Sunday, March 30, 2014

The scope of moral concern

What Americans call "the culture wars" operate around different presumptions about human nature, social action and the scope of moral concern. Presumptions economist Thomas Sowell divided into conflicting visions; the constrained or tragic vision of human nature versus the unconstrained or utopian vision of human nature. The former sees human nature as a constraint, the latter sees it as an vehicle for social transformation (either because our "true" nature has been suppressed or because it is malleable in controllable ways).

Our nature has innate features in the sense that our minds are organised in advance of experience, not that they are unable to be revised. While common bodily functions and experience also provide shared constraints. None of which denies the reality of human diversity, just that there are ongoing, and recognisable, patterns and structures to human nature and behaviour. After all, if there were not, social action and organisation would become largely impossible since there would be insufficient common levers and expectations to work with.

Steven Pinker has argued very strongly against the "blank slate" view of human nature beloved of those who wish to believe all social ills to be directly tractable to the "correct" application of public policy. Note that accepting the reality of an underlying human nature is very far from an argument for pessimism or fatalism, as Pinker himself demonstrates. His The Better Angels of Our Nature: the Decline of Violence in History and its Causes is very much a good news book. (TED talk here.)

MoralFoundationsListing (1)
Pinker's work does, however, enjoin us to deal with people as they are, not as we would like them to be. As uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan recently noted, it is a great line that liberals believe nothing is genetic but homosexuality, while conservatives believe everything is genetic except homosexuality. For conservatives seem to think that public policy can "stop" homosexuality (and the failure to do so will "spread" it, or at least its baleful influence) while liberals hold that human sexual and gender diversity should just be accepted: something of a reversal of their more usual presumptions about the effective scope of public policy.

That moral conflicts might be something other than just a conflict between "stupid" liberals and "evil" conservatives is the subject of the work of Jonathan Haidt, particularly his The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. (TED talk here.) His ongoing research into the foundations of human moral perceptions and judgement seeks, in part, to explain why moral perspectives can vary as much as they do. It is a striking feature of contemporary life that, after the collapse of socialism as a plausible alternative to capitalism, the left v. right political conflicts went right on happening. In some ways, at least in the US, seem to get even more intense.

Acts or people?
The conservative presumption of the tractability of human sexuality and gender identity to public policy--or, at least, that they need to be policed--is very much based on particular moral conceptions. In particular, a strong belief in the centrality of acts to moral concern. The opposing view revolves around a strong belief in the centrality of people to moral concern. The former view is fading, and the latter view growing, in public support as people shift from focusing on acts to focusing on people. Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah captured this nicely in his The Case for Contamination essay:
But if you ask the social scientists what has produced this change, they will rightly not start with a story about reasons. They will give you a historical account that concludes with a sort of perspectival shift. The increasing presence of “openly gay” people in social life and in the media has changed our habits. And over the last 30 years or so, instead of thinking about the private activity of gay sex, many Americans and Europeans started thinking about the public category of gay people.
This difference in whether the focus of moral concern is acts or people fits in with the research of Haidt and others, which finds that Western liberals tend to be largely driven by the care/harm and fairness/cheating moral foundations (plus liberty/oppression, if that is added as a sixth foundation), while conservatives also put emphasis on loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation moral foundations. Homosexual acts are treated as a betrayal of God, a degrading of the body and a perversion of the nature of sex while transgender identities are similarly betrayals of God, a degrading of the body and a perversion of the nature of gender. The opposing view being that queer folk are citizens and entitled to equal protection of the law.

The dynamics of belief
Much of this is simply religiously based--it is wrong because God says so. But, as Mark Lilla sets out in his The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West, religion is a deeply flawed basis for public policy. Even within specific religious traditions, there is bitter dispute about what God does or does not enjoin us to do. The more the authority of God is treated as absolute, the more politics becomes a murderous dispute of entitled monologues. God is not a present-in-public Person who can be questioned, or even definitively commonly heard, after all: so monologues claiming entitlement via God's authority become the natural metier of unavoidable disputes. This without considering the reality that clerics and priests have vested interests in outcasting, in displaying their authority as gatekeepers of righteousness by dividing human society with deep moral gaps. The more vulnerable the group, the better moral exclusion target they make--hence queers and Jews being such perennial targets.

The great trick of the Western Enlightenment was, as Lilla points out, to change the question from the relationship between God and people and turn it into one between people and the world. That was a shift not without its own difficulties, failures and disasters; but we only have to look to contemporary Islam, or back to the Europe of the Wars of Religion, to see the problems of societies which apparently cannot manage that trick. Which remain blighted by murderous disputes of entitled monologues.

Sacred homicide.
Sacred homicide.
Priests and clerics are going to tend to want to keep the moral focus on acts and not people, for that generally better suits their role as gatekeepers of righteousness. Hence regulation of belief acts, clothing acts, food acts, sexual acts, ... Religious taboos are act-based precisely because we have to go to the priest or cleric to negotiate our way through the divinely-ordered moral landscape. Taboos are also ways of signalling religious commitment (thus invoking common loyalty and deference to shared authority).

