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Entries for March 2009

March 31, 2009

The colonial experience-8: The rise of nationalist feeling

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While colonial powers needed to create an educated, elite class to act as surrogates for them and help them rule the country, providing access to that education created its own problems. While some in the educated elite were happy to play the role of junior partner to the colonialists and enjoy the rewards, others became, as a result of this western education, more aware of the political currents that were sweeping the world as a result of the Russian and Chinese revolutions, and the rise of anti-colonialist nationalistic sentiment following World War II.

These people returned from their education abroad to organize trade unions, form political parties, and agitate for independence. Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam returned from France to lead that country's liberation struggle against the French. English-educated Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi led similar struggles in India, and Sri Lanka had its own counterparts. All these leaders tended to have socialist leanings, having visions of creating a society that was just and egalitarian and non-racial.

But as we have sadly seen, the centrifugal forces that were unleashed by the divide-and-rule policies in the colonies based on long-standing inter-tribal suspicions were too strong to be overcome and almost all countries succumbed to ethnic clashes following independence. Those leaders in the fight for independence who were non-racial were often swept aside by pandering politicians only too eager to use ethnicity as a wedge to inflame passions and ride to power on racial issues. As a result, India has seen terrible Hindu-Muslim-Sikh violence, Sri Lanka has similar conflicts between Sinhala and Tamil people, and the ethnic violence in African countries are too many and well-known to list.

As a result of these problems exacerbated by the colonial powers, many countries descended into authoritarian rule with ruthless dictators, the worst examples being Mobutu Sese Seko in what was then called Zaire and is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo, Idi Amin in Uganda, and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. These tragic post-independence developments enabled colonial powers like the British to smugly claim that they were the ones who kept the peace between the warring groups, and that thus their presence was beneficial, when in reality, they were the ones who helped fan the existing tensions and suspicions into flames. While the post-independence political leaders of those countries share a huge amount of blame for the degeneration of their countries, the colonists also have blood on their hands.

One bright spot in Africa was Tanzania under its founding president Julius Nyrere. An interesting intermediate case in Asia is Singapore, where an authoritarian leader Lee Kuan Yew kept a tight lid on ethnic divisions and successfully led a program of modernization and industrialization that has made that small country a world leader in commerce and resulted in Singapore having one of the highest standards of living in the world.

So coming back to Jared's original question about how it could be that he, the only non-Indian in a class that dealt with British colonialism in India, could see the negative aspects of it, it comes down to the depth of one's understanding of the political history of the colonized countries. Attitudes amongst the people of the former colonies towards the colonial experience depends on, I think, the politics and background of the family from which the person comes.

Most of the students who come to the US are probably like me, the products of a relatively small, urban, English-educated elite, and thus come from the group favored by the colonial powers. There is absolutely no doubt that having the benefit of an English education has opened our minds to a world of knowledge and enabled us to go abroad and experience much more than we would have otherwise. Knowledge of the English language and its associated literature has enabled us to more easily absorb western culture and science, which are both dominant in the world today. There is no question that this particular legacy of the colonial experience has been good for us personally.

Making broad generalizations, those who left the colonial country because of the turmoil that followed independence, tend to think of the pre-independence colonial times as one of peace and prosperity, at least for the urban elite to which they belonged. This is especially likely in the case of ethnic and religious minorities who bore the brunt of the post-independence backlash by the marginalized majority against those whom they perceived as unfair beneficiaries of colonial largesse.

Against that group are those who grew up in households or communities that were more politically aware at a deeper level. I have said that my grandfather's view of British colonial rule was positive, although he knew that they considered brown-skinned people like him as ultimately inferior. They were sufficiently nice to him and rewarding of his services that overall he thought they treated him well, and that he fared better than he would have at the hands of the majority community.

My father, on the other hand, lived during the time of transition to post-colonial rule, with almost exactly half his life growing up in a British colony and the second half in an independent state. So he grew up with all the privileges of being English educated but at a time when anti-imperialist sentiment was strong and nationalist fervor was high, especially in the universities and amongst what used to be referred to as the intelligentsia. He belonged to both and his political leanings were influenced by that experience. So he did understand the negative aspects of colonial rule while at the same time being a beneficiary of it.

The next generation, mine, is entirely post-colonial and where we stand in relation to our colonial past is also mixed. The more politically aware can see both the long-term benefits as well as the damage that colonialism has done, and we are ambivalent towards it. Others who do not go into it as deeply may have a rather one-sided view depending on their own personal situation and how colonialism affected their own lives. Those who come from families that benefited, the urban English educated class, see it as mostly a good thing while the rest may see it as largely negative.

This series had its genesis the attempt to explain to Jared why it was that the Indian students in his colonialism class seemed to have a positive view of that experience. I suspect that most émigrés are those from the English-educated urban classes, since they are the ones who have access to the means for going abroad and they, I suspect, are the ones who dominated Jared's class. So this post ends my long-winded answer to his question.

POST SCRIPT: Interesting talk today

Jeff Hawkins will be speaking today (Tuesday, March 31, 2009 from 4:30-5:30) on the topic On Intelligence: What Intelligent Machines Can Learn From the Human Neocortex.

Hawkins is co-founder of two computer companies, Palm and Handspring, and is the architect of many computing products such as the PalmPilot and Treo smartphone, and the author of the book On Intelligence (2004).

The talk will be given in the Wolstein Auditorium on Cornell Road on the campus of Case Western Reserve University. For more details, see here.

March 30, 2009

Road rants

It is time for another edition of Road Rants where, after going on a road trip where I have time to think of these things, I note the driving practices I see that annoy me and make suggestions for improvement. The previous rants were here, here, and here.

Turning on lights

On the highway several times I came across a sign saying that there was construction ahead and to turn on the headlights. In each case there were about six or seven cars ahead of me, not one of whom bothered to turn on their lights. On the other hand, when there was a sign saying that we were about to enter a tunnel and to turn on the lights, everyone people did so. Though some only after entering the tunnel

Why is this? I suspect that most people do not realize that turning on the lights serves two purposes. It helps you see better but it also helps others see you better. Most people only think about the first. As long as they can see without turning on their lights (which is the case in daytime), they see no point in turning on their lights. It does not occur to them that it helps the construction workers on the road see cars earlier and better and take evasive action if necessary.

This reluctance to turn on headlights is annoying and dangerous when driving in heavy rain or snow where the visibility is poor. Turning on your headlights doesn't enable you to see further, so some drivers don't turn them on, not realizing that by keeping them off, they become largely invisible to others on the road. Very often you will find cars suddenly emerge from the gloom without warning because they did not have their lights on. I wish Ohio would enact and enforce a law that some states have that says that when your wipers are on, your lights must also be on.

Hogging the passing lane

Another practice that puzzles me is that of those drivers who get onto the passing lane of the highway and stay there. Apart from the fact that it is against the law, what are they thinking? People who do that in moderate levels of traffic can block traffic behind them for quite a distance. Surely they must notice that other drivers drop back into the slow lane after passing? Surely they must wonder why they do that? Or are they so oblivious to others that they think that as long as they are going close to the speed limit, it does not matter which lane they are in? I used to think that the people who did this were the stereotypical old geezers but on my last trip I noticed that the culprits were middle-aged and even young drivers.

Cameras

Recently cities and states have been increasing the use of cameras to detect people who go through red lights or speed in built up areas or construction zones. This has generated a remarkable level of angry opposition with citizen petitions seeking to outlaw the practice.

I am a little puzzled by this reaction. While I am usually concerned by invasions of privacy, this does not seem to me to be such a violation. It seeks to deter dangerous driving practices and nab those who do so without the wastefulness of having police idling for hours in hidden spots, when they could be doing far more useful things like preventing and solving more serious crimes. So what is the problem with these cameras? Do people want the freedom to drive dangerously? It is true that some communities are using these devices as a means for increasing revenue but that does not seem to me to be a disqualifying factor.

