Saturday, September 30, 2006

Noted Without Comment

From the sad-irony files:

PARIS, Sept 29, 2006 (AFP) - French anti-terrorism authorities Friday opened an inquiry into death threats against a philosophy teacher who has been forced into hiding over a newspaper column attacking Islam, legal officials said.

Robert Redeker, 52, is receiving round-the-clock police protection and changing addresses every two days, after publishing an article describing the Koran as a "book of extraordinary violence" and Islam as "a religion which ... exalts violence and hate".

Source: AFP


Friday, September 29, 2006

Burying the Dreadful Past

The BBC has an article about the return of the body of the mother of the last Czar of Russia to that country for reburial. Born in Denmark and married off, as part of a standard European royal geopolitical marriage, to a man who would become Alexander III, she had left after the Russian Revolution had swallowed her family whole, poignantly refusing to believe until her dying day that all her descendants were really dead.

Americans, including many American conservatives, have no real sympathy for royalty. In this they differ historically from European conservatives, the difference being that what conservatives are trying to conserve in each society is different. Americans, and to some extent the rest of the Anglosphere, are trying to preserve the individual autonomy that is our distinct heritage, while European conservatives historically have tried to preserve their own social patrinomy, of which royal prerogatives were once a major part.

And yet for all that there is much for even the libertarian to mourn in the slaughter of Nicholas II, his family and servants, because it was the antechamber to the totalitarian horrors of the twentieth century. In his book The Russian Revolution, the Russian historian Richard Pipes recounts the last moments of the royal family:

Next came Nicholas with Alexis in his arms: both wore military shirts and caps. Then followed the Empress with her daughters, Anastasia and her pet King Charles spaniel, Jemmy, and Dr. Botkin. Demidova carried two pillows, concealed in one of which was a box with jewelry. Behind her came the valet, Trup, and the cook, Kharitonov. Unknown to the family, the execution squad of ten, six of them Hungarians, the rest Russians, was in an adjoining room. According to Medvedev, the family “appeared calm as if expecting no danger.”

Is known from eyewitnesses that the Empress and one of her daughters barely had time to cross themselves: they too died instantly. There was wild shouting as the guards emptied their revolvers: according to Iurovskii the bullets, ricocheting from the walls and floor, flew around the room like hail. The girls screamed. Struck by bullets, Alexis fell off the chair. Kharitonov “sat down and died.”

It was hard work. Iurovskii had assigned each executioner one victim, and they were to aim straight at the heart. Still, six of the victims – Alexis, three of the girls, Demidova and Botkin – were alive when the salvos stopped. Alexis lay in a pool of blood, moaning: Iurovskii finished him off with two shots to the head. Demidova offered furious defense with her pillows, one of which had a metal box, then she too went down, bayoneted to death.

Although Bartlett’s lists it as an old French adage of anonymous origin, Lenin is always quoted as saying that “to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.” And the broken eggs of the Royal corpses – whose deaths were to be camouflaged by a staged escape attempt, and which were ultimately received with equanimity at best, delight at worst by many strata of Russian society – foreshadowed what was to come. The new Soviet Union would become the first totalitarian society, complete with show trials, fake history, and the cultivation of intense class-based hatred by those like Lenin who invented and perfected what Stalin, Hitler and Mao would ultimately refine to the highest dark art.

After a blood-drenched century, the world is under less threat from such absolute totalitarianism than it has been since the shots were fired in Ekaterinburg. While Vladimir Putin is an authoritarian who is not shy about asserting the Russian national interest, he is not going to resurrect the show trials, the mass slaughter, etc. And while “Islamic fascism” shares some traits with his notorious (and purely Western) predecessor, it is mostly the enraged outburst of a failing civilization, incapable of seizing power in most of its own part of the world, let alone (unless excessively indulged by those who rule Western societies) threatening the rest of it to the extent that the Soviets and the Nazis once did. Conflict and wars will always be with us, but the reburial of Maria Fyodorovna is, one can hope, a symbolic end to our worst era.

Thursday, September 28, 2006


Washington is currently engulfed by one of the manufactured controversies in which it specializes, this time over the implications of a national intelligence estimate that was leaked to The New York Times. One of its conclusions, which frankly was already blindingly obvious to anyone with a room-temperature IQ, is that the Iraq war has been a tremendous recruiting tool for the jihad. Many of the writers of press accounts further indicate, explicitly or otherwise, that the war for that reason should be judged a failure. Should we believe them?

The trouble with most modern reporting is not just that it's biased, but that the bias results not just in printing things that may be false but in not printing things that are true. In this example, the first thing the responsible citizen should be concerned about is the agenda of the leaker. He has access to all kinds of documents, and his interests may cause him to leak some but not others. What the citizen really needs to see is all the information that the intelligence service possesses, but of course classification laws (sometimes for good reason, sometimes not) make this impossible. Failing that, he needs a representative sample of the evidence, or a full set of conclusions, if not necessarily the intelligence sources and means, that will allow him to decide for himself. But the leaker with an agenda leaks only information that supports his side of the story.

And it onto this is the agenda of the journalist. If journalists are biased (and they are), they may selectively frame the secret information they receive so as to further their own interests. The journalist will argue that his ethics code prevents him from doing that, but he would not take that argument seriously if a judge he suspected of corruption offered it.

