A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

On Terrorism Against the West

The recent rash of attacks in the West by terrorists, beginning in Nice and most recently occurring (dare I say ending?) in Saint-Éttiene-du-Rouvray, have injected a great deal of tension into political debates over multiculturalism, immigration policy, and domestic security. Some people have begun speaking of a "war" between Islamism and civilisation. These worries are not unfounded, but nor are they in proportion with those which a rational observer of the facts would entertain.

First, let's remark on the generally petty level of the violence involved. Today's attack killed one person and left another fighting for life. Sunday's bombing in Ansbach injured fifteen, but killed no-one. Nine people died in the shooting in Munich last Friday. The attack in Nice, of course, killed 81 innocents, but such attacks are rare, coming perhaps two or three times a year at their most frequent. These numbers perhaps sound bad in the abstract, but let's make some comparisons. Each year in the UK, which has the second safest roads in the world, more than 1700 people die in traffic accidents. (That itself is a massive improvement on the past: 2006 was the first year since records began, 80 years previously, that the figure was under 3000). If we can absorb 2000 deaths from traffic accidents every year, I think we can similarly absorb a couple of hundred deaths from terrorism.

Second, we could prevent most terrorist violence if we really wanted to. With the (admittedly large) exception of the Nice attack, every perpetrator of a notable terrorist attack in the West has been known to domestic intelligence (example). Why aren't the attacks stopped, then? Because doing so would mean arresting people based on suspicion that they might commit a crime, rather than evidence that they had already done so. We could stop most terrorist attacks, but this would come at a cost in civil liberties.

I don't want to say that such costs should never be paid. Going back to the traffic example, we don't ban people from driving in order to prevent traffic accidents - but we do require them to wear seatbelts. There may well be low-hanging fruit to be had: policies that will, with minimal expense or inconvenience, reduce the incidence of terrorism upon our societies (note: preventing thousands of people from entering the country they want to live in does not count as "minimal inconvenience").

At the same time, though, we should note the possibility that we have already gone too far down this route. Airport security, for example, incurs vast costs in time for gains in security which are small to non-existent, and of dubious necessity: air travel is in fact considerably safer than road travel.

Laying my cards on the table: I think we should basically just ignore terrorism. (In the first world, that is: in the Middle East it's actually a very serious problem, although what that means for our politics I don't know). It is genuinely possible that there exist low-hanging-fruit policies which we ought to implement - mandatory detention of people returning from ISIS is very plausibly one, along with state attempts to promote moderate Islam and perhaps even some censorship of violently Islamist views (although my liberal side is very worried by this last idea). But understand that there are no two ways about it: if this becomes a war, Islamism will get curb-stomped.

Friday, 22 July 2016

My Great-Grandfather: an Oral History

I never met my great-grandfather: he was born around 1898 whereas I was born in 1994. What follows, then, is a combination of 22 years worth of stories and one meal (along with several pints) that I had earlier this evening with my dad and uncle.

My dad's family came from Bradford, in Yorkshire. This was in the years before Bradford was a byword for immigration - and in particular Pakistani immigration - and my great-grandfather was very much a product of his time. He was fiercely patriotic: upon the outbreak of war in 1914, he immediately turned up to the local recruiting station. The recruiting officer looked at him somewhat skeptically and inquired as to whether he was indeed eighteen (this being the minimum age one had to be in order to sign up). My great-grandfather had to shake his head and Chief Eastleigh admit that he had not in fact achieved this age. Perhaps unfortunately  the sympathetic recruiting officer been suggested that he should go for a walk around the block and "By the time you're back you should be eighteen."

We know very little of the things he did and saw during the ensuing four years of trench warfare: the vast majority of them, he simply refused to talk about in later years. The one thing we do know about is that on one occasion he was in a trench while it was being (presumably unsuccessfully) stormed by the Germans. One particular German soldier leapt over the top of the trench brandishing his rifle, bayonet affixed, and would have landed directly upon my great grandfather; indeed would surely have killed him. Fortunately a fellow British soldier, who would go on to become one of my great-grandfather's firmest friends, was on hand to fatally stab the German in the groin.