Notions of sanctity and degradation are thus natural buttresses to priestly and clerical authority, since they are so amenable to very different constructions of what sanctifies and what degrades. To the Aztecs, after all, mass human sacrifice was the highest form of sanctity. The invading Spanish took that as horrifying degradation; but thought that throwing "third gender" cross-dressers to the dogs to be eaten alive was a sanctified and pious act. (We may also notice a divinely sanctioned sense of entitlement operating in both cases.)

When a Christian claims to be "defending Christian tradition" in their opposition to homosexuality, an obvious response is "so you think committers of homosexual acts should be publicly burnt alive, do you?" That is, after all, a very traditional response. In reality, contemporary conservative Christians have partaken in the wider shift from moral focus being on acts to it being on persons. They have simply not gone as far down that shift as others have done.

A rationalising device
The most intellectually sophisticated buttress to moral concern being focused on acts rather than persons is provided by Thomist natural law theory. Over the centuries, any form of outcasting or moral restriction the Catholic Church has wished to engage in--such as against homosexuality, heretics, Jews, denying women control over their fertility (no abortion, contraception, divorce or rape within marriage)--Thomism has found justification for. That St Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican, and the Dominicans tended to run the Inquisition, was a useful conjunction.

More sacred homicide.
More sacred homicide (to punish "morally degraded" heathen drag queens).
One explanation for this ready application to whatever outcasting was required is that Thomism is simply philosophical truth and the Catholic Church just keeps getting it correct. An obvious problem with such a claim is that the Church has shifted its views on many of these issues. With Thomism successfully "keeping up" with the shifts.

An alternative view is that Thomism is actually a very sophisticated way of rationalising whatever conclusions are required, at least within a fairly broad ambit. It does so by two key features. The first is that it focuses on acts rather than persons. While it does claim to ground its moral reasoning in "human flourishing", it turns out that acts deemed to contradict such "human flourishing" are given much more importance than specific persons or classes of person.

This is obvious in the case of homosexual acts, against which  the experience and aspirations of bisexuals and homosexuals have no standing--they do not count as part of "human flourishing". But is hardly less so in the case of Jews, heretics and women. For the last, since procreation is deemed absolutely central to sex and marriage, according to Thomist reasoning (in accord with Catholic doctrine) women cannot have abortions, use contraceptives, get a divorce or deny their husbands sex (no rape within marriage, as they are "one flesh"). The consequences for women of so profoundly denying them control over their own fertility are also not part of "human flourishing".

St Dominic presiding over error having no rights, including any to live.
St Dominic presiding over error having no rights; including any to live.
As "error has no rights", whoever is deemed to be sufficiently in error is outside (positive) moral standing or concern. The morality of acts trumping the morality of persons. Terribly useful in rationalising the role of priests and clerics as gatekeepers of righteousness.

It is a basic principle that the wider the scope of moral concern for acts, the narrower the coverage of moral concern for persons (as the easier it is to lose or lack moral standing). Thus, while freedom of speech and belief can be argued for on truth-discovery grounds--which does not apply if a definitive source of truth is available--such freedom is also about the legitimacy and autonomy of individuals. Conversely, censorship is all about focus on acts trumping such personal legitimacy and autonomy.

A device for dismissing inconvenient evidence
The other feature of Thomism which makes it so useful for outcasting (and supporting religious doctrine generally) is that it uses its conclusions to set the ambit of its premises. For example, that the purpose of sex is procreation so the only legitimate use of sex is for procreation or binding procreators. The notion that, once created, something has a single definitive purpose is not an inference from reality, it is a metaphysical principle imposed on reality which permits contrary evidence to be ignored: that is, the conclusion gets to set the ambit of its premises.

In fact, it is perfectly clear from observation of nature that sex has many functions. Not least because procreation is a lot more complicated than mere conception, and the more complex and social a species is, the more that is true. (A standard trope of conservative mis-reasoning is to conflate conception with child-raising under the term "procreation".)

Sex has a wide range of functions in nature--conception, binding partners, building alliances and networks, diverting aggression, providing catharsis. Humans, like other primates, are capable of broad range of intense sexual pleasure and experiences because, as in other primates, sex has a wide range of functions among humans. Evolution does not just stop, it does not stand still; biological features evolve, and natural selection can alter and expand their uses. Particularly given the importance of culture in human evolution.

Creating culture
Which may help explain how queer people evolved. Precisely because they are less likely to have children of their own, they have more reason and time to invest cultural activities--they have reason to provide cultural services so other people's children will have reason to look after them when they get older.

