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Atavism error

By Lorenzo

What is the most atavistic state on the planet?

That would be the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), aka North Korea. It is a state of hereditary God-kings using a hierarchy of officials and soldiers to extract resources from a poverty-stricken population. And a system of God-Kings extracting resources from poverty-struck mass populations harks back centuries and millennia in human history. Though the system North Korea most resembles is that which evolved in Sung China (907-1279) and replicated under Ming (1384-1644) and Qing China (1644-1911) of hereditary ruler ruling through a meritorious bureaucracy over labour-service-and-tax-paying peasants. Except, as a command economy, rather than sitting “on top” of society as the mandarin state (mostly) did, the North Korean state effectively subsumes society.

Public acts of worship of departed God-kings.

Nor does it make much sense not to call the ruling dynasty of North Korea God-kings. Since the first ruler of the Kim Dynasty is the eternal President, and the second the eternal General Secretary, what would we call them other than God-Kings?

There is, of course, a huge irony in North Korea being the most atavistic state on the planet, since it is a product of Leninism, which regarded itself as the end of history; the culmination of hunan social political and economic understanding. How can such a vicious irony occur?

Getting the state wrong

From a series of errors embedded in Marxism, mainly in understanding the state. Historically states are:

(1) originally based on exploitation

(2) fundamental moulders of human society.

Qin Shi Huang and subjects:
Everyone ultimately worked for the ancient autocrat.

Leninism is a derivation of Marxism, and Marxism treats exploitation as a product of capitalist commerce and states as a epiphenomenon of society. So, if one gets rid of capitalist commerce, one gets rid of exploitation.

Nor is it the state one has to worry about; in Marxism the state is a tool of class interests. So, as long as the state proclaims itself to be a servant of the “correct” class, then social developments are on the correct path, no matter how powerful the state gets.

But states are not epiphenomena of society: a fact most obviously displayed in the history of Leninism itself, where state power was used to hugely remould societies. Moreover, states are the prime vehicles for exploitation of humans by their fellow humans. Indeed, genuine exploitation is always based on unbalanced coercion. That is, coercion which is used against one group for the benefit of another. And the state is, almost always, the most effective instrument of coercion, hence the most effective vehicle of exploitation.

Exploitative origins of the state

In its origins, the state is an instrument of exploitation. Perhaps the most striking single feature of Western civilisation is that it creates states which are not primarily vehicles of exploitation. Ironically, it was the very distinctiveness of Western states which encouraged Marx to be so wrong about the state–observing states which were actively responsive to their societies, he took the wildly abnormal as the normal and generalised from that.

[I rather like Deidre McCloskey's view of Marx:

... the greatest social scientist of the nineteenth century, without compare, though mistaken on almost every substantive point, and especially in his predictions ...

Actually, it is productive labour that counts;
not the same thing at all.

But he was attempting to generalise from C19th Europe; in so many ways, the most wildly anomalous place and time in human history up to that time, bar none.]

Farming societies do not automatically produce hierarchy or surpluses–the extra food produced mainly goes into producing babies and supporting some increased specialisation. What farming does is create extractable food–since food has to be stored across seasons. So, once the trick is managed of creating a controlled hierarchy able to systematically extract food, then a substantial surplus is created.

Look what I can do with all that extracted surplus.

It generally took thousands of years to evolve the state (centuries in the case of Upper Egypt), because it took that long to get the combination of farming density and social hierarchy able to resolve the “chicken-and-egg” (or perhaps non-linear feedback) problem of sufficient-surpluses-created-through-extraction able to sustain a system of extraction-that-created-sufficient-surpluses.

Thus Marxism’s blindness about both the nature of exploitation and the nature of the state lead directly to–in its revolutionary form–the creation of exploitative tyrannies. Hence the path from Marx’s mistakes to the creation of the most atavistic state on the planet.

Ideas do indeed have consequences. Including mistaken ideas–indeed, perhaps especially mistaken ideas.

 

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

A regulatory wrinkle from rational expectations

By Lorenzo

The rational expectations hypothesis can be understood in various ways. One is as an equilibrium condition in a model–the model is in equilibrium when expectations of agents in the model align with the predictions of the model (though that does not mean it is a stable equilibrium). Another is that expectations of agents within the model should not be set differently from the predictions of the model without justification. That is, rational expectations is the default available-information-is-used hypothesis.*

One of Arnold Kling’s recurring points in his useful and enlightening analysis of the 2008 Financial Crisis, Not What They Had in Mind, is that the regulators were not systematically cleverer than the banks and other financial institutions. That, on the contrary, both the regulators and the regulated tended to share beliefs about risk, prospects, etc. Of course, why would we expect them to do otherwise? They had access to much the same information and were using essentially the same analytical tools–remembering that analytical tools are part of information. (Indeed, to the extent there were differences in access to information, market participants would be likely to be better informed than regulators.)

The convergence in information and expectations was (and can be expected to be) of a somewhat interactive nature, as much of the information was created as a response to the regulations. I don’t mean “made up” (though there was some of that; but where there is wealth to be had, fraud is always a potential issue). I mean that information was created both to conform to the regulations and as a result of the regulations.

Discretionary convergences

So, does not discretionary regulation have a rational expectations problem? On what basis do we expect the expectations of the regulators to be usefully systematically different from the expectations of the regulated about market conditions? If we have no basis to expect them to be usefully systematically different about (for example) risks–and surely we do not–why do we have discretionary regulation?

One response might be: but regulators and regulated have different incentives. Well, yes; but why does that make a difference if they still have converging expectations? And creating a difference by having the regulators be significantly less informed about market conditions than participants hardly seems a desirable way to discourage expectations convergence. (Having them be systematically better informed is not a plausible situation if markets are even weakly information efficient.)

The US political system is particularly prone to creating discretionary regulations, because delegating regulatory activity to specific agencies allows more “responsive” regulation (i.e. it does not have to fight its way through Congress), because it creates someone for Congress to blame (they can distance themselves from negative political fall out) and because it permits more use of “expert” knowledge to “fill in the blanks” of legislation that is more likely to pass if it has useful ambiguity, leaving areas open to later (lobbying and) decision.

If we at least pretend that the point of regulation is good public policy (rather than creating politically useful externalities), given this converging expectations difficulty, what is required for socially-beneficial regulation is for differing incentives to usefully create different reactions even though regulator and regulated are likely to have the same expectations about, for example, risks.

What makes this even more problematic is that, as Kling points out, financial regulatory regimes in particular are not stable:

It turns out that financial regulation is not like a math problem, which can be solved once and stays solved. Instead, financial regulation is like a chess game, in which moves and counter-moves proceed continually, eventually changing the board in ways that players have not anticipated.

A great deal of financial innovation is aimed at what Kling calls “regulatory arbitrage”–getting around regulatory constraints. So, any given regulatory regime is inherently prone to becoming increasingly detached from the actual structure of financial markets even as those structures will be significantly affected by said regulatory regime. In such circumstances, as Kling notes, regulations become ways, not so much of stopping the last crisis, as helping to create the next one.

And expecting regulators to react usefully to the changes when they will have the much same expectations as those they are regulating seems, to put it mildly, a big ask.

So, there seems to be a rational expectations problem with discretionary regulation, particularly in financial markets.

Broad bargains

If you are really going to get around the converging expectations problem, then the incentives difference has to be maximised without enlarging the gap between market participants and regulators about market conditions–i.e. not increasing the degree to which regulators are less informed than market participants. Such can be done by making sure that–to continue with the case of banking and financial markets–the “game of bank bargains” is played in as broad a bargaining process as possible. That is, minimise the likelihood of the interests of significant groups either not being considered or being discounted. Which is another mark against discretionary regulation, because that has a fundamental tendency towards being framed by those most involved; hence the whole regulatory capture problem.

