Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Short observations 3

A wonderful takedown  (via) of Love, Actually (by someone who enjoys the film). The suggestion that the characters are all emotional 15 year olds may also have some merit.


On the Kindle-highlights measure, Thomas Piketty's tome on inequality, Capital in the C21stlooks like outdoing Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time as the great unread book of our time.


Factory farming has expanded its possibilities as the Japanese create a lettuce factory (via). Energy, rather than land, is the constraint in such food production.


Nice post on the effect of the 1997 Asian crisis on housing price booms in the US. Given that land rationing restricted supply responses in many housing markets, and rising price for a class of asset is a signal for an asset to be a good investment, the point that capital was sucked in to housing rather than more productive investments has even more force.


The US is the dominant global military power, but seems to be rather better at making friends than China, or Russia, especially in Asia. According to this consideration of recent Pew global survey (pdf) data, folk in India, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea, Bangladesh all see the US as an ally, and someone else as a threat. (Except Indonesians, who see the US as both.) It is probably not accidental that the Pakistan and Malaysia, where opinion sees the US as a threat, are both Muslim countries, or that Muslim Indonesia is mixed in views of the US.


The fuss over the US Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision (pdf), which Alan Dershowitz dismissed as (legally) "monumentally insignificant", is nicely dissected here, based on Megan McArdle's rather longer post.  Folk who do not get that religion matters are probably not the sort of folk who are going to understand the Middle East.


An apparent attempt to unilaterally impose an aspect of Sharia in Philadelphia.


Michael J Totten provides an excellent survey of the Arab Spring (aka "the Sunni Surge") and how and why each country was different--in happenings and outcomes.


Anti-prostitute "activists" slaughter 30 people, including 28 women, in an up-market area of Baghdad (via). The conjunction of religion and homicide for patrilineally controlled fertility.


ISIS split off from al-Qaeda before its current surge into Iraq. That the jihadists have split is not necessarily good news: it may just mean accelerated competitive evolution to being more dangerous.


ISIS is offering Christians the traditional Islamic choice--convert, pay extra tax or die. In the words of their announcement:
We offer them three choices: Islam; the dhimma contract - involving payment of jizya; if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword.

ISIS is using the prospect of killing Jews as a recruitment tool (via). Jew-hatred in the contemporary Middle East has much the same roots as Jew-hatred in C19th and C20th Europe--scapegoating angst over modernity built on traditional religious prejudice. So, there is real, if grim, symmetry in hoping for a new Holocaust. Even if Jews have mostly fled from Middle Eastern Muslim countries.


Perhaps Greater Israel is the new reality. Arafat's failure to agree, or even make a serious counter-offer, at the 2000 Camp David summit looks like even more of a disaster for Palestinians than it did at the time. But, in a way, the failure of Ehud Barak's offer may also have been something of a moral disaster for Israel.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Equalising consumption => lowering vulnerability

A comment on a (cross-)post at Skepticlawyer expresses a common set of views among conservatives:
Darwin has the final word on sillyness. If same sex marriage was a useful thing in society, then the vast range of human societies would show us a successful society with same sex marriage as normal.
This confuses natural selection with social selection, which are very different processes. Nevertheless, this view that historical selection (either in general or in some specific set of societies) selects for what works, so gives what we inherit presumptive legitimacy, is a common view within conservative and prudential liberal circles. (Western conservatives, especially in the Anglosphere, are generally mostly prudential liberal in outlook.) The general argument goes at least as far back as Edmund Burke, but was revitalisatised by Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott.

Limitations versus limiting
As a point about the limitations of human knowledge against Adam Smith's "men of system" (such as, for example, the disastrous official advocates of dogmatic laissez faire during an Gorta Mór, the Great Irish Famine), the argument has real power. The failure of the command economies--including the revolutionary socialist contempt for millennia of struggling with how to make political responsive to the interests of governed--provide an even more dramatic example.

But the power of the "product of historical selection" argument is easy to exaggerate. After all, every single form of oppression you might care to mention was the result of some social selection process. Mere persistence does not stop oppressive arrangements from being oppressive. It just makes them well-entrenched. The notion that, if people like you lost out in the past, you lose out forever--that history never selects for entrenched wrongs--puts enormous moral weight on the processes of historical evolution, which are morally a very mixed bag. The above argument could be (and was) used against democracy, for example, providing another case of the "eternal now" that conservative arguments often seem to live in.

The problem comes when the argument is used, not to highlight the limits of human knowledge, but to ignore or block knowledge; to actively limit knowledge. Specifically, the experience and aspirations of those who suffer from said oppression. It was precisely to convey understanding of that sort that the famous Wedgeword anti-slavery medallion and plate had a kneeling black slave with the words "am I not a man and a brother?". 

Raising possibilities
Which is why the equalising of consumption in Western societies since the onset of the Industrial Revolution has seen a series of longstanding oppressions lose their purchase on public policy. 

Part of what is going on is simply that the lowering of Adam Smith's "immediate necessity": 
A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, a merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.
has seen the ability to organise politically spread throughout society. The rise of the union/labour movement was quite directly based on this, but so were all the emancipation movements, starting with the anti-slavery movement. (Which was more a product of the Commercial Revolution than the Industrial Revolution, as that did not get underway seriously until the 1820s.)

This ability rests on several aspects, starting with having a buffer against immediate need which gave both time and resources to organise. But it also rests on broadening access to all the things one needs to politically organised--including the ability to compose and disseminate one's case. To spread the experience of oppression and social restriction more widely in politically effective ways. The more one's experience can be ignored, the more socially vulnerable you are. And vice versa. 

This change in the capacity of the hard-done-by to organise against the social restrictions and exclusions imposed on them by historical processes may also have been aided by a change in social outlooks; though disentangling the two effects is a somewhat analytically fraught exercise. Stephen Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature grapples with this question, though as part of a wider question over a much wider historical ambit. Equalising consumption may also have a role here: both in the sense of making lives more alike and more accessible--so easier to empathise with--and also being associated with more potential positive-sum interactions.

Note, I am not peddling some form of historical inevitability. As uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan intimates, that is condescending to the opponents and belittling to the supporting activists of the various emancipations. What the rising equalising of consumption did was create historical possibilities; activists for the various emancipations then struggled to make the possibility of equal protection of the law real.