So the citizen faces two sources of internal bias in all the reporting he sees. It is theoretically possible to correct for this, but then the information becomes almost completely worthless; it has so little probative value that it is not worth reading it to begin with. One solution is the one the British press employs, and that is to concede up front that newspapers have agendas. The Guardian is a paper of the left, The Daily Telegraph is a paper of the right. This is not a complete solution, but the reader knows to expect that these papers will be more likely to report certain kinds of malfeasance and ignore others. (Those with enough experience can do the same with "objective" media sources, but this is a lot of work, all carried out as the newspaper is insisting the whole time that it is not biased.)

Especially in the American model then, leaks and the reporting of leaks, particularly when they are leaks about reports that people in the government have written about government policy, should be treated with great skepticism. They are neither comprehensive nor representative, and are about as trustworthy as anonymous accusations about a company from a disgruntled employee leaked to a union long critical of that company – they may be true, but there is no good reason to take this report as evidence.

The New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse recently got into trouble with some of her fellow journalists for giving an anguished speech in which she offered several explicit opinions on political issues. She was criticized by an editor of The Oregonian who said that she "was asked to speak, as wonderful as she is, because she works for The New York Times. In that situation, any of us has to be careful between our own personal views -- which we no doubt have -- and whether it casts doubt on our own work or on the credibility of the institution we represent."

This is exactly the wrong attitude, I think. Journalists should be encouraged to offer their political beliefs in as many public forms as they can, and perhaps even to be allowed to take money from various special interests as long as it is disclosed. The problem, a newspaper faces is not that their "credibility" might be tainted, but that the skeptical citizen properly supposes that they have little credibility, and is primarily interested in figuring out what the nature of their biases is. The drawback of allowing them to take money is that it might persuade them to write stories that they otherwise would not write, in other words that the money might overcome rather than reinforce their biases. So the case for allowing journalists to take money is not as strong as that for allowing politicians to take bribes. But they should certainly be allowed and in fact encouraged to be as publicly political, as shrilly as they want (shrillness being a sign of extremism) and as often as they want.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Art and the State

Although I didn't know it until I heard it on the radio this morning, today is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Dmitri Shostakovich. His genius was an epic tragedy, unfolding as it did against the backdrop of Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union. It is an extreme case to be sure, but his life has some lessons about the dangers of entangling art with the state. For as long as Stalin was alive, Shostakovich had to walk a tightrope — his music had to be "politically correct," with that term carrying a far more sinister meaning than it does today.

Having gained note with the Opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich must've been stunned and profoundly fearful when he opened Pravda one day in 1936 and saw a piece critical of the Opera signed by none other than Stalin himself. Artists were not immune from the fates of others in Soviet society who crossed the mad Georgian, and so he might well have feared at this point that his remaining days were few. Ultimately he escaped the police state itself, but the remainder of his career was a tangle of compromise although one hand and, in the view of many, hidden musical criticism of the police state on the other. But his work was unavoidably clouded by this entanglement.

Once upon a time, art was the province of the state -- not in the sense of the hyper-politicization that unavoidably comes with the modern ministries of art that many societies have, but in the sense that only nobles were wealthy enough to support house artists. But, politics and the overpowering state not having infected every organ of society as they do now, there were no political agendas per se in this arrangement.

The economist Deirdre McCloskey claims that Beethoven and Haydn were the first composers able to support themselves by marketing their own compositions. And it was in the 17th century that writers first began to obtain the independence that comes from the spread of the market – the ability to be master of your own fate. And unsurprisingly this was an extraordinarily productive interval in all kinds of art – the great Romantics in literature and music, the Impressionists and other new schools of painting in that field.

Alas, the postwar period put an end to that. In Europe and North America, the hand of the state was assumed to be as omniscient and public-spirited in managing art as it was in managing the family, managing agricultural production, in managing every other social activity that had previously been left to self-governance. And art is the worse for it. The late Jean-François Revel claimed that Italian and French cinema never recovered the glory that they possessed in the 1950s, the era of Fellini and Truffaut, once moviemakers became dependent on state handouts. (Compare the flabby state of Italian and French cinema with the vibrant work to be found in unsubsidized industries such as those in Hong Kong and India.) Art and its poor cousin entertainment are increasingly consumed in the US by battles over their politics – is NBC anti-Christian (registration required)? Should the World Trade Center memorial try to place the event in the proper “political context” by including exhibits devoted to other atrocities in history, including some committed by the US government? These are the dreary questions that preoccupy professional art-lobbying pressure groups, and hence divert their attention from the older quest for beauty and truth that used to be the function of art, once the state piper permanently calls the tune.

Friday, September 22, 2006

America -- Slower, Lower, Weaker

In what is likely to be one of the least-noticed sports stories in the US today, our women's basketball team lost in the semifinals at the world championships. This after winning the last two championships, with 26 consecutive wins in the event.

From what I have been able to ascertain, the pattern of women's basketball success at the highest levels of international competition has been somewhat similar to that in women’s soccer, softball, and ice hockey. While the details are different in each sport owing to historical and cultural patterns, the US dominated first out of the gate, probably because of the huge influence of Title IX, the US law that equalized, among other things, resources devoted to men's and women's intercollegiate athletics. China and Sweden have also been very successful, in the first case because of the usual fanatical communist devotion to international sports success and in the second because of aggressive legal efforts to achieve male/female equality. But as time goes on, other nations catch up.

