaties with other states to regulate waterways, the power to tax foreign and domestic ships that use their waterways, the power to impeach federally-appointed state officials, and the power to distribute "bills of credit."
The Constitution did not even change those sections which were particularly controversial regarding the powers of the States at the time:
the CSA constitution does not modify many of the most controversial (from a states' rights perspective) clauses of the American constitution, including the "Supremacy" clause (6-1-3), the "Commerce" clause (1-8-3) and the "Necessary and Proper" clause (1-8-18). Nor does the CSA take away the federal government's right to suspend habeus corpus or "suppress insurrections."
As for tariffs and trade policy mattering so much, not only did the Confederate government retain all its powers to tax foreign trade, the Confederate States were given more power over trade, including trade with other Confederate States. So, free trade hardly seems a cause dear to the hearts of the Confederate Founding Fathers.

What was very dear to their hearts, however, was slavery:
As far as slave-owning rights go, however, the document is much more effective. Indeed, CSA constitution seems to barely stop short of making owning slaves mandatory. Four different clauses entrench the legality of slavery in a number of different ways, and together they virtually guarantee that any sort of future anti-slave law or policy will be unconstitutional. People can claim the Civil War was "not about slavery" until the cows come home, but the fact remains that anyone who fought for the Confederacy was fighting for a country in which a universal right to own slaves was one of the most entrenched laws of the land.
The suggestion that tariffs mattered so much that they were worth fighting to break the country up over is frankly risible. It being nonsense is particularly obvious to an historically aware Australian, because Free Trade versus Protection was THE great political divide in the late C19th and early C20th in the Australiancolonies. And what did those same colonies do while being bitterly divided in the aforementioned way? They federated together to form the Commonwealth of Australia.

In the antebellum years, the South had dominated the Presidency essentially until the election of Lincoln in 1860. The South had lost control of the House of Representatives years before and had recently lost control of the Senate. Their own political domination the Southern political class regarded as acceptable, Northern political domination not so.

Why this mattered is because there was a strong Northern push to abolish slavery: part humanitarian, part political calculation to redirect Northern worker anti-immigration angst away from the political dead-end of nativism, and part claim over Western resources. Slaves represented about one-third of the total capital of the South. Anything that put that at risk was worth fighting over. Especially as the abolition of slavery would have also massively devalued the votes of white Southerners generally and undermined their incomes (due to direct labour and other competition). In other words, slavery was also deeply in the political and economic interests of Southern whites who were not slaveowners. That was also worth fighting over. The go-to book on this is Nobel Laureate Robert Fogel's Without Consent of Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery.

Trade policy merely represented a point of argument over much larger differences.

Fighting and losing the Civil War did devastate the South: even apart from direct war damage. First, because a third of its capital was liquidated overnight, in the only mass property confiscation from whites in US history. Second, it was forced to pay for Northern war pensions. Third, because keeping the whites on top meant resources were expended keeping the blacks down and use or development of their skills was minimised. As Thomas Sowell has pointed out, it hardly seems accidental that the economic renaissance of the South took off just as the Civil Rights Acts were passed and resources were no longer being doubly wasted in that way.

Slavery had been the great contradiction in the United States, a country created in a Revolution which supported both property rights and general liberty but incorporating property rights based on the most absolute denial of liberty. (Hence anti-slave Tory Dr Johnson’s comment “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”)

The American Revolution was also a reaction to the British Crown’s insistence on keeping its treaties with the Amerindians (much to the frustration of land-hungry settlers). While Somersett’s Case—declaring slavery to be unrecognised by common law—was another sharp reminder that Americans had no say in British decisions.

One of the revealing questions for American history is: why did the Canadian colonies not revolt? After all, they also suffered the problem of "taxation without representation". What we now call "Canada" was originally just those British North American colonies which did not revolt against the British Crown. (Just like what we now call "Belgium" was the bit of the Low Countries that the Habsburgs managed to hold onto.)

The answer is--the Canadian colonies were not populous enough that land-hunger was serious issue, slavery was unimportant and they still needed the British Crown to arbitrate between English and French settlers. In other words, the Imperial trade-off still worked for them. It was not merely the lack of say in British decisions which was important to the colonies that did revolt--an issue which was brilliantly expressed in the slogan "no taxation without representation". It was that there were key issues which really mattered to them: in the Northern colonies, expanding into Amerindian land. In the Southern colonies, keeping slavery.