Which brings us back to the problem with using the "result of historical selection" argument to actively block knowledge. We cannot understand the nature of social arrangements unless we are willing to consider all aspects of those arrangements, including the experience of those oppressed by them. Hence the importance of the "your experience does not count" premise--or, even more simply, "your experience is invisible to me" or "your experience is unconsidered by me"--in upholding traditional oppressions. It is a weaker form of the crippled epistemology (pdf) that Russell Hardin argued was a feature of political extremism.

As an aside, that is precisely the problem with "moral arguments against homosexuality": even considering such treats millions of people as if their existence as "proper" form of the human is a matter for consideration and debate. Moral arguments against homosexuality extend the morality of acts so as to strip actual people of moral (and legal) protection. Given the centrality of love and companionship to human lives, arguments against homosexual acts are always also arguments placing huge burden on, and against, homosexual people. Hence the "sexuality is a choice" nonsense (really?, tell us all about when you chose to be heterosexual)--it is a way of pretending that such is not happening, of discounting experience and the burdens being imposed.

It is one thing to caution against over-confidence in our knowledge, in our understanding. It is quite another to use that injunction against over-confidence to block knowledge, to block understanding. To buttress an impoverished epistemology which denies inconvenient human experience and aspirations status or standing. A great thing about living in a society with expanding mass consumption possibilities is precisely the expanding ability to connect to each other; to both the like-minded and to the possibly persuaded.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Friday, July 18, 2014

Marriage is about ...

A common argument against same-sex marriage is that marriage is "about" children. Or that the purpose of marriage is the raising of children. Or some similar claim.

Conservative philosopher Keith Burgess-Jackson rebuts a certain class of arguments against the claim that marriage is "about" children here. But the claim he defends--that marriage is about children--strips marriage of its historical context. Marriage becomes an ahistorical entity, floating in an historically unanchored "eternal now".

Why do we think marriage is "about" one thing? How do we work out whatever it is marriage is "about"? 

If we examine marriage as a human phenomenon, then we will find that the only common defining feature of marriage across human societies is that it creates in-laws. Which suggests that marriage is about connection.

But, of course,"marriage is about" arguments typically does not do any such thing as taking such a broad, historically anchored, view. Indeed, such claims are often largely, or even completely, ignorant of the diversity of human marriage customs. What is actually meant is "in our society/civilisation, marriage is about ...".  Which then raises the question of why marriage in our society is like it is.

Because of a particular historical evolution. One of which was the deliberate suppression, on religious grounds, of same-sex marriage. Either in the pre-Christian history of the Mediterranean world or the pre-colonial history of societies subject to European settlement or conquest. In the rabbinical text the Sifra, the following appears (in Achrei Mot 9:8):
I did not say this [prohibition] except for the statutes enacted by them, their fathers, and their father's fathers. And what would they do? A man would marry a man, a woman [would marry] a woman, a man would marry a woman and her daughter, and a woman would marry two men. Therefore it says, "and in their statutes do not follow.
Rabbinical literature included some very absolutist prohibitions on homosexual activity (between men) some of which implies (pdf) the existence of same-sex marriages. Such prohibitions fit in with the priestly and clerical interest in moral complexity and outcasting.

Nor was this rabbinical denunciation of folks same-sex marrying each other mere rhetorical invention. It is fairly clear that an early piece of Christian legislation in the Roman Empire banned (pdf) same-sex marriages (Th. C. 9.8.3):
When a man marries and is about to offer himself to men in womanly fashion (quum vir nubit in feminam viris porrecturam), what does he wish, when sex has lost all its significance; when the crime is one which it is not profitable to know; when Venus is changed to another form; when love is sought and not found? We order the statutes to arise, the laws to be armed with an avenging sword, that those infamous persons who are now, or who hereafter may be, guilty may be subjected to exquisite punishment. 
This is the period when marriage laws took a very adverse turn for women (pdf): on religious grounds, but clearly about stripping women control over their fertility and shifting legal and sexual power and authority to men. Claiming that marriage is "about" children is not necessarily good for women.

Much of the contemporary "culture wars" are about reversing that Christianisation and reverting to much more Roman practices on matters of sex and gender. While retaining the moral universalism that Christianity added to the Classical heritage. 

Multiply-married King and visiting Queen.
Really, marriage is "about" what a given society collectively decides it is about. This is where the claims that marriage is "by definition" a union of a man and a woman are so silly. First, polygyny is clearly a form of marriage--the Bible says so, referring to "Solomon's wives". Second, polyandry is clearly a form of marriage--see the Mahabharata. Suddenly, marriage becomes "by definition" between one or more men and one or more women. The claim that it is not so in our society is true, but that is also a social choice. Marriage has been chosen to be "defined" that way.  As it can be decided to "define" it differently.
Multiply married woman and her five husbands.

Monogamous marriage is about two people building a life together much more directly than it is about children. That is why infertile folk are allowed to marry and an intent to have children has never been a required attribute. It is also why it is a socially preferred vehicle for raising children. But it is the mutual commitment that makes it suitable, is not that having children magically creates mutual commitment.

After all, it is not as if same-sex marriages cannot also be "about" children. Once we permit adoption--accepting that conception and raising children are not the same thing, so avoiding sloppy use of the term "procreative"--then same-sex marriages can be every bit "about" children as opposite-sex marriages.

So, claims based on the alleged nature of marriage turn out to ignore a considerable amount of history. Once marriage is understood as two people building a life together, then two people of the same-sex committed to building a life together can be as thoroughly married as anyone else.

Which, presumably, is why popular sentiment has been shifting towards supporting same-sex marriage. Because that is how people actually understand marriage, they just needed to get used to the idea that same-sex attracted people are "just folks" too. The subtitle of an excellent history of marriage is How Love Conquered Marriage. The arrival (or, more accurately, the return) of same-sex marriage is just part of that long historical process.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Modernity struggles: how priests and clerics are unreliable moral guides

Priests and clerics tend to be unreliable moral guides, because their interests are served by complexity and differentiation.

Which is not to deny that, for example, Christianity has been a major factor in the distinctive achievement of Western civilisation.

The ambivalent civilisation
The late Kenneth Minogue argued that (via) the Enlightenment saw a shift among Western intellectuals from belief that we live in a fallen world to a belief that we live in an imperfect society. Which, if we find the correct system, could be made into a more perfect society.

This is a reasonable description of the radical Enlightenment, less so of the sceptical Enlightenment. The sceptical Enlightenment believed things could be made better, but focused its notion of better on people being able to go about their own lives.
Kenneth Minogue (1930-2013)

Minogue contrasts this notion of a future perfect society with societies which sought harmony via the one-right-order. So goodness is fitting in with order, badness is not doing so. (I would call this a chaos-order dichotomy.) Minogue cited Imperial China, Islam, Hinduism as examples of such one-right-order societies.

