Sunday, January 31, 2010

Population crash in Europe?

Hoyerswerda high rise being demolished
Fred Pearce has written a book called Peoplequake and also an article in the Guardian flogging its message of anxiety about Europe's lack of enthusiasm for reproduction. Some excerpts from a meaty article:

On the windswept roof of the Lausitz Tower, the town's only landmark, I meet Felix Ringel. A young German anthropologist studying at Cambridge University, he has passed up chances taken by his friends to ­investigate the rituals of Amazon tribes or Mongolian peasants. As we survey the empty plots of fenced scrub below, he explains that the underbelly of his own country seemed weirder and far less studied than those exotic worlds.

In its heyday in the 60s, Hoyerswerda was a model community in communist East Germany, a brave new world attracting migrants from all over the country. They dug brown coal from huge open-cast mines on the plain around the town. There was good money and two free bottles of brandy a month. But the fall of the Berlin Wall changed all that.


Under communism, East ­German women worked more, and were ­often better educated, than the more conservative western hausfrau. But when their jobs disappeared in the early 90s, hundreds of thousands of them, encouraged by their ­mothers, took their school diplomas and CVs and headed west to cities such as ­Heidelberg. The boys, however, seeing their fathers out of work, often just gave up. In adulthood, they form a rump of ill-educated, alienated, ­often unemployable men, most of them ­unattractive mates – a further factor in the departure of young women.


"There has been nothing ­comparable in world peacetime ­history," says the French demographer Jean-Claude Chesnais. After the Berlin Wall came down, millions of East Germans who stayed behind decided against producing another generation. Their fertility more than halved. In 1988, 216,000 ­babies were born in East Germany; in 1994, just 88,000 were born. The fertility rate worked out at 0.8 children per woman. Since then it has struggled up to around 1.2, but that is still only just over half the rate needed to maintain the population. About a million homes have been abandoned, and the ­government is demolishing them as fast as it can. Left ­behind are "perforated ­cities", with huge random chunks of ­wasteland. Europe hasn't seen ­cityscapes like this since the bombing of the second world war.

And nowhere has emptied as much as Hoyerswerda. In the 80s, it had a population of 75,000 and the highest birth rate in East Germany. Today, the town's population has halved. It has gone from being ­Germany's fastest-growing town to its fastest-shrinking one. The biggest age groups are in their 60s and 70s, and the town's former birth clinic is an old people's home. Its population pyramid is ­upturned – more like a mushroom cloud.

In a school in a partly demolished suburb known simply as Area Nine, I meet Nancy, a tattooed and quietly ­spoken social worker. Forty years ago, her parents were among the new­comers: her mother was a midwife, her father a train driver. "There were modern flats and services here then. It was a prestige development. When you asked the kids what they wanted to do when they grew up, they had ambitions to drive buses or work in the power station. But now parents find it very difficult to encourage their ­children when they have no jobs or prospects themselves. My friends have all left. I'd like to stay, but I have a three-year-old daughter and the schools are no good any more. I'll ­probably go too."


Across the rest of Germany, Hoyerswerda is regarded as a feral wasteland – complete with wolves. Slinking in from Poland and the Czech Republic, they are finding empty spaces where once there were apartment blocks and mines. And the wolves, at least, are staying. A few kilometres down the road, near the tiny town of Spreewitz, wolf enthusiast Ilka Reinhardt can't believe his luck: "We have more wolves than we have had in 200 years." The badlands of former East Germany are going "back to nature". And Europeans should be worried, for some fear that eastern Germany is, as it was back in the 1960s, a trailblazer for the demographic future of the continent.

This is definitely an interesting phenomenon, but strangely I am not moved. First, the traditional population of Europe may be falling, or look like it's about to fall, but the population of the world is still going up, with devastating impacts on climate and the rest of the environment. If Europeans don't want to devote their lives to aggravating the problem, who am I to tell them that they should?

Also, there are sizable parts of North America where the population is thinning out pretty drastically, too. Canada and the United States both have growing populations, but the places where people used to support themselves by breaking the sod or digging mines by hand are clearing out and these areas may well end up with populations of the scale that existed before the huge invasion from Europe. Remember that huge invasion from Europe? That took place because Europe could not support its population under decent conditions with technology and institutions of the time. I am not so sure why people get so excited about this stuff, but it may have something do with the fear of slang-speaking kids wearing baseball caps backwards.

Me, my neighborhood has both wolves and kids with baseball caps worn at various angles. So what.

Image: This is Hoyerswerda.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Whose past? Whose present? More on my personal understanding of history

A while back I posted here about my personal understanding of religious traditions. I wrote about how any religious tradition that is big and important by necessity has to include a whole bunch of different and often contradictory elements. Thus, people who talk about "true X" where X is a big-name religion, seem to me to be talking about their aspirations and not a historical reality.

Yesterday, a post on Richard Scott Nokes' blog, Unlocked Wordhoard, made it possible for me to put into somewhat awkward words another thing I'm fairly sure of after all these years. Let me borrow parts of Scott's post and adapt a comment I left on it. Maybe it will make more sense this time around.

Here is what he said:

I'm using Kathleen Biddick's The Shock of Medievalism in something I'm writing. ... Biddick offers up terminology useful in establishing a framework for talking about medievalism.

Two of the most useful terms, however, are two of the ugliest: pastist (which “argues for radical historical difference between the Middle Ages and the present”) and presentist (which “looks into the mirror of the Middle ages and asks it to reflect back histories of modernist or postmodernist identities”). They're ugly on the page and ugly rolling of the tongue, and are kind of unsophisticated in their construction.* The terms are, however, very useful.

Me, I am not so sure that those terms are useful, but maybe Scott will convince me that I'm wrong when it comes to talking about medievalism. But I doubt it.

You see this touches on one of the most important things about history, namely that every human being has a different perspective on the past, because they are in a different position in the present. A commonplace for some people, of course, but one that people should take more seriously.

I know that Scott has lived in Korea, so that he knows that it is not like the United States, but he also knows it is not entirely incomprehensible. With this experience behind him, he might find Korean culture more or less comprehensible than some other cultures in the world. And again with this experience behind him, he could rate certain medieval cultures as really exotic, and others as kind of tame and boring in their familiarity. Say that Scott also has lived on a farm in Iceland for several years in childhood, and so there are certain things about rural North Atlantic and Scandinavian cultures, even medieval ones, that he can pretty much take for granted. Scott also has a neighbor, we will say, who shares neither of his foreign experiences. Depending on where he is coming from, he might find everything about Iceland to be exotic, more so than South Korea, where at least they have big cities. And traffic lights. Here we have two hypothetical Americans, both of whom we will say are white, about the same age, and well-educated, and they have different histories of the Middle Ages, and different views of the present as well.

I think the only history we can know is the particular understanding we have of the past. There was a real time before us, I am reasonably sure, but what's left of it is a few stories, a few records, a few monuments heavily restored by later architects, and a lot of trash. The history that we discuss and use to bring some kind of order into our understanding of the world is inside our heads, and in the debates we have about people's differing understandings. There are billions of world histories, and at the very least hundreds of different types of history.

It is legitimate to use various schemes to try to relate those differing histories and simplify things a bit, but I find that an awful lot of historians stop there; they really do divide the human experience into "the present," whose characteristics are pretty self-evident, and the "past," the particular slice of the dead and gone that they find fascinating, which all too often stands in for the entire past, or the crucial transition between a singular past and in the present with which we are so familiar with. (Even the present in Nepal?)

I may be overreacting to Scott's post, but at the very least it reminded me of something that drives me crazy. I visualize a discussion in which the participants have forgotten the vast variety of the human experience, and which turns the past and present both into cartoon versions of themselves.

Image: I have never been to Iceland, so I don't know whether they have traffic lights. My 25 years in the Canadian countryside, however, make it easy for me to think that they haven't bothered.