And those same issues mattered in the Civil War. The Northern States wanted to elbow out Southern interests in seizing Amerindian land (a key reason why Amerindians supported the Confederate cause, just as they had supported the Crown cause in the American Revolution, and ended up big losers yet again from the Northern victory) and the South wanted to preserve slavery. But now those issues drove them to war with each other, rather than a shared war against the British Crown.

There is a great deal to admire in American political history. But that is way not the same as not being realistic about it.

The American Civil War was about slavery (and seizing Amerindian land). But so was the American Revolution. The saving grace for both that was not all they were, or came to be, about.

The rhetoric used to inspire and persuade for the first Revolt and against the Second had much greater resonances. The US Declaration of Independence, the writings of Thomas PainePatrick Henry's Give me liberty or give me death speech, the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, are all key documents in the formulation of modern political democracy. As are The Federalist Papers and the effort to create an enduring republican order. That the American Republic was able to fight a long and bitter civil war and survive as an electoral republic rebutted the common C19th view that history proved that democracies were unstable and short-lived, unable to survive great crises.

Nevertheless, the American Civil War was triggered by secession which itself was motivated by the defence of slavery. The American Civil War simply would not have happened without slavery. It was the Confederate cause, and the Southern political class expressed their attachment to it (but not free trade) in the Constitution they wrote for their new country.

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

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Hindus of the Abrahamic World

Catholics and Orthodox are the Hindus of the Abrahamic world. The divine order is populated with many Personages--not merely the Trinity, but also Mary, Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, Star of the Sea, and a myriad of angels and saints. A supernatural prolixity that manifests in a certain approach to religious art and architecture.

There is no level of tacky that is too kitsch.
Who has the brightest halo of them all?
Yes, that is an electric blue neon halo on top of a C18th statue of St Agatha. St Agatha is big in Catania, she is their local saint and martyr.  You can eat her breasts. (They are round, green, small cakes with red cherries on top that celebrate her martyrdom, part of which was having her breasts cut off--there is a smaller version of them with white icing over the green, but still with the red cherries on top.) My business partner and I ate a pair each on our last night in Catania because we felt it was required. We also had cavallo, horse; a local delicacy.  It was sliced thin, cooked in vinegar and delicious. (The breasts were fine too.)

The highly populated divine order of Catholicism is reflected in streetscapes dotted with shrines and religious art. Such as this street scene in Venezia.
Renaissance art and religious scene in the midsts of everyday life
It is very much the divine as immanent rather than transcendent. Catholicism and Ortodoxy, like Hinduism, are very much immanence-focused religions; of the divine manifesting in, and through, the material order. The physical presence of religious imagery being a pervasive part of the streetscape. Or included in unexpected buildings, such as lighthouses.
Getting a supernatural boost
Which encourages your actual religious buildings to go that one, two, three ... steps further.
A window into the divine
This is actually a tasteful and refined, indeed restrained, example.

Monotheism also comes in transcendent versions--Judaism, Islam, Protestantism. Of course, theologians and philosophers of religion will tell you that God is both immanent and transcendent. But religions clearly come focused on one or the other. The transcendent versions of monotheism are far more religions of The Word; the immanent versions are far more sacerdotal, far more about divine authority mediated in, and so operating through, the World.

In Catholicism and Orthodoxy, Scripture is the product of the Church (understood as the community of believers). Which is why Catholic theology is friendlier to science than Protestant theology tends to be. And Christianity--where Scripture is inspired by God and written in more than one language--is theologically friendlier to science than Islam (particularly after the defeat of the Mutzalites)--where Scripture is the direct (and eternal) word of God written in one sacred language. If Scripture is the indirect word of God, a product of the Church, then the World, as the direct creation of God, trumps Scripture (and so gives more space to science, the study of God's creation). Also, if the World is a more direct creation of God, that clearly encourages a focus on the divine as immanent.

