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Thinking about states

By Lorenzo

While writing a paper on state dynamics in Latin Christendom, it was useful to try and think (think out aloud indeed) coherently about states as historical entities. State understood as an institutionalised structure of expropriation and coercion dominant in a particular territory.

The notion that a state has to have, or even aspire to, a monopoly of coercion does not make much sense in the context of medieval Europe. Indeed, for much of human history, the right to bear arms was a defining capacity of a free person. And even the notion of a state requiring to have a monopoly of organised coercion fails the medieval test. Though, as post-medieval states increasingly aspired to a monopoly of organised violence, there was a long-term decline in (pdf) private lethal violence.*

The OED definition of a state used by Wikipedia of:

an organized political community living under a single system of government

is both too abstract and assumes too much; a political community, according to Wikipedia is:

a geographic region accepted to be in the jurisdiction of a particular governmental entity

which constitutes a community, being

social unit of any size that shares common values.

This is way too touchy-feely. And inaccurate–how many empires were social units sharing common values? These definitions are too modern, too nation state, too Westphalian.

What do I mean by institutionalised? Wikipedia uses political scientist Samuel Huntingdon’s definition of an institution as:

stable, valued, recurring patterns of behaviour.

Which is a good short definition, though “valued” bothers me (valued by whom, how much?). Economist Douglass North defined institutions as:

the rules of the game in a society or, more formally, are the humanly devised constraints that shape human action (p.3).

Which, in the formal version, somewhat misses the stable, recurring element. Economist John Powellson defined institutions as:

an accepted mode of behaviour protected by the culture (p.9).

which also implies a bit too much social coherence. States only conform to ethnic or similar boundaries if the trade-offs of coercion, expropriation and dominance lead them to do so.

The key features institutionalised is trying to get at is persistent structure. That is, providing continuing and specific constraints on human behaviour. A street or criminal gang might be organised expropriation and coercion dominant in a particular territory, but it lacks the persistent structure of a state. Besides, such gangs are generally only dominant in a very narrow sense; much more narrowly than the persistent structure of a state provides.

Underlying these various definitions cited above tends to be some idea of states as epiphenomena of societies, as products of societies. That is fundamentally mistaken: societies with states are at least as much products of states as the other way around. Hence my first principle for thinking about states.

(1) State societies are significantly different from stateless societies.

State societies are larger in scale in almost every sense: including in population and production. They have less retail violence, but their organised violence is on a (typically much) larger scale. Their constructions are larger and more enduring. They are far more urbanised. They are more stably hierarchical. To have a state profoundly shapes and changes a society: in simplest terms, the state acts as a social multiplier compared to not having one.

(2) States depend crucially on the capacity to expropriate.

As this paper (pdf) by Mayshar et al points out, the notion that farming automatically produces a social surplus is fundamentally mistaken. All farming produces is more babies and somewhat more specialisation. The only way to produce a continuing social surplus is by expropriation. Which farming (specifically cereals farming, as cereals are less perishable) permits because then food is stored across seasons and so can be expropriated. But that creates a “chicken-and-egg” problem: the social surplus requires expropriation, the apparatus of expropriation requires a social surplus to support itself. This is a “chicken-and-egg” problem which the mere existence of cereals farming does not solve.

Which is why it took thousands of years for farming to produce states. Solving the “chicken-and-egg” problem requires a multi-generational authority with increasing coercive specialisation. The most likely way to produce that is by conflict, especially across an ecological frontier (pdf) (classically, river valley farmers versus oasis, savanna or steppe pastoralists). What historical demographer Peter Turchin calls (pdf) multilevel selection.

While priesthoods can provide multi-generational authority, coercive specialisation is also required to create and maintain a state. Hence hereditary autocracy is the simplest (and historically most common) form of the state–if a multi-generational authority has enough coercive dominance to establish and maintain state, then it will likely have enough coercive dominance to centralise power.


(3) The scale of state activity is primarily driven by its capacity to extract revenue.

The state is a structure of coercion, expropriation and dominance. The more revenue it can extract, the more it can do. It will tend to do so extract up to the level at which the trade-offs of capacity and consequence balance out for state agents. Remembering that all rulers confront principal-agent problems: indeed, these were plausibly central to dynastic cycles, particularly in China (pdf).

So, it matters how transparent production is to the state, because the more transparent, the easier it is to expropriate. Thus irrigation makes extraction easier because production is more transparent.

As the paper by Mayshar et al points out, Karl Wittfogel got it the wrong way around: irrigation favours state dominance not because the state provides irrigation (that is normally done locally and typically pre-dates the state, though the state may well expand its ambit) but because it makes production more transparent and so more able to be expropriated. Thus, given that production on the Nile was highly transparent (revenue could be predicted by how much the Nile flooded), Egypt was an early developer of a centralised autocratic state, despite being a relatively late adopter of farming.

Who said production was transparent to made a difference. In lower Mesopotamia, farming production was more transparent to local elites than any higher ruler. Moreover, unlike much of the Nile, everywhere in Mesopotamia was subject to pastoralist raids, requiring walled cities. The combination meant that the lower Mesopotamia was an early centre for urbanisation, yet its centralised (i.e. multi-city) states were more unstable than Egypt’s as production was less transparent to any regional ruler and resistance to such rule was easier.

Rainfall farmland is less transparent again, given that rainfall is more idiosyncratic than irrigation. So, in areas of rainfall farming, farmer-owners tend to be the pattern as the state does not know enough to reliably extract without providing the farmer with more incentive–such as owning their land. Egyptian and lower Mesopotamian farmers did not own the land they tilled: as the state in the first instance, and the local elites in the second, could reliably extract revenue without having to provide that much incentive. That Europe is overwhelmingly a place of rainfall agriculture was an important factor in its history.

In the modern world, the Industrial Revolution hugely increased the power of the state to tax. In the words of Mayshar et al:

We prefer to describe this increased efficiency of the tax technology as resulting from the increased transparency of production. The latter was due in part to the shift to mass production by hired labor in large corporations — a shift that was accompanied by a massive accounting paper trail (see Kleven, Kreinerand, Saez 2009). This paper trail exposed productive activity to the state and transformed the state’s ability to tax, among others by turning private companies into efficient tax collection agencies, and by facilitating the taxation of income (p.45).

(4) Level of social friction involved in the appropriation process is a major constraint.

A factor in the evolution of states evolve is responding to various forms of social friction the appropriation process has to deal with. Thus, Parliaments reduce social friction in revenue extraction: hence Parliamentary states tended to have higher tax rates than non-Parliamentary states. Which is a reason for rulers to have Parliaments. Indeed, that seems to be precisely why Alfonso IX (r.1188-1230) of Leon engaged in his experiment (1188) of asking merchants to send representatives to his court to discuss matters fiscal. It worked so well for him, he kept doing it. This was well before Simon de Montfort’s exercise of 1265, which had continuing historical significance because Edward I (r.1272-1307) repeated and institutionalised the arrangement.

While the notion of Parliaments being imposed on tyrannical monarchs makes for stirring historical narrative, monarchs were very actively involved in the development of Parliaments because it made the process of expropriation easier. It did so by:

(1) providing more information on the monarch’s own agents;

(2) alerting monarchs to potential problems; and

(3) allowing trade-off bargains which enabled more expropriation to occur.

Parliaments comprehensively reduced social frictions while making the political nation more transparent to the monarch. (Of course, whether the monarch made good use of that was another matter.)

Cultural homogeneity also reduces social friction in extraction (and state action generally) and it does so the more empowered folk are. Thus, the relatively culturally homogeneous Scandinavian states can manage a higher tax/spend equilibrium than more culturally diverse settler societies such as Australia or the US.

The Industrial Revolution’s explosion in technology (which only really took off in the 1820s with railways and steamships) increased the capacity of states, but also increased the capacity of organisations and individuals. Hence the Industrial Revolution resulted in much more pressure from upwards (nationalist agitation) and downwards (national identification and homogenisation) for states to conform to national boundaries. This was also an interactive process, as the power of states often determined the ethnic boundaries–if necessary, by massive processes of population shifts (some of which were population exchanges, some not: the Israel-Palestine conflict can be reasonably characterised as largely driven by an unresolved population exchange as the Jewish state integrated its refugees and the Arab states refuse to integrate theirs).

Strong kin networks increase social friction in extraction, as they provide ways for folk to organise to resist state power. Hence states in societies with strong kin networks (i.e. highly clannish societies) often make implicit or explicit trade-offs–they accept the clans’s internal authority in return for acceptance of the over-arching authority of state and ruler. Indeed, use of clan patronage networks can result in substitution of such patronage for the development of state institutions (as in Palestine under Arafat), as well as of more (pdf) general institutions of formal (non-kin) cooperation.

The anti-kin-network family rules of Christianity (monogamy, no divorce, no adoption, no concubines, no cousin marriage) tended to undermine clan networks, encouraging more formal arrangements for social cooperation.** In economist Avner Greif’s words (pdf):

The practices the church advocated, such as monogamy, are still the norm in Europe. Consanguineous marriages in contemporary Europe account for less than one percent of the total number of marriages. In contrast, the percentage of such marriages in Muslim, Middle Eastern countries, where we also have particularly good data, is much higher – between twenty to fifty percent. (Alan H. Bittles 1994.) Among the anthropologically defined 356 contemporary societies of Euro-Asia and Africa, there is a large and significant negative correlation between Christianization (for at least 500 years) and the absence of clans and lineages; the level of commercialization, class stratification, and state formation are insignificant. (Andrey V. Korotayev 2003.) (p.309).

The strong family networks of East Asia substituting for welfare provision likely has much to do with why East Asian states have a lower tax-spend equilibrium than other developed economies.

What might be called “the borough deal” was another way of increasing extractive capacity–in this case, over the longer term–by reducing social friction (specifically, fear of expropriation). A land-holding magnate wishes to encourage (taxable) commercial activity, so seeks to establish a local permanent market (fair or town). In the case of a town, it involves significant amounts of fixed capital, so increased risk of expropriation by said magnate. Thus the magnate grants a charter which allows the merchants of the town to make their own local laws, including regarding property rights, and build a wall around their town. That alleviates fears of expropriation and encourages local commercial activity, increasing the revenue of the magnate (including providing a local market for the products of his land).

(5) Social bargaining can increase or stabilise coercive capacity.

Mounted armoured warriors are expensive (the horse–i.e. war charger–alone could cost half the annual income of a large village), there are no significant economies of scale in their equipment or training (both of which are also very expensive), it is ideal for one generation to train the next and such a warrior can dominate local peasants. So, while having them extract their income directly from local peasants (by way of land-ownership or tax-collection grant) economises on extraction effort, it also leaves them significantly self-sufficient. So, some sort of implicit or explicit social bargain between ruler and warrior can usefully structure their relationship, providing the ruler more coercive capacity while economising on extraction cost. A franchising arrangement, if you like.

Suppose you have a large number of small city states in intense competition competition with each other. The geography is not very suitable for large-scale horse raising, so armies are dominated by (expensive to equip) heavy infantry which do have economies of scale in equipment and training. But the states are small and lack the coercive capacity to expropriate enough funds to equip large numbers of such folk. They are in a region of rainfall farming, and thus have lots of owner-farmers. So, how do you get said farmers and others to equip themselves and turn up for training? Give them a say in the running of the polity: or, more precisely, the polis. This allows you to have a larger and tougher army than your ordinary taxing capacity would provide: important in an intensely state-competitive environment. This would be the citizenship deal.

It does require a certain social stability to make work: hence the more socially unstable–yet highly commercial–cities of Sicily tended to end up with tyrants. But versions of the citizenship deal recur with the self-government cities of medieval Europe. Particularly (but not only) in Northern Italy and the Low Countries; both regions with lots of cities in intense competition, with each other and with landed magnates.

(6) Persistent constraints matter.

States may be central to the evolution of state societies, but that does not mean they do not face serious constraints. One is geography: until the technology of coercion and dominance developed sufficiently, it was difficult to stably project state power across ecological frontiers. As discussed above, whether the state operated in an area of rainfall farming or of mass irrigation also mattered.

As we saw in the matter of clans and Christianity, religion could also matter (both as constraint and as opportunity). That Islam, and India after the Brahmin resurgence, both operated on the basis of divine law (Sharia in the case of Islam, Manusmrti, the laws of Manu, in the case of Brahmin India) mattered because it foreclosed a great deal of social bargaining.

Parliaments, the borough deal, the citizenship deal, all required folk getting together and making laws, laws that entrenched various social bargains. If human law making (in practice, ruler decree issuing) was limited to the silences of divine law, then it simply was not enough to sustain that sort of social bargaining. Hence no more Kshatriya republics in India once Brahmin dominance of law provision was established.