Labels: ,

Friday, January 22, 2010

Becoming Evil: How ordinary people commit genocide and mass killing, by James Waller

Over the years Phil Paine and I have occasionally sat down and talked about some book that we wished existed. One such book was "Famous Social Science Experiments You Should Know About."

This is pretty much that book. It talks about the nature of human nature, from a social psychology and evolutionary psychology point of view. Some of the most important social science experiments of the 20th century are here, described well, and related to the greater theme, which is how ordinary people become perpetrators of genocide. It is systematic, clearly argued and a good basis for further research. There are some things about it that could've been improved but nothing that reduces its importance.

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, December 18, 2009

John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy

Well, I finally finished the big new history of democracy I picked up a while ago. Here's my review, exclusive to this site.

Uneven but provocative

A review of John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy

John Keane ends his massive history of democracy with a chapter called New Democratic Rules, in which he discusses his project and why he approached it in the rather odd way that he did.

... I quickly became convinced that my subject demanded a fundamental rethink of what would be required in trying to write a new history of democracy.... I was sure of only one thing: all the existing rules of writing about democracy and its history had to be broken. Crusty silences deeded to be shattered; customary ways of thinking had to be amended, or ditched. New rules were definitely required.

Perhaps the most important innovation that Keane made in writing this book is his simple but necessary rejection of the old consensus that democracy is the product of Athens or the Atlantic world of the 18th century (or somehow both), and that most of the rest of the world has had little to do with producing its ideas and institutions. Keane refuses to tell the same old linear story in the same old critical way. He has a wide view of what democracy is, has been and will be, maybe; as a result he has many stories to tell about places and people who generally do not fit into the usual narrative of democratic origins, successes and failures. This is a book that has much more to say about Martin Van Buren than Thomas Jefferson or Robespierre, lots to say about Nehru and not much about Gandhi. Keane follows a thematic method that sometimes defies chronology, or at least the usual assumptions about priorities. For instance, he has a long chapter on Spanish America through the 19th century that precedes and quite overshadows his discussion of the French Revolution and its consequences. This took me aback, but I could see his point when I had finished the two sections.

To write such a daring and ambitious synthesis, Keane needed to master a great many histories and cultures; it is the great problem with this book that sometimes he seems to have failed to understand or remember accurately some of his chosen material. Erasmus, for instance is generally not considered a Protestant dissenter, and to refer to him simply as a man whom Luther disliked and who regarded women as fools hardly seems either fair or relevant. To say that Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke when he was speaking tour to sell his military strategy to the American people is a rather astonishing error. It makes one wonder how many other errors might lurk in material less familiar to me. (That 100 pages of endnotes were from final text, presumably at the publisher's insistence, may explain some of the unevenness.)

Keane was determined not to write a stuffy and colorless book, and he took a number of stylistic chances. Some of the risks paid off, others did not. The least successful strategy involved Keane's discussion of the most recent events and the problems that they pose for democracy. He puts the discussion into the mouth of a historian fifty years in the future -- or at least says he does, because this historian is nameless, faceless, and lives in a future society we are not allowed to see. This historian's judgments, which are sensible enough, might as well have been expressed by Keane in his proper persona, because the conceit of another narrator adds nothing to our understanding of the recent history of democracy. If Keane had plunged wholeheartedly into a fictional future whose scholars look back on us, much as Margaret Atwood did at the end of The Handmaid's Tale, something much more interesting might have been produced.

I have said quite a bit about a number of flaws I found in the book. Yet there is certainly a lot of good stuff in this book, and here are some of the things I liked about it

Keane believes that the origins of democratic practices come from nearly every place in the world ( East Asia perhaps excepted, since he has little good to say about Chinese culture). He argues this point fairly effectively, discussing for instance what he believes are the Syrian-Mesopotamian origins of government by assembly. Likewise he identifies the Muslim belief in the value of what we would now call "civil society" as an important contribution to global culture. Australia and South Australia in are credited with a number of changes in democratic practice and attitudes that affected people in every hemisphere. Various frontier regions, including Pitcairn Island, are shown to have been on the cutting edge in making enfranchisement of women a necessity for any democratic community. A whole list of more or less obscure people, from John Wilkes of London to Juan Vucetich of Argentina, to Angelina Grimké of South Carolina have their moment in the sun. Again, not all of Keane's interpretations convinced me, but I learned some interesting history from this book, and I find it difficult to imagine a person who knows it all already.

Keane's most important overall analytical idea is that democracy has gone through three stages, or better that there are three types of democracy which have been invented and reinvented various times in various environments. One is assembly democracy, the democracy of Athens many other small communities throughout history. The second is representative democracy, which grew out of undemocratic roots to become the dominant ideal of the 19th century democrats and remain influential in the last century. Keen with a sharp eye critiques representative democracy and its relationship to nationalism and totalitarianism, not an original analysis but very well discussed. One of the most valuable ideas in the entire book is that the so-called "third wave of democracy" that followed the near extinction of representative democracy before and during the Second World War cannot be understood as a mere restoration of the representative idea. Keane argues that the successful democratic countries of today should be understood as "monitory" democracies, in which the flaws of the representational system are at least partially corrected by the existence of local, national, and international organizations that investigate, publicize, and propose solutions for the abuse of the political process. Two examples given are Amnesty International and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. That many of these monitory organizations around the world have been nurtured on the ideal of human rights, is for Keane typical of the ethos of monitory democracy, in which the questions of how the unitary people should be mathematically represented in legislative institutions, or how the populist Leader can be identified and empowered are no longer the sole or even the central issues of democracy. Keane does not think of monitory democracy as being new or some kind of magic bullet. As a perhaps unexpressed ideal it has been around since at least the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it has not solved all of the world's problems. There is no magic bullet, no final solution, and democracy is not inevitable. It is not simple either, a point established by the complexities of his own presentation.

Keane is to be congratulated on the accomplishment of his daring project. Sometimes obscure, sometimes inaccurate, sometimes wrongheaded, The Life and Death of Democracy is still a treasure chest of ideas, incidents and personalities. I identified earlier in this review some significant flaws, which I think might confuse or frustrate readers. Perhaps I should say that this book needs and deserves adventurous readers. Maybe it is not primarily for scholars anyway. I say with no condescension whatsoever that this book should be on the shelves of high school and university libraries or anywhere else younger readers can find it and become entranced by the size, variety and importance of the subject. It's certainly far more worthy than the big history I read in high school: Toynbee's A Study of History.

Question: is there any chance that all those missing footnotes could be put online?

Hurried update: The book has a website.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Anyone read this book?

I am quite curious about Antony Adolf's Peace: A World History. Have any of you read this?

Labels: , ,

Saturday, November 07, 2009

One of the best things to happen in human history

We are coming up to the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, part of the greater fall of communism and the Iron Curtain in Europe. This is one of the best things that ever happened in human history. It could all have gone very wrong.

All over the web there is commentary and reminiscences, and I urge you to have a look. The Toronto Globe and Mail is not a bad place to go. Their coverage was excellent 20 years ago, and I have just finished reading an amazing article by Doug Saunders and video by the same, both discussing what happened in East Germany.

The video is here.
(Click video tab if necessary.)

The article, "Half a life ago, Katrin blew the Wall down," is here. (Click article tab if necessary.)

Some excerpts (note the lack of mythologizing about Gorbachev or Reagan):
Through the bare tile walls of her solitary-confinement cell in Leipzig, Katrin Hattenhauer could feel a rumbling. As she lay on her bare, plank bed, her petite frame shook with a vibration from the main street outside, the sound of something large and heavy and determined.

She knew, from the air of distress among her Stasi guards, that something was going on. But it was damningly hard to make the distinction: Was this the thundering surge of huge numbers of people rising against the state, or of tanks and columns of soldiers restoring order?

It was Monday, Oct. 9, 1989. In a month, it would be her 21st birthday. It seemed unlikely she would live that long. Cancer had nearly killed her five years before, and now the Stasi, the East German secret police, had told her that they wanted her dead, soon.