And “other nations catching up” is an increasing part of the international sports scene in areas where the US used to do much better. The US has never been much of a presence in many sports like soccer, but has always been a dominant force in basketball, tennis, and (since it was open to professionals) ice hockey. For the inaugural World Baseball Classic, it was taken for granted that the US had the world’s best baseball players, but competition on the field showed otherwise.

But the news is now full of US weakness on the global sports scene. The Ryder Cup begins today, and the US is coming off a severe whipping in 2004 in the midst of about a decade of European dominance of that event. At Wimbledon this year, there was not a single American in the quarterfinals of either the gentlemen’s or ladies’ singles. At the US Open, Andy Roddick was the only American in the semifinals on either the men's or women's side. Our men's basketball team managed only a bronze at the world championships, our men's soccer team was a gigantic disappointment in the World Cup in Germany, and on and on and on.

So what is going on? Some research (e.g., Andrew B. Bernard and Meghan R. Busse, “Who wins the Olympic Games: economic resources and medal totals,” Review of Economics and Statistics, February 2004, v. 86, iss. 1, pp. 413-17) suggests unsurprisingly that wealthier nations with more resources to spare win more Olympic medals per capita. Being a communist nation is also a positive predictor, presumably because the leaders of those nations view investment in sports success as a way to propagandize for both foreign and domestic consumption on behalf of their societies. This model takes us pretty far, in that the US dominance (in terms of disproportionate success relative to population) is fading just as many other nations have partly closed the gap in average living standards. And some nations like the Dominican Republic can have vastly disproportionate success by specializing entirely in one sport – baseball in their case, badminton in the case of Indonesia and Denmark. And another consideration is the dramatically increasing American rate of obesity (which is a bigger and bigger, as it were, problem all over the world, but particularly in the US). This would mean that for a given population size the effective population – the population that might actually compete for a place in the highest levels of international competition – is considerably smaller.

In tennis at least the US has been here before. There was a dead period after the Connor/McEnroe/Evert/Navratilova era which was filled on the men's side by Sampras, Agassi, Chang, and Courier and on the women's side by Davenport and the Williams sisters. But this time it feels different – like the rest of the world is more and more pulling its weight in international athletic success in the sports in which the US has historically done much better than our global population share. And so American fans had probably best get used to a leaner sports future.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Bill Schneider, Call Your Economist

One of the most frustrating things I encounter as an economist is the tendency of people to believe things that, when seen in the light of the most basic economic reasoning, are simply nutty. Things like the belief that gasoline prices are the result of manipulation by a handful of oil-company executives.

Even well-educated people who have ascended to the heights of the opinion-manufacturing business are not immune to these problems, as the
following excerpt from CNN, involving their political analyst Bill Schneider, demonstrates:

SCHNEIDER: You can see voter concern dropping in the polls. In July, 41 percent of voters said gas prices and energy costs were the most important economic issue facing the country. That number has dropped to 26 percent.

What's driving gas prices down? Industry sources cite a lot of reasons, including higher fuel inventories, a so far mild hurricane season, the truce between Israel and Lebanon. But this oil industry critic believes that what drove prices up was speculation. And a report from a bipartisan congressional investigation may be having an impact.

TYSON SLOCUM, PUBLIC CITIZEN: I think that that sent a signal to these speculators that they had better pull back a little bit. And I think that's what we're seeing.

SCHNEIDER: The dropping prices may last just a couple of months. Long enough to get through the November election.

Could that be what the oil companies want?

SLOCUM: Eight-one percent of their money goes to members of the Republican Party. I cannot say for sure whether or not they are influencing prices to assure that outcome. But it is, I think, more than just a coincidence that we're seeing an easing of prices at a time of running up to a very, very important election.

Let us take this hypothesis out for a spin and see how it does. In it, gasoline prices are essentially what oil company executives want them to be. This raises the immediate question of why, if oil companies can “set” prices, they aren’t higher all the time. The conspiracy theorist who really thinks things through might argue that they are high most of the time, except when it would damage the prospects of Big Oil's electoral favorites. But that's not true. Gas prices were under a dollar a gallon in much of the country as recently as 1998, and adjusted for inflation are not historically high at the moment, nor were they even as recently as a few months ago. (Adjusting for inflation is important because oil companies have to pay their costs in current dollars, and many of these costs have presumably gone up at roughly the rate of inflation.) Oil industry profits over the long haul are not consistently high relative to other industries as a percentage of sales revenue. Some evidence for that is compiled here, although the true believer may not be persuaded by it in that it is found on oil company website.

As for the possibility of the price-manipulation hypothesis itself, think about everything that would have to hold for it to be true. First, there are many oil producers around the world selling gasoline to the franchise owners of the stations. All of the decision-makers of every one of these producers would have to cooperate in lowering the price that they charge the gas station owners despite what is apparently an opportunity for greater profits by going the usual gouging route. Any company that lowered prices would gain business from those who didn't, but only by incurring losses rather than profits and thus angering shareholders. The discipline required becomes all the more remarkable when we consider that commodity prices are falling across the board, not just in oil, suggesting that every commodity producer has to be in on the act.

