Friday, January 31, 2014

Money, prices, assets and evasions of responsibility

Understanding the equation of exchange can help see what a massive evasion of institutional responsibility lies behind the Great Recession and the Eurozone crisis.

Economist Irving Fisher developed the original algebraic formulation of the equation of exchange, in his The Purchasing Power of Money (1911):
Money x Velocity = Prices x Transactions.
Fisher's use of the term velocity was rather unfortunate, as what he meant was turnover (the number of times money passed through different transactions in a given time period). As Fisher wrote:
the velocity of circulation, or rapidity of turnover ... this velocity of circulation for an entire community is a sort of average of the rates of turnover of money for different persons. Each person has his own rate of turnover which he can readily calculate by dividing the amount of money he expends per year by the average amount he carries (Chapter 2).
But his equation already had a 'T' in it, so velocity it was. Fisher was using the equation of exchange to state the quantity theory of money more precisely.

Milton Friedman restated the quantity theory of money in 1956 (pdf), leading to the updated equation of exchange:
MV = Py
Money x Velocity = Prices x output of goods and service.
y was originally rendered as Q for quantity (of goods and services), but y has become a common usage. This equation has no 'T', but the velocity usage was already well established (alas). Velocity has become the (output / goods and services / income) velocity of money.  Just as P has become the goods and services price level. (Fisher was an early developer of price indices.)

Aggregate demand
Taking the right side of the updated equation, Py = Prices x output = GDP in money terms, or NGDP. ('N' for nominal, or in money terms.)

Another name for this is aggregate demand (for goods and services). Just as with velocity, aggregate demand is not a clear usage, but it is the accepted one, so we are stuck using with it.

If there was some organisation--let's call it a central bank--that could control M and V, then aggregate demand will be whatever said central bank decides it will be.

That central banks control M is subject to some dispute, but let's take that as read. They are the monopoly providers of monetary base, after all. How could central banks also control V? The short answer is that, as they control M, they also control the future path of M. And expectations about the future path of M are very important in determining V. Hence aggregate demand is whatever the central bank decides it will be.

Which rather takes the bite out of fiscal policy. The central government can run as big a budget deficit as it likes, if the central bank decides to tighten monetary policy to maintain, say, its inflation target (i.e. the rate of change of P), then the effect on aggregate demand of said budget deficits will be effectively completely negated. How long can this keep going? Until public debt reaches whatever the debt-servicing limit of said country is. For an extremely reliable payer such as the government of Japan, this can go on for years until the gross public debt is over twice GDP.

Conversely, the central government can run a whole series of budget surpluses. If the central bank runs a compensating monetary policy, as the RBA did during the Howard Government surpluses, then aggregate demand will chug along just fine.

The impotence of fiscal policy in the face of a competent central bank is the Sumner critique:
the fiscal multiplier will always be zero if the central bank directly or indirectly targets aggregate demand.
under almost any conditions, fiscal policy cannot be effective if monetary policy is aiming at a policy objective that is inconsistent with that fiscal policy.
For fiscal policy to "work"--in the sense of affecting aggregate demand--the central bank has to either be not reacting to reach any inconsistent policy goals or be impotent--i.e. for some reason be unable to affect aggregate demand.

Enter the alleged liquidity trap, when nominal interest rates are at the zero lower bound (ZLB), so cannot be cut any further. This can be formulated as a problem either because a particular interest rate is the central bank's usual policy instrument or, more correctly, as expectations about future income being so dire that no amount of extra money injections will improve them--the famous "pushing on a string".

The former formulation of the liquidity trap assumes that interest rates are a central bank's only reliably effective policy instrument, which is quite false (but can have a profound effect on policy and expectations if central bankers believe it). Regarding either formulation, economist and central banker Lars Svensson published his "foolproof way" of escaping from a liquidity trap in 2003; there is no excuse for treating the ZLB as a genuine constraint on monetary policy. Indeed, the US Federal Reserve's use of Quantitative Easing (QE) shows there is no such constraint. The Fed's use of such "unconventional" (i.e. not-interest-rate) monetary policy explains the superior economic trajectory of the US economy over that of the Eurozone.

Inconvenient responsibility
But notice the scary implication of aggregate demand being whatever the central bank decides it will be. If recessions are generally due to falls in aggregate demand, then central banks are responsible for the business cycle (or most of it). Even if there is a supply shock, the central bank can shift aggregate demand to compensate. Whenever the economy gets plucked off (pdf) its normal growth trend, it is due to central bank failure--either something they did, or something they failed to do.