It is not merely that queer folk are currently, and have historically, been disproportionately involved in cultural activities: it is that human culture itself is wildly disproportionately their creation. The notion that queer folk have less interest in the functioning of society than straight folk because they are less likely to have children is the exact opposite of the truth. Precisely because children are less likely to be their pension plan (i.e. their support and protection in old age), queer folk have more reason to seek to have their society be willing and able to support them and what they provide. They have more reason to invest in the effective functioning of the wider society, not less. It is therefore not surprising that they are disproportionately active in cultural activities and caring professions.

From people to morality
But that is to infer from the fact of the diversity of the human to a conclusion, it is not to use a conclusion to pathologise the diversity of the human. By focusing moral concern on acts rather than people, by using conclusions to set the ambit of premises based on imposing a confining metaphysical principle on a much more complex reality, Thomism is a splendid vehicle for rationalising religious doctrine. Including religious outcasting; the buttressing of the clerical and priestly role as gatekeepers of righteousness given that the more intense the moral focus on acts, the more moral protections can be withdrawn from actual people.

The utility of Thomism as a sophisticated system of rationalising the withdrawal of moral protection is nowhere clearer than in the notion that "the" defining purpose of sex is procreation. Yes, such reasoning does appear in Greek natural law reasoning. But it was not held to have much moral import; it was taken as (falsely) indicating that humans were different from other animals in their sexual diversity, but not much more than that. It is only when monotheist religious taboos were added in, that it became a justification for judicial homicide. And we can see how the trick was done; through the focus on acts rather than persons and using a metaphysical principle that allows contrary evidence to be dismissed: that allows the conclusion to set the ambit of its premises.

It was Philo of Alexandria's application (in On Abraham: XXVI-XXVII and Special Laws III: VII--the former in particular including a strong dose of misogyny) of Greek natural law reasoning to Genesis 19 which, when adopted by early Christian writers, shifted the focus of the Biblical tale from the traditional rabbinical interpretation that the cities of the plain were destroyed because of their withdrawal of moral protection from the vulnerable to one which focused on homosexual acts. Given that the only reference to such acts in the Biblical narrative is an implied threat of group rape, it is a fairly heroic "re-interpretation" of the scriptural narrative--one worthy of post-modernism--to make homosexual acts the focus of the story, but a re-intepretation that natural law theory was up for.

moral foundations.
Philo was a "cultural warrior" in the Jewish-Greek kulturkampf of the time, so using the philosophical tools of the Greeks to damn their degenerate pagan ways no doubt had a certain delicious appeal. Just as St Paul ("Apostle to the Gentiles") and Church fathers sought to use the established philosophical and intellectual language of Greek natural law reasoning to engage in their own culture wars against paganism. A role which still has a certain resonance in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example.

The difference between the ambit of moral concern being persons rather than acts also occurs in other traditions--in modern libertarianism, for example. Jeffrey Tucker's distinction between (vialibertarian humanism, which focuses on freedom of (and for) people versus libertarian brutalism, which focuses on acts of freedom, regardless of consequences for people, is very much the difference between people and acts as focus of moral concern. Hence the latter's natural affinity for conceptions of religious "liberty" which focus on the right to outcast and to impede women having control of their fertility.

One of the great patterns of our times, in some ways the greatest, has been the shift from moral focus being on acts to it being on persons. We are all in this together, after all. Something that a certain religious figure also suggested, did he not, as he urged the shifting of moral concern from acts to persons, concern for whom was central to his teaching.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

About that consequences thing ...

Putin's Crimean grab looks like it may lead to a halting, or even a reversal, of the 20-year long shrinking of US military forces in Europe. Whether that is in Russia's strategic interest (one would have thought not) it is definitely a good thing for the US to be sending clear signals about where lines exist.

ADDENDA: President Obama is now running right up against the contradiction between his ambitious goals and contracting means.  Meanwhile, Syrian continues to be a serious balancing conundrum for his foreign policy. While Crimea is continuing a basic theme of Russia's foreign policy for the last 20 years (and, if one goes back to pre-Soviet days, even longer).

Saturday, March 29, 2014

About the Malaysian airlines Boeing 777 that disappeared

Email apparently from a retired AF colonel, now a pilot for AA, flying the Boeing 777.

Just a quick update with what I know about the Malaysia 777 disappearance.  The Boeing 777 is the airplane that I fly.  It is a great, safe airplane to fly.  It has, for the most part, triple redundancy in most of its systems, so if one complete system breaks (not just parts of a system), there are usually 2 more to carry the load.  It’s also designed to be easy to employ so 3rd world pilots can successfully fly it. Sometimes, even that doesn’t work…as the Asiana guys in San Fran showed us.  A perfectly good airplane on a beautiful, sunny day…and they were able to crash it.  It took some doing, but they were able to defeat a bunch of safety systems and get it to where the airplane would not help them and the pilots were too stupid/scared/unskilled/tired to save themselves

There’s many ways to fly the 777 and there are safety layers and  redundancies built into the airplane.  It is tough to screw up and the airplane will alert you in many ways (noises, alarms, bells and whistles, plus feed back thru the control yoke and rudder pedals and throttles.  In some cases the airplane’s throttles ‘come alive’ if you are going to slow for a sustained period of time)  All designed to help.  But, it’s also non-intrusive.  If you fly the airplane in the parameters it was designed for, you will never know these other things exist.  The computers actually ‘help’ you and the designers made it for the way pilots think and react. Very Nice.

