Saturday, October 31, 2009

Management, or feudalism?

How management captured the economy, and what we can do about it.

Americans are so cowed by this point that they hardly register a flicker of resentment when Wall Street executives give themselves billions in bonuses after flushing trillions down the drain and saying a begrudging "thank you" for more trillions in government life support. How did we come to this pass?

One of the great changes in the last 50 years has been the broadening of stock ownership. Out with the smoke filled rooms and blue-chip bespoke trading, in with mutual funds, etrade, and all-in dot-com stock investing. This has been great in many ways, putting more money to work in productive enterprises and earning regular people substantial gains (at times, at least).

But it also had the paradoxical effect of diluting ownership of corporations. When everyone owns a company, no one does. And management eventually learned what this meant- that they could run their companies as they wished, subject only to the whims of stock "analysts", but not to their true owners, who might have a longer-term interest. Boards of directors, previously direct representatives of the shareholders, now became hand-picked cronies of the management, ready to "motivate" management with lavish pay in an arms race of executive generosity.

The Reagan era helped generate the latest edition of this culture, claiming that America's greatness lay in its executives, and its economic prospects in trickle-down economics. Cultural progress emanated from the boardroom, not from the shop floor. Unions were there to be broken, not negotiated with. While the cult of entrepreneurialism remains a positive aspect of this culture, the cults of MBA-ism, management consulting, cronyism, and open corruption in boardrooms and in government lobbying has been anything but. And the bonuses and guaranteed stock options now being paid out of tottering or under-water balance sheets clarifies just what management meant by that "motivation" that was supposed to tie them to market "discipline".

It's a mess, and a recent article in the New Yorker article about a few corporate do-gooders who urge large stockholders (pension funds, mutual funds) to militate against a few of these excesses was nice, but far, far short of what is needed. We need a revolution in corporate governance that recognizes the limitations of the new corporate ownership model where some benefits are shared broadly, but many (sometimes most) are concentrated in the hands of a feudal management, which is left by the current owning, legal, and cultural regime to run its show unmolested, for its own benefit.

In the economics literature, this is called the agency problem, and pervades all sorts of interactions. We hire someone to do something for us, like build a wall. This requires supervision, but how can we comprehensively supervise the process without giving up and doing it ourselves? We can't. At some point, one has to either have faith that the person hired is honorable and will not make hidden errors, or one has to delay the payment so much that any errors become apparent prior to payment, perhaps postponing payment for 25 years or more. The latter is neither practical or palatable, so we put up with uncertainty in contractors, paying them before we really know the quality of their work.

With corporations, the agency problem is likewise enormous, and getting bigger all the time as ownership dilutes and legal protections, often legislated from the courts, expand. Specifically, the problem boils down to a few points:

1. Management is overly free of supervision by owners, leading to orgies of empire-building, vanity projects, short-term stock pumping, political freelancing, and other problems.

2. Management is paid in an undisciplined way, neither accounting for true long-term impact, nor being immediately subject to a coherent system of checks and balances. The "labor market" for executives is not just inefficient, but riddled with corruption.

3. Management meddles in government by lobbying, attaining disporportinate influence. The recent ruckus over the Chamber of Commerce only shines a brief and flitting light on this cancer in the body politic.

Corporations are creations of the state. They are not free associations of citizens in the classic sense, but are a special class of association (by charter) with several government sanctioned benefits, including limited liability, special tax structures, separate legal personality, regulatory services (not to mention bailout services), and more. Thus it is entirely reasonable, contra the supreme court, to restrict the free speech "rights" of corporations (i.e. their right to corrupt the political process by lobbying and political activism by management with corporate funds).

So we don't have to put up with corporate lobbying, corporate political donations, or corporate meddling in the political process. We don't need Wall Street bankers designing their own bailouts, and we don't need health "insurers" telling us whether we can or can not legislate health insurance reform.