In the West, Minogue noted that there is acceptance of the notion that people have varied conceptions of proper order. There is even something of a taste for such diversity. We are, in his words, an ambivalent society. A society also one noted for a long history of war and violent conflict and the failure of unification via empire (i.e. Europe remained divided into many states). One-right-order societies tended to experience, or at least embrace, a notion of imperial unitary. And lacked much curiosity about other societies.

Europe came to be a very curious, then innovative and creative society. As Minogue noted, he is taking bits from various centuries and assembling a picture of the West. (Medieval Europe was highly adaptive of outside ideas, but Europe really only became inventive again late in Medieval period.) He argued that humans are naturally ambivalent to almost everything, but one-right-order societies force people to adapt to that order.

Hence, he averred, one-right-order societies can only really work if people are ignorant of the alternatives. (I.e. they either don't know about them or massively discount alternatives.)  Hence also the continuing attempts of folk to leave such societies and live in the West.

Consequently, Minogue found political idealism to be a "deep threat" to how we live because it wants to substitute one virtue (such as benevolence or compassion or equality) for the ambivalence which is basic to how we live in the West and gives the West its power and appeal.

Historical Christianity
In the Q&A after the above talk, Minogue fingered Christianity as a crucial element in making the West different. In part because it was a faith, not a certainty.

It is reasonable to argue that Christianity was and is an individual salvation religion without an associated legal order in a fallen world militated against any notion of one-right-order. As Minogue notes, there is a serious difference between a religion of a crucified saviour (Christianity) and a religion of a sword-wielding Prophet (Islam). To put it another way, Christianity elevated personal salvation and failed to fuse righteousness and social order. (Or did so at best very incompletely: much of the Emancipation sequence has been a disentangling of Christian notions of righteousness from social order.) As Minogue points out, Immanuel Kant's
out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made
is straight Christian doctrine.

Minogue cited Australian historian John Hirst's notion that Western civilisation was built on three propositions--from the Greeks, that the world was a realm of logic and mathematics; from the Christians, that it was a fallen world; and from the Germans, that fighting was fun. Minogue would add in Roman law, but otherwise felt it was not a bad summary of the basis of Western civilisation.

Which points to a problem in fingering Christianity--to whit, many of the features he identifies about the West can be seen in Classical Greece. Certainly politics as something other than the dynamics of being or serving a ruler was almost entirely a Greek invention. Indeed, many of the features of Christianity came from arising in a society ruled by Roman law and which publicly reasoned in the language of Greek philosophy. And Greek Philosophy arose in societies where direct, active, public bargaining was the stuff of politics, so led to the development of rhetoric, logic, analysis: of public reason as an avenue for dispute.

What Christianity did provide was a moral universalism that had been alien to Greek and Roman thought. A sense of a moral order that pervaded the universe and which we were all individually responsible for upholding even if, in some ways especially if, we were fallen beings in a fallen world.  One reason why the sceptical Enlightenment was much more accommodating of organised religion than the radical Enlightenment was that the latter's belief in a perfectible society both contradicted fundamental Christian viewpoints and competed with religion for a sense of ultimate meaning in a way that the former's seeking to better allow people to live out their own lives simply did not.

Complexity and difference
Which brings us back to why priests and clerics tend to be unreliable moral guides. In seeking the authority of gatekeepers of righteousness, they have a vested interest in moral complexity, in conceiving of a moral order which is so far from self-evident that one needs priestly or clerical guides to navigate. Hence food, clothing, sex, gender, etc taboos. Along with that interest in complexity, they have a vested interest in moral differentiation, in dividing society into the right-path believers and the outcast unrighteous.

Which is why the tendency in the West (and arguably more generally) has been to discard religious moral complexity and differentiation in law and understanding of people and society. Part of that broad pattern of getting along with each other better that Stephen Pinker outlines in Better Angels of Our Nature. (His TED talk on the decline of violence is here.) Not so much within Islam, of course, though the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is an attempt to turn back that modernising tendency.

Which leads to a fascinating three-way struggle. Those in revolt against the moral cosmopolitanism of modernisation, who seek to create a new version of the Godly society.  Those who seek to fulfil the radical enlightenment vision of a perfect society. And those who embrace moral cosmopolitanism as a way for people to live out their lives as they wish.  The first two have a passion/commitment advantage, the last the broader appeal. (And sometimes these divisions are within people as much as between them.)

We have been here before. The Dictators's War was one between the Counter-Enlightenment (the Nazis), the radical Enlightenment (the Soviet Union) and the sceptical Enlightenment (the Anglosphere).  Nowadays, the jihadis and Putin's Russia are in the Counter-Enlightenment corner while the radical and sceptical Enlightenments fight it out within Western societies.

China is a fascinating case. Notionally, a radical Enlightenment (specifically Leninist) state, its regime seeks to avoid the failures of the command economies while remaining in power. Even flirting with a Confucian revival.  The Beijing regime wants the economic success of modernity while resisting its political implications. Or some of its religious implications, showing unease over the growth of Christianity within China.

Religion remains a very live factor in world affairs. After all, moral complexity and division is not all priests and clerics have to offer. Even though going down that path makes them unreliable moral guides, at war with deep tendencies in modern societies.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Monday, July 14, 2014

Short observations 2

Smartphones slow down the restaurant experience (via). Time constraint means scarcity will always be with us. (That is scarcity in the trade-offs-have-to-be-made sense. Hunger need not always be with us.)


I find the notion that people without a state cannot have money risible. They may not have their own coins, but coins are merely branded money. Transaction goods that can reasonably be called money existed for millennia before the invention of coins (around 600BC) and non-state money operated for millennia after their invention. For example, cowrie shells--by far the most widely spread form of money across time and space.


Literacy preserves ideas but it also freezes doctrine. As the authors of The Creation of Inequality point out, the religious understanding of pre-literate societies could adapt to circumstances rather more fluidly than religions with written scriptures. Calling believers in the One God people of The Book may say more than is often realised.

The implication of the printing press in this is surely mixed. It made the loss of written knowledge much less likely--in a sense printing means we are in "the" Renaissance that never ended. But it also widely disseminated scriptures, making enforcement of a single orthodoxy easier within a hierarchy but rather harder in the wider society.

Robin Hanson posts on how modern society shows signs of the re-birth of foraging patterns. Perhaps the new religions within the modern West represent a form of recovery of foraging religious fluidity.