She had been locked in isolation for five weeks, after being picked out of a crowd of hundreds and arrested for insurrection as she carried a large, cloth banner: “For an open country with free people.”


Unbeknownst to Katrin Hattenhauer, East Germany had erupted that Monday, in her name. The banner she had carried, and the air of martyrdom created by the arrest of her group of unknown students, had galvanized the nation.

During her confinement, the tiny, silent peace protests they had been holding on Mondays in the square of Leipzig's St. Nicholas Church had metamorphosed into a full-scale revolt with thousands of people, then into a mass insurrection with tens of thousands, then into a national revolution, bringing a million people onto the streets, that would precipitate the end of the Berlin Wall exactly a month later, on the night of Nov. 9.

When Berlin celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Wall's breach on Monday, it will mark a symbolically important event that was neither the beginning nor the end of anything. Communism would stagger on for a month after Nov. 9, and elections and German reunification wouldn't take place until well into 1990.

Nor was the Wall's fall the event that triggered the end of East German communism. That pivotal event, the day that ripped past from future, had taken place exactly a month earlier, in Leipzig, where pressure had been building quietly, for weeks and years, in a church courtyard.

Its eruption was what Katrin Hattenhauer had felt shaking her prison-cell bed. It was the eruption she and her friends had launched.

The rumbling she felt on Oct. 9 had been the force of 70,000 people marching past and occupying the city's downtown district. Tanks, dogs and train-loads of shells had been shipped into the city that morning, and stood waiting at the train station, along with thousands of troops.

The soldiers were under direct orders from Erich Honecker, the leader of the German Democratic Republic, to prevent the occurrence of mass protests “from the start,” and, if provoked in any way, to respond “offensively.” Only four months earlier, tanks had cleared Beijing's Tiananmen Square of democracy protesters, killing hundreds. Mr. Honecker was not against a Chinese option. Slaughter seemed the logical outcome.

But the soldiers did not fire. They didn't even block anyone's path. Mr. Honecker was shocked, and only a few days later the magnitude of the Oct. 9 protest (and the even-larger ones encouraged by its lack of violence) would force him to resign.

Their decision not to shoot – apparently made without much discussion – owed much to the collapse of East German confidence. Russian premier Mikhail Gorbachev had made it clear a year before that he wouldn't use Soviet troops to enforce communism in satellite states. Poland and Hungary had ceased to be communist earlier that year in peaceful, negotiated handovers, so they wouldn't provide troops.

But even more important was the tradition of calm, tranquil protest that began in Leipzig as “prayers for peace” with a few dozen people holding candles, expanded into the Monday demonstrations and then inspired the quiet queues of people who chanted open the Wall on Nov. 9.

On that Monday, the soldiers searched for provocations that might justify a violent response, but found none. “We were told we would be facing counterrevolutionaries,” one soldier explained later, “and we realized it was just people like us.”


The “peace prayer” protests (only a small fraction of the participants had religious beliefs) and environmental statements had not been intended to challenge the existence of the state. Nobody dared imagine that. But the mood in East Germany changed in 1989: Between the increasingly dramatic liberalizations occurring in the USSR under Mr. Gorbachev, the sense of economic collapse within the GDR and the quiet revolutions in Poland and Hungary, there was a desire for change.

And one of the only vehicles for change was the small circle of protesters in Leipzig.

“No one was dreaming that the Wall would fall,” Ms. Hattenhauer said. “That was unimaginable – 1989 was a year of escalation, where we had the feeling the state was getting more dangerous. People were being arrested faster and disappearing faster. Nobody had sensed that the system was kaput economically.”

By July, after news of Poland and Hungary ending communism had reached the public, the Monday protests were attracting hundreds of people. The Stasi and police would sometimes arrest and beat protesters – they had started to worry.

But the protesters became organized. There was a circle of half-a-dozen young students who became very adept at sidestepping the Stasi. Mr. Müller devised ways to stay in touch with other protest groups forming in different cities. And he developed a way to get videotapes of protests, and subtle messages of coming ones, smuggled out to the West, where they would be broadcast on TV stations that could be received in towns close to the border such as Berlin and Leipzig.


Three weeks after her release from prison, on Nov. 9, Katrin Hattenhauer took the train to Berlin. This was illegal, as she was still under arrest for insurrection and was not allowed to travel.

But she wanted to celebrate her 21st birthday, on Nov. 10, so she defied the Stasi and went to meet her friends at a bar on Bornholmer Strasse, near a fortified checkpoint. Later in the evening, guests started leaving because they had heard a rumour that the Wall had opened.

Nobody believed it until the bar owner himself shut down the place, ushered everyone out and made his way down the street to the crossing.

What had happened at the Wall that night, like what had happened in Leipzig in September and October, was by no means inevitable and relied entirely on the quiet accumulation of large numbers of people.

An official had announced, earlier that day, that more-liberal travel policies would soon be in effect. Without clear instructions, he mistakenly announced that they were in effect immediately. Within an hour, East Germans were rushing to the border crossings to find out if they could get visas to the West.

The bureaucratic confusion and the sheer number of people pressing at the gates, especially those at Berlin's Bernholmer Strasse checkpoint, eventually provoked the guards simply to throw up their hands, open the gates and walk away.

Shortly after that, the heroes of 1989 simply melted into the crowd. Unlike in Poland and Czechoslovakia, people such as Ms. Hattenhauer and Mr. Müller were not transformed into heads of state and cabinet ministers: There was a pre-existing German government waiting to absorb the reunified East.

Mr. Müller stayed east and had the family he had put off during the underground years, staying an environmental activist. Ms. Hattenhauer moved west and became an artist. Most of their colleagues followed similar paths: Now in their early 40s, they reminisce about the moment, half a lifetime ago, that they changed history.

“It was completely absurd: We didn't really believe it until we saw it,” Ms. Hattenhauer said while making me coffee in her flat in one of the quiet bedroom communities that make up much of the former West Berlin, now that the city's core has shifted sharply east.

“It was almost cute to see how the East Germans just went to see if it could possibly be true, and just by being there in such numbers they made it come true.

“For me, it was a sign of what could have happened had we gone to the Wall years earlier, instead of doing a typical German revolution where we all went to work during the day and then we went to the St. Nicholas Church afterwards and protested.”

She laughed at this, and reflected for a moment. “Maybe something would have happened much earlier if we'd done that, but we went about it in a very organized, very peaceful, German way, so it took a lot longer.”

It's all in the timing. And you need luck. Ask anyone who was at Tiananmen Square. Charles Kurzman's book on the Islamic revolution in Iran makes a similar point about timing, numbers, and luck.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Brad DeLong provides an approach to the last 20 years of world history

He calls it: Six Issues for a Panel... and it's US-centric, but worth some thought:

Twenty years ago--with the end of the Cold War--American policy got dammed up:

  • It was clear we needed to do something to balance the long-term social-insurance spending promises both parties were making with the long-term tax base, and we haven't.

  • It was clear--first for national-security and domestic-congestion reasons, and then for global-warming reasons as well--that we needed to start imposing Pigovian taxes on coal and oil-driven energy use, and we haven't.

  • It was clear that we needed to reform America's health care financing system, and we haven't.

  • It was clear that America, as the globe's sole hyperpower, had a unique opportunity to build a world in which we could live very comfortably and peacefully once we were no longer a hyperpower or even a superpower but instead only one (if we are lucky) of several great powers--and we haven't.

To this in the past three years we have added:

  • A recognition that the "Greenspanist" bet--deregulate finance, rely on financial company shareholders via corporate control to limit moral hazard, and bet that the Federal Reserve can lean up after any elephants that stampede through--was wrong. We need to restructure financial regulation--and we haven't.

  • A recognition that the "central problem of macroeconomics" has not in fact been solved. We need to solve it--both in the short run of recovery from this recession, and in the long run of creating a world that is net, whether through global imbalances or other factors, as vulnerable to episodes like this as our world turns out to be.

About these six issues, two questions:

  • Which of these six policy issues will--as many of them have been doing--continue to drift, and what damage will drifting do?