Highway merging (again!)

Some time ago, I suggested that when the number of lanes is reduced on a highway (which usually creates a bottleneck), that it was most efficient if traffic in both lanes went up to the merge point, the so-called 'late merge' policy, rather than merging much earlier which is what traffic etiquette seems to require.

In response to other points of view, I modified that stance to say that perhaps the most efficient way to merge was if both lanes could maintain speed while doing so, which suggested an 'early merge' policy, before traffic congestion built up enough to prevent merging while maintaining speed.

It now turns out (thanks to a subsequent comment on the first post by Chandra, who is both a traffic engineer and an old school friend of mine who stumbled on my post while doing some research on this topic) that a study finds that during congested times, the late merge is best after all, while at other times the regular merge rules should be followed.

A new book Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt cites other research that supports the late merging policy.

Among Vanderbilt's findings is the discovery that "late merging" may actually cause traffic to move more quickly, contrary to popular belief. When a sign warns that the lane will end in a given distance, standard driving etiquette causes many to move over as promptly as possible. However, if everyone were to merge at a single point when the lane ends, the road would get maximal usage and lane changes would become more orderly. The result would be traffic that moves 15% faster than current behavior allows.

"If people were told exactly to not leave the lane that was closing until the very point it actually did close, and then we did a nice alternating merge — it would be faster," says Vanderbilt. "Another benefit would be the queue of vehicles stretching back from the construction site would be smaller."

More traffic circles please!

Vanderbilt's book also supports my feeling, based on my driving experience in Australia and New Zealand where traffic circles (or 'roundabouts') are ubiquitous, that we should have more traffic circles here.

Vanderbilt also argues that round-abouts may be safer than traditional stoplight intersections. Though traffic circles may seem confusing, they have fewer "conflict points," places where cars can physically hit an object or person. Intersections have 32 of these conflict points, where round-abouts only have 16. The round-about is particularly safe because it completely eliminates the left-turn, one of the most dangerous driving maneuvers.

POST SCRIPT: Common food myths

Following up on my recent series on food, I was sent this interesting article on common food myths (Thanks to Ashali).

March 27, 2009

The colonial experience-7: Majority-Minority divisions

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

One of the most depressing features of so many countries that gained independence in the post-colonial age that began with the end of World War II is the inter-ethnic tensions, discrimination, and violence that often occurred.

It must be made clear that tensions between the different ethnic communities were not created by the colonists out of nothing. It is not the case that the different ethnic groups had been living in a harmonious paradise before the arrival of the colonists. The tribal instincts and in-group/out-group thinking that are the bane of existence and the cause of so much violence and hatred all over the world existed long before the appearance of the modern nation state. What the colonial powers did was to take those existing suspicions and animosities and use them as important elements in their divide and rule strategy, thus perpetuating and aggravating them.

The British have a history of using a minority community's latent suspicions of the majority to woo them as allies against the majority, thus preventing any unified action against the British. They did this in ways large and small. One way they did this in Sri Lanka was to give excessive patronage rewards to the minority Tamil community. For example, the minority Tamil community was far more welcoming concerning the opening of missionary schools and churches, and as a result they ended up learning English in greater numbers and occupying the elite professions and the higher ranks of the administrative and commercial sectors in numbers that far exceeded their proportion in the population.

This had a two-fold benefit for the British. It created a spiral of behavior in which the minority communities felt more grateful to the British and tended to look to them as their protectors from the majority community and to be more ingratiating towards them, and it shifted the resentment of the majority community away from the British and towards the minority, thinking of them as somehow conniving with the British to obtain greater rewards at their expense. As a result of these and similar policies in other colonial countries, the minority communities were the ones most fearful of what would happen to them at the hands of the majority once the colonial power left. After a country gained independence, the lid came off the simmering conflict and often escalated into open-warfare. The roots of the twenty-five year long civil war that has gone on in Sri Lanka, and the insurrection that took place against the government in the 1970s and 1980s, can all be traced to these policies of the British.

Similarly, the Belgians in collusion with the Roman Catholic Church deliberately set about magnifying the extremely minor distinctions between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and favoring the minority Tutsis, thus setting in motion the train of events that led to the horrendous genocide of 1994 in which over 800,000 mostly Tutsis were killed in the space of a few months at the hands of their Hutu neighbors.

One sees this pattern repeated in almost all the former colonies. In fact, it is hard to find a post-colonial country that has not had such problems. Especially in Africa, the colonial powers often created countries that had not existed as single entities before. But rather than drawing boundaries that separated nations according to traditional ethnic boundaries and thus ensuring relatively homogeneous populations, they would draw lines that divided ethnic communities and forced them into political unions with other communities with whom they had traditional animosities. As a result, we have so many brutal ethnic conflicts going on in so many countries. This was a heinous crime committed by colonial powers that is impossible to excuse.

But the British in Sri Lanka also created divisions in other seemingly minor ways. For example, the social clubs that people join and spend evenings with their friends and families are an English institution. They created such clubs in Sri Lanka too, and which had sports teams that competed with each other, and some of these clubs had explicitly ethnic affiliations with names that reflected them: Sinhalese Sports Club, Tamil Union, the Moors (Muslims) Sports Club, and the Burgher Recreation Club (the Burghers were those people whose ancestry included some Portugese, Dutch, or British). The British had their own exclusive clubs, open to whites only.

It seems incredible to me now that Sri Lankans should have tolerated such blatantly ethnicity-based social clubs for so long, even after independence, and taken them for granted. Although the clubs now have memberships that are open to all ethnicities, the very names are offensive. But they still exist and indicate that abhorrence to tribal sentiment and allegiance is not anywhere near as widespread and as strong as it should be.

POST SCRIPT: Americans are willing to pay more in taxes to improve infrastructure

It has long been treated as an article of faith that Americans hate raising taxes for whatever reason. But Republican pollster Frank Luntz finds that this is not true.

Consider this: A near unanimous 94% of Americans are concerned about our nation's infrastructure. And this concern cuts across all regions of the country and across urban, suburban and rural communities.

Fully 84% of the public wants more money spent by the federal government -- and 83% wants more spent by state governments -- to improve America's infrastructure. And here's the kicker: 81% of Americans are personally prepared to pay 1% more in taxes for the cause. It's not uncommon for people to say they'd pay more to get more, but when you ask them to respond to a specific amount, support evaporates. (That 74% of normally stingy Republicans are on board for the tax increase is, to me, the most significant finding in the survey.)

March 26, 2009

The Nigerian 419 scam goes meta

Is there anyone by now who has not heard of the 'Nigerian 419' scam or been approached by the people behind it? Hardly a week goes by that I do not receive several of these things in my email (sometimes several in one day). Word must have spread in the confidence trickster world that I look like a real sucker because I used to get these solicitations long before they became well-known as a fraud. Even before the internet I used to regularly get actual letters. But despite their notoriety, even now it appears that there are still people falling for it. In the US alone, it is estimated that about $200 million is conned per year.

The fraud starts with the arrival of a letter or email from someone in another country saying that a vast some of money, running to many millions of dollars, has come into their hands and they are seeking ways to get it out of the country. They have heard that you are a trustworthy, responsible, and discreet person and if you are willing to have your bank account used as a conduit, then you get to keep a third or so of the total.