This graph on the shift of opinion on same-sex marriage in the US by religious affiliation (via) expresses visually the obvious point--the objections to giving queer citizens equal protection of the law has always been overwhelmingly religiously based, however often allegedly secular reasoning is advanced to support it. Even the notion that there is something "unnatural" about being queer comes from monotheist re-interpeting of natural law philosophy.

Note also how US Catholics (like Western Catholics generally) increasingly largely ignore the Church on matters of sex and marriage. But the Church is about playing to its (rising) developing world flock, not its (shrinking) developed world flock.


Conservatives often either live in an endless now--this is how things have always been--or otherwise valorise the past so those who lost out in past social changes somehow should always lose out. Accepting the contingency of the past rather gets in the way of using it as a source of validation.

The notion that queer folk have no history, that they are not really part of history comes from an lack of sense of history and difference. Being ignored or written out of history is not the same thing as not having one.

Thus, to assume some "natural" antipathy to homosexuality is to mistake a long history of monotheist outcasting and brutality for some human universal. One of the things that horrified the Spanish about Amerindian cultures was the positive esteem that "third gender" persons enjoyed. "Entrenched in the culture" is not the same as "natural", but it takes a sense of history and difference to understand that.


Journalists have to be generalists. Which is why it is unfortunate they typically no longer have generalist degrees. Leading to astonishing levels of journalist ignorance. Which is where political correctness comes to the rescue--they don't have to know, still less understand, they merely have to sing-a-long. Political correctness provides a comforting framing without the effort of knowledge and understanding.


One of the features of Muslims becoming favoured moral mascots among many progressivists is to display how not-even-skin-deep their commitment to feminism is. People holding beliefs much milder versions of which damn evangelical Christians to the outer moral darkness get embraced while Muslim women are thrown under the respecting-other-folk's-traditions-and-culture bus without hesitation. (Evangelical Christians being potential competitors to be defined against rather than objects of moral concern and patronage.) Yet Western feminism was built on bursting through constraints of tradition and culture--and rather milder constraints than many Muslim women still labour under.

What makes this pre-emptive abandonment in the name of "respecting others" even sadder is that it was precisely awareness that other cultures did things differently which was part of the impetus to queer emancipation.  A point that has wider application: I suspect it is no accident that it is Ghanian philosopher (Kwame Anthony Appiah) who is so articulate on the virtues of cosmopolitanism, of mix-and-match cultural globalism. Of, actually, we'd like to start doing things differently.

But a lot of political correctness is about a sense of status--specifically, a sense of superior status--and there are few things more reactionary than that.


The Arab-Israeli conflicts since 1950 are way, way down the fatality list of conflicts. They are even a tiny fraction of Muslim fatalities in conflict since that time. But the matter of Israel (and Palestine) is not about reality, but rather symbolism and scape-goating ("ignore the corrupt authoritarians ruling you, remember how much you hate the Zionist entity"). And some of that symbolism goes back a long way.


One way to characterise the Israel-Hamas conflict is that Hamas seeks, and Israel fears, publicity. That is, military factors are overwhelmingly stacked in favour of Israel, political ones rather more in favour of Hamas. There is something to that. But Hamas has little to sell other than hatred, and the well of hate works better if periodically re-filled with recently-shed Palestinian blood. Dead Palestinians are not merely an instrument of Hamas's strategy, they are an objective in themselves. It is not has if Hamas is not up-front in its embrace of Palestinian death as a strategy, to the extent that they may be losing ground politically.
But the whole "killing Jews" strategy (whether by mob before the creation of Israel or by terror afterwards) has been one long disaster for the Palestinian cause. It provides both cover and justification for Israeli policies which would stand in much more stark relief, and have less support in Israel and elsewhere, without it. David Ben-Gurion was correct, the long occupation has distorted Israel. But that relinquished territory becomes a basis for attacks on Israel just gives the expansionist sentiment more to work with it.

Each time the Arabs or Palestinians have rejected a partition deal (1947, Camp David Summit 2000) things have got worse for the Palestinian cause. But Palestinian identity has grown up anchored in hostility to Israel, and that identity is clearly more important than peace. Which then just aids the "creating facts on the ground" expansion policy, on the grounds that Israel will never get actual peace, so it should just grab what it can.


I don't have a lot of sympathy for the reparations-for-slavery notion for African-Americans. First, because they are clearly collectively a lot better off than West Africans. Second, because lots of Americans actually died fighting to keep the Union on a basis that ended slavery, and that counts. Third, because not all African-Americans are descended from slaves (President Obama is not, for example) or are not from American slaves (e.g. Jamaican immigrants), and trying to pick and choose would be ugly. Nor were all white Americans slave owners or participants in the slave trade, so who owes whom? Fourth, because at some stage, African-Americans have to just get over it. Fighting for fair treatment now is just fine, but the reparations push looks suspiciously like wanting others to fix things for you. Which, I am afraid, is never going to happen in any useful sense and it is not healthy to base any sort of social advancement strategy on that hope.

There is also a certain element of racism only counts if you are rich: there were a lot more Brazilian slaves, and why isn't Brazil being asked for reparations?

ADDENDA On the matter of Brazil, apparently it is an issue. Using reparations for slavery as an excuse for land reform is a clever idea.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Friday, July 11, 2014

Short observations

Maverick Philosopher tells us that arguments don't have testicles.  But they do have perspectives built into them. Including (in some ways especially) legal arguments. We should be wary of dismissing the importance of perspective, especially as a great deal of bigotry rests precisely on denying the legitimacy of particular perspectives.


Currently reading an excellent popularisation of social science: The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire. At the end of the first Chapter they remark:
The popular press likes to suggest that Neanderthals were simply not smart enough to compete with our more modern-looking ancestors, but that view sounds racist to us.
Maybe, but is it true? Perhaps the most destructive element in political correctness is precisely that, in the name of compassion and tolerance, it devalues truth. (The claim about relative intelligence of Neanderthals and our ancestors is in fact dubious, but that is a matter of truth and evidence.)

Not that the authors are exactly standard-bearers for PC. In the next chapter they observe that:
By the time you finish reading this page, of course, Basarwa will probably have become politically incorrect.
Status behaviour, it is such a human perennial. Including keeping up with the moral Joneses.


It would be nice to hope the dissolution of the Syrian and Iraqi states would lead to the advocates of a single-state "solution" for the Israel-Palestinian dispute reviewing their position. Of course, to the extent their views are based on hatred of Israel--or, more neutrally, on belief in the de-legitimacy of Israel--than any serious analysis of situation on the ground, it will have absolutely no effect: which is what we must expect, as it has never been a reality-based position.


