Friday, April 30, 2010

Oops, Houston Police Injure Chinese Diplomat

This is incredible incompetence. Houston police apparently attempted to pull over a car driven by a Chinese diplomat. They pursued the car into the consulate's garage where they handcuffed and arrested the driver injuring him in the process.

While I would suspect that the Chinese diplomat may not have behaved in the most conscientious manner by driving aroudn without a plate, this is over the top incompetence by police officers. Diplomatic relations are always somewhat delicate and you'd think that police officers would become familiar with consulate locations to prevent this kind of thing from happening. Even if the diplomat didn't make his status clear, you'd think that there would be some kind of hint that something was off to cause the police to act with extra restraint. There really isn't any excuse for this kind of thing.

A Possible Treatment for Fragile X?

There was a fascinating article in the NY Times on a new drug that shows promise in treating fragile X syndrome and holds potential for treating other disorders. We need more work like this, research in this area has the potential to greatly improve people's lives, and from a simply materialistic standpoint, save huge amounts of money. I am left at a loss to explain why so little research is being done in this field with the amount that we are already spending on simply maintaining the system we have now. Then there is also the potential to remove obstacles preventing many people from finding employment which would help grow the economy. The potential payoffs from research into this field is enormous but little is being done to fund it, either by the state or privately. According to this article, there are only five researchers currently working on this particular disorder. Why isn't more being done?

Thai Protests

It is always interesting to watch the course of democratic government abroad. Thailand has been the most recent one to dominate the headlines. Democracy is always noisy but for some reason the Asian democracies seem particularly so. The periodic military interventions don't help the situation to seem calm.

What is particularly curious about the current case is the strange equilibrium that seems to have set in with the protestors occupying the capital but not having the power to force any actual change. While hardly unique it is remarkable about how such inherently unstable arrangements form fairly frequently and seem to last for somet time. Something will eventually have to give, I'd put my money on the protestors, but these things are always fluid. I'm currently wondering if the hospital occupation will mark a new phase or if things will settle quickly back down.

While hardly charitable, sometimes it is also nice to reflect on just how settled democracy has become in our country. In so many others, whether modern democracies or that of the ancient Greek cities, democracy was always a fragile flower that seemed about to get plowed under. Best of luck to the Thais on developing their own path to stability. I doubt it will look entirely like ours so will refrain from suggesting advice but I'm sure they will get there with time.

A Slightly More Serious Take on the Democrat's Immigration Proposal

Last night's post was somewhat frivolous so here is a short post summing up my impressions more seriously. First of all we have the standard enforcement stuff, more money for the patrols, walls, equipment, etc. I think this is a huge waste of money on an enterprise bound for failure in pursuit of a type of policy that never works but I guess I can lie to myself and pretend it's stimulus spending so no big deal.

The second part is the biometric social security cards. These sound to me like a national ID card coming in through the back door. It involves a lot of inter-agency work and sounds very, very complex to get existing citizens to use it. While I think we have to move in this direction, and I'm not terribly fond of the flimsy cards we get now, I think this will have pretty much no impact on immigration. People always find ways to get around these measures, Europe has national ID cards and they still have a lot of illegal immigration, so as far as immigration controls go, this is also simply burning money but is more excusable since it is generally a step towards modernization of our record keeping.

There's a lot in there about cracking down on employers and increasing penalties on them to force them into compliance. I believe this will work as well as trying to control the economy in this fashion ever works, it will garner some big media circuses as raids happen to make people feel it is working while having a completely negligible effect on actual numbers. More money down the money hole.

The last part is new immigration rules for both high and low skilled workers and a pathway to citizenship for existing immigrants. Not a whole lot to say here that isn't well covered elsewhere. It is an improvement but still inside a broken system.

So since I'm doing all this complaining what would I actually like? Basically, market based mechanisms. Keep enough punishment and enforcement to keep people in legal channels and let the market pretty much take care of itself. Set no quotas but have a system for registration and require some degree of checking in so we know what people are up to, probably just an online database and your standard government documents, such as tax or DMV records, would be enough. To restrict the supply somewhat slap on an immigrant tax. Not sure what the proper level would be, high enough to make some difference but not so high to push people into the gray economy. Maybe a 5% payroll tax on top of other taxes. Perhaps require that immigrants stay legally employed or face deportation to prevent the bogeyman of using up government services. Then let the market take care of the rest.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

My Impressions of the REPAIR Proposal

Just finished reading the Democrat's first proposal on immigration reform. The first thing that strikes me is that the whole enforcement approach is fundamentally flawed because it is centralized planning of the type decried by Hayek and that was shown to be a miserable failure by the Soviets. Why this isn't obvious to everyone screaming Socialism is completely beyond me, probably because of the insistence on separating economic freedoms from other freedoms in such an arbitrary way (I've also been reading the Contract from America, which I'll eventually post on).

While centralized planning for immigration will certainly fail utterly, these things always do, I'll highlight some of the parts of the bill I found most interesting, though not necessarily most important. First of all, out of 26 pages the first 18 are devoted solely to enforcement, and that's not absent from the rest. As I've said before, we are way past the point of diminishing returns on this and we're not getting much for our money, I don't think marginal increases that fall short of the Berlin Wall or the Korean DMZ will have a significant effect. The Onion accurately sums up what I believe the effect of increased enforcement measures will be. I'm not so much morally opposed, I actually think there are argument on both sides, I just think it is futile and throwing good money after bad.

Part of the proposal regards biometric social security cards, which are pretty cool but underutilized. I want one that will function as cash and update to all government databases so I don't have to mail information the same information in to different offices and keep filling out the same stupid forms all the time. Unfortunately, while quite snazzy it doesn't actually do anything useful (kinda like how I feel about the iPad). This is the proposal that baffles me however:

(4) offline verification capability (eliminating the need for 24-hour, 7-days-per-week online databases);

Erm, are our Senators really so ignorant about computers? That you want to verify things without computers makes sense. However, ff you have an electronic database with all the data and functionality online making it 24 hour, 7 days a week isn't so impressive. At all. What kind of online database is only available, say 9-5 M-F? Outsource this to Google if you have to, not a problem that needs a separate provision to deal with. Eliminating the need for a 24 hour per day database is about the least useful thing I could possibly think of.

There's lots in there about SSA needing to verify people's status to issue the cards, which sounds disastrous since SSA always has a huge backlog for everyone else and I doubt the logistics of this have been thought through. That is a lot of new Federal Employees you're throwing money into the money hole for. Not to even mention that people will find ways around this, they always do.

Then there's the name, BELIEVE. They are just asking for this to be a joke. The whole enforcement is a faith based policy boondoggle anyway. You can believe it will work all you want, see my earlier post for my thoughts on that.

Unsurprisingly, there is also a clause for ratcheting up punishments:

To make the system air tight, the proposal substantially increases civil monetary penalties by 300 percent for violations... (16)

Throw em in the galleys and it still won't work, give it a rest.

Other details, new national birth and death database, read above. I want it to fill out my DMV paperwork too, then I'm for it.

Then we get into the parts I like. There are new provisions for immigration, and temporary work programs, for low and high skilled immigrants. These are big improvements on the status quo, but still a command economy approach to immigration. It's a market damn it. Stop pretending it isn't and employ market mechanisms. May as well set targets for steel production while we're at it. While I'm complaining, this is better, just still in a fundamentally flawed framework.

This is my favorite section, just for the heading:

This is the amnesty clause giving a pathway to citizenship. They did a particularly good job on making it sound as much like Orwellian double-speak as they could, well done. It is unnecessarily harsh, but honestly, I think providing any doable pathway to citizenship is good enough so I'm fine with it.

On the whole, it's better than things are now. I think the central planning approach to immigration is madness and ignores everything we've learned about what kind of policies work and which don't as well as how policies interact with human behavior. Given that we're stuck with this mentality though it's a step forward within a bad frame. We'll just have to wait and see if it gets even worse in negotiations.

If People Will Put Up With This You Think a Wall Will Stop Them? Really?

Another good NY Times article today on how difficult illegal immigrants already find it. I'm really left baffled as to how anyone can think that we can make the border hard enough to cross to have any big effect. Sure, the Soviet Union did it in Berlin but couldn't entirely along the rest of the Eastern Bloc's borders and even the North Korean border is a little leaky. Unless we want to pull all the US troops back full time to police the border, as if we were the Roman Empire or Ming China, we're not going to succeed in making the border hard enough to cross to make a huge difference.

I doubt we could even make it as hard as it is for illegal immigrants to get to Europe, which still has several hundred thousand illegals entering a year, exact statistics were harder to find on Europe than the US so I couldn't get better numbers.

