Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sunday Book Review

I intend this to be a weekly feature of this column. More than anything else on this blog it is for my own personal convenience, though I hope some others may discover new books from it as well. The intent will be primarily to motivate me to keep reading worthwhile literature, if I don't read anything worthwhile in a given week I will post a movie, restaurant, TV show, or video game review as a form of public shaming to show I managed to learn nothing new over the previous week. In some cases where length prevents me from completing a work I will be giving partial reviews of what I have completed each week. Braudel's three volume Civilization and Capitalism is near the top of the to be read stack so this will be coming up shortly. While I will be doing some reading from classic works, I'm slowly working my way through Wealth of Nations in addition to other reading for instance, I won't be giving dedicated reviews to these works since I'm not quite hubristic enough to feel I have much to add, though if I feel the need I amy highlight a few passages from works such as this that I feel are being neglected today.

The reviews themselves will be more of a personal commentary than a true book review. It will focus on expressing what I got out of the work or a few parts that struck me as particularly interesting. Mostly, it will be notes in a narrative form that will allow me to go back years from now and recall the general arguments or refer back to particularly interesting passages without having to re-read the whole book. I may also try to pursue the scholarly question of what contribution I think the book makes, particularly in cases where I didn't like the book but feel it needs a more even-handed treatment than my opinion affords it.

Book Review: Before European Hegemony

Book Review: Before European Hegemony
by Janet L. Abu-Lughod

This book presents a world systems theory analysis of the period that preceded the development of the modern system. It covers the period roughly between A.D. 1250 - 1350, though some parts of the system require analysis over slightly different periods of time. Some of the most interesting features of this analysis is that it portrays a world system whose discrete units portray a much wider variety of organization than do those that compose the modern system. A second notable aspect of this work is that in this theory world systems aren't destroyed and replaced but instead they are restructured as the features of the organizing components change. This is notable because it presents the development of the modern world system described by Wallerstein as being a reorganization of an existing system. It is also notable that there are multiple possible configurations of the world systems, that referred to as the modern world system and that described in this book being just two of them.

Throughout the system there are world cities, such as Venice, Cairo, Malacca, and Canton, which are more integrated into world trade than their surrounding hinterland and form the basis for long distance trade. These cities form what is referred to as an archipelago of towns and their success, or decline, was transmitted to the rest. The system in the years around 1300 proved to be especially beneficial for the cities involved. Multiple routes existed connecting the system together driving down the costs of trade and spurring the prosperity of each component. As these routes declined due to a variety of shocks, including the Black Death, the system went into decline until the rise of the modern system led to a reorganization of the system as a whole.

In addition to the over-arching world system there are several distinct sub-systems. There are eight interlinked systems, organized into three circuits, that are described in the book. These three systems are the European, Middle Eastern and the Far Eastern. Each chapter examines a distinct sub-system and discusses lessons to be learned from each system, such as the different roles of the world cities in the international system. The effects these sub-systems had on each other, and thus on the system as a whole, are also discussed showing the importance of this interconnectedness on the system as a whole, and its maintenance. When the system begins to collapse by the middle of the 14th century the importance of the connection between regions becomes visibly important to the success of each.

That's enough of a basic summary, I hardly do the book as a whole justice, but this is a blog, not a formal review. So, on to the various small details I found particularly interesting and worthwhile to point out. The first of these is that the west lagged behind the rest of the world and how advanced the trading system was. While this is commonly observed in any history examining the world outside Europe, it really can't be pointed out enough because of the persistence of Eurocentrism. What was fairly new to me was the discussion of the complexity of commercial transactions and methods of organization. Methods of sharing risk, credit, and banking were already highly developed and several advances that are generally associated with the rise of developed capitalism already seemed present outside the west. While this is peripheral to the main message of the book, I cannot help but observe that the importance of economic factors to the rise of the west seems greatly exaggerated once the rest of the world is examined. Too many of these supposedly essential and unique developments were already highly evolved outside of Europe for these factors to be determinate in isolation. Another important point is the high development of technology outside the west. Too often the story is one of European technical dominance. This also holds up poorly given the highly developed technology of the Chinese which remained much more developed even as Europeans rearranged the world system to their liking.