Of course, Israel responded to [the blamed on] Hamas kidnapping and murder, followed by rocket attacks, with air attacks of its own. As the point of the actions of Hamas is precisely to inspire such deadly retribution (hence also hiding military installations amongst civilians), perhaps Israel should turn the other cheek? But (1) that would just mean Hamas would keep ratcheting up the violence until it did get the desired civilian-killing attacks and (2) it would cast doubt on Israel's willingness to defend itself. And so the cycle of violence continues, and will continue until the pointless and destructive hope of Israel disappearing is no longer a serious position in Palestinian politics. (Really, supporting folk whose strategy is precisely to get Israel to kill Palestinians: how screwed in the head do you have to be?)


Stephen Kirchner downplays the role of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) in Australia's recession-free path since 1992, on the grounds that it is an inflation targeting central bank like others. But there is a difference between narrow inflation targeting--which provides no anchor for income expectations--and broad inflation targeting, which does. The RBA does the latter, the BoJ, ECB, Fed etc the former. So, in 2008, income expectations, and so spending, collapsed in the US, the Eurozone, etc, where they were unanchored by central bank policy, and did not in Australia, where they were.  I agree with Stephen that the RBA was a bit lucky (spending was above trend when the crisis hit), but I also agree with Hayek that smoothing the flow of total spending in the economy does flatten the business cycle.


A commenter makes claim that pops up a fair bit about recent decades: Years of very very very easy money has created demand for debt and shares of stock.  Prosperity and easy money are not the same thing.  Low inflation and low interest rates are generally indicators that money has been tight, not easy. In the words of Milton Friedman:
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.
Besides, I find the notion that the asset booms of our time are the results of "easy money" remarkably silly. It is as if no one has studied C19th economic history, when a series of dramatic asset booms and busts occurred under the gold standard, the ultimate in "hard" money. Rising capital accumulation and technological uncertainty are easily enough on their own to explain asset booms and busts. (Remembering that one person's debt is another person's asset.)

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Regime matters

A recurring error in Western analysis is to not take ideology (particularly religious ideology) or regime structure seriously in analysing the behaviour of other states. Historian A J P Taylor's famous statement that:
In international affairs, there was nothing wrong with Hitler except that he was German. 
is a manifestation of this. But so is the notion that if we just talk it out, a solution can be found.

Sadly, this is not even remotely always true. As freelance journalist-blogger Michael J Totten observes:
If Hamas simply wanted independence for a Palestinian state, the two sides would only have to work out the details. But Hamas wants to “liberate” and “end the occupation” not of the West Bank but of Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem. It isn’t possible to negotiate a deal with these people. They aren’t interested in negotiating anything more than a temporary cease-fire. Hamas and the entire ideology behind it must be eliminated or at least marginalized before an end to the conflict will be in sight.
Quite. Bargaining requires that the other party is accepted as a legitimate bargainer and that bargains with them are things to keep. Neither proposition is self-evident or universal.  Even if these two propositions are accepted, differing assessments of relative power can still frustrate successful bargaining. As historian Geoffrey Blainey observes in The Causes of War, it is only when the two sides have converging views of their relative power that wars end. 

Limits of geopolitics
Geopolitics does matter. If you look at the triads of the UK & Ireland, US & Canada, Australia & New Zealand, size and geography does much to explain why the bigger in each pair is more militarily engaged with the world than the smaller in each pair--which can "free ride" off the efforts of its larger neighbour. But only because each does not feel threatened by its larger neighbour: on the contrary, each acts on the basis of being shielded by it.  Hence geopolitics is not determinative. Canada and the US might be neighbours, but that both are British-descended, English-speaking, common law, neo-Europe federal democracies does more than mere geography to explain their interactions.  

Regime matters
Regime structure affects foreign policy because it affects the outlooks, fears and aspirations of the regime. Second Reich Germany pursued Weltpolitik because it was a way of using nationalism to politically mobilise the expanding middle class behind the dynastic-aristocratic regime. Leading to the most disastrous military investment in history, the Imperial German Navy or Kaiserliche Marine--large enough to make Britain feel threatened (and so to ally with traditional rivals France and Russia against Germany), not actually large enough to defeat the Royal Navy. Leading to Germany's defeat in the Dynasts's War and the collapse of its dynastic-aristocratic regime.  (The War also brought down the dynastic regimes of the Danubian MonarchyRomanov Russia and the Ottoman Empire.)

Just as regime structure is affecting the foreign policy of the People's Republic of China, hence:
China’s relations with many states, especially those to its south and to its east, have spiraled downward in recent years. By now we should realize that Beijing’s troubles with the international community have little or nothing to do with others.
Instead, according to the analysis of Beijing University political scientist Shi Yinhong, they are a product of:
the nationalism promoted by the Communist Party, the beliefs of senior leaders, and the dynamics inside the People’s Liberation Army. China, in short, is trapped in dangerous currents, almost all of them attributable to the flaws inherent in its particular brand of authoritarianism.
Or, to put it another way, a rather unpleasant mixture of the features of the regime structure of Second Reich Germany prior to 1914 and of Imperial Japan prior to the start of the Pacific War. US political scientist Walter Russell Mead points out that there are some very significant differences between the strategic situations of Second Reich Germany and the People's Republic, but the similarities are enough to be worrisome. 

Regime constraints
useful 2007 paper compares (pdf) C16th Habsburg Spain and C18th Great Britain as states using borrowing to finance military effort. The paper argues that Habsburg Spain (which ended up regularly repudiating debt) actually made a greater fiscal effort to sustain its borrowing than did C18th Great Britain (which never repudiated its debt). On the contrary Great Britain relied more upon fiscal repression (i.e. keeping interest rates low) to finance its, ultimately much more successful, war efforts.

Having recently read Fragile by Design (2014), that suppressing private competition for credit was part of the Bank of England bargain was perfectly clear. Especially as, once the Second Hundred Years War against France had been won, said bargain was progressively re-done to open up private access to credit.

What I found a little surprising about the 2007 paper by Mauricio Drelichman and Hans-Joachim Both is that they did not refer to a rather crucial difference in political regime between C16th Habsburg Spain and C18th Britain--that the former was a highly autocratic regime and the latter a Parliamentary regime. They do note that C16th Habsburg Spain relied largely on foreign borrowing while C18th Britain relied overwhelmingly on domestic borrowing, but do not seem to have thought through why that might have been the case.