Even for the US however, Mexico is only the origin for 50 some percent. While I'm sure some will take the view that numbers from China or India are bearable and its this 50 some percent we have to cut back on, does anyone really think we can make it as hard to get here from Mexico as it is from China? That's a really tall order. The exact statistics, a bit date admittedly are below. These figures are from this report from DHS. For most of the countries outside North America these immigrants still have other options meaning that many more would likely be coming here if America were as obvious a choice for them. If people are willing to go through this much effort to cross much more significant barriers than we can erect why does anyone continue to believe enforcement is a real option?

Still Waiting for a Cashless Society

The NY Times today had an article on devices to allow you to use your cell phone as a debit and credit card reader. Nice baby step forward. I'm still looking forward to the day we can do away with cash entirely, waste of money to make the stuff. Maybe if we move the whole money system to electronic we can also get the IRS to do so and send us the electronic files so we don't have to waste our time with taxes anymore, they'll have it all so just complete it for us and send it to review. Not to even mention how much easier it might make cracking down on illegal drugs and other black market activities if there is always a paper trail.

Maybe we can make paper money disappear if we sell it as a way to crack down on illegal immigration? It's hard to pay someone under the table if everything is electronic and it's much harder to keep yourself secret if you need to have some sort of credit or debit card, or whatever the government would issue as electronic currency, to be able to get paid. Doubt it will happen before 2050 or so, but I'd love to never have to worry about stopping by an ATM again.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What We Can Learn About Illegal Immigration from the Illegal Fashionable

The recent debate over the Arizona immigration laws and immigration law in general has left me reflecting on why governments insist on passing laws, and people continue to demand them, that will be impossible to enforce. There is a lot of data showing that it is so prohibitively expensive to reduce supply of just about anything by enforcement measures alone that I am left at a loss to give a rational reason (I am not however at a loss to give plenty of irrational reasons) why we continue to pretend that we can. We know we can force supply into controlled channels and we can create incentives for supply to favor these channels over breaking the law but while these methods are sufficient to have marginal effects on both supply and demand there is no mechanism by which we can force either to conform to an arbitrary standard of what we'd like immigration or anything else to be at. If you restrict something like immigration too much, illegal means will be found of meeting demand. It has always been so, whether you're talking about tea smuggling in the American colonies, drug supply or illegal immigration today, or any other of an near infinite number of policies imposed that were meant to restrict economic or social life into some sort of preconceived pattern rather than trying to control the pattern that already existed.

Yet, whenever laws fail to make people behave how we'd like them to the response is to call for greater use of force to make them conform to our standards. However, unless expenditure is on a truly massive scale, this never works. One of the more absurd examples I've read about recently is in Braudel. To choose a frivolous non-immigration example (the inability for lords to prevent peasants from running to cities and the large population migrations show it was far from possible to control this then and you can go back to Rome for other examples of uncontrolled immigration) that shows the futility of using punishment to control supply and demand I will tell the tale of France and Indian cotton.

Against this invasion of light fabrics nothing worked. Not "supervision, inspections, confiscation, imprisonment, fines..." or advisers who suggested "to strip... in the street, any woman wearing Indian fabrics." (179) Prosecution failed to stop this, even with confiscation of goods and fines of over 1000 ecus (don't know the conversion) on anyone who would buy and sell the fabric. So devastating was this scourge that in 1717 punishments were increased to deter these illegal fashionable by making punishments harsher, including among others a sentence of life in the galleys, "and even worse if the case called for it." (180) This invasion of light fabrics and the illegal fashionable would not cease until France lifted the ban in 1759 and gained a cotton industry able to compete with others.

The point of this? If life in a galley wouldn't deter people from wearing cotton, the Arizona law, and any immigration enforcement we try, isn't going to deter people from seeking a better life here. Supply and demand simply doesn't allow these kinds of laws to function, you can't set supply or demand by fiat without some really heavy guns to force it to work. Best accept reality as it is and develop policies to control immigration and prevent the illegal and socially corrosive activities that come with illegal immigration by creating legal channels for it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A line every social scientist (including economists) should know by heart

I'm reading Braudel and came across this quote. "But the laws or so-called laws of economics probably last only as long as the desires and realities of the period they reflect or interpret more or less faithfully." (182)

This should be required reading for any economist, and more generally any social scientist. It seems this should actually be obvious, conditions and institutions change so much that many of the assumptions, including behavioral assumptions, should only apply to a limited range of situations. If something really unexpected happens, it should be asked if there has been a shift in fundamental assumptions.

What Braudel was getting at though, was that Say's law did not hold in the pre-industrial economy. People were too poor and the income that workers were given was insufficient for more than basic needs so they could not stimulate demand for manufactures since they could not afford any. Agriculture remained too uncertain and productivity could not be increased enough to drive costs down, other factors constrained agricultural growth on the supply side despite a demand for it that could not be filled. Only when prices came down far enough in the industrial revolution could the poor participate in the manufactured goods market and the economy really take off (of course something must have happened in agriculture to but he doesn't address that in this section).

This was just a particularly interesting detail I came across that wouldn't fit into the book review on Sunday.

Hypnotizing Chickens

I find myself in sympathy with this New York Times article on PowerPoint. While I do find the program useful when graphic displays are involved, I also believe it is badly overused much to the detriment of an audience's understanding. Though I also understand why presenters like it as an organizing tool, I feel that on net most presentations are better without. I prefer a two page briefing handed out before the presentation starts so that audience members are familiar with complete ideas, rather than bullet points that never give me the impression that ideas feel connected. Bullet points always convey to me a feeling of distinction between ideas and often I feel what needs to be communicated is the links between thoughts, not the distance separating them. It probably isn't surprising to anyone that has looked over this blog that I'd dislike the program, my emphasis on interrelated ideas and multi-causal explanations doesn't fit well with a presentation style that emphasizes discrete points and bullets.

Though the article does bring up one use for PowerPoint that I hadn't fully considered. The military has found at least one use for PowerPoint other than its ability to display graphics, "senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters."

I have felt that way about at least a few PowerPoint presentations I have sat through. Trust the military to find ways to weaponize anything.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Growing Pains or Evidence of Failure?

The recent disqualification of candidates in Iraqi elections raises some serious questions about whether their government can maintain legitimacy, especially because it favors the ruling party. Only time will tell which way this goes, it's reason to be skeptical of a favorable outcome but at the same time Iraq has also come a long way from where it was soon after Saddam was ousted. I was very skeptical of the prospects of being able to establish real democracy there, while I initially supported the war I believed this goal was for public consumption, I never really thought there would be a chance of real democracy without significant violence.

Of course, since that significant violence* has happened, I do think there is some possibility that democracy has a chance, though I still believe we will be very disappointed by the nature of that democracy. If I had to bet, I'd say this would be a sign of things to come, a shaky democracy where elections matter but the final say is through opaque maneuvers that make a mockery of the idea of transparency and fair elections. Still better than what came before but not a radical transformation of the mid-east.

* I don't want to delve too much into theory, but I am very skeptical of the entire genre of writing that focuses on peaceful means for the creation of the state, national identity, and ultimately democracy. While a lot of this literature is very good, I believe it only functions where there have already been very significant disruptions, almost always violent in nature, to break down traditional identities and loyalties that would otherwise prevent rationalization of political identity, either into a proper nation-state or into a democracy. This may have happened in Iraq which makes me believe there is a possibility for democracy there, it makes me skeptical this would be exportable without similar disruptions elsewhere (though there are possibilities in Iran). I also want to state outright that I think this method of development is not worth the cost, it's better to be patient and let things evolve on other pathways.

Decadence and Moral Decline

A tangent of a thought that didn't fit intelligibly in my last post. I actually agree with the Conservative viewpoint that there has been some sort of a social breakdown that needs to be addressed. I just point my finger in a different direction.

I feel that to the extant that decadence is real, it is because those who should be thinking about moral life and how to live in contemporary society have abandoned this task in favor of living in the past. Every society needs some sort of a moral structure to help people live with one another and act meaningfully within their society. This is the product of a dialogue between how people actually live in their culture and idealized versions of it.

The breakdown is that we are using idealized versions of a different culture from the one we live in with moral thought. We are trying to interpret from a vision of society as it existed a century ago, with most people bound by agriculture, inheritance being a significant portion of lifetime income, low levels of mobility, etc. Now we live in a highly urbanized, trade based society. Of course morality will have to adapt, these type of cultures are always different from rural ones. Look at the Greek's attitude to homosexuality for an easily accessible example. Southeast Asia provides many more.

To the extent we are decadent, it is because our religious leaders and moral thinkers have not yet articulated how we should be living a moral life in the society we do live in, instead of the one that they already have answers to. We need original thinking, and criticisms of our culture as decadent or weakening misses the point. Society and culture are pretty fixed, the job is to interpret how to live within what you are given. Those who would call us decadent should engage with the problem of what a morality of modern life would look like, rather than complaining about the fact that we haven't simply kept the moral outlook that suited a rural, agricultural, and primitive society.