So, if unemployment surges, if economic conditions stay flat (compared to trend), it is the central bank's fault. That is a scarily responsible place to be. It is hardly surprising that the original public use of the "pushing on a string" metaphor was agreed to with such alacrity by the then Chairman of the US Federal Reserve. Or that the ECB is very happy for people to blame Greece, the PIIGS countries generally, or fiscal austerity, or anyone but them, for the Eurozone crisis.

Eccles: Fed Chairman 1934-1951
M.S.Eccles: Fed Chairman 1934-1951
Holding the central bank responsible for aggregate demand, and thus the business cycle, is however, also not very congenial for the proponents of activist government. It being politically much harder to cut public spending than increase it, activist fiscal policy is a great basis for ever-increasing government. (In theory, budgetary deficits could be run by simply cutting taxes; in practice, increased spending is a normal element in fiscal stimulus.)

In the case of the Eurozone, if the Euro is a political project to promote ever-greater-union (i.e. the creation of a European superstate), then proponents are really not going to want the ECB, and by implication the Euro, being held responsible for the Eurozone crisis. Or, even worse, the Great Recession generally. (That is assuming people even notice monetary policy at all.)

Which is all very well, but leaves some questions unanswered: why leave out previously produced goods from the reformulated equation of exchange?; how can the expected future path of M affect V? and why is an interest rate the normal policy instrument of central banks? It turns out, these are related questions. For they are much about time.

Assets and time
Fisher's original formulation of the equation of exchange included all transactions, including for previously produced goods--i.e purchases of existing assets and second-hand goods. The restated version quarantines off anything not part of current output. (Though services involved in selling existing assets or second-hand goods are part of current output, as are services in maintaining or managing existing assets.)  It thus includes all output connected to income and permits the national accounts statistics to be used.

As for the relationship between the future path of M and V, that is about income and assets. An asset is an asset because it is expected to provide benefits in future time periods. (So, second-hand goods with scarcity value--such as antiques--are assets.) For our purposes, these can be treated as either a stream of income or as a store of wealth or (more commonly) both.  Bonds (a congealed stream of income) are at one end, since their only value is the stream of income, and gold (which provides no income) is at the other. The ultimate point in holding any of these assets being access to good and services, to (current and past) output.

Treating assets as things whose benefits can be expressed in monetary terms, the prices of assets will therefore tend to be interconnected, depending as they do on expectations about future value. When expectations about future income are high, then income-producing assets will be at a premium. When expectations about future income are low, then assets deemed as reliable stores of wealth will tend to be at a premium. And money itself is an asset.

But money is an asset whose current and future supply the central bank controls. Thus, if one expects that money will increase in value (i.e. M is on a low path compared to y), then people will tend to hold it rather than spend it. Which means V (the rate of turnover of money) will fall, so (for any given level of M) Py (i.e spending) will fall. If spending falls, income also falls as one person's spending is another person's income.  Expectations about the future path of M lead to changes in V, lead to changes in aggregate demand.

Another way to consider this is the reciprocal of V, or k:
k = 1/V
Substituting in (by dividing both sides of the adjusted equation of exchange by V) gives us the famous Cambridge equation:
M = kPy
k is the propensity to hold money.  So the more people hold money, the lower Py will be for any level of M. To put it another way, the more desirable money is as an asset, the lower the level of spending for any level of M. If any rise in M will just leads to a rise in k, then the central bank is "pushing on a string" and the liquidity trap is operating. 

But the value of money as an asset depends on the future path of M, so it will matter a great deal whether people expect the increases in M to be temporary or permanent. Thus, Lars Svensson's "foolproof way" out of the liquidity trap uses currency depreciation to signal central bank commitment to a higher future price level. That is, the increases in M are permanent, ensuring a depreciation in the value of money as an asset relative to output, leading to people moving out of holding money and into buying goods and services (plus the higher price level improves income expectations).

Debt-deflation and safe assets
Japan-resident economist Richard Koo has advanced the notion of Japan (and later other major market economies) as being in a "balance sheet recession" (pdf) where the creation of safe assets (Japanese public debt bonds) is a necessary response to the massive rise in bad debts in the Japanese financial system due to the bursting of the "bubble economy". Koo is adapting Fisher's Debt-Deflation theory of the Great Depression. (Fisher's original publication is here [pdf].)

The problem is that Koo gets the debt part but not the deflation part. Expectations about future income are crucial to the burden of debt. That was Fisher's point. If consumer prices drop by about 25% in three years, as they did in the US in 1929-1932, then incomes and income expectations also drop. The ability to service debts collapses and the wave of bad debts surges, profoundly destabilising the financial system.