Secondly, corporate governance needs to be reformed in a basic way. Pay must of course be reformed to reflect long-term incentives and the more prosaic recognition that management skill is neither as rare nor Empyrean as often portrayed by managers. But this will never happen while management appoints its own overseers. While ideally, corporate democracy would be re-established with true control by shareholders, this is impossible at the current levels of dilution, and at the level of apathy appropriate to the reciprocal form of dilution- which is to say that each individual investor in vehicles like pension funds and mutual funds has miniscule levels of any particular stock and thus miniscule interest in its governance. So some other mechanism is needed to guard the public good along with the shareholder interest.

I would recommend addition of a public board to all public corporations. This board would be legally superior to the private board constituted by current rules, able to fire that board and managment, run shareholder elections, and otherwise control the corporation in times of urgency. Such a board would in normal times represent the government and regulatory interests, keeping an eye on the company's affairs. Two of its members would attend private board meetings, and vice versa as well. Extra activity of this public board (beyond monitoring and regulation) would be decided by shareholders in a simple voting system, where rather than vote for specific people, (such as nominees of the management to a private board), votes would be for a level of confidence, perhaps from one to five.

In this way, shareholders would have a simple and direct way to register general concern with the enterprise, which in turn would tell this public board, appointed by the chartering government, (or the federal government for inter-state and international corporations), to either (#5) stay out of the affairs of the company, it is doing just fine, or (#1) take all actions necessary to correct a bad situation and right the affairs of a problematic management.

This idea recognizes that most corporations behave appropriately most of the time. It adds a check in cases of problems where a public board can be automatically activated at shareholder discretion, expressed in a straightforward way that gets around the difficulties of evaluating particular candidates and allows a general no-confidence attitude by shareholders to result in action to discipline management and resolve the situation. Such boards could also aid in the liquidation of businesses the government is otherwise reluctant to touch (see Lehman).

Naturally, there would need to be rules of various sorts to stipulate the kind of public boards that could be formed, insulated from political as well as corporate influence, perhaps diversified by origin in the civil service, academy, party affiliation and private sector. It would not be a board of expertise, but one of oversight, able to hire new executives and private board members in extreme circumstances, and to investigate the other actors. Members would be paid minimally, perhaps by the chartering institution or by general fees, similar to how the FDIC is funded.

There may be many other (and perhaps better) ways to approach this issue in corporate governance. The no-confidence vote system might directly remove a current board or management, instead of empowering a public board. It is a complicated issue, but the existence of the problem is not complicated at all- it is patent and in need of deep reform. It is eating at our politics, economic system, and culture, and we can only hope that capitalism is capable of undergoing further evolution for the common good.

PS- I have a special solution for the financial industry, whose gambling addiction appears to be more serious than previously suspected. Which is to levy a small tax on every transaction. Every share bought, sold, every derivitive conjured and sliced, would be taxed at a small rate, say 0.5% of value. This would have several beneficial effects- it would slow down financial transactions, of which there is far too much churning. It would enforce visibility of all such transactions, going into all relevant markets, whether currently regulated or not. It would raise huge amounts of revenue, which we could really use at this point (ahem!). And when applied to international currency speculation, it would lend some stability against being whipsawed by vast in/outflows of money. The recent program of super-fast trading by way of special computer networks by Goldman is exhibit A of trading that is simply contrary to the common good, and for which we need a systematic solution.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Skeletons rule!

On the superiority of endoskeletons

There are two great instances in the history of life of skeletons appearing on the inside versus the outside of organisms- the vertebrate skeleton, compared with precursors like insects with their exoskeletons, and the eukaryotic cytoskeleton, compared with the cell wall of typical bacteria. Both instances paved the way for great innovations of size and complexity.

It has often puzzled me that squishy naked mammals should have risen to the top of the food chain, rather than the more abundant insects or other, better protected, better architected, and handsome-er species. We seem so vulnerable, with pathetic teeth, muscles, and skin, barely-existent hair, let alone armor. Of course, we've got brains, and that's pretty much it.

At the beginning of life, creatures didn't need protection. Proto-cells had enough to do to survive- no predators existed. And before the pre-Cambrian explosion, the first known animals were flaccid pillows of cytoplasm. But once predators came on the scene, body plans quickly adapted, becoming enclosed in bacterial cell walls in the first instance, and in shells, chitin, and the like among the animals, leading to the long reign of Trilobites and similar creatures.