An issue that very much still resonates in Islam (though not in India; given the demands of modern commercial society, bringing back Mansumrti is not even in the interests of Brahmins). Nowadays, opinion polls show Muslims as in favour of democracy; in some Muslim countries as much as Westerners (the logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of believers). But central to the Salafi movement is re-establishing the primacy of Sharia. The movement comes in quietist (withdraw from corrupt world), activist (seek to expand the social reach of correct action) and jihadi (kill folk until they accept our version of Sharia rule) variants. Muhammad Nasir-ud-Din al-Albani (1914-1999) was widely regarded as the most important Salafi scholar of the C20th. An advocate of quietist Salafism, he had this to say about democracy:

Elections according to democracy are unlawful, and parliaments that do not govern in accordance with the Qur’an and the Sunna [orally transmitted traditions of Muhammad], but rather on the basis of the majority’s arbitrariness, are tyrannical. Parliaments cannot be recognized and Muslims can neither seek nor cooperate to found them, for they contend (combat) God’s revelation. And they are a Western technique made by the Jews and the Christians, who cannot be legally emulated.

By unlawful and legally emulated, he means by the laws of Allah, the only true legislator. When the jihadis say they are fighting tyranny and injustice, tyranny includes any democracy (since it is illegitimate authority) and injustice means anywhere not under Sharia rule, because Sharia is the only justice. Remembering that, in mainstream Islam, ever since al Ghazali (1058-1111), revelation has been taken to be the limits of morality (a consequence of the defeat of Aristotelianism in the Islamic world). Moreover, since Allah is the sovereign of the universe, Allah’s law applies everywhere and to everyone.

Which is why Parliamentarianism and democracy struggle somewhat in the Islamic world. They are clearly outside imports (problematic in itself) and exist in a level of tension with religion that simply does not apply anywhere else. (Only the Islamic world, for example, felt a need to issue its own, adjusted, declaration of human rights.) There are functioning (even stable) Muslim democracies, but still the attraction of anti-democratic religious totalitarianism is enduring.

So, whether a civilisation accepted law as man made (as Christianity does) or not (as Islam and Brahmin India did not) was an enduring constraint that affected the evolution of states in the respective civilisations. Just as Christian doctrines undermining clan networks both encouraged and enabled the development of more formal institutions of social cooperation, affecting the evolution of states.

About the state

States–persistent structures of expropriation and coercion dominant in a particular territory–are not dependent products of their societies. The combination of coercive dominance and extractive-and-spending power makes them the most powerful element in their society–otherwise, you have a very weak state or no effective state at all.

States are not “instruments of the ruling class“: indeed, in historically typical autocracy, the “ruling class” (a deeply problematic term at the best of times) owed their social position to their position as superior agents of the state, they were not superior agents of the state because of their social position.

The central role of states in history is why the technology of coercion is such an important factor in history in its own right. Neither the hand mill nor the water wheel produces the knight; the technology of armoured horsed combat does. But how the knight’s–the armoured mounted warrior’s–social role was structured had a great deal to do with how widespread mills became.

States create societies (or at least social orders) at least as much as societies create states. This is blindingly obvious in the case of Leninist states, which literally created the social orders that (functionally) suited them. But even without that level of brutally socially pulverising social dominance, states are fundamental to the structuring and evolution of their societies. If we do not see that, we miss some fundamental historical dynamics. As well as much of the why of the passions politics can engender.


Economic theory does predict that monopolisation tends to lower output: though that is better described as its developing monopoly of violence increasing the capacity of the state to pursue its interest in not having its taxpayers kill each other.

** The persistence of clan in the Celtic fringe (Scotland–particularly highland Scotland– and Ireland) is likely a result of the Celtic requirement for kin loyalty–in contrast to the Germanic idea of freely chosen personal loyalty–somewhat exacerbated by the lack of urbanisation. One can see the tension between Celtic kin loyalty (the whole Mordred/Lot’s kin debacle) and Germanic freely chosen loyalty (embodied in the Round Table) in the Arthurian tales. 


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

American homicide

By Lorenzo

Using US Census data and FBI homicide statistics to look at US homicide rates by race is problematic, because the race of offender (and of victim) statistics apparently do not cover non-negligent manslaughter. One is forced to multiply such statistics by the ratio of the total homicides counted on that basis to the total including non-negligent manslaughter to get figures that are internationally comparable.

Doing so, and if one excludes African-Americans, the US homicide rate is 2.6 per 100,000–in other words, about the rate of Turkey or the UAE or around 71st or 72nd of the 218 jurisdictions listed by Wikipedia: rather high by the standards of developed countries. (Claims that the non-African-American homicide rate is normal for high income countries appears to come from taking the FBI homicide-by-race statistics as covering all intentional homicides, which they do not: a mistake I made with the first version of this post. Which points to the need to be careful about statistical sources, especially administrative statistics.)

The homicide rate for African-Americans is 15.2 per 100,000. That is around 186th out of the 218 aforementioned jurisdictions and very high by developed country standards: it is about the rate of Myanmar and well above the global average of 6.2 per 100,000

(When looking at country statistics, the offenders and victims come from the same group so homicide and victimisation rates are the same; when looking at intra-country statistics, that does not follow. So the intra-US statistics I cite are based on race of offender, not victim.)

Region and homicide

The African-American homicide rate is high by Sub-Saharan African standards: only 9 out of 41 jurisdictions have higher rates. It is around the middle by Caribbean standards, with 11 jurisdictions out of 21 having lower homicide rates, and by Latin American standards, with 13 jurisdictions out of 23 jurisdictions having lower homicide rates: some of the Caribbean and Latin American homicide rates are astonishing.

The African-American homicide rate is high by Greater Middle East standards (North Africa-Middle East-Islamic Central Asia) by European standards and by Oceania standards, as no jurisdictions in those regions have higher homicide rates. In Asia (outside the Greater Middle East) only Myanmar 15.2 has an equal or  higher homicide rates.

Income and homicide

According to US census data (pdf), African-Americans had a per capita income 68% of the overall US per capita income (for non-Hispanic whites 116%, Asian-Americans 112%, Hispanics 58%). Applying that percentage to World Bank data, that gives African-Americans about the same per capita income as Japan–or around 26th of the 185 jurisdictions covered by the World Bank data–and more than that of Italy, Spain, South Korea and Israel. For that level of per capita income, the African-American homicide rate is strikingly high. All the jurisdictions with equal or higher per capita income have homicide rates in the range of 0.2 per 100,000 (Singapore) to 2.6 per 100,000 (UAE) with the exception of Bermuda (7.7 per 100,000). The excluding-African-Americans-US homicide rate of 2.6 per 100,000 is high for high income societies. Adding in African-Americans raises it to 4.7, which is even more so.

The FBI homicide figures for ethnicity (including Hispanic) are not anywhere near as complete (there are lots of “ethnicity unknown” in the FBI figures). If we apply an estimate of Hispanic American’s victimisation rate (pdf) (5.7 per 100,000, which will very likely be an overestimate for the Hispanic offender-homicide-rate), that is lower than the homicide rate for any Latin American country apart from Chile (3.1), Cuba (4.2) and Argentina (5.5).

Applying Hispanic Americans average income as a percentage of overall US per capita income (58%) as above, gives them a per capita income above Malta’s but below Israel’s, with Puerto Rico being the only Latin American country/dependency with a higher per capita income. So, for Latin Americans, the US is the land of opportunity: hence the continuing attempts to enter the US.

Given that the African-American homicide rate is above that of most sub-Saharan countries and countries with populations with majority sub-Saharan African descent, African-Americans are not getting the reduced-homicide benefit of their (much higher) average income.

This is so even if we look at jurisdictions were a majority of the population are of African slave descent. The other thing Bermuda has in common with African-Americans–other than strikingly high homicide rates for their level of income–is being descended from African slaves: a majority of Bermudans are of African descent.  Countries such as Jamaica (39.3) and various small island jurisdictions–Montserrat (20.4), Dominica (21.1)*, Saint Lucia (21.6), Saint Vincent & the Grenadines (25.6), Bahamas (29.8), Saint Kitts & Nevis (33.6), US Virgin Islands (52.6)–have rather higher homicide rates than African-Americans. Yet Martinique (2.7),  Turcos & Caicos (6.6), Barbados (7.4), Anguila (7.5), Bermuda (7.7), Guadaloupe (7.9), British Virgin Islands (8.4), Haiti (10.2 per 100,000), Antigua & Barbuda (11.2), Grenada (13.3) are all majority Afro-Caribbean jurisdiction with lower homicide rates. Many of these jurisdictions have small populations, so it does not take many murders to push up the homicide rate, but the pattern of African-Americans being roughly in the middle, despite their much higher average income, is sufficiently clear that the generally small populations of these jurisdictions do not invalidate the comparison.

Regarding guns

By the standards of developed countries, the US does have something of a general homicide problem.  Excluding African-Americans, the 2.6 per 100,000 homicide rate is elevated, especially compared to countries of similar population and institutional origins (Canada 1.6, Australia 1.1, New Zealand 0.9: weighted average of three 1.4). While the proportion of homicides caused by guns marches with the general trends, there is prima facie evidence that the level of gun possession elevates the overall homicide rate. Guns make homicide easier and, other things being equal, if it is easier to do, it will be done more often.

With gun deaths more broadly, the US also has something of a suicide and gun-accident problem. (To which the same point applies.) Nevertheless, the US non-African-American homicide rate is not nearly as high as the national figures suggest. Even with mass shootings, cases where armed civilians stopped or curtailed mass shootings tend not to get much media coverage.

There is, however, even more clearly an African-American homicide problem: given the level of economic development. Indeed, using the weighted average of the other Anglo-originated neo-European states as a guide, about 37% of the elevated homicide rate is likely about gun prevalence (the difference between 1.4 and 2.6) and about 63% is due to the highly elevated African-American homicide rate (the difference between 2.6 and 4.7).

Comparatively low social capital (including the legacy of slavery) and dysfunctional metropolitan governance (particularly due to the prevalence of one-Party government; somewhat exacerbated by a lack of urban voices in the overwhelmingly rural-and-suburban Republican Party) are likely factors in the latter. The extent of gun possession hardly explains the striking difference in homicide rates between African-Americans and other Americans.

Attitudes to gun control have a strong urban-rural divide, expressed thusly by Steve Sailer:

The endless gun-control brouhaha, which on the surface appears to be a bitter battle between liberal and conservative whites, also features a cryptic racial angle. What blue-region white liberals actually want is for the government to disarm the dangerous urban minorities that threaten their children’s safety. Red-region white conservatives, insulated by distance from the Crips and the Bloods, don’t care that white liberals’ kids are in peril. Besides, in sparsely populated Republican areas, where police response times are slow and the chances of drilling an innocent bystander are slim, guns make more sense for self-defense than in the cities and suburbs.

White liberals, angered by white conservatives’ lack of racial solidarity with them, yet bereft of any vocabulary for expressing such a verboten concept, pretend that they need gun control to protect them from gun-crazy rural rednecks, such as the ones Michael Moore demonized in “Bowling for Columbine,” thus further enraging red-region Republicans.

In the US, race (as so often) entangles the patterns: contra Sailer’s framing, plenty of African-Americans are keen on gun control–such as the middle class Americans Alan Wolfe starts off his One Nation, After All by quoting, voicing discontent about urban life and its dangers (before telling you they are all comments from African-Americans). Indeed, African-Americans tend to be keener on gun control than white Americans (pdf): unsurprising, since they are much more at risk from homicide and gun violence than white Americans.

Though Hispanics are even keener–66% of blacks give gun control priority according to the 2011 Pew poll but 75% of Hispanics do. Wanting the state to disarm those other folk may have something to do with the greater Hispanic enthusiasm for gun control, given that they are notably keener on gun control than African-Americans, yet are considerably less likely to be the victims of gun violence; the African-American homicide victimisation rate is 15.2 per 100,000 compared to 5.7 for Hispanic Americans.

Both groups are also much more concentrated in inner cities than white Americans: according to the 2011 Pew poll, 57% of urban dwellers give priority to gun control compared to 33% of rural dwellers. One sees the same urban-rural divide in Australia without a comparable racial element. Folk in cities, with quick police reaction times and lots of highly diverse anonymous strangers, tend to want all those unknowns to be disarmed. Folk in rural areas, with slow police reaction times, fare fewer unknowns yet dangerous (or just pesky) critters, tend to want access to guns. There is no great mystery to it, if you understand the different social perspectives.

But being against guns is easy. Improving social capital and city governance is hard: though the decline of gangs in Los Angeles points to what can be achieved if folk try. In the US, the easy can also be an evasion, which does not help people living in communities with low social capital, dysfunctional city government, inappropriate federal and state policies and homicide rates much higher than they should be, given their income levels.


*Dominica was the first British Caribbean colony to have a majority black legislature (1838). For countries with majority Afro-Caribbean population (and so electorates), racism is not likely to be a major factor in explaining their homicide rates. (Remembering that enslaving Africans generated racism, slavery was not caused by racism.)

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

Cause and context

By Lorenzo

In the postwar period, the Democratic candidate for President has received a majority of votes cast in precisely four elections: Johnson 1964 (53.4%), Carter 1976 (50.1%), Obama 2008 (52.9%), Obama 2012 (51.1%). Which makes the first African-American President the only Democratic candidate to get a majority of the votes cast twice in the postwar period. (It is entirely possible to win US Presidential elections without getting a majority of votes cast, as was managed by Truman in 1948, Kennedy in 1960, Nixon in 1968, Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and Bush II in 2000–in the last case, the Electoral College winner infamously did not even get a plurality of votes cast.)