In addition, if gas prices are artificially low now then presumably they will increase dramatically after the election. This means that a lot of people whose business it is to make money by estimating what commodity prices will be in the future stand at the moment to lose quite a bit of money by forgoing profitable trading opportunities. The New York Mercantile exchange quotes gasoline futures contracts for delivery in December at a price as I write this of $1.56 a gallon, hardly above the $1.49 price that you can get gasoline at now on the spot commodities markets. If Public Citizen and Bill Schneider really believe in the oil-company-manipulation hypothesis, they ought to put their money where their mouth is and aggressively buy gasoline futures. Public Citizen, as a Naderite "public interest" organization, could certainly use the money. Of course, talk is cheap, especially on television, since whatever someone says on television tends to vanish from the memory fairly quickly the next time a network needs a talking head. And such talk is valuable to the speaker insofar as it influences underinformed voters. But betting your own money is another matter.

The price of gasoline, like the price of everything that is tradeable, is not "set." It is the result of competition among buyers and sellers for resources and consumer attention given the available alternatives. That people are willing to suspend belief in this basic truth for some industries such as gasoline and pharmaceuticals is discouraging, but may have to do with the fact that these goods have very inelastic demand, and so people desperately want to believe that there is some sinister explanation for what they are seeing. But there is not. Messrs. Schneider and Slocum live in the Washington, DC area, where there are many capable economists. I suspect that for many of them, the door is always open. The two commentators should take advantage of those resources.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Sweden Looks Right

The people of Sweden have apparently elected at a reformist government. A party that has promised to lower the taxes on the highest earners, to lower unemployment benefits and to trim back labor-market rigidities heads the new governing coalition. Cleverly named the Moderate Party, suggesting how radical the "Swedish model" has become over the years, the new coalition has punctured one of the world’s least competitive democracies, where Social Democrats ruled for most of the 20th century. And its program is by Swedish standards fairly remarkable. In the words of one English-language Swedish website:

Measures to get more Swedes into work will be high up on the agenda when the new government presents its first programme to the Riksdag. Reinfeldt would not say on Monday whether any specific targets for unemployment or employment. He did say, however, that voters will be given an income tax reduction by the beginning of next year.

"Our hope is to introduce the policies we won the election with as quickly as possible," he said.

The new government will need to hurry to get a budget in place by 16th October, only ten days after assuming the reins of power. Olofsson said she expected the proposal for a tax deduction for domestic services such as cleaning and gardening to be part of the proposal.

"Ordinary people will be able to live better and get more control over their lives." (Emphasis added.)

The European press is full of reports that the Swedish economy is among Europe’s most successful, having posted a growth rate in excess of 5% in the most recent quarter. And nominally its unemployment rate is very low, at approximately 5%. And yet Swedes voted for change. Part of this is perhaps the natural exhaustion that all long-term governments run into. But part of it is perhaps that the success of the Swedish model is not all it is cracked up to be. Like other Scandinavian countries, Sweden has a very minimalist definition of “unemployment.” In particular, it has moved huge numbers of people into permanent disability and hence magically conjured them out of the labor force. Since unemployment in all countries is defined as the sum of the percentage of people working plus those looking for work divided by the labor force, this maneuver lowers the unemployment rate. Eurostat, which tracks social and economic data for EU countries, calculates the rate at 7.1%, and other press reports have depicted it as as much as 20%. The disguised unemployment that goes on in some European countries is nothing short of scandalous.

Sweden has in many ways the most advanced case of the European sickness – infatuation with the welfare state at the expense of ambition, infatuation with present pleasure at the expense of future achievement, and the corrupt multiculturalism that views immigrants as generators of a quaint diversity in food, habits, clothing, etc. to be enjoyed by the locals, with scant thought given what to do with the aspirations and potentially anti-liberal culture of the immigrants and their children. (Theodore Dalrymple has outlined this problem in a brand-new interview with the Brussels Journal.) That this model is now acknowledged even by the people who live under it to be coming under perhaps fatal strain is a hopeful sign that Europe may get well. For the European left, this is a tough pill to swallow because Sweden is seen by them as the most advanced society in the world. I bolded the last paragraph in the excerpt above because this remark, by a Swedish politician of all things, is very reminiscent of something Margaret Thatcher once said – that money and the opportunity to earn more of it are important primarily as ways to give you more control over your own life.

To be sure, it is important not to overestimate what it is that the new government even wants to do, let alone what the Swedish electorate would tolerate. A substantial welfare state is clearly here to stay, for as long as the finances will allow it. But there is a refreshing notion of facing reality that gives one hope. The new government may not be any position to do anything about Sweden's problem with assimilating immigrants, and almost certainly cannot do much about its demographic decline. But in showing some will to fix the country's economic difficulties, the people of that country may (if you are a glass half-full type) have taken the first painful step toward reconciling their dreams of a welfare-state paradise with a world where people are willing to work on much better terms than those on offer from cosseted workers in postwar Europe.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Median Anti-Americanism

A couple of European politicians who want to lead their governments are currently saying strange things. David Cameron, the leader of the opposition Conservatives in the UK, gave a speech (on September 11, of all dates) in which he decisively distanced himself from Tony Blair’s alliance with the tactics, although he assured us, not the goals of the US government in its response to Islamist terrorism. The section of the speech that has gotten the most attention, which Americans might find a little blunt for their tastes, is:

Britain does not need to establish her identity by recklessly poking the United States in the eye, as some like to do.

But we will serve neither our own, nor America's, nor the world's interests if we are seen as America's unconditional associate in every endeavour.