Conversely, the more authority is given to Scripture, the less authority is given to the World. Which encourages a focus on the divine as transcendent. As something beyond reached by looking inward, not as something manifested in what we see looking outward. It also makes a contemptus mundi attitude more likely, one where the World is a distraction from where our focus on the divine should be.
It is striking how much all the monotheisms are inclined to produce much the same sets of prohibitions--a hostility to fun, display and gender and sexual diversity. With the transcendent versions generally more hostile than the immanent versions. The sort of things the Puritans used to hate in C17th England and Scotland (dancing, music, graven images, sexual display, "uppity" women) are much the same as what radical Muslims hate now.

Though Judaism and Islam are both transcendence focused, there is variance within them. Shia Islam, with its concept of the hereditary Imanate and its ayatollahs, is more immanent, more sacerdotal, than Sunni Islam. To the extent that Salafis accuse the Shia of being "corpse worshippers". Catholic churches, with their glass-sided coffins and human remains offered up for veneration, bring the accusation to mind.
Veneration of human remains
This is a very different religious sensibility than that of transcendent religions.

The more sacerdotal a religion is, the more hierarchical it tends to be. Arguably the biggest impact of the Reformation was not in breaking up the intellectual unity of Latin Christendom (though that was very important) but in letting loose different visions of authority. Calvinist Churches might have been very controlling, but they were also dramatically more democratic than the elective monarchy of the Catholic Church. The individual conscience had far more play when one was naked before God than when the priest is complete intermediary, able to grant forgiveness.

This has all sorts of consequences. Protestant and Catholic countries tend to have different attitudes to time, for example. Corruption tends to be higher in Catholic/Orthodox countries than Protestant ones. Protestant countries tend to be richer (per capita) than Catholic ones. (And more likely to be monarchies.) Dominant religion is quite a good indicator of how badly a country is suffering in the Eurozone crisis (and how indebted it is, not an unrelated point--particularly not to attitudes to time).

In Protestant countries, declarations of religious tolerance tended to stick. In Catholic countries, they generally weren't worth the paper they were printed on. (If deals with Protestant monarchs were also more likely to "stick" in general, then that would tend to favour the survival of monarchy in a situation of spreading social power, where making deals with your subjects was more conducive to institutional survival.) While Catholic priests having licensing power over what was printed drove scientific publishing to Protestant Europe. So, even though Protestant theology was less friendly to science than Catholic theology, Protestant concepts of authority were more friendly than Catholicism was--which proved to be more important than which way the theology leaned.

Start considering factors such as geography--the harder it was to get to somewhere from Rome, the more likely it was to go Protestant; monotheism originated in the Middle East--and interactions can get quite complicated.

But whether a religion's sensibility is immanent or transcendent has a surprising range of consequences.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Race and the US Presidential race

Conservative philosopher-blogger Keith Burgess-Jackson had already predicted that, if Obama loses the November 2012 election, the Left will say it was because of race. Now some social science has popped up to support precisely such a claim. A study (pdf) has used racially-charged Google searches to estimate how much less Obama's share of the popular vote was in November  2008 than one would expect based on the performance of other Democratic Party candidates in that election. (A newspaper blog post by the author summarising the research is here.) As predicted, Andrew Sullivan is already citing the data as explaining why Obama's chances for re-election is poor.

There is something a little odd about the result in the study, given that the only other postwar American Democratic Presidential candidates to get a majority of the popular vote were Carter in 1976 (50.08%) and LBJ in 1964 (61.05%). So Obama's 52.87% is the second-highest Democratic Presidential result in 16 Presidential elections. Harvard economics doctoral candidate Seth Stephens-Davidowitz's study implies that Obama "should" have got 56-58% of the vote, which would have made been an extraordinary performance. (The study estimates a 4-6 %point loss from racial animus and a 1%point gain from being black, netting out to a 3-5 %point loss in votes.)