However the first response to a crisis is not always the best one, and many organisms kept their heads down and did not adopt external protection, making do with other strategies, like burrowing, distastefulness, speed, etc. Often these were predators themselves, like amoebae and jellyfish. External protections can also be discarded in evolutionary time, if they are not too deeply embedded in the body plan, as happened with aplacophora and nudibranches, both subclasses of mollusks.

On the micro scale, bacteria had little in the way of internal structure for billions of years, other than a few optimizations in locating their DNA near their membranes, which helped coordinate cell division with division of the DNA, the membrane, and the cell wall.

But then came along eukaryotes, formed from the fusion of two vastly different types of bacteria- by one theory, for metabolic cooperation, or by another, through simple phagocytosis. At any rate, this fusion created a revolutionary new type of cell that dispensed with the exterior wall (later re-made in fungi and plants from different materials) and developed instead an interior, or cyto-skeleton.

Mitosis, where the cytoskeleton (green microtubules) temporarily reforms to manage division of DNA (blue).

The cytoskeleton makes two basic contributions over the preceding bacterial cell wall- one, allowing cells to become protean- flexible and active protoplasmic blobs that can seek prey, as do many of our immune system cells. And second, helping manage the increased internal complexity of eukaryotes, facilitating their great size with membranous organelles, multiple chromosomes ... bits and pieces that need to be located consistently, moved occasionally, and inherited reliably. Our cells are not just bags of protoplasm, but ecosystems of molecules and larger structures, in which the cytoskeleton plays an organizational role.

The cytoskeleton also provided a cabling system to allow different cells to interact, paving the way for multicellularity. Eukaryotic cells touch at cytoskeletal attachment points, which are not just passive anchors, but also active participants in migration and signaling, helping cells touch and talk with their neighbors.

Later on in the Cambrian, once oxygen levels rose to respectable levels, allowing larger life forms, and Earth's climate got past a devastating series of ice ages, a new kind of skeleton emerged... the organismal endoskeleton. Compared to the armor of insects, skeletons are far more efficient, exchanging a surface-proportional structure for a linear structure with consequent reductions in weight. This allowed animals with skeletons to become far larger (think elephants, dinosaurs, and whales).

But what about the vulnerability of an unarmored exterior? There is where the story gets interesting, since being naked gives priority to reducing harm through smarts or size rather than through armor. Unarmored microbes are the predators and behemoths of their world. Think amoeba and paramecium. On the macro scale, the implications of endoskeletons are similar, with large size becoming its own form of defense. But more importantly, if the exterior skin is turned into a sensitive sensory system, with sensing hairs, whiskers, various forms of touch, all abetted with remote sensors like vision, hearing, and smell, plus a big brain, then the weakness of surface vulnerability can be turned into a strength.

The endoskeleton allowed for a greater range of evolvability, including encouraging organisms to turn themselves into multi-sensory platforms, much as our modern navy has become more effective by developing over-the-horizon sensing and attack rather than turning ships into super-armored tankers. Humans are, of course the ultimate expression of this evolutionary trend, not just mammals with endoskeletons, but nakedly hairless besides, vulnerable to every slight of the elements and enemies. Yet they have succeeded by replacing dumb armor with a combination of efficient and sensitive physiology and formidable intelligence.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

To warm or not to warm

Is the science of global warming really settled?

I recently listened to an interesting podcast from the CBC (the Deniers), interviewing a skeptic of global warming. Many other deniers are out there, so it is a pressing question. Its importance is huge.. none could be greater, so I will try to get to some data. Of course, a true firehose of debunking comes from the blog climateprogress, so go there if you want chapter and verse.

What I am reading in the scientific literature clearly indicates that global warming is happening, will get substantially worse, and needs to be mitigated to avert rapid global change. Unfortunately, the catastrophe is more relevant for our silent co-passengers on planet earth than it is for humanity. And it will be far more serious for our poorer human co-passengers than for inhabitants of rich countries who are making all the mess. If global warming is true and imminent, the most important case for its mitigation is moral and aesthetic- the duty we have to our fellow creatures and to the biosphere generally to keep it healthy and beautiful instead of turning it into a science fiction dystopia. Warming is just one more facet of harm we are doing to the biosphere, in addition to fishing out the oceans, filling them with trash, driving species to extinction, and destroying ecosystems by a thousand cuts.