Koo's problem is that he does not understand the Great Depression. A crucial feature of the 1929-1932 story is that all the major market economies were operating on the gold standard. Since gold set the value of money, rises in the value of gold caused the value of money to rise and the price level to fall. But that just means we can put the equation of exchange in gold terms (adapted from here):
G = kPy
Where G = gold stock and k = gold hoarding.
Since G is essentially fixed (as new production of gold is persistently a small ratio to existing supply, so G is relatively stable in its ratio to total output, to y) then shifts in k can have a major effect on the price level. Which is precisely what happened in 1929-32. The Bank of France enormously increased its gold holdings, the US Federal Reserve (the major holder of gold) failed to compensate; so the value of gold (and thus money in goldzone countries) soared so P collapsed in all the goldzone countries, leading to massive falls in income, spending (Py) and production (y).

FDR took the US out of the Great Depression by massively depreciating the US$ against gold, creating strong expectations of rising prices (and thus incomes) leading to the sharpest economic recovery in US economic history.* He then brought economic recovery to a screeching halt by a high wage policy and other disastrous supply-side policies

Pushing up aggregate demand is not much good if you then push down aggregate supply.

So, expectations about the future path of M affect V (k) which drives Py, so central banks set the level of aggregate demand.

At which point, it is clear that no simple story about M is a satisfactory explanation for asset prices. They depend crucially on expectations about future income, Py. If expectations about Py are poor, then no amount of extra M that fails to shift those expectations is going to increase asset prices. The job of a central bank is all about expectations, because it is not simply the level of M that counts, but expectations about the future path of M. Money itself is an asset, and if people are confident that money will retain its value--because, for example, the central bank is persistently undershooting its low inflation target--but have poor expectations about income, then k can get very high indeed while the value of other assets remains flat. Both the Great Depression and Great Recession have been marked by huge increases in M with flat or falling asset prices.

Income expectations
The difference between the RBA and the BoJ, the Fed or ECB is that while all four central banks have inflation targets, the RBA also has an implicit income target. That is, the expectations are that the RBA will keep Py relatively stable (i.e. tolerate a higher rise in P if y is flat and vice versa) since its inflation target is an average over the business cycle. The varying antipodean responses to the 1997 Asian crisis and resultant exchange-rate shock provide a nice contrast between the RBA taking a broad view/aggregate demand/income expectations policy and another central bank (the RBNZ) taking a narrower inflation-target approach with the RBA policy leading to no recession and the RBNZ approach leading to a recession.

Another way to look at that is to say the RBA is effectively operating an export price norm. (Which leads us back to Lars Svensson's "fool proof" way out of a liquidity trap.) If income expectations do not collapse, there is not a flight to safe assets (such as money in a low inflation environment) and so spending does not collapse.

The huge failure of inflation targeting is the failure to realise the importance of managing income expectations when strong central bank credibility on inflation means money can be a safe asset. (And if you suspect that is something like the failure of the gold standard central banks to realise the importance of managing income expectations when fixed gold convertibility means money can be a safe asset, you would be correct.) Both inflation targeting and the gold standard permitted central banks to evade responsibility for aggregate demand while they were, nevertheless, driving aggregate demand.

Now or later
So far, I have talked about monetary policy without mentioning interest rates very much. A difficulty with interest rates and monetary policy is the importance of the difference between level and direction of movement of interest rates.

Interest rates are about choices between time periods. Interest rates consist of three basic components:
  1. "the risk free cost of capital".
  2. the risks specific to the asset in question. (Rated at 0 for government bonds for which there is no expected default risk.)
  3. expected inflation.
If expected inflation (rate of change of P) is high, interest rates will be high. If expected inflation is low, interest rates will be low. (If weird things are happening with the other two components, that would not necessarily be true, but we can ignore that.) High inflation is loose money (lots of money being spent for a given level of output; the future path of M is expected to be high compared to output) and low inflation is tight money (not so much money being spent for a given level of output; the future path of M is expected to be low compared to output). Hence Milton Friedman’s comment that:
Low interest rates are generally a sign that money has been tight, as in Japan; high interest rates, that money has been easy. … After the U.S. experience during the Great Depression, and after inflation and rising interest rates in the 1970s and disinflation and falling interest rates in the 1980s, I thought the fallacy of identifying tight money with high interest rates and easy money with low interest rates was dead. Apparently, old fallacies never die.
But interest rates are the cost of credit. If people borrow more, they spend more (in particular, they invest more); hence lowering interest rates is deemed to be stimulatory (encouraging more borrowing and investing) and raising interest rates is deemed to be restrictive (discouraging borrowing and investing). Moreover, if people have loans with floating interest rates, then lowering rates frees up some of their income (encouraging spending), raising rates absorbs more of their income (discouraging spending).