How extraordinary? Well, the big winners in US Presidential elections are typically incumbent Presidents. George Bush senior 1988, the incumbent VP for a popular President, did better than Obama (53.37%). But the big postwar winners were: Ronald Reagan 1984 (58.77%); Richard Nixon 1972 (60.67%); LBJ 1964 (61.05%); Eisenhower 1956 (57.37%); and, the only non-incumbent big winner, Eisenhower 1952 (55.18%).  So, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz's regression on the results from a single election suggest that Obama should have got the best non-incumbent Party candidate result in the postwar era, even beating out war-hero Eisenhower, who won big after the Democrats had been in office for 5 consecutive Presidential terms (1932-1952) and (like the Republicans in 2008) had the burden of a very unpopular incumbent in the midst of a much bigger war.

Thus, just eye-balling the historical data, we have reasons to be sceptical about the result of Stephens-Davidowitz's study.

There is also some social science data which suggests the racial factor may not have been nearly so large. Estimating expected Presidential vote (actually, share of two-Party vote) purely on the basis of per capita GDP growth using data from every post-war Presidential election from 1952 onwards suggests that Obama slightly under-performed, but well within historical patterns. (Al Gore under-performed much worse in 2000, for example.) If, however, per capita GDP growth is weighted by the "military casualties effect", then Obama's 2008 performance was almost bang on what political scientist Douglas Hibbs's "Bread and Peace" model predicts. (Al Gore remains the stand out under-performer.)

So, we have a claim, based on regressions for a single election, that Obama "should" have put in the best performance by an non-incumbent candidate in the postwar period. (The "Bread and Peace" model only does elections from 1952 onwards, due to data limitations, but Truman, the incumbent, won in 1948.) Or, we have data, based on 15 elections, suggesting that Obama did about what you would expect (in achieving the second-highest share of the popular vote in the postwar period both by a Democratic Presidential candidate and by a Presidential candidate not representing the incumbent Party).

Stephens-Davidowitz's study of racial animus and the 2008 election reads well and appears to be analytically sound. Though using unemployment as an indicator of economic conditions is not very persuasive, the evidence is unemployment has much less impact on general voting patterns than one might expect.

A notable result in the study is that its measure of racial animus is not correlated significantly with Democratic candidate John Kerry's share of the 2004 vote which, as author Stephens-Davidowitz points out, is evidence against the view that racial animus is predominantly a Republican phenomenon.

One of the criticisms of my essay on post-modern conservatism was that I did not deal with the race issue. Race struck me as fraught, not particularly relevant to the phenomenon I was examining and an example of a general tendency for conservatives to be agin groups making a bid for equal treatment. Also, despite claims to the contrary, racial animus is not something that sits on just one side of the ideological spectrum.

That African-Americans overwhelmingly vote Democrat means that African-Americans effectively have a monopoly political provider--the Democratic Party. It is reasonable to ask how being effectively electoral prisoners of a single political Party has worked out for them. As a corollary of the above, black concerns do not have much of a voice within the Republican Party; both through lack of activists and through not being a targeted voting group. Which has not stopped folk such as Clarence ThomasCondoleeza Rice and Colin Powell being popular among Republican voters. But it does mean, as one commentator has pointed out, that;
The racial diversity among Democrats and the lack of it among Republicans means that the two bases bring differing sets of concerns to the national debate.
Which is very much not the same as saying that racial animus is somehow a specifically Republican problem.

Trying to get hard data on racial animus and its effects is difficult, which makes having an informed debate about it difficult. (The principle of equal protection of the law is much simpler.) Stephens-Davidowitz should be congratulated for his innovative use of Google data; as he says, a data-rich (and timely) analytical tool. Still, his results do seem to be stronger than historical patterns, and other social science research, suggests. Which brings back to the perennial problem about social science research; it is difficult. Both because of the complexities involved and because it is so often so ideologically charged. (As indicated by the principle that if a white voter votes for a white candidate because the candidate is white, that is racism; but if a black voter votes for a black candidate because they are black, that is not.)

If, in November 2012, Obama gets around about what Douglas Hibbs's "Bread and Peace" equation suggests, then Stephens-Davidowitz's study will not be vindicated. If, however, Obama gets significantly less, then Stephens-Davidowitz may well be on to something.

Which is a different thing than saying if Obama loses Stephens-Davidowitz's study will be vindicated. But the difference is likely to be lost in the shouting.

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

Monday, June 11, 2012

What is the message here?