So, is your financial regulation bargain broadly or narrowly based? If it is the latter, then converging expectations (and incentives) between regulator and regulated are not likely to result in a socially-beneficial regulatory regime; and the more said regulatory bargain relies on discretionary regulation, the more that is so.

A point, by the way, that applies to bureaucratic approval processes generally. Especially when we realise that regulatory capture is not solely a feature of regulated firms, but can apply to well-organised/well-connected interests generally. Land use regulations are classic examples of that.

Broad-based bargaining producing general rules which are transparent would seem the way to go. Any system which ultimately relies on the regulators having different expectations about market circumstances than the regulated has a problem. Given that the more informed the regulators are, the more convergence in expectations is to be expected–while generating different expectations by regulators being less informed is hardly desirable–rather more scepticism about regulatory structures (especially discretionary regulatory structures) than seems generally evident seems sensible. If the point is good public policy.

Arnold Kling’s suggestion of trying to have a financial system which is easier to fix rather than harder to break also seems to be worth considering.

 

* Economising on information and cognitive effort would presumably be what you would base any divergence in agent expectations from model predictions on.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Three ages of Western history summarised

By Lorenzo

In the Ancient period, the dominant ideal was to ennoble life (to seek glory).

In the Medieval period, the dominant ideal was to sanctify life (to seek salvation).

In the Modern era, the dominant ideal is to expand life (to live long and prosper).

The ideal of the previous era never entirely dies, but becomes part of the cognitive context in which the later ideal operates. 

These thoughts struck me while reading Pierre Manent‘s The Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic. A book I found alternatively intriguing and frustrating.

The Ancient period generated both the aristocratic-heroic notion of seeking glory and the philosophical notion of seeking knowing virtue. These are both hierarchical notions of meaning and purpose in life. In a different way, so is seeking salvation. It may be open to all, but it is a journey Godwards, so a journey metaphysically upwards, towards the highest point in the “great chain of being“.

Social framing

In the Greek polis there is the participation in the city-community and glory within (and beyond) it. From the persuasion, disputation and rhetoric of polis politics came the philosophers, who came to seek a universal wisdom and virtue. The Jewish idea was to follow God, but was not a universal idea, it was a matter of being the Chosen People.

Then along comes Christianity, which marries the universalism of the philosophers to the God-focus of the Jews within the rule of a city (Rome) that had become a quasi-universal law-for-all Empire; an Empire that was both the apotheosis and the stagnation of the Classical World.

The collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the triumph of Christian universalism creates the medieval world of Latin Christendom. But that universalism breaks apart in the Reformation and the Wars of Religion–the aspiration and claim remains, but the experienced reality becomes very different.

Meanwhile, the Scientific Revolution produces a universalism of truth. But that is not a hierarchical notion in the same way–it may seek to winnow out truthful understanding from misleading dross, but it is outward-looking rather than upward-directed.

Along comes the Enlightenment; a reaction against murderous and hugely destructive religious strife, but a re-engagement with philosophy and Classical thought inspired by the burgeoning success of science. This in a society where the aristocratic ideal had been re-invigorated as one of leadership in military and political life along with patronage and appreciation of art and culture.

Political revolutions

The Parliamentary tradition coming out of medieval history gets a commercial re-invigoration with the Glorious Revolution and again, with more of a Classical gloss, in the American Revolution. While both were grounded in claims about the British tradition, the already somewhat multi-ethnic American colonies began to articulate more universal notions–most notably in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Though the US Constitution stressed commonality rather than universality:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The Revolution which talked rather more in terms of universality was the French Revolution and those that descended from it. Or, as it was put in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (pdf):

The representatives of the French People, formed into a National Assembly, considering ignorance, forgetfulness or contempt of the rights of man to be the only causes of public misfortunes and the corruption of Governments, have resolved to set forth, in a solemn Declaration, the natural, unalienable and sacred rights of man …  

Article first: Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be based only on considerations of the common good.

Article 2: The aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of Man. These rights are Liberty, Property, Safety and Resistance to Oppression.

The French Revolution became based on the politics of virtue which led, of course, straight to the politics of the guillotine. For virtue can not be negotiated over, it can only be adhered to, or not; and to be the “enemy” of virtue is to be the enemy of humanity.

Judged to be insufficiently virtuous

Hannah Arendt once asked why folk so often ignored the American Revolution, which succeeded, but extolled the French Revolution, which failed. A major reason is that intellectuals and academics–typically not being responsible for anything except their own work–have not much to contribute to the politics of negotiating liberty. But they can define “virtue” more easily than anyone else while being–precisely due to that lack of responsibility–far more “virtuous” than anyone else. So, of course, they find the politics of virtue so attractive.

Moreover, in societies where commercial interests were relatively weak, revolutionary activity was much more likely to be grounded in the intelligentsia than in the sort of propertied folk who drove the  Glorious and American Revolutions. Hence the sad litany of failed “Revolutions of Virtue”, with their tyrannies and mass murders.

Mass politics

As the Industrial Revolution got underway, and revenue and politics became so much about the capital/labour ratio (where capital is the produced means of production)–rather than, as it had been before, the land/labour constraint (with a trade-in-luxury-goods add-on)–the Western world led the world into an age of mass politics.

Mass politics in its universalist forms being the politics of humanity. But, as Manent asks, how do you define humanity? A much more fraught issue than it might appear. What of past generations? What of future ones? Do we accept that everything with a human face is human? Or “fully” or “properly” human. (Lots of people don’t accept that; not really.) Are the vast majority of people even, in any real sense, visible to us?

Poland divided between the Counter-Enlightenment and the Radical Enlightenment

The struggle between the Sceptical Enlightenment (of negotiated liberty); the Radical Enlightenment (of a humanity made virtuous); and the Counter-Enlightenment (extolling the particular) flows directly out of the fraught politics of humanity (and the reactions to it). The Dictators’ War (1939-1945) was all about that struggle, which saw the defeat of the Third Reich; the state which personified the Counter-Enlightenment. Just as the Cold War was about the struggle between the Sceptical and Radical Enlightenments, as personified in their two Revolutionary super-states–the USA and the USSR.

Sceptical v Radical Enlightenment

Contemporary confusions

The triumph of the Sceptical Enlightenment, with the collapse of the Soviet Empire and China’s switch to “socialism with Chinese features” (i.e. capitalism), was supposed to be the End of History. But the ideas of the Counter-Enlightenment resonated with the Islamic revival (its own form of the politics of virtue) to produce the jihadi movement while Euroskepticism and Putin have come along to remind us that the Counter-Enlightenment’s extolling of the particular can still have appeal. Often for quite understandable reasons.

The jihadis confound us; not only because religious motives (such as clearly expressed here as mass killing following the example of the Prophet) are mysterious to our overwhelmingly secular intelligentsia and commenters, but also because the goal of virtuous harmony seems very Radical Enlightenment, but the jihadis particularist atavism is much more like the Counter Enlightenment in its most violent form. Or, as Algerian journalist Mohamed Sifaoui puts it:

the Muslim fundamentalists are our extreme right.

Expatriate Algerian activist Marie-Aimee Helie-Lucas expressed a similar sentiment back in 1993:

Islamic fundamentalism is not a religious movement, it is a political movement. It is the extreme right wing using religion as a cover. Yes, it is a populist movement, which therefore gives it legitimacy. But we should never forget that Hitler was a populist. Hitler was elected. It is the Fascism of today.