What, people are still buying that low interest rates = loose monetary policy nonsense?
What, people are still buying that low interest rates = loose monetary policy nonsense?
Increased spending will raise output or prices (depending on what supply-side [i.e. capacity] constraints are operating). But the central bank changing the base interest rate is movement from a given spot (i.e. it is a directional movement at a given level). It can only change the overall looseness or tightness of money if it changes inflationary expectations. And the impact of the interest rate change will vary depending on how inflationary expectations are running; so keeping interest rates unchanged as inflationary expectations drop is contractionary, as the non-inflationary cost of credit will rise.

If you are already in your target inflation range, the ideal outcome is you encourage output without significantly changing the general trend of money “tightness”. In other words, it is the movement of money into or out of spending, and the consequent effect on output, which matters. So, somewhat paradoxically, low interest rates are a sign of monetary tightness but lowering interest rates are a signal for monetary easing.

Hence, and this is where the two collide, the concern about the Zero Bound or liquidity trap; when you cannot cut interest rates any further (you are at 0%p.a.) but folk still aren’t spending. The infamous “pushing on a string”. Which is where the low-interest-rates-are-loose-money fallacy comes from, I suspect. People know that cutting interest rates is intended to be stimulatory, so it is “obvious” that low interest rates mean loose money. Yes, cutting interest rates is intended to be stimulatory but, no, low interest rates are not a sign of loose money but its opposite. Because interest rates are the price of credit, a price which incorporates inflationary expectations (the expected path of M compared to y), and the tightness or looseness of money depends on the level of spending for a given level of output.

Another way to think of this is interest rates as (in part) the difference between the value of money now and the value of money later. If the path of M is expected to be low compared to output, then money will retain its value as an asset over time and interest rates will tend to be low. If the path of M is expected to be high compared to output, then money will tend to lose its value as an asset over time, and interest rates will tend to be high.

Hence Quantitative Easing--a way to have a stimulatory effect without cutting interest rates. Of course, if you are the Fed and meanwhile making it clear that you are sticking to your inflation target, then the shift in the expected future value of money (and so the price level and so incomes) is going to be, shall we say, somewhat ameliorated.

Which is back to the problem with inflation targeting--like the gold standard, it permits central banks to evade responsibility for aggregate demand while setting it (disastrously low).

And if central banks determine aggregate demand, the only way to hold them genuinely responsible for what they actually do is for them to explicitly and directly target it: also known as NGDP targeting.

*See Lars Svensson's "foolproof way" of exiting a liquidity trap.

[An earlier version was posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Moving along the emancipation sequence

Christina Odone, former deputy editor of The New Statesman, in the course of arguing that religious believers are being pushed out of public life by a new intolerance, drew attention to the Law Society revoking permission for a conference on traditional marriage to be held on its premises.

Suppose it had been a conference on the need to reinstate traditional legal prohibitions on Jews. Or Catholics. Would it then have been unreasonable for the Law Society to say that you can not hold such a conference on our premises?

Suppose it was a conference on the need to revoke voting rights for women? Or re-impose coverture marriage?  (Which was, after all, for centuries the "traditional" form of marriage under English law.) For what group does opposition to equal protection of the law become an acceptable conference subject matter for the Law Society to provide a venue for? Would Ms Odone care to specify?

What used to be called the Old Commonwealth countries -- UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand (we can leave aside South Africa as a different case) -- have been moving along the Emancipation Sequence: abolishing the slave trade, then slavery, then Catholic emancipation, then Jewish emancipationfemale emancipation (in its various waves), now queer emancipation. 

"Emancipation" being used here to mean more than just the right to vote but to enjoy the equal protection of the law in the widest sense. One can tell how far along the Emancipation Sequence we are by how much, and in what spheres, equal protection of the law is taken as effectively a settled issue. It is for Jews and Catholics, it mostly is for women and it is still somewhat contested for queers but is clearly heading in that direction.

Almost certainly, it does not occur to Ms Odone that there is any parallel with coverture marriage, or the controversy over Jewish emancipation, etc. But, of course, that is precisely what is going on.  Indeed, the fight over queer emancipation is almost completely a re-run of the fight over Jewish emancipation, with exactly the same arguments being run -- they are offensive to God, giving them legal equality goes against the authority of Scripture and Western tradition, they will corrupt any institution they are allowed into, they prey on minors, they are predatory recruiters, they spread disease -- and almost exactly the same fault lines showing up in social debate.