Obama’s election results were in line with economist Douglas Hibbs’s “peace and bread” (pdf) model of US elections: bang on in the case of 2008, a bit above in 2012. (Indeed, Obama’s 2012 performance in bettering the line of best fit is roughly equal to Nixon’s 1972 win and only clearly beaten by Clinton’s 1996 win.) An even simpler model based on growth in per capita national income also puts his 2008 vote as bang on what was predicted, a bit above in 2012.

So, the evidence suggests that Obama has been electorally a strong candidate for the Democratic Party. Yet, it has been argued, using regression analysis on survey evidence (pdf), that race denied Obama the landslide he would otherwise have had in 2008: reducing his vote by 5 % points. A study using Google searches as an indicator of racism (pdf), and comparing to 2004 results by county, suggested that race reduced Obama’s votes by a net 4% points in 2008 and 2012.

Now, in tight races, a 4 or 5% point disadvantage is a big deal. I am a little sceptical, simply because it would have moved Obama into being even more of a standout electoral success for the Democratic Party than he already was–given that he already achieved half the winning-a-majority Presidential elections that the Democrats have managed in the postwar era. Indeed, adding 5% points to Obama’s 2008 total would have made him the most successful non-incumbent Presidential candidate in the postwar period–beating ideologically moderate war hero Eisenhower’s 57.1% result in 1952 after 20 years of Democratic Presidents. It would even have beaten FDR’s 57.4% in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression. I am particularly sceptical of the Google-search paper, because it suggests that the experience of 4 years of Obama as President had no effect, when continuing knowledge of a particular person tends to increase their salience as an individual and reduce their salience as a member of a category.

The stunning retreat of US racism

But let us accept that 5% points (since the Google study found that Obama received a 1% point advantage from being African-American and a 5% point disadvantage, giving a net 4% point effect) was the “won’t vote for him because he is black” effect. That means 95% of the US electorate did not vote (negatively) on the basis of his race–at least in the sense that other considerations were more important to them. Even if we just assume that 5% were all whites, an overwhelming majority of white voters judged other considerations as more important. That is, in the context of the US’s long and vicious history of racism, remarkable. (Clearly, what was by far most important to US voters was which Party he belonged to, followed by the state of the economy.)

Obama’s electoral success is hardly the only indicator of massive change on this front. In 1958, 4% of Americans polled approved of interracial marriage. By 2013, 86% of Americans polled approved of interracial marriage. That includes 84% of white Americans (96% of black Americans).

It is notable that interracial marriage only achieved majority support in polling in the mid 1990s. So, about 20 years ago: around 30 years after the US Supreme Court ruled bans on interracial marriage unconstitutional in Loving v Virginia (1967). But polling support has continued to climb to the extent that approval of interracial marriage is way into the social consensus area. Support is lower among older Americans, but reaches 96% among 18-29 year olds, 93% among 30-49 year olds. Even in the South, overall support reaches 83% support, while in the West 93%. Inter-marriage rates are also rising.

None of this means that anti-black racism has vanished: it does mean that it is a pale shadow of its former self. One suspects largely confined to the malice of low status whites: for whom the effortless status of racism is a compensation for lack of social significance. Malice that is mostly petty but sometimes very much not. (The perpetrator of the Charleston massacre seems to fall into the category of being homicidally frustrated not to be a member of a master race.)

By contrast, antipathy to queer folk is still much more widespread (particularly among African-Americans): in significant part because there are mainstream institutions (in the form of many Churches, synagogues and mosques) still pushing denial of equal protection of the law: something that is absent in the case of racism. Indeed, one of the most respected institutions in US life, the US military, is particularly strongly committed to racial integration and has been for decades.

All of which means the long campaign against racism has been a stunning success: not an absolute success, but a stunning success nevertheless.

So, the question is, why?

Losing functionality

A major reason I would suggest is: racism lost a lot of its functionality–particularly its institutional functionality. Once the civil rights campaigns had led to the abolition of Jim Crow, anti-black racism lost a lot of its point. Moral exclusion such as racism is often about creating social cartels, denying out-groups access to social goods: and Jim Crow set up a series of massive social cartels that were very much about denying blacks access to social goods. Without legal enforcement, the racial social cartels broke down and so racism lost a lot of its point.

Moreover, the aura of social heroism was captured by the civil rights movement, not its opponents. Opposition to racism was heroic (people literally risked, and lost, their lives); support of racism brutal and reactionary. These factors are far from the full story (why did the civil rights movement win in the first place?), but I would suggest they are a lot of the story. The wider story being part of social psychologist Steven Pinker’s identification of shifting moral perspectives: the civilising process as moralising process.

Creating social cartels

A classic example of racism being driven by creation of social cartels were the Iberian “cleanliness of the blood” laws, where Jewish converts to Christianity were excluded from various offices across generations. As far as I am aware, they were the first European laws which blocked legal rights on the basis of descent. A massive step in the direction of being Jewish not being merely a religious category (which could be left by conversion) but becoming an inherent category, regardless of religion.

Slavery was a somewhat similar case. Racism did not cause slavery. Slavery way predates anything that might reasonably be called racism. Slavery was, however, massively involved in the development of racism. Specifically, the enslavement of sub-Saharan Africans. The earliest significant anti-black racism developed in Muslim North Africa, to justify not converting black Africans to Islam, so they could continue to be subject to mass enslaving. In ibn Khaldun‘s (1332-1406) words:

the Negro nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because [Negroes] have little [that is essentially] human and have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals, as we have stated.

Even now, many Arabic speakers use the word ‘abd, “slave”, to refer to people of sub-Saharan African descent. Anti-black racism lingers on in the Arab world.

With the development of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the same logic applied in the Christian colonies of the Americas. Since all slaves in the Americas were black (something that had never been true in any other civilisation), why was it OK to have black slaves? Clearly, because they were “inferior” beings, suitable to being treated as mere property.

The Enlightenment made things worse for enslaved Africans in the Americas, particularly the new United States. If the Thirteen Colonies declared independence in the name of:

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.

Then how could they hold slaves? Well, clearly because they did not count because they were … black. Which the US Supreme Court decided was literally the case in Dredd Scott v Sandford (1857). Short of simple extermination, there is no more pervasive or vicious social cartel than owning other people as property. Doing so along a colour line naturally generates racism: indeed, a particularly virulent form of the same.

Along comes the US Civil War (which a reading of the Confederate Constitution demonstrates was most emphatically about slavery) and the Thirteenth Amendment. Slavery was abolished, but most Southern whites did not want political or economic competition from the freed former slaves (all blacks). So, using brutality and violence, Jim Crow was established. A new set of social cartels, both political and economic, enforced in part by simple mob homicide (i.e. lynchings).

Then, decades later, comes the aforementioned civil rights campaigns, and Jim Crow is abolished. The racial social cartels lose their state backing. Such social cartels do not immediately all disappear (and were not all in the South), but begin to be regularly overturned by civil rights suits and prosecutions. Racism loses much of its functionality, so begins to fade.

In large part by simple generational change. As people grew up in a world where the civil rights movements are seen as heroic, and the racial social cartels had lost their state backing and faded away, racism lost its social function and social power. There is still the residual appeal of effortless status–particularly among those otherwise lacking in social status–but that is simply nowhere near enough on its own for racism to be anything more than a pale shadow of its former self. (Though its consequences linger on.)

Complexities and cartels

Yet, American society has become, if anything, ever more hyper-concerned about racism. Partly, that is the fervour of the convert. Partly because, as racism fades, the role of low social capital in the problems of African-American communities becomes ever more salient, and that is a way more difficult and complex issue than being against racism. Thus diagnosing racism–when confronted with negative disproportions by race–is simple and therefore comforting: all the easier a path as the effects of low social capital and the effects of racism present in very similar ways (notably, various negative disproportions) and the former shades into the lingering shadows of racism.

Just to add to the complexity, there is unconscious discrimination: often a matter of familiarity preference (which is likely general among human populations), but it still leads to racial bias in decision-making and so social opportunities. (Though whether one can usefully call it racism is another issue.) That sort of unconscious discrimination is certainly worth identifying and drawing attention to.

But the hypersensitivity about race is also partly because anti-racism has become the basis of a new set of social cartels.

Anti-racism is reaching social consensus levels. In many social milieus, it is de rigueur. In social milieus were anti-racism is de rigueur, there is no moral heroism in being against racism: but anti-racism can wrap itself in a patina of moral heroism lingering on from the civil rights struggles. While a successful accusation of racism can destroy a career. Which makes anti-racism a potential enforcement mechanism.

Moreover, in social milieus were moralised discourse (and anti-racism in particular) is compulsory, there arises the problem of how to signal Virtue, and particularly anti-racist Virtue. The answer is–ever more hyper-sensitivity about racism. Such making a big moral deal about the difference between coloured people and people of colour, or identifying “micro-aggressions”. The University of California has provided a revealing set (pdf) of “micro aggressions”. The phrases may not be formally banned, but that is a distinction without much difference. Particularly in an age of adjuncts and casual academic employment. There is surely going to be a “chilling effect” on free speech on campus.

Especially given that even tenured professors can be targeted for dissenting. The use of civil rights legislation to prosecute a feminist professor, since disagreement is apparently “harassment”, is precisely the operation of a new belief-based social cartel, backed up by state power, with its very own Inquisition. (Presumably not if it gets to the US Supreme Court; though the US Department of Education apparently believes it is above such petty details as Supreme Court decisions.)

None of which should be read to say there is no racism in the US or it is not a worthy subject. The history of anti-black racism in the US is a vile one: embarrassing to those who take a positive or heroic view of American history. Denial of the extent and significance of racism can shade uneasily into racism itself or attitudes which are functionally not much different. The low social capital of African-American communities did not just happen. There is also a lot of hypocrisy in conservative complaints about political correctness, as many conservatives were just fine with a sexual-and-gender correctness which was much more vicious and pervasive: progressives did not invent Virtue signalling.

Nevertheless, the contemporary hyper-sensitivity Virtue-signalling is noxious at various levels. Starting with making that much more difficult to have a productive public discourse about the problems of low social capital in African-American communities. Or about police violence: the notion that too many US police are over-ready to use deadly violence because of poor training, discipline and inadequate legal constraints does not fit into either the “Racism! Racism!” progressive discourse or the “Soft on Crime!” conservative discourse; making it apparently impossible to have a productive public debate on the issue of feral law enforcement. Otherwise folk might notice more how police building social capital with local communities can greatly improve policing outcomes.

Progressivist Ascendancy

Then there is the term Social Justice Warrior: the term is clearly meant ironically, particularly on the (lack of) any moral heroism involved in what those labelled as SJW’s do. The term is also counter-productive, because it allows folk to completely evade the issue that has driven such things as the Sad Puppies campaign in the SF Hugo Awards. Use of the term provides cover for folk go off and talk about social justice concerns, using one of the basic techniques of Virtuous social cartelisation: “Folk like me are against X; you are disagreeing with folk like me: therefore you are against X”.  Which, of course, does not remotely follow.

But such systematic untruth is used again and again and does demonstrate anti-racism (and similar) as enforcement mechanisms. Which is precisely what sparked Sad Puppies in the first place–the notion that writers were not worthy of Hugo Awards because of their opinions or occupations (such as owning a gun shop). That only the Virtuous are entitled to literary awards, grants etc is an idea that has been around for decades now, but is a classic form of social cartel–denying social goods to outgroups. And part of what the term Social Justice Warrior is getting at is precisely the apparently endless ambition of such opinion enforcement–attempting to police people’s hobbies, fiction, etc. In other words, being Virtuous Wowsers. With all the you-are-not-listening-to-yourself puritanical earnestness Wowsers have: which includes proving the point when called on the same.

Hyper-sensitivity about racism leads to some remarkable convergences. Both racism and anti-racism can end up endorsing segregation and moral caste systems based on race (I am sorry, “privilege”). A convergence occurring not only because they both obsess with race, though from different moral directions, but because they both seek to set up social cartels–one based on race, the other on belief.

Blogger Scott Alexander also notes a Fearful Symmetry where both the social-justice folk and their critics end up making remarkably similar claims and arguments. Because both groups are worried about exclusions. Though the Virtuous or Progressivist Ascendancy currently seems to have more organs of the state on its side, extending as it does through education systems, the literary and artistic world, much of the mainstream media and into government bureaucracies.

But one of the Progressivist Ascendancy’s conceits is that it is “subversive” and not any sort of establishment: which, of course, also means they never having to take responsibility for anything awkward. The Protestant Ascendancy at least knew it was an establishment, though it was not without its own deep fears.

If, as is clear, racism in the US is in massive and continuing decline, but hyper-sensitivity about racism is used as a social-cartel enforcement device, then public debate about matters racial in the US will get more and more divergent from realities on the ground, encouraging policy to diverge from realities on the ground, making the Seeing Like A State problems even worse. Even wrestling with familiarity preference and unconscious discrimination becomes more difficult, since it conflates very different issues (overtly pushing the inferiority of group X versus having an unreflective preference for folk like oneself). Nor is making racial identity (and so racial difference) even more salient likely to be a helpful way to try and ameliorate such patterns.