  • Which of these six policy issues will the Obama administration actually be able to address--and what will be the consequences for the world of how it addresses them?

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Obama's Nobel

When something big (or at least noisy) like this happens, I don't feel obliged to add an opinion that has already been expressed, more or less.

However, if anyone actually cares what I as an individual think, here are two posts that are close to my take:

Juan Cole, Obama as Nobelist, Obama as game-changer.

Nashville fan at Daily Kos, Nobel Shock shows America oblivious to its reign of terror.

Image: The Nobel Peace Center in Oslo.

Labels: , ,

If you want to slam academia... don't need to go after advanced literary theory. In fact there are juicier and more important targets. From D-squared Digest, via Brad DeLong:

Part Five - How Freaked Is Economics?

Well, I promised myself I'd finish this before the sequel appeared in the shops, and the conclusion has been made, shall we say, somewhat easier by the fact that the burden of my conclusion - that there is something terribly, horribly wrong with the state of modern economics - has become somewhat of an open door to push against. I swear that my notes for this review (begun in 2003!) contain the draft passage:

"When future generations ask the economics profession 'What were you doing while the great bubble built up ahead of the Second Great Depression?', and we have to reply 'Lots and lots of quirky little working papers about sumo wrestling and speed-dating', it is going to be really, really, fucking embarrassing"

And we did, and it was; thank God nobody told the truth to HM The Queen, or the high brows of the economics profession might be decorating a series of pikestaffs outside Traitors' Gate.

The basic problem with the Freakonomics era was that the profession abandoned the study of production, consumption and exchange. I don't wholly agree with Lord Skidelsky, but he is right - economics is the study of the economy, it's not the study of "rational choice" or "behaviour" in the abstract, and the fact that econometricians have invented a huge part of the toolkit of modern statistics doesn't mean that anything you can estimate using an econometrics package is thereby "economics".

We stopped doing economics and started doing awful amateur-hour sociology, basically, because we believed that all the major problems had been solved, that some form of dynamic general equilibrium was all that there was to be said about the economy considered as a system, and that the only interesting things to do were growth theory and finance. It is no coincidence that Freakonomics began in Chicago; for a guy like Levitt who doesn't possess the engineering-maths to be a finance theorist or the empirical skills to do endogenous growth, there was literally nothing to do.

The sociology of academia in the USA also played its part, as James Heckman spotted at the time. Because of the unenviable economics of the academic labour market in American universities, graduate students were encouraged to finish their PhDs according to a specific schedule, to write dissertations that were capable of being turned into journal articles in a specific way, and to follow fashion in citation-gathering. Heckman was tearing his hair out over this, obviously, as this made it more or less economically unviable to carry out the kind of economic work that he does (and did) - careful, time-consuming, incremental, often abstruse but always relevant to the very big questions of the economy.

And so we ended up with Freakonomics, the disciplinary equivalent of the battery chicken. The subject matter became more and more cutesy and trivial, methodological corner-cutting in "natural experiments" became the norm, and the idea that there could actually be a subject of macroeconomics became almost quaint. ...

But however things have turned out, my intuition is that Freakonomics has had its moment in the sun. The central selling point was always, basically, academic machismo; the presumption on the part of economists that because they were "smart" in the Larry Summers sense, they could turn their hand to anything and the rest of the world was bound to listen to them. Those days, to put it mildly, are gone.

To be able to put such material before student-age readers (of whom I hope I still have some) was one big reason for starting this blog. Will you find a killer critique like this in a textbook? Unlikely.

Labels: , ,

Friday, September 25, 2009

What I said about Spain and India -- a follow-up to the "Bad Samaritans" post

Ha-Joong Chang said in his book Bad Samaritans that "cultural explanations" of economic development often seem to be self-justification based on 20/20 hindsight. Here's what I said in 2005 at a conference at the Political Science Department of the University of Delhi about how similar discussion of the world history of democracy often misses the point.

What we need, as the record of modern democracy becomes longer and more detailed, is to focus on two things: distinct cases (to avoid the lifeless, silly, or counterproductive overgeneralizations); and the connections between democratic developments across borders and across cultures, so that we can progress from a number of national or regional histories of democracy, to a true world history.

To illustrate the importance of this effort, let’s look at the case of Spain, a provocative puzzle for any historian of world democracy. Spain was early on affected by the French Revolution, but for more than a century and a half thereafter, Spanish democracy seemed like an impossible dream. Spain appeared doomed by its culture and history to either authoritarianism or chaos. Yet in the mid-1970s democracy emerged in post-Franco Spain, and despite separatist sentiment and intermittent domestic terrorism, it has survived and flourished. The case of Spain, like the similar case of neighboring Portugal, confounds easy generalizations about the historical roots of democratic development.

For a very long time it was obvious to historians and commentators of all sorts that Spain, with its absolutist monarchical tradition and its intolerant religious establishment, must be outside the grand democratic tradition of the “West;” yet somehow despite all that historical baggage, in a moment and without attracting much attention, Spain transformed itself into a member in good standing of the democratic club. I cannot claim that this democratic transition has not been studied.[1] But one wonders how many historians not concerned with modern Spain have thought seriously about it, and whether any of them have revised their understanding of Spanish or European history in light of it. As a historian I can hardly argue that “historical baggage” is irrelevant to the life of a society; but clearly in the case of Spain a focus on historical baggage, on the national history and cultural history of Spain, narrowly conceived, deceived us all. Spain deserves more study, and it deserves to be put into a wide context, not as an odd exception, but as a prime datum in the political history of the late 20th century world.

The same can be said, even more forcefully, for India. That India is not like other successful democracies is a well-worn cliché. For non-Indians, how much thought follows the phrase “world’s largest democracy?” Very little, I suspect. The importance of India’s success so far, for the world as a whole, may not be widely appreciated in India, either. Let me briefly state my point of view, which is based on a simple comparison of India with some other, well-known countries.

Imagine the world in 1900. Informed observers examine the prospects of four important regions over the upcoming century: Germany, China, Russia, and India. Which would be picked as the most likely to succeed? And which has, in retrospect? Restrict the criterion of success to “lowest casualty count,” to my mind a more sensible criterion than per capita GDP. Who comes out ahead? I think it is inarguable that, even keeping in mind the tragedies of Partition, the consequent wars on the subcontinent, and many other incidents of violence and disorder, that the casualty count has been much lower in India than in the other three. This alone is a significant fact of 20th century world history. But of equal importance is the explanation for that fact. Indian aspirations for democracy, and Indian implementation of democratic institutions deserve the credit. Again, do the thought experiment. Take away the aspiration, take away the implementation, what would the subcontinent look like today?

[1] Indeed, one of the first systematic treatments of the new democratic developments of the late 20th century was partly inspired by the Spanish case: Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe C. Schmitter, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P., 1986).

Labels: , , ,

Bad Samaritans, by Ha-Joon Chang

I just discovered this book, which came out a couple of years ago, thanks to Brad DeLong, who provided a link to a pre-print to chapter 9, "Lazy Japanese and Thieving Germans
- Are Some Cultures Incapable of Economic Development?"

Phil Paine and I have been working from a similar set of ideas when we discuss the world history of democracy (or political systems of other kinds). If I were teaching first-year World History, this might be the first thing I would have my students read. Anyone interested in world or comparative history should be exposed to this.

Here are some killer quotes:

So there you go. A century ago, the Japanese were lazy rather than
hardworking; excessively independent-minded (even for a British socialist!)
rather than loyal “worker ants”; emotional rather than inscrutable; lighthearted
rather than serious; living for today instead of considering the future
(as manifested in their sky-high savings rates). A century and half ago, the
Germans were indolent rather than efficient; individualistic rather than
cooperative; emotional rather than rational; stupid rather than clever;
dishonest and thieving rather than law-abiding; easy-going rather than
These characterisations are puzzling for two reasons. First, if the
Japanese and the Germans had such “bad” cultures, how have they become
so rich? Second, why were the Japanese and the Germans so different from
their descendants today? How could they have so completely changed their
“habits of national heritage”?