Now to Malaysia.  There are so many communication systems on the airplane.  3 VHF radios. 2 Sat-Com systems.  2 HF radio systems.  Plus Transponder and active, ‘real time’ monitoring through CPDLC (Controller to Pilot Data Link Clearance) and ADS B(Air Data Service) through the Sat-Com systems and ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) thru the VHF, HF and Sat-Com systems.  The air traffic controllers can tell where we are, speed, altitude, etc as well as what our computers and flight guidance system has set into our control panels.  Big Brother for sure!  However, most of these things can be turned off.  

But, there are a few systems that can’t be turned off and one, as reported by the WSJ, is the engine monitoring systems (not sure what the acronym for that is, but I’m sure there is one….it’s aviation…there has to be an acronym!).  The Malaysia airplane, like our 777-200’s, use Rolls Royce Trent Engines (as a piece of trivia….Rolls Royce names their motors after rivers….because they always keep on running!)  Rolls Royce leases these motors to us and they monitor them all the time they are running. In fact, a few years back, one of our 777’s developed a slow oil leak due and partial equipment failure.  It wasn't bad enough to set off the airplane’s alerting system, but RR was looking at it on their computers.  They are in England, they contact our dispatch in Texas, Dispatch sends a message to the crew via Sat-Com in the North Pacific, telling them that RR wants them to closely monitor oil pressure and temp on the left engine.  Also, during the descent, don’t retard the throttle to idle…keep it at or above a certain rpm.  Additionally, they wanted the crew to turn on the engine ‘anti ice’ system as the heats some of the engine components.

The crew did all of that and landed uneventfully, but after landing and during the taxi in, the left engine shut itself down using it’s redundant, computerized operating system that has a logic tree that will not allow it to be shut down if the airplane is in the air…only on the ground.  Pretty good tech.  Anyway, the point was, that RR monitors those engines 100% of the time they are operating.  The WSJ reported that RR indicated the engines on the Malaysia 777 were running normally for 4 to 5 hours after the reported disappearance.  Malaysia denies this.  We shall see.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A pathology parading as a polity

What does it say about a country that it is forced to have its "home" cricket tests in another country? For the purposes of test cricket, Pakistan holds its "home" tests in the United Arab Emirates because Pakistan itself is deemed too dangerous.

A problem with violence
What does it say about a country that a bodyguard can assassinate the Provincial Governor he was responsible for guarding and be treated by many as a national hero? On 4 January 2011, Punjab governor Salmaam Taseer was assassinated by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri for publicly disagreeing with Pakistan's blasphemy law. (Punjab is the major province of Pakistan, with about 56% of Pakistan's population.)  While thousands of ordinary Pakistanis attended the slain Punjabi governor's funeral, the murderer was also publicly hailed as a hero, with Pakistan's most prominent religious Party praising his actions.

Protest against blasphemy laws.
Protest against blasphemy laws.
The Pakistani Minister for Minorities, the only Christian in Cabinet, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated on 2 March 2011 for his opposition to the same law. Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or the "Pakistani Taliban", claimed responsibility for his murder.

Pakistan is a major arena for sectarian violence, with Muslim minorities also being targeted. In fact, is rated by Minority Rights Group International as being as threatening for minorities as Iraq and Afghanistan, with the threat rising faster in Pakistan than either.
Both the above assassinations were for championing the case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian women sentenced to death for blasphemy. Pakistan's blasphemy laws fall particularly heavily on Pakistan's tiny (3%) Christian minority. A minority which is the target of mass suicide bombings and other attacks.

Blasphemy law is a classic example of how expanding the moral ambit of concern for acts narrows the moral ambit of concern for persons. In this case, the capital offence being to say, in response to taunts against her religion:
I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for the sins of mankind. What did your Prophet Mohammed ever do to save mankind?
The claim that she, as a Christian, touching the water had made it haram, unclean, make it clear how much this particular case a matter of religious outcasting and provides an indication that, as some have suggested, much anti-Christian animus is a reworking of old caste prejudices.

Mosque, military and islands of capital
In Muslim countries not ruled by traditional monarchies, politics is often a clash between mosque and military; the only two significant organised power networks. With support for "secular" politics often meaning that one is a member of a minority group, as with the Alawites in Syria and Sunni Arabs in Iraq; in both those cases using Baathism as their political vehicle--a political ideology founded by an atheista Christian and a modernising Sunni Muslim. Or one is a supporter of the military against the mosque. Or both.