Words I Hate: Decadence

I had read this column by Douthat originally thinking I'd have something positive to say about it, I too hate how cowardly so many act when a madman decides to say something stupid. Until I got to the end of it, and found the word decadence. I had wondered about why he had spent so much time lingering over all the ways in which South Park didn't respect other boundaries, the word decadence explained it all.

So why does the word decadence annoy me? For a few reasons, first of all it assumes implicitly that we've in some way declined, always from some sort of idealization of the author's. I have no sympathy for this view at all, in almost all cases where a society has been called decadent the real story is in how others have changed (and not to become more like the pre-decadent society) and to the extent the decadent society is at fault, it is generally so for being too static. Also, decadence does nothing to explain history, societies don't decline as they become decadent and you can't call which society will survive and which won't by relative levels of decadence, it is simply non-sense as history. Basically, decadence is always an obvious flag that an author has no real argument to back up his agenda and is relying on a pseudo-historical narrative to lend weight to an argument that otherwise lacks it.

Not that I disagree with the notion that we shouldn't be ignoring nonsense like that over the South Park episode or earlier with the Danish cartoons. But this isn't generalizable to our society as a whole, some anecdotes about individuals backing down can be found, and few countries have made fools themselves but this can't be generalized easily. The creators of South Park sought to comment on this issue, just because the Fox network doesn't have any balls doesn't mean that our society or artists as a whole don't.

Don't worry, American brashness is as alive and well as it ever has been. We have a mix of cowards, scoundrels, and brave souls who will continue to act as they have always acted and trash our culture as well as that of everyone else in pursuit of a very American tradition of being loud and obnoxious solely for the sake of being so. Some will be too cowardly to insult an ignorant, violent fool but others will not be and I doubt it was ever any different.

Book Review: Civilization and Capitalism Vol. 1 Part 2

The Structures of Everyday Life
Civilization and Capitalism
15th - 18th Century
Fernand Braudel

This is the second part of this review, a day later than promised. This volume continues in much the same way it started, a basic description of everyday life and the material background that it took place in. Braudel covers topics such as power sources, transportation, money, and towns and cities in the rest of the volume.

From this discussion, there are a few major points that arise. The first is a discussion of why technology could be slow to spread. This idea shows up in a few places throughout the volume, one place could be significantly more advanced in a few areas than other places but these ideas did not necessarily spread or continue to be developed. For example, he discusses Chinese metallurgy and in particular stee,l which was centuries ahead of European developments, Chinese techniques from the 13th century are not match by Europe until the 1780s. Examples of other technologies are given to show the uneven nature of development across the world, technology simply didn't spread as easily as it does today. He discusses several reasons for why there is this difference, from the fixed iteneraries that prevented most societies from exploring off known routes to resistance of craftspeople to specialize and protests in favor of old ways to it simply being cheaper to keep doing things the old way rather than take the risk and expense of trying something new. In many cases new knowledge is discovered but there is simply no desire, or even a concept really, that this new knowledge should be applied in a practical fashion. This changed to some extent, though Braudel makes no specific claims about there being a primary shift, and also claims that to some extent a resistance to innovation is still with us, only when things go wrong is there incentive enough to truly break with old ways and embrace innovation (he gives the example of oil dependency specifically).

The last two chapters deal with money and cities. He discusses different types of money, distinguishing between primitive currencies such as the use of salt or other items from more advanced monies that eventually gave rise to various kinds of credit and the notion of money of account vs the actual coinage. In addition, he discusses how more primitive systems, such as barter, continue to exist outside the money economy. The importance of credit and other monetary issues look like they will be taken up in greater detail in the next two volumes so I'll skip saying more now, though there are several interesting details in this volume.

The final chapter of the book is on towns and cities and introduces some more theoretical concepts than the earlier chapters. In particular, Braudel suggests that cities play a primary role in the development of capitalism and the modern state in the west that did not happen elsewhere in the world. The relative autonomy of towns let them develop their own economic policy that would lead to a sort of pre-capitalist mindset that would provide the basis for the evolution of modern capitalism. Of course, this was eventually followed by the subjugation of towns as the modern state developed but the state would take over much of the thinking of the towns rather than suppressing it. Inheriting both these attitudes as well as the development of the giant capital that went along with a centralized state combined to give rise to national markets that were necessary to fuel the massive concentration of wealth in the capital cities of all powerful states. These developments did not happen in places like China, where while the capital was large it had little independent life and was dependent on the ruler. Both the tradition of the autonomy of the town and the centralized state were essential ingredients for the later development of capitalism. This of course is still presented as background to Braudel's later model, it is presented as an essential ingredient but not as independently causal of the shift which is the product of more factors. Of course this is much simplified, Braudel works through an accumulation of small details to make his arguments rather than grand, sweeping generalizations of theory so it is hard to do him justice in a short space. This volume in particular seems to be more a matter of setting the stage for later volumes than it is a full fledged theory of the development and working of capitalism, it describes the material conditions it operates in and how the people living in that earlier world participated in the economy of their time.

For next week, I've gotten a good start on volume 2 so will be going ahead with that rather than Kirk's The Conservative Mind.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Some Wild Speculation on Financial Reform

I promised in my very first post on this blog that I'd throw out a crazy idea now and then so here's the first one. Financial reform presents a bit of a conundrum, our current system doesn't exactly work wonderfully but more than a few people rightly feel that we don't want that much power concentrated in the hands of the state. We need different kinds of power spread throughout different types of institutions.

So, for a somewhat wacky look at the problem, the reason we're having an issue is that we basically only have two arrangements for controlling power in the modern day. We have the state, which has most of the means of power not in the economic realm (simplification and it also dips its greedy fingers into the economy as well) and the private sector which we've attempted to give as much of the economic powers as possible to. Controlling the power in the two realms relies on very different methods, the state is controlled via force of law and through an institution of one person one vote (in theory) democracy (to use a term that covers most modern nations if used loosely, also I'm setting aside other means of political control in say, China). Corporations however have their control rooted in private property and a belief that people should have authoritarian control over "their" property, within legal limits set by the state.

This works well enough for most things. Finance is funny though. It is something of a more traditional sphere of power, it often reminds me of a very complicated version of a clientage network, someone wants to do something and asks the bank if the can provide backing, the bank promises to back that person's actions, and voila, money appears, stuff gets done and the original person does whatever it was the bank asked them to do (hopefully give more money or the banks up to something naughty). Simplified greatly of course, but it often reminds me more of a system of mutual obligations than it does the simple exchange economy we often think of with real goods.

So how does this relate back to the idea of controlling power? First of all, because unlike most of what happens in the rest of the private sector, finance fills a roll more akin to that of the state, than say an industrialist does. It relies on mutual obligations and requires that there is faith or trust (rather similar to authority) in the bank. It also doesn't simply impact the investors, the finance system touches on many other parts of the economy and impacts many people indirectly. There are a lot more stakeholders. Because of the additional power held by the financial sector and the proliferation of stakeholders, I get something of a feeling that how we normally manage the private sector is insufficient to finance. We need a system that will continue to recognize the private property right of the shareholders, but we also need a system where the operations of the sector can receive more direct input from other interested parties, whether debtors or the members of society at large.

Which leads to the question of how to build this system. I don't know. But to borrow a bit from earlier societies it seems we need some sort of authority more mixed than our normal means of dividing power between the two sectors. We already have shareholder votes so there is a small, though often ignored democratic element there. What we need is a means to recognize the shareholder's increased right, since their money is directly at stake, but to also give some more limited rights to other interested parties. Since banks have been entrusted with the ability to expand the money supply through lending they're already fulfilling a role beyond that of their depositors and shareholders that seems more akin to the systemic role of government so they already have a function that goes beyond simple property right. What I'm trying to get at, is that they fill a mixed role, neither entirely public or private, and that we don't have a means of dealing well with this in modern society since we are not used to a mixed nature of authority. We give it to the state or to the private sector but rarely mix things up much. I've no idea how to get from here to there but it seems that earlier concepts of mixed authority and mixed means of controlling authority seem appropriate here.

Of course, this is wild speculation. What we're going to get is regulation by the state, which will be seen by some as the state meddling where it shouldn't. This will help things for awhile, possibly long enough I won't care by the time it's a problem again, but I'm guessing no one will really feel this issue is well solved by the current division of powers. I'm just suggesting there may be another way of looking at this issue as one of how does society divide and check different kinds of power, and while it has no hope of happening, may benefit someone who would like to look at the issue from a radically different angle.