Our duty is to our own citizens, and to our own conception of what is right for the world.

We should be solid but not slavish in our friendship with America.

(The full text of the speech is here.)

Tony Blair has been destroyed by his standing with George Bush on Iraq. What Mr. Cameron's speech suggests is what is already widely known, that this sentiment is shared, not just within Mr. Blair’s Labor Party but throughout British society. (The third major British political party, the Liberal Democrats, has opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. The British would say "have opposed," but I don't want to get into that.) The development of this sentiment in the Conservative Party, and the willingness of conservative leaders to say it so publicly, is new.

Meanwhile, a French aspiring president, Nikolas Sarkozy, completed a tour of the US in which he says some very un-French things. Most prominently, that “I am not a coward. I am proud of this [American] friendship, and say it gladly.” (The story of his trip can be found in
The International Herald Tribune.) He praised, as he has in France, American entrepreneurial drive and social flexibility, something not typically heard from ambitious French politicians.

The politician' s problem of trying to select an optimal position on an issue to maximize his chances of reelection shares some similarities with the chain-store company's problem of how far apart to space its stores. Place them too close together, and they cannibalize each other’s sales; place them too far apart, and some customers roughly equidistant between them will refuse to go to either. But if the question is where companies are competing firms place their stores, the fact that transportation is costly may mean that competition tends to force the stores to cluster together.

If there are only two political parties, the politician who takes the leftmost position gets all of the voters to the left of that position, and all the voters at the halfway point between his position and that of his opponent. The converse is true for a politician of the right. If the distribution of voter preferences looks like a normal bell curve, each party is irresistibly pressured toward the middle. (If you’re not sure, draw a bell curve, plot two political stances on the horizontal axis, see who currently gets the most votes, and then think about the best response of the trailing politician.) In other words, a politician knows that if his position is to extreme, he loses a lot of votes in the center, and the center is where most of the votes are.

This is not exactly news to political consultants, but thinking about it formally in this way allows us to think about the current state of politics in Europe (if we think about “Europe” as a single political population, which is admittedly debatable). In particular, median anti-Americanism lies roughly halfway between what David Cameron is saying and what Nikolas Sarkozy is saying. While we have to be aware that in some countries (Belgium comes immediately to mind) anti-Americanism is far worse, this suggests that overall anti-Americanism in Europe is not as bad as is often asserted.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Cede Kirkuk

In Iraq some government officials have finally openly floated the idea of breaking the country up. The country, approximately (but only approximately) divided into Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni areas, is often said to have been artificially cobbled together by the British during the period in the early 20th century when the modern Middle East was created. (Baghdad has the misfortune at a time of increasing tribal hostility to have Sunnis and Shiites thrown together.) The Kurds in the northern part of the country do not fly the Iraqi flag on most of their buildings and apparently see independence – which would yield the first Kurdish state in the modern era – as a foregone conclusion. One of the things presumably holding their move toward independence up is the nettlesome problem of what to do with cities that are part Kurd and part Arab. Among the most problematic of these cities is Kirkuk, whose Kurdish population was heavily diluted during the Saddam Hussein era by Arab immigration. So any Kurdish independence drive would have to resolve the question of whether Kirkuk stays in Iraq or becomes part of Kurdistan.

A quick glance at the map reveals why it is such a critical question.

Kirkuk sits astride one of Iraq’s biggest oilfields. And oilfields, contrary to conventional wisdom, are a curse more than a blessing. Think about a world in which there are two kinds of resources – human capital (skills) and natural capital (stuff under the ground). It is difficult to excessively tax human capital in a world in which people are mobile. Canadian doctors who find their reimbursement rates lowered by Canada’s state health-care system are free to migrate south, limiting the bargaining power of the Canadian government. Philippine or African nurses who are underpaid or overburdened by the daily corruption of their countries can move to rich societies that can make them a better offer. Ambitious French entrepreneurs who are excessively taxed by the French government can simply take the Channel train to England and set up shop there.

Natural capital, in contrast, is easy to gain taxation authority over simply by controlling the ground under which it sits. Thus the incentive to fight over such territory is vast. (Think of the diamond wars in West Africa, and the broader resources wars that have consumed the Democratic Republic of Congo.) So too is the incentive to gain a share of the oil income via bribery of officials who (if the government meaningfully controls the country) control that income. Thus it is unsurprising that countries that depend more on fuel exports (and exports of minerals and fuels more generally) are more unstable and corrupt. Oil exporting is mainly a poor country's game; only Britain and Norway (and perhaps Malaysia) have been able to combine substantial oil exports with peace and clean governance, and all of that was built in the first two cases before the discovery of oil.

The Kurdish territories have built a vibrant economy without much oil in the heart of their territories, as the map shows. Most of the oilfields are in the border region, but few are in the heart of Kurdish territory. Despite (or more likely because) of this, the Kurds have managed to build a vibrant economy without the violence that plagues the rest of Iraq. A report in Reason magazine, an unlikely source given its libertarian, anti-interventionist tendencies, describes how the Kurdish economy is flourishing, in stark contrast to the chaos to the south. But Kirkuk and Mosul are much more violent places, and I think the Kurds would be wise to give these places up, and indeed not drive too hard a bargain on all the border or fields as they negotiate their departure from Iraq. The Kurds who live there, who became a diminished majority and perhaps even a minority during the Saddam Hussein era, presumably have a huge emotional attachment to them. This will be a thorny problem to overcome, but it is probably an easier one to deal with than the violent alternative that awaits them if the Kurds and the Arabs end up fighting over these cities (or, rather, the oilfields under them).

Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years On

On this fifth anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington, John Mueller thinks so. In an article in the current edition of Foreign Affairs Prof. Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State, asserts that the absence of an attack in the US in the five years since September 11 is a sign that there are no "sleeper cells" in the US, that violent Islamism has been exaggerated as a threat to American public safety, and that the tremendous scrutiny that has been imposed on Americans, both Muslim and non-Muslim alike, has correspondingly been a mistake:
But while keeping such potential dangers in mind, it is worth remembering that the total number of people killed since 9/11 by al Qaeda or al Qaeda衍ike operatives outside of Afghanistan and Iraq is not much higher than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States in a single year, and that the lifetime chance of an American being killed by international terrorism is about one in 80,000 -- about the same chance of being killed by a comet or a meteor. Even if there were a 9/11-scale attack every three months for the next five years, the likelihood that an individual American would number among the dead would be two hundredths of a percent (or one in 5,000).

Although it remains heretical to say so, the evidence so far suggests that fears of the omnipotent terrorist -- reminiscent of those inspired by images of the 20-foot-tall Japanese after Pearl Harbor or the 20-foot-tall Communists at various points in the Cold War (particularly after Sputnik) -- may have been overblown, the threat presented within the United States by al Qaeda greatly exaggerated. The massive and expensive homeland security apparatus erected since 9/11 may be persecuting some, spying on many, inconveniencing most, and taxing all to defend the United States against an enemy that scarcely exists.

Prof. Mueller addresses some of the arguments that might easily be raised against his thesis -- that jihadis have to focus on Iraq and Afghanistan rather than attacks in the US, that interdiction efforts by US intelligence have been extremely effective, etc. He handles most of them by appealing to general US government incompetence -- how could the same government that responded so incompetently to Katrina be so effective in countering an enemy as sinister as the jihadis are said to be? He also downplays the historic importance of the Islamist terrorism. Since 9/11, about the same number of people have died (other than in Iraqi and Afghanistan, although why those pushy should be excluded escapes me) in Islamist terror as die in American bathtubs every year.

Mark Steyn sees it differently. He emphasizes taking the terrorists at their word, and assuming that they ultimately can and will do what they say they will do:
Five years on, half America has retreated to the laziest old tropes, filtering the new struggle through the most drearily cobwebbed prisms: All dramatic national events are JFK-type conspiracies, all wars are Vietnam quagmires. Meanwhile, Ramzi Yousef's successors make their ambitions as plain as he did: They want to acquire nuclear technology in order to kill even more of us. And, given that free societies tend naturally toward a Katrina mentality of doing nothing until it happens, one morning we will wake up to another day like the "day that changed everything." Sept. 11 was less "a failure of imagination" than an ability to see that America's enemies were hiding in plain sight.

They still are.

So where do we stand? One can understand why President Bush, with all the nation's law-enforcement and intelligence apparatus at his disposal, and having in some sense been in charge and therefore responsible on that terrible day, is completely preoccupied by fears of another similar or even worse attack. On the other hand, the most dangerous expansions of government and abuses of its power always occur during times of perceived crisis. It seems clear to me that, first, there is a significant pool of young Muslim men who seek to maximize civilian casualties in the West, if they had a nuclear bomb, they would not hesitate to use it. They are downplayed now, but there were televised scenes then I'm gleeful celebrations in the Palestinian territories, and Steyn tells of receiving reports of similar celebrations in Europe and Canada. The angry men are found not just in the Middle East, but the angry Muslim neighborhoods of the UK, Holland, France, and perhaps the US as well. On the other hand, it is not clear how widespread this sentiment is. Osama bin Laden, according to polling data, was more popular in the Islamic world in the immediate aftermath of the attacks than he is now. (Indeed, Prof. Mueller makes the point that before and especially after the attacks, Islamist thought emphasized nonviolent activity, mostly in the Muslim world itself.)

But the historical record also strongly suggests that the more big government we pile on now, the less free we will be when "the war on terror" finally ends, if it does. (Although fear of and anger at the government can be taken too far. We forget now that it was initially assume did that tens of thousands of people might have died in the World Trade Center. The death toll was far lower, because emergency services had learned from the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 and were able to evacuate people quite effectively.) Another legacy of September 11 has clearly been rising tribal solidarity among Muslims, perhaps portending long-term antagonisms among Muslim civilization and the rest of humanity. The only ultimate resolution lies in quarantining violent jihadi sentiment while keeping risk in perspective. The 9/11 attacks were the result of years of planning in a centralized organization in control of a nation-state (Afghanistan). Until jihadi sentiment peters out, the most likely threat comes from entrepreneurial cells, fomented by radical leaders at mosques and capable of carrying out relatively small attacks. (If jihadis were to gain control of Somalia or western Iraq, it might be a different story.) But the more aggressively law-enforcement pursues such cells, the more innocent people, they will dry into their dragnets and the more pro-jihadi sentiment they will create.