The Catholic Church, in particular, is behaving in exactly the same role; keen to foster as much persecution of a vulnerable minority as it can get away with to display its credentials as gatekeeper of righteousness. With said vulnerable minority being a useful scapegoat for the stresses of modernity.

The parallel is even stronger, given how much of the Emancipation Sequence was about de-Christianising the law. Hence equal marriage is, indeed, a rejection of traditional Christian teachings and authority. But so was giving equal rights for Jews. 

Or, for that matter, much of the process of providing equal protection of the law for women. Particularly the fight over giving women control over their fertility, which the traditional Christian package of no contraception, no abortion, no divorce and no rape within marriage almost entirely stripped women of.

The role of gatekeeper of righteousness is deeply entwined with outcasting and moral exclusion. As the legal support of moral exclusion unravels, that entails the unravelling of legal support for traditional religious social gatekeeping.

Ms Odone wants to defend the advocacy of moral exclusion; of moral exclusion extending to denial of equal protection of the law. Moral exclusion always involves an impoverished epistemology, since it denies the experience and perspective of the excluded any standing.

The Law Society has decided that queer folk are full humans, entitled to equal protection of the law. Ms Odone wants the right to use other people's property to publicly advocate that that, really, they are not full and proper versions of the human and so not entitled to equal protection of the law. (For if queer folk are full and proper manifestations of the human, then equal protection of the law just follows.)

At the heart of the Emancipation Sequence is the dictum of Terence:
Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto (I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me).
The Rabbinical tradition was that the cities of the plain were destroyed for breaching the principle enunciated in Exodus 22: 21-27 of protecting the outsider and the vulnerable. That they were not merely immoral, but anti-moral, punishing those who helped the vulnerable. (The notion of their sin being of hostility to the outsider -- and specifically the messengers of God -- is the usage Jesus invoked, in his preaching.)

Moral exclusion, by contrast, declares that which is different to be alien, to be not fit for full membership of the moral community or equal protection of the law. Hence Philo of Alexandria's adoption of natural law reasoning to re-target the wrath of God in Genesis 19 against the vulnerable queer minority. Using the rhetoric of Athens in the name of Jerusalem to fight the Jewish-Greek kulturkampf which was such a feature of the Hellenistic East from the time of Alexander the Great onwards, and which was particularly intense in Alexander's most important eponymous city. Philo was being a good Jewish culture-warrior, contrasting Jewish "according to nature" sexuality and strict gender divisions against vile, flagrant pagan Greek "against nature" sexuality and gender fluidity.

The term "traditional" is so often a way of hiding from history, rather than understanding and learning from it.

In a sense we are seeing the return to past debates, of the return of things deliberately written out of the history that "counted". One can discern a pattern familiar from present clashes when Philo writes:
At all events one may see men-women continually strutting through the market place at midday, and leading the processions in festivals; and, impious men as they are, having received by lot the charge of the temple, and beginning the sacred and initiating rites, and concerned even in the holy mysteries of Ceres. And some of these persons have even carried their admiration of these delicate pleasures of youth so far that they have desired wholly to change their condition for that of women, and have castrated themselves and have clothed themselves in purple robes, like those who, having been the cause of great blessings to their native land, walk about attended by body-guards, pushing down every one whom they meet.
Officially fun
Parading pride
The Sydney Mardi Gras and other Pride Marches invoke the great pagan festivals and street parades, just as Philo is the archetypal monotheist denouncer of the same. These culture wars are millennia old.

Ms Odone is on the losing side of the Emancipation Sequence. But, of course, she would have to see queer folk as full people with fully legitimate aspirations whose experiences count to see that. Which she doesn't, so she doesn't. Thereby manifesting the impoverished epistemology inherent in moral exclusion.

The irony is that advocates of moral exclusion always believe they see more than their opponents, not less. For they see what a threat to moral and social order the excluded group "really" is.

As was said at every stage by opponents of the Emancipation Sequence. How do such claims look now?
Officially pagan
Pagan dates

The Emancipation Sequence has been about expanding social possibilities for previously legally restricted classes of people. Moral exclusion is about narrowing social possibilities, and narrowing them for other people. Based on understanding what a threat to order they "really" are. One suspects that sense of superior understanding and moral purpose is part of the appeal.

Ms Odone claims that traditional religious believers are being subject to moral exclusion, to having their social possibilities narrowed. And she takes her stand on the right of religious believers to seek to block the expanding of social possibilities for others.

Clearly, the irony is entirely lost on her. But that is, of course, the problem of moral exclusion. Once you set the game in motion, you have no control over where it will end up. Perhaps a game not to play, then?