The letter preys on the greed or desperation of people. It usually is purported to come from an official in a bank or government who has stumbled upon a dormant bank account of a diseased rich person with no heirs, or it is the secret stash of a dead or deposed ruler of a country. Sometimes it comes from a lawyer (these letter writers are seem to think that British lawyers have credibility) who says that he is acting on behalf of a client. Sometimes it comes from the widow or other relative of a former ruler who is now being persecuted by the current regime and is in hiding or in a refugee camp but knows where the money is secretly hidden. Sometimes you are told that you are the winner of a lottery. Sometimes it is from a dying wealthy, religious person, who wants their money to be spent in the service of the poor after they are dead and they have heard that you are a religious person who does good works and they want to support your work.

These letters are an art form in themselves. Douglas Cruickshank writes of the:

almost poetic sweetness (swaddled in lavishly stilted prose excavated from an 18th century protocol handbook) in how the letters begin. "It is with a heart full of hope ..." reads one. "Compliments of the season. Grace and peace and love from this part of the Atlantic to you" is how another starts. "Goodday to you, I would here crave your distinguished indulgence" begins a third." And still another opens, "It is with my profound dignity that I write you."

My favorite is perhaps this one (the phrasing is less lyrical than the others, but its deep sense of purpose and utmost sincerity can't be matched):

It is with deep sense of purpose and utmost sincerity that I write this letter to you knowing full well how you will feel as regards to receiving a mail from somebody you have not met or seen before. There is no need to fear, I got your address from a business directory which lends credence to my humble belief. I also assure you of my honesty and trustworthiness.

You've no sooner started to read one of these slyly poignant pleas before you're bathing in the warmth of the author's lofty intentions, a soothing hot tub bubbling over with reassurance, honesty and trustworthiness.

Whatever the story, you are asked to furnish information, including your bank account number so that the money can be transferred to you. What happens next varies. In the simplest case, they find some way to empty the sucker's account of whatever money it has. They are the lucky ones.

In other cases, when they hook a sucker, they then say that a minor glitch has occurred and that they need some small amount of money to pay some fees or bribe an official. Once you send the money, you are hooked and you get requests for a little more money to solve another minor problem, etc. all of which are hard to resist, since you have already invested some money. It has sometimes got so bad that people have even traveled to the country to help facilitate the release of the money they've been promised and only then discovered that they've been had.

There have been people who have had fun reversing the scam. Here is one hilarious story of one such counterscam, though it is better not to have anything to do with the scammers because they are criminals, and just ignore the emails altogether.

Perhaps because the original forms of the scam are now so well known, I recently received a more sophisticated meta-version that exploits the very fact that the original appeals are largely known to be frauds. Here is the email I got last week:

Dearest One,

I am Susan Walter, I am a US citizen, 39years. But I reside and work here in the States, and my home town in the States is Texas. My residential address is as follows. [Street address provided].

I am one of those that executed a contract in Nigeria years ago and they refused to pay me, I had paid over $70,000 trying to get my payment all to no avail. So I decided to travel down to Nigeria with all my contract documents.

And I was directed to meet with Barr Mat Oto, who is the member of CONTRACT AWARD COMMITTEE, and I contacted him and he explained everything to me. He said that those contacting us through emails are fake. Then he took me to the paying bank, which is Oceanic Bank Int., and I am the happiest woman on this earth because I have received my contract funds of 4.2Million USD.

Moreover, Barr Mat Oto showed me the full information of those that have not received their payment; and I saw your contact. This is what you have to do now. You have to contact him direct on this information below;

Name: Barr Mat Oto [Email, phone, and street addresses provided]

You really have to stop your dealing with those contacting you, because they will dry you up until you have nothing to eat. The only money I paid was just $1,200 for IRS, which you know. So you have to take note of that.

Thanks.

Mrs. Susan Walter.

It is really sweet of the now-very-rich Susan Walter to take the trouble to track me down and let me know that I too am the genuine recipient of millions of dollars and to warn me away from all the swindlers out there and point me to the one genuine individual. Unfortunately, what with one thing and another, I am a little busy now and don't know that I can spare the time to contact Mr. Oto myself.

So here's my offer. I am willing to share my good fortune with someone who is willing to do all the work to get me my money. I have heard that the readers of this blog are trustworthy, responsible, and discreet persons. If any of you are interested, please tell Mr. Oto that you are my authorized agent and once I get my millions of dollars, I will wire you one third of it. Just give me your bank account number, ok?

March 25, 2009

The colonial experience-6: Divide and rule

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While the colonies were a prime source of revenue for England, they also served as places to send young English men who were seen as black sheep in their well-connected families or as places where the less well-connected could make their fortunes. But the British could never hope, by sheer force of numbers and soldiers, to keep their far-flung empire under their control for a long time. Even the strong and well-organized Roman empire collapsed under this kind of logistical strain, and we see the same thing happening right now with the US trying to maintain its global dominance militarily. It is causing immense stress on its budgets and threatening to bankrupt the country.

In the previous post in this series, I said that one strategy they adopted was to create a class of surrogates who were educated in western ways in language, dress, manners, and mode of life, so that they were sympathetic to the British presence and even saw it as largely a positive thing.

But while that policy could be seen as a fairly benign strategy that even had some positive features, the British also adopted the tried and true strategy of all imperial powers, the cruel and infamous policy of 'divide and rule'. This required setting up suspicions and antagonisms between groups of local people so that they would not unite against their rulers, but would instead compete against each other for dominance or for favorable treatment from the British. While the British remained, they were able to prevent the simmering animosities they themselves deliberately fomented into breaking out into open conflict, thus creating the façade that they were peacemakers, when in truth they were instigators of dissension.

The British were so successful at both creating this class of surrogates that was sympathetic to their interests and also in sowing ethnic dissension that even to this day there are people in the colonized countries who see the period of British colonization as almost wholly benevolent and that independence saw the beginning of the decline of those countries, with ethnic clashes breaking out, authoritarian governments taking over, widespread corruption, the breakdown of law and order, and failed economies. Zimbabwe is the paradigmatic case of a post-colonial collapse.

While it is true that the departure of the British often did result in such collapses, and the political leaders who replaced the British share much if not most of the blame for the breakdown, the roots of those problems can often be laid at the feet of the British, as a result of policies they deliberately put in place. Where the post-independence rulers can be faulted is in their inability to see the traps set for them and take effective counter-measures. Instead many post-independence leaders cynically exploited the divisions sown by the colonial countries and used ethnic hostilities to gain power, despite the long-term problems and suffering they thus caused.

A few, like Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, and Julius Nyerere, the first prime minister of Tanzania, were intellectuals who could see beyond tribal thinking but they were the exceptions. And even Nehru could not prevent Hindu-Muslim brutality from dividing his country.

As part of their strategy to be able to rule the colonies with the minimum number of residents, the British created two types of divisions: class and ethnicity. To create the former, we saw the careful cultivation of a class of local people who were educated to identify themselves with the British culture and to look down on their own people who were now English-speaking. The residue of that policy exists even today. The English-speaking middle classes think of themselves as somehow superior to those people who are comfortable speaking only in the indigenous languages of Sinhala and Tamil, and who speak English badly or mispronounce words. Such people are referred to disparagingly as 'gamayas' (village people), implying that they lack the sophistication of their urban counterparts.

This set up tension between the English-speaking, largely urban, middle classes and the poorer rural people who spoke in the vernacular. The English language became referred to as the 'kaduwa' (sword) that divided the people into two. Even as late as when I was in college, the students were categorized as the 'kults' or the 'harayas'. The word kult was (according to local folklore) a corruption of the word kultur, the German word for high culture, and stood for those who could speak English well and adopted western style manners and clothes and tastes in music and films, while the word 'haraya' stood for an ordinary person or plebeian.

