Recently in Social Theory Category

Interesting that Christopher Hitchens and the Iraq War "leave" us on the same day. Hitchens wrote a lot about religion being the cause of all bloodshed in the world, but also described himself as a "single-issue voter", with the issue being "defending civilization against its terrorist enemies and their totalitarian protectors". He vowed to "expose and oppose any ambiguity" on that matter. He supported America's wars during the last decade, including the idea of preemptive strikes.

Interesting to see how a man who calls himself an "enlightened" rationalist is so lacking in irony and cannot notice that his own warmongering serves and facilitates all the violent, irrational elements of society that he blamed "religion" for nurturing.

There is no "secularism"; All humans are prone to adopt dogmas and anoint idols. All humans are prone to errors of judgment, guided by fear. Faith is the realisation that the world goes on turning without you and that it is futile to try to control it (and those in it). People with and without Faith can be found in both the secular and religious world. Hitchens, I suspect, was driven by fear. May he rest in peace.
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Throughout history, cities have been at the centre of human development, rising and falling in line with the fortunes of different societies (Hall 1998). Urban life has been studied within a variety of disciplines - anthropology, sociology, politics, architecture, geography, and economics. Scholars have used urban analysis for diverse purposes, from predicting troughs in the business cycle by observing skyscrapers (Thornton, 2005) to writing "personal" biographies of individual cities - most recently Jerusalem (Sebag Montefiore, 2011). Within economic history, the study of cities focuses on the relation between urbanisation and development, and more specifically on the study of factors such as employment, wages, disposable income, access to capital and public goods, as well as more general economies or diseconomies of urban density and agglomeration of industry. 

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The rapid growth of the Asian "Tiger" economies gave rise to the idea of an Asian development model, one which consists, perhaps, of a cultural component that is uniquely Asian. Confucianism, an existential and political philosophy that originated in China and spread through east and southeast Asia, is often mentioned as one such possible component. More broadly, the interplay between culture and development has fascinated economists and sociologists for generations and is addressed in many of the classics of both disciplines1. As two relatively closed societies and as Asia's only two large-scale economies to attain the status of developed countries, Japan and South Korea offer an interesting case study for the examination of the importance of Confucianism.

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Japan and Korea are among a "handful of successes among the world's more than one hundred developing countries" (Kuznets 1994:1) and as such offer a successful development model to emerging economies in Asia and beyond. While both countries completed the transition to a fully-developed economy in the 20th century, it is worthwhile to examine the historical foundations of this transition. By surveying the 19th century roots of Korean and Japanese development, we can draw conclusions that may benefit the 21st century modernization efforts of other countries, most notably China. 

It is beyond the scope of this short essay to address the myriad factors that may have influenced industrialization and further economic growth in these two countries. My aim is to provide an overview of, and perspective on, some of the recurring themes in the relevant literature, namely the role of political stability; advances in agriculture; urbanization and proto-industrialization; formation of human and physical capital; and the impact of institutional change.

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"The central concept of liberalism is that under the enforcement of universal rules of just conduct, protecting a recognizable private domain of individuals, a spontaneous order of human activities of much greater complexity will form itself than could ever be produced by deliberate arrangement, and that in consequence the coercive activities of government should be limited to the enforcement of such rules, whatever other services government may at the same time render by administering those particular resources which have been placed at its disposal for those purposes"
Friedrich A. Hayek, Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, 1969. Apart from being one of the longest sentences ever, the above encapsulates Hayek's key ideas about society, politics, and economic planning. I will follow up with a proper explanation when I have a free moment (Sorry for all the quotes this week!).
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"The impulse of acquisition, pursuit of gain, of money, of the greatest possible amount of money, has in itself nothing to do with capitalism. This impulse exists and has existed among waiters, physicians, coachmen, artists, prostitutes, and beggars. One may say that it has been common to all sorts and conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the earth, wherever the objective possibility of it is or has been given... Unlimited greed for gain is not the least identical with capitalism, and is still less its spirit. Capitalism may even be identical with restraint, or at least a rational tempering, of this irrational impulse."

Max Weber, Author's Introduction to The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
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"The importance which the certainty of law has for the smooth and efficient running of a free society can hardly be exaggerated. There is probably no single factor which has contributed more to the prosperity of the West than the relative certainty of law which has prevailed here."
Two years into the crisis, the US finds itself with fewer jobs, slower growth, and a higher unemployment rate than expected in the government's worse case scenarios. The current debate concerning America's troubles is focused mainly on monetary and fiscal policy: more or less stimulus, higher or lower taxes, and the expansion or contraction of government programs. 