Other interesting sections were the discussion of private merchant groups in countries such as Egypt. Notably the Karimi merchants which attained great power and wealth while still being outside of state control. In other portions of the book the success of varying economic systems stand out. This is not a story where emphasis on private vs. state control wins out, the development of the system is more complex than this. Even with Europe, the greater emphasis on private enterprise in Genoa as opposed to Venice doesn't provide a marked contrast in the success of each. Too many other variable are in play and this particular one seems to be fairly low down on its ability to drive development. Other sections discuss the role of industry in trade as well as the role that basic resources play. The diversity of roles, and the effect this has on the development of the various world cities whose stories are told here, is an important aspect of this book and something to be remembered. Another great feature of the work is that it is able to tell the story of an important systemic force on world history without making it seem determinate. Too many authors make their favored systemic explanation play an outside role. Here the importance of local factors continues to exist alongside the systemic nature of the system.

Well, there's a lot more to say about this book, and I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the development of modernity or curious to expand their horizons. It provides a valuable additional perspective on how world systems develop and it is always refreshing to read a book not bound by Eurocentrism. This will have to be enough writing on this book for now, this is already a long blog post. The somewhat random nature of this post will be a regular feature of these reviews, it is meant to reflect my basic thoughts on the book rather than be a review meant to give an accurate picture of the book. Hopefully someone will find this quasi-review useful despite that.

Next, I'll be doing a review of Hayek's The Road to Serfdom. I expect to have a lot to say about it given my reaction to the first few chapters.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Threading the needle on China and currency manipulation.

There's been an ongoing debate about China and its currency manipulation. I'm not going to try to recreate the entire argument here, I think some of the main posts are Paul Krugman's, those on Free Exchange (link only to most recent, many more in the last couple weeks), and most recently DIA. In short form the discussion is about whether, and if so how, the US should respond to China's currency manipulation.

My position on this is basically two part. I agree with Krugman that China's currency manipulation is a problem but I think it is difficult to do anything about it. The problem with taking action comes from several areas. First, it is common to overstate what you can do with power and I don't think this is a situation where the exercise of power will have an effect. This is a subject that should probably have its own post, I'll get around to it when I have time. Second, I think the political dimension isn't being given enough attention.

There are two parts to this as well. First, there is a lot of evidence that there is already a debate in China about revaluation. Second, the Chinese government has a lot more to consider with this than just the economics. The government seems primarily concerned with stability as well as its own legitimacy. Currently, China is relying on rapid economic growth to maintain both. It isn't so long ago however that it relied on other methods. US pressure would give the Chinese government a strong incentive to consider the potential benefits of a nationalist response to maintain its popularity and to present itself as a leader and potential alternative to US hegemony. It would rightly be reluctant to be seen as caving in to US pressure, as would any country.

This leads to a conundrum. We need to apply pressure but do so in a way that does not give China a potential political advantage. There are two ways of doing this. The first, is to start being unhelpful to China in other areas and to launch other diplomatic initiatives that pointedly leave China out of the picture. Then gently make clear that if they want to play in these areas, they need to play the currency game too.

The second idea was inspired by this DIA blog post and the linked paper. Given that currency manipulation is not currently against WTO rules this provides us with an opening to apply pointed pressure without direct confrontation. I don't know enough about the internal workings of the WTO to give the precise mechanism to engage but we should use its formal mechanisms to either inquire about a formal ruling on how the WTO would treat currency manipulation if a case were brought or circulate the idea among WTO members that we intend to bring up currency manipulation as an area that we wish formal rules to be drawn up for. This avoids the problem of risking a trade war with China while making it obvious that we are serious about this and it is not just rhetoric in Congress asking for the revaluation.