Pakistan has some of the mosque versus military dynamics, with a series of military dictators (1958-1971, 1977-1988, 1999-2002) and a range of religious parties and militant groups. Its politics are complicated by significant landlord and commercial classes, providing some relief from any mosque-versus-military dichotomy. Pakistan still falls within Nobel Laureate economist Sir Arthur Lewis's classic 1954 analysis Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour (pdf), with "islands of capital" surrounded by a "sea" of subsistence farming, but those islands are large enough to be the basis of significant political forces. (Not true in, for example, Egypt.)

India has larger islands of capital, both in critical mass and per head, hence its per capita GDP being about 25% higher than Pakistan's. India also has a significantly higher literacy rate (74% to 55%): the female literacy rate in India (66%) being only slightly lower than the male literacy rate in Pakistan (69%).  Bangladesh, which has only two-thirds of the per capita GDP of Pakistan, also has a higher literacy rate (60%) than Pakistan, with its female literacy rate (53%) being only slightly lower than Pakistan's overall literacy rate (55%).

States but not nations
The other complication in the development of a "normal" mosque-versus-military dichotomy is that Pakistan has no national identity apart from an Islamic one. Unlike Bangladesh ("the nation of Bengal"), which is overwhelmingly (98%) ethnic Bengali (it is essentially the country of Muslim Bengalis), Pakistan ("the land of the pure") is a patchwork quilt of ethnicities and languages; Punjabis (44%), Pashtun (15%), Sindhi (14%), Saraiki speakers (11%), Urdu speakers (8%)--Urdu is essentially the Muslim version of Hindi--Balochi (4%) plus another 5% of various smaller minorities.

The Pashtun make up around 42% of the population of Afghanistan while being the second-largest ethnic group in Pakistan--in fact almost as many Pashtun live in Pakistan as the entire population of Afghanistan. Which makes the notion of separate Afghan and Pakistan identities a bit moot--Afghanistan is really the bit that didn't end up in British India, the Russian Empire (cum Soviet Union) or Iran. Just as Pakistan is the (western) bit of Muslim-not-India.

The lack of a common identity for each country, beyond being overwhelmingly Muslim, is one of the destabilising features of both countries--they are states without being nations. With the modern world's massive broadening of the expected scope of state action, that is a serious problem. The notion that Afghanistan cannot be conquered or ruled successfully is nonsense: it was both plenty of times, just under very different expectations of what was permitted and useful to do for either.

If the notion of separate Afghan and Pakistan identities is a bit moot, and if Pakistan is defined as "Muslim-not-India", then the obvious way for Pakistan to get more strategic depth against India (against which it has fought four wars, all of which it started and all of which it lost) is to dominate (possibly even absorb) Afghanistan.  Now, trying to define yourself against a country, India, which is much larger demographically (1,210m to 182m) and significantly richer (the Indian economy is about 9 times the size of the Pakistani economy) may seem a deeply silly thing to do. But if the only unifying state identity is "Muslim-not-India", if your second largest ethnic group is the largest ethnic group of the neighbouring Muslim country, and if you are the Pakistani military and believe that ultimately God is on your side, then it may seem the only game in town. Especially given the tradition of over a millennia of successful Muslim aggression against Buddhists and Hindus, from the C8th to the C18th. (Until the rise of the Maratha and Sikh empires, themselves then overthrown by the British, the founders of the modern Pakistani army.)

Muslim conqueror building a "minaret of beheaded skulls".
Muslim conqueror building a "minaret of beheaded skulls".
Welcome to the Taliban strategy. The Taliban were not a result of the (ultimately) successful insurgency against Soviet rule in Afghanistan (1979-1989). They arose in 1994 and operated as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from 1996-2001, being recognised by only three countries--Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The countries which had provided the bulk of the logistical support and funding for the anti-Soviet insurgency. (The Saudis had matched US funding dollar for dollar with about the same amount again being raised by private donations, mainly in the Saudi kingdom and the UAE.) About 10% of Afghanistan had remained under the control of the Northern Alliance, groups who had been crucial in the anti-Soviet insurgency but were not sufficiently pliable for Pakistani purposes.

Osama bin Laden, scion of perhaps the second wealthiest family in Saudi Arabia, had originally made his name helping to organise funding and volunteers for the mujahideen. The Taliban were very much Wahhabi flavoured in their conception of Islam, yet another iteration of the endless round of Islamic reformist movements seeking to get back to the original, "pure" Islam; locked in the Islam-has-(literally)-all-the-key-answers side of Islam's epistemic event horizon.

The Stillborn God
But Islam is not the answer to the problems of modern governance. No religion is; first because, even within a single religion, getting agreement on what the religion actually requires in various situations is impossible except through the operation of violence. The lesson Europe mostly took from the Wars of Religion of c.1524-c.1648. Hence Latin Christendom becoming Western civilisation--adding in Graeco-Roman classicism and science as civilisation-defining characteristics. The great task of the Enlightenment.