The CBC interview was with Lawrence Solomon, head of Energy Probe Research Foundation, a Canadian environmental organization. This is a right-wing think tank with apparently serious environmental credentials (only in Canada!), one of whose aims is to solve common goods problems by extending private ownership over common goods. How that would work with the atmosphere.. well, their web site is unhelpful on that score.

In the interview, Solomon brings up several substantive points:

1. The famous "hockey stick" curve was based on bad science and bad statistics, and has since been withdrawn, even by its sponsor, the Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

2. Prominent scientists are lining up on the denier side, such as Freeman Dyson. Typically, scientists at the end of their careers are the only ones free enough to take this position, since it can be deadly to anyone still building a career, in view of the heavy bias in the scientific community on the other side.

3. The current decade has been cooler than the last one, and the last one was not the warmest ever, as advertised, but only the second warmest, second to the 1930's.

4. Climate models are not well-made and the climate is not as well undestood as some would have us believe. How do clouds affect the system? How is their origin related to CO2? How much do aerosols cool the earth? How, if regular weather forcasts are poor just 7 days in advance, are we to take seriously climate models that purport to forcast decades ahead?

5. Isn't CO2 the gas of life? OK- this is not a serious point, but he does raise it towards the end, as both participants seem to let down the guard of the interview as a serious, scholarly dialog.

I'll take these points in reverse order.

5. Solomon said nothing about the general theory that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and thus by any reasonable model, that more CO2 leads to higher heat retention from solar radiation. The example of Venus is instructive and frightening. The real question is whether the amounts of CO2 in question (the recent rise from pre-industrial levels of ~280 parts per million [ppm] to the current 380 ppm and rising) are significant- how much warming they (and future increases) might cause. This was not discussed. To say that they cause no warming is not plausible. To say that they cause so little as to be noise in the system might be conceivable, but my impression is that the data disagree strongly.

The history of the earth is quite interesting in this respect. We started out much like Venus, with large amounts of CO2, but with our larger distance from the sun (getting roughly half the light per unit area), we were not trapped in a greenhouse from the start. Additionally, the sun was less luminous at earlier times and earth was blessed with huge amounts of water. Over time, earth's CO2 was mostly withdrawn from the atmosphere by mineral deposition (limestones, etc.), and by life, which in turn created all the atmosphere's oxygen (which was strictly absent from the early atmosphere). An interesting illustration in a recent Science magazine graphs out what we know of the relative CO2 levels over the last half-billion years:

The "RCO2" on the Y-axis is relative CO2, relative to the present level of ~350 ppm at one. The end of the high-CO2 era (400 to 300 MYA) corresponds to the Carboniferous period of geologic history, which is to say, the time when huge amounts of carbon were withdrawn from the atmosphere and deposited in coal beds and other geologic formations by living organisms. Oxygen levels were also high, allowing some insects to grow to enormous proportions, like desk-size dragonflies with 75cm wingspans. The whole earth was a big sauna, apparently, though the era ended with glaciations, as one can infer from the plummeting CO2.

For the last 800,000 years, the CO2 content of the atmosphere has varied cyclically between ~180 and ~280 ppm. (Indeed the paper I am taking this from extends this observation to "These results show that changes in pCO2 and climate have been coupled during major glacial transitions of the past 20 myr, just as they have been over the last 0.8 myr, supporting the hypothesis that greenhouse gas forcing was an important modulator of climate over this interval via direct and indirect effects." So we are going in an unprecedented direction, which alone is cause for trepidation and action.