The economic, social, and political dominance of the kults naturally created resentment amongst the harayas (who were in the numerical majority). The harayas felt that they were being denied access to the higher levels of economic and social life through no fault of their own, merely because of accidents of birth and background. After independence, this resentment boiled over and in Sri Lanka there was a backlash against English in the mid-1950s with politicians pandering to the majority by seeking to abolish English as the language of government and commerce, to limit access to learning it in schools, and adopting a 'Sinhala Only' policy, making the majority language the official language of the country. The idea was that then the rural majority that spoke in the vernacular would then have greater access to the higher levels of the professions, business, and society.

This policy was the reverse of the earlier pro-English policies but had long-term disastrous effects. One result was that the minority ethnic Tamil community, which spoke Tamil, felt discriminated against. They saw the Sinhala Only policy as directly targeting them and this, building on long-term suspicions, eventually led to calls for a separate state and the current civil war.

The drive against English also coincided with the increased use of English worldwide as the language of international trade and commerce and science. English was too important to be ignored or suppressed and efforts to do so only resulted in an even smaller elite being able to learn it and thus have access to education abroad or to have access to the knowledge explosion occurring worldwide. So Sri Lanka actually suffered from its anti-English drive, hindering the creation of the kinds of educated people who could take advantage of the science and knowledge explosion. They are now trying to change course and bring English back but two generations of students have gone through the anti-English educational system. That makes it that much harder to now have enough people to provide adequate instruction in English.

So adopting the policy of giving the majority language (which was only spoken in Sri Lanka) pride of place resulted in two long-term negative consequences. It aggravated the suspicions of the minority that the majority community was seeking dominance over them, and it was a step back into insularity at a time when the world was becoming increasingly interdependent and using English as the means of communication and commerce and science.

POST SCRIPT: Media obliviousness

Glenn Greenwald has an excellent post about how the journalists in the mainstream media are completely oblivious to their true relationship to the people they supposedly cover, and why they are baffled at being the targets of Jon Stewart's and Stephen Colbert's humor.

March 24, 2009

Pope Benedict challenges all superstitions other than his own

In a previous post, I said that when religions compete with others for adherents, they do not resort to evidence because no religion can produce any. Hence they have to resort to emotional appeals, scaring people that if they don't believe in their god, awful things will happen to them, but if they believe, they will be rewarded in the next life or the afterlife, in the form of heaven or other goodies.

So basically, it is a competition that tests which religion has the best combination of fear and bribes to achieve its goal of increasing market share. Christianity, for example, has had a good run by scaring the daylights out of people with awful visions of hell and what happens on judgment day to people who have not accepted Jesus, and then promising a quickie salvation from that awful fate if only they say the magic words "I accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior."

During his recent visit to Africa, Pope Benedict XVI stirred up a controversy by opposing the use of condoms to fight the spread of AIDS, saying that using condoms might make the problem worse. His argument is that the only surefire way to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases is to practice strict monogamy and that condoms might make people think that it is safe to have sex with more than one partner. He did not cite (as far as I know) any medical studies to the effect that condom use resulted in the increased spread of HIV and other diseases.

The Daily Show had some fun with the Pope's comments.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Pope Benedict XVI on the HIV Crisis
comedycentral.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesImportant Things w/ Demetri MartinPolitical Humor

But lost in that controversy is that the Pope tried a new tack in dealing with competition from other religions. Africa (and the developing world in general) is important to the future of the Catholic Church since their numbers in Europe and North America are dwindling. But the church on that continent is facing competition from Islam and evangelical forms of Christianity, such as Pentecostal and other charismatic movements.

In trying to combat this, the Pope tried appealing to reason. He said that he was in Africa to warn of the "growing influence of superstitious forms of religion" (my italics). In Angola, he urged his followers to reach out to those who believe in "witchcraft and spirits".

When I read that, I was impressed with the sheer brazenness of the Pope's statements. To imply that Catholicism is not a form of superstition but that other religious beliefs are requires a considerable ability of self-deception. It seems that the Pope has forgotten that proverbial warning addressed to those who live glass houses. After all, in his book The God Delusion (p. 178), Richard Dawkins points out that being a good Catholic involves believing the following:

  • In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.
  • The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus came back to life.
  • The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.
  • Forty days later, the fatherless man went to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily in to the sky.
  • If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his 'father' (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.
  • If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.
  • The fatherless man's virgin mother never died but 'ascended' bodily into heaven.
  • Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), 'become' the body and blood of the fatherless man.

If all these things do not constitute superstitions, then what does? As I have argued before, so-called mainstream religions act as gateways to more extreme forms of belief because they assert that belief in the supernatural, without any supporting evidence, is rational. Once you concede that, you cannot credibly challenge witchcraft, Satanism, spoon bending, and the like. The Pope would be hard pressed to explain why putting spells on others is a more superstitious practice than praying to god to intervene in the laws of nature.

Saying that he wants to combat superstitious beliefs is an interesting rhetorical development by the Pope but I am not sure it is wise. He may be able to get away with it because people are not likely to ask him why he thinks Pentecostalism is superstition while Catholicism is not. Journalists and other people who interview Popes tend to treat them as if they are to be venerated, rather than as the CEO of a huge, secretive, and lucrative business trying to increase market share and revenues, which is what a Pope really is.

I hope the leaders of the other religions being denigrated as superstitions by the Pope will take umbrage and challenge the Pope to show why his religion is less superstitious than theirs. I would love to see such a public discussion take place among the leaders of the world's religions. But I fear that all religious leaders know that they all lose by having an open discussion on the relative rationality of their competing faiths. Hence they will bite their tongues, unfortunately.

The Pope should stick to the traditional Catholic claim to superiority that he is #1 because the Bible says that Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and since he is Peter's heir, by extension the Catholic Church is the way to get to god. That highly dubious claim to divine authority has worked fairly well so far. He should steer clear of talking about the evils of superstitious beliefs.

POST SCRIPT: Avoiding waste

One suspects that an important basis of the Pope's opposition to condom use is because of the church's attitude that sex for any reason other than procreation is a bad thing, and so any 'artificial' measures taken to prevent the fusing of a sperm with an egg must be rejected.

Monty Python's Meaning of Life explains that doctrine in song.

March 23, 2009

The colonial experience-5: Creating loyal surrogates

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The British, in my opinion, were much smarter colonial powers than (say) the French or the Belgians. The Belgians were arguably the worst, as can be seen in what they did to the Congo under Emperor Leopold. As is the usual pattern, the colonialists used religion as a pacification tool. "[Leopold] claimed he was doing it to protect the "natives" from Arab slavers, and to open the heart of Africa to Christian missionaries, and Western capitalists."

The Belgians were vicious, ruthless, and brutal exploiters, stripping the colonized countries of their natural wealth as quickly and as efficiently as possible, with no thought whatsoever for the welfare of the people. In the name of Jesus and western civilization, they killed and raped and mutilated men, women, and children. The brutal Belgian empire did not leave much of a positive legacy when they were eventually forced to leave by the worldwide tide of anti-colonial nationalism that arose following the end of World War II.

I have criticized before Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness for its racism, but his stark description (though not identified as such, it is based on what happened in the Congo) of the sub-human nature that the Africans are reduced to as a result of working for the white ivory hunters is compelling. The native people were seen as little more than beasts of burden, ill-treated, forced to work under slave-like conditions with little food or rest, and then abandoned by the side of the road when their usefulness was over. In the book, they are portrayed as if they were animals who scarcely talk but simply whimper and moan and eventually crawl off to die.

Although the British were as capable of brutality as the Belgians, by and large they kept it in check and made greater efforts to improve the conditions in the colonies. As a result their former colonies view them with much greater approval than the former Belgian colonies.