The jihadis are especially confounding for Western progressives, as they fit really not at all into the oppressed-oppressor narrative of progressivist politics–they are non-Westerners (so inherently “oppressed”) but seek to be oppressors (up to, and including, being slave-owners [pdf]).  All this mostly within the confounding complexity of the Middle East (though a complexity not so different than Europe during, say, the Thirty Years War, but with extra unfamiliarity).

So, not quite the end of history. But not quite not, either. Democracy–the politics of the sovereign people–is still the overwhelmingly preferred political system in polls around the world (including the Islamic world). The Emancipation Sequence–the politics of common humanity–has proved to be a somewhat exportable product. Violence continues its long-term decline, albeit with some upward spikes.

The paradox of politics–that we need the state to product us from social predators but the state itself is the most dangerous social predator–was never going to go away. But the framing of that paradox has changed profoundly; and overwhelmingly for the better.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud].

How do you keep an exploited socialist economy going?

By Lorenzo

You sell people you don’t want (via):

East Germany’s economy was in free fall. Many skilled workers and intellectuals had fled and the Soviet Union was stripping the country of its resources. By 1964 the fiscal situation had become so dire that the authorities developed a scheme to sell political prisoners to West Germany. They called it haeftlingsfreikauf.

“Between 1964 and 1989 some 33,755 political prisoners and 250,000 of their relatives were sold to West Germany, for a sum totalling 3.5bn Deutschmarks,” says historian and author, Andreas Apelt.

“Both sides had an interest in the business – the GDR because it needed Western currency and the West because it wanted to save people from the inhumane prisons of the GDR.”

Prisoners were also traded for commodities such as coffee, copper and oil.

Meanwhile, in Venezuela, the government has decreed that folk will have a merry, price-controlled Christmas (via):

The doors opened on Monday, November 3, at 5 a.m. local time, and more than 600 people entered the store to shop at government-issued prices. Military officers monitored the sales, limiting customers to three items per person, and only one item of each kind.

Customers complained about the store’s lack of inventory, especially the shortage of popular dolls. By Wednesday, all Barbie dolls and Max Steel toys sold at the regulated price were sold out in all eight General Import stores.

Let’s hear it for the spirit of Christmas. What’s worse than highly commercialised Christmas? The state-controlled alternative.

 

ADDENDA: If you are North Korea, you can go into exporting state slaves as construction workers.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Swift justice

By Lorenzo

 

Evening of May 11, 1812: broker John Bellingham shot and killed Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in the lobby of the House of Commons.

May 15, 1812: John Bellingham tried at the Old Bailey.  A claim of insanity was not accepted.

May 18, 1812: John Bellingham was hanged by the neck until dead.

No mucking about in those days.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Never reason from a static coalition

By Lorenzo

From the Great Depression election of 1930 to the Contract with America election of 1994–so a period of 64 years–the US House of Representatives had a Republican majority for precisely 4 years (two terms): 1947-49, 1953-1955, the terms of Speaker Joseph William Martin Jnr.

Since the Contract with America election, the only non-Republican Speaker has been Nancy Pelosi (2007-11). So, after having a US House of Representatives majority for 4 years out of 64, the Republican Party has since had a majority for 16 out of 20: a majority confirmed, indeed increased, in the recent midterm elections, with the Republicans achieving their largest majority since 1928. [Or, at a State level, since 1920: with the Democrats down to Civil War levels of (lack of) State control.] Suggests that shifts in the electorate have been heading the Republican’s way.

Density, diversity and Democrats
Yet, it is very easy to find analyses which will tell you that long-term demographic trends are working against the Republican Party. One of the more striking such analyses is a population density analysis by Baltimore entrepreneur-blogger Dave Troy. With a couple of striking graphs, he points out (in a November 2012 post) that, once population density in a county hits 800 per square mile, it votes Democrat; with such voting increasing the more population density does. Indeed, as density also means diversity, it correlates strongly with racial residence patterns–except it apparently only takes 3% Asian population or 9% Hispanic population to trigger Democrat majorities at a county level. Hence, he concludes that

The real drivers seem to be density and diversity. Density (such as found in cities) corresponds with diversity. Diversity leads to progressive voting behaviour.

The Atlantic magazine took up this theme in a November 2012 article, that the US political divide was a rural-urban one:

The new political divide is a stark division between cities and what remains of the countryside. Not just some cities and some rural areas, either — virtually every major city (100,000-plus population) in the United States of America has a different outlook from the less populous areas that are closest to it. The difference is no longer about where people live, it’s about how people live: in spread-out, open, low-density privacy — or amid rough-and-tumble, in-your-face population density and diverse communities that enforce a lower-common denominator of tolerance among inhabitants.

The voting data suggest that people don’t make cities liberal — cities make people liberal.

This divide is how things are trending:

This divide between blue city and red countryside has been growing for some time. Since 1984, more and more of America’s major cities have voted blue each year, culminating in 2012, when 27 out of the nation’s 30 most populous cities voted Democratic. According to Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections and The New York Times, the 2012 election marked the fourth time in the last five federal election cycles that voters shifted away from the party of the sitting president. Despite that constant churn, one part of the electoral map has become a crystal clear constant. Cities, year by year, have become drenched in more blue. Everywhere else is that much more red.

Moreover:

For years, this continues: Urban and rural counties jostling with a small pool of counties which go back and forth every couple of elections. There’s no real realignment, just a constant tug of war as the nation grows further divided.

Now, if density and diversity favour the Democratic Party, has the US got more or less densely populated and diverse since, say 1994? Especially compared to, say 1932-1993? Even since 1984? And how has the Republican Party done in House of Representatives seats in that time, worse or better?

One sees the little problem: identify that density and diversity favour the Democrats, note that the US is becoming more densely populated and diverse, and conclude the Republicans are on a long-term losing wicket. Dave Troy warns so, in his original post:

Red state values are simply incompatible with density.

Only subsidized suburban housing and fuel prices are insulating the United States from this global trend, and even with these artificial bulwarks, there is no good reason to think that America’s future lies in low-density development.

Density is efficient. Density produces maximum economic output. An America that is not built fundamentally on density and efficiency is not competitive or sustainable. And a Republican party that requires America to grow inefficiently will become extinct.

While the Republican party is retooling in the desert, it should carefully consider whether its primary issue is identity politics or whether its platform is simply not compatible with the global urban future. If that’s the case, an Hispanic candidate running on the same old Republican platform will simply not resonate. The Republican party must develop a city-friendly platform to survive.

Cities are the future and we need candidates from both parties that understand that reality.

OK, so he is warning about the future, rather than simply consigning the Republican Party to long-term loser status. Still, there is a paradox here: density and diversity favour the Democrats according to a rural Republican v urban Democrat division which has been becoming more and more entrenched since 1984 in a US that has been becoming more diverse and more densely populated, yet the Republican Party has been having its most electorally successful period in close to 90 years.

Yes, there are some (re)districting issues, but that does not get you very far at all in explaining the apparently contradictory pattern of “hostile” demographics yet Republican electoral success.

I would suggest a more basic issue: in a two-Party system, both Parties are effectively coalitions of interests and groups. In a highly competitive two-Party system, they are dynamic coalitions. Even with a rural-urban divide, there is nothing magical about 800 people per square mile. Push the “crossover” number up a bit to, say, 850 people per square mile, and the Republican vote goes up significantly. Push it down to, say 750 people per square mile, and the Democratic vote goes up significantly.

 So, if Republicans soft-pedal cultural issues which are working against them and start talking about poverty, equal pay, income inequality and black disadvantage (their Senate majority now includes South Carolina’s first black Senator since Reconstruction), then the cross-over point can shift–in their favour. [The Republicans made gains in all demographic groups.] That is how two-Party systems work, in genuinely competitive environments.