Autocrats find it difficult to borrow internally, because those subject to their power are not in a good position to make reliable bargains. Such as, for example, repayment of funds borrowed.

Parliamentary regimes are in a much better position to borrow domestically, because the legislature is in a position to ensure the bargains are kept (and the funds are spent congenially). It is no accident that bonds start in the mercantile Serene Republic of Venice just as its government was becoming more consultative and Parliamentary.

So, autocratic Habsburg Spain was not much able to tap into domestic funds, so had to pay whatever interest rates the foreign bankers demanded. Which rose higher and higher with each repudiation of debts. (This is called "bankruptcy", but it is not really the same as a private--particularly not a corporate--bankruptcy, as the state continues on its way.)

Conversely, C18th Great Britain was in a great position to borrow domestically, because Parliament had the power to enforce bargains and the borrowing was for purposes that cohered with the interests of those represented in Parliament. Hence the British state could engage in "fiscal repression", with low interest rates, while it defended and expanded the commercial possibilities of those represented in Parliament. (Habsburg Spain's strategic aims were rather less broadly grounded.)

So, regimes matter.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Migration, history and countries as club goods

This is based on comments I made here and here.

Thin conceptions
There is a line of argument which holds that if free trade in goods and services is good for economies, if free trade in capital is good for economies, then surely free trade in labour would also be good for economies. So, just as one should have open access for goods, services and capital, one should also have it for labour. Thus, migration should not be hindered. It is basically a "maximise the gains from trade" argument.

There is a related line of argument which holds that free trade in labour would result in net improvement in the overall human condition, so should be permitted. It is much the same as the previous argument, except that there is no implied preference for existing residents of a given territory--an unbounded "maximise the gains from trade" argument.

A more robust moral argument is that open borders represents acceptance of the primacy of personal liberty. People should simply be free to live where they want.

All these arguments ultimately rest on very thin (indeed, literally incredibly thin) conceptions of society and human interactions. People are treated as completely interchangeable economic agents without histories, collective preferences or issues of loyalty and affinity. Polities are treated as utilitarian service providers. It is a world literally without history. These arguments have almost no popular resonance for exactly those reasons--that people have far "thicker" conceptions of themselves, their societies and their polities than are acknowledged in the framings on which the above arguments rest.

Thicker concerns
Looking at dysfunctional polities (of which there are many) provides a salutary corrective. Indeed, open borders libertarianism suffers from the revealing irony that libertarians typically bemoan the insufficient commitment to liberty of the freest societies on the planet but completely fail to notice how unusual any such commitment is among contemporary or historical polities. Or draw any conclusions from same. It is as if the structures and habits which create free societies are taken to magically descend on folk, rather than being painful historical evolutions.

It is true: the case against open borders is based on failing to treat people as if they were goods, services or capital because they are very much more than that. As are the connections between them.

Goods and capital don't vote, they don't commit crimes, they do not serve in the protection of others, they do not fight, they do not create (or destroy) communities. (Though they can be tools, instruments, for all these things.)

A society is much more than a set of transactions, a set of potential gains from trade. And migration policies change societies in all sorts of ways. For example, a society which is largely monocultural can manage much denser policy structures than a more diverse society. While migration creates costs within the host society which are not evenly distributed. Costs which are profoundly affected by who migrates, in what numbers and where.

Migration can also be a weapon of one group against another. Hence the so-called Curley Effect (pdf)--using migration to attract in folk likely to vote in a particular way and the results to drive away folk who vote differently.

Nick Rowe has posted on his excellent way of teaching comparative advantage. But if one adds in issues with costs of communications and different expectations across language, cultural and religious groups, it hardly works quite as smoothly. Especially if there is geographic clumping. Adding in history, in other words, shift the analysis some.

Policy variance 
Immigration can be handled more or less well. Australia handles migration comparatively well and has a very high rate of foreign-born residents by Western standards (around 28%)--for example, migrants to Australia actually do better in school on average than locally-born, which is not a normal pattern. But Australia is a prosperous, English-speaking island-continent, so border enforcement is relatively easy and we can cherry-pick migrants (which we do quite effectively).

Australia also has diverse migrants, which helps greatly. Indeed, the most problematic migrant community are Lebanese Muslims in Sydney because:
(1) Sydney is Australia's least socially-functional metropolis.
(2) Unlike Maronite Lebanese, they do not plug straight into well-established Catholic networks.
(3) They were brought in an unusually large "lump" with minimal selection procedures.
(4) There are specific issues for Middle East Muslims settling into Western countries.

The US has much less difficulty with Muslim migrants than Europe does because the US is set up as a settler country, its migrants are relatively diverse, its Muslim migrants are generally better educated, "God-discourse" is much more conventional part of public life while organising through your local mosque just replicates established patterns of organising through your local synagogue or church.

Varying experience
In Australia, opinion polling had become somewhat hostile to migration since the mid 1970s. The polls improved dramatically after the Howard Government (1996-2007) made a big play of "stopping the boats", despite running a considerable migration program, the least Eurocentric in Australia's history up to that time. The Government's slogan of "we will decide who will come here" seriously resonated. The costs and benefits of migration are not evenly distributed, and giving voters a sense they have no say or control is not healthy. It is that sense of powerlessness is surely a very big driver of popular responses.
Native-born Americans

In Without Consent or Contract Robert Fogel documents the significantly adverse effects of mass migration on locally born US citizens during the C19th. The nativist movement expressed rational antipathy to mass migration. The new Republican Party brilliantly finessed that into antipathy to "the Slave Power".  Access to resources for existing residents can be reduced by migration--this is what happened in C19th US, for example. The dysfunctional EU labour markets also share some of such features. Another way in which the "it is just about gains from trade" analysis does not work.

The sense that your rights will be under threat if a particular group gets sizable is another factor. Mass migration of Muslims into a society (or even developing world Christians) might not be good for the freedom of queer citizens. So queer folk are not likely to be keen on large scale Muslim migration, especially if the fight for equal protection of the law is not yet fully won or is otherwise precarious. Polities make rules, migrants become voters and vote. It makes a difference.

We have to take into account peoples real world preferences. The Rawlsian (behind the veil of ignorance) analysis is both not applicable and instructive. Over the longer term, the game of migration policy is about the rules as much as anything else, where rules are openly up for grabs and preferences about rules are not the same as preferences within individual transactions.

Hence, part of the "thicker" concept of country is that it is not just a mass of one-off transactions. Not even the concept of repeated transactions allows trade analysis to be "deep" enough. The rules and affinities powerfully affect not only which transactions take place, but their content and effects.