Let me know if these wild musings are beneficial, or at least interesting.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

That's a lotta sushi

The NY Times has an amusing post trying to spend $20,000 on sushi. For those not following NY politics this is in reference to the civil suit by NY Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo against Pedro Espada Jr. and the FBI's investigation of Mr. Espada, who is suspected of siphoning off $20,000 from his non-profits to pay for sushi. In addition to the sushi money, the investigation also involves a less headline grabbing $14 million used for other purposes, some of them dull political matters.

For a moment's serious reflection however, there are a few thoughts I'd like to mention. First, the idea of someone in office doing this is worrisome, especially since he seems so incompetent about it. If you're going to practice graft, don't be this incompetent about it.

It also makes me really reflect on my life that someone this incompetent had $14 million to siphon off and I don't.

How can anyone even consider voting for this guy after there are accusations like this?

And, finally, and more seriously, what is the proper balance between scrutiny of public officials because of alleged malfeasance such as this and the danger of increased scrutiny preventing honest people from running because of fear of politically motivated scrutiny (and perhaps trumped up allegations), as well as the possible undermining of trust in functioning institutions due to the inevitable attacks on investigation as being politically motivated? While Mr. Espada always seemed kinda shifty to me so I'll take this as is, there are some deeper questions worth reflecting on in regards to the threats from criminality in government as well as the threats from trying to root out that criminality. I've got no answers on this one, just something that's going to be in the back of my mind for the next little while.

Some updates on Pig-headedness

[hat tip to Doug for the title]

I've been following this debate moderately closely. I was thrilled to see my favoritist blog mention it, DiA and also thought Eunomia had a great take on it.

On the whole however, I think Ross Douthat puts these ideas in their proper place. If only I honestly believed more of the book's readers had the same reaction to it he did.

What if Eyjafjallajökull is an Islamo-Fascist?

Something I've been musing over is the reaction to the volcano in Iceland and the cuts to European flights. While criticism of the authorities is understandable, what I find interesting is that there is pressure to start flying again early from the public and very little reporting on people being afraid due to the volcano. This strikes me as something worth thinking about, particularly in comparison to the virtual panic whenever there is a thwarted terrorist attack. With the volcano, which failed spectacularly to crash any planes, authorities manage to act and prevent any planes from sustaining damage and crashing. While there is some pressure for institutional reform I don't get the impression that anyone feels this is a real urgent need.

However, whenever a terrorist spectacularly fails to cause any planes to crash it seems there is a significant uptick in public pressure for authorities to do something and inflict any amount of indignity on passengers to prevent a failed attempt to bring down a plane from happening again. If an equivalent scenario had been produced by a terrorist attack, say by a filthy bomb causing particulate matter to hover over Europe (dirty bomb is unfortunately taken) would the public response have been significantly different?

It may be simply because the flight ban has been so prolonged and is causing significant hardship instead of the cause of the event, I lean towards this explanation but not strongly. But I can't help but wondering if there is something special about human agency behind a potential threat to planes that enhances the sense of fear and makes the public react more strongly than if the threatened plane crash was due to non-human agency. Why is there such a difference in threat perception? I don't have any answers but I think there is something here that would be interesting to explore further.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

All that needs to be said on financial reform

There's no need for me to introduce anyone to info on the financial reform topics, I like the coverage in the NY Times and Economist myself but there are no shortages of other sources. I don't have anything terribly constructive to add, but I do think Jon Stewart sums up the essential points best:

These Fucking Guys

I really don't know what more I can add to that.

Monday, April 19, 2010

An aside on the Soviet Union

While there are many reasons behind the Soviet Union's collapse, one recurring motif is worth pointing out. Often, the response to the failure of a reform meant to lead to a more pure form of socialist organization was that the reform didn't go far enough. Limited successes were viewed as confirming the course was correct and the problems, which to an impartial observer outweighed the successes, were seen as being something that would be fixed by applying a more pure form of the ideology.

This is something to think about whenever the argument is advanced that a reform failed because it didn't go far enough. This may be true, perhaps a key part was left out that was an essential to success or there were other factors involved that were temporary and would not apply to future reforms. However, it is much more likely that the limited success of a reform, and likely the relatively greater problems caused by it, indicate not that the reform did not go far enough but that it is fundamentally flawed and side effects not originally acknowledged outweigh the benefits of the reform and will only get worse if a more pure form is pushed towards. Something to remember about any effort at ideologically driven reform.

The Real Issues of the Past 20 Years

The Real Issues of the Past 20 Years

Continuing on the topic of epistemic closure [still jumping off of reading the posts linked on Douthat's blog], here is my view of the four big developments of the past 20 years that should have influenced political thought of any ideology. The first is the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the second is the rise of the EU, the third is the shift in power towards developing countries, and the fourth is our recent economic disaster. Discussing any of these is more appropriate to a book (or maybe series of books) and is part of a very wide ranging dialogue in academia, and to a lesser extent any other cultural outlet so I will not go into detail on them here.

I do think one of these however deserves a special discussion because of how the left and right reacted so differently to it, namely the collapse of the Soviet Union. Again doing a literature review of all the different reactions would take some space but the basic caricature of the right celebrating this event as a confirmation of their views as essentially correct and the left's celebrating this event as well but also seeing it as a time to reflect and reassess seems broadly correct. Any influence socialism had on liberal thinking declined remarkably. There was also probably a lot more work done by people on the left assessing the reasons for collapse, the broad consensus seems to be that collapse was driven by internal problems in the Soviet Union and its inability to deal with them within its current ideology.

While this remains a bit of a caricature, I have seen some on the right continue to hold the triumphalist view that we in some sense won, instead of the more common view that it is in fact them who lost and that they would have collapsed because their ideology simply didn't work, no matter what we did. The reassessment after this event is probably at least part of why the left has developed new ideas and approaches while the right's sense of triumphalism is one reason they may not have reflected as hard. What does surprise me is that this didn't cause both sides to reflect on what the collapse of the major power to attempt to govern itself by one of the three branches of 19th century political thought means. Let me restate this in a slightly childish way to emphasize how I believe this event should be viewed.


You can look at this in one of two ways. Either one of the other two political ideologies must be correct, or 19th century political and economic thought is incapable of dealing effectively with modern challenges, at least when rigidly adhered too. Rigid adherence to theory is incapable of sustaining economic and political development, ideology is simply insufficient as a governing philosophy. I think liberals took the second view more and have sought to adapt to a world that is less friendly to classical political theory and requires pragmatic reassessment and creative thinking.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Book Review: Civilization and Capitalism Vol. 1 Part 1

The Structures of Everyday Life
Civilization and Capitalism
15th - 18th Century
Fernand Braudel

This will be a brief overview, unlike last week's book which I had been reading concurrently with others, I just started this after finishing Wilson's book. I'm not finished yet as it is quite long, though not as long as the last, so I will just briefly touch on the major themes.

Braudel rejects at the outset the division of history into two periods, before and after the industrial revolution. His argument is that development was much more complex than this. There is an evolution but it is not that of a single economy but several. Specifically, he divides this into three economies, only one of these being the market economy that is most frequently written about. The other two economies are what he describes as material civilization, which are the kind of everyday activities where productive work is done but is informal and not governed by market transactions , and the third which he characterizes as the real capitalism which consists of the actions of only the most privileged individuals in the highest social hierarchies where a small number of the very wealthy and powerful can influence events across large parts of the system (so far this part has been addressed only in the introduction, I am probably not characterizing it entirely correctly).

The first volume deals primarily with "material civilization" though the other component economies play some role. He tries to take the entire world into account, in places the age of the book is shown particularly with parts of Asia where his claims seem somewhat different from what I've read in more recent works. Since I've read these areas are being revised due to new information coming in this isn't surprising and doesn't significantly detract from the work as a whole. He discusses in the first chapter issues having to due with population such as estimated totals, migration, attrition due to disease, and similar issues. This is interesting though some of it has likely been overtaken by more recent work.

After this section he moves on to a discussion of food, drink, and other aspects of daily life. A few interesting ideas emerge here. The most interesting is the contrasts in civilizations based on their main food products, rice requires different labor relations and can support more population than other grains for instance. There are also some discussions about why technological change differed in regions and why some regions may have resisted change. Other sections detail the spread of new foodstuffs as well as how such simple things as table manners has altered greatly over time, and links this into discussions about the debate over whether luxury was a driver of civilization and the development of capitalism or if it simply represented a waste of resources by a society with no better outlet for its surplus. Many other interesting details emerge though at this point in the work they have not yet cohered into a narrative that can be easily related. More on this book next week.

After completing Vol.1 I may move on to Russel Kirk's "The Conservative Mind" due to my recent thinking on the subject. Otherwise the next book will be Vol. 2.