Ali beheading war captive Nadr ibn al-Harith in the presence of Prophet after the battle of Badr.
Ali beheading war captive and satirical poet Nadr ibn al-Harith in the presence of Prophet after the battle of Badr.
Second, because modern governance deals with a host of, literally, entirely new questions, or old questions recast in very different contexts. Third, because the most successful development path is through the evolution of the social bargaining state; which requires a certain minimal civility and mutual acceptance that strong reliance on religious identities gets in the way of. If the infidel "pollutes" what they touch--as with Asia Bibi and sipping water--there is not much grounds for social bargaining.

Which is precisely where the Taliban strategy ran into deep problems. Osama bin Laden was appalled at the al-Saud calling in infidel troops (US, British, French) to defend itself against Saddam Hussein's aggression. The House of Saud claims the title of "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques", while the core of Arabia is supposed to be the land of only one religion. The use of infidel forces "polluted" holy Arabia and meant, according to bin Laden et al, that the al-Saud had forfeited their status as defenders of the heartland of Islam. A classic case of religious identity precluding social bargaining, albeit of the international variety.

So, al-Qaeda struck at the "near enemy" (al-Saud) by striking at the "far enemy" and the Two Towers fell. The US response to the jihadi taking out two buildings was to take out two countries. Starting with bin Laden's haven of Afghanistan.

Which put Pakistan, and particularly the Pakistani military, in a very difficult spot. If the US blamed Pakistan, it had an obvious ally for military action. One that had its own nasty experiences of Pakistani-based Islamic militancy; including an attack on the Indian Parliament a mere two months later, which came close to provoking an Indo-Pakistani war all on its own.

So, Pakistan essentially played a double game. President Musharaff publicly signed on to the "war on terror". Meanwhile, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) continued to maintain links with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Including, it turned out, providing a haven for bin Laden himself, part of a much wider pattern of support for violent Muslim militants. But what would one expect from the intelligence services of a military which defines itself as the coercive arm of "Muslim-not-India"?

Those who complain that the Obama Administration simply snatched and killed bin Laden rather than "going through proper channels" (i.e. requesting extradition) have no understanding of Pakistan. It is not a rule of law country. Any official response, or even unofficial request or notification, would have immediately resulted in bin Laden being tipped off and vanishing again. The Obama Administration would have been publicly crucified for its naivety and stupidity--almost certainly becoming a one-term Presidency.

Fake ally, real enemy
In the end, the insoluble issue of the Afghanistan intervention has not been Afghanistan itself; it has been being saddled with an "ally" that is actually, functionally, an enemy--as this magazine article by New York Times journalist Carlotta Gall explains. She covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for the NYT from 2001 to 2013 and has now written a book on the conflict. That bin Laden had been, and remained, an ally of the ISI is a basic thesis of the book, with bin Laden regularly travelling around and being waved through checkpoints.

But what do you do about a nuclear-armed polity of 182m which is more of a pathology than a functioning state? Both the Bush and Obama Administrations had reasons to go along with Pakistan's double game; for public admission of the problem would create huge pressure for a public response.

So, what do you do? Kill bin Laden, declare victory and go home. But that is not a solution, it is at least as much an evasion as a response. If the Taliban end up reconquering Afghanistan because the Pakistani state is still helping them, and the Afghani state is not strong enough to stop them, it will be seen in the jihadi circles as a great victory. A victory that will not satisfy, but will encourage.

Carlotta Gall's bleak conclusion is:
When I remember the beleaguered state of Afghanistan in 2001, I marvel at the changes the American intervention has fostered: the rebuilding, the modernity, the bright graduates in every office. Yet after 13 years, more than a trillion dollars spent, 120,000 foreign troops deployed at the height of the war and tens of thousands of lives lost, Afghanistan’s predicament has not changed: It remains a weak state, prey to the ambitions of its neighbors and extremist Islamists. This is perhaps an unpopular opinion, but to pull out now is, undeniably, to leave with the job only half-done.
Meanwhile, the real enemy remains at large.
The previous Western involvement in Afghanistan bore dreadful fruit because the West lost interest after the Soviets went home. If the Taliban strategy ends up succeeding despite over a decade of US-led military effort, what might they then be emboldened to try?

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The virtue of a pragmatic central bank

Based on a comment I made on a post by Scott Sumner on the Fed's narrow view of inflation targeting:

The RBA understands that inflation has to cycle around the target if unemployment is to be minimised. Since other central banks don't really seem to, I am led to the conclusion that the difference is ultimately Australian pragmatism at work.

Australia has what appears to be the most utilitarian political culture on the planet, going back to the early days of European settlement but particularly through the influence of Chartism. Even the great policy shift away from the Deakinite Settlement (pdf) (White Australia, Trade Protection, State Paternalism, Wage Arbitration, Imperial Benevolence) was about what worked for risk management. We are a predominantly Anglo-Celtic enclave clinging to the coasts of a water-short, drought, fire and flood prone island-continent at the end of Asia: hence practical risk management and state-as-giant-utility being at the centre of public policy.