The folk who will suffer most from this social cartelisation based on Virtue-markers are the most vulnerable: groups with low social capital. The anti-racism obsessors claim, of course, to be the friends of African-Americans: no, that is precisely what they are not. They are, instead, much more a manifestation of an classic analytical principle: in the race of life, back self-interest, it’s the only horse that’s trying. Which will, of course, infuriate Virtuous types: because one of their common games is to demand absolute respect for their own moral perspectives while on insisting on contempt for other people’s. It is not an unconscious familiarity preference but something much more overt and self-serving.


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

Lies, damned lies and statistics on “racism”

By Lorenzo

African-Americans are about 13% of the US population. African-Americans commit roughly half the homicides in the US. That means African-Americans commit unlawful homicide at a much higher rate than other Americans (5.8 times higher than whites in 2013). Which means that we can expect African-Americans to be arrested and convicted for homicide at a much higher rate than other Americans. So, the mere fact that African-Americans are arrested and convicted for homicide at a much higher rate than other Americans is not an indicator of racism by police, prosecutors, judges or juries.

African-Americans are also far more likely to be victims of homicide (4.9 times higher than whites in 2013). In 2013, 3,005 white Americans were murdered, while 2,491 African-Americans were murdered. Of whom 2,245, or 90% of murdered African-Americans, were murdered by an African-American. If we are going to say blacklivesmatter, then by far the biggest violent death risk to African-Americans comes from other African-Americans.

Homicide is, statistically, a “good” crime because the definition is pretty clear and the reporting can be expected to be reliably high and consistent. Since it is also an extreme crime, one can expect that African-Americans will also disproportionately commit other crimes and disruptive behaviour. (Obviously, only a tiny proportion of African-Americans commit murder, it is just a significantly higher tiny proportion than for other Americans: and that can be expected to follow for other crimes and disruptive behaviour.)

Mere disproportion is not enough

So, any study which (pdf) merely points out that, for example, a police force arrests African-Americans for various crimes at a higher rate than white Americans is not proof of racism by said police force. Without some measure of the comparative rate of actually committing said crimes, it is not even, in any strong sense, evidence of racism. Especially not when what is done to arrested African-Americans matches what is done to white Americans arrested for the same crimes.

Nor are statistics which (pdf) show that African-American students are suspended at about 3 times the rate of white students and 10 times the rate of Asian students. Indeed, these statistics are completely compatible with teachers being biased in favour of black students and against Asian ones if, for example, African-American students are, say, 5 times more likely than white students to be seriously disruptive while Asian students are only half as disruptive as their suspension rate suggests.

In other words, without statistics on how often students in various categories are actually disruptive, or people in various racial categories commit specific crimes, we cannot tell whether there is any racial bias whatsoever in the decisions to suspend or arrest. Merely telling us the rates of suspension or proportion of arrests tells us nothing about whether there is any racial bias.

Not wanting to see

Anyone with any basic statistical knowledge should understand that. So, why bother publishing such statistics on their own? Because a lot of people do not have such basic statistical knowledge, or else refuse to apply it. The background assumption that rates of committing categories of crime, or being seriously disruptive in class, are evenly distributed among racial groups (which we have good reason to think is not the case) is allowed to frame the debate.

Which is a classic example of how signalling Virtue corrupts public debate. Supporting a study which purports to demonstrate racism–no matter how statistically inadequate–is Virtuous. Criticising a study which purports to demonstrate racism–no matter how statistically inadequate–is Not Virtuous: indeed it is condoning, expressing or whitewashing racism. Facts and statistical competence do not matter, only signalling Virtue matters.

What folk so obsessed with their own sense of Virtue demonstrably do not care about is the consequences of getting it wrong. If US public school teachers are systematically racist (a dramatically implausible claim, given the politics of teacher unions), then that is a very different problem than if African-American students are disproportionately disruptive. If the latter is true but the former is blamed, then that will make things systematically worse, since it will be that much harder to deal with disruptive student behaviour.

Similarly, if police in a particular jurisdiction are systematically racist, then that is a very different problem than African-Americans being much more likely to break the law. Once again, if the latter is true, but the former is blamed, then that will also make things systematically worse, since it will be much harder to arrest or cite African-Americans for breaking the law.

Police killings

The sharp end of this, and the focus of blacklivesmatter, is police killings of African-Americans. Though police kill more white Americans than African-Americans, African-Americans are killed by police at a much higher rate than their share of the population, as is pointed out here and here. But they are killed in proportion to the rate that African-Americans commit homicide. Which does not mean there is not a problem with the willingness of US police to use deadly force (fairly clearly there is), but it is not merely a problem of racism: likely not even mostly a problem of racism.

That US politics is so dominated by competing narratives–different languages of politics–does not help. Racism fits neatly into the oppressed/oppressor dichotomy of progressive discourse. Conversely, focusing on much higher crime rates among African-Americans fits neatly into the civilisation/barbarism dichotomy of conservative discourse. Each discourse-community thinks what is the “real” underlying problem is obvious and despises the other for not accepting the “obvious”. (A problem which extends to other political issues, but is particularly destructive on the matter of racism and race relations.)

Conversation across the politicised discourse communities is difficult and sadly rare. Constance Rice, an African-American civil rights lawyer engaged by a new LAPD police chief who talked to lots of LA police officers, reported a pervasive fear of black men among police. Given that African-Americans are apparently, according to Peter Moskos, a professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former Baltimore cop, five times more likely to kill police than white Americans (a very plausible claim, given the differential homicide rates), police fear of black men has a statistical basis. Which makes the problem that much more tangled and difficult. A merely irrational fear would be easier to deal with.

Comparing Asian-Americans

If African-Americans acted more like Asian-Americans (or Jewish-Americans), the issue of racism and race relations in the US would become much less tangled. After all, it is not as if Asian-Americans were not historically subject to vicious racism in the US. Now, they are clearly treated as functionally indistinguishable from white folk. Indeed, a dark-skinned person of South Asian descent can apparently be a very politically successful good ole boy in deepest Louisiana. Merely being physically not-white is clearly not the problem [in these instances].

Which also points out how much racism is socially constructed. This gif set, from this BBC documentary, provides another excellent example of that. As well as a reminder of how vicious white American racism against African-Americans was in the 1940s: lynchings were the homicidal end of a pervasive racism. Racism which manifested–as this essay by writer Ta-Nehisi Coates spells out–in manifold different ways well into our time.

Though I am deeply sceptical that reparations are a useful answer, even without the very messy mechanics of who is supposed to owe whom and why would not the benchmark be a comparison between the current situations of African-Americans and West Africans? I am sceptical because the political structures of the US rather preclude the German Holocaust reparations example Ta-Nehisi Coates cites from being followed.  (It is much harder for the US political class to impose resisted outcomes on the US electorate than it is in Germany.) But, more to the point, a community that waits for someone else to redeem them will wait forever.

Why don’t African-Americans collectively behave more like Asian-Americans? Because they do not have the same internal trust networks, the same deeply ingrained reverence for education, the same deeply ingrained traditions of courtesy, the same strong families and kin networks. Nor, unlike Asian-Americans, did the way African-Americans came to the US select for initiative. (It is indicative that Colin Powell was the son of Jamaican immigrantsBarack Obama a university educated East African.) The levels of social capital are vastly different.

Weak social capital

It may be 150 years in the past, but the socially and culturally pulverising legacy of slavery clearly has much to do with that. As the same legacy has much to do with white racism: justifying treating African-Americans as property, and the poisonous human relations slavery creates, was the original poison-pill of anti-black racism. Which Jim Crow then reinvigorated.

There were heroic efforts to rebuild, with the black Churches being at the centre of that. But public policy kept being wielded in ways that undermined those attempts–(re)read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay with trying to build social capital within African-American communities from a weak base in mind. Add in the use of zoning and highway construction to disrupt African-American communities (particularly in the American South).

Then add in the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty [both of which suffer from Seeing Like A State problems]. Pervasive illegal markets offering potentially high returns for illegal behaviour and property rights defended by private violence are potentially immensely destructive in communities with low social capital. While welfare can also be deeply disruptive in communities with low social capital, as it offers income without effort or social connection. This without considering where public resources went within African-American communities (basically, to those with more social capital).

But folk focused on the conservative civilisation-versus-barbarism language of politics don’t want to be told that the war on drugs might have been incredibly, and unevenly, destructive. While folk focused on the progressive oppressors-versus-oppression language of politics don’t want to be told that redistribution policies might be seriously counter-productive.

Automatically diagnosing racism offers a corrupting combination of comforting simplicity and effortless virtue. As, of course, does racism itself. Which are just some of the reasons I deeply disliked race analysis–taking folk’s racial identity as some sort of ur-identity. It is so very revealing that both mentalities end up endorsing segregation and moral caste systems based on race (I am sorry, “privilege”). They both obsess with race, just from different moral directions.

And thereby avoid difficult questions and complexities. In African-American civil rights activist Robert L. Woodson Sr.’s words:

If race were the primary culprit in injustice and poverty, why are poor blacks no better off in institutions run by their own people, including city governments and public schools? If government safety net programs were the answer, why has $20 trillion spent on the programs over 50 years failed to improve the lot of the poor?

About correlation

On the matter of statistical literacy, I have noticed a tendency for folk, when someone cites correlations they do not like, to parrot off “correlation is not proof of causation” as if that means that correlations have no evidential value at all. Yes, it is true: lung cancer does not cause smoking. But, the correlation between smoking and lung cancer is evidence of a connection (in the sense of being statistically indicative). Not proof, but evidence; and the stronger the correlation, the stronger the evidence.

Correlations are, of course, only evidence, not proof. (And evidence can, indeed, be misleading.) Typically, folk have some model of what is going on and a correlation which points in the direction the model suggests provides evidence (not proof, but evidence) that the model is onto something.  The stronger the correlation, the more reason it provides to have confidence that the underlying model is onto something.

So, no correlations are not proof of causation. But that does not mean they have no evidentiary power at all. Otherwise, folk would never bother with the things in the first place.

It would be nice if people did not sacrifice statistical literacy to Signalling Virtue. But sanctimonious self-righteousness has a lot more emotional power, and cognitively corrupting simplicity, than open-minded concern for facts and evidence and the messy complexities such reveals.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Fancy maths and data series are no reason to ignore supply and demand

By Lorenzo

Came across a 2014 NBER paper Betting The House (pdf) by Òscar Jordà, Moritz H.P. Schularick & Alan M. Taylor. I was wildly unimpressed. I am not quite sure whether I am willing to use the tag line of “numbers make smart people stupid”–as per this wonderful post on the adoption of farming, criticising an attempted cliometric study of said transition from foraging–but still, wildly unimpressed.

Judging monetary policy fail

First of all, the paper associates low interest rates with “loose monetary conditions”. For example:

The long-run historical evidence uncovered in this study clearly suggests that central banks have reasons to worry about the side-effects of loose monetary conditions. During the 20th century, real estate lending became the dominant business model of banks. As a result, the effects that low interest rates have on mortgage borrowing, house prices and ultimately financial instability risks have become considerably stronger… these historical insights suggest that the potentially destabilizing byproducts of easy money must be taken seriously (p.3).

Or, later:

Using short-term interest rates as a proxy for monetary conditions … (p.14).

The paper also refers to “easy low interest rates” (p.35).

The paper is centred around an equation based on the monetary policy trilemma (that monetary policy cannot have a stable exchange rate, free flow of capital and autonomous monetary policy all at the same time) where interest rates “measure” the stance of monetary policy (p.15), leading to the central conclusion (p.37) that (italics in original):

Loose monetary conditions are causal for mortgage and house price booms, and this effect has become much more dramatic since WW2. 

Judging the stance of monetary policy from interest rates is deeply problematic. In Milton Friedman’s words:

Initially, higher monetary growth would reduce short-term interest rates even further. As the economy revives, however, interest rates would start to rise. That is the standard pattern and explains why it is so misleading to judge monetary policy by interest rates. Low interest rates are generally a sign that money has been tight, as in Japan; high interest rates, that money has been easy.

This is hardly surprising, as nominal interest rates include inflationary expectations, so will be higher if inflationary expectations are higher. During the Great Moderation, inflation and interest rates were low: in what world is low inflation a sign of “loose monetary conditions”? To quote Milton Friedman again:

After the U.S. experience during the Great Depression, and after inflation and rising interest rates in the 1970s and disinflation and falling interest rates in the 1980s, I thought the fallacy of identifying tight money with high interest rates and easy money with low interest rates was dead. Apparently, old fallacies never die.

Apparently, they don’t.

Money has two uses–the demand to hold money as an asset and the use of money in transactions. (Or, if you like, the demand to keep money for use in future transactions and its use in current transactions.)  If inflation is low, that means that the use of money in (current) transactions is roughly keeping pace with the growth of goods and services. So, not loose monetary conditions, with (nominal) interest rates to match. (Which, by the way, is the only way the quantity theory of money makes sense–i.e. if the demand to hold money is not included: money held has no effect on the price level because it is not being used to buy things.)