The British wanted to be an empire over the long term and they realized that since they were an island nation with a small population far away from the countries they sought to rule, they could not hope to conquer and keep distant lands using only force. They had to create a class of people locally who would either identify with the rulers or at least realize that there was a lot to be gained by siding with them against their own people. So they set about creating a group of surrogates, Sri Lankans who adopted the values, manners, and mores of the British rulers. Such people felt that they had more in common with the English than their own people, and thus distanced themselves from the majority.

The British achieved this by creating schools and churches to transform children into little brown English men and women, and using the administrative services under their control and the newly burgeoning commercial sector to provide the reward structure for those Sri Lankans who were willing to essentially switch their allegiance to the British, to see them as a benevolent force in the nation's history. Since the higher levels of the world of government and administration and commerce was conducted almost exclusively in English, anyone who wanted to advance in those areas knew that they had to learn English and to speak and dress and behave like the English.

There was no shortage of ambitious parents who were willing to make that deal. They sent their children voluntarily to the schools set up and run by the Christian missionaries in the urban centers which, in addition to being much better equipped in terms of classrooms and laboratories and sports facilities, and having much better educated and trained teachers, guaranteed that the products of those schools would either go on to university and the elite professions or obtain secure and lucrative employment in the government and private sectors.

I too went to such a school, a boarding school (though it had a substantial number of students like me who were not boarded) set up by Anglican missionaries in which the education and social life was modeled entirely (with a very few exceptions) on British public schools. The students wore uniforms, went to assembly and chapel, played cricket and rugby, had the prefect structure, and so on, very much like Hogwarts in the Harry Potter stories. The only difference with a similar school in England would be the vegetation and the skin color of the students.

Many people also became Christians and even adopted the names of the colonizers as this meant even greater acceptance, and thus greater hopes for advancement, from the colonial rulers. Traditional Sinhala and Tamil names tend to be polysyllabic and the colonial powers made very little effort to try and learn them, changing the geographic names to ones they found easier to pronounce. Those Sri Lankans eager to gain acceptance often changed their names to those commonly found in the ruling countries. As a result, the most common names of people in Sri Lanka even now are Fernando, de Silva, and Perera, reflecting the early Portugese influence, and one can find names like Mather, Hoole, Paul, Wilson, Watson, and so on, reflecting the later British presence. While a few people born after independence with such names self-consciously changed them to more indigenous-sounding ones, these names are so ubiquitous that they are no longer seen as being foreign.

Some families retained their traditional family names (though sometimes modified slightly to make it easier for the British to say them) but adopted British first names. For example, my grandfather's name started out as Charles Nallasegarasingam. But when he went to work for the British army in Burma, he shortened and changed it to Charles N. Singham, presumably because it was easier to say and Singham sounded more anglicized, like Bingham. He gave his four sons the first names Reggie (Reginald), Leo (Leonard, my father), Benny (Benedict), and Archie (Archibald), all of whom sound as if they are members of the Drones Club and friends of Bertie Wooster.

This co-opting of an important class of local people played an important role in the length of time that the British were able to keep their colonies, as well as shaping the colonies' attitudes towards England after independence.

Next in the series: Divide and rule policies

POST SCRIPT: But what's in it for me?

In a previous post, I wrote about the Ayn Randians who are threatening to 'go Galt'. The merchant banker in this Monty Python sketch captures the attitude of those people perfectly.


March 20, 2009

The real AIG fraud

There is one thing that I have learned about politics: when the political ruling class is in a big lather about something and screaming loudly for retribution and action, that means the real action is taking place elsewhere, in secret, and that all the fuss is to distract attention from the real scandal. This rule of thumb has never failed me, although sometimes it takes a while to find out what the true story is.

This instinct immediately kicked in when all the ballyhoo began about the $165 million in bonuses being paid to some AIG executives. This is just 0.1% of the money paid out (so far) to AIG and when I saw all the politicians getting into fits of righteous indignation, holding Congressional hearings, calling these executives all kinds of names, demanding the bonus money back, and threatening to use subpoenas and punitive laws to do so, I felt at once that it was all a smokescreen although I did not know what the smoke was covering. But I knew that soon enough, more knowledgeable people would reveal the truth, even though it would not get major coverage in the mainstream media, because the latter is a necessary part of the smoke-generating machine, and dutifully play their role by giving extensive coverage to all the grandstanding, while not investigating the real news.

Some new articles reveal what is actually going on. To understand what they say, you need to know that the term 'counterparties' refers to those firms that owned assets of dubious value that AIG had 'insured' against loss from their face value. (Note: I have explained before that this was not technically insurance, which is a highly regulated industry, but was essentially an unregulated scheme of private bets.) The taxpayer bailout money to AIG was used to pay off those obligations. But despite using public money and despite the government now owning nearly 80% of its shares, AIG had the nerve to refuse to reveal to the public the names of the companies that it had paid out money to and for what, leading to suspicions that, rather than protecting taxpayer interests, they had deliberately overvalued those assets in order to bail those companies out from their bad decisions. They finally revealed at least the names on Sunday night, a time when companies and governments release bad news hoping the public is not paying attention.

After months of stonewalling, government-controlled American International Group (AIG) finally revealed the names of the counterparties that were funneled $108 billion in taxpayer funds. The largest recipients of AIG bailout funds were European banks, Wall Street firms and, to a lesser degree, municipal governments.

The fundamental concern is that favored firms may have been overpaid for assets using a large chunk of AIG's $170 billion bailout package. Though it is now known who the counterparties are, AIG refused to itemize what exactly it is each of them brought to the table. As a result, it's impossible to know if some firms got better deals than others, or if taxpayers got a raw deal all together.

Eliot Spitzer explains in Slate what is going on:

Everybody is rushing to condemn AIG's bonuses, but this simple scandal is obscuring the real disgrace at the insurance giant: Why are AIG's counterparties getting paid back in full, to the tune of tens of billions of taxpayer dollars?

For the answer to this question, we need to go back to the very first decision to bail out AIG, made, we are told, by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, then-New York Fed official Timothy Geithner, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke last fall. Post-Lehman's collapse, they feared a systemic failure could be triggered by AIG's inability to pay the counterparties to all the sophisticated instruments AIG had sold. And who were AIG's trading partners? No shock here: Goldman, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, UBS, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Barclays, and on it goes. So now we know for sure what we already surmised: The AIG bailout has been a way to hide an enormous second round of cash to the same group that had received TARP money already. (my italics)

The appearance that this was all an inside job is overwhelming. AIG was nothing more than a conduit for huge capital flows to the same old suspects, with no reason or explanation.

Spitzer then goes on to ask some very pertinent questions about all the cozy insider dealing between AIG, Goldman Sachs, Paulson, Geithner (who has replaced Paulson as Treasury Secretary), and Benanke. He says that those questions should be asked under oath.

Economist Michael Hudson sheds more light on the deal:

Here's the problem with all the hoopla over the $135 million in AIG bonuses: This sum is only less than 0.1 per cent – one thousandth – of the $183 BILLION that the U.S. Treasury gave to AIG as a "pass-through" to its counterparties. This sum, over a thousand times the magnitude of the bonuses on which public attention is conveniently being focused by Wall Street promoters, did not stay with AIG. For over six months, the public media and Congressmen have been trying to find out just where this money DID go. Bloomberg brought a lawsuit to find out. Only to be met with a wall of silence.

Until finally, on Sunday night, March 15, the government finally released the details. They were indeed highly embarrassing. The largest recipient turned out to be just what earlier financial reports had rumored: Paulson's own firm, Goldman Sachs, headed the list. It was owed $13 billion in counterparty claims. Here's the picture that's emerging. Last September, Treasury Secretary Paulson, from Goldman Sachs, drew up a terse 3-page memo outlining his bailout proposal. The plan specified that whatever he and other Treasury officials did (thus including his subordinates, also from Goldman Sachs), could not be challenged legally or undone, much less prosecuted. This condition enraged Congress, which rejected the bailout in its first incarnation.