Yes, of course demographic changes are of interest–but they are of interest in how electoral contests will be framed, not (in genuinely competitive systems) as permanent predictors of winners. Which, if that is the point Troy was trying to make, is a good one. But don’t buy into “Party X is doomed because [insert demographic trend here]“. It is simply not how competitive two-Party systems work.

Oh, and what does the Party of an unpopular President doing madly in second term midterms tell you about the prospects for 2016? Essentially, nothing.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud]

Ebola, Ferguson and political narratives

By Lorenzo

The Ebola virus reaching the US and the ongoing troubles and controversy over a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri display the power and the dangers of political narratives from all sides, both of US politics and more broadly.

Thus, one of the more tired and embarrassing responses to Ebola mis-steps in the US has to been to decry “budget cuts” at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and related agencies, thereby fulfilling two perennial progressivist tropes–there is never enough money and more money makes it better.

Evading responsibility
Embarrassing because:

  • dealing with viral outbreaks is rather their core business [particularly the CDC, but the US Health and Human Services Department generally], and having an appropriate action plan ready to go should not be very expensive [even if implementing it may be]; and
  • (2) the NIH spends a considerable amount of money, an amount which has gone up dramatically over the last decade and a half.

In 2000, the NIH had a total budget of $17.8bn, which rose rapidly to $28.6bn in 2005 and has hovered around $29-$30bn ever since. Quite a lot of money and not subject to any serious cuts. (It is a bigger budget than the Australian Defence Force.) This did not stop the current head of the NIH blaming the failure to come up with an Ebola vaccine on “a decade of stagnant spending“. Yes, that is a bureaucrat evading responsibility, but the Huffington Post headline blames “budget cuts”; and the “budget cuts!” and “more money!” memes are very useful for evading responsibility.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a budget of around $6.5bn in recent years, also after considerable increases under the Bush II Administration.

Then there is the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which the NIH and CDC are part of. It, and its subordinate agencies, has a total budget of, in 2013, $886bn; in 2014, $958bn; and, in 2015, $1trn. That is a significantly bigger budget than the US Defence Department and more than twice the expenditure of the entire Federal Government of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Again, effective plans for dealing with a possible viral outbreak which has been raging in West Africa for months, how much does that cost, really? [Including health guidelines one might adopt from people with experience.] The HHS has, for example, enormously more resources than, say Nigeria or Senegal, who have both successfully dealt with much worse outbreaks and provide learning experiences that a competent bureaucracy might notice. (Though Peter Turchin raises a rather nastier possible explanation for the somewhat lacklustre response.)

If a trillion dollar budget does not generate satisfactory competence in a basic area of responsibility, no amount of money is going to. Indeed, at that sort of scale, more money, and the extra responsibility that does with it, is almost certainly going to generate less basic competence, not more. It does rather look like something of a failure of the administrative state (though the degree of “failure” is being rather overdone).

Apart from being easy tropes, fulfilling a preferred political narrative, “budget cuts!”, “more money!” also do something such narratives are often about–they divert attention from awkward facts likely to cause cognitive dissonance. The cognitive dissonance here being a (very well-funded) government bureaucracy does absolutely nothing to provide any guarantee of effectiveness, or even basic competence. The omni-competent state that progressivist politics implicitly or explicitly postulates will solve problems–if just given the correct goals and the funding-which-is-never-enough–does not really exist.

Worse, as we have seen with the head of the NIH, the memes in question actively work to evade responsibility–and that is precisely the point. Holding government agencies and spending programs genuinely accountable for their competence and effectiveness not only makes “the government will fix it” much more complicated, it can actively and seriously undermine that central presumption.

This is not merely an “political narratives” issue. It goes right to the heart of holding governments and their agencies accountable. Political narratives matter, and in a very direct sense.

President Obama’s response to the agencies on the ground letting him down–in the “embarrassing the President in the news cycle” sense–was to appoint an Ebola “czar”. Both he and his predecessor have been very inclined to such appointments, far more so than previous postwar presidents. That is partly because both President Obama and President Bush II are mediocre administrators, by US Presidential standards. It is also likely to be partly a response to the 24-hour news cycle–President Clinton was much more inclined than his postwar predecessors to appoint such folk, though not nearly as inclined as his two successors. It may also be partly a response to the growth of the US Federal Government–the more it does, the harder it is to coordinate.  But I would rate administrative competence as the main driver: Bush II and Obama are simply not very good at such (witness Obama’s appalling failure to appoint people to vacancies on the US Federal Reserve Board), and political officers are what you turn to when you can’t make the ordinary bureaucracy do what you want.

[This piece on problems in the administration of National Security by the Administration is less than re-assuring, further indicating a lack administrative competence. Jeb Bush--who, as a former Governor 0f Florida, has a lot of experience in crisis-management--has criticised the Administration's simple message management, contrasting it with his own efforts in somewhat similar circumstances: also not an expensive matter.]

Three languages of politics
Which brings us to Ferguson, Missouri and the police-and-blacks issue that the killing of Michael Brown by police offer Darren Wilson and subsequent riots brought (yet again) to the fore. The controversy over what did and did not happen (the killing itself remains distinctly murky) provides an excellent example of Arnold Kling‘s The Three Languages of Politics (which he discusses here, I recommend listening): the progressive oppression/oppressor axis, the conservative civilisation/barbarism axis and the libertarian freedom/coercion axis.

Reading progressivist and conservative online commentary on matters Ferguson is to enter two different world views that barely interact. Among conservatives, it was about “race baiting”, appropriate behaviour when stopped by a police offer and (lack of) civic engagement–in other words, how progressivists make things worse and the civilisation v. barbarism axis. Among progressivists, it was yet another unarmed black men being killed in police-initiated or massively over-reacting incidents, police incitement and abuse of authority, narrow and unbalanced reporting of a mainly black community–in other words, a civil rights matter, one of oppression and oppressed.

Then there was the libertarian commentary, which particularly focused on the militarisation of US police forces–notably in Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s opinion piece in Time. Libertarians have been warming about the militarisation of US police for some time, as in this 2006 article by Glenn Reynolds in Popular Mechanics. A concern that has spread to conservatives, as in this 2013 Heritage Foundation analysis. Sen. Paul managed nods to both the civilisation/barbarism narrative:

The outrage in Ferguson is understandable—though there is never an excuse for rioting or looting. There is a legitimate role for the police to keep the peace, but there should be a difference between a police response and a military response.

And to the oppressor/oppression narrative:

Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them. …

Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention. Our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately long and harsh sentences for non-violent mistakes in their youth.

While focusing on critiquing the militarisation of US police forces (freedom/coercion):

When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury—national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture—we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands.

Militarisation combines power and separation: it separates the police from the local citizenry while elevating their sense of power over them, not a happy combination. At which point, (conservative and libertarian) opposition to gun control is surely a factor. A recurring claim in favour of widespread gun ownership is that “an armed society is a polite society”. Historically, that is not true; it more often breeds a violent, honour-obsessed society. What an armed society does apparently breed is not polite police folk, but paranoid ones. And, with the militarisation of US police forces, courtesy of the US Federal Government, ludicrously over-armed paranoid ones; also not a happy combination.

But not randomly paranoid ones. Young men are the most likely corpses from fatal police-initiated/disproportionate reaction shootings, particularly young black men.