As long as one separates out the demand to hold money as an asset/for use in future transactions, then monetary conditions are a matter of supply and demand (of money in circulation and goods and services on offer). A simple way of thinking of the price of money is that it is what you can buy with it, so 1/NGDP (the inverse of total money spent on goods and services). Thinking of it that way, the price of money moves inversely to the price level (since NGDP = Py, where P is the price level and y is output of goods and services) holding y constant: as the price level goes up, the price of money in goods and services falls (and inflation is when that keeps happening); as the price level goes down, the price of money in goods and services rises (and deflation is when that keeps happening).

Conversely, if the demand to hold money shoots up, as happened in 2008, but the central bank does not adjust monetary policy accordingly (as also happened in 2008) then the effect is a serious (if passive) tightening of monetary policy. Which can lead to things such as the steepest fall in spending on goods and services in the postwar period. All that without any significant shift in interest rates.

Exchange rates are also prices of money. But they are the price of one money in terms of another money.

What is NOT the price of money are interest rates. (The price to borrow something is not the same as the price to buy it.) Interest rates are the price of credit (aka, the price of delayed obligation). Low interest rates (which normally implies low real interest rates) are a sign that credit is cheap, so we can expect, in such circumstances, more purchasing of goods and assets on credit. Such as, for example, housing.

To put it another way, easy credit is not the same as easy money. Though changes in a monetary regime can certainly shift risks. For example, when unification into a common monetary area lowers nominal interest rates in previously inflation-and-exchange-rate-depreciation prone economies that are no longer subject to differentiated money risk (since they are now using a single currency) nor to exchange rate risk (ditto). But that is not really “easy” money; it is a shift in expected risks favourable to more use of credit. One, indeed, based on the expectation that the common money will be “harder” (more resilient in value) than the local money that preceded it.

Time preference

Interest rates are typically divided into money risk, asset/agent risk and the “risk-free cost of capital” (plus other transaction costs, which we can ignore). The “risk-free cost of capital” is better conceived of as pure time preference; what people are concerned about in any delay in use of income, which can differ across time and space. If people’s concern about delay is dominated by fears that they won’t have income later, time preference may even be positive—i.e. people become willing to pay to have access to their capital in the future.

In other words, interest rates should be treated as entirely an across-time price: thus if there was no delay risk or fears about future income, people would be indifferent to which time period they had access to their income (capital which was genuinely “risk free”–so no agent risk–would have no cost across time, apart from money risk). Though risk of death does, of course, give us a reason to be concerned about delay.

A nice short discussion of shifts in general risk since the medieval period is at William J Bernstein, The Societal Risk Premium. For a discussion of situation where pure time preference is positive (i.e. there is willingness accept negative returns in order to have future access to capital) see John Hempton’s essay, The Chinese Kleptocracy Is Like Nothing In Human History.

As an aside, time preference should not be regarded as a single number, but as a continuum for agents across which the supply and demand for credit is matched–thus, if demand for credit sharply increases compared to supply, interest rates can be expected to rise, likely attracting new credit from people whose time preferences are now being covered and so are more willing to offer credit. (This can be understood as movement along a supply curve.) Conversely, if the demand for credit sharply decreases compared to supply, then interest rates can be expected to fall, reducing the number of people whose time preferences are covered and so are willing to offer credit. (This is also movement along a supply curve.)

If people increasingly judge that general delay risks are falling, their time preferences will shift, affecting their willingness to offer credit. (This can be understood as a shifting supply curve.) If such tendencies become entrenched, major effects can follow. Such as changing the arrangements of farming fields. Most peasant societies handle farming risk by dispersal across space (using scattered fields, thereby accepting reduced average production in order to reduce production variability from year to year). If interest rates fall, allowing much cheaper smoothing of income across time (either by increased use of less costly/risky storage or by use of–now significantly cheaper–credit), farmers tend to shift to concentrating fields, thereby increasing average production while accepting increased variability in production from year to year. That is, they move to managing variability across time rather than across space. Hence falling interest rates led to the enclosure movement (pdf).

So, the market for credit is not the market for money and interest rates are not a good basis for judging the stance of monetary policy.

Housing market fail

Then there is the Jordà, Schularick & Taylor paper’s treatment of housing markets as if they are generic. A particularly egregious example is given at p.14:

Viewed as a natural experiment, the question is whether these differences in monetary policy treatment led to different outcomes in Ireland and Spain using Germany as control.

Paul Krugman famously divided US housing markets into the Zoned Zone and Flatland. Germany is Flatland, so it cannot be used as a control for any housing markets where the supply of land-for-housing is rationed (such as Ireland: by rationed I mean restricted in a way which significantly reduces the responsiveness of supply to increased demand, typically by various regulations).

Just as with money, where we need to distinguish between demand for money-as-asset and use of money to purchase goods and services, so we have to distinguish between demand for house-as-asset and use of housing–i.e. the demand for shelter. (Actually, as Matt Yglesias has pointed out, houses are large decaying structures, it is the land the housing is on which is the enduring asset.) The demand for shelter can be satisfied by buying or renting, a choice which will depend on the circumstances of particular people and the structure of a given housing market. The demand for house(land)-as-asset can only be satisfied by purchase.

So, if people think that land is a particularly good asset–because, for example, land-approved-for-housing is rationed, so has an entrenched tendency to increase in value faster than inflation–then the demand for house(land)-as-asset will be greater. A choice that will be definitely affected by interest rates, as low interest rates imply lower borrowing costs, so encourage more people to take out mortgages to enter the market for house(land)-as-asset, driving the price of houses even higher; if regulation or other constraints continues to inhibit supply responsiveness. So, easy credit can certainly be expected to have an upward effect on house(land)-as-asset prices in land rationed housing markets (or other housing markets with strong feedback effects). But, as discussed above, the price of credit and the price of money is not the same thing. Hence monetary policy having very little correlation with house price rises, but capital inflows having quite a strong correlation, as then Fed Chair Ben Bernanke pointed out in a 2010 speech.

What do we know about markets for assets in restricted supply? They tend to be more unstable (pdf). Hardly surprising, since there tends to be a positive feedback effect, where rising prices expected to continue of themselves encourage more demand for the asset. Particularly as there is experimental and empirical evidence that lack of experience in investors increases feedback effects; with house-buyers largely being inexperienced (or, at least narrow-experienced) investors, in that they rarely have experience of investing with other major assets, or engage in many house purchases; factors especially important when various housing markets had prolonged price-build ups.

So, using Germany–where supply of land-for-housing is responsive to demand–as a control for Ireland, where it was not, is a basic failure of analysis: an apples-with-oranges comparison. (In the case of Ireland, access to some areas was highly rationed, driving up prices, and to other areas was much less so, encouraging misallocation.) Supply and demand, they matter, really they do. Thus, the structure of particular markets matter, really they do.

What we appear to have here is data disease–”we have assembled all this lovely data, and it is much more pliable for our analysis if we just abstract across housing markets”. But that is precisely what one cannot do–at least, not across housing markets with very different supply dynamics, for example.  The paper’s failure to consider the difference between demand for shelter and the demand for house(land)-as-asset is quite clear:

The house is a bundle of the structure and the land used in its construction. An ideal index would capture the appreciation of the price of a standard, unchanging house which is hard to identify (p.5).

Monetary policy general: assets specific
Then there is the general versus particular problem. Monetary policy is a general phenomenon while “bubbles” (i.e. asset price surges and collapses) occur in specific asset markets. It is always a pertinent question, why did a surge-and-collapse occur in this asset market and not another? The US, for example, does not have a single housing market, it has hundreds, with wide diversity in levels of boom or bust.

Monetary policy also has a poor record when applied to asset “bubbles”, including housing asset “bubbles”. (Which, btw, is not a helpful way to think about housing price dynamics.) Lars Svensson noted that such “leaning against” policy can actually make debt-to-gdp ratios worse (pdf), by depressing income needed to service past debt more than it discourages future debt. Folk such as Richard Koo in Japan and Steve Keen in Australia typically apply Irving Fisher’s Debt-Deflation Theory (pdf) of depressions in this unbalanced way–too focused on debt, not enough on income expectations (the deflation bit). There is no more effective way to produce disastrous debt dynamics than tight monetary policy driving down income expectations, thus spending, thus income, thus ability to service debt. Which is what happened in both the Great Depression and the Great Recession and continues to operate in much of the Eurozone.


The Jordà, Schularick & Taylor paper argues that the unified monetary policy of the Eurozone provides a situation for countries where the unified monetary policy was “too loose” to have credit booms through the “credit channel” of monetary policy (Pp11ff). First, as previously noted, it is surely more a matter of a unified monetary realm changing expected risks in various economies. Second, if it is a “monetary policy via credit channel” issue, one might expect that a similar process could operate in the US, since it is about as large as the Eurozone and also has a common monetary policy. Which then raises the issue of the paper’s different treatment of the US versus the Eurozone–either treat the various US housing markets separately or treat the Eurozone as one big housing market, as the paper treats the US. Treating the US as one housing market and the Eurozone as a collection of them is worshipping far too much at the altar of national statistics rather than market dynamics.

Extending the former point, what the creation of the Eurozone did do was to eliminate money risk differentiations between economies as well as exchange rate risk: the consequent drop in nominal interest rates would be expected to increase demand for credit and the elimination of exchange rate risk increase the supply thereof in countries where both factors acted most strongly (i.e. the Mediterranean economies). But, as the paper points out, the effects on housing markets were not consistent–which again points to need to examine the structure of specific housing markets. A paper such as this (pdf) which provides a simple model for explaining housing price bubbles also (very sensibly) confines itself to police recommendation which are specific to housing markets.

The Jordà, Schularick & Taylor paper holds that long-term interest rates are a good proxy for mortgage rates (p.21). Well yes, since mortgages are classic long-term financing and even more since mortgages have become such a large part of banking business (p.5). But, to invoke Milton Friedman once again, interest rates are set in a whole range of linked asset markets, so the question of why credit is drawn to a particular asset class still remains very relevant. Yes, monetary policy fundamentally affects general income expectations which will have a general tendency to push up (or down, depending on what income expectations it is generating) asset prices, but that is not even close to saying that monetary policy drives asset prices in anything close to a uniform way.

The failure to examine land use regulation in any systematic way also shows up in this paper bv Sebastian Dellepiane, Niamh Hardiman & Jon Las Heras on the housing boom-and-bust in Ireland and Spain. This paper notes that Portugal, Greece and Germany had very different experiences, but does not engage in any systematic examination of differences in land use regulation. (There is a passing reference to zoning in Ireland, and some hand-waving about de-regulation in Spain, but that is about it.)  The Dellepiane, Hardiman & Las Heras paper also engages in the unfortunate usage of “easy money” when they mean easy credit. On the other hand, the paper is clear that encouragement of “housing(land)-as-asset” was very much central to the difficulties in Spain and Ireland.

Either way, nice data and fancy maths do not warrant ignoring basic dynamics of supply and demand.

About history

If you are going to study the effect of monetary policy and monetary conditions on asset prices, then one really must familiarise oneself with C19th economic history. There you will find some truly spectacular asset booms and busts under a gold standard monetary regime: not generally regarded as conducive to “loose” monetary conditions. Yet one marked by generally low interest rates.

In particular, technological uncertainty (of which there was a great deal in the C19th) is more than enough on its own (pdf) to create asset booms and busts. But so will the supply of capital increasing in a way that it is “pushing on” investment opportunities; as per Andy Harless’s analysis here.

Speaking of whom, he made an apposite comment about low discount rates and asset price volatility:

Low discount rates (which may not be quite the same thing as low market interest rates) do make assets hard to value (which may not be quite the same thing as causing bubbles), because they make asset values more sensitive to flows in the more distant future, which are harder to estimate. For example, if you assume a constant growth rate, as asset value is V = d/(r-g), where d is the current flow (“dividend”), g is the growth rate, and r is the discount rate. If r is only slightly higher than g, then a slight change in g will have a dramatic effect on V. So suppose r is low, and people happen to get a little too optimistic about g. It’s debatable whether this fits the definition of a bubble, but in any case it’s going to cause the price of the asset to skyrocket, and when the overoptimism fades, the asset price will collapse. (Of course the situation is symmetric. Maybe people rightly became optimistic about g, the asset price rightly skyrocketed, and then people happened, wrongly, to get just a little bit less optimistic, and the asset price collapsed. In this case there wasn’t a bubble per se, but the same volatility problem exists.)

To which monetary economist Scott Sumner responded:

Yes, asset prices might be more volatile, but that would not be because of monetary policy in any case. At least not for any extended period of time. Suppose rates were low, but inflation was below target. The Fed could raise rates, but that would drive inflation even lower. In that case either rates would fall again, or we’d go into deflation, and rates would fall a bit later.

In any case, I see asset price volatility as being very different from asset price bubbles. Japanese stock prices have been very volatile over the past 20 years, but there has been no Japanese stock bubbles over the last 20 years. So it’s not clear that this sort of asset price volatility is a problem.

So, we are not talking about simple asset price volatility and housing prices were not notably affected by technological change (except, perhaps, changes in financing technology).