It now looks as if Paulson had good reason to put in a fatal legal clause blocking any clawback of funds given by the Treasury to AIG's counterparties. This is where public outrage should be focused.

Instead, the leading Congressional shepherds of the bailout legislation – along with Obama, who came out in his final, Friday night presidential debate with McCain strongly in favor of the bailout in Paulson's awful "short" version – have been highlighting the AIG executives receiving bonuses, not the company's counterparties.

[What do] Sen. Schumer, Rep. Frank, Pres. Obama and other Wall Street sponsors gain from this public outcry? For starters, it depicts them as hard taskmasters of the banking and financial sector, not its lobbyists scurrying to execute one giveaway after another. So the AIG kerfuffle has muddied the water about where their political loyalties really lie. It enables them to strike a misleading pose – and hence to pose as "honest brokers" next time they dishonestly give away the next few trillion dollars to their major sponsors and campaign contributors.

The uproar about AIG bonuses has effectively distracted attention from the AIG counterparties who received the $183 billion in Treasury giveaways. The "final" sum to be given to its counterparties has been rumored to be $250 billion, do Sen. Schumer, Rep. Frank and Pres. Obama still have a lot more work to do for Wall Street in the coming year or so.

To succeed in this work – while mitigating the public outrage already rising against the bad bailouts – they need to strike precisely the pose that they're striking now. It is an exercise in deception.

The moral should be: The larger the crocodile tears shed over giving bonuses to AIG individuals (who seem to be largely on the healthy, bona fide insurance side of AIG's business, not its hedge-fund Ponzi-scheme racket), the more they will distract public attention from the $180 billion giveaway, and the better they can position themselves to give away yet more government money (Treasury bonds and Federal Reserve deposits) to their favorite financial charities.

The money can be recovered. And that's just what Mr. Schumer, Mr. Frank and others don't want to see the public discussing. That's why they've diverted attention onto this trivia. It's the time-honored way to get people not to talk about the big picture and what's really important.

Barack Obama, Barney Frank, Charles Schumer, and other leaders of both parties are busy grandstanding about the bonuses to hide the fact that they are complete shills for the finance industry and that they have colluded in the outrageous giveaway of huge sums of taxpayer money to the big financial firms, using AIG as the conduit. It is basically a money laundering scheme, to hide the real beneficiaries, the big financial interests that both parties serve.

Our pro-business, one-party government at work, serving the needs of the people they really care about.

POST SCRIPT: Monkey business

Researchers find that some monkeys seem to teach their young children how to floss their teeth. This is remarkable because the ability to consciously teach others how to use tools properly is thought to be a capability that only the human species possesses.

March 19, 2009

In the name of Galt, go!

Yesterday, I wrote about the predictable opposition of the low-tax/no-tax zealots to the implementation of the sunset clause that will at the end of 2010 revert the tax rates to its 2000 values.

The most bizarre feature of this opposition has been those who are threatening to 'go Galt'. Apparently they are taking their cue from John Galt, the hero of the Ayn Rand 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, who inspired all the allegedly talented people, the leaders of business and arts and inventors and scientists, to show their disgust with the government burdening them with regulations and 'taking' their money in taxes for society's benefit, by abandoning their prosperous careers and going on strike, even withdrawing to a remote enclave in Colorado called Galt's Gulch. By withholding their talents from society, they caused society to crumble, teaching it the harsh lesson that the very gifted and talented must be left unfettered and tax-free so that their ambition is not shackled and their genius can flourish and thus society as a whole benefits.

(Note: I have not read Atlas Shrugged so am dependent on others as to the plot and what 'going Galt' involves. I did read Rand's The Fountainhead but after a promising start, it rapidly degenerated into a dreary polemic, with two-dimensional stereotypical characters behaving in utterly predictable ways, the whole thing written in melodramatic prose. There is no way that I am going to read 1000 more pages of Rand, though Atlas Shrugged sounds like a real hoot, even if unintentionally so. But Rand has a cult-like following for her philosophy of what she called objectivism, including even people like former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan.)

It seems like the current admirers of Rand's hero John Galt share the quaint delusion that they too are indispensable elements of society and that if they stop (or even reduce) working in protest at the sunset provisions of the tax code going into effect, society will be so devastated that we will beg them to come back, even if it means eliminating their taxes entirely and letting them do whatever they want.

Because rich people are surrounded by people who want or need to please them (relatives who want favors or money, employees who want to advance their careers, politicians and business people seeking to benefit from them, waiters and other staff who fear losing their jobs if they are not appropriately servile, etc.), they are prone to falling into the trap of thinking they possess some special knowledge or intangible quality that others lack and is the source of their success. They do not realize that they got where they are largely due to luck, inheritance, or privilege, and that they are easily replaceable.

During the current uproar over the bonuses paid to AIG executives, one defense of the payments has been that the people receiving the bonuses are the only ones who understand the complex structures that were created, and thus must be placated and retained if we are to ever unravel the mess.

Oh, please. Put in a new team of honest and hard working people with fairly sophisticated mathematics, computing, and accounting knowledge and skills and I would expect them to figure out the whole thing very quickly. Let's face it, even if truly great minds like Newton, Darwin, and Einstein had never existed, the great discoveries now associated with them would still have been made. What makes these financiers think that they are so necessary, so irreplaceably clever? It is only math-phobic people who think that derivatives, credit default swaps, and the like are deeply mysterious.

I myself think that we would all be a lot better off if all those threatening to 'go Galt' actually carried out their threat. Society will do well to have these egomaniacs voluntarily go off into some remote location and remain there, telling each other how essential they are, even as the rest of us soon forget they ever even existed.

So to all those threatening to 'go Galt', I can do no better than echo the words of Oliver Cromwell who 350 years ago, when faced with an obstructionist parliament, said:

"It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonoured by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money; is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? is there one vice you do not possess? ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your God; which of you have not barter'd your conscience for bribes? is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth? ye sordid prostitutes have you not defil'd this sacred place, and turn'd the Lord's temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress'd, are yourselves become the greatest grievance.

Your country therefore calls upon me to cleanse this Augean stable, by putting a final period to your iniquitous proceedings in this House; and which by God's help, and the strength he has given me, I am now come to do; I command ye therefore, upon the peril of your lives, to depart immediately out of this place; go, get you out! Make haste! Ye venal slaves be gone! So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors.

In the name of God, go!"

Unfortunately, I don't think the Galtists are likely to carry out their plan as their hero envisaged, which was a full-bore withdrawal from society. While I like to fantasize about all the Wall Street financiers and business and political leaders who caused this mess huddling under blankets in the Rockies, complaining about how badly they've suffered as a result of the repeal of the tax cuts, and eating beans cooked over an open fire like olden day cowboys, I suspect that they will not leave the comforts of life and will instead remain and just whine annoyingly about how no one really appreciates them and why they deserve to be paid more and taxed less.

Sadly, these 'mercenary wretches' who are 'odious to the whole nation' will continue to be a pestilence amongst us.

POST SCRIPT: Sesame Street

I love the music and the muppets and humor on Sesame Street. They all come together well in this segment with Forgetful Jones starring in Oklahoma!


March 18, 2009

Phony tax arguments

I do my own taxes. They are not that complicated and the tax forms and instructions provided by the IRS are pretty clear and straightforward.