To the extent that these shootings become matters of public debate, they tend to disappear in the talking-past-each other self-supporting political narratives seen regarding events in Ferguson, Missouri. But freedom is, ultimately, indivisible. A long history of US police forces being able to evade responsibility for how they treat black folk (and other low-status groups, but particularly black folk) turns out to be not something that can be quarantined away from, well, everyone else. As a man whose son was shot by a police officer 10 years ago wrote recently:

Our country is simply not paying enough attention to the terrible lack of accountability of police departments and the way it affects all of us—regardless of race or ethnicity. Because if a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy — that was my son, Michael — can be shot in the head under a street light with his hands cuffed behind his back, in front of five eyewitnesses (including his mother and sister), and his father was a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who flew in three wars for his country — that’s me — and I still couldn’t get anything done about it, then Joe the plumber and Javier the roofer aren’t going to be able to do anything about it either.

Michael Z. Williamson (website here) is a military SF writer of libertarian views with a strong interest in military history. (His novel Freehold, for example, is basically the Winter War in space.) His recent collections of short stories and other writings, Tour of Duty, contains two pieces which detail his experiences with the IPD (Indianapolis Police Department). His view of the police:

Lesson here: they’re hired goons, not at all concerned with law and order (p.446).

They are mercenary thugs, hired by my tax dollars to oppress me in the name of corporate America. Not even whores, as whores are paid for their work (p.447).

His view of correction officers after being arrested and held overnight:

I have learned that you are petty, gutless Fascists who are so pitiful as to find solace in your own wretched lives in bullying people with problems, helpless to resist you, until they turn into caged animals for your amusement (p.462).

Remember, he is a white US military veteran. (If a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality, perhaps a libertarian is a conservative who has had one too many dealings with government officials.)

[Frank Serpico--yes, from the movie--discusses writes about the continuing problems of (lack of) police accountability in the US.]

Techniques of evasion of accountability can spread–both from bureaucracy to bureaucracy and from low-status group to well, anyone and everyone. Which, as this article in conservative journal National Review sets out, leads to a pattern of inadequately accountable government agencies:

It’s perverse: If an ordinary citizen makes a typo on his 1040EZ, he could be on the hook for untold sums of money, fines, even jail time. When the IRS abuses its power to harass political enemies, nothing happens. A few years ago, an employer of mine entered the wrong Social Security number on my paperwork — I have barbaric handwriting — and the error took months of telephone calls and mail to fix, a period of time over which I was threatened with all sorts of nasty consequences by the Social Security Administration and the IRS. But when the Social Security Administration oversees the payment of millions of dollars in benefits to Nazi war criminals summering on Croatian beaches, nothing happens. If you’re an ordinary schmo, a typo can land you in jail. If you work for the government, you can burn the face off a baby and walk.

The clear and present danger
Discussions of the uncivil tribalism of contemporary US politics and the power of political narratives tend to talk about it as unfortunate, regrettable, be nice if we could do better. But the problem is much deeper than that. The way the tribal narratives are actually operating is to frustrate political accountability and breed dangerously unaccountable government agencies.

If one is trying to deal with the world as it is, rather than as you would like to think of it, then the question becomes; is that an appropriate axis to view this problem? Or merely one you find congenial? For example, phenomena such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are really not usefully viewed through the oppressor/oppressed axis (unless, perhaps, you realise that their aim is to be oppressors). The civilisation-v-barbarism and even liberty/coercion axes are much more appropriate. (Which is why progressivists tend to end up saying such inane, or worse, things on the issue.) Though, that is a relative, rather than absolute judgement, since blanket condemnations of Islam are not useful either. Conversely, equal rights for queer folk really is not raging barbarism, not a threat to civilised order.

But the virulent political tribalism and war-of-the-narratives of contemporary US politics are having much more invidious effects in fostering a whole lots of distracting delusions about issues that seriously matter:

  • Government agencies are not automatically reliable toys which can be waved to generate social justice.
  • If you are going to be so keen on an armed society, you better think a lot more seriously about the position that puts police officers in.
  • Yes, there is a problem with police treatment of specific groups (particularly young black men) and no that is not about keeping you safe; obsessing with not conceding an inch to the concerns of those other folk is just creating homicidally unaccountable police departments and, by copying and contagion, undermining accountability in government agencies generally.
  • No, abusing due process to target those “evil others” really is a big deal.
  • Yes, there does come a point when privileging public sector unions undermines basic effectiveness and accountability.

And so on.

Creating cultures and processes of accountability in government agencies is hard, grinding work. Not least because it means giving up so congenial notions on the way through. But if the shouting political tribes of the US do not look up from their status games and start noticing what their cognitive civil war is doing in corrupting basic processes of government and government administration, then the culture of inadequate accountability among US government agencies is just going to get worse and worse. Which can lead to places I doubt few, if any, of the shouting political tribalists want to go.

ADDENDA After I posted this, I came across this comment by SF writer John Scalzi:

Broadly speaking, the Republicans are frothing ideologues, the Democrats are incompetent …

Sounds about right.

A political scientist notes the lack of interest in cooperation embodied in the competing narratives.

Public sector pensions are driving US city and state governments towards bankruptcy.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Orientation and action

By Lorenzo

The case of Gordon College (via) in Massachusetts, which propounds a traditional Christian view of homosexuality with a rather less traditional coda of sympathy, puts into sharp relief the “orientation is not sinful, acts are” position.

The policy of Gordon College is:

The orientation/action distinction has two major problems with it. First, it sets up an utterly unreasonable standard. Homosexuals are not permitted to act upon their erotic desires or to seek intimate companionship. To see how unreasonable this is, consider telling heterosexual people: you cannot have sex with anyone of the opposite sex, but marrying someone of the same sex is just fine.

Clearly, this is a standard that people are (mostly) not going to achieve. When the (predictable) high level of failure to achieve it then occurs, homosexuals are held blameworthy for failing to keep to an utterly unreasonable standard.

This is, of course, very much in the interest of priests and clerics–that a vulnerable minority have this completely unreasonable standard, that they are mostly bound to fail, imposed upon them. (Remembering that queer folk grow up us isolated individuals in overwhelmingly straight families and social milieus.) When you are in the gatekeepers of righteousness business, differentiation, complexity and effortless virtue are very much part of the game. This imposing of an unreasonable standard on a vulnerable minority sells effortless virtue to the overwhelmingly heterosexual majority (imposing a standard that is little or no effort for them, but which they can feel terribly virtuous for keeping and terribly morally superior to those who do not), distinguishes between the “righteous” and the “unrighteous” and establishes a criteria of righteousness that has to be (at least originally) told to folk by said gatekeepers. (Most human societies, at least pre-monotheism, did not find such matters to be of much moral moment. Nowadays, it tends to be a differentiator between the West and much of the Rest, many of whom–outside Islam–were taught that it was of moral moment by European colonial masters. What this piece does not get is that queer folk being a relatively small minority is, and has always been, the point–much like with the Jews, really.)

Devaluing people

Second, the action/orientation distinction wildly devalues the moral fact that there are people–millions and millions of people–with such orientation. In theist terms it amount to “God made a mistake, again and again and again; millions upon millions of times, and God keeps making it”. Claims about homosexuals having a “special calling” are nonsense on stilts, as we can see from the (finally now failing) endless efforts to deny homosexuals who act upon their erotic nature access to social goods. (That queer folk grow up as isolated individuals in overwhelmingly straight families and social milieus also means queer folk disproportionately benefit from urbanisation and improved information technology, hence the increased contemporary saliency of queer rights.)