The Queen of Heaven
Madonna and child images are common in Malta, it being a (very) Catholic country. It was charming to see her referred to, in one seaside church, as Sultana tal Paci ("Queen of Peace" in Maltese). The local shrines often had touching quality, such as the one below. (The connection to preceding earth and sea goddesses is fairly clear.)
Divine personage of the sea
The first image above, however, which I photographed in Mdina--the walled medieval city which was the old capital of Malta (before the Knights of St John turned up; a 1693 earthquake led to a Baroque makeover of the public buildings)--has a very different impact.  It is a (social) world away from the carpenter's wife who gave birth in a manger.

The appropriation of religious imagery to serve social hierarchy is an old story. But both the statue itself--with the heads of Mary and Christ Child dominated by their large stone crowns--and its placement--very much looming over any person looking at it--seemed to be designed to separate and subordinate the viewer from the Personages being invoked and displayed it such a Royal way and to do so more strikingly than any other of the many Madonna and child images I saw in Malta, Catania, Syracusa, Padova and Venezia. Images most commonly seen in shrines on the sides of buildings, as here. Though, again, this was by far the largest and most unapproachable.

It was if the wish to send a message of social hierarchy and subordination had overwhelmed any but the barest trace of the Gospel story.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Easy Guide to Monetary Policy

What money is
We use money to transact and the money we use is fiat money, money backed only by government decree. In economic terms, money is a transaction good and all that fiat money is, is a transaction good; the only point in holding such money is to be able to engage in transactions—its expected swap value(s) in exchange is its only value.

The use of money as a transaction good is driven by expectations. People take your money because they expect to use it in future transactions. You offer money in transactions because of that expectation. (Since there is no information from the future, we can only ever act on the basis of expectations; expectations that are derived from existing information.)

Anything that is used in a transaction for its swap value is being used as a medium of exchange. That does not, however, make it money. It is only money if it is also embodies the unit of account. Something that is used as a medium of exchange and embodies the unit of account is a medium of account and so money; something used to both quantify and pay exchange obligations.

(Money is also a store of value, but that is the least distinctive thing about it; many things are stores of value. Money’s role as a store of value comes from its swap value, which takes us back to it being a medium of account. Yes, we use it because of expectations about its future ability to operate as a medium of account, but that is what is distinctive about it, not being a store of value.)

In modern economies, the central bank—the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA); the Bank of England (BoE); the US Federal Reserve (the Fed); in the Eurozone, the European Central Bank (ECB); the Bank of Japan (BoJ)—is the monopoly provider of local money, the money issued and used in your country. (Or, in the case of the Fed, the monopoly provider of the global reserve money which is also US local money.) The RBA, like the Fed, has a "dual mandate" of keeping inflation down and employment up. Such a mandate is, in effect, a legal obligation imposed on the central bank to neither flood the economy with excess money (causing inflation) nor to starve it of money (causing a fall in transactions from people maintaining their preferred level of money holdings by cutting back on spending and thus transacting). Since—for a given level of prices—the level of transactions determines the level of spending, and thus income (everyone's money income is someone else's spending), the latter matters; serious transaction "crashes" are known as recessions and depressions.

Unbalanced credibility
The ECB has price stability as its primary objective, with other objectives being subordinated to it. The BoE has a growth and employment objective, but it is subordinate to price stability. The BoJ just has a price stability objective. The problem with such inflation targeting by the central bank is that the central bank then explicitly promises (or is strongly expected) not to provide excess money but has no such explicit or implicit commitment to provide sufficient money to keep the level of transactions up. The central bank then acquires unbalanced credibility—people believe that their money will retain value but have much less basis for confidence in the future direction of income; unlike expectations about future prices (and so the future value of money), the future direction of income lacks any policy anchor. So, if people increase their holdings of money, and the central bank fails to adjust for this, people then cut back on spending, transactions fall so income falls, so people cut back on spending to maintain their preferred holdings of money, and the downward spiral is on. People (quite rationally) have lowered expectations of income and so engage in less spending, which confirms (and magnifies) the lowered expectations of income.