Basically, the system for most individuals is that you add up all your income to get your gross income, then subtract all the allowable deductions (personal and dependent deductions, state and local taxes, home mortgage interest, IRA and charitable contributions, etc.) and you are left with what is known as your taxable income. At the very least, a single person in 2008 would be able to claim the standard deduction of $5,450 and one personal exemption of $3,500, meaning that their taxable income would be $8,950 less than their gross income. If they put away another $5,000 in an IRA savings account, their taxable income gets further lowered by that amount and they pay even less in taxes.

In 2008, for a single person, the tax is computed as follows (see page 80):

On the amount of your taxable income that is $8,025 or less, you pay 10% of the amount.
On the amount over $8,025 and less than or equal to $32,550, you pay 15%
On the amount over $32,550 and less than or equal to $78,850, you pay 25%
On the amount over $78,850 and less than or equal to $164,550, you pay 28%
On the amount over $164,550 and less than or equal to $357,700, you pay 33%
On the amount over $357,700, you pay 35%

The size of each income tax bracket is adjusted each year for inflation.

This is what is meant by a progressive tax code, that the percentage of income that is taxed goes up the higher the bracket in which your top income level is. Your marginal tax rate is the percentage that is taxed on that portion of your income in the highest bracket. So the marginal rate for someone earning $50,000 is 25% (meaning that the portion of income over $32,550 is taxed at 25%), while for someone earning $250,000 it is 33%.

Because of this progressive structure, the actual percentage of your gross income that goes as taxes is much less than your marginal rate. For example, a single person who earns a gross income of $50,000 pays less than 11% of their gross income in taxes, even though their marginal rate is 25%, while a single person who earns a gross income $100,000 pays only about 18% of their gross income in taxes (assuming they take the standard and personal and IRA deductions) although their marginal rate is 28%. So when people say that they are 'in the 25% tax bracket', they are merely talking about their marginal tax rate, not the effective rate at which their entire income is taxed.

This is an important distinction between marginal and effective rates that some anti-tax advocates like to blur, by suggesting that small increases in marginal rates are a disincentive to earning, and that it makes good economic sense to limit your earnings so that you stay at a lower marginal rate. It is never the case that, by raising your taxable income so that you move into the next higher marginal tax rate, you will lower your after-tax income.

If you were earning $78,850 dollars (and thus your marginal rate was 25%), and by doing a little extra work you earned $1 more and that pushed you into the 28% marginal rate, only that last dollar would be taxed at the 28% rate, with all the other income unaffected. Your take home income would still increase by 72 cents. If you earn more, you get to keep more.

So-called 'flat tax' proposals, in which all income is taxed at the same rate, is regressive. The so-called 'payroll taxes' such as Social Security and Medicare are regressive taxes since they are flat taxes of 6.2% and 1.45% respectively on all income. In fact, the former is extremely regressive since that tax is not levied on income over an upper limit that is adjusted for inflation (and is $102,000 for 2008), which means that the more you earn over that limit, the lower the percentage of your income that you pay as tax.

The reason that a progressive tax structure is fairer is that poorer people pay a far greater proportion of their total income for basic necessities like food, clothing, shelter, and health care while the rich have far more disposable income to spend on luxuries. You do not want to heavily tax that portion of the income that goes to meet basic needs, hence the lower rate on the lower brackets.

When George W. Bush came into office in 2000, there were five income tax brackets:

On the amount of your taxable income that was $26,250 or less, you paid 15% of the amount.
On the amount over $26,250 and less than or equal to $63,550, you paid 28%
On the amount over $63,550 and less than or equal to $132,600, you paid 31%
On the amount over $132,600and less than or equal to $288,350, you paid 36%
On the amount over $288,350, you paid 39.6%

Even though these taxes were much lower than most years since 1933 (In 1945, the top marginal rate reached a peak of 94%), Bush and the Republicans pushed relentlessly for even lower tax rates, especially the top marginal rates that affected the very wealthy. By 2003, there were six income tax brackets (as now) but the rates for each bracket were reduced to 10%, 15%, 27%, 30%, 35%, and 38%.

Bush and the Republicans pushed for the even lower rates, which resulted in the current situation. All of these cuts largely benefited the wealthy since it lowered their top rates by more. In other words, they made the tax code more regressive. As a result of these tax cuts, a single person in 2008 earning a gross income of $50,000 saw a drop in their taxes of about $1,300 (compared with the 2000 rates) while someone earning $500,000 saw a drop of about $21,000. The loss in revenue due to the tax cuts that largely benefited the rich, coupled with the huge costs of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, has resulted in the budget surpluses of 1998-2001 becoming deficits from 2002 onwards.

These tax cuts were sold as a temporary measure, and to help passage a sunset provision was added that was due to go into effect at the end of 2010, causing the rates to revert to their 2000 values. But it was entirely predictable that when the time came for the sunset provision to kick in, the tax cut zealots would start misleadingly squealing that we were getting a tax hike, rather than the truth that we were ending something that was meant to be a temporary measure. And we see this happening now.

While I expected this kind of opposition to reverting to the 2000 rates, what took me by surprise was the sudden channeling by some people of their inner Ayn Rand and their plan to oppose the sunset provisions using a bizarre strategy based on, of all things, the plot of her novel Atlas Shrugged.

Next: Ayn Rand and 'going Galt'.

POST SCRIPT: Civil liberties and internet censorship

Chris Hansen, senior national staff counsel for the ACLU, will be speaking at the Case Western Reserve University Law School Moot Court Room on Thursday, March 19th from 4:30-5:30 on the topic of "Civil Liberties and Internet Censorship."

The event is free and open to the public. Call 216-472-2220 or go here for more details.

March 17, 2009

The colonial experience-4: The economic transformation

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Perhaps the biggest disruption caused by the British colonialists was the massive change in rural life and agricultural practices as a result of the conversion from a somewhat communal, subsistence form of agriculture, where much of the local resources used for food production (such as water supplies, grazing land for animals, and forests as a source of food and fuel) was held in common, to a plantation economy with strict private ownership.

Sri Lanka before colonial rule was a feudal country and in such systems land usage was controlled by the feudal lords or by tradition. The colonial powers, on the other hand, were mercantilist and later capitalist and in such systems, it was necessary to have clear rules about who owned what, especially land. Since many of the farmers in rural areas in Sri Lanka did not officially have title to the land they cultivated, the land being either held in common by the village or rights assigned by custom or by the feudal lords, it was easy for the central government to get ownership and convert that land into single crop plantations under the control of large British-owned companies.

Creation of this plantation-based economy resulted in the displacement of huge numbers of small farmers and villages from their traditional lands and crops and made them into landless peasants, suddenly transformed from self-sufficient people, albeit often at a bare subsistence level, into unskilled laborers, forced to seek low paying jobs on the plantations or in the newly growing urban areas. The problem of how to solve the huge problem of landless peasants has been the bane of all those former colonies that had a plantation economy imposed on them.

Furthermore, traditional foods like rice now had to be imported in large quantities because the land was now being used for cash generating export crops. Local communities that were largely self-supporting now became interdependent with distant communities and even foreign countries.

The increased trade within the country and between the country and the external world did result in development of the country and the creation of new sources of wealth due to the rise of the merchant class and its associated banking and financial and transport sectors. It also resulted in urban areas now becoming the centers of activity. As a result, the terms of trade between rural and urban now shifted to the benefit of the latter, thus impoverishing the rural sector. By 'terms of trade' I mean that while the rural sector produced basically food, the urban sectors supplied finished goods (clothes, machinery, etc.), and the amount of food (say bags of rice) that needed to be grown to purchase (say) a shirt was such that the labor of the rural peasant became worth much less than that of the urban worker, resulting in a decline in the standards of living of the rural peasantry, except for a few wealthy land and plantation owners.