Since polities need to be able to claim the loyalty of citizens (not being able to do so is not a survival trait in a polity) and as political entrepreneurs exist (see the recent EU elections) telling large numbers of citizens that their preferences on entry to their country have no standing, no matter how important it is to them, is not conducive to political or social stability.

Increased communication costs and dispersal in preferences also affect what public policies become more or less viable. The "Scandinavian model" in public policy fairly clearly rests on high levels of communication and shared preferences. The more migration reduces such flows of communication and disperses the range of preferences, the less viable the Scandinavian model becomes. As that becomes clearer, the costs of migration may well lead to rational antipathy to said migration.

Of course, pandering to anti-immigration feeling can have other political entrepreneurial uses. It may be a lot easier than, for example, dealing with dysfunctional labour markets. Even when said dysfunctions have a great deal to do with how dysfunctional the banlieue are, for example. Regulations tend to defend social incumbents (see dysfunctional labour markets): but well organised/politically focused incumbents rather than just any incumbents.

A defender of open borders on liberty ground can claim that: The only question is whether you believe in liberty or not. It's about principles. In fact, the debate is about how to conceptualise human interactions and what countries are. And yes, one can "win" a debate by simply ignoring or denying those parts of the social world which are awkward for one's own case. But that is not going to be remotely persuasive to folk who are not up for that.

I do not find any sort of anarchism persuasive, for example, as (1) state societies have achieved so much more than non-state societies and (2) a lack of a state just creates a market niche for entries to the "state" market. That, after all, is what protection rackets are: competitors to the state in extraction-via-coercion.

Conversely, using the family as an analogy for country bothers me, as I feel some connection to fellow citizens, but not that intense a one. Moreover, talking about countries as being like families is a favourite rhetorical ploy of socialists, nationalists and fascists, so has uncongenial, even dangerous, collectivist associations.

Polities as clubs
A way to think of polities in economic terms is that they are a uber-club good. A way of providing public goods. They are not fully voluntary associations, because one is born into a polity, so membership is partly "by blood". Which makes them territorial clubs (a bit like gated communities).

The effect of new entrants on the rules is another way polities are club-like. And there are a reason clubs have membership rules and rights to exclude. Clubs want people to "fit in", not be disruptive, hopefully be active in supporting the activities of the club.

Of course, border control can have its ugly aspects. And making unapproved migration illegal without sufficiently effective border control creates a population of "illegals" who, being isolated from normal legal protections, become vulnerable to exploitation, even labour bondage and slavery. Nevertheless, managing a successful polity is a more precarious enterprise than supporters of "let anyone in" seem to understand.

Thinking of a polity as a device for making political bargains, large and small, if anything increases the power of the club analogy. If group X rejects group Y as someone to make deals with, this is deeply disruptive to making bargains. (See Sunni and Shia in Iraq; Protestants and Catholics in Ulster.) The greater the entrenched associations of common loyalties, the more somewhat antagonistic diversity can be dealt with. The Catholic v Protestant fights in Australia could be managed through a mixture of past Britishness and future Australian aspirations. The Ulster divisions were so entrenched because which polity they should be part of was precisely what was in dispute, while "Iraq" clearly has little standing except as a useful device for whichever group is in control of the state apparatus to repress the other(s).

History matters. Really, it does. Which is why the argument for simply open borders both fails to resonate with the wider public and simply fails. It just does not take history, the requirements of effective politics or the depth of human interactions seriously enough.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The evolution of social bargains -- operative not normative

I was reading Yoram Barzel's property rights analysis (pdf) of the rise of Parliamentary government in England, when the full force of his critique of normative concepts of the rise of parliamentarianism and representative government hit me.

That Iraq is busily messily falling apart, following on from--and partly a consequence of--Syria doing so, with the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, (vindicating the long-ago analysis of T E Lawrence) helped the penny-drop moment.

If we, building on Charles Tilly's seminal Coercion, Capital and European States and recent scholarship in economic history (notably the LSE's economic history working papers), take the crucial element in the rise of the West as being the develop of what might be called the active bargaining state, then it is a great error to see it as the operation of some normative-driven process, some Hegelian necessity working behind history to realise some culminating outcome. (Active bargaining state as even the most autocratic states from the past represented implicit or passive social bargains: the active bargaining state coming in both direct--Parliamentary--and indirect--authoritarian--forms, with ancien regime France being an unstable mixture of the two.)

Norms evolve
The normative approach is an error of historical understanding at two levels. First, because the norms evolve along with the evolution of the bargaining state. The barons at Runnymede in 1215 (Tammany Hall in chain mail, as H Beam Piper called them) lived in a different normative universe than the participants in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 who themselves lived in a different normative universe than those arguing over votes for women in the late C19th and early C20th. If acceptance of the norms of representative democracy as they currently operate in the West is necessary to establish an active bargaining state elsewhere, then the enterprise is doomed. Those norms are the result of very particular histories and experiences.

If, however, the exercise is an operative (i.e. about trade-offs that work for the society in question), rather than a normative, one, then we can be much more hopeful.

Just as Britain tried to export the Glorious Revolution to Mesopotamia and the Hindu Kush, so the US has tried to export the American Revolution to the same places. But both the Glorious and American Revolutions were the product of very specific historical circumstances--as the adherents thereof well recognised at the time. Even such a revolutionary firebrand as Patrick Henry grounded his most famous Revolutionary speech in specifically British traditions.

Evolving trade-offs
Traditions which are too often read from now backwards, instead from then forwards. Hence the second error--not understanding the operative nature of the process and the evolving bargains.

Yoram Barzel's point is that it the process of the growth of Parliamentary government should not be understood as one long wresting of power from royal clutches, but as process where monarchs often engaged in trade-offs that were very much in their interests. It is easy enough to point to King John being dictated to at Runnymede, the military defeat and execution of Charles I, the overthrow of James II but what these rulers had in common is that you could not make a deal with them. In the case of John and Charles I because they could never be trusted to keep to any agreement and James II because he was fixated on an outcome that was anathema to the bulk of the British political nation.
Runnymede 1215, a reluctant signatory to
 posthumously enduring bargain

Magna Carta stuck because it was re-issued under Henry III and by Edward I. Simon de Montfort's innovative parliament stuck because Edward I saw it as an effective tool of governance. Indeed, the pioneer of summoning elected merchant representatives was a king--Alfonso IX of Leon & Galicia. The Glorious Revolution stuck because William III and Mary II could see a good deal when offered to them. And while these spectacular landmarks of history generate nice dramatic set-pieces, Barzel points out that the history of the growth of Parliamentary government and rule of law was much more a steady evolution, an evolving series of trade-offs, where rulers gained by giving folk a say.