More generally, the action/orientation distinction holds that people (and the moral implications to be drawn from that) are not to defined by how all people are, only by how some people are. I have been reading Pierre Manent‘s The Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic, a book I find alternative frustrating and enlightening. Manent spends considerable time on Augustine‘s masterwork De Civitae Dei (The City of God), providing a revealing summary of Augustine’s views on nature and will:

We have here a fundamental Christian thesis that Augustine more than anyone else contributed to formulate and sharpen: man’s nature is good; his will is bad or inclined to evil … The very definition of a bad will is that it is the perversion of a nature that is good or capable of good. Augustine explains at some length how the human will, naturally attracted by the good, can nonetheless choose evil. The bad will does not have its cause in good nature; it is some way without cause.

Augustine was not an Aristotelian as such, his philosophical roots were in Neoplatonism, but that in itself is very much a philosophy after Aristotle. Moreover, Augustine looked widely for ideas and was a child of Aristotle in the sense that almost all Westerners are (and Muslims are generally not), accepting that there was a moral realm beyond revelation and that the world has an independent existence beyond the habits of God–so Augustine argued that, being the direct creation of God, the created world had greater authority (if they were in contradiction) than Scripture, which was the word of God mediated by fallible humans. (The Quran, by contrast, is the eternal, direct word of God unmediated by anything.)

We can see here the issue with same-sex attraction in this worldview. On the one hand, it is simply perverted will against nature. On the other hand, it is an orientation–people are strongly inclined to such “perversion”; millions of people. Hence formulations such as being “intrinsically disordered“. In the words of the then Cardinal Ratzinger:

At the same time the Congregation took note of the distinction commonly drawn between the homosexual condition or tendency and individual homosexual actions. These were described as deprived of their essential and indispensable finality, as being “intrinsically disordered”, and able in no case to be approved of (cf. n. 8, $4).

As this author reminds us, Aquinas–the supreme reconciler of Catholicism and Aristotelianism–held that all sexual desire outside marriage was “intrinsically disordered”. But there is a difference between heterosexual eros–which can find an approved outlet in marriage–and homosexual eros, which never has any approved expression ever, but must always be denied and sublimated. The latter is “intrinsically disordered” at a much more basic level.

Presumptions selectively natural

We can also see where the muddle comes from, at least in natural law terms. The typical natural law theorist is a heterosexual male, his sexual desires are directed towards women, casual empiricism shows that male and female animals mate to produce offspring. So, easy conclusion–his desires define human nature and mating defines the purpose of sex.

Where, in economics, the representative agent can only be properly modelled if they do not know they are the representative agent, the typical natural law theorist is much more arrogant. He, and folk like him, define human nature and what he has noticed about the natural world defines the nature of sex.

But some men have sex with other men and some women have sex with other women. Well, they are unnatural, they are acting against nature. Then folk even notice that some animals do the same (in the medieval period, hares, hyenas and partridges had that reputation). Well, they are being unnatural too, they are also acting against nature.

And so does the conclusion set the ambit of its premises. People who do not conform to the decreed nature do not count (as evidence toward human nature), observations of nature that do not conform to the decreed purpose of sex also do not count (as evidence about the purpose, function or role of sex).

The entire argument about queer emancipation is, at bottom, literally about whether they count as “real people” or not. Hence conservative monotheists define them out of such, and are outraged at any attempt to include them in. It is literally about defining the human and about whether everyone with a human face is “properly” human.

I (mostly) agree with Andrew Sullivan’s plea for genuine liberalism (and Scott Alexander has a helpful post about political tribalism and tolerance which is apposite), especially as Gordon College has a general ban on sexual activity amongst its students. Even more so given the rather repellant “secular commissars” trend identified by Damon Linker:

Contemporary liberals increasingly think and talk like a class of self-satisfied commissars enforcing a comprehensive, uniformly secular vision of the human good. The idea that someone, somewhere might devote her life to an alternative vision of the good — one that clashes in some respects with liberalism’s moral creed — is increasingly intolerable.

As someone has said in a related context, no one expects the Secular Inquisition.

And yet, the idea that Gordon College has, in a free society, a right to act upon has a deeply disturbing core. Even with the Christian missionaries in Africa Linker discusses, Christian evangelising has also had repellant consequences, notably in the recent attempts to make homosexuality a capital crime in Uganda. To be fair, it is not heroic doctors but more spin-offs from tele-evangelising (to which effortless virtue is such an attractive sell) that is responsible, but the latter are partly levering off the former.

The position that Gordon College takes has roots deep in Christian tradition and they are, if anything, being much more liberal than that tradition generally was. But the orientation/action distinction used to make that tradition more palatable remains deeply problematic in ways which very much touch on basic moral protections and participation in society.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Quantity, physicality, source — the origins of currency names

By Lorenzo

The terms we use for units of currency–when they are not named after historical figures, terms for money or items once used as money–often come from one of three origins: quantity (number or, more commonly, weight); physicality (shape or content); or source. That pound (as in pound sterling, the oldest currency still in use) is originally a weight term is obvious–as it still is a weight term (at least, for those still using the old British weights and measures system). But can you tell me which of the three–quantity, physicality or source–the term dollar comes from? (Answer at the end of the post.)

(And if anyone could point me to the derivation of kip, the currency of Laos, that would be appreciated.)

Named after money or items used as money
Sometimes, it is hard to disentangle whether the unit derives from quantity, physicality or source. The dong, the currency of Vietnam, derives from the term for moneyreferring to Chinese bronze coins, with the Chinese terms it is derived from also referring to weight. So, is dong quantity, shape or source derived? The taka, the currency of Bangladesh also just means coin. As does the manat, the currency of Azerbaijan and of Turkmenistan. The Gambia dalasi probably derives from a local name for a 5-franc coin. The Peru sol comes from solidus (solid) a Roman coin but also means sun in Spanish.

The dobra of Sao Tome and Principe, comes from to fold; the connection to money is via doubloon, or in Portugese dobrao.

Currencies named after animals or shells typically have association with money or trade. The lev, the currency of Bulgaria comes from lion, as does the leu, the currencies of Romania and Moldovaas in the Dutch lion dollar or leeuwendaalder. The Croatia kuna means marten, whose pelts were used as trade items in medieval times. The Ghana cedi derives from a local name for cowrie shell, the most common money-item across time and space. The Guatemala quetzal, is named after the national bird, whose feathers were used as currency in Mayan times. The Papua New Guinea kina is named after a shell used in trade.

The Georgia lari derives from a word meaning hoard or property.

Historical figures
The lek of Albania is named after Alexander the Great, whose name is often shortened to Leka in Albanian. The Costa Rico colón is named after Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón in Spanish). The Honduran lempira is named after Lempira, a folk hero who led native resistance against the Spanish. The Nicaragua cordoba is named after the country’s notional founder, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba. The Panamana balboa is named after the Spanish explorer, Vasco Numez de Balboa. The Tajikistan somoni is named after Isma’il ibn Ahmad (also known as Ismoil Somoni), regarded as founder of the Tajik nation. The Venezuelan bolivar is named after Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan general central to the successful Spanish American wars of independence.

Plants, peoples, places
The gourde of Haiti means gourd as in plant. The Tongapa’anga is named after a vine.

Paraguay‘s guarani comes from an indigenous people whose language is taught in Paraguay. The loti of Lesotho derives from mountains. The kwacha, the currencies of Malawi and Zambia, means dawn.

The nakfa of Eritrea is named after the town that was at the centre of their independence struggle. The kwanza of Angola is named after a river. The pula of Botswana (also a dry country) means rain.