4. Climate models are indeed rather complex affairs, and not all variables are equally easy to model. For instance, geenhouse forcing is easy to model- the infrared heat emitted from the earth after absorbing sunlight is trapped by CO2, water vapor, methane, and the other greenhouse gasses. On the other hand, the formation of clouds seems to be less easy to model, depending more on the dynamics of the winds and interactions between layers of different temperature. So there is quite a bit that is not known, and the specter of chaos theory and complexity hangs over some of these issues. Yet on the other hand, physics-based climate models have gotten very good, being able to model past events as a test for forward predictions. And of course the news lately has been that warming in the arctic has been faster than virtually all models predict, so they may be excessively conservative (possibly due to positive feedback effects that accelerate climate change and may not be modeled yet).

3. The current decade is the hottest on record, as shown by the following graphs taken from a recent Science article (and see these graphs for up-to-the-minute data). The interesting thing is that the current decade should instead have been cooler, based on slight declines in solar flux (due to a quiet phase in the sunspot cycle, among other issues). So this persistent rise in temperature is all the more significant.

Indeed, one other interesting aspect of this graph is that it tracks a long-term cooling trend for the rest of the last 2000 years (gray line, which focuses on temperatures in the arctic). The top-most line (F) tracks a slight long-term decline in solar input to the northern hemisphere due to solstice precession, which provides a rationale for this long-term cooling trend. So we might possibly have been headed for a new ice age. We may be thankful to our emissions staving off that catastrophe, but it is obvious that we are over-shooting in the other direction.

2. A few scientists have been casting suspicion on global warming. Well, a few scientists cast suspicion on HIV as the source of AIDS as well. There are good reasons why the scientific consensus has coalesced around global warming for well over a decade, some of which are given above. The combination of solid data and solid theory makes for a compelling case. The fact that the data had not, up until the last few decades, risen above the climate noise in a way apparent to the most jaded and critical observer is unfortunate, but no reason to criticize those who were right rather than those who have been wrong.

A countervailing view of eminent scientists is that they often wade into areas about which they know very little (Freeman Dyson), and they may hunger for a larger spotlight, which they can only gain by bucking a consensus (Richard Dawkins), whether sensibly or not. The history of Nobel Laureates is littered by such crankiness (Nobelesse oblige?). Criticism of this kind serves a critical function, of course- to hold a consensus's feet to the fire, as it were.

As a biologist, some of the most convincing evidence for me (aside from sea level rise and many other indicators) has been the relentless migration of plant and animal ranges northward. This process is just the kind of long-term, slow change that evens out noise from the system and reflects underlying changes of climate. Montane species, like pikas in the Sierras, can not just pick up and head north into the Yukon- they may run out of habitat entirely.

1. Lastly, the hockey stick graph. As shown above, despite all the controversy about earlier versions and their somewhat exagerated data, the basic graph is correct. It may have been a little ahead of its time, as was true for Gregor Mendel as well, as some scientists compromise the integrity of their process (data collection and presentation) while tripping over themselves to show a result they have become convinced of, and which may be vindicated by later, more careful work. Such shoddiness can not be excused, but climate change is one more classic case where the truth was due to come out sooner or later, and is now on completely firm ground.

In this case, the better jump we have on the phenomenon, the more rational and moderate our policy response can be. So spending the last decade on disinformation from the fossil fuel industries, the Lomborg acolytes, and George Bush's imitation of an ostrich, has been extremely damaging for our long-term ability to mitigate the climate change that is already happening, much more of which is set in concrete for decades to come. Since the climate is the ultimate commons, it is particularly difficult to address from a game theory/economic perspective, making this loss of time doubly damaging.
  • NYT covers the IPCC blues
  • Arctic warming, NYT.
  • Northwest passage- opened for the first time in 2007, then also in 2008
  • No impact guy on what we would gain, even if the science was all wrong
  • Ooops- I missed blog action day!
  • A nice philosophically couched discussion of global warming and scientific uncertainty.
  • A sample skeptic blog
  • A delightful essay on science, over at the Oracle blog
  • On the evolution of the ear, with intermediate forms!
  • Religion on Wall Street
  • A fine page on Schopenhauer
  • Gregor on the vise of recession + rising oil prices
  • OK, let's just clear the air on this whole religion thing!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Afghan reboot

What should we do now? Boots or no boots?