If this seems like a jumbled essay, that is because it addresses a very jumbled problem in which, to some extent, almost everyone is right. There is significant minority apocalyptic anti-Western sentiment among young Muslim men, they do present the theoretical possibility of catastrophic damage, aggressive law enforcement can make this sentiment worse and cost us our freedoms, and most Muslims in the West and elsewhere ultimately want to live normal lives, even as their societies are among the hardest places in the world to do that. Tangled problems, alas, yield unsatisfying solutions. But any answer lies in recognizing that, like any organized-crime operation, those in charge must be simply eliminated while the ordinary people susceptible to their incitements to violence must be given reason to choose alternatives.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Your Circles and Mine

As far as I have been able to tell, the press has in the last few days been full both of tributes to the animal enthusiast Steve Irwin (who freakishly died when he was stung by a stingray) and even occasionally by criticism of all the attention paid to his death. I was struck by all the coverage for the simple reason thatI had never heard of him. I do not say this in the tradition of the proud cultural snob who waves for all to see his ignorance of popular culture. Instead, the lesson I take from my ignorance is the way in which citizens of the same country or members of the same culture can travel in completely different circles, with completely different frames of reference, which they use in interpreting world events.

It has been said that Goethe was the last man who knew everything worth knowing, and it is certainly true that knowledge (not just science, but familiarity with literature, history, etc.) has grown so dramatically that no one can hope to know more than a tiny fraction of it. For all I know, the phrase "Renaissance man," defining someone who knows a lot about a lot of things, may be meant to capture this idea that being truly knowledgeable was only then truly feasible.

But nowadays, ignorance is confined not just the academic knowledge, but to knowing even the broad contours of what other people know. Sometimes this is harmless; there is little damage when most people are ignorant about the finer details of stamp collecting. But in modern democratic societies built on the premise that a knowledgeable public will on average choose the wisest policies, the fragmentation of information calls that premise into doubt.

The federal government felt compelled the other day to release a report rebutting conspiracy theories about the September 11 attacks. Recent polling data has shown that something like a quarter of Americans are willing to entertain a theory that the government was involved in the attacks. The essence of conspiracism is to read only things that confirm what you already believe, and to take any seemingly credible evidence to the contrary by a seemingly independent organization as evidence that the conspiracy runs even deeper. Your information set becomes ever more unrepresentative, and so you become less and less likely to believe anything that calls into question what you already believe. Once you go down the road of selecting evidence only from the echo chamber of people who see the world the way you do, there may be no going back.

I vaguely recall recently seeing a report on how Internet political discussion groups lend themselves to even more extreme beliefs among people who entered them with less extreme beliefs. Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong with extreme beliefs, provided the data themselves are extreme. But the fragmentation of information, which has been around for a while but which is more important than ever because of the new communications technology, makes the fragmentation of the culture all the greater. Our greater wealth allows us to move around the country to find people who are like us, lending a greater spurious uniformity to our immediate friends and neighbors. People in Manhattan pride themselves on their tribal diversity, but probably have little contact with evangelicals in Oklahoma, and thus know them only as a stereotype. (The evangelicals in Oklahoma have the same problem.) Even the lack of common cultural reference points serves to further disintegrate society. People who don't know who Steve Irwin was are probably vastly overrepresented among my acquaintances, and so if someone outside that circle wants to make a point by making reference to him, I would until a few days ago have had no idea what he's talking about. And Steve Irwin of course is just a symbol of a much larger cultural gap that makes it much harder for us to understand one another. As long as we live, work, and otherwise associate with people with the same cultural reference points as we have, we are probably alright as individuals, but the health of the broader society may come into question. Of course, this immediately suggests a need for a common culture to be taught in the schools to give us those reference points, but as any soldier in the culture wars will tell you, agreeing on what those points actually are is another problem altogether.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

European Immigrants, Painted As Parasites

The philosopher Roger Scruton has written a piece in the current edition of The New Criterion in which he outlines Europe's and especially Britain's grim future as they are overcome by an avalanche of immigrants from other societies, some of them collapsing. In it, he takes a new anti-immigrant tack. Massive immigration from the Third World is immoral not because they destroy the culture but because the immigrants are entitled to benefits from the welfare state to which they have not contributed. In doing so, they are in some sense robbing the "indigenous" poor and working class for whose benefit the welfare state was originally created:

The destructive effects of liberalism are not usually felt by the liberals themselves—not immediately, at least. The first victim of liberal immigration policies is the indigenous working class. When the welfare state was first conceived, it was in order to provide insurance for poorer members of the indigenous community, by taxing their income in exchange for the benefits which they may one day need. The rights involved were quasi-contractual: a right of the state to levy contributions in exchange for a right of the citizen to receive support. The very term used to describe the deal in Britain — “national insurance”— expresses the old understanding, that the welfare system is part of being together as a nation, of belonging with one’s neighbors, as mutual beneficiaries of an ancestral right. The liberal view of rights, as universal possessions which make no reference to history, community, or obedience, has changed all that. Indigenous people can claim no precedence, not even in this matter in which they have sacrificed a lifetime of income for the sake of their own future security. Immigrants are given welfare benefits as of right, and on the basis of their need, whether or not they have paid or ever will pay taxes. And since their need is invariably great—why else have they come here?—they take precedence over existing residents in the grant of housing and income support. Those with a handful of wives are even more fortunate, since only one of their marriages is recognized in European systems of law: the remaining wives are “single mothers,” with all the fiscal advantages which attach to that label. All this has entailed that the stock of “social housing” once reserved for the indigenous poor is now almost entirely occupied by people whose language, customs, and culture mark them out as foreigners.