Of course, getting this done requires someone in a position to do something about this reading this blog (and not already having thought of this) but this seems to me the most realistic way to apply pressure without risking the very expensive downsides.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

How can you improve if you can't take criticism?

Well, more confirmation of my theory that Conservatives see themselves more as a complete alternative to the supposedly "liberal" worldview. David Frum, who seems to be one of the shrinking number of generally sensible Conservatives, has been forced out of the American Enterprise Institute according to the New York Times. It sounds like the rather sensible, realistic, and moderate critique he was giving of the Republican's stance on health care may have been too much for the AEI. Be sure to link through to some of the linked articles from Frum, in any rational world this wouldn't be a bridge too far.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

General musings on China, Iran, and the Futility of Power.

Interesting article in the NY Times today about pressure from China and Russia on Iran to end its nuclear program. Good to see other countries joining in the pressure but it's just another example of how hard it is to get another country to change policies that it is pursuing largely for domestic reasons. There are just too many domestic incentives to resist outside pressure for this to be very effective. While putting pressure on may be the right thing to do, it is also almost always the futile thing to do. To get change, you need a really attractive carrot and at the same time you need a big enough stick that you don't have to mention it. If this doesn't work, mentioning the stick just makes you look ineffectual. In this particular case, I'm not really sure what carrot we could offer and while we've got plenty of stick I can't think of many ways to apply it that would do anything other than increase the current regime's power. Sanctions will likely just play into the Iran against the world rhetoric and bombing certainly will shore up the regime by giving it back some of the legitimacy it lost during the recent protests. Unless anyone thinks we can bomb them back to square one on research the best we can hope for is delay and a greatly weakened movement for resistance against the current regime if we bomb.

Not that I have anything material to suggest on how to change the situation. Though I do think it might be good to keep this in mind when complaining about some of China's economic policies. If this much pressure from basically the entire world can't budge Iran on a weapon it really only needs for prestige reasons, why would pressure on China work any better to change what they see as mostly domestic politics? Change requires bargaining and we haven't done much to build up our bargaining power in this situation.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A critique or an alternative worldview?

Two blog posts today reminded me of the essential division I believe I'm seeing in American politics. Democracy in America has a post suggesting how much the Republicans have influenced the health care plan and how their cooperation can move things forward to make a better plan. It is written as suggestions as to how the President should have addressed Republicans. Two excerpts:

"The health-care reform that just passed is an entirely private-sector-based reform, and that is the result of Republican influence. Had there been no Republican or conservative influence on the health-care debate over the past 17 years, the reform that just passed might have been a single-payer system, or it might have looked like Hillarycare..."

"If Republicans are sceptical that Democrats will truly cap the employer health-insurance tax exclusion in 2018, then Republicans can help make sure it happens by providing the votes for it."

All this and several more suggestions on how Republicans could improve health care within the new system. I largely agree with this. The Republicans views do offer a lot that could be used to make the plan better. However, the Republicans have a big C Conservative base that probably doesn't see things this way. This will have to be supported better in later posts but my belief is that Conservatives do not see their views as a critique of what they refer to as "liberal" views (I'd call it the post-WWII western consensus). Instead, as they keep saying in blog after blog, they believe the liberal view is fundamentally flawed (not in these words but you get the gist) and that they offer a better alternative.

What drives my thoughts in this direction, is that in addition to its appeal to real bipartisanship, is that DIA then mentions Ross Douthat's column in today's New York Times. A large section of it details how both liberals and conservatives believe the bill will function, and that one will be right, one wrong. Personally, I feel that he is overstating liberal's positions on a few issues, but this is beside the point. I get the sense from this column that the Conservative view is an either/or type of thing and that there is not some kind of workable middle ground between the two views.