The Importance of Borrowing from Outside your Specialty

This post is to clarify yesterday's post [continuing the discussion from Douthat's post], I think I let the various pieces of it get away from me and interfere with the whole. The central idea I was getting at is that the epistemic closure faced by conservatives comes not from any weakness in their starting principles or in a lack of creative thought within the intellectual circles in their discipline but instead from a lack of engagement with the developments of other disciplines. There have been advances in several fields that hold implications for political thought and too many conservative writers seem to be either simply ignoring this or rejecting it as products of a biased liberal academia and not actively engaging with and giving a conservative interpretation to these new ideas. Last post I mentioned solely those ideas of greatest interest to me, and not particularly clearly. There are a few others, such as behavioral economics, which I also believe liberals have engaged with more fully than conservatives (at least at the level I'm aware of through the news) although there is nothing inherently liberal or conservative about these ideas. The other advances are ones I mentioned last post (though I must apologize for being less clear than I could have been), such as the collapse of what is known in comparative politics as the modernization paradigm, which draws from history and economics as well as political thought, and the introduction of culture to thinking about economic and political development. These ideas have made the development of the government, society, and markets more complex than it was in earlier theories of political thought, which has implications for political thought on domestic politics, like it or not. I will not pretend to claim that these ideas have provided new solutions to many intractable political problems, after all it is much easier to find flaws than it is to provide solutions, but I do see more evidence that liberal political thinkers have at least started to try to engage with these ideas than I do that many conservatives have.

This may be due to the ideas talked about in McArdle's post, academia has been uninviting to conservatives preventing their ideas from gaining traction. However, whether or not the development of new ideas in other fields reflects a liberal bias in academia, these ideas cannot simply be dismissed because they proceed from a more liberal starting point. They still have to be dealt with and are more properly seen as a critique of the entire range of political thought rather than simply an extension of existing liberal thought. I would concede it is plausible these ideas are in areas that liberals will find easier to adapt to, that is the consequence of not having enough conservatives active in other academic fields. If liberal bias is an accurate critique however, this most likely means that there are areas still to be explored that would make liberals more uncomfortable than conservatives that remain under-researched. Until these ideas are researched and enter mainstream academic discourse however, conservatives will be forced to deal with the implications of new ideas even if they are at a disadvantage. To do otherwise is to risk obsolescence, however unfair the playing field has been made by structural issues in academia.

Proceeding from this idea, and to give a more concrete example, I am often struck by how often critiques of liberal thought by conservatives seem to be stuck on ideas about liberalism that seem out of date. Conservatives do not seem to have accepted how much ideas from other fields have influenced contemporary liberal thought. The most obvious form of this, though I will admit this is infrequently heard from more intellectual conservatives, is the constant critique of liberal ideas as being socialist. There are at least a couple of problems with this, one is that socialism is a critique of liberalism and that while there is some overlap and some ideas traded between groups there are very different philosophies behind each even when an isolated policy is defensible through both philosophies, and a second that specifically applies to this discussion. This is the increasingly common rejection of notions of deterministic historical development. This may be slightly problematic for some conservatives who believe in retaining a high degree of fidelity to current interpretations of historical documents or that our historical political and economic institutions offer a best available balance; the notion that our development was simply contingent and under continual evolution requires a more active defense of our historic institutions, though it does not refute their value.

However, the rejection of determinism is pretty much fatal to the socialist interpretation of history. No longer can the view that we are proceeding towards a new socialist society be sustained, there is no clear movement towards this goal and institutional changes do not show this form of direction. While hardly the only flaw, the rejection of a deterministic reading of history completely undermines the socialist notion that there is a progression from traditional production, to progressively more advanced forms of capitalism, and eventually to socialism. Without this framework much of socialist thought is unsustainable (though there are certainly variants that seek to address this criticism, I just don't think they are particularly relevant to modern liberal thought). While this idea is not usually articulated in discussions of domestic policy, I think virtually all liberals (at least the ones that have given some thought to these topics) would agree that history does not show a clear historical progression, that the current form of society does not represent some kind of "end of history," and that current political developments do not represent progress towards a convergence of development, such as socialism. This is something of a digression but I think it is necessary to show how the logic of modern liberal thought has become completely antagonistic to classical socialist thought, which conservatives do not seem to have yet acknowledged.

[This is admittedly somewhat simplified, so a caveat follows. I think virtually everyone on the left would reject the notion of convergence on socialism but I am less certain they would reject the notion there is some degree of convergence in limited areas. They would also disagree a great deal on the specific institutions heading towards convergence and would likely agree that not all political institutions are heading towards convergence.]

While it took a little while forming the argument, this is why I think many liberals feel so baffled at the constant conservative attacks on policies as being socialist. Socialism has been moved past and is increasingly regarded as a dead end philosophy, though where there were particular good ideas in the broader philosophy these have been stolen by other philosophies and in some cases been developed into theories that are offshoots of socialism, even if the theory at its roots is dying. As a completely distinct political philosophy however, the socialist narrative has failed and its logic exposed as fundamentally flawed (there are still socialists that would disagree with this but I don't think this is inaccurate in the broad sense of where most researchers are heading). While there are some remnant parties most have increasingly evolved away from their socialist roots and adopted other philosophies not entirely compatible with actual purely socialist thought. Different ideas are being used and attacks on liberal policies as socialist completely misses the philosophy behind them and ignores how ideas have evolved.

This is but a single example of how liberal thought has taken into account the developments in other disciplines which have changed the nature of its core ideas. As well as how other developments have caused the collapse of one of the branches of classical 19th century thought. By not recognizing how deeply their political opponents philosophy has changed and by trying to frame policies in a logic that has been rejected conservatives are preventing their own evolution. To people that have grown up with different philosophical approaches and been educated in them many of the conservative critiques seem antiquated. They are trying to fight the battles of decades ago against political opponents that have been evolving rapidly by borrowing from other disciplines rather than staying with the political principles of their intellectual roots. If conservative thought is not to become obsolete it must do the same and engage with other disciplines in a more constructive fashion rather than trying to stay true to their classical intellectual roots.

Tomorrow I'll be continuing this as a series. I'll be focusing on how the big political ideas that require greater reflection and development have happened in the international and not domestic sphere. Still jumping off the ideas in the discussion referred to by Douthat, I think that conservatives have retained too much of an intellectual barrier between developments abroad and their thinking of domestic policies. Since the big political developments have been international this has made their ideas seem more static since they have not fully engaged with the biggest political developments of the past 20 years. The barrier between domestic and international politics is thinner than it has been at probably any point in history requiring an honest assessment of the relation between the two levels of analysis.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Why Conservative's are facing an "epistemic closure"

This is inspired by Ross Douthat's blog post today in the NY Times. The debate he is writing about is quite interesting, it is worth following through to the various links he posts.

The thread I want to pull out however, is Douthat's last point where he criticizes Matt Yglesias. I think this most clearly shows conservatism's problem, they're still thinking in terms of first principles and stuck in the 20th century. Ygelsias mentions a couple of groups that show where the rough grouping of the left has changed greatly, the feminists and the "green types." While neither is a field that I'm extremely well acquainted with I'm familiar enough with the concepts to know that both groups represent some of the new thinking that is challenging older ideologies. Feminism especially has opened up ideas of the force of norms and identity in shaping economic and political reality, something that isn't exactly dealt with in the first principles (however you want to define these) of either conservatism or liberalism.

This is where the two ideologies seem to me to differ the most. I haven't thought long and hard about the various strands of thought that make up the first principles of modern liberalism vs. conservatism so I'll take Douthat at his word that conservatism has more ideological diversity from first principles. However, I feel that liberalism has more effectively (if far, far from completely) engaged with the critical work that is questioning the largely 19th century assumptions that these ideologies rest upon. The principal areas that I feel have changed are the rejection of determinism, the role of culture in shaping both the economy and society, and the changing role of the state. While these concepts do of course influence conservatism as well (the McArdle article Douthat links to discusses privilege, which I would consider part of the cultural critique, and Samuel Huntigton's "Clash of Civilizations" is another cultural critique that has been influential on both the right and left) the political left seems to have done a better job introducing them into policy. Some of these are of course old ideas re-branded and altered by the new concepts as opposed to new positions made wholly from new concepts, the environmental movement, as an example, has elements pushing both for more regulation as well as for ideas having to do with expanded notions of the role of the market and the states role in creating this. For instance, cap and trade, or movements to create some form of property right to manage fish stocks (of course some conservatives are involved in both these ideas, I see the critique as being a critique of both liberal and conservative ideologies, I just believe liberals have more effectively incorporated these ideas) rely on a more complex relation between the state and markets and show the idea of a continued evolution of both the concept of the state and the market.