While the source of America's pain is in monetary and fiscal policy (artificially low interest rates, wars, programs to encourage sub-standard home loans), one of the keys to its recovery lies in a different field: The law.

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Tomorrow evening, Israel will celebrate its 62nd birthday. In honor of the occasion, we set to explore five Israeli figures of speech that encapsulate the country's character -- a unique mix of good humor, grief, paranoia, and almost nonsensical optimism. 

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'There is no means of avoiding a final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as a result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved.'
The above quote from Ludwig von Mises's Human Action (1949) pretty much sums up where we are and where we're headed. There are two ways out of this mess: Allowing bad banks and bad companies to go bankrupt and take some pain in the short term; or bail them out through government "creation" of more money and cheap credit.  Looks like the world has opted for the second option. 

This means we will experience a period of illusionary recovery, mostly in real estate prices and equity markets, powered by the huge amount of new money created by government(s). This illusionary recovery can last anywhere between 6 months to 10 years - depending on the amount of money being printed and on external triggers - but will eventually come to a painful stop, when all governments are deeply in debt and there's no one left to bail them out. 

Once we reach that point, governments are most likely to choose the only way out that allows them to divert public attention from their failure and get everyone to work together towards a common goal -  war. Until then, enjoy the ride. 
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The latest financial crisis sparked public interest in economics and rekindled the debate concerning the proper role the dismal science should play in our lives: books by and about dead economists such as Keynes, Hayek, and Schumpeter are in high demand; economic blogs are more popular than ever; and the public is bombarded with introspective monologues by contemporary economists, all the way from Paul Krugman to John Chochrane. The latest contribution is a Wall Street Journal article by Prof. Russ Roberts. Unlike the opposing so-called scientific explanations for the crisis suggested by various economists, Roberts is questioning whether economic science is at all a science and suggests that more than anything, economics might be suffering from a crisis of identity. 

Roberts points out that unlike most sciences - in which progress is steady and concrete - in Economics 'theories that were once discredited surge back into favor' and since it is impossible to control for all the relevant factors in an economic experiment, each effect can be explained by a variety of causes, or a combination of causes. This, in turn, means that the  explanations for economic phenomena change in line with the political climate.

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'Google News is a computer-generated news site that aggregates headlines from news sources worldwide, groups similar stories together and displays them according to each reader's personalized interests...

Our articles are selected and ranked by computers that evaluate, among other things, how often and on what sites a story appears online....

As a result, stories are sorted without regard to political viewpoint or ideology and you can choose from a wide variety of perspectives on any given story.'
We often read about the explicit ways in which those in power use the media to manipulate public opinion through censorship, 'spinning', and news management. However, each type of media (TV, the Internet, the Newspaper) affects political consciousness and ideology, even in the absence of any editorial control. 

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Big cop, small cop.
In a recent discussion with an American friend, I pointed out the colossal damage caused to America by the accumulation of additional debt and the bailouts of failed financial institutions. 
My friend, who agreed with me in principle, defended Obama's policies by saying that Obama is conducting the bailouts 'under the guidance of... Bernanke, Summers, Geithner' and that he merely 'continued the bailout started by Bush'. This is a common argument. The gist of it is that things are bad, we need to fix them, but there is no need to hurry. In addition, it justifies the errors of the current president by claiming that similar errors were committed by his predecessor. 

For the purpose of this analysis, we can ignore the fact that Geitner, Bernanke, and Summers were appointed by Obama himself. If someone believes that bailing out financial institutions in this way is a good policy - that's fine. What piques my curiosity is that people who think it is a bad policy are nonetheless willing to accept it and even justify it, and do not see any urgency in eliminating it. 

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"People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It's not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past"
History is written by the winners. The above is taken from Milan Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting and refers to the consistent efforts of Soviet officials in Eastern Europe to rewrite history. Soviet communism is a thing of the past, but the battle to control the future in order to rewrite the past is far from over. 

In the midst of a global financial crisis, it is interesting to see how our understanding of the Great Depression, 80 years ago, shapes current attitudes. It is even more interesting to examine the discrepancies between actual facts and the history currently taught at elementary schools and published in mainstream newspapers. 

We can summarize the common view of the Great Depression as follows:

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"Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the Capitalist System was to debauch the currency. By a continuing process of inflation, Governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and, while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some... As the inflation proceeds and the real value of the currency fluctuates wildly from month to month, all permanent relations between debtors and creditors, which form the ultimate foundation of capitalism, become so utterly disordered as to be almost meaningless; and the process of wealth-getting degenerates into a gamble and a lottery.

Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of Society than to debauce the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose."
John Meynard Keynes wrote the above in 1919, in an essay about Inflation and Deflation. This is the same Keynes whose theoretical work and policy recommendations serve to justify current calls for increased government spending, money printing, and cheap credit. How does one reconcile his views on the peril of inflation with the solutions that are being proposed in his name? More on this next time. 
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"In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil. "
Frederick Bastiat wrote the essay That Which is Seen, and that Which is Not Seen in 1850. Today, as government is increasing its involvement in economic matters in unprecedented ways in order to "cure" the economy of its ails, it is important to remember that the goals of politicians - producing "measurable" and "communicable" results - are not necessarily the goals of society, especially when it comes to economic policy. The "recovery" we see in the newspapers today, is the foundation for the bigger, longer crisis of tomorrow. More on this soon. (I am traveling for the next couple of weeks)
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"Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?...The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking--not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."
In 1984, George Orwell introduced Newspeak, a new language being gradually adopted by citizens of a fictional country called Oceanaia. As Orwell notes, the intention was that once Newspeak had been fully adopted, 'a heretical thought should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words'. This was done through the invention of new words and, more importantly, by 'eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings.'

Words, of course, don't change their meaning by coincidence. As Orwell points out in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, the 'decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes'. Of course, if we think foolish thoughts, our language would become full of foolish words, but the effect becomes a cause and the new language encourages more foolish thoughts. But what exactly does it mean that the decline of language has political and economic causes? Well, since the civilized world happens to be in the middle a severe ideological crisis, we can use a contemporary example to show how this process works. 

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National Effort.
We live in a time of immense confusion. Words that used to mean one thing suddenly mean another. The values which made us prosperous and free are being questioned and trampled on. We are in a mess, and our instinctive reactions seem to make things worse. 

In 1989, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama declared "The End of History" and noted that 'The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism'. Twenty years later, the ideological appeal of classic liberal values  - free markets, property rights, civil liberty, and individual responsibility - is in decline, following an economic meltdown in developed countries and the perceived success of the authoritarian-socialist model, most notably in the People's Republic of China. Capitalism as we know it is dying. Some say it already died a long time ago. 

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As China absorbs the decline in exports created by the global financial crisis, the government is emphasizing the need to increase domestic demand and expedite the development of a local consumer culture. To put it simply - the Chinese government wants local consumers to spend more money in order to reduce the country's dependence on consumers from other countries. China's ability to shift from a production to a consumption-based economy depends on a variety of social and economic factors.  

In 1949, China had a population of 450 million; by 1980, it was close to 1 billion; today, it is over 1.35 billion. The UN's World Population Prospects, updated last year, estimate that China's population will continue to grow slowly during the next two decades and then begin to decline. The number of young people joining the workforce each year is expected to decline from 2010 (see Michael Pettis' blog for more on this). China's population is getting older and might soon begin to get smaller as well. Plenty of commentary is published about the implications this has for China's social security network and economic growth. In addition, it is worthwhile to consider the impact such demographic changes might have on local consumption patterns. 

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Looks like the world is going crazy. Yesterday, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, gave a testimony to the US Senate panel on Fed policy. 

As you may remember, the Fed has a monopoly on printing money and fixing interest rates. Mr. Bernanke tried to explain to the Senators how the Fed would eventually 'let go' of its current policy of 'near-zero' interest rates and flooding the market with newly-printed cash. He noted that things are getting better and that already "many markets are functioning more normally".

Bernanke openly talks about his policy of (i) manipulating interest rates in order to increase borrowing, (ii) printing more and more cash in order to create inflation and 'growth',  and (iii) using public money to bail out banks and other companies that made the wrong choices, instead of letting them pay for their mistakes and go bankrupt. At the same time, he mentions that "markets are functioning more normally". What "market" is there when so many parts of the economy are centrally controlled and manipulated by the Fed?

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I often write about the importance of free markets and the dangers of big government. There seems to be a lot of confusion these days about the meaning of those two concepts, especially when seen through the prism of traditional political left/right divisions.

Yesterday, a friend of mine pointed out that the current crisis was created under George W. Bush. If free markets and small government are really the solution, how come a "right-wing" president who "reduced taxes" brought us into this mess?

That's a great question, and president Bush is a perfect example of all the misconceptions people have about economic policy and the right-left division in US politics. How so? Let's look at the numbers.

Bush may have reduced (some) taxes, but federal spending during his two terms went up 19.7% and 25.3% respectively, not including defense spending. If you include spending on security and other adventures, the growth is almost 50%.

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Note: The views and observations expressed on this web site are published for the sake of public discussion and do not represent my personal opinion or the opinion of my companies, clients, and/or employers. If you would like to get my opinion on anything, ask me.

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