Quantity
The oldest currency terms are almost all weight terms; such as shekel and talent. Shekels (sheqel) are still the currency unit of Israel. Some weight terms used in exchange never got beyond being a weight term–notably the Egyptian deben. Sometimes, the currency term just means weight–such as stater and peso. The currencies of ArgentinaChileColombiaCuba, the Dominican RepublicMexico, and Uruguay are all pesos. The Philippines also uses the peso, or piso. The Macau pataca comes from the Portuguese for peso.

Athenian “owl”, after 499BC

A (partial) exception on quantity and antiquity is the drachma, which comes from the verb to grasp, which does imply easy to handle. It is only a partial exception, as a drachma was also a small weight unit. The Athenian “owl” tetradrachm (because it had the owl of Athena on it) was perhaps the earliest trade currency coin. Drachma is the source (via Latin) for dirham, currently the currency of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, and of dram, the currency of Armenia.

Using weight terms for money has been a continuing historical tendency–such as mark (still used in the currency of Bosnia-Hercegovina), the metical of Mozambique and the baht, the currency of Thailand. While the etymology of the Russian ruble is somewhat unclear, in the medieval period a ruble was a weight, the Russian equivalent to the markBelarus also has a ruble as it currency. The ouguiya of Mauritania derives from ounce in Arabic.

The tenge of Kazakhstan originally came from (weighing) scales. Apart from pound sterling (and its local derivatives in British territories), there is also the Egyptian pound, the Sudanese pound, the South Sudanese pound (and the former Irish punt).

Livre and lira are both derived from libra, a Roman unit of weight (also the source of the pound sign). The lira is still the currency of Turkey and is the local name for the Lebanese pound and the Syrian pound and colloquially for the Jordanian dinar.

Abbasid dinar 811

The most significant currency term derived from quantity which is a number rather than a weight was denarius (derived from containing ten), the source for the dinar and denaro, the Italian word for money. The currencies of AlgeriaBahrainIraqJordanKuwaitLibyaSerbia and Tunisia are all dinars, while Macedonia uses the (same derivation) denar. The former Iranian currency unit, the toman, also derives from a number.

The shilling, the currencies of KenyaSomaliaSomalilandTanzania and Uganda, derives from an old Anglo-Saxon accounting term.

Shape
Shape terms generally come from the use of coins. Yenyuan and won (the currency units of Japan, China and Korea respectively) all mean round or round object. The togrog of Mongolia originally meant circle or circular object.

Rupee derives from the Sanskrit rūpá, meaning beautiful form. The currencies of IndiaPakistanSri LankaNepalMauritius, and Seychelles are all rupees. While the Maldives uses the rufiyaa and Indonesia the rupiah (same derivations).

Ringgit (the currency of Malaysia, although it may also be used for the Brunei and Singapore dollars) means jagged, and refers to the jagged edges of the Spanish dollar (aka real de a ocho, aka peso de ocho, aka pieces of eight).

Kyat (the currency of Burma) comes from pulled together and apparently refers to the peacock seal of the original issuing King of Burma on the coin. The escudo, the currency of Cape Verde, comes from shield, referring to the heraldic shield on coins.

Other physicality
The material used could also be the origin of currency units; thus guilder derives from the Dutch or German for golden (gulden) and continued to be applied even when currency was no longer in gold. The Caribbean guilder is due to come into operation, replacing the Netherlands Antilles guilder as the currency of Curacao and Sint Maarten, in the Dutch Caribbean.  The zloty of Poland also means golden. The som, used by the Kyrgyz Republic and Uzbekistan means pure and implies pure gold.

Lübeck gulden 1341

The birr of Ethiopia means silver. The ngultrum, the currency of Bhutan, derives from silver bit.

The hryvania of Ukraine comes from a word meaning mane, but might also have implied something valuable worn around the neck. The word later came to be associated with silver or gold ingots of a certain weight, but that seems to have flowed from its use as a monetary term.

Source
The earliest source term for currency I am aware of is the daric, named by the original issuer after himself. The most immediately obvious current source-derived currency is the euro, which has replaced quite a range of currencies. Names of countries, or contractions thereof, are used by several countries as their currencies. The currency of Afghanistan is the afghani; that of Bolivia the boliviano; that of Lithuania the litas; that of Nigeria is the nairaa contraction of Nigeria; that of Sierra Leone, the leone; that of Vanuatu, the vatu.

fiorino d’oro (florin) 1347

The first post-Roman gold coin minted in commercial quantities in Western Europe was the florin or fiorino d’oro, minted by the city of Florence. The florin is the currency of Aruba. The forint of Hungary is also derived from the fiorino d’oro. The solidus and the hyperpyron (super-refined) of the Eastern Roman Empire was also known as the bezant (Byzantium) after the original name of Constantinople.

Portuguese half real C15th

Ducat came from ducal, real means royal, and is still the currency of Brazil as well is the source for riel, the currency of Cambodiarial, the currencies of IranOman and Yemen; and riyal, the currencies of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The ariary of Madagascar also derives from riyal. The Swaziland linlangeni means member of the royal family (i.e. royal).

The Czech Republic‘s koruna means crown, as does Denmark‘s kroneIceland‘ kronaNorway‘s krone and Sweden‘s krona.

The original franc 1360

The franc originally meant free (and frank), and became associated with coins from the Rex Francorum (King of Franks) on early coins. The original franc coin celebrated the freedom of Jean II, captured by the English at the Battle of Poitiers (so is apparently a pun). Francs are the currencies of BurundiComorosDemocratic Republic of CongoDjiboutiGuineaRwanda plus Switzerland (and Liechtenstein) and, in the form of the CFA franc, is the currency of France’s current overseas territories and of its former African empire; either as the West African CFA franc–the currency of BeninBurkina FasoGuinea-BissauIvory CoastMaliNigerSenegal and Togo–or as the Central African CFA franc–the currency of CameroonCentral African RepublicChadRepublic of CongoEquatorial Guinea and Gabon.

The rand, the currency of South Africa, comes from the Witwatersrand (“ridge of white waters”), the ridge Johannesburg was built on, and where most of the country’s gold deposits lie.

About the dollar
Dollar is most famously the currency of the US. The formerly US-administered territories of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau simply stayed on the US$ after independence. While East Timor just went straight onto the US$. Various local jurisdictions use the US$, such as the British Virgin Islands.

Countries sometimes “dollarise” because the local monetary authority proved to be too spectacularly incompetent in managing the preceding local currency. EcuadorEl Salvador and Zimbabwe fall into local mismanagement category (and other countries have also “dollarised” at various times). There are also countries where the US$ are as acceptable, or more acceptable than, the local currency.

Lots of countries have a dollar as their currency, apart from those already mentioned: AustraliaBahamasBarbadosBelizeBermudaBruneiCanadaCayman IslandsDominicaFiji, GuyanaHong KongJamaicaKiribatiLiberiaNamibiaNew ZealandSingaporeSolomon IslandsSurinameTaiwanTrinidad and TobagoTuvalu. Various Caribbean nations share the East Caribbean dollar. The tala of Samoa is dollar in Samoan. Most of these are former territories or protectorates of the British Empire–apparently, dollar is the preferred currency term for “not the pound (anymore)”.

Joachminsthaler 1525, the original dollar

Dollar may be the most widely used name for currency units (followed by franc), but it has a remarkably specific origin. In 1520, the Kingdom of Bohemia began to mint coins from silver mined in St Joachim’s valley, or Joachminsthal (modern day Jáchymov). The coins became known as Joachminsthalers. Which became shortened to thaler (thing or person from the valley), which became a very widely used coin name. Most famously, in the Maria Theresa thalerThaler became the Dutch daaldar and English dollar.

So, the tala of Samoa is actually closer to the original derivation than is the English dollar.