It was, after all, the Jews who taught the Christians to pick on queers and to pick on pagans. And the Christians who taught the Muslims to pick on the Jews. How did that work out for them?

On the wider point that moral exclusion is not a game to play, Ms Odone is entirely correct. But that is not where she wants to make her stand, thereby demonstrating that she misses the point rather more thoroughly than those she is complaining about.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

UPDATE: To clarify, and in a response to a comment at Skepticlawyer, by moral exclusion I mean unilateral denial of moral protections. Exclusion that does not protect people, or the relations between them, yet still strips people of moral protections. It may instance a theory of human nature or social order, but it is a theory that denies moral protections to people, or the relations between them.

Also, while Muslim Jew-hatred was grounded in experiences in Medina and Muhammad's anger at the Jews for rejecting his prophetic mission, the legal restrictions on dhimmis were clearly based on the restrictions imposed on Jews in the Christian Eastern Roman ("Byzantine") Empire.

Monday, January 27, 2014

What a difference two extra words make

Governor Huckabee of Arkansas, speaking at the Republican National Committee's national convention, ignited an instant media and public controversy with the following comments:
If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing them for a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of government
Let's run that again with two words cut out:
If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing them for a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their reproductive system without the help of government
The second version is a condemnation of socialising medicine. Slightly crassly worded perhaps, but otherwise unexceptional. The claim being that women of America can cope with paying for their own contraception. 

Put "their libido" back in and whole texture of the remark changes. Using contraception = slut becomes the invoked subtext. Now, whether it is read as a failure of media competence or possibly a sly way of playing to a specific audience with an eye to a future media career, the remark and the response points to the God's Police or Damned Whore dichotomy that has been such a perennial feature of monotheism in particular and patriarchal systems in general. 

Until the process of de-Chritianisation of law began in the C19th, the standard Christian teaching of no contraception, no abortion, no divorce and no rape within marriage almost entirely stripped women of control over their fertility. The only legitimate act of consent a women had to be actively sexual, or over her fertility, was to marry. 

Even without the whole package (Islam permitted divorce, Rabbinical courts came to recognise rape within marriage), in patriarchal system, policing a woman's sexuality and policing her fertility went hand-in-hand. With older female relatives being particularly involved in said policing. In particular, protecting a son's lineage and reputation made mothers-in-law policers of potential and actual daughters-in-law. Thereby being God's Police so that no Damned Whore sullied the family's lineage or reputation.

(Dis)honour killings come straight out of this concern for family reputation and lineage based on the underlying principle that, as Salzman puts it, women could never add to the honour of the family, they can only detract from it. 

Technology has changed these dynamics in all sorts of ways. (Though obviously less so in the Muslim world, particularly the Middle East.) Women have the means to control their own fertility, are independent income-earners and property-owners. Technology is constantly shifting the control of fertility to being more and more independent of sexuality. 

Teachings based on much earlier social dynamics have been having trouble coping with these shifts. Monotheism in particular is inherently inclined to strong gender and sex taboos. Whether Gov. Huckabee was just reflecting such taboos or pandering to them, it is a reminder of the intersection between attitudes to sexuality and stripping women of control over their fertility -- of the way policing sexuality has been both a means of stripping women of control over their fertility and providing cover for doing so.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Shakespeare's religion

Yesterday (Friday) went to a paper by Richard Strier (author of, among other works, The Unrepentant Renaissance)  entitled "Mind, Nature, Heterodoxy and Iconoclasm in The Winter's Tale", the title expressing precisely the subject matter of the paper.

Strier argued that Shakespeare's religious position as outlined in the play was a mixture of the Catholic and Protestant and the answer to the question of who believed that mixture was -- Erasmus. A much admired figure at the beginning of the C16th and a much rejected one by the end of it. 

I was reminded of the Theological Incorrectness literature. But also Eamon Duffy's point in The Voices of Morebath that the Reformation division ran as within people as well as between them.

In the course of the paper, Strier stated that the first paid theatre tickets in world history were issued in England in the 1570s. A strong claim -- it made me wonder about whether China and Japan had theatre tickets earlier.

But the combination of an overtly commercial theatre and a theologically mixed play also made me wonder if Shakespeare was not also maximising audience appeal, making sure there was something for both the Catholically-inclined and Protestantly-inclined theatre-goer. 