Not being able to see this, culture-based explanations for economic
development have usually been little more than ex post facto justifications
based on a 20/20 hindsight vision. So in the early days of capitalism when
most economically successful countries happened to be Protestant Christian,
many people argued that Protestantism was uniquely suited to economic
development. When Catholic France, Italy, Austria, and Southern Germany
developed rapidly, particularly after the Second World War, Christianity,
rather than Protestantism, became the magic culture. Until Japan became
rich, many people thought East Asia had not develop because of
Confucianism. But when Japan succeeded, this thesis was revised to say that
Japan was developing so fast because its unique form of Confucianism
emphasised cooperation over individual edification, which the Chinese and
Korean versions allegedly valued more highly. And then Hong Kong,
Singapore, Taiwan, and Korea also started doing well, so this judgment
about the different varieties of Confucianism was forgotten. Indeed
Confucianism as a whole suddenly became the best culture for development
because it emphasised hard work, saving, education, and submission to
authority. Today, when we now see Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia,
Buddhist Thailand, and even Hindu India doing economically well, we can
soon expect to encounter new theories that will trumpet how uniquely all
these cultures are suited for economic development (and how their authors
have known about it all along).


Fortunately, we do not need a cultural revolution before economic
development can happen. A lot of behavioural traits that are meant to be
good for economic development will follow from, rather than being
prerequisites for, economic development. Countries can get development
going through means other than a cultural revolution, as I explained in the
preceding chapters in this book. Once economic development gets going, it
will change people’s behaviour and even the beliefs underlying it (namely,
culture) in ways that help economic development. A “virtuous circle”
between economic development and cultural values can be created.
This is essentially what happened in Japan and Germany. And it is
what will happen in all future economic success stories. Given India’s recent
economic success, I am sure we will soon see books that say how Hindu
culture – once considered the source of sluggish growth in India (recall the
once-popular expression, “Hindu rate of growth” 29) – is helping India grow.
If my Mozambique fantasy in the Prologue comes true in the 2060s, we will
then be reading books discussing how Mozambique has had a culture
uniquely suited to economic development all along.

Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Play along

Driftglass sends us this Penn and Teller piece on the game "Greatest Human Being."

Got another candidate?

Labels: , ,

Thursday, September 03, 2009

An episode in universal history: the face of war

Someone told me this story this evening.

A Hungarian woman carrying bread passed by an internment camp where Polish PoWs were being held. Some of the prisoners called out to her and she gave them some of her bread. The German guards were incensed and began to shout at her. The woman drew herself up to her full, stern-mother height and said, "Don't fuss, when it is your turn I will give you some."

Eighteen months later, the camp was indeed full of Germans...
Image: American intelligence troops search German Prisoners Of War in the Menil la Tour prison camp.

Labels: , ,

Monday, June 29, 2009

Medieval notes from my blog reader

Two blogs I regularly read contribute material worth passing on.

Another Damned Medievalist at Blogenspiel shows how you can just skip grad school entirely (not exactly what she said) yet still do an acceptable job of reading medieval charters. Go look and learn!

Did you know that today is the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo? And some famous 20th century killings associated with it? If you don't know what I'm talking about, see what Jeff Sypeck has to say at Quid Plura?

Labels: , ,

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Two book reviews from Phil Paine

The most widely read person I know is Phil Paine. (Some of my colleagues consider me widely read, but next to Phil I am a piker.) Over on his website, Phil has a monthly list of books, articles, and online resources that he has read, with occasional reviews of things he finds particularly noteworthy -- which is not necessarily to say, "good." Today he posted (June, 2009 section) two reviews, one critical and one very appreciative.

(Samuel P. Huntington) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

This is a stupid book. Unfortunately, it's also been a very influential one.

Huntington starts out by playing the old "civilizations" game, popular from the late 19th century onward. Nobody any longer takes you seriously if you talk about nationalities in a silly, anthropomorphic way ("The Dutch are cheese-eating, practical people, but they are doomed to failure as nation because they smoke too much marijuana and their feet must hurt from wearing wooden shoes"). But if you shift the discussion to "civilizations", big segments of the globe defined by arbitrary criteria, you can get away with it. You can define these "civilizations" any way you want, but usually they end up being nothing more than a map of the world's major religions. This is not surprising, since these mega-religions are usually accompanied by enough visual cues that you can quickly guess which one you are in by the shapes of buildings, clothing, or other material evidence. There is, of course, some common-sense truth to the observation that places where Islam is predominant have similarities, and places where Christianity is practiced are connected to each other, etc. It is an easy, but intellectually dubious further step to assume that the human race is divided into mega-tribal subdivisions, almost like species, and that these can be neatly drawn on a map. Anthropomorphizing these divisions is merely the old fallacy of "innate national character" writ larger. It appeals to the impulse to see the world in cartoons. This is exactly what Huntington does, way, way too much to make his work credible....

Huntington's knowledge of cultures is pretty shallow, because his main interest is really in the "clash" part of the book's title. The book is really about dividing the world into football teams so that you can imagine strategies of play between them... who should align with whom, and who is the "natural" enemy of whom. That's why the book appeals to so many armchair political pundits. You only need to remember a handful of "civilizations" and their accompanying cliché phrases to "get" everything. No need to bother remembering the names of hundreds of countries, or even consider the motives of individual human beings. Easy peasy.

What Huntington is really about becomes evident toward the end of the book, when he engages in a tirade against the evils of "multiculturalism", a phenomenon which he grotesquely misrepresents. The human race is, in his view, divided into distinct species, and, surprise surprise, nothing but trouble can result if they mingle. He kind of sneaks up on it with hundreds of pages of stuff about regions and religions, but what it's really about is how dirty foreigners should be kept out of America because then it will "no longer be America". Why? Because they don't have "Western values", And what are these "Western values"? Well, among them he repeatedly lists "pluralism and tolerance". So Americans and Europeans should, it seems, exclude people of different ethnicity in order to protect "pluralism"!! He even casually states, as if it were a forgone conclusion, that if the U.S. went to war with China, then Mexican-Americans would automatically refuse to participate, because it would "not be their war". This was so silly that I actually bust out laughing when I read it, startling fellow riders in the subway. The subway car was a typical Canadian one --- utterly and sublimely multicultural --- so the silliness of it was particularly delicious. It's plain that underneath Huntington's wacky logic and feigned scholarship, there is nothing more than another sclerotic old man having an apoplectic fit because he went to the corner store and saw signs in the window in funny-looking alphabets....
(Edward L. Ochsenschlager) Iraq's Marsh Arabs in the Garden of Eden

This is a brilliant book. Ochsenschlager was engaged in an important archaeological project in Iraq, starting in 1968. The site was the Sumerian city of Lagash. Puzzled by some unglamorous, but intriguing artifacts, he started looking for analogies among the local people to interpret them. The local people included Bedouin tribes, the agricultural Beni Hasan, and the famous Mi'dan [Marsh Arabs] who lived in the reed-filled swamps at the conjunction of the Tigris and Euphrates. All these people (in 1968, at any rate) lived material lives thought to very closely resemble that of the ancient inhabitants of the land when it was Edinu, the Biblical Eden (hence the book's title). Thus, the author was drawn into the peculiar discipline of "ethnoarchaeology", in which most archaeologist still feel uncomfortable. Archaeologists are comfortable with places and objects. They aren't anthropologists. When they try to be, even in the laudable quest to understand ancient artifacts, they can easily screw up. Ochlenschlager is unusually sensitive to the pitfalls. ...

Ochlenschlager examined the making, use, and transformations of every article he could find --- weapons, storage containers, cookware, boats, musical instruments, children's toys. This could only be done in a serious way over many years, with extreme sensitivity in dealing with people, earning their trust and overcoming the perils of misdirection and misinterpretation. None of this is easy, and he shows exactly how it can be done right, or badly. Almost anyone who reads historical or archaeological interpretations of material evidence should read this book.

