Wednesday, December 30, 2009

When Worlds Divide

So the governor of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh resigned after a fairly juicy sex scandal. Times Now has the details:

Breaking his silence, former Andhra Pradesh Governor N D Tiwari, who resigned in the wake of alleged sex scandal, today rubbished reports against him as "fabricated and false" and said he will continue to be in public life. On return to his home state, Uttarakhand, 86-year old Tiwari told reporters at the Jollygrant Airport near here that some people in Andhra Pradesh had hatched a conspiracy against him and levelled "false" allegations.

Declining to name anyone, he said some people associated with Telangana statehood agitation wanted to meet President Pratibha Patil during her proposed visit to Hyderabad, but he had refused to entertain their request. These people got angry with him and hatched a conspiracy against him, he claimed. Tiwari had resigned on Saturday on "health grounds" in the wake of a raging controversy after a sting operation by an Andhra TV channel purportedly showed him in a compromising position with three women in Raj Bhavan. The Raj Bhavan had dismissed the allegations as a "tissue of lies."

I confess I am a little embarrassed to set up a post this way, but stay with me. The interesting details are not those of the governor's energy (he is well into his 80s), but those of the state of Andhra Pradesh itself. Andhra was created out of a portion of the independence-era state of Madras, and merged years later with part of the state of Hyderabad to form Andhra Pradesh. In the last few weeks, there has been agitation to create a separate state out of portions of Andhra Pradesh, to look after the interests of some of the people who live there. The BBC has the latest.

This is not the first time India has broken states up. In fact, it has happened numerous times since independence. This is striking, because it has never happened in the United States, another very large country, since West Virginia split off from Virginia amid the turmoil over slavery.

Why so much jurisdictional fission? Some years ago I wrote a paper in Economic Development and Cultural Change arguing that since India at independence already had a series of ready-made pressure groups in the form of castes and tribes, it became very easy to organize on those principles when rent-seeking. It is much easier, in other words, to use caste and tribal identity to agitate for special privileges from the government than, for example, class identity. At independence, India correspondingly created a list of what were called the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, which were given (by current American standards) extremely generous forms of affirmative action, or reservations as they are known there. Legislative seats, university positions, and jobs in state-owned enterprises were reserved for people on these lists.

The list was designed to clear up the residual discrimination of Hindu society (in the case of caste) and isolation (in the case of tribe). As a compromise, it was agreed that no castes or tribes would be added to the list once it was drafted. However, governors in each state got to create the list, and politicians soon learned that splitting up a state allowed the creation of new lists, which meant new groups of dependent voters. The ability to create such utterly dependent citizens was enhanced once Indian politicians came up with the impolitely named category of Other Backward Classes, which unlike scheduled castes and tribes could be expanded without limit.

And so in some states upwards of 80% of the population is now eligible reservations, which is absurd on its face. And reservations have become, election in and election out, the consistently most important issue across the nation in Indian politics. Even India's world-renowned technological institutes may soon be subject to them.

My article also contended that the desire to create new lists in order to gain votes was the primary incentive for breaking states up. Every time I have mentioned this in the past to Indian friends they have scoffed. But the journalistic description of the current Andhra Pradesh episode -- in particular of the alleged need to "protect" certain groups -- makes me believe more than ever that I am right.

This is the unavoidable outcome of state-mandated preferences on grounds of race, caste, sex, or other non-meritocratic categories. The original justification expands to cover more and more alleged sins and kinds of people, and the beneficiaries are never satisfied that the problem has been solved. (In the US the only obstacle has been direct referenda, and some of them, for example in California several years ago, might not pass in a few years given rapidly changing demographics.) Those who lose out in such preferences find either that their options are limited or that they must leave, as many Indians from non-protected groups have done. In the meantime, look for the number of Indian states to rise over time, and look for people to continue to hide the reasons why.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Anti-Corporate Blog

I'm starting a new blog whose purpose is to keep track of anti-corporate thought in the broader culture. I will not abandon this one, but the new one (which will be updated whenever I find something worth writing about there) can be found here. The first post on it was the post below about Avatar.

Monday, December 28, 2009


The movie Avatar is quite the rage. Below is the plot summary, according to the Internet Movie Database:

When his brother is killed in battle, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully decides to take his place in a mission on the distant world of Pandora. There he learns of greedy corporate figurehead Parker Selfridge's intentions of driving off the native humanoid "Na'vi" in order to mine for the precious material scattered throughout their rich woodland. In exchange for the spinal surgery that will fix his legs, Jake gathers intel for the cooperating military unit spearheaded by gung-ho Colonel Quaritch, while simultaneously attempting to infiltrate the Na'vi people with the use of an "avatar" identity. While Jake begins to bond with the native tribe and quickly falls in love with the beautiful alien Neytiri, the restless Colonel moves forward with his ruthless extermination tactics, forcing the soldier to take a stand - and fight back in an epic battle for the fate of Pandora.

In The Rise of the Anti-Corporate Movement, I talked of the rise of anti-corporate thought in the popular culture, with science fiction being a particularly fruitful vein. The Alien and Terminator series, as well as the classic Blade Runner, all depict sinister corporations as responsible for futuristic misdeeds. And while I hasten to add that I haven't seen it, Avatar appears to be along those lines. The military as nothing more than a glorified corporate army, corporations as greedy exploiters of the natural resources belonging to native peoples, and most of all corporations as the forces that secretly rule the world, these are all recurring themes in the ACM. File it with the most recent James Bond picture, Quantum of Solace, as a sign of the further mainstreaming of the once-fringe paranoid, Manichean subset of ACM thinking.