I enjoyed the paper, which was clear, learned and thought-provoking presented with an engaging sense of fun. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The shipping news

The IT explosion has led to a dramatic increase in the casual use of TLA's (three letter acronyms) and neologisms.  One of which is "shipping" -- postulating a relationship between two fictional characters (typically from a TV series) which is not an explicit part of the story. A lot of fanfic (fiction written by fans) is based on such "ships". It is connected to "slash" -- erotic stories based on imagined relationships between characters. For example, Kirk/Spock -- i.e. Kirk "slash" Spock.

All of which is a natural response to TV series which grab your imagination.  Long before I knew such things as slash existed, my hormone-racing, deeply closeted teenage self was imaging steamy sex scenes between Bodie and Doyle from The Professionals. Fan fiction is, after all, based on the proposition that the story doesn't stop until the fans say so.

Not that it is an entirely new phenomenon. As a medievalist friend of mine noted, a lot of medieval Arthurian stories were, in effect, medieval fanfic.

Making connections
A YouTube by the singing parody duo Not Literally Productions presents the shipping phenomenon rather sweetly. Their filk* includes the lyrics:
You're on the canon ground, I'm up in crack ship space
Let's start a shipping war, don't care if I get hate.
Don't like my pairings, well, then you can hit the bricks.
This is my OTP, I'll go down with this ship!
"Canon" is, of course, what actually happens in the show. Thus, ships are not canon, though fans may wish they had been (if the show has finished) or will be (if it has more episodes to come).

Ships have a strong tendency to be same-sex pairings. They have become so much a part of the experience of TV series that there have been competitions run on the most popular ships. (An amusing commentary on shipping becoming mainstream is here.) An annual shipping contest is run by Slashdot (the 2013 competition garnered over 7 million votes) and is limited to same-sex pairings. Of which there are many.

Two years running the Slashdot final has come down to Destiel versus Sterek. Ships are often named by conjunctions of the people involved. So, Destiel is Dean + Castiel, from Supernaturalwhile Sterek is Stiles + Derek, from TeenWolf. The other major contenders were Johnlock (John Watson + Sherlock from Sherlock) and Wincest (the Winchester brothers, Sam + Dean, also from Supernatural: a ship which has some winks and nods from the series). Not all ships have such names, but many do.

Shipping has become so mainstream, that actors Dylan O'Brien (Stiles) and Tyler Hoechlin (Derek Hale) did a YouTube deliberately playing into the Sterek ship to promote voting for TeenWolf in the Teen Choice awards. (For 2012, in which TeenWolf got two wins.)

And here is Not Literally commenting on The Game of Thrones character death toll:

Fan JokeGeorge R.R. MartinSteven Moffat and Joss Whedon walk into a bar and every person you ever loved dies.

As part of the same shift in the cultural zeitgeist, within the realm of romance novels -- which are apparently dramatically increasing in sales due to e-readers: romances are cheap in e-book form and folk can read romance novels in public without exposing embarrassing covers -- there has been a surge in M/M romance. That is male-male romance, often written by women. Presumably on similar grounds as straight guys watch girl-girl porn -- no matter where you look, there is someone you are attracted to doing something intense.

Being wolfie
Indeed, there has been such an explosion in M/M romance that it has sub-genres -- such as the burgeoning sub-genre of male-male werewolf stories. A part of the larger shift in the role of werewolves from ravening predators destroying hearth and home to tragic outsiders seeking a place. A shift very nicely expressed in Patricia Briggs's Mercy Thompson and Alpha-and-Omega stories. Given most people nowadays live in large, anonymous cities, the combination of connection to nature, sense of power and sense of belonging (albeit to a pack) that werewolves can embody has clear resonance. Conversely, having the animals you rely on to live, or your children, taken by wolves is no longer an experienced fear.

As recently as the mid-C20th, fantasy worlds such as Narnia and Middle-Earth featured wolves as figures of threat and evil in keeping with longstanding Northern European tradition. But, by the early 1980s and the Belgariad, wolves have become rather more cute and fluffy. Or, rather, their connection to nature, power and belonging has become shorn of any sense of direct threat to you and yours.

The land of the lonely housewife
Boys doing it for the girls
Largely female-written and female-read male-male romance has a longer history in Japan, where shounen-ai (or "Pretty Boys in Pain" as Helen McCarthy describes it in a useful introductory essay in this essay collection) has been a recognised manga (comic) and anime (cartoon) genre for some decades. Given the still rather socially-constricted role for women in Japan, the desire for an emotionally engaging, yet distanced, form of romance makes a certain amount of sense. Japan's fertility rate fell below replacement in the early 1970s and has apparently plateaued at well below replacement. Given the way being married -- and, even more, married-with-children -- tends to put Japanese women into a box of financial dependence and social subservience, the persistent low fertility rate is not surprising.