Some of the most delightful parts concern children's toys, and they reveal one of the marvelous subtleties of human behaviour to which most historians are oblivious:

In 1968 children in the villages over the age of 3 or 4 always made their own toys out of mud. Abandoned mud toys could be found everywhere in village courtyards, alongside the canals and marshes, and even in the fields. Unfortunately, domestic toy making disappeared rapidly. Manufactured plastic toys, available in nearby market towns, gradually replaced them. By 1970 a wide variety of cheap plastic toys was available to those of every economic level. Most children were attracted to these plastic toys because of their bright colors and their relative durability. At first children would continue to make toys that were not available in the market out of mud, but that came to an abrupt end in 1972. So popular had the new plastic toys become that most villagers could find no reason to continue using mud toys short of lack of money. Indeed cheapness came to be thought the sole criteria for continuing to make toys out of mud, and this impacted that part of the father's honor which depends on his ability to provide adequately for his family. To make a mud toy under these conditions was to bring dishonor on the family.

Without some knowledge of the role of honor and its requirement that men provide strong financial support to their families in these villages, what reasons would archaeologists give for the sudden and complete disappearance of mud toys? Bold colors and increased durability seem the most reasonable, and in part logical, answers, as the villagers found these attributes attractive at first. But logic alone does not begin to explain why old forms disappeared completely and with such speed; the compelling power of color and durability must not be overestimated. The children themselves were a real problem. When they had only the few animal forms sold in the suk to play with, they sometimes had to be forcibly stopped from making additional toys of mud. They missed the freedom of making any toys they could imagine and playing any game they wished. The kind and number of toys available now limited their games. Attractive colors and durability may have given impetus for the change, but it was the challenge to family honor that made parents forbid their children to make mud toys.

It takes a remarkable person to make such an observation. This book is full of such things.They'll inspire an acute reader to understand not only the culture of the marshes, and the artifacts of the ancient civilization of Lagash, but also many puzzling aspects of human life in general.

Plenty more stuff where that came from!

Image: A Marsh Arab settlement.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Read me speaking Finnish

Last month I was contacted and interviewed by Juha Rudanko representing the Finnish print/online journal Kumppani, for a special issue on democracy, which is now out in both electronic and hardcopy form. The issue and the article which my interview contributed to are now out. If you'd like to see how I might speak in Finnish if I knew the language, go here. The original interview with Rudanko is below.

Image: a Finnish woman votes in an early parliamentary election (1906?) .

Interview (March 5, 2009):

1. What are the most important examples of democracy in the history of non-Western societies? Is there anything comparable to ancient Athens?

In part the answer to this question depends on what you mean by democracy.
Greek democracy in some ways seems much less democratic than the regimes in
modern democratic states, because so many residents, slaves and people of
foreign origin, not to mention women, were permanently excluded from the political
process. Greek democracy was called that because the ordinary or poorer male
citizens were involved in decision-making and the execution of the laws, and
if the involvement of male citizens is a measure of democracy, Athens for a few
generations was more democratic than modern states. Taking the Greek measure of
democracy, there are many independent and semi-independent small states in history
that qualify. Among them are the Indian republics from the time of the Buddha to
about the time of Alexander the Great. There is plenty of both Indian and Greek
testimony to show that they were numerous Indian republics with democratic
constitutions about the time when democracy was widespread in ancient

2. What is the significance of recognizing democratic traditions in non-Western
societies? Does such a recognition have political implications today (ie.,
countering the notion that advocating democracy in non-Western countries
is an imposition of Western values)?

Recognizing democratic traditions worldwide is important for the same reason
that studying world history impartially is important. The story world history
has been told for at least couple of centuries as if all the virtues of humanity
were concentrated in one region of the world arbitrarily designated as "the West." Every writer or speaker who invokes the West does so so that he or she can claim
to represent everything good in human culture, simply because certain books are
theoretically taught in the better schools of his or her country. That is why
you will never get a consistent and sensible definition of what is the West and
what is not the West. In regards to democracy, no one gets to claim it for their
own unless they actually implement democracy in daily life, both official life
and unofficial social interaction. It doesn't matter whether your high school
teacher read Thucydides or mentioned his history your history class,
it matters what you are doing now, whether you have honest, effective
elections, transparency in government, civilian control of the military, etc. Put it another way: Finns at the beginning of the 20th century were among the
first not only to implement women's suffrage but to elect women to governmental
posts on the quasi-state level (as a result of the revolution in 1905). Do you
think many people outside of Finland are aware of this? Don’t you think that
someone really interested in how democracy develops and thrives ought to be
interested in the Finnish case? And does it matter in the slightest whether
Finland was Western or Eastern in 1905-7, either in the eyes of contemporaries
or in the minds of scholars today? The same principle applies to looking at
democratic and quasi-democratic traditions wherever they exist, or have existed
in the past. Endlessly rehashing the French Revolution (fascinating as it is)
will not teach us everything we need to know about the human possibility of

3. The history of democracy is conventionally told in terms of ancient Athens
and the evolution of liberal thinking in Western Europe from the 17th century
onwards, culminating in the democratic revolutions of the 18th century. What do you
think of the conventional story? How would you tell the story of democracy?

The conventional story referred to is a perfect example of what James Blaut called
"tunnel history." This is the idea that nations or cultures move through history
in hermetically sealed tunnels which keep them from interacting with each other in
any essential way. The idea that we owe modern democracy to the Athenians or the
Greeks ignores the vast differences between Athenian institutions and the medieval
and early modern institutions that led to European and North American democratic
regimes. Efforts to democratize European culture have involved adapting medieval
institutions, such as the English Parliament, which originated in an era when even
the greatest English scholars knew next to nothing about the details of Athenian
life in the age of Pericles. Since the details have become widely known again,
Athens has served as an inspiration for thinking about the virtues and vices of
democracy, and plenty of people have taken the case of Athens as a bad example,
a terrible warning. An honest person has to admit that the record is ambiguous. If we think that democracy is an important aspect of human political life -- and
it is hard to argue against it even if you disapprove of democracy -- and if you
have a world view that truly takes in the whole world, historical study of democracy
should involve systematic investigation of attempts by various actors to make
government more open and inclusive, and how well or badly such efforts have worked
out, and why. This involves using an approach that is almost anthropological in
its orientation, but there are plenty of historians who use anthropological insights. There are already paleoanthropologists doing useful work in the evolution of human society and its relationship to modern political ideas and practices. Finally, there should be less isolated discussion of democracy in country X or democracy in country Y, and more efforts to see how democratic ideas and strategies move across conventional boundaries. How can one understand the events of 1989-91 without such an orientation?

4. Have the ancient democratic traditions in non-Western countries had an impact
on democracy in the 20th century? For instance, were the ancient republics of
India an inspiration for democracy in India after independence?

This is well documented in the case of India. Foreign scholars in the 19th century
tended to see Indian history as static, and the Indian political tradition as
entirely dominated by ahistorical ideas of caste with Oriental despotism
superimposed. This visualization supported the idea that Indians needed an
arbitrary (colonial) government to tell them what to do, and that it would be a
long time before such inapt students could learn to govern themselves. Thus when
scholars, both Indian and non-Indian, discovered in the sources that like Greece
India had its ancient republics, it was a big deal. This took place around 1900-20,
and among other things inspired one strain of Indian nationalism. In more recent
decades, the study of ancient Indian institutions of all sorts has been less
involved in actively promoting modern ideology, but as this very diverse political
community debates its democratic experience and future, this may be changing.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, March 20, 2009

John Law and the Mississippi Bubble

For decades and decades now, the National Film Board of Canada has been financing, producing, and distributing amusing and informative films. Now just about the entire output of the NFB is available free for nothing at their website. My colleague Françoise Noël points out that one of their featured items at the moment is a cartoon account of one of the first get rich quick schemes to wreck an economy with paper money and inflated assets -- The Mississippi Bubble. Go here and learn about the most infamous of Scottish economists, John Law.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, March 01, 2009

A short review of Alison Brysk's book, Global Good Samaritans

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Democracy: a philosophical/moral/political or an empirical concept?