Some evidence for this:
"Likewise, liberals are convinced that reform will cut the deficit, rather than increase it."
Followed by:
"Right now, these assumptions are hotly contested between left and right. But if the bill passes, by 2018 we’ll find out who’s right."

"The same goes for all the things that liberals are sure won’t happen. We’ll find out if the bill makes premiums skyrocket. We’ll find out if it creates doctor shortages. We’ll find out if the array of new taxes destroys more jobs than the new spending creates."

He ends his column with "“Experience keeps a dear school,” Ben Franklin said, “but fools will learn in no other.” Whether liberals or conservatives are the fools in this story remains to be seen."

And in a blog post, in which he lays out three potential scenarios suggests this about the one he sees as most likely: "The result will be semi-universal health care, yes, but at the cost of a permanent fiscal crisis, in which every budget battle becomes a struggle over how to jury-rig the health care system sufficiently to stave off fiscal disaster for another year or two. We’ll be Greece, or California."

Either the Conservative worldview is largely right, or the liberal worldview is. The notion that each side may represent part of the truth isn't really presented as an alternative. These are two, largely exclusive, distinct viewpoints. They are not offering a critique of liberalism meant to provide an alternative viewpoint to improve a broadly centrist consensus vision. Instead the implication seems to be they are offering an alternative worldview. Either they are right and liberals are wrong, or vice-versa. I don't mean to single out Douthat too much, after all I enjoy his column, and generally think he sounds fairly reasonable, even if I usually disagree with him but these particular posts do illustrate the idea I'm trying to get at. Liberals seem to make the mistake that we are all functioning within roughly the same world view and that Conservatives don't disagree on major elements of it. I don't believe this is how Conservatives view it and liberals aren't doing themselves any favors by ignoring Conservative statements that hint at a deep divide in viewpoints.

This is why we won't see compromise positions any time soon. I believe Conservatives will eventually have to face up to the idea that there are a lot of things that really are known that they are currently mislabeling as distortions of the main-stream media , as well as that viewpoints aside from their own are not necessarily "liberal" and may in fact be a broader western consensus that is broad enough for both them and the liberals, and realize their viewpoint is only a critique, not a complete alternative view. I don't think they're there yet.

Obligatory Health Care Post

I don't have a whole lot to add that hasn't already been said elsewhere. I support the health care reform, though I do think it could have been better. The biggest thing of course is that we're moving to almost universal coverage. I believe this is a necessary, but insufficient, step on the way to affordable health care. After all, every other country spends a smaller amount of GDP on health care than we do and several of these have overall better outcomes on most health measures. Every other comparable nation was also going rapidly in the direction of universal health care by the time our health spending really got out of control in the 90s (this is generalizing, I will have a later post exploring the actual sequencing of this, I do know we were not spending the highest % of GDP in the 1960s but were by the 90s). During the period everyone else was covering more of their people we were covering less. This trend continued until late last night.

My belief is that the main long term trend leading to cost control will be item #5 in this post by Ezra Klein. We're simply not having the debate we need to have if we're going to have a health care system appropriate for a developed nation. Not to even mention one appropriate for our continued status as world hegemon. Now we have the chance to actually have this debate.

Hopefully not this year though, I'm fatigued on the issue.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

America the Incomparable

I hear rather frequently that America is such a unique country that international comparisons are pointless. I disagree but am willing to test my convictions with data. I will be making a series of posts examining assertions about why America is incomparable to see if any of these objections stand up to analysis. My goal with this analysis will not be to advance highly wonky arguments, there are plenty of paid professionals doing that who are more expert than I am. My contribution will be to look at the objections to this type of analysis that seem so common on blogs, or in casual conversation, that are not being treated seriously by specialists.

Most of these posts will be a simple chart and regression testing hypotheses about why America is different in regards to particular issues. The first series of posts will examine issues related to health care. I have very frequently seen data on how the US stacks up so poorly in international comparisons. In most cases, I hear objections to these comparisons on various grounds that can be directly tested. Some of the more frequent objections I hear are that the US is too populous to be compared, that we are too ethnically diverse, or that our health habits are too bad. Over the next few weeks I will take up each of these topics to see if the data supports these objections or not.