Mind you, Western countries seem to be clumping into the Anglosphere/France/Scandinavia mode of fertility rates around 1.9 per woman and the Mediterranean (Italy/Spain/Greece), Germany and Japan mode of fertility rates around 1.4. (Basically, the countries where you can have children and work/have your own income and countries where, not so much.)

But the genre of M/M romance blossomed earlier in Japan, almost certainly because it is the first non-monotheist advanced industrial society. In the late C19th, Japan briefly banned anal sex to show how "modern" it was but, prior to that, Japan had long history of male-male sexuality and romantic attachment being an accepted part of the culture. Indeed, Buddhism was popularly credited with having "introduced" male-male sex and romance.

Missing the zeitgeist
The romanticising the queer, queering romance and queering TV series involved in M/M romance, slash and shipping is a sign of how the culture has evolved. Emotionally investing in queering one's favourite TV shows is a much more personal act than holding a torch for queer rights. Though each no doubt feeds into the other.

Which is why the conservative opposition to queer emancipation is a losing game. They are, literally, fighting the culture. An odd thing for conservatives to be doing, one might think.

Or, perhaps, not so much. The most distinctive feature of Western civilisation is precisely its dynamism. Which generates a perennial problem for Western conservatism -- what does being conservative about the most dynamic of human civilisations mean? Hence the importance of that prudential liberal Edmund Burke in Anglosphere conservatism. His meditations on managing change, on connecting the present to the past without imprisoning the future, provided something for conservatives to work with when de Maistre's throne-and-altar pessimism was a dead end.

The dynamism of Western civilisation produced the Emancipation Sequence -- abolishing the slave trade, then slavery, Catholic Emancipation, Jewish Emancipation, Female Emancipation, civil and indigenous rights, Queer Emancipation -- which conservatives are typically and recurrently on the wrong side of. Each step in the sequence being castigated as a threat to social order and then proving to be no such thing.

Sung China -- with its meritorious bureaucratic rule, its deliberately encouraged technology, its managed belief -- may have been the first modern society, but if the essence of modernity is expanding possibilities, then the Emancipation Sequence expresses modernity quite profoundly. Though expanding possibilities can seem frightening to those focused on the felt fragility of social order.

Particularly if they buy into lazy thinking about the legacy of history; as if oppression, privilege and exploitation are not also part of the selection processes of history. There was, for example, no "social learning" involved in the anathematisation of the queer; that was just the brutal imposition of religious doctrine against a highly vulnerable group. (Since queer folk grow up as isolated individuals in overwhelmingly straight families and social milieus.) Which made them ideal targets for outcasting, for expressing the power and authority of clerics as gatekeepers of righteousness.

Better even than Jews, for while it is possible to have a Judenfrei society (if one kills or expels all existing Jews) it is not possible to have a queerfrei society, because new ones are continually being born. Hence they offer an endless target as an endless "threat" to a religiously-conceived social order who make such great outcasts because they are so inherently vulnerable. No matter how socially powerless you are, you can always pick on the queers and feel effortlessly virtuous and entitled.

Committing to an endless war against human gender and sexual diversity is not about expanding possibilities, it is about closing them off, and closing them off for others. It is a war against both modernity and the dynamism of Western civilisation. Sacrificing understanding to a narrow (and, in the end, deeply ignorant) sense of order. Including the impoverished epistemology that goes with declaring that not everyone with a human face is "properly" human. Because then their experience does not count and provides no lessons and no understanding.

Romancing the feels
But what if queering the culture provides a very different sense of power and engagement? A way of taking what is offered and making it your own. Of feeling connected to others. Even of being part of a morally grander society and understanding experiences beyond your own.

And do shippers really want their OTP to become canon? Or is the fun of adding in, of imaging that extra, really the point? Of being not merely audience but, in a sense, also a creator? Particularly when they do fanvids as clever as this (warning: some of the dialogue has been shifted around to ship it better).

Likely so. I came to TeenWolf through Sterek, but I am not at all sure I really want Stiles and Derek to go there. Adding it in is part of the fun. But it is also a way of acknowledging the breadth and diversity of the human, even getting joy from it, rather than being hatefully afraid of it.

* NOTE ON FILK: Allegedly, the first filk was the Ballad of Bilbo Baggins, performed by Leonard Nimoy (aka Spock) -- for example, here. (WARNING extreme Sixties camp.)  Mr Nimoy recites some of it in the Spock v Spock Audi ad (one of the greatest TV ads ever: though I also like the Hyundai toy boy ad). The stars of The Hobbit have done a reading.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]