Comments I also made on the same post are apposite.  If there is a prolonged period of rising incomes are not asset prices going to rise? Not merely from expectations of future incomes but such further magnified by (rising) savings pushing on investment. And if expectations of increased income increased asset prices why would not also positive expectations about an asset as a store of value? Whether for gold or approved-for-housing land.

Moreover, in a market economy with multiple interest rates and multiple assets, with assets being various bundles of income-expectation, store-of-value-expectation, and expected risks, how can one measily central bank rate be more important than any of the aforementioned? And, in a market economy with multiple interest rates and multiple assets, with assets being various bundles of income-expectation, store-of-value-expectation, and expected risks, how can one interest rate be “the” rate that balances planned savings and planned investment?

To which the response is, it can’t. (A weakness of Austrian analysis is that, on one hand, it insists that the heterogeneity of capital is crucial, yet it also gives a single interest rate amazing pivotal power.) One has to look at the dynamics of different asset markets. (Another problem with Austrian business cycle analysis is that an implication is that downturns should hit industries in a sequence according to their different average investment cycles, rather than all at once, as actually happens.) And housing markets are not asset markets in an all-the-same-really sense, as specific housing markets are not equally driven by the demand for shelter; in large part because they are not subject to the same supply dynamics.

And no amount of data assembly and fancy mathematics gets around that. Just as it cannot get around interest rates not being good indicators of monetary policy: in particular, low interest rates are very much not a reliable indicator that monetary policy is “loose” or “easy”.

Scott Sumner famously keeps reminding folk to never reason from a price change. Another way to put that is: always attend to supply AND demand (even if no one understands that no one understands supply and demand). And so attend regardless of much data you have assembled and how much fancy maths you can apply to it.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Palestine’s disastrous political leadership

By Lorenzo

I recently read Mark S. Weiner’s The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom. I heartily recommend the book, which includes various case studies–the comparison of the largely contemporaneous consolidation of state power against claims of kin, clan and lineage in Anglo-Saxon England with Arabia under Muhammad and the Rashidun Caliphs was particularly striking. Though Weiner seems to have largely missed the role of the Catholic Church’s family revolution (such as banning cousin marriage) in the fading of clan in Latin Christendom.

One of Weiner’s case studies is Palestine where, once again, we learn what a disaster Yasser Arafat was. Because Western colonial authorities came from liberal (in the broad sense) societies where clans were things of the distant past, their rule often had unfortunate effects on existing clan structures. (Though Afghanistan shows that the lack of colonial rule hardly improve matters.) Either way, the 2004 Arab Human Development Report (pdf) identifies “clannism” as both a problem and a response to weak states. As in the rest of the Arab world, Weiner notes that:

Traditionally, social and political power among Palestinians has been rooted in systems of lineage. These kinship systems include not only those of nomadic Bedouin tribesmen and the elite families who served as intermediaries between the Palestinian population and government administrators under the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate, but also hundreds of extended family groups of hamula, tracing their patrilineal descent to a common ancestor (loc 1342).

Such hamula:

… continue to play an important part in Palestinian politics and the administration of justice.

In particular, clans possess their own tribunals for resolving disputes within their lineage groups, and they abide by time-honored practices for reaching reconciliation and renewal  (islah) between disputing groups under recognised principles of customary law (‘urn). They also observe a strict code of honour (mithaq al-sharaf) that requires members to take revenge (tha’r) against those who have injured their kin (loc 1342).

As Weiner points out:

The viability of a free and independent Palestinian state will depend not only on Israeli political will, but also whether these traditional systems of justice can be replaced with state institutions under democratic public control (loc 1355).

The first Intifada (1987-93) pushed Palestine in the direction of state building:

… it gave rise to a new generation of leaders known as the intifada elite, university-educated activists committed not to the interests of their kin groups but to the principles of nationalism. The intifada elite sought to advance the cause of Palestinian independent by developing the institutional structures of government and civil society. Their deep, grassroots connections gave them the authority and legitimacy to construct a modern, albeit revolutionary, state (loc 1355).

But then Arafat returned from his Tunisian exile in 1994, in the wake of the Oslo Accords. Anyone familiar with the history of the Palestinians as, in Abba Eban’s words, the people who “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” can guess what happens next:

To bolster his own power, Arafat undermined the institutions forged by the intifada elite and strengthened the power of the clans, which he could control directly through patronage (loc 1355).

Including an election law which, in the words of one scholar:

produced what is was designed to produce: a parliament of clan leaders, largely pliant to the wishes of Arafat and his cabinet (loc 1368).

The second Intifada (2000-2005) (including the Israeli response) then largely completed the process with the result that, as Weiner writes:

… clans now pose a major obstacle to practical institution builders seeking to establish the rule of law in the Palestinian Authority (loc 1368).

A problem that extends to Gaza:

The obstacle has been as vexing to the Islamists of Hamas in Gaza as it has been to the nationalists of Fatah in the West Bank. Although Islam has historically accommodated clan groups, at its heart it sets religious identity against tribal loyalty. Hamas is philosophically committed to this anticlan ideology, which regularly brings it into violent conflict with powerful Gazan families (loc 1382).

Choosing violence and hatred

But both Arafat and Hamas found conflict much easier than peace-building. Especially as it is such an excellent revenue source: the Hamas leadership appears to have become seriously wealthy from its anti-Zionist intransigence.

But choosing violence and hatred because it offers easier political returns goes back to the origins of the Palestinian “struggle”. When Jewish settlers first started coming to Palestine at the time of the Ottoman Empire, they brought capital (physical, financial, human), raising local wages and expanding economic activity. Which then attracted migrants from other areas of the Middle East. (A proportion of Palestinians are also descendants of settlers: hence the UN definition of a Palestinian refugee only requires residence in Mandatory Palestine from 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948.)

Jewish settlers 1880s

The existing Palestinian elite had a choice: come to some mutually beneficial arrangement with the new settlers (Palestine was hardly crowded at the time) or play the ethno-religious hatred game. Some of the Palestinian elite was willing to do the former, even if it was just selling land to the newcomers.

Enter the new Grand Mufti (1921-1937) of Jerusalem, Mohammed Effendi Amin el-Husseini. Already implicated in anti-Jewish violence, he propagated an Arab nationalism that excluded the Jews–yet Jews had been residents of the region longer than Arabs. Hatred and violence pushed the Jews towards creating their own institutions, while defining a new Palestinian identity against Jews. Zionism was based on the principle that Jews were not safe in Europe (which turned out to be true), el-Husseini’s approach made state-Zionism seem an increasingly necessary refuge in the Middle East as well. The 1929 Riots and even more the 1936-39 Arab Revolt further accelerated both processes.

Husseini saluting Muslim Waffen SS

Fleeing a British arrest warrant, el-Husseini ended up in Nazi Germany, actively supporting the Nazi war effort and a policy of expelling all Jews from Muslim countries (including Palestine). His continuing policy of no-compromise and no-place-for-Jews failed to build effective Palestinian institutions but greatly helped motivate the creation of Jewish ones. Culminating in the creation of Israel, the 1947-48 Israeli War of Independence and the fleeing or expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians (events known to Palestinians as the nabka, the catastrophe). It was record of utter disaster, which lost el-Husseini any credible leadership but never seems to have led to serious reconsideration among Palestinians–it was all the Jews’ fault. His post-nabka All-Palestine Government was a shadow, lasting as long as it was convenient to Egypt and no longer.

Arafat’s disastrous choices

In 1964, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was formed. By 1969, Arafat became Chairman, a position he held until his death in November 2004. His only real achievement was survival. The War of Attrition (1967-1970) led Arafat’s PLO to disastrous conflict with Jordan. Fleeing to Lebanon, the Palestinian military presence helped destabilise the weak Lebanese state, leading to the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Once again, the PLO was driven out, this time to Tunisia in 1982.

Arafat at the UN 1974

The adoption of the PLO’s Ten Point Program neither reassured the Israelis that negotiations could be serious nor united Palestinians, since the Rejectionist Front objected to any implied recognition of Israel. Based in Tunisia, Arafat was far from Palestine and seemed increasingly irrelevant.

Arafat was rescued by the First Intifada, which he seems to had nothing to do with. He negotiated the Oslo Accords, which allowed him to return to Palestine and proceeded, as noted above, to undo the best hope for an effective Palestinian state. Confronted with the consequences of sacrificing state-building for his own personal power, and his own inability to agree to any plausible peace deal with Israel, Arafat unleashed the Second Intifada which, as with all Arafat’s resorts to violence, led to dead Palestinians (and rather fewer dead Israelis) and the Palestinian cause (yet again) going backwards, since it (including the Israeli responses) largely completed the process of reversing the building of effective Palestinian institutions.

Having rejected Israeli Premier Ehud Barak’s peace offer without making any serious counter-offer of his own, it is no wonder that it became bipartisan US policy to wait for Arafat to die. Said death (November 2004) finally allowing the Second Intifada to end.

And so it continues

With an effective Palestinian state even further away, and Arafat’s politics of patronage and corruption having rotted away Fatah‘s credibility, the openly genocidal Hamas decisively won the 2006 Palestinian elections. Which led to the further division of Palestine between Hamas-controlled Gaza and Fatah-dominated West Bank. With Hamas continuing the Arafat strategy of disastrous “victories”.

A case can be made that the Palestinians have disastrous political leadership because they get the leadership they deserve. (In the words of a prominent Egyptian historian ”they don’t want to resolve their own problems”.) But that same leadership either tolerates or approves religious preaching and educational materials that make it that much harder to reach any sort of agreement with Israel–both because it makes Israelis all that much more suspicious and fosters revanchist delusions among Palestinians.  Including making the Palestinian right of return an apparently untouchable totem of Palestinian politics while also clearly a terminal block to any peace agreement. Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, declared that:

… it’s better [that Palestinians] die in Syria than give up their right of return.

Yet the current spectacle of ethnic, clan and other mayhem and massacre in Libya, Syria and Iraq (and the fragility of Lebanon) provides a daily grim spectacle of why Israeli Jews would be mad to agree to any state where they became the minority. That even without the memory of what happened to Jewish minorities in the rest of the Middle East.

Yazidi refugees

By contrast with the disastrous record of Palestinian political leadership, the open, argumentative, democratic politics of Israel have been much more successful at, well, just about everything. Including absorbing hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim country, when it has clearly been Arab policy to leave Palestinians as stateless sticks to beat Israel with. A policy the UN and EU have facilitated in various ways. (For example, Palestinians are the UN’s only hereditary refugees.)

Nothing Hamas ever does, and little Fatah ever does, seemed to be seriously aimed in any way at convincing the Israeli electorate that a peace agreement can be had. By contrast, Nelson Mandela never seems to have lost sight of the fact that South African whites would have to be included in any final settlement. Mandela grasped that true victory was when the whites were no longer the enemy: there is no sign that the Palestinian leadership has ever even remotely grasped that. That contrast says all one has to say about the disastrous Palestinian leadership.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Too many tweets make a twat: ANZAC version

By Lorenzo

SBS sports reporter Scott Mcintyre let loose with a series of anti-ANZAC tweets and then was promptly sacked by SBS for breaching their code of conduct. It is helpful to be clear about the issues involved.

(1) This is not a free speech issue. Scott Mcintyre is not being prosecuted for his tweets, and it would be outrageous if he was.

(2) No one has a right to publicly breach the code of conduct of one’s employer. “Right” here understood as “able to act without penalty”. Australian law is fairly clear on this.

(3) Tone and context matters. The issue is not the facts of Gallipoli or other relevant history (though his cause is not helped by some factual infelicities). Being sacked for stating facts (not received in confidence) would also be outrageous. Being sacked for gratuitously insulting large numbers of fellow citizens is a rather different matter. Showing oneself blind, indifferent or ignorant of context is also an issue; particularly for someone employed as a journalist.

For example:

The cultification of an imperialist invasion of a foreign nation that Australia had no quarrel with is against all ideals of modern society.

The Ottoman Empire was at war (due to a rather complicated series of interactions) with the British Empire, which we were very much a part of and thought ourselves to be. The Gallipoli invasion was perfectly reasonable under both international law and just law theory. Fairly clearly, Mcintyre was appealing to that sort of moral childishness where war is just “doubleplusungood“, but these things matter. (At the time of the invasion, said Ottoman Empire was responding to Russian advances in the Caucasus by beginning the Armenian genocide–along with the Assyrian and Pontic Greek genocides–building on a previous, and recent, history of massacre.)


Wonder if the poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers pause today to consider the horror that all mankind suffered.

SBS relies significantly on tax-payer funding and still grapples with a lingering identity issue as “ethnic media”. It really does not need this sort of gratuitous undergraduate sneering.

As for:

Not forgetting that the largest single-day terrorist attacks in history were committed by this nation & their allies in Hiroshima & Nagasaki.

First, if he is referring to the death toll, actually the biggest Tokyo fire raid killed more people in a single night. Second, it was a purely American action: “this nation” had nothing to do with it except in the sense that it was done by an ally. Australian opinion at the time was overwhelmingly supportive, even grateful, since it meant that the War was over; but we were not then, and have never been since, a nuclear power. The nuclear bombings also likely saved a lot of lives, since the alternative of an invasion of Japan was, on the evidence available, going to kill a lot more people. Context matters, and it is the job of a journalist to understand that context matters.