The Afghan war/nation building/counterinsurgency/hearts-and-minds operation has largely gone down the drain. A recent report described the utter futility of our training efforts for the Afghan army and police force, whose members are cashing out and disappearing as fast as we "train" them, then coming back for more pay and more training with new names. Pakistan remains likewise uncontrolled, with their border home sweet home for insurgents and jihadists of all sorts.

The core of the problem is corruption. While there is plenty of corruption and stupidity on the part of US and its contractors, the more serious problem is that the Afghan government is fully corrupt, with little hold on the affections and respect of the populace or any plausible way to engage with it, certainly not after the shameful election antics just witnessed. In Iraq, the US faced a population that had long been used to a powerful central state. However frightfully it fell apart into a lord-of-the-flies free-for-all, Iraqis generally nurtured the hope that eventually chaos would recede, either at the hands of another strongman, or directly at the hands of the US occupiers, and they could resume something like normal life in a semi-developed country.

But in Afghanistan, the political culture has never gotten to the point of effective centralization, let alone parliamentary democracy, checks and balances, technocracy, and the many other ingredients of modern statehood. Decades of civil war have eviscerated basic expectations of normalcy. The situation is reminiscent of the rotten governments of South Vietnam, successively installed by the CIA via coups d'état as the US blindly tried to prop up the South with hardly any knowledge of its culture or history. In effect, the US was busily turning the population of the South against its government instead of for it, giving them over into the arms of the Vietcong.

As the Taliban are today, the Vietcong were indigenous (i.e. grass-roots), nationalistic, ruthless, and far more efficient than the government or US forces. They had inherited a mantle of anti-imperialism, first against the Japanese, then the French, as the Taliban have against the Russians and the Americans. Their all-important currencies were credibility and sympathy- sympathy by being of the rural South Vietnamese culture, and credibility both through their history and by way of their organizational skill and successes against their enemies.

How are we winning the sympathy of the population of Afghanistan? It is a complicated question, but basically, the answer varies between not very well and not at all. The vision of a well-run state with women's rights, security, and economic development is, in the Afghan context, a far-away utopia. The competing vision of traditional Islam and plenty of money from poppy cultivation makes a good deal more immediate sense, at least to the middle power-brokers- the warloads, tribal leaders and family heads. And if the Taliban has more effective grass-roots mafia-like enforcement of power and security, then that would be icing on the cake, despite other problems with their vision- that unremitting and barbaric shariah is hardly palatable to most Afghans either.

My take on all this is that our numbers of soldiers is not the issue. The issue is the nature of the government, and how well-aligned it is in the near and far term with its people's aspirations. The situation is worth saving, both for our own interests, for our historical debt to Afghanistan, and for purely humanitarian reasons. The answer is to boot the government out as soon as possible and replace it with direct temporary control by NATO.

The local nation-building process needs to begin not from the top down as it did with power-brokers held over from prior puppet governments, tribal organizations, mujahideen and civil war antagonists. These may well end up being the relevant powers in a new Afghanistan, but they should get there from the bottom up. A caretaker central government organized by NATO could rapidly organize a skeletal federal system and local civic processes and elections (supplemented by jirgas where those might offer extra inclusion and participation). There should be a step-wise process working up the ladder of governance, from local to provincial to national, focusing on each in sequence so that there are civic institutions and experience at each level before the next level is put under local control.

Such a government would not be filled with Europeans, but have a mix of Afghans and NATO / UN officers enforcing rules against corruption and ineffectiveness, with accountability flowing from the top, and all the churn and active firing and hiring that would imply. It will take time to assemble an effective government and weed out bad elements, but it will take less time through reconstitution than it will by jollying the current system along while also fighting a war at the same time. We should honestly recognize that we gave it a good shot through the original Loya jirga, national elections, etc., but need a do-over at this point, from strictly empirical criteria. In most measures, Afghanistan's government rates worst in the world right now, roughly even with that of Somalia.