It was also a bit surprising to discover how large Rome and Portugal loomed in Islamic currency names: between lira, dirham, dinar and various derivations from real, the glory that was Rome and the brief Portuguese domination of the Indian Ocean seems to have left quite a monetary mark. Though less surprising given that Rome loomed so large in Islamic history, and the Ottomans had pretensions to being the Islamic successors to Rome, while the current-day users of derivatives of real have a long history of not being keen on the Ottomans.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

The good people syndrome

By Lorenzo

I doubt that there is any more corrupting element in contemporary public debate than the good people syndrome: talking heads who say things, not because they have any knowledge or understanding, but because it is what good people say.

There are forms of it on a wide range of issues, and on all sides of politics, but it seems unlikely that the public debate about any issue is as thoroughly corrupted by the good people syndrome as that on Islam. 

Ignorant familiarity

Part of the problem is quite straightforward: Islam is a religion which is omnipresent in the news but absent in the shared experience of the overwhelming majority of Westerners. Furthermore, it is not merely a religion, it is also a civilisation; one with superficial similarities to our own but quite deep differences. Faced with the deadly combination of surface familiarity and deep ignorance, the good people syndrome fills the gap. Especially for modern secular folk, who generally just can’t take religious motives seriously. 

To take perhaps the most important difference: we in the West are children of Aristotle and Muslims are mostly not. We are generally not actual Aristotelians (though Aristotelian philosophy is currently enjoying one it recurring resurgences within Western philosophy). But we do accept two basic Aristotelian ideas–that the world has its own inherent existence and structures and the moral realm exists independent of revelation.

These ideas may seem so basic one might wonder how anyone could think otherwise. Well, mainstream Islam thinks otherwise, for it accepts neither idea. A consequence of the defeat of Aristotelian ideas in mainstream Islam, particularly due to the efforts and influence of Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (1058-1111), the most important figure in mainstream Islam after Muhammad himself. 

For al-Ghazali, and mainstream Islam ever since, causation is merely the habits of God, which He can change at any time, while there is no good outside the realm of revelation. That is, things are good because God wills it, not–as in Christianity and Judaism, especially after Mosheh ben Maimon aka Maimonedes (1138?-1204) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)–God wills them because they are good. “Conversations” between the West and Islam are mostly dialogues of the deaf, because the underlying presumptions are so different.

The golden age of Islamic achievement largely predates al-Ghazali (and that of Arab achievement almost entirely does). Not entirely a coincidence, since causation as the habits of God and revelation as the limits of morality do rather inhibit intellectual effort being put anywhere other than religion. The shock of the Mongol incursions, including the end of the Baghdad Caliphate (1258), reinforced this inward looking tendency, this entrenched atavism. An atavism that Arab journalist Hisham Melhem identifies as central to the contemporary collapse of Arab civilisation but which he studiously fails to identify a source for. 

Uncurious

Islam became a civilisation remarkably uncurious about the outside world, poorly able to mobilise its resources. A civilisation which lacked responsive resilience, and so dealt badly with the challenges of history (as it largely still does, at least in the Middle East–Bengali and Malay Islam does rather better). Thus, Palestinian intellectual Ahmad Y. al-Hassan (1925-2012) can list a whole series of “bad things” which happened to Islam, but entirely fails to ask why Islam so persistently failed to rise to the challenges facing it. For example, Europe learnt far more from its (relatively minor) crusading effort (which al-Hassan paints as far more destructive than than it was) than Islam learnt from its centuries of far greater aggression against Europe and Christendom (which al-Hassan entirely ignores), even after Islam began to fall behind European technology and organisational capacity.

Awkward avoidance

One can understand the dilemma of Arab and Muslim intellectuals. It is not merely that not blaming Islam is what “good people” do, it is that opening up that issue makes any such intellectual a target for the homicidally enraged who are both a symptom and a cause of Middle Eastern Islam’s cognitive stagnation and disastrous divisions.

One can understand the dilemma of Western strategists dealing with the jihadis: say that the problem is Islam and that appears to make all Muslims (over a billion of them) the enemy. Yet, say the problem is not Islam, and one is basing one’s strategy on untruth and delusion–not a basis for any sort of success. For the jihadis are very much a product of Islam: indeed, they represent the modern iterations of continuing patterns within Islam.

So the problem is within Islam. Not an ideal rhetorical formulation, but one that has the advantage of being true.

The good person pay-off

But neither of these excuses hold for Western talking heads. They are not responsible for Western strategy and a clearly in minimal danger from enraged jihadis. Alas, that not-being-responsible-for-anything is much of the problem: given the lack of any responsibility (except,  clearly somewhat notional one to truth and understanding) aiming to be seen as one of the good people gives by far the best pay-off.

So ignorant nonsense gets spouted because it is established as what good people say.

I was confronted with a particularly egregious example of good people syndrome listening in a waiting room to some talking heads discuss the recent fatal (to the attacker) stabbing at a Melbourne police station. One of the talking heads opined about “disenfranchised youth”. The dead attacker (shot dead with a single bullet after stabbing two counter-terrorism officers at Endeavour Hills police station: a somewhat reassuring contrast to police killings in the US–i.e. not an unarmed man, not shot multiple times) fits in with a much larger pattern. The “disenfranchisement” of such homicidal males being that they are not–given their gender (male) and beliefs (Muslim)–master-belief overlords of what they survey, as promised by God through the Quran, the example of the Prophet and Sharia.

When Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to explain what the jihadis are about in his 29 September 2014 speech to the United Nations General Assembly all he had to do was quote them. Starting with the self-proclaimed Caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi two months previous:

A day will soon come when the Muslim will walk everywhere as a master… The Muslims will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism… and destroy the idol of democracy. Now listen to Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas. He proclaims a similar vision of the future: We say this to the West… By Allah you will be defeated. Tomorrow our nation will sit on the throne of the world.

Or, perhaps General Muhammad Ali Jafari, current commander of Iran Revolutionary Guards:

Our Imam did not limit the Islamic Revolution to this country… Our duty is to prepare the way for an Islamic world government…

Or Iran’s current Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in a book written a few years ago:

We have a fundamental problem with the West, and especially with America. This is because we are heirs to a global mission, which is tied to our raison d’etre… A global mission which is tied to our very reason of being.

… How come Malaysia doesn’t have similar problems? Because Malaysia is not trying to change the international order.

Changing the international order to a Muslim order, of course. Such an order does not require everyone to be Muslim; just have the Muslims in charge and everyone obeying Sharia, the law of God, sovereign of all.

Such ambitions may seem mad–the master-race Nazis only wanted lebensraum; these ambitions are much more grandiose. But the Companions (Sahabah) of the Prophet overthrew the Sasanian Empire–heir to over a millennia of Zoroastrian empires–and half the Roman Empire in a few short decades. Ascribe the 1989-1991 fall of the Soviet Empire to the mujahideen in Afghanistan and the example of the Companions of the Prophet has powerful contemporary as well as religious resonance.

(As an aside, it is also worth remembering that in 1923 Hitler was a beer hall agitator, leader of a small movement, part of a coalition whose attempt to overthrow a provincial government was put down with almost contemptible ease: 18 years later, his armies had occupied Austria and the Czech lands, had conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries, France, Yugoslavia, Greece and had reached the outskirts of Moscow.)

Besides, the journey itself is enough: die in the service of creating the Muslim World Order and off to Paradise you go. Not to mention a sense of brotherhood, purpose, masterly killing, plus possible rape and pillage on the way through. Hence Islam’s most obvious comparative advantage being in homicidal religious gangsterism.

But, hey, that is not what good people say.  And what they don’t know about Islam is almost everything.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking-Out-Aloud.]