An extended discussion at the Duck of Minerva.

Labels: ,

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Why We Immunize

A post at the popular blog Making Light that deserves wide readership and a more permanent stand-alone home on the Web.

Kids my age were still getting polio in the USA when I was young.

I think that mass purification of water/proper sewerage and mass immunization are the most worthwhile collective enterprises that humanity has ever undertaken. They are practically the definition of civilization.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How it works

I try to resist commenting on every twist and turn of politics, but if this is recent stuff I still think it falls within my educational mandate to reproduce this post from Ezra Klein's blog:


By Dylan Matthews

It's instructive for people my age who are thinking of careers in foreign policy to know that you can back death squads in Central America, deny mass atrocities, brazenly defy Congressional dictates, get convicted of withholding information from Congress, back a covert coup d'état, actively undermine the peace process in Israel, and be in charge of implementing the Bush administration's "freedom agenda" and end up with a senior fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations and an offer to be CFR's president should Richard Haass leave. I believe the term for this is "perverse incentive".

Atrios' eyecatching post linking to Klein/Matthews:


It's like clown school for mass murderers.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The history of democracy, again

In the last month, I have been asked to write an article and review a book on the world history of democracy. I was trained in early medieval/late antique historiography, wrote a book on that subject, and then went on to study chivalry and write two more books on that. But in between those two periods, I wrote, with Phil Paine, what may be my most important work, an article called "Democracy's Place in World History," (Journal of World History, 4 (1993): 23-45).
Fifteen years ago now! And although I have no intention of abandoning chivalry -- I have at least one more book in me on that topic, which I hope to substantially write in an upcoming sabbatical -- something tells me (specifically, letters from editors in my e-mail box, electronic nudges from Phil Paine) that it's time to do some more on the world history of democracy. So you can expect more posts about it here.

In my view the history of democracy has many aspects, and it is a vital theme in all of human history even when manifestations of democracy seem missing. I will not be obsessing over every twist and turn of Canadian or American political life -- plenty of that to be found elsewhere. I hope I will find inspiration to talk about bigger and more obscure issues.

For instance, have a look at this post from Jan Chipchase's blog Future Perfect. As I understand it, Chipchase travels the world for a big consumer electronics firm, trying to identify future trends in consumer usage of existing and potential products. A lot of what he does involves seeing what people who do not have access to current technology might do with it if it were made available. The interesting part of his approach is that he has a strong respect for the ability of people currently too poor to have, for instance, bank accounts to understand what they might do if a cell phone made saving and transfering money easy instead of impossible, as it is for them now. He is interested in the future customer's ideas of how complex the future might be designed, even if the future customer is, say, illiterate. This, to me, is part of the current history of democracy.

Labels: ,

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The formation of aristocracy

This post by Driftglass is the best thing of its sort I have ever read, except perhaps for some of Phil Paine's better essays.

Someone asked Drifty (to rephrase the actual comment) why his excellent scathing analysis got so little attention when others of less talent and penetration were now on TV, even. Here is an excerpt from his reply:

Well, by way of an answer, let us remember what Jebus Himself said:

“For where two or three have gathered together in My name,
there will be a velvet rope to keep the rabble away from the cool kids.”

In all human activities, there is a velvet rope; those on the sunny side of it sometimes relish it, sometimes try to kick it down, and sometimes believe it is porous or even imaginary; those on the cold side of it know that it is as real and high and hard and topped with broken glass as any security wall girding a Mexican estate.

Sometimes the velvet rope has a sign hanging from it advising those who seek admittance that they need only work a little bit harder. A little bit longer. A little better.

A little smarter.

A little sexier.

Shinier. Sparklier.

A little more topical.

A little more scholarly.

A little less snooty.

A little to the left and a skosh to the right.

Those on the cold side of it know that this ain’t exactly 100% true.

“Better, smarter, abler” is awesome -- it can get you a guest pass to the bar and once in a great while a key to the kingdom -- but there are way, waaaay too many mopes and nitwits waved right on in as their betters dance their asses off in the foyer, year after year, to pretend that competence in any way correlates to success.

It took toxic decades of Hate Radio and Fox Network junk food to create a public desperately hungry enough for honesty and intelligence to allow a “Daily Show” or “Colbert Report” to flourish not merely as great comedy, but as the Reality Based Community’s de facto teevee news and opinion HQs.

It took the collapse of the global economy, the shredding of the Constitution and a failure in Two!Count!Em!Two! wars after eight, solid years of unrelenting, daily, epic fuckuppery by an Administration of openly sneering idiots and traitors, before Americans reluctantly sent the Party of “I Wanna Haz A Beer With You!” packing and took a hopeful flier on the Smart Guys.

As Glenn Greenwald eloquently notes here, it is a trait that runs through every institution that traffics in influence and power:

Leading candidates for [Hillary Clinton's Senate seat] seat still include John F. Kennedy's daughter (Caroline), Robert Kennedy's son (RFK, Jr.), and Mario Cuomo's son (Andrew). In Illinois, a leading contender to replace Barack Obama in the Senate is Jesse Jackson's son (Jesse, Jr.). In Delaware, it was widely speculated that Joe Biden would be replaced by his son, Beau, and after Beau took his name out of the running because he's now serving in Iraq, the naming of the actual replacement -- lone-time (Joe) Biden aide Ted Kaufmann -- "upset local Democrats who believe the move was a ham-handed attempt to engineer the election of Biden’s son, Beau, to the Senate in 2010."

Meanwhile, in Alaska, Lisa Murkowski, who was appointed by her father to take his seat in the U.S. Senate when he became Governor, yesterday warned Sarah Palin not to challenge her in a 2010 primary, a by-product of tension between those two as a result of Palin's defeat of Lisa's dad for Governor. In Florida, Mel Martinez's announcement that he won't seek re-election in 2010 immediately led to reports that the current President's brother, Jeb, might run for that seat. And all of that's just from the last couple of weeks.

The Senate alone -- to say nothing of the House -- is literally filled with people whose fathers or other close relatives previously held their seat or similar high office (those links identify at least 15 current U.S. Senators -- 15 -- with immediate family members who previously occupied high elected office). And, of course, the current President on his way out was the son of a former President and grandson of a former U.S. Senator.

Isn't this all a bit much? It's true that our political/media class in general is intensely incestuous and nepotistic. Virtually the entire neoconservative "intelligentsia" (using that term as loosely as it can possibly be used) is one big paean to nepotistic succession -- the Kristols, the Kagans, the Podhoretzes, Lucinanne Goldberg and her boy. Upon Tim Russert's death, NBC News excitedly hired his son, Luke. Mike Wallace's son hosts Fox's Sunday show. The most influential political opinion space in the country, The New York Times Op-Ed page, is, like the Times itself, teeming with family successions and connections. Inter-marriages between and among media stars and political figures -- and lobbyists, operatives and powerful political officials -- are now more common than arranged royal marriages were among 16th Century European monarchs.

Because at the heart of any human enterprise, there is a club, and “better, smarter, abler” alone rarely gets you in it.

Image: A recent edition of the Almanach de Gotha, traditional listing of aristocratic claims.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Will the Maldives disappear?

Yesterday in the Islamic Civilization course I mentioned the Maldive Islands in connection with the travels of Ibn Battuta. Today I discover that there is an AFP video report at the Globe and Mail website, on the effects of climate change and rising sea level on a country that is not much more than a meter above the waves now.