Liberalism is also more effectively trying to deal with the shifting nature of expectations on the state and market. For instance, the changing role of women as older ideas decline and the increase in mobility which has affected family structure (how many people take care of their aging parents till death in their own home, and live close enough this is even thinkable, today, how many did in the 19th century?) requires new institutions to deal with these cultural changes in the absence of other traditional institutions to fill a badly needed role. Previously many needs were met by institutions outside the state, read Adam Smith's section in "The Wealth of Nations" (p. 152 of my edition, incidentally, he also gives an argument against decentralization of social services due to each locality wanting to avoid paying for the poor which restricts mobility, obviously these are anachronistic terms for his argument) on the poor laws that needed to be put in place after the destruction of monasteries for a very early example of how the responsibilities of the state can change due to alterations in other non-state institutions. Security previously provided by non-state mediating institutions needs to be replaced somehow, often, especially due to modern mobility, the state is the only entity capable of this.

Several of these concepts also seem like they'd be particularly difficult for conservatives to grapple with, at least if I'm reading their ideology correctly. For example, as many fields increasingly reject a deterministic viewpoint and instead see development as a more complex and ongoing process (meaning that this is not the "end of history" and that modern ideas about markets and government are not the culmination of some long historical process but merely a single point in a system of continuous change, a particularly difficult concept if you idolize the late 19th century) it makes it difficult to both accept this narrative and reject the notion of the Constitution as living document as a distinctly liberal view, as one blogger linked to by Douthat does. I may not fully understand the differences between the Constitution as living document as a legal doctrine and the exact interpretation the conservatives favor as a legal doctrine but I think it should be obvious that since the understanding of certain basic concepts have changed, such as the notion of the people, property, and the individual all of which were obviously somewhat different concepts in a time where representation could be granted to 3/5ths of a person and the people holding such a person as property could take advantage of the representation granted to such a person. This is not to say that similar disenfranchisement doesn't happen today, illegal immigrants for example, but it will be very difficult for anyone to convince me that someone operating with modern concepts of these things would even think that representation of such a person should be fractional. Some of the writers of the Constitution were certainly troubled by this, and I do believe they saw that some of these ideas would require changes later on, but I believe it is easier to think that they retained a more corporate sense of political identity than we currently function with (also the lack of representation for women is a notable example of this corporatist attitude) and if these basic concepts have changed in meaning in the past 200 years than how could the Constitution be anything but a living document? The nature of the state, as well as other corporate institutions, such as corporations or the diverse entities known as NGO's and international organizations, is under continual evolution and policies must be updated to reflect changing ideas.

Another aspect that modern conservatism seems to have problems with is its myopic obsession with the state. The divide between public and private seems increasingly forced, it works well enough as an abstraction but when people are dependent on their company for many social services, most obviously health care (though this originated somewhat inadvertently from state action) but increasingly also pensions, childcare, and in a few cases even relatively trivial things such as fitness programs, the role of various institutions is blurring. Much of the growth of the state can also be conceptualized as the state needing to step in as modernization destroyed older institutions that formerly filled functions the state now does. Something that often strikes me is that before the automobile local neighborhoods had a much greater ability to conduct community action and self-help, people who had only the stores in walking distance and saw each other on the trains naturally would meet, find out about problems, and find ways to band together and help out (this topic could be a long aside, I have a lot of thoughts of how the auto has had huge unintended impacts on our culture and changed the way we relate to one another, I may take this up in another blog post since this goes far off topic). This has become tougher as we've become more mobile necessitating the construction of ways of finding information and assistance without relying on our neighborhood, few members of which the average individual knows any more. There is currently no institution other than the state capable of this.

I wouldn't disagree that this is probably not a good thing but current institutions allow no other solution that would have widespread legitimacy on some of these issues. Trying to push things into the private sector fails because the current private sector isn't well structured to address general social concerns. Power is too concentrated in the private sector, even in non-profits upper management tends to have much greater compensation and authority. For people to buy into an institution aside from the state providing social services we would need a less authoritarian structure, existing shareholder voting or other means of consulting stakeholders are currently not developed enough or well established enough to replace even the limited control people feel the have on the state through voting. Personally, I believe the growth of the state will be temporary, eventually a better means of spinning off some of the duties of the state, social security and health care perhaps, will be found and the state will be reduced in size, this is in the future and not a good potential guide to current policy of course. However, I think the current focus by conservatives on the state is a weakness since the state seems less important and the ways authority is distributed more complex than that which makes a simple public/private divide work in theory. Historically, the relationship between the duties the state had and other political and social institutions was far more complex (see Wilson's "The Thirty Years War" for an example) and I think the trajectory is for the relationship to grow in complexity in the future. Focusing on the state (and taxes) as a problem seems increasingly quaint in the complex world of today and for conservatives to continue to focus on it will make them seem less and less relevant until they develop a more nuanced understanding of it. It just doesn't resonate the way it did when there was a Cold War on and the state politics between the two super powers dominated political thinking.

I still have a few thoughts clattering around my head on this and will continue this later. Please share any thoughts and criticisms you have on it to develop more fully later. To bring it back around to the beginning, I think what Douthat is missing in his idea that Conservatives are as, or more, diverse intellectually than liberalism, is that liberalism has begun to adopt many modern critiques of the basis behind both ideologies. Conservatives are wrong to dismiss these ideas as "liberal," they are not intrinsically so though political liberals do seem to have done more with these ideas than conservatives have. Continuing to dismiss these new, critical (I will willingly admit none of these criticisms have yet advanced to a productive new paradigm, they have simply shown integral flaws in old ideas) ideas weakens conservatism, to address the new problems society is facing as it continues to evolve requires questioning old assumptions and ideas to deal with newer problems. Treating them as variations of old ideas misses the logic behind these new ideas, they really are pointing in a different direction of development from older liberal concepts.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Book Review: The Thirty Years War Part 2

The Thirty Years War
Peter H. Wilson

After a bit of a delay, here is part two of my review.

An important concept I haven't taken up yet is the confessional aspect of the war. The pre-war background he sets is one of significant intermixing between confessions at the local levels, he does a good job giving evidence such as mixed marriage to show that most people took a pragmatic view towards religion and did not let it disrupt everyday life. There were of course fundamentalists that wished to bring about greater changes but this was a small minority with limited influence. In wilson's view, it is important to make a distinction between those he calls the moderates and the radicals. Throughout the war there would be those who would use their faith as a means of validating their attempts to gain greater influence and those who would seek compromise and peace across lines of faith. Alliances between belligerents of different faiths were the rule rather than the exception and the confessional nature of the war remained limited.

This is not to say that confession did not cause considerable tensions throughout. Part of this was tide to the 1555 Peace of Augsburg, which while quite successful, the period between 1555 and 1618 was unusually peaceful for the empire, did leave several unresolved issues. The peace worked by trying to set up a legal framework that both Lutherans and Catholics could co-exist in (Calvinists were not included). There were many ambiguities to this peace of course, it did not formally make a distinction between confessions to preserve at least in form the idea there remained a unified faith since there was still a belief that there was a unity between law and faith. Or as Wilson puts it "since there could be only one truth, there could be only one law." (41) Despite the relative success of the peace there were significant remaining tensions, mostly concerning ecclesiastical lands and property which would be continuing sources of tension and outright warfare over the course of the larger conflict.

Partially leading from this Confessional divide, though also containing Constitutional and political considerations, the war kicks off with a revolt in Bohemia led by a militant Protestant Bohemian aristocracy. While the course of the actual conflict is an interesting read for my purposes the interesting section is a discussion on why the revolt failed and a bit on early modern politics in general. Wilson discusses that while the Confederates had a slogan of Estates' rights this continued to represent a form of monarchy and they were unsuccessful in extending their revolt outside their social base. (310) The personal character of politics in the era also comes through strongly, their are personal conflicts between leaders, little attempt to set up organized institutions early in the revolt, and the concept of vassalage made it easy for individuals to change side by asking for forgiveness. (310) An essential feature is that the Bohemian Protestantism was not "the faith of historical progress" but a version of "aristocratic corporatism" resisting a centralized state. (310) The Catholicism of the Hapsburg's was similar in function to the role of religion in Protestant countries attempting centralization such as England. Regular taxation and methods of awards aside from land grants centralized power in the ruler's court, as distinct from the modern impersonal state, and it continued to be social capital (in the form of a stress on emotional concepts such as trust or honor) that was awarded, meaning that landless nobles were more respected than rich burghers. (311) Much of the system remained based on patronage and ideas of reciprocity which was not legally enforceable and unstable. (311) Still, this was movement towards something like a more modern state, though still with some distinct differences. Tensions were exacerbated by the shift in power and "confessional differences merely sharpened existing tensions between the horizontal solidarity of kinship and corporate ties among nobles and the vertical relationship between patron and clients." (312)

So, since I've summarized the starting situation of the Empire, what changes happen by the end. Wilson is careful to point out that the deterministic view of the development of warfare doesn't describe the actual progress of the war well. Descriptions of individual battles show that it was not differences in technique and weaponry that were decisive but a mixture of factors, such as better generalship or command an control. Armies also didn't follow the developmental path frequently described towards more modern forces, local conditions were heavily influential with forces moving towards cavalry due to the need for long range foraging. Which also shows that these were still far from paid, professional armies. Troops went through long periods without pay and lived off the land.