We also tend to be good at bureaucracy. (Perhaps a little too good.) But good at bureaucracy in this instance means good at policy clarity and transparency--a definite advantage for monetary policy expectations management.

Hence a pragmatic central bank that takes a broad, utilitarian risk-management view. The US is a bit more inclined to grand ideas and creating fetishes of order. Inflation targeting is a clear fetish; the clearer the narrower it is.

New Zealand does not quite make it to Australian monetary policy pragmatism, because it is a (much) smaller country, so a bit more inclined to become swept up in the latest ideas. Especially since it is a unicameral non-federal state.  That Australia is a federation with a powerful Senate also encourages more persuasion and broadening-the-goodies compromise. More utilitarian pragmatism.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Built-in Imperialism: an era of farcical return

Alexis de Tocqueville and Friedrich Nietzsche both scored well in prognostication. De Tocqueville famously wrote in the 1830s:
There are now two great nations in the world which, starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans. … The American fights against natural obstacles; the Russian is at grips with men. The former combats the wilderness and barbarism; the latter, civilization with all its arms. America’s conquests are made with the plowshare, Russia’s with the sword. To attain their aims, the former relies on personal interest and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of individuals. The latter in a sense concentrates the whole power of society in one man. One has freedom as the principal means of action; the other has servitude. Their point of departure is different and their paths diverse; nevertheless, each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.
Which may seem a little rough on the Amerindians, but the reality is that they were massively outbred and they could be, and were, suppressed by, at most, battalion-sized actions. It was just another version of the story of the last 10,000 years--hunter-gatherers being overwhelmed by farmers and pastoralists. Merely better recorded, with the innovation of retrospective guilt.

Here is Nietzsche in Untimely Meditations (II 9) in the 1870s:
If the doctrines of the sovereign Becoming, of the fluidity of all … species, of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal … are hurled into the people for another generation … then nobody should be surprised when … brotherhoods with the aim of the robbery and exploitation of the non-brothers … will appear on the arena of the future.
Fascism, Nazism and Leninism would qualify. Especially given what each took from Darwinism.

Marx, on the other hand, was a famously dreadful prognosticator. His immiseration thesis spectacularly failed, the problem being that the more capital per worker, the scarcer workers are relative to capital, so the higher wages are. Since capital is inherently wedded to exploitation in Marx's conception, the implication is that the more prosperous workers are, the more "exploited" they are: at which point we have to agree with Inigo Montoya--that word, it does not mean what you think it means. That Marx talked about capital "accumulating" leads to such errors, since capital is created (or not) by human action, not mechanical processes. By separating the origin of capital from creative human action (and the embedded complexity of social relations), he impoverished his own analysis, along with that of anyone who took this "capital accumulates" notion from him.

But Marx did have that great line, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, that:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Second time as farce
Which brings us to Vladimir Putin. Boris Johnson brilliantly captured Putin as low-rent Stalin, which I cannot hope to match and will not try. Though it does make Marx's quote all the more apt. Putin's immediate strategy is bulls-eyed by Michael J Totten:
Keeping his former Ukrainian vassal out of NATO will be easy now even if a militant anti-Russian firebrand comes to power in Kiev. The Crimean referendum—whether it was free and fair or rigged is no matter—creates a disputed territory conflict that will never be resolved in Ukraine’s favor. It will freeze and fester indefinitely. There isn’t a chance that NATO would accept a member that has a disputed territory conflict with Russia. No chance at all. Ukraine is as isolated as it could possibly be from the West without getting re-absorbed into Russia entirely.
It also perfectly in keeping with the principle of Russian foreign policy enunciated by George Kennan and quoted by Totten:
The jealous and intolerant eye of the Kremlin can distinguish, in the end, only vassals and enemies, and the neighbors of Russia, if they do not wish to be one, must reconcile themselves to being the other.
Though triumphantly "getting back" the Crimea, which was originally incorporated into the Russian empire in 1783, has the farcical element Boris Johnson so beautifully picked up on.

That the Crimean Khanate had been a major slave-trading power, shipping maybe 2 million Slav slaves into Islam from 1500-1700--the last great slave raid being in 1769 with the capture of 20,000 slaves--points to the long Russian experience of open frontier as threat. The lesson of Russian history that the weak are victims is one it keeps inflicting on its neighbours; rather like an abused child becoming an abusive adult.