Friday, December 18, 2009

A Change in the Climate

If news reports (or at least their relaying of American blame-shifting leaks) are to be believed, we have Red China to thank for killing the Copenhagen climate conference. One wonders what it says about the U.S. as the defender of individual liberty that we had to rely on them (and India and Brazil too, in all likelihood) for slaying this dragon.

The conventional wisdom about climate change goes something like this:
“We should be required to limit our CO2 emissions because we know we will otherwise have disastrous effects on the climate.”

But really, much of that sentence could benefit from a little deconstruction – could be challenged if people were willing to apply the critical thinking that, as a university professor, I keep hearing we want citizens to have in abundance:
to limit: Take for granted, for now, that CO2 emissions are going to raise global temperatures significantly. It does not follow that, at the margin, the best response is to decrease emissions. If carbon emissions generate a lot of benefit – ambulances taking heart attack victims to hospitals consuming vast amounts of electric power, supercooled or supercleaned factories making the mysterious parts that power the explosion of information known as the internet, the airplanes carrying not just people with self-important business like a climate conference to go to, but their own missions of importance (visiting dear relatives, interviewing for a rewarding job, whatever). Civilization is good, and we don’t want to destroy it,

Perhaps it would be better to accommodate climate change – to move human settlement back from the shore, to build flood-control systems, etc. All these things may require us to sacrifice less than radical limits on emissions.

be required: By whom? By the experts and functionaries, naturellement. The scientific revolution originally took place for its own sake, for the joy of discovery. And technology was created to serve human welfare, often in the pursuit of profit. But the modern bureaucratic state has harnessed corrupted science in the service, not of problems in a metaphysically certain sense, but problems that government has identified. Because of the influence of special-interest groups and bureaucratic self-interest in controlling individual autonomy, the latter is something different.

The creation of a massive bureaucratic entity to control carbon emissions, even if nominally cloaked in pro-choice outerwear like carbon credits, means that a huge sphere of previously relatively autonomous activity –transportation, manufacturing, communication, and even family decisions themselves – will come under the control of administrators, who will decide with the force of law how much we can live. (British writers have suggested annual individual carbon or air-travel quotas, and even child ceilings.) There is absolutely no reason informed by long historical experience to suggest this power will be used wisely. (Consider that the EPA, answering to no one, has already announced it will regulate CO2 if Congress does not, something no honestly free society would tolerate.)

The writer Thomas Friedman said on television the other day that his “daughters’ future” depends on getting CO2 under control. But by destroying impossible-to-predict innovations and by extending bureaucratic control over a huge chunk of the economy, a CO2 treaty is a far more sinister threat to his offspring. Such problems as occur might frequently be better handled by decentralized or even voluntary responses than through a massive central plan.

we know: What do we know? That CO2 would increase the climate other things equal is apparently just basic chemistry, but that is a weak statement. The single most noteworthy thing about climate “science” is the amount of scientific misconduct found within it. The faked “hockey stick,” the number of non-climatologists on the IPCC, and the unwillingness of climatologists to share their data, especially with unwashed non-credentialed members of the public, is frankly disgraceful; nothing any scientist who behaves that way says should be taken seriously.

I now keep meticulous records of all the backward-looking statistical modeling I do in my research. When graduate students or professors have asked in the past for my data and programming, I have given it to them with no ifs, ands or buts. The recent Climategate scandal is not the first incidence of climatologists massaging their data and hiding their work from the public. Now that the East Anglia data is coming out, people are finding interesting things. I am in no position to comment on their utility, but analyses of climate “science” by two people whose only official credentials are free men with an interest in the outcome seem to have found interesting things, and their work can be found here and here. Do not look for them in refereed journals near you, but remember them when you are asked to do your duty as a citizen subject to consensual government.

we will otherwise have disastrous effects: The climate is to a first approximation as complex as, say, the US macroeconomy, and our ability to model the latter is primitive. A critical criterion for a good statistical model is its ability not just to explain the past but to predict the future. Can climatology do this? Does it have a record of accurately predicting average temperatures in various places since the first IPCC report? I don’t know, but I suspect not. Climate models, it seems, are primitive, and relying on them to make irreversible changes in the relation between government and citizen, both in scope and in distance from those governed (multinational organizations instead of local governments) is madness.

The climate is also subject to other effects than what we do; if nature overwhelms CO2 emissions, making major sacrifices is pointless. (Indeed, warming since the Ice Age is in a sense responsible for civilization itself.) Will CO2 emissions cause helpful effects in some places? Will agricultural productivity go up? Will shipping become cheaper? Against this effect must of course be weighed the negative effects, but as noted above, many can perhaps be mitigated at low cost. Only the possible swamping of island nations by water raises the most serious moral questions.

Thus, if I were a teacher of critical thinking and ethics, I would hope my students would eventually realize that a better sentence looks something like this:

“Current evidence suggests that human activity is having some effects on the climate. Perhaps action should be taken in response.”

That is more like where we are scientifically and in terms of ethically reasoning our way through it. Starting from there would get us to a much better answer,