As for the political settlement, the Peace of Westphalia does hold up as a critical event, though like most modern assessments it is simply a landmark on a longer road and doesn't show a sharp break with the past in most respects. The Congress itself began in 1643 and would take 5 years to complete. It fell short of expectations at the time and its achievements were mixed but its ideals and methods have "influenced the theory and practice of international relations to the present." (671) There were several important developments including the erosion of medieval concept of hierarchy and ways for all participants to negotiate together without the use of a mediator establishing a precedent that extends to this day. The goals of the Congress were not met, it was to be a general peace but given that the 30 years war was a single one of several overlapping conflicts between the involved parties, and completely ignored a few contemporary conflicts (that the idea of Europe was not fully formed yet even a European peace proved elusive, the conflict in the British isles for instance was ignored) but the idea of "a 'Christian, general, and permanent peace' intended to establish lasting friendship across the continent" offered a "new charter for European relations." (753) This was of course a very significant step towards modern ideas about war and its resolution and the idea of international law.

Wilson also points out two ideas on the notion of the state that, while hardly unique, bear repeating. The first is the classic 'Westphalian state,' familiar to any student of international relations as a political body resting "on indivisible sovereignty that both excludes external agencies and does not share the exercise of internal governance with other domestic bodies. In addition it possesses well-demarcated, non-porous borders, and a common identity and culture among its inhabitants." (754) This obviously does not describe the political system at the time and is an ideal that has never been completely reached anywhere at any time. The second is that there is a growing consensus that this form of a state is not an endpoint, we're still developing. Wilson gives a good example of this by mentioning "One recent study of the European Union presents it not as a single, centralized Westphalian super-state, but as a 'neo-medieval empire,' with the process of integration remodelling the continent along lines not dissimilar to the Holy Roman Empire." (754) (I have to track this down sometime, sounds interesting)

In addition to its role as a milestone in the development of the modern idea of the state and its importance to international relations, the peace also led in the long term to taking religion out of politics, though this was hardly the intent at the time. The Empire remained Christian, though a form of toleration was extended. Rights were conceived of as being granted to corporate groups, not to individuals. While constitutional rights were granted to the three main confessions other groups had only a limited form of toleration and could generally only practice their religion within their own homes and not publicly. For the time, this was probably the most tolerant state in Europe. The path the Empire took likely represented an alternate path to the modern secular state than that followed by governments that were more successful in their push for centralization. This rooted "religious freedom in a web of corporate rights, and thus a conservative social order that saw the rule of law, not democracy, as the guarantee for stability." (762) Which of course had long-term implications distinct from what occurred in France or England.

Well, this review is finally done, its been a busy week sorry for taking so long. I'm afraid this reads rather more like a summary paper for a course than it does a proper review. Sorry for that, it's too long of a work and the threads I wanted to pull out too narrow to give a fully comprehensible view.

For this weekend, I'll be getting a start on Braudel's Civilization and Capitalism. It's fairly long so I don't expect to finish it by Sunday, I may instead throw up a review on one of a few shorter works I've been reading concurrently, it's 50-50 either way.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Real Modern Threat of Nukes

I'm usually the first to reject the idea that nuclear terrorism is a likely threat. However, while extremely low probability it is high enough impact that thinking a little about worst case scenarios isn't time wasted. The Nuclear Security Summit makes these issues especially current. Leaping off of this NY Times article discussing how Pakistan fits into the dialogue about nuclear security. Pakistan, of course, is rather less stable than most of us would wish a nuclear power to be. However, they have a sufficiently professional army that I'm not that worried about any of the actual weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. Since it didn't happen during Russia's problems I think the likelihood of losing a weapon if things ever get bad in Pakistan, such as state collapse which I think is highly unlikely but ultimately the worst-case scenario, probably isn't really a threat either. Though it is of course important that discussions happen so if there is an unforeseen disaster some sort of mechanism is in place to secure these facilities.

What does concern me however is that nuclear proliferation seems to be an issue mostly in the world's not so stable countries (also, if anyone remembers Abdul Qadeer Khan there's other reasons to not be pleased about these countries going nuclear). If Iran gets weapons I don't think there is any real risk of using them, but that is one more country where the state isn't at its most stable. I'm also, perhaps irrationally, unsettled by the idea that several neighboring countries, none of them exactly best friends, will form a strip from Iran to China where each country is nuclear armed. In addition, two of these are not so stable and all of them border unstable areas such as Afghanistan. Definitely an issue we have to give some thought to in case any of these areas become more unstable, or if the instability from Afghanistan, or elsewhere, shows signs of spreading.

All in all, if anything nuclear proliferation so far seems to be associated with less violence, which is cheering. However, it doesn't seem to be well associated with stability so that the countries most prone to proliferation seem to be also some of the less perfectly stable nations is a cause for concern. Not for great concern, though I do wish it was Switzerland that had a burning passion for becoming nuclear armed and not Iran.

When did the dragon put its panda mask back on?

Between talk about helping with Iran sanctions and the talk about a currency revaluation you'd think China has somehow realized that playing nicely with others is an essential component of good diplomatic relations. As well as that the US is still the essential nation to have good relations with. I just hope this is a sign that relations will continue to get better and that China will see good relations and cooperation as a better way to get what it wants out of the international system. Belligerency may impress the press but I'm not sure what it has gotten China so far except big headlines. Let's hope that getting them to talk on these issues can lead to some mutually beneficial deals.

Paying taxes improves government.

This is one of those things that should be obvious. However, since the obvious isn't always so sometimes a paper is necessary to show that. Of course, the paper does delve a bit deeper into some ideas that do require a bit of a closer look, such as that the type of taxes make a difference. Also proving something empirically is a significant contribution on its own. Another interesting finding is that where there is a high degree of "ethnic fractionalization" improved taxation does not result in the same governance gains. Their model suggests that taxation leads to greater public scrutiny and accountability of government which leads to better government. This is explained more fully in the paper's literature review which mentions several other papers I may have to take the time to track down.

A few key lines from the paper, both quoted from the abstract:
We find that higher tax revenues (in relation to GDP) are consistently associated with improvements in the quality of governance. This result is robust to different estimation methodologies, to variations in the country sample, and to controlling for the influence of variables that other studies have identified as affecting the quality of governance. Our results support the notion that policies aimed at mobilizing tax revenues may be justified based on the greater accountability of government that may result.

Overall, worth reading if you have an interest in the links between taxation and governance (a limited audience I know). Though my recent reading of "The Thirty Years War" makes me wonder about a couple of related topics. Possible research questions if I get a burning desire to delve into this particular field at some point in the future, or get someone to pay me to do it. First, does who the tax burden falls on matter, or more precisely does it matter if the tax burden falls more on the wealthy than the less well off? I specifically have in mind a discussion in the book about how as taxes raise the ability of the Empire to collect them broke down (the fighting had a lot to do with this) forcing the taxes to become simpler, such as a greater reliance on poll taxes, that fell more heavily on the poor rather than the rich. So, if the data is available, a follow up study on whether there is a correlation with the ability to tax the wealthy would be interesting (in this particular case I believe it would be more correlation than cause however).

Second, does what the government is spending taxes on influence the link between taxes and governance? It seems reasonable to wonder if high military spending requiring higher taxation may not have the same effect as if the taxes were high to fund social security spending. Or it may have no effect on the link between taxes and governance, if I knew I wouldn't be posing the question.

I also would like to mention I prefer charts embedded in the text to ones at the end.

[Hat Tip Economix]

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sunday Book Review : The Thirty Years War

The Thirty Year's War
Peter H. Wilson

I'll have to confess at the outset, I have a weakness for very long books. So clocking in at 851 pages of narration, not counting the preface, index, notes, etc. is already a strong point in this books favor. Although with a subject of this complexity the length was unavoidable. Aside from this, I felt that this was a great book. Wilson manages to communicate the complexity of the conflict without leaving the reader overwhelmed with the details. The background of the war and the events leading up to it are well described, answering some questions that I had about earlier accounts I've read such as why didn't the Turks intervene directly (though he shows how they did have influence on the conflict). The flow of the conflict is well described and the political interactions both within the empire and externally. Wilson also does a very good job arguing against earlier deterministic explanations by showing the complex nature of events. He rejects arguments that warfare was determined by linear technical progress and prevents convincing arguments about what is wrong with the deterministic explanation and the more complex nuances present at the time. He also shows that this linear movement of progress simply didn't happen clearly over the course of the conflict.