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, November 21, 2008


John at Dymaxion World points us to an interesting observation at Talking Points Memo, and declines to comment further:

Josh Marshall:
I don't want to draw over-broad interpretations. But historically, the rising incidence of piracy has frequently, if not always, been a sign of the receding reach of whatever great power has taken on responsibility for policing the sea lanes. The decline of the Hellenistic monarchies in the Mediterranean before the rise of Rome. Caribbean piracy during Spain's long slide into decrepitude and before England decided she lost more than she gained from it. There are many examples. I note too that the Russians just announced that they're sending a few more warships to try to get things under control off the coast of East Africa.
The EU is sending an armada as well. Man, there's so much to talk about with this kind of issue. Do I blog about how the combined forces of the industrialized world don't have the necessary assets to put down piracy off the coast of east Africa? Do I blog about how this is a good example of why it's probably a bad idea to go around creating failed states in places like this? Or do we talk about the possible signal of the EU finally emerging as a global military actor in it's own right?

Well, lucky for you I don't have the time to write about any of those things so you're spared a few hundred words of my prose. Ha-ha!
I won't comment, either, except to say that if you fire up Google Earth and search the Google Earth Community for "Somali pirates" you find a variety of downloadable maps on the subject.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

James Murton speaks this Friday, 2:30 pm

Special topics course in the new South Africa

The transition of South Africa from apartheid to democracy was one of the most amazing events of the late 20th century. Next term NU students will have the opportunity to study what is happening in South Africa now. The listed prerequisite is being waived.

From the prof.:

GEND 3057, Special Topics in Human Rights and Social Justice is being offered on Mondays from 12:30 to 3:30 next term.

The course topic is Apartheid and the "New" South Africa.

South Africa's transition to democracy after nearly fifty years of racial segregation is heralded as one of the great triumphs of freedom over brutality in the twentieth century. Not only was civil war avoided but reconciliation, as embodied in the personal stances of President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, became the mantra of the "rainbow nation." Today, fourteen years into democracy, pressing concerns such as crime, poverty, and HIV/AIDS have eclipsed the euphoria of political freedom. In 1994 the ANC government promised "a better future for all." But how much has changed in the 'new' South Africa?

In this survey course we first examine the structure and nature of apartheid and the dynamics of South Africa's negotiated transition to democracy. How did race, class, ethnicity, gender and other social cleavages interact in the struggle for and against apartheid? In the second half of the course, we examine how these social cleavages or groupings interact today both as the "legacy" of apartheid and in the face of new challenges wrought under conditions of globalisation.

Dr. Rosemary Nagy
Gender Equality & Social Justice Program

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Gobekli Tepe -- the first great human monument

I am not teaching ancient history this year but I am still very interested. It's hard to imagine anyone with a feeling for any sort of early history not being fascinated by this one.

Archaeologists working in that part of the fertile crescent which is now located in Turkey have found a huge hill which seems to be the remains of late Stone Age temple building on a grand scale at a place now called Gobekli Tepe. The great stone structures date to long before Sumer -- as one archaeologist says, there is more time between Gobekli Tepe (9000 BC) and Sumer than there is between Sumer and us -- and in fact before agriculture was invented. Somehow hunter gatherers mustered the resources to build what was not a town or settlement or fortification but simply an immense complex of stone monuments.

Smithsonian Magazine has a very good article, the best part of which for me is the speculation by the archaeologists that it was the demand for resources to build such a site that made necessary agriculture and domestication of animals. For a very long time historians have been telling students and the general public and each other that it was the invention of agriculture which made possible big projects like Gobekli Tepe; but maybe it's the other way around.

Thanks to Phil Paine and Skye Sepp for drawing my attention to this.

Image: Gobekli Tepe from Smithsonian Magazine. This is just one of a collection of amazing pictures at the Smithsonian site.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Great War

As in the rest of life, many people on the web are commemorating the end of the First World War. I have a hard time not denouncing the First World War any the time the subject comes up, so I am Always reluctant to say much publicly on this date. However, the estimable Laura Rozen at the valuable news site War and Piece provided a link to this thought piece by Jeet Heer, which comes close to expressing my feelings, so if you are interested, have a look. At the very least it's better than anything I could've come up with at the moment.

You might also have a look at what Nicholas Sarkozy said: good and maybe even politically brave, but it took 90 years for someone to say it.

Labels: ,

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Standing in line to vote

From Daily Kos -- a photo essay that goes beyond any one election.

Then, if you can stand it, there's this.

Image: Voting just after the Civil War.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

More sense, less nonsense on "socialism"

Down at the Greatest Show on Earth, the word "socialism" is being kicked around in a comical manner. Phil Paine rides to the rescue with Sense and Nonsense About "Socialism:"

The word “socialism” is used to mean virtually anything imaginable, but if it means anything at all intelligible, it is “control of productive enterprise by the state”. More exactly, it means that the people who control production and the people who control the state are the same people. Most states in human history have been predominantly socialist....Many countries preserve that pattern today, though sometimes it is masked by a thin veneer of pseudo-democracy. Sometimes the pattern is specifically called "socialism", and sometimes not, but there is no important difference between those which use the term and those which do not...

The state can control production through a variety of techniques. Productive enterprises can be administered through a state bureaucracy, they can be parceled out to a hereditary or military aristocracy, or to corporate bodies which are theoretically (but not actually) "separate" from the state. All these configurations can logically be called “socialism”. If large portions of productive enterprise are engaged in military production, whose only customer can be the state, then that too should rationally be called “socialism”. Any country that engages in protracted and extensive warfare is, ipso facto, socialist. If large portions of productive enterprise are tied to government through special privileges, subsidies, bailouts, or government contracts, that is socialism as well. Any country whose economy is dominated by giant corporations, which manipulate and determine state policy, is socialist.

The United States has long engaged in extensive socialist practices. The American Conservative movement has been the most aggressive promoter of socialism, by encouraging rampant military spending, and promoting the concentration of state-corporate power and privilege. The U.S. is far more “socialist” than, say, Canada, where there is considerably less of these activities. To repeat what should be obvious, you have socialism when the people who control production and the people who control the government are the same people. Nobody with an ounce of common sense would deny that this is the case in the United States, today, and anybody who bothers to think straight should see that this is the central ideological desideratum of the Conservative movement. America's socialism is the product of its domination by Conservative ideology.

Socialism has nothing to do with the provision of government services. Risk-reduction services, such as Canada’s health insurance systems, or pension plans, or welfare services, or educational services provided by government, are not control of production. They are not “socialism” or “socialist”. Progressive taxation is not "socialist". Measures to protect the public from fraud, or promote public safety, or to overcome injustice or to protect the rights of labourers are not "socialist". There is no connection whatsoever between these things and socialism.

In fact, the more socialist a state is, the more power it can exert over its people, and the less it has to answer to them. Consequently, it is less likely to provide these services, and less likely to create social justice. ...You find good quality public services in democratic regimes, where the people have been strong enough to limit corporate-state control of production. Canada has better health care than the United States partly because it is less socialist than the United States. The United States has inferior health care because it is more socialist than Canada.

The aim of truly progressive political and economic thought is to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of the few, and the concentration of property in the hands of the few. It should seek to prevent concentrated corporate power or aristocracy from gaining control of production. Progressive thought is then, by logical necessity, anti-socialist and anti-corporate. But progressive thought embraces the utility of government services whenever they enable and enhance the freedom and autonomy of the individual (as, say, our health insurance system does in Canada). It just as firmly rejects sham government "services" that are merely stratagems to give power over the people to a managerial elite. Thus, a Progressive who gladly supports health insurance reform should oppose state plans to herd "the lower class" into state-controlled housing. Progressive thought embraces a social "safety net" under all our feet, provided it is not rigged to control its recipients, and always rejects handouts and subsidies for the rich. Democracy's meaning is clear: the people should rule; they should not be ruled.

The revolutionary aim of democracy is to create a society where every individual has a significant share of property and exercises practical autonomy, where the opportunities and fruits of enterprise are open to everyone, and where no privileged clique exercises power over the majority. The democratic state is supposed to serve this aim, and never to promote the interests of an elite, whether it dresses up as mandarins, dukes, commissars, or CEOs. Whatever moves society in this direction is "progressive". Let's get our concepts and terminology in order.

Labels: , , , , ,