The level of money provision (and associated expectations) being required to stop actual deflation (which the central bank is expected to do to maintain an inflation target) being less than the level of money provision (and associated expectations) required to have transactions recover (which the inflation targeting central bank is not expected to do), an economy can remain "stuck" in output being well below capacity—the most obvious manifestation of which is unemployment, where labour use is well below labour supply—for a considerable period. (Or, in a milder version, stuck with much lower levels of capacity increase than would have been otherwise possible—Japan has been a manifestation of this as the Bank of Japan has regularly clamped down to maintain its, very low, inflation target; thereby offsetting any stimulatory effect from the amazing run of government budget deficits that have driven Japan’s public debt to the highest in the developed world.)

If an economy has high debt levels, then the level of economic stress from any significant fall in transactions (and so income) is even higher, as people struggle to pay back debts with lowered income. (For an example, see the Eurozone.) If the stress is sufficiently great, the potential for debt defaults—and so significant destruction of financial assets (one agent’s debt being another’s asset)—and consequent threat of major damage to, or even the collapse of, the financial system then further encourages a flight to "safe assets" and away from spending. (Again, see the Eurozone.)

In such a situation, the central bank (as the monopoly provider of local money and so dominant generator of expectations about same) is doing what monopoly providers normally do—it is under-providing its product (in this case, expectations coverage rather than actual currency) to maximise return (in this case, its credibility as an inflation targetter). Once an economy is in this situation, it can be hard for the central bank to change course, because that would have serious reputational effects on the officials running the bank, as it would be an implicit (or explicit) admission that their failure had caused the transaction crash and consequent economic misery in the first place. (For an example, see the Fed.)

As Danske Bank economist Lars Christensen has pointed out in his excellent Market Monetarist blog, failure by the Fed and the ECB to respond to increased demand for dollars and euros in the second half of 2008 is what caused the Great Recession to be The Great Recession—the largest peacetime crash in US money income (i.e. transactions) since 1938 and the largest crash in overall OECD money income since the organisation was founded.

Failed accountability
Both the Fed and the ECB have since behaved as monopoly providers, under-providing (expectations about) money to maximise their credibility as inflation targeters and, in refusing to shift policy, minimising reputation damage from their failure to react to changes in demand for money. The failure of the bulk of the economics profession to call them on it (a constant frustration for Scott Sumner) means that the reputation effect continues to militate against policy change.

[Read the rest at Skepticlawyer. Cross-posted at Critical Thinking Applied.]

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Random travel observations (Padova and Venezia)

In Padova particularly, one gets a real sense of the vigour of the Northern Italian emergence from the Dark Ages, a sense of emerging cities full of bustling purpose and underlying confidence about the possibilities of the future.

While we were in Padova Friday night, wandering along discussing the many ways Northern Italy was different to Southern Italy, a live demonstration played out in front of us. A gentleman (I would guess hairdresser by his white coat, but could have been a pharmacist) started yelling loudly (saying, at a guess, "stop thief!" with elaboration) chasing a guy in front of him. Immediately, all the pedestrians started converging to cut the fellow running away off so the angry guy in the white coat could seize him, one fellow waved and shouted to the police and last we saw, the gentleman in the white coat was dragging the recalcitrant back, presumably for him to pay.

Traffic lights are much more common (than in Sicily), people follow the rules and one actually sees traffic cops. We really are not in Sicily anymore. Southern and Northern Italy may have (mostly) a common language and they may share a state, but they do not really share a culture (in the sense of a way of life), they just pretend to.

As is normal with public transport, a Venezian water bus is rather more fun when you know what you are looking at (and what awaits you at the other end) rather than worrying about whether you are on the right route and whether you will know which stop to get off at because you have no sense of the system or the landmarks yet.

You look at male deities seizing unwilling women and you think "oh yes, scenes of male dominance". But then you look at a Judith looking you in the eye with a knife in her had and the head of Holofernes sitting next to her and that is not quite the subtext.

The further North we go, the more African men we see. They are a notable feature of Venice, hanging around in groups, or flogging handbags, or sunglasses, or whatever.

Throughout our travels in Italy, school groups are a common sight wandering around; the children seem generally well-behaved. It is probably easier when you can just walk to places of historical interest. I also presume that successful suing for damages (and so having a legal system trying to ban consequences, particularly for children) have not yet blighted such.

[Read the rest at Skepticlawyer.]