Enough for the general description. Wilson sets out three distinctions for his history against the standard interpretations. The first is to reconnect the elements of this conflict through their common arrangement to the imperial constitution (which may surprise some people, it is something that seems under emphasized today, there isn't anything necessarily modern or democratic about constitutional government) and to show this war was related to other conflicts but ultimately distinct, second that it was not a primarily religious war, and a third distinction that the war was not inevitable.

However, my primary interest isn't to summarize Wilson's argument (though I think it is important for anyone reading this to know his focus is different), but to instead look at the parts of the war that interest me, such as what role the war played in state formation and the formation of modern political ideas. The book begins with a discussion of the pre-war imperial constitution and the various political divisions within the empire. At the outset of the description he notes that classifying it has long baffled some philosophers, it is noted that one called it a "monstrosity," "neither a 'regular kingdom,' nor a republic." (12) The full description, while very interesting, are too complex to be described in full here, though a few details are worth noting. Wilson's description of the various settlements being "bound together within a complex legal and political web of rights, prerogatives and jurisdictions" is important to note since the complexity of authority in this period is a notable distinction from the modern. There were different sorts of authority and an individual could hold more than one type. Emperors were elected but though the title gave imperial authority it did not confer additional resources, the Emperor was expected to pay for maintaining imperial institutions and defense out of his own lands. Contributions were made to defense through imperial estates but these contributions were not as regular as modern taxation and territories did not contribute equally. Voting in the Reichstag was also unequal and was divided into three separate colleges of electors, princes, and cities. Voting was not even equal in all cases within the colleges with some votes being shared. Also it is notable that political systems were still shifting from personal dealings to the idea of an impersonal state.

[This will be continued tomorrow, focusing on a selection of most notable points that emerge in the book and concluding with a summary of what changes occurred at the end of the war as a result of the Peace of Westphalia]

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Quest

Recently, I've had a lot of really negative things to say about why I think our modern political ideologies are fundamentally flawed and inadequate. What I haven't suggested is what the alternative is. This is because I don't have one. However, I think this necessitates an honest effort at identifying and formulating one.

My essential critique is that I feel that up until very recently the world was dominated by states that were all descended from a European history and political ideology (if you want to split hairs and use Huntington's civilizations instead, you still have to admit that the Soviet Union followed Marxism which is definitely a uniquely European ideology), with the notable exception of Japan, whose success was one of the various sources for critiques of the standard paradigm of historical and economic development. The gap between the west and the rest in political and economic power has declined rapidly over the last half century, with the rise of China, likely to be followed shortly by India and perhaps others as well, all but the very naive, or ideologically blinded, should have to admit that there will be fundamental changes in the international system as states with different histories and ideologies have more influence in the system. Domestically, this requires an evaluation of our political ideologies to see if they can survive the conditions of a modern system where European descended ideas are no longer completely dominant. One great European ideology, socialism, has already showed itself inadequate to function in the modern world as a stand alone ideology, leading to the collapse of one of history's great states. If we remain bound by old ideas it is inevitable that we will not just decline relatively, but eventually collapse.

So what exactly am I proposing needs revising? I don't mean to imply a need for a truly radical new understanding, just a reassessment of a few areas that I believe modern ideologies handle particularly poorly. Put simply I see the greatest weaknesses in the notion of the role of the state, interactions between the state and the economy, and lack of a sufficiently dynamic theory of how markets are created and the interactions between markets and different conceptions of property rights. I don't propose that I can develop a coherent theory that can do all of this. That would be the work of a lifetime and probably impossible to do, several theories of different aspects are likely necessary, I feel the earlier western ideologies have ultimately failed because they claimed to do too much. So my intent will be to set qualifications in advance and look for existing ideas in academia (since I doubt anyone is exploring these concepts in depth on youtube videos) that fit these criteria and link to them. Where necessary I will try to summarize for the general reader since I feel there is relatively little effort to try to inject new ideas into political discourse, academia and public discourse has probably rarely been more divergent than it is today. Mostly though, this will be an ongoing attempt to list good resources for readers to access themselves to form their own opinion.

An explicit goal is to not argue for a single new ideology but to instead propose components that should be incorporated into any ideology's conception of reality. I feel the political divide in the US is at its base an argument about how to conceptualize the world we live in. The divide was less stark in the past because there was a consensus paradigm that allowed for a lot of division within it, but over means and ends, not over different understandings of morality and essentially different views on the effects of policy on society. This paradigm has failed but not been replaced, leading to both sides feeling that the other is fundamentally wrong about their conception of our world. I'm suggesting both are right that the other has misconceptions and I am playing Sisyphus in trying to push the idea there is a possible paradigm both can agree on that will still allow for them to shout at each other about differences in how to prioritize and what direction to take within this paradigm.

On to the categories.

1. A theory of the state. This theory should be able to handle the distribution of authority structures within a society. Why are certain powers reserved to the classic state, why are others devolved to corporations or religious institutions, among others? And why does this change over time? Why are some powers shifted towards international bodies and not others? Is there significance in the shift from the political representation of a family unit to the modern notion of political representation as representing the individual? How does culture and identity interact with the institutions in a society? Why does the selection of persons to exercise authority differ so much between institutions with different kind of powers (for instance, why do we insist so strongly on the need for democratic principles to select officials to positions of power in the state but are not concerned with the centralization of authority, and complete lack of any democratic process, in a single person in a large corporation with great economic power)? Most importantly the theory should be able to deal with the organic evolution of the state and its interaction with other governmental bodies in the world system.

I suspect that a strong theory of the state already exists. None of my courses dealt heavily with the topic while still taking classes but I believe my reading lists contain high quality works that can deal with most of these questions. Once I finish with my current backlog I'll move on to this question in the book reviews.

2. Interactions between the state and the economy. This section will rely most heavily on historical works. I don't believe the current political ideologies of any group deal with this well. I also believe this is the area where changes in the world at large due to the development of technology, resource use by a developing world, and changes in the international system are most likely to require modern ideologies to need the strongest, and most accurate, theories incorporated into them if we are to cope with changes over the coming decades without stubbing our toes really, really badly. The easiest starting point here is to look at the development of markets and the role of institutions in their development in the original rise to European dominance. Current economic (of the very general type, from what I know, which is admittedly not at the highest level, most modern economics doesn't seek to explain things this far back and instead focuses on interactions within a known environment, it is only the theories that that seek to delve into more theoretical, and less descriptive, interactions that I mean to critique here) and political theories are very heavily invested in stories told about this development and take them as guides to current action. They haven't been updated for additional research or with the increased knowledge of the development of commercial institutions in the rest of the world.

What I'll be looking for is an explanation of what policies actually changed to allow the great expansion of trade and how this impacted states. What are the interactions between new sources of wealth and state institutions? What was the impetus behind major developments in legal structures, or other state actions that led to great changes on how commerce was conducted.

This is probably the topic I've already thought about the most. At this stage, I largely feel the idea that the state somehow got out of the way leading to an explosion of development is pretty much completely wrong. Instead, I see a story of much greater centralization where the state destroyed virtually all competing sources of authority as being a driving force in the rise of "capitalism." No longer could groups compete in any way but in the realm of commerce. States also destroyed many other forms of identity, leading towards something resembling modern nations. In addition, the state created new institutions that led to more efficient means of raising capital as well as methods to more efficiently, and less destructively, extract wealth. This needs greater development, but I believe this will be an easy subject to give a more nuanced, complete, and accurate story of development.

3. A more dynamic conception of markets and property rights. I know the least about this going in so I will be brief in describing what I'm looking for. Basically, I want to look for studies on how markets change as the notion of property rights have changed as well as the interactions between when a service is provided through non-market means, such as when a family traditionally does the work itself, and when this begins to be handled by markets instead.

As something of a sub-group under this, I also want to look at how shifts in identity have influenced markets. For instance, how did the shift from earlier identifications rooted in the family as an economic unit to the individual as an economic unit effect the broader economy? How is culture interacting with it? How does the notion of what kind of unit should be acting in certain areas of the economy shift, such as services provided by religious groups (such as medical care) that later evolve to be provided by other groups?

These new topics aren't meant to dominate the blog, simply to show that there is a particular direction my thinking is going and that I'll be actively looking for either current events that illustrate this or reading that will help me understand these subjects. I am very open to suggestions of new works to look at that are related to these topics. When I have some concrete sources to add I will start posting pages on each topic as a permanent point of reference.