A new provisional government would not be terribly strict or controlling in most aspects. For instance, poppy cultivation should be legalized and freely allowed. Given the choice between losing the war, the country, and the war on drugs, or just the war on drugs, the latter is the better choice. Likewise, if local communities choose to install tribal elders as their representatives, (through local elections with secret ballots), that is fine as well. Land reform should be encouraged, buying out large landholders and assuring individuals of right of tenure. Credit reform is needed as well, encouraging microlending and other modern instruments for farmers on all scales. The point is to make citizen service, efficiency, and non-corruption the focus of government, all sheltered under an umbrella of security that assures citizens that the Taliban won't be coming back unless it is their free choice. This is best done from the ground up with civic processes starting at the grass roots.

That is the lesson I take from Vietnam- that politics is critically important. Terrorism/insurgency has no pull or point to it without a political background, which in most cases is a government that is incompetent, uncaring, and corrupt. Winning hearts and minds is not just a figure of speech, but the essential element to giving Afghanistan hope. The current government has demonstrated its inability to provide that hope. While foreigners automatically have many liabilities in winning local hearts and minds, and in running the upper levels of the Afghan government, it would be difficult to do a worse job than our chosen government is doing right now. Whatever we do militarily, it will not have any point without a better solution to the core political problem.

  • George Packer on Holbrook and Afghanistan.
  • Frank Rich on Obama's choice in Afghanistan.
  • Vietnam- read A Bright and Shining lie, by Sheehan, among many others.
  • Cohen on individualism in America.
  • Apparently, we are a Christian nation, after all!
  • Is the Vatican a state? If so, shouldn't the Dharamsala with the Dalai Lama be as well? And others?
  • Another bubble in its infancy.
  • Lie about climate change? Who would ever do such a thing?
  • On death and philosophy

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Islam and the yellow submarine

What makes the Ummah different from the European nation-state?

Another week, another book. "God's Rule" by Patricia Crone, describes the first 600 years of Islam through the eyes of its thinkers about community, salvation, and government. The point she hammers home time and again is that Muslims think of their polity very differently than we do in the European tradition. She invokes a very nice metaphor of the caravan, (which I have updated using a Beatles song), to say that Muslims equate community with religion with government. They are all the same thing- they hang together in an idealized community that travels along a straight and narrow path, obeying the will of God in this life and, if right-guided, obtaining salvation in the next. Given this conception, it only makes sense that stragglers, detractors, and skeptics would be harshly punished for imperiling the community, and that religious leaders would tend just as much to the community as a body as to any individuals within it.

The Muslim conception derives straight from the Arabic tribal situation where one's leader was in charge of everything- war, women, worship, navigation, inspiration, punishment, ... the whole operation, top to bottom, as eventually modelled by the perfect man, Muhammad. This unitary organization obviously became untenable when the Muslim world rapidly bloomed to vast proportions after their conquests. Yet it took hundreds of years for Muslims to break apart any of these communal elements in principle, and when they did, it was not to separate religion from the community at large (as we have in the secularized and individualized West), or to separate mosque from state on a principled basis. The Islamic compromise was to resign themselves to governments that were hopelessly imperfect, even corrupt. By their conception, living with ill-guided governments was a way to avoid civil war, since no government could be perfect. But at the same time, governments were never viewed as unislamic:

"As far as medieval Islam is concerned, it [separation of government and religion] stands for a change in the manner in which God's government was executed on earth, not for a process whereby government was emptied of religious significance. It means that there ceased to be a single person endowed with the fullness of God's delegated power: scholars took over the task of guiding people; the deputy of God was left with the coercive role, which eventually passed to kings. This was a separation of power and religion comparable to that which obtained in medieval Europe, in which God kept His sword in one institution and His book in another. But in both cases, the sword and the book alike continued to be God's. He just did not assign both to the same keeper anymore. Similarly, when amirs, sultans, and kings are referred to as secular rulers, it means that they were rulers of a type that could appear in any society rather than rulers of the specific type called for by the Sharia: there was nothing specifically Islamic about them. It does not mean that they had no religious role to play. However external they were to Islam by origin, and sometimes outlook too, their prime role was still as protectors of a religious institution."