After the war my great-grandfather became a builder: you can point to whole rows of houses in Bradford, each of them his handiwork. I don't know much about this period: my grandmother was born in 1933, my dad in 1963 period. The next story I know which directly involved him came shortly after the Second World War, and concerns how he made another long-lasting friend. This was an Irish immigrant who had been sacked from his previous job for fighting; my great-grandfather nevertheless employed him, reasoning that anyone who had fought for Britain in World War II could not be all that bad. The last we heard of this man, which came not long after the turn of the millennium, was that he had recently sold a patch of land to Leeds council for several hundred thousand pounds. This success he credited greatly to the start he had been given by my great grandfather.

In later years he suffered a number of health set backs: he broke his neck and survived at least two heart attacks. One of these heart attacks came on the building site, when he was working to a strict deadline imposed by his contract. What was he to do? The other men were mostly busy at their own jobs; my grandfather was at this point well into the Multiple Sclerosis which would eventually kill him aged 52; and my grandmother, entirely apart from the fact of her being a woman, was not at this point in the best mental health. Hence my dad, aged at this point only 10 years old, had to pile building supplies into a wheelbarrow, carry them upstairs, and finish the tiling of the bathroom. This my dad did, albeit to what he later realised was an abysmal standard. Still, my great-grandfather reflected, "it [was] a higher standard of building than some of those Paki builders."

(That is perhaps an unfair, or at least incomplete, picture though. While it is not the only racist joke I have heard him to have made, he owed these attitudes to ignorance rather than malice. When once asked to do some work for a Sikh gentleman, he was initially mistrust full but within 5 minutes was talking to this man as he would have any Brit.

In his spare time, my greta-grandfather enjoyed working on cars. It was in his garage that my dad learnt to maintain and restore cars, a passion which has continued to this day: more or less every car my parents have bought had previously been involved in a crash and my dad restored it (saving money: every Yorkshireman's favourite hobby), and he now restores classic motors.

My great-grandfather never truly retired. He stopped charging, to be sure, but when the young couple two Doors Down needed some help he offered to plaster their entire house, over a period of several weeks, for no compensation.

He was himself only semi-literate, but lived to see my Dad and Uncle go to university. Eventually, despite numerous unhealthy habits, he passed away at 85 - by the standards of the time and place a quite remarkable age.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Two Models of the European Union

One view of the European Union is that it is a cooperative venture by countries who agree that they have much to gain by working together, perhaps analogous to a tennis club. An alternate view is that the EU is an empire, and that countries which have joined to the now in some sense "belong" to the EU. (This model has much in common with some early modern theories of the social contract, according to which once one surrendered one's sovereignty to the king one forfeited the right to resist if he abused the power he had been granted.)

The language of EU politics is for the most part more in line with the "tennis club" model. That said, I don't think that the "empire" model should be immediately rejected. The EU does a lot of genuinely worthwhile work in preventing various member states from being a lot worse, particularly the members in southern and eastern Europe.

The biggest problem with the empire model is that it is completely unpalatable to the man on the Clapham omnibus. We don't want to believe we are owned by a bunch of people in Belgium!

One difference between the models is how they will treat people attempting to leave the EU. If someone decides to leave your tennis club, then you may be saddened but you will not obstruct their leaving and you will wish them well. By the empire model, however, for a country to leave the EU is for it to wrong the EU leadership, to betray its master/owner.

A lot of behaviour over the last month - not only by the EU, but also by a lot of its supporters (example) seems to fit much more into the second category. That, I think, is a fundamental disconnect at the heart of the EU debate: many (though definitely not all) pro-EU people follow the empire model, while Brexiteers are uniformly people on the tennis club model who either believe that the time has come to pack in that membership, or who realise that the EU leadership adhere to the empire model and don't like where that train of thought leads you.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Christian and Secular Mercy

Christians frequently define "mercy" as failing to deliver something (bad) to someone when they deserve it. This is contrasted with "grace", giving a person something (good) when they don't deserve it.