Nationalism as imperialism
Which leads to the second principle of Russian history--nationalism and imperialism are deeply interwoven. As they are in English and American history, but redeemed and limited by other principles. The English diaspora does not create a problem of irredentism (tending, as they do, to reside in states they founded), and there is no American diaspora: they are the place diasporas go to and lose any territoriality except a shared American one. Hence the joke that if all the Germanic generals and admirals had been fighting on the same side in Hitler's war, (or, for that matter, the Kaiser's) the Germans would have won. (Pershing, EisenhowerNimitzSpaatzEichelberger …)
The Conquest of Siberia by Vasily Sunikov: the original is enormous.
The Conquest of Siberia by Vasily Sunikov: the original is enormous.
The surging Russian imperial-nation-state pushed forward Russian settlers in all directions. With the Soviet collapse, Russian minorities were left in neighbouring successor-states, potential objects for intervention in the name of a nationalism which is also an imperialism. This was precisely the situation regarding Germans that Hitler exploited in the lead up to his war, an analogy Hillary Clinton recently pointed out. For, without the protection of the Russian state, such minorities are weak and therefore victims; and if they are victims, that is both an insult to the Russian state and a sign of its weakness, and so impending victimhood. For if Russia is not strong, it has nothing.

A fearful grandiosity
Which is the third principle of Russian history. A search for, and clinging to, some grand mission and destiny that elevates it beyond being a backward reflection of higher achieving societies. Hence Moscow as Third Rome, or bastion of Orthodoxy, or Revolutionary state, or, in Putin's conception, champion of traditional values. (Thus is queer-bashing as substitute for Jew-bashing; a principle that the Catholic Church also follows--Islam is more traditional, and does both.) The national ego is puffed up in order to hide the desperate fear that Russia profoundly lacks what others have. A sort of malignant national narcissism.

Which makes Putin the narcissist-in-chief, seeking to embody the principle that strength=power=authority and strutting the world stage as the strongman embodying Russia's glorious destiny. Which apparently involves regaining Crimea, originally conquered 230 years ago, and dealing with a Ukraine, whose autonomy Catherine the Great abolished in 1764. This is glorious destiny as re-run farce.

Made all the more farcical by collapsing fertility (1.34) and bride-exporting. The economic vigour of China contrasts sadly with Russia's hydrocarbon fragility. De Tocqueville's moment of polarisation between Russia and the US has passed. China is the waking giant, Russia a shrunken one likely to shrink further (at least demographically).

Religion as imperialism
Russia is not the only inbuilt imperialism that is engaging in a farcical re-run. Imperialism is also built into the origins and history of Islam. Islam started as an imperial religion, just as Sharia started as an imperial legal system. Sharia is not a legal system just for believers, it is the law of God, the sovereign of the universe. For a sincere believer, it is not only superior to every other legal system, it should dominate them.

Up until the Battle of Vienna (1683: though the 1529 siege of Vienna was probably the Ottoman high point) and the death of Aurangzeb (1707), the last great Mughal emperor, Islam aggressed against every culture and civilisation it came up against, with the Reconquista being the only permanent retreat until that time. (And is one of al-Qaeda's grievances against the West: no, really.)
Battle of Vienna by Pauwel Casteels.
Battle of Vienna by Pauwel Casteels.
Such aggression including the aforementioned slave trade based on raiding the infidel; a process entirely in accord with Sharia. One of the issues for Charles I and spending money on the Royal Navy, was to stop the Barbary pirates slave raiding into the British Isles. Even the Atlantic slave trade "piggybacked" on long-running Islamic slave trade with West Africa: the Saharan passage was every bit as horrid as the Atlantic passage, with the skeletons of slaves who had died walking across the Sahara marking the routes of the slave caravans. (That slave women were incorporated as concubines and enslaved males were frequently castrated greatly reduced any tendency to create former-slave minorities in Islam.)

Retreat and re-run
After the Battle of Vienna and the death of Aurangzeb began the long retreat of Islam as ruling religion, as European states either liberated themselves from Muslim rule or conquered Muslim territories or established various levels of domination over them. (In the case of Russia, the process was a combination of all three.) With the postwar retreat from territorial empires (extending eventually even to the Soviet Empire), Muslim states gained or regained their independence.

Sharia certified
Sharia certified
Hence the jihadi push to return to "business as proper"--that is, imperialism against the infidel. But flying the planes of the infidel into buildings built by the infidel, or blowing up the odd bus or train, may be spectacular, but is not remotely in the same league as past great waves of Islamic conquest. This is imperialism as farce; which only has any scope for danger beyond spectacular, but localised, massacre by the threat potentials of modern technology.

Muslim migration into the West does invoke the spread of Muslim via trade routes into the Malay world, but there Sharia was an advantage, since it provided superior commercial law to what was available locally. Moreover, converting to Islam created an identity to resist the Christian European colonisers.

Without creating wildly implausible demographic scenarios, Muslim migration in the West is not likely to have any similar transformative effect. Rather, the effect is more likely to be the other way; with the migrants absorbing Western habits and mores. There is a problem in Europe particularly with second generation males, but it is still a minority effect within a minority.

Solvents exist
The inbuilt imperialisms of Russia and of Islam have been, and will continue to, create problems and alarums. But their re-run imperialisms-as-farce can be dealt with much more easily than the original versions, provided a certain level of clear-headed good sense prevails.

So, no pretence that we are not dealing with inbuilt imperialisms. But also no pretence that every Russian or Muslim has signed on. Or that the modern world lacks solvents for such patterns.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]