A point that Barzel does not consider much, is that such forums also provided very useful information sources for monarchs. It gave them a way of checking up on their own agents (a helpful monitoring service) and of ensuring they were in touch with the concerns of people who mattered. Even from this distance, it is fairly clear that Edward I was concerned that he not lose touch with the concerns of the powerful--of the wider political nation--in the way his father had and saw in Simon de Montfort's parliamentary innovations a useful way of doing precisely that.

East Asian contrasts
A nice social bargaining contrast is provided by comparing China and Japan as they confronted the Western challenge during the C19th. The great difference between Qing China and Japan in confronting said challenge, was that under the Song, the Ming and the Qing, China had been ruled by thin meritocratic official layer. There was a clear, very passive, social bargain--the state upheld family authority and provided minimal public goods, taxing relatively lightly, while families did not make trouble. Since the only lever the Emperors had to control their officials was command-and-control, the system was prone to decay into corruption and the dissipating of central control.
Official in a one-track system.

This was somewhat like what happened to the command economies, though they fell apart rather more speedily (given each of the the above three dynasties of mandarin China lasted over 260 years), as the greater technological capacity of the modern command economies was not enough to compensate for the much more overweening attempt to command-and-control everything. Of course, if you regard Mao as the First-Emperor-with-a-telephone, Mao's attempt did last longer than said Emperor's regime (as the Qin dynasty only lasted 15 years) with Deng and his heirs subsequently trying to be the new Han. (I.e. the much longer lasting dynasty as result of taking the overweening elements out of what the Qin Shi Huang had created.)

Not only was the Qing dynasty already well into its decay phase as the Western challenge became more urgent, China possessed no mechanisms for more active social bargaining, no real precedent for such, not even the political vocabulary for it. (That the Qing was a foreign dynasty was a complication, but when was the last time England had an English dynasty? The Tudors were Welsh, the Stuarts Scot, the Hanoverians/Coburgs/Windsors German, the Plantagenets French, the House of Rollo Danish. Even the House of Wessex were invaders, if you go back far enough.)
Provincial ruler among
competitive jurisdictions.

Japan was in a very different situation. Social bargaining was built into its political structures, both active and competitively passive (between daimyos). It was much easier for Japan to add on to already existing institutions and patterns more formal structures for social bargaining adapted from the West and develop a modernising social bargain able to rise to the Western challenge than it was for a China where any such habits and structures had to be built from scratch.

Back to the Middle East
The problem with Iraq is that it might be able to work as part of a larger empire, but it makes no sense as a nation. (A state which needs someone like Saddam Hussein to hold it together is one not worth keeping.) It was a cobbled-together imperial deal, lumping together three (separately administered) Ottoman vilayets (a Kurdish one, a Sunni Arab one and a Shiite Arab one) into one state. While the recent American adventures there represent the US, yet again, trying (with not much success) to deal with the backwash of European imperialism, it also represents the triumph of the normative over the operative.

The Republic of Somaliland shows what can be created by a genuinely locally-driven arrangement. It is governed by a universal suffrage House of Representatives and a House of Elders, made up of traditional leaders. In other words, their very own House of Lords. Because that reflects how their society operates.
House of Elders

Both Iraq and Afghanistan would have had, or have, more chance of stable futures if their legislatures were more grounded in their social realities. But, of course, the Americans would never consider having some local House of Lords equivalent, because that would require too much knowledge of their own deeper history and be too confronting to their evolved norms.

Nevertheless, the trick is to sell a workable bargain, a useful set of trade-offs. Not some pre-set normative wish-list from a quite different tradition.

Part of the problem being that you have to see other folk as people to bargain with. The Iraqi PM clearly did not see the Sunni in such a way, and is now reaping the consequences. Just as using ethnic membership as an indicator of loyalty can reduce coup possibilities while increasing the likelihood of civil war.

Indeed, it is a depressing principle of contemporary Middle Eastern politics that any minority that does not control its own state or quasi-state gets oppressed. (Hence the Alawites and their minority allies fighting so hard not to lose control of the Syrian state to the Sunni majority.)

That the jihadis reject any notion of the social bargaining state (which may also make them, including in the form of ISIS, less than durable in their local control) makes the need to have socially-and-locally grounded bargaining all the more urgent. Even if some negotiated settlement is (eventually) a likely outcome. But the Iraqi implosion also points to the fact that Europe's boundaries evolved over centuries, and even now are less than a perfect fit. The Middle East and Africa are dealing with state boundaries that often did not evolve locally at all, but were imposed by outside imperial powers.

The last time the US did a good job of occupying a major country effectively on its own was Japan, and there it had much more similar social material to work with a pro-consul from a family with experience of colonial governance.

The Bush Administration clearly did not think through the genuine difficulties and constraints of Iraq--having too little sense of history and too much American presumption of omnipotence. (Attempts to blame the present situation in Iraq on President Obama are particularly pathetic: though one may well make other criticisms of his Middle Eastern policies, which display a similar inability to think things through.) But the sui generis nature of American historical evolution makes for a poor set of framings from which to understand other societies.

Yes, dividing Iraq was diplomatically fraught, but it is now the likely outcome anyway--or, at least, a very decentralised state--and in much less Western-friendly terms than a deliberately organised divorce would have been. While having some House of Lords equivalent--or equivalents--could have been a very useful way to work through existing social structures and to encourage bargaining that operated according to the contours of the societies in question.

Conversely, the analytical humility required for a better effort would have militated against making the attempt in the first place. Such analytical humility would include taking religious motives seriously--but that is a perennial failure of contemporary Western analysis.

It is revealing that the one part of post-intervention Iraq which is a clear success--Kurdistan--is also the one part with a clear identity where local forces had already evolved workable local bargains. This is the example that could have been built on (and should still be supported). But so building would also have required a strong sense of locality and history. (Of course, hindsight is always 20x20, but that is the fun of historical analysis ...)

Perhaps also the notion of instant solutions needs to be abandoned. The open and democratic societies of the West took a long time to evolve. In the longer view, perhaps the overthrow of Saddam has allowed underlying forces to, however brutally at times, work themselves towards social and political equilibriums which do not require rule by the most successful psychopath.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

ADDENDA Nice comment about clans and consensus. Nepotistic societies work on different time horizons and need processes that respect that.