I want to make two points here: first, that this kind of mercy - "God's mercy", if you will - is of a fundamentally different kind to the more human kind of mercy we all understand, and secondly that this conception of mercy is fundamentally at odds with modernity.

Let's begin by getting to grips with what it means to deserve something. These Christian notions clearly presuppose some conception of desert, and furthermore that humans are beings which are capable of deserving particular kinds of treatment. Can a dog, however, deserve a particular kind of treatment? The answer, I think we will generally agree, is no: a dog lacks (in Christian terms) a soul or (in more secular terms) the kind of reflective cognitive capacity that is necessary to understand moral rules.

This does not mean that it is not worth rewarding and punishing dogs, but it means that the choice of treatment is dictated by something other than desert: most obviously, the desire to encourage certain kinds of behaviour and to discourage others. How far does this extend to humanity? Many philosophers, including all utilitarians, will aver that dissuasion of crime and other wrongdoing is the sole purpose of punishment. To speak of "desert", one makes a controversial commitment to the truth of a moral system sufficiently fine-grained to take into account such features as the intention of the agent.

To bring out the difference, consider the two following archetypes of "mercy". The first is the case of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who blew up a plane killing 259 people on board as well as 11 poor unfortunates who happened to be hit by falling parts of the plane. For this he was sentenced to life imprisonment, but eight years later was released as he was thought to be within a couple of months of death.

We can debate the utilitarian merit of al-Megrahi's release, but fundamentally we can at least make sense of it in these terms. His release allowed him and his family great relief, and probably didn't do to much to incentivise terrorism. (On the other hand, it caused a lot of anger among the British and American publics). The Christian notion of mercy can explain this, but it can also explain the ultimate piece of Christian mercy - the fact that Christians, though deserving of hell, will not taste it. This saving is not conditional upon better behaviour - indeed, it is given in the full knowledge that Christians will continue to sin and sin and sin. From the utilitarian perspective of modernity, this is utterly alien.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Review: The Secret Life of Pets

Yesterday I was at the birthday celebration of an old school friend, a celebration which consisted of a film, Chinese buffet and visits to a couple of pubs. The point is that there were eight or nine of us at a cinema, intending to watch a film, but without any particular films that any of us strongly wanted to see. Consequently we decided to see the fluffy children's film The Secret Life of Pets, expecting that it couldn't be too bad and might deliver a few laughs. On this modest aspiration, I am happy to report that it delivered.

Max (Louis C.K.), Duke (Eric Stonestreet), and Katie (Ellie Kemper).
Given the initial set-up, the rest of the film is very predictable. Max is a blokish terrier living in New York with his owner, a cute young woman who plays no role after the first eight minutes. During the day he eagerly awaits her return, but also hangs out with the neighbouring pets - none of whom would suffer from a few extra brain cells. One day Katie brings home a new dog named Duke to be Max's "brother", but inevitably the two fail to get along with each other. Their rivalry, along with the incompetence of Katie's dog-walker, causes the two to be stranded across the city without their collars. From here they must get back home while avoiding capture by the hapless animal control officers, by a posse of stray cats (the leader of whom is inexplicably a cockney), and by a sewer gang of abandoned pets - led, of course, by a tiny bunny rabbit. By the end of the film Max and Duke have resolved their differences; given that the great bulk of the film somehow takes place within a single workday, I was gratified that this is presented less as actual character growth than merely coming to accept each other as "not so bad after all".

Pearson's Law of kids' films: The cuter the critter, the more vicious it is.
Overall the film is a perfectly adequate way to keep your kids amused for a couple of hours. I have to agree with another critic who remarked that it will be just as good to see on DVD as it is to see in cinema, not to mention a lot cheaper. There are plenty of children's films which will do more to keep the adults amused as well, but The Secret Life of Pets is worthy of a perfectly respectable three stars out of five.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Aslund on the Post-Soviet Transition

ArtirKel has been writing a series of posts on the economy of the Soviet Union, including a set of "brief remarks on the transition". For anyone entirely new to the topic, the conventional wisdom is that following the fall of communism eastern Europe underwent a massive economic depression. This was not a recession of the sort that we experienced in 2008; rather, we're talking Greece-times-two double-digit-recession-for-several-years-on-end. For those of us who advocate capitalism, then, this seems like evidence either for the superiority of communism or at the very least for the need for gradualism. Immediate moves risk severe collapse.