For a long time, the growing anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe has been mired in charges of being racist, as some of it in fact is. Indeed, the ability of the European left to simultaneously pose as stalwart defenders of the welfare state and as the only political players in the game who are not racists has been a very deft political achievement. In societies like Sweden they are able to maintain power despite what is apparently growing disenchantment with immigration and multiculturalism. (In Denmark and the Netherlands defense of the welfare state without reference to immigration has not been enough.) The attempt to cleave away welfare-states supporters to the anti-immigrant cause is as far as I know novel, and one likely to have unusual appeal in Europe, where a far higher percentage of immigrants are on various forms of welfare, where intrinsic discomfort with immigration is also greater, and where the welfare state elicits an almost holy devotion. Professor Scruton, who is the very example of the mossbacked traditionalist intellectual (his vita includes works such as Xanthippic Dialogues and The Aesthetic Understanding) is unlikely to be a formidable force in European politics on his own. But perhaps this argument will gain steam in the coming years. It bears watching.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Health-Care Piper Calles the Tune

The BBC has a report on a proposed plan by Britain's National Health Service (i.e., British taxpayers) to refuse to pay for fertility treatments for women with excessively high body mass indexes:

Dr Gillian Lockwood, who chairs the BFS's ethics committee, told the BBC that "unfairness" was the aspect of the NHS provision which people objected to most.

But Dr Lockwood said there were clinical factors which affected the success of IVF and, as well as weight concerns being over the age of 40 meant that "even very high-tech treatments like IVF are really very unsuccessful".

She added: "For £2,500, you have at least a 50% chance of producing a much wanted, beautiful healthy baby - the same cost as stripping varicose veins.

"I think the fourth richest country on earth should be able to afford effective fertility care for its citizens."

Clare Brown, chief executive of Infertility Network UK said: "From our own surveys and from the many, many calls we receive from patients, we know only too well that there are still unacceptable inequalities in the funding of treatment around the country and couples face huge difficulties in accessing services."

But Josephine Quintavalle, of the organisation Comment on Reproductive Ethics, told BBC Five Live limited NHS budgets needed to be focused on treatment for groups which would benefit the most.

"If it's a proven fact that it's very difficult to get pregnant when you're overweight, then the logical cure for that kind of infertility is to encourage the patient to lose weight."

Economics is about not what "we should be able to do" but what we can do. The takeover of health care by the state to varying degrees in most Western societies has unavoidably meant that politics has become the arena of decision for what kind of health care services are provided at what cost, rather than competition among buyers and sellers, the normal way of making such decisions for most goods.

When health-care decisions are made by "the market" (i.e., by such competition), whether or not heavier women should get fertility treatments depends only on whether the providers of such treatments and such women can strike a mutually beneficial bargain. This in turn is a question of whether or not the resources needed to provide such treatments can be had any cost less than such women's willingness to pay for such treatments. When health-care decisions are made by the British government, a lot of time is spent demarcating what everybody's "rights" are, with no one's claims having an ironclad logical priority over anyone else's. Thus, it falls to politicians to make these choices, and they make them on the basis of maximizing political support -- votes, campaign contributions, or whatever else contributes to their continuance in office. The market trades off one individual's health-care claims against those of someone else (or even something other than health care) strictly on the basis of the cost to society of providing one or the other. Politicians make that decision on the basis of, well, some other criteria.

Politicians will then tend to make all-or-nothing choices. Either fertility treatments are banned for everyone with a BMI over 36, or everyone with a BMI over 36 is entitled to fertility treatments. There is no room for adjustments at the margin -- the idea that some such women might have better prospects than others, so that we examine each case isolation. In addition, political pressure groups are far more likely to persuade the government to impose certain measures in the name of "better health" then they would private providers of or payers for healthcare services. Taxes on high-fat food and sugary drinks are commonly proposed. One could easily imagine the imposition of taxes on obesity itself, on people who live in low-density neighborhoods that discourage walking, or on any other principle but violates the rule of law simply because the government is now the health-care paymaster. State domination of healthcare provision is dangerous not just because it discourages innovation but because it subordinates everyone's lifestyle choices to whichever pressure groups can most effectively mobilize political power. In a private health-care system, an individual who wishes to live in a risky way finds that he internalizes the cost of that through higher health care costs. (When I say "private health-care system," I do not refer to that in the United States, which is a Rube Goldberg hybrid of public and private provision three) in a public health-care system. He is almost certainly deprived of the ability to make that choice.

Providers too will undoubtedly find the increasing intrusiveness, bureaucratic arbitrariness, and all-or-nothing nature of public decision-making frustrating. Already in the United States doctors are opting out of the lower-paying Medicaid system for the poor, and they may soon begin opting for more out of the Medicare system for the elderly as well. Some doctors are increasingly resorting to cash-only businesses where they do not even accept health-insurance payments. In the US, perhaps this will be the entrepreneurial magic bullet that encourages health insurance to be what it used to be -- insurance against an unlikely but catastrophic eventuality. People could pay cash for ordinary health services -- colds, checkups, broken arms and so on. Insurance can be purchased against the possibility of cancer, appendicitis, and other major calamities. That system has much to recommend it from the perspective of providing the most healthcare for the most people (i.e. from the perspective of efficiency), but it will have to wait for the breaking of the current logjam of a system that we have.