Which goes back to it not being a free speech issue. If Scott Mcintyre was being hounded merely for having different opinions than others, then it would become a free speech issue. But that is not why he was sacked.

(4) Whether SBS’s response was proportionate is a reasonable question. Suspending Scott Mcintyre without pay would definitely have been a reasonable response. Sacking perhaps was too strong,* but one can understand why SBS did not want the issue hanging around during the Gallipoli centenary.

(5) The objections to “mythologising” history are mostly bunk. Progressives regularly mythologise history–notably indigenous history (Stolen Generations anyone? Secret Women’s Business?)–and, for that matter, current events (Israel-Palestine). It is what people with strong emotional connections to events do. The objections regarding the “ANZAC myth” are clearly far more about objecting to other people‘s mythologising. When it comes to the public space, the Virtuous are not sharing folk.

(6) PC is not about civility. This is perfectly obvious to anyone with their wits about them, but the way gratuitous insult is invisible when it was a PC-acceptable target is, yet again, in evidence. One can criticise or demur from the treatment of matters ANZAC without sneering, being misleading or getting one’s facts wrong. Which likely has the further advantage of not embarrassing one’s employer: they might even have a code of conduct to try and avoid precisely such.

(A slightly different take is here.)

 * Though that also depends on whether he is teachable (i.e. would learn from the experience).


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

“Over-valued” is the wrong metric about “bubbles”–housing or otherwise.

By Lorenzo

Thinking about asset price stability is pervaded by incorrect framings. Particularly if folk start throwing around the term “bubble”.

Not the fault of the central banks

One incorrect framing is “the central banks did it”; with the finger usually pointed at low interest rates and clams of “easy money” fuelling “bubbles”.  Low interest rates are not a sign of “loose money”. Judging the stance of monetary policy from interest rates is deeply problematic. In Milton Friedman’s words:

Initially, higher monetary growth would reduce short-term interest rates even further. As the economy revives, however, interest rates would start to rise. That is the standard pattern and explains why it is so misleading to judge monetary policy by interest rates. Low interest rates are generally a sign that money has been tight, as in Japan; high interest rates, that money has been easy.

This is hardly surprising, as nominal interest rates include inflationary expectations, so will be higher if inflationary expectations are higher. During the Great Moderation, inflation and interest rates were low: in what world is low inflation a sign of “loose monetary conditions”? To quote Milton Friedman again:

After the U.S. experience during the Great Depression, and after inflation and rising interest rates in the 1970s and disinflation and falling interest rates in the 1980s, I thought the fallacy of identifying tight money with high interest rates and easy money with low interest rates was dead. Apparently, old fallacies never die.

Apparently, they don’t. Yes, low real interest rates  combined with strong income expectations will lead to more use of credit, particularly to purchase assets. But central banks have no influence over real interest rates and maintaining strong (or at least stable) income expectations is what they are supposed to do. Failure to do the latter is what led to the Great Depression and the Great Recession.

So, low real interest rates (not the fault of central banks) + strong income expectation (what we want them to do) => more use of credit to purchase assets.

Does that mean we get surges in asset prices?  No, because there is the little thing called the supply side. Prices are a matter of supply AND demand.  If the supply of assets responds to the surges in demand, there are no price effects.

If the assets are slow to construct, you might get some price surges, but they are unlikely to persist once supply catches up with demand. If, however, supply permanently lags demand, then the price surges can persist (as demand is continually outpacing supply). Such as, for example, from land rationing in housing markets blocking supply from catching up to demand. (Remembering that houses are large decaying structures, the enduring asset is the land the house is on.)

About housing and “bubbles”

We live in an age of low real interest rates. The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) has been doing an excellent job in maintaining income expectations. (No recession since the early 1990s). All our State and Territory Governments, aided and abetted by many of our local governments, land-ration. We are relatively high immigration country (and we are good at cherry-picking our migrants). Of course our housing prices have surged, and surged, and surged.

So, is it a “housing bubble”, allegedly one of the worst seen? The problem is the word “bubble”.  By “bubble” people typically mean that (asset) prices surge upwards, then collapse pretty quickly. The problem is that the term bubble has no useful predictive value. If we could reliably predict turning points (of prices) there would be no such “bubbles”, because people would generally not purchase at a price that were reliably expected to collapse. So, the entire notion depends on unknown turning points.

The same goes with notions of “overvalued” assets. If that means anything, it means that future prices are expected to be lower. But, if that is a general expectation, they will not reach that price in the first place.

Expectations matter a lot to asset prices, because assets are things which are expected to provide enduring benefits–either as a store of value, or a producer of income, or both–over more than one time period. And we have no information from future time periods, only expectations about them based on already existing information.

Asking the right question

The question which people are fumbling towards asking is the one they should focus on directly: how stable are these prices? How vulnerable are they to new information? That is an excellent question.

In the case of new technology, very vulnerable: because, well, it is new, and thus has large amount of uncertainty (in the Knightian sense of unable to be reliably calculated). Hence new technology is a great generator of asset price instability (pdf), of asset boom and busts. One of the features of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was new technology in the finance industry.

If the asset prices are built on strong income expectations, they will be very vulnerable to any sudden fall in income expectations. That is, the central bank screwing up. They will be particularly vulnerable to that if the asset purchasing is highly leveraged.

If the asset prices are built on supply constraints, they will be vulnerable to any sudden removal of said supply constraints.

They will also be vulnerable to any sudden shift in specific demand for that asset not covered above.  For example, in the case of housing, a drop in immigration.

So, does Australia have various housing bubbles? That is the wrong question, focusing on unknowable turning points based on not yet existing information. The correct question is: are Australian house prices vulnerable to sudden downward shifts?

Absolutely: if the RBA screws up income expectations, if there is a major drop in immigration, if State and Territory governments suddenly abolish land rationing–from which they garner a lot of tax revenue plus grateful home-owning and -buying voters while political parties get a lot of funding from developers who (in a land rationing policy regime) simply have to have access to officials to operate their businesses and are willing to pay for it. (Ironically, that it is such a universal practice among our State and Territory governments actually makes its price effects more resilient, as there is unlikely to be negative signalling across markets.)

So, how likely do you think any of them are? Not very I would have thought. Ironically, the most likely is the RBA screwing up; and the most likely scenario for that is that it makes the mistake of paying attention to (via) the “it’s your fault!” bubble-manics and does what no central bank should ever do–get into the “bubble-popping” game. Especially as the most likely effect thereof is to make the leveraging problem worse (pdf); potentially much, much worse.

So, do Australian housing prices make much more sense now? Isn’t to useful to frame the questions in the right way? Bubble-mania, it will rot your analysis.


[Cross-posted from Thinking out Aloud.]

The nonsense debate over whether the Islamic State is Islamic

By Lorenzo

Despite claims that political correctness is merely about politeness and not offending folk, the Virtue-signalling that underlies political correctness corrupts public debate in various ways–it puts a criteria (status-as-Virtuous) above facts, it elevates intent over consequences and it sets up various taboos and ludicrous moral distinctions. Such as, for example, the claim that there is some great moral difference between “coloured people” and “people of colour”.

It also creates fundamentally silly public debates, such as over whether the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is, as it obsessively claims to be, Islamic.

Pernicious identity

Is ISIS mainstream Islam? Clearly not; it regards itself as being at war with mainstream Islam that has allowed itself to be corrupted by unbelief. Is it supported by most Muslims? Also, clearly not. But Islam, like Christianity, is a broad religion with a long history. Just because something is not mainstream, and is supported by only a minority of believers, does not mean it is not of that religion, or grounded in a particular variant or strain within it.

Note that this debate over what is “really” Islamic is not a debate which has anywhere near the same salience regarding Christianity or Judaism. It is a manifestation of an “essentialist” claim that would be derided if used elsewhere–the sort of folk who worry about what is “really” or “authentically” Muslim or Islamic would typically be very hostile to debates about what was “really” or “authentically” English, British, Australian, Western etc and likely to be highly contemptuous of attempts to exclude folk who do bad things from being Christian, Jewish, Western etc on the basis of some claim that they were not “authentically” such.

Islam is the easiest religion in the world to join: simply publicly make the profession of faith, the Shahada, (“there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is messenger of God”) and one has submitted and become a Muslim. There are various fringe groups that many Muslims do not regard as Muslim (the Alawites, for example) because of various doctrinal additions they adhere to, but that is a common feature of religions. (How many Christians do not regard Mormons as really Christian?)

Islam is a hard religion to leave–the traditional penalty for apostasy is death. That, in itself, just makes it a monotheistic religion, as Christianity and Judaism have historically embraced the “apostasy warrants death” view.  The difference with contemporary Christianity and Judaism is that many Muslims still believe apostasy warrants death and various Islamic countries still make such apostasy a crime (up to, an including, the death penalty).

If adherents to ISIS profess their belief in Islam (as they clearly do) and are not apostates (as they clearly aren’t) then they are Muslim. Just as ISIS is clearly a manifestation of Islam as a civilisation. (Of Islamdom, so to speak.) Indeed, ISIS itself is part of a long history of violent, purifying movements that claim to go back to the “original” and “authentic” Islam (such as the AlmoravidsAlmohadsSafavids, etc).

Graeme Wood’s long essay in the Atlantic about ISIS made its Islamic nature and concerns very clear.  It has provoked various responses, such as by Mehdi Hasan in the New Statesman, which itself led to a response by historian Tom Holland also in the New Statesman, which has led to further responses. Such as this blog post.

Both Mehdi Hasan’s piece, and the response to Tom Holland, want to claim that if something is not mainstream, orthodox or supported by a majority of Muslims, then it is not Islamic. As any historian will tell you, that is a nonsense restriction. Something can be not mainstream, not orthodox, not supported by a majority, yet clearly be of that religion. If one simply wants to make clear about ISIS not being mainstream, orthodox, or supported by a majority of Muslims, then there is lots of evidence for that. It is making the extra claim that it is “not Islamic” which is the nonsense, which is going a step too far.

Why go there? Some reasons are alluded to in the blog post responding to Tom Holland–the desire not to taint all Muslims with the sins of some Muslims. First, note that this touching concern is not a general one–Western civilisation, for example, is clearly regarded as tainted by any bad thing any state or group therein has done. (Indeed, all white folk are apparently tainted by any bad thing any white person has done.) Second, this is almost childishly simple-minded: of course such a broad religion as Islam has many strains within it. This is attempting to ignore the reality of Islam in favour of some childish, cardboard-cut-out version of it. (And we are back to Virtue-signalling setting up a criteria above truth.)

Medhi Hasan’s piece essentially ignores the entire history of Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism. Which also means ignoring decades of resistance and opposition within Islam (both as a religion and a civilisation) by Muslims and people of Muslim heritage to political Islam/Islamism/Muslim fundamentalism. Mention is made of most of ISIS’s victims being Muslim–which is most emphatically true of political Islam in general–but that decades-long specific history of opposition is glossed over or ignored.

Why? First, because it gets in the way of “blame the West”. It is strange how Muslim deaths due to Western actions are supposed to inspire support for ISIS, yet apparently Muslim deaths by ISIS only count as a sign of ISIS not being Islamic. Looking at the decades-long history of Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism tells a much more complicated story than “blame the West”. However inconvenient that might be, for example, for Virtue-signalling.

Second, because something the critics within Islam of Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism typically do not do, is try and deny that it is Islamic. They are all too aware of its religious nature, its religious claims, its attempt to hijack Islamic identity.

Indeed, it is Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism’s claim that to be the “true”, “authentic” Islam which is so telling about its Islamic nature. The claim that it is not Islamic is mere propaganda, and pretty transparent mere propaganda at that.

Denying agency

One can also see the pernicious effects of Virtue-signalling at work in the juxtaposition of the notion that we should respect folk of different cultural backgrounds and then ignore the history of, in this case, an entire civilisation. Except as a victim-foil to Western history. It is preserving Muslims as sacred victims.

As an aside, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a long history of teaching each other bigotry and techniques of bigotry. “No rights for queers, pagans and apostates” was something Christianity learnt from Judaism and both passed on to Islam. The techniques of dhimmi treatment was Islam extending, formalising, regularising and theologising the treatment of Jews in the Christian Eastern Roman Empire. From which systemisation, the Catholic Church, at the Fourth Lateran Council, adopted the idea of special clothing for Jews (to which it, of course, added Muslims where Sharia specified Christians). Anti-black racism was pioneered by North African Muslim writers to justify mass enslaving (rather than converting, so making them ineligible to be slaves) of sub-Saharan Africans and continues to exist within the Arab world. But to grasp the back-and-forth history, one has to see Islam as a civilisation in its own right; not reduce Muslims to dependant causal puppets, merely reacting to Western actions.

One can see a socio-political point in trying to excise Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism from Islam, but such strategy is not truth. Nor is it remotely plausible outside those who are keen on Virtue-signalling. (Including, of course, the view that Islam is inherently virtuous.) This is just another version of the No True Scotsman fallacy.