The main point of Artir's article is that while shocks resulting from transitions to capitalism may very well exist and in the short-run be quite significant, they do little to disrupt long-run trends - and in the long-run we are all dead communism is as we all know a terrible system.

At the time I mentioned Anders Aslund's doorstopper Building Capitalism: The Transformation of the Former Soviet Bloc. Aslund makes the case in a section entitled "The Myth of Output Collapse" that the conventional wisdom is actually quite wrong about the magnitude of the collapse. Moreover, the countries which weathered the transition best were those which were swiftest to reform. Now that I have access to my copy again, it seemed worthwhile to write this post summarising Aslund's arguments in this section.

Economies were already in chaos (p. 122)

Aslund argues that the conventional wisdom ignores how weak the communist economies were at the time of their collapse. During the years 1989-91, the average former Soviet republic (FSR) economy contracted by around 11%. So to claim that without the transition there would have been no turmoil is straightforwardly false.

Changes in the way output was recorded (p. 122-4)

It's commonly believed - though I don't know if José himself would accept this - that Soviet economies had a persistent problem with over-reporting of output. The prospects for promotion of many people in the production chain depended not upon profitability but on recorded output, so there was a strong incentive to make over-exhuberant claims about the total product of one's empire. Aslund estimates, quoting some of his other research, that added around 5% to the reported GDP of the USSR.

More significantly, under capitalism there was significant under-reporting of output. There were two key reasons for this: firstly, massive expansion of the black market, which had been severely repressed under communism. Secondly, the splintering of industries into large numbers of small firms often left government statisticians unable to keep up. For example, for many years Hungarian statistics left out all firms with fewer than 50 employees, with the result that through the late 80s into the mid 90s the unrecorded economy never went below 27% of GDP.

Move to measuring Consumption over Production (p. 125-6)

When measuring GDP in market economies, we have a simple way to assess the value of a good: we look at how much people are willing to pay for it. Where the good is one that people do not pay for - policing, for example, or education, we move instead to looking at how much is spent.

The USSR had this for everything. The problem was that this allowed and even encouraged the production of many things that nobody wanted. Similarly, it encouraged excessive processing of products even when this failed to make the end-product any more useful or enjoyable. These useless products were counted as output in Soviet statistics, but if we are honest they were sheer waste. The move to capitalism merely exposed this.

Shocks to foreign trade (p. 126-31)

Communist countries traded almost entirely with each other. This meant that the distorted trade patterns which they had on a domestic level were amplified at the level of international trade. For example, under communism Hungary had a nice little export industry in machinery and buses. After the collapse of communism, suddenly no-one wanted to buy these - for reasons which will be obvious to anyone who has travelled on the Budapest Metro Line 3 (right).

Furthermore, much of the trade involved "implicit subsidies" from one Soviet nation to another, and particularly from energy producers to non-energy producers. The end of these subsidies didn't hurt the Soviet bloc as a whole, and indeed the central case of Russia it meant a substantial gain (amounting, if I'm reading Aslund right, to 17.7% of its GDP!). But it does add more knots to post-Soviet statistics.

Collapse of Military Spending (p. 131-2)
How to achieve full employment:
conscript the unemployed!

As mentioned above, when assessing the contribution of government spending to GDP we have no better option than simply to look at the amount being spent. The USSR spent an inordinate amount of its resources on the military - Aslund suggests 22% of GDP, Artir thinks it was probably about 18%. Either way, this was several times the international norm of around 3%, to which Russia reduced its spending following the collapse of communism (most other countries reduced their military spending even further).

This would lead to a massive fall in measured GDP, possibly as high as 20%. Yet with the exception of those directly employed by the military, it will have had no effect at all upon people's standard of living. This is one of the weaknesses of GDP - it is perhaps the best proxy we have for living standards, but it is ultimately only a proxy.