And of course, just as Europeans had their fairy tale visions of benevolent states helmed by happy kings and queens with stable and wise lines of succession populated by princes and princesses, Muslims had their own fairy tale of state- the Islamic Ummah as a vast whole, (indeed the entire world!), helmed by Islamic scholars of the highest rank and merit (such as Ayatolla Khomeini) who would be sure to guide the yellow submarine in the most godlike direction, for the benefit of everyone's salvation. At the core is a communitarian interpretation of what God wants- not so much individual hearts dedicated to him, (indeed, Muslims can be rather blasé about what happens behind closed doors- they may be totalitarian, but they tend not to be Orwellian), but mass and public obeissance, exemplified in the incredibly durable phenomenon of Friday prayers.

Unfortunately, here is where the tale turns a little dark, since we have to deal with jihad. Crone gives little attention to the post-9/11 platitudes of Islam being a religion of peace, or the pleasant and popular postion that perhaps it is the "inner" jihad that is most significant in Islam. No, while "jihad" means striving (in the path of God) and thus has gotten various connotations, especially among the Sufis, the original verse outlining this pillar of Islam uses the word "al-quital", which means fighting and warfare quite explicitly. Crone mentions ".. it is a bit of a mystery that jihad came to be the technical term for holy war." And of course the historical and scholarly records bears this out abundantly, with conquest of infidels and their land one of the favorite activities of Muslims, promoted by their scholars up to the present day.

And conversion in the sense of Christian individual conversion was not even the point, again in keeping the communal/imperialist ethos of Islam. If an adversary was offered the truth of Islam and refused it in advance of battle, that was it- if defeated, they were put under Islamic/Arabic rule, and their conversion was no longer a prime issue. They or their descendents would convert in due time, given the many political, financial, and social disabilities they would otherwise be under. This is the story of Iran, which struggled for centuries to come to terms with its traumatic subjugation to Arabic Islam.

Today, the Islamic world struggles with this unitary and communal mind-set which makes the perfect (scriptural guidance) the enemy of the good (liberal, effective government). The decently-governed Islamic states tend to be on the periphery or have other unusual conditions, like benevolent monarchs- Turkey, Jordan, UAE, Indonesia. The Islamic world remains unable to fully comprehend or assimilate the political science revolutions of the European world- strong, constitutional, and federally governed national states anchored in liberal domestic freedoms, set in a competitive international system (too competitive at times, looking back over history, but that is another matter).

A prime example is the Palestinian dilemma. When European Jews first colonized the lands of Palestine, their fervent hope was to found a state in the European model, which they did at the first possible opportunity. In that state, they found both a psychic homeland and the kind of strength possible under a well-run government. In contrast, the Palestinians have never taken statehood very seriously, being easily corrupted and divided by the British during the mandate period, then succeeding to a series of clownish excuses for governments down to the present day, exemplified by both Fatah and Hamas. The Palestinians beseeched the Ummah to save them, and while the Arab community did make a couple of disastrous stabs at Israel well over thirty years ago, it could not do one essential task for the Palestinians, which was to organize them.

Power comes from organization, and to leave temporal power in the hands of venal, corrupt tribal leaders while awaiting salvation through the five pillars of Islam, complete with the regular Friday rehearsal of misdirected grievances and prayers, is to give up any hope of effective politics and community power. At one time, sheer audacity and ferocity was enough to win an empire. No more. Modern states have awesome powers commensurate with their organization and based on broad, internal support generated by good governance. The perennial corruption and misgovernment of Muslim states, whether due to tribalism / feudalism (not to say feud-ism) that predates Islam, or to the misplaced ideals of Sharia and a certainty that political science was solved 1400 years ago, is fatal to the basic aspirations of Muslims, nowhere more so than in Palestine. (Though Afghanistan comes a close second- more on that next week.)

  • An important corrective, or at least adjunct, to Keynes, on rebalancing the role of central banks. It conceives of recent economic growth as being a succession of bubbles inflated by increasingly permissive monetary policy jags in response to each prior bubble. It claims that bubbles can be fought in advance by monetary policy, and should be, so that economic performance is better controlled over the long term.
  • How well do medical markets really work?
  • Deeply insightful article on American geostrategy in the broadest sense.
  • Off-the-hook blog post from San Diego State University.
  • Props to Trotsky
  • What comes of the theory of religious law superceding secular law, here in the US.