In the West, people of Muslim heritage who are critics of Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism typically find they are subject to various ways of “managing” them; typically to preserve a positive image of Islam. The notion that there is a single Islamic identity (and it requires protection) actually ends up doing much of the work of Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism for it, since they are so insistent that there is only one “authentic” Islam, which they represent.

The response to that is not to make the (false) claim that adherents of Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism are not Islamic, but to contest the claim that Islam is just one identity. To pretend that Islam is entirely unproblematic, that there are no problematic or awkward ideas within it, is not the clever, adult thing to do; it is childish. It puts Virtue-signalling over truth. (It also feeds into Islamist/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalist claims about true Islam as social harmony, a cure to social alienation.)  Muslims are not children and we should not implicitly, or explicitly, treat them as such.


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

Why, in the PC universe, there is a paucity of bad Muslims.

By Lorenzo

Jeffrey Herf (Professor of History, University of Maryland) recently suggested that President Obama apply the same standards to Christianity and Islam. This is a delightfully naive suggestion.

First, there seems to be a belief among various Western leaders that criticising any strain within Islam is somehow a criticism of all Muslims. This is, of course, pathetically condescending, but is an understandable result of the application of identity politics to Muslims as an undifferentiated group.

Second, the Obama Administration–whose utterances make sense if treated as the faculty lounge mutterings of a mediocre university Sociology department–is clearly pervaded by the use of such identity politics as a device for signalling virtue.

Third, considering strains within Islam as problematic leads naturally, and awkwardly, to critical analysis of the ideology of the Iranian regime. And that would not be helpful, to say the least, to the Administration’s (apparently increasingly desperate) desire to achieve some sort of over-arching deal with Iran. (That is, the Iranian regime which most Iranians have come to loathe.)

Invisible Islamism

In the PC universe, as instanced by the rhetoric of the Obama Administration, there is no such thing as bad Muslims, because if you are really bad then you are not really Muslim–hence the Islamic State is “not Islamic“, it is a perversion of a great (un-named) religion. Conversely, Jews are not victims because they are Jews, they are unlucky victims of “random” attack. Yet, three Muslims are killed, and the President is all about folk not being targeted for their religion. This refusal to talk in terms of Islamic origins and Islamic motives is clearly considered and continuing policy.

This is part of a much wider pattern, where Western liberals, progressives and folk of the left (with a few honourable exceptions) refuse to talk seriously about (often even notice) Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism, much to the deep and abiding frustration of their confreres in the Islamic world. When individual Muslims do bad things, their Muslim identity is often downplayed or ignored.

Critics of political correctness delight in pointing out such absurdities and contradictions, but they do not understand: those contradictions and absurdities are not a bug, they are a feature.

Signalling virtue

First, the point of political correctness is to signal virtue (or, rather, Virtue with a very capital ‘V’). Precisely because the point is to signal Virtue, by adapting Xavier Marquez‘s theory of cults of personality as loyalty signalling, we can see how the willingness to embrace absurdities and contradictions just demonstrates how committed to being Virtuous you are.

Marquez’s theory of cults of personality is quite straightforward. How do you signal loyalty in a situation where loyalty is compulsory? You go completely over the top. You show yourself willing to engage in positively nauseating public displays of flattery and adulation.

So, how do you signal Virtue in a situation where moralised discourse is compulsory? You get really, really finicky about the use of language and commitment to various moral mascots (to use Thomas Sowell’s expression) or sacred victims (to use Jonathan Haidt’s analysis).

Thus, just as cults of personality have flattery inflation, political correctness has Virtue inflation. Leading to what has been rather nicely (if amusingly nastily) described as look-at-me-I’m-the-most-special-snowflake factionalism. As Patricia Arquette discovered, when she made a short, passionate speech at the Oscars for equal pay for women. And immediately the “I’m the more special snowflake” Virtue inflation erupted. The heterosexual white woman had  failed to check her privilege and to get the moral ordering correct. Outraged denunciations thundered forth (all via).

All part of the PC universe, where there is a deep moral difference between “coloured people” and “people of colour”. For, by keeping up with the latest usage, one signals commitment to Virtue.

Sometimes, such Virtue inflation really does simply inflate (via):

Open House is a safe space for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Queer, Questioning, Flexual, Asexual, Genderf–k, Polyamourous, Bondage/Disciple, Dominance/Submission, Sadism/Masochism (LGBTTQQFAGPBDSM) communities and for people of sexually or gender dissident communities.

Why not just say “queer”? Indeed, the more confronting the exoticism of a group (especially to previous moral and cultural usages), the better they function as differentiating markers of Virtue.

Which is where swallowing absurdity and self-contradiction comes in. Just as the adherent of a cult of personality goes over the top to signal loyalty to the ruler, so an adherent of the cult of Ostentatious Virtue accepts contradiction and absurdity to show their commitment to Virtue.

Which makes contemporary Islam (infected with Islamism) perfect as a marker of Virtue. To be truly Virtuous, one must understand when misogyny, queer-hatred, Jew-hatred and being anti-democratic count, and when they do not. One must understand when to See No Evil and when to see Only Evil. So, precisely because Islamism is so misogynist, so full of queer-hatred, Jew-hatred, hostility to democracy, so willing to engage in massacre, it makes “See No Evil” treatment of Muslims such a splendid marker of Virtue.  Treating Islamism–with its misogyny, queer-hatred, Jew-hatred, hostility to democracy, recurring slaughter–as ideally as a non-Muslim event (or otherwise a non-morally-significant-event) becomes part of signalling Virtue.


As Jonathan Haidt notes, sacredness involves abandoning trade-offs. The sacred victims are not placed with other mere mortals within a web of trade-offs between moral principles, but elevated to a special moral purity. So, Islam (or at least Muslim identity) purifies and ennobles in a way that Christian belief and identity most emphatically do not. As we can see in President Obama’s selective silences.

Those irritating Jews

Jew-hatred, for example, becomes something of a non-issue for the Virtuous (unless specifically pressed on the subject), as it is nowadays overwhelmingly concentrated in the Muslim world, including Muslim communities in the West. Under the See No Muslim Evil approach, it becomes impossible to see that Israel is primarily not hated because of its treatment of the Palestinians; overwhelmingly it is hated because it is successful Jews–something Israel cannot do anything about, except to disappear. But to critically examine Muslim Jew-hatred would wildly get in the way of using Muslims as moral mascots and sacred victims, so such Jew-hatred (to the extent that it gets noticed at all) gets blamed on the Jews, using the fig-leaf of “anti-Zionism”. Thus, nothing bad is to be inferred about the security guards outside Jewish schools and synagogues–except about Jews (via the Jewish state).

Who thereby become the only hate-target group to be blamed for being hated, via the fig-leaf of “anti-Zionism”. (Which much of the European elite are happy to buy into, as they have never forgiven the Jews for the Holocaust, of which the Jewish state is a permanent reminder–the Holocaust does so get in the way of the European elite’s pretensions to be the moral elite and arbiters for the globe and Jews are such a small, and declining, percentage of Europe’s population.) To blame anyone but the Jew(ish state), would be to fatally undermine the See No Muslim Evil marker of Virtue.

Thus, to notice that Israel has (to put it mildly) a much better record on queer rights than its Arab neighbours, including its Palestinian neighbours, becomes “pinkwashng“. To quote a Hamas leader saying, for example:

You do not live like human beings. You do not (even) live like animals. You accept homosexuality. And now you criticize us?

Is to be not playing the Ostentatious Virtue game.

Refusing to acknowledge that Islam is both a religion and a civilisation, Muslims are Virtuously defined by their religion (or some useful conception thereof), so that to criticise Islam is somehow to denigrate all Muslims. A principle not applied to, for example, Christians.

Lumping all Muslims together in a common identity does a great deal of the Islamists’ work for them, as the Islamists are so very much about Islam as a single, completely trumping, identity. But, as Ostentatious Virtue puts such huge moral weight on belief, that provides another convergence between Islamism and Ostentatious Virtue. As does a sufficiently anodyne notion of “anti-imperialism”–provided one is prepared to completely toss over any notion of anti-fascism–and a shared propensity to collective moral narcissism.

Totalitarian Othering

To take the menace of Islamism seriously would fatally undermines the See No Muslim Evil marker of Virtue. So, Islamism’s ideology is ignored (or misrepresented). A useful instancing summary of said ideology is here:

In the Holy Quran, Allah (SWT) has promised the Muslim nation the authority to rule over the world based on only one condition. That condition is to follow His orders in absolute manner and not to associate any partners with Him. Because Allah (SWT) has said “Verily, Allah forgives not the partners should be set up with Him (in worship), but He forgives except that (anything else) to whom He pleases, and whoever sets up partners with Allah (in worship), he has indeed invented a tremendous sin.” …

Once the Jews and Christians have realized that it is no longer possible for them to make the Muslims worship idols, they have invented idols in the name of various ideologies (such as Democracy, Regional Nationalism etc.) to derail the Muslims from their Fundamental Belief. They have forced others to accept their ideologies through deceptive tricks, and even by applying military force where necessary. Apart from that they, have masked their Idols in the names of “Society”, “State Governance” etc, in such a manner that unless a Muslim is highly conscious, it is not possible for him to unveil these masks. In vain he unknowingly gets trapped in the web of conspiracies of Jews and Christians. …

A practical example is the most prevailing social order of this present world -DEMOCRACY- The fundamental guiding principle of Democracy (Stimulated by Former U.S.A. President Abraham Lincoln) is “Democracy for the people of the people by the people”. Thus, to accept Democracy is to believe that people are sovereign and the source of ALL power. Let us take a look at some statements given by majority of political scientists. From among them Austin has said “LAW IS THE WILL OF SOVEREIGN” and Jan Boda has said “IT IS THE DUTY OF THE SOVEREIGN TO MAKE LAW”. So we can understand from their statements that if the people are sovereign and the source of all power then the authority is in their hand to make law in a Democratic system. Whereas on the other hand, Allah (SWT) (the Creator of people and the Great Lord of the Cosmopolitan) has declared that “And to Allah belongs the sovereignty of the heaven and the earth, and to Allah is the return (of all).” …

But not many people realize the clear meaning of the above Verses that, Democracy and Islam directly contradict each other. Nevertheless few people are aware of the fact that they will lose their Imaan upon accepting the ideologies (such as Democracy) of the Jews and Christians.

It is sad to say, instead of awaring Muslims of this fact, a group of people from among the Muslims, some hypocrites in the disguise of preachers of Islam, are making every effort to make the Muslims believe that “Democracy” is in congruence with Islam and it is the best system in the present situation of the world. With their misguided speech and explanations, these hypocrites are ruining and diminishing the main pillar of Imaan and Aqeedah of Muslims (Tawheed). Due to this, people who claim to be Muslims cannot understand that these ideologies are rather double-faced and controversial the Islam and with one’s Imaan. They fail to understand that it is an outright act of shirk to involve oneself in the work of constitutions based on such ideologies!

To describe such for what it is–a totalitarian project of social and global domination–is to violently contradict the game of See No Muslim Evil as marker of Virtue.  To notice the pervasive and vicious Othering involved is even more so.

Hence the antipathy to apostates such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali–by insisting on applying general moral principles to the lives of (in particular) women in Muslim communities, she utterly gets in the way of treating Muslims as a group as moral mascots and sacred victims. Thereby ignoring real victims; the oppression and misery hidden away in God-locked communities, themselves full of intense Othering.

Which means that the See No Muslim Evil as marker of Virtue becomes an exercise in systematic denial of realty, of the facts of the matter. Said denial being not just a river in Egypt, but a basic underpinning of the Obama Administration’s Middle Eastern policy.

This is not at all likely to end well.

But it manifests elsewhere. Thus Ayaan Hirsi Ali found that the Dutch government–which collected all sorts of statistics on violence–did not statistically identify (dis)honour killings because, in the words of civil servants in the Ministry of Justice:

We don’t register murders based on a category of motivation. It would stigmatise one group in society. (p.296).

Just contemplate the moral calculus involved in that decision for a moment.

But the same concern over status as Virtuous versus actual lived lives and real (rather than “sacred”) victims manifested in the Rotherham scandal, where racism (correctly understood as concern for one’s status as Virtuous) seriously got in the way of doing anything about real victims.

It really is about a Virtual morality substituting for an elementary decency one.

Women killed by Muslim fundamentalists in Algeria in the 1990s.

Oh, and just to be clear. Yes, I am saying that the self-righteous adherents of the cult of Ostentatious Virtue in the West care more about their own sense of warm inner glow, moral vanity and collective sense of Virtue than the brutal realities of massacre and oppression that Islamists has been engaged in for decades now, because they give those deaths and oppressions so little practical significance.

Worse, they passively or actively collaborate in the Islamist hijacking of Muslim identity (such as completely failing to put the Charlie Hebdo attack in the context of a decades-long campaign of murder and assassination against Muslim, and Muslim heritage, writers and journalists), burbling on about–utterly undifferentiated–”Muslim” sensibilities: a pattern that goes back to responses to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Given the manifold victims of Islamism, we can see that Muslim lives do not count if they get in the way of the game of Ostentatious Virtue; a game of never-mind-the-lived-reality-of-others, feel one’s Virtue.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]