The Far Right

This will be the first in a series of posts exploring what I believe is a powerful shift that has occurred in American politics that has greatly changed the right wing. I believe that part of the rather amorphous group referred to as the right has developed a much more stable, and coherent, world view and political identity than has been seen before in American politics.

This idea arises from a series of observations. First, what I learned about the Republican party when I was growing up doesn't seem to describe the party today. Second, I lived out of the country for awhile, when I returned for a year in 2000 there seemed to be a split within the party. The part I recognized seemed to favor McCain but there was a new part that was opposed to him. The third observation was that when I came back to the US permanently the party seemed to have changed fundamentally from what I had expected it to be. I realized as I became better reacquainted with American politics that there were in fact several components of the Republican party and the changes I was observing didn't seem to apply to the party as a whole, just a significant portion of it. To learn more about this I'll be following up by reading Conservative websites, Tea Party websites, as well as reading foundational theoretical literature, such as Burke and Hayek.

Future posts will explore a number of topics as I learn more about this subject.

1. Did this shift really happen, or am I just seeing things (or ignorant about the political right in the US)?

2. How do I properly specify the group I'm trying to look at? The subject of interest seems to be an overlap between the Tea Party movement and part of the Conservative wing of the Republican party. Am I right to make this division and how do I accurately specify it?

3. What exactly is the ideology and world view of this group? If I can't define it fairly accurately then I must be seeing things.

4. Is this group as influential in politics as I believe it is? What are the implications for the American political system of a group with this strong and uncompromising of a world view?

5. This group seems to believe that its viewpoint is part of a long tradition of political thought. Are they correct that it has been suppressed by the main stream media and liberal academia but does in fact have a long and influential history?

6. As a related topic I will be seeking to trace the development of liberal thought in the US. Where do these traditions come from and can they really be described as “socialist?”

So, why am I adding to the superfluity of existing political blogs?

Well, I intend this blog to be my own personal soapbox on political matters to share my particular perspective on world events. It will also save me from having to clutter the comments pages of other blogs with comments long enough to be a stand alone post. Perhaps my views are unique (and maybe even interesting) enough to justify adding another blog for readers as well as for my own use.

Philosophically, it will be guided by what I am currently calling (I'll probably have a different formulation of this sooner rather than later) a cornerstone of my worldview, that the world is knowable, but incoherent. What I mean by this is that there are objective facts about what is going on around us. These facts however cannot be coherently described by any single theory. A loose guideline is that it's probably a fact if it still seems relevant from multiple perspectives and can be reached by multiple theoretical stances. Expect me to come down very hard on any worldview that I see as expanding the range of its theory too much. Theory, and political perspective and ideology, must have a sense of its own limits to be helpful. If its too expansive, it's useless, and perhaps dangerous.

More substantively, there are a few topics that I don't believe are covered quite well enough, at least in easily accessible sources such as blogs. There already exist many blogs that are able to cover breaking news stories or that give the point of view of trained experts. They're doing a great job with the ground breaking stuff. What I'm most interested in covering is the stuff that you keep seeing in the comments on those articles. The common criticisms and apprehensions that the experts don't seem to be taking seriously. I'll be approaching topics as a generalist and this blog will cover a very broad range of topics. Thus, it won't have extremely detailed discussions of narrow topics. I know better than to try to pretend expertise in fields that others have devoted their careers to.

The other motive is that I'd like a forum to try out some of my wackier ideas and see how people respond. I'll cover some things I know well and probably won't be easily swayed on. However, I'm not afraid to stick my neck out on subjects that I only have an impressionistic understanding of. On these topics don't be surprised if I change my mind when someone gives me additional data, I see consistency as a negative not a positive. Hopefully this will be a learning experience for both myself and my readers.