Wasteful Investment (p. 132-3)

The otherwise great economist Paul Samuelson predicted in 1961 that, since the USSR was pouring a greater proportion of its output into investment in further capital, it would overtake the US GDP some time in the 1980s or 90s. In hindsight this is an amusing story, but it also poses an important question: why didn't the USSR overtake the USA?

The answer is that much of the investment was simply wasted. Apart from the vast problems of co-ordination (section III), there were vast problems of theft and of managers demanding more inventory stocks than they really needed. For this reason, a lot of what was counted as investment was failing to contribute at all to future productive capacity.

How much did GDP fall? (p. 136-7)

Aslund produces a chart giving his estimates of GDP across the former USSR in 1995, indexed to 1989 levels.
There's decline in many countries. However, this decline is highly variable, and some of the most reforming countries - especially what would later be the Visegrad Group of Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, and Hungary - even grow. This strongly suggests that to whatever extent there was indeed a collapse in the economies of the former USSR following the fall of communism, whatever caused it was neither capitalism nor the shock of transition.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Government House Democracy

Grief at losing the EU referendum is causing many people on the left of British politics to wake up to something libertarians have been saying for years: democracy is kind of a stupid system. I won't go over the many problems with democracy as it is practised, although it should be noted that they go far beyond the fact that sometimes The People make stupid decisions. My concern here is to ask: why do we have a democracy, and how could it work better?

Here is a simple suggestion for why democracy is a relatively good system: people accept it. That is to say, countries which are democratic are significantly less likely than non-democratic countries to experience violent rebellions or civil wars. This applies not only to the relatively mature and open democracies of Scandinavia and the Anglosphere, but also to the corrupt tinpot democracies which dominate Africa and South America. There is no particular connection between democracy and good governance, but if you can achieve good governance then democracy makes it much more stable.

In what way does it become more stable? Primarily because people feel, rightly or wrongly, that they have a voice and are being listened to. People will be less likely to oppose a system when they feel that they have some role of authorship in it. By voting, people contribute to two things: firstly, they help fool themselves into thinking they have a significant voice, and secondly, they make it easier for others to believe this idea.

By voting, you demonstrate your buying in to this collective myth and thus your membership in (and hence acceptance of) the political community. This is a falsity, and patently so: the idea that one ordinary person can influence a polity of sixty-five million is utterly ridiculous. But so long as everyone pretends to believe it, we can get along.

Unfortunately, this does not seem to be enough. Perhaps it was never enough, and we relied upon other signals that people were being listened to for stability - the close links between trade unions and the Labour Party, for example. Perhaps libertarians have been the little boy shouting that the emperor has no clothes (I don't think we're that influential, but who knows?). Either way, the fact is that enough people are feeling unlistened to that our political culture is under threat.

What, then, can be done to recreate the myth that people are being listened to? E-petitions are a valiant attempt at this, but are aimed at a fundamentally different audience from the one that voted for Brexit. E-petitions are a tool of the young and politically engaged; Brexit, as we have all heard repeatedly, was foisted upon the young by their unemployed and uneducated elders.

MP's surgeries are probably fairly effective for those people who are aware of how to attend them and have the forethought to book a session. But my suspicion would be that a very substantial constituency is simply unaware that surgeries are a thing - they're not something that we talk about a great deal, after all. And quite apart from that, there's the whole question of whether MPs could really handle a move towards mass use of surgeries. They have other things to do with their time, after all, and do you really want to spend every single Saturday listening to people, most of whom are expressing similar concerns in inarticulate (and often in an angry, perhaps even threatening, manner), concerns which you simply do not have the power to do anything about?

I don't really have a good answer to the second problem I'm posing. How do you get disenfranchised people to feel they are being listened to? (Should we care? What will they do if they don't - more shootings, or will it just contribute to what, in a vague sense, we call "the decline of social trust"?) My hope, however, is that by putting it in terms of perceptions of listening rather than actual listening, I can move us closer to a real solution.