In turn, the terms of trade between Sri Lanka and England favored the latter, because Sri Lanka was basically exporting low value-added agricultural cash crops while importing high value-added finished goods. Thus Sri Lankan labor became effectively much cheaper than British labor. As has been said, the British made Sri Lanka into a tea plantation economy, the Caribbean countries into a sugar plantation economy, all so that the English could have their perfect cup of tea at a cheap price.

There was little or no attempt by the British to create local industries since they wanted to increase markets for the products grown in England, and creating industries in the colonies would defeat that goal. The British were content to keep Sri Lanka as basically an agrarian country producing food for the British and world market, and as a place to sell (or more appropriately dump) their own finished products. For a long time after the end of colonial rule, clothes, cars, canned goods, toys, etc. sold in Sri Lanka still came almost exclusively from England. It was only after independence that local industries started being created on a wide scale.

Having this captive market in the colonies was good for the colonial powers in the short run but actually harmful to them in the long run. While they still controlled the colonies, it enabled them to avoid having to compete with other rising world economic powers like the Americans. But this also discouraged them from investing in making improvements. As a result, when these colonial markets became open to the world as a result of the post-World War II movements for independence, the British found their products were no longer competitive in terms of quality or price. It used to be, for example, that when I was a child almost all the cars in Sri Lanka were English brands like Austin, Morris, Vauxhall. Rover, Triumph, and all the buses were made by British Leyland. The rapid decline in their market share following independence was quite remarkable, though one can still find forty year-old models on the roads.

So although Sri Lanka was modernized by the British in some ways, like all other colonies it seriously lagged behind in its own industrialization and in the production of finished goods for domestic consumption and for export. The net result was the steady siphoning of the wealth of the land from rural Sri Lanka to urban Sri Lanka and from there to England, with urban Sri Lanka getting some of the crumbs that fell in transit. These crumbs took the form of modern towns and cities and the creation of an educated urban elite.

This latter group plays an important role in how attitudes towards colonialism were shaped, with some seeing the British presence as largely positive and others as negative, depending on how much they personally benefited. The ambiguity of their response reflects the contradictory role that the urban centers played in colonial times, benefiting in some ways from colonial rule and losing in others. I will expand on this later.

POST SCRIPT: What about the aqueduct?

This clip from Monty Python's Life of Brian about Roman rule in Palestine captures well the inherent ambiguity of the relationship between the colonizing power and the colonists.


March 16, 2009

Jon Stewart takes on Jim Cramer, CNBC, and the financial news industry

Most people would have heard by now of the Daily Show-Jim Cramer face-off, but I want to comment on it anyway.

It all started when CNBC reporter Rick Santelli tried to fan outrage against Obama's plan to rescue some homeowners from their current situation. Santelli went on the floor of the stock exchange and riled up the traders there by implying that their money was being used to bail out reckless homebuyers.

Stewart made fun of this cheap populism by running clip after clip of CNBC reporters touting the virtues of one company after another just before those companies went belly up. Several of those clips featured Jim Cramer, who has a daily show on the CNBC network.

In response, Cramer than went on a series of shows on CNBC and their affiliates MSNBC and NBC where the friendly hosts gave him a chance to dismiss Stewart's criticisms as those of an ignorant comedian who did not understand the complexities of the market and whose whole shtick was to run clips out of context and make faces.

When Santelli backed out of a promise to appear on his show, Stewart then invited Cramer to debate the issue. The result last Thursday was a humiliating experience for Cramer, who had no answer as Stewart grilled him like a prosecutor, showing clip after clip exposing the way that Cramer and his fellow financial reporters essentially knew all the time exactly all the financial games that were being played with ordinary people's money, while they now try to act like innocents taken by surprise at the collapse of that shell game. It seemed to me like at some moments Cramer was about to burst into tears.

In the process, it became clear that Stewart understood perfectly well how the markets operated and the complicity of the media in hiding the impending collapse. As I watched the three-parts of the unedited interview, two things struck me.

One was that this was another example of the problem of access journalism. All these financial reporters desperately want high-profile people like CEOs of the big companies to come on their shows. They think that being a good reporter is getting access to people, with exclusive interviews or off-the-record briefings, instead of doing the hard work of reading financial reports and analyzing the data. This means that they simply let their interviewees say whatever they want and relay it to the public. They never call them out if they lie, because if they did that then those people and their friends would never talk to them again. In fact, our mainstream media news reporters actually recoil from the very idea that they should point out when the people they interview lie to them and the public. So these shows have become merely vehicles for pure propaganda put out by business and political leaders.

The second issue is related to the first. Stewart asks Cramer the important question, which was not answered, as to which group these shows are supposed to serve, the public or business. The shows advertise themselves as serving viewers, trying to give them the information to invest wisely. But Stewart questions that, saying that the shows are really serving the interests of the companies they talk about, by helping them market themselves as being better than they are.

Although we are asked to think of the news as the 'product' and the viewers/listeners as the targeted audience that this product is delivered to, that is not the case. The workings of the current media system makes much more sense if we realize that we, the viewers/listeners, are the product that is delivered to the real audience, the corporate underwriters of these shows. The 'news' is simply the lure to hook us, which is why the line between news and entertainment has become so blurry. The goal of TV news shows is not to create an informed public, it is to deliver a specific demographic to their corporate sponsors.

Here are the three parts of the Stewart –Cramer exchange, all of which are well worth watching.

Part 1



Part 2

Part 3

The kind of sharp questioning that Cramer could not deal with is not because Stewart is smarter but because he does his homework and, more importantly, does not need access to famous people to do his stuff. This is why he can say what he really thinks and ask these kinds of questions. It does not matter to him if Cramer never appears on his show again or if Rick Santelli chickens out and backs out of appearing because of the sharp questioning he will receive. The Daily Show does not need them because they use publicly available material for their humor.

But the so-called 'real' news people not only desperately want to interview famous people, one gets the nauseating sense that they want to be thought of as their friends, and that they would be thrilled to be asked to play golf with them and invited to their country clubs or fly with them on their private jets. That is the basic problem. One sees this instinctive mentality with Cramer as he tries to ingratiate himself to Stewart.

True reporters like the legendary I. F. Stone studiously avoided any personal contact with the people they were covering because this gave them total freedom to call it like they saw it, irrespective of whether it offended them. This independence gave them more power as reporters, not less.

The other lesson to be taken from the Stewart-CNBC episode is that one should not mess with Jon Stewart. Because, like I. F. Stone, he does not need your approval to do his work, he can hit you hard.

POST SCRIPT: Self-parody

The Daily Show introduction to the Cramer interview pokes fun at the controversy itself.


March 13, 2009

The colonial experience-3: The missionaries

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

It is well known that in the colonies conquered by the Europeans, the Bible and the gun went hand in hand. Soon after a country was militarily overpowered, missionaries were often the next group to go in under their protection, even before merchants and traders. These missionaries were the first to establish a permanent presence in many areas of the country, setting up rudimentary medical facilities, classrooms, and churches. Although they did have the backing of the military, the missionaries were often personally courageous and even humane people, taking aid and a strange message to the remotest parts of a distant and foreign land and often having to deal with an initially suspicious and hostile population, and by doing so, winning souls for Jesus. Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart gives a good description of this process at work in Nigeria.

Many of the missionaries with their schools and hospitals and social work represented the kinder, gentler face of colonialism, the velvet glove hiding the iron hand, and thus masking the basic exploitative nature of colonial rule. By preaching about Jesus, they sought to replace local religious myths and totems, that often represented local interests, with Christian myths and totems that were common to a larger group. They thus tried to create allegiance to a larger political entity than the village or tribe, and to get the local people to identify with the values of the colonists.

Many of the missionaries in Sri Lanka had the same attitude towards the locals that the administrators of the Indian schools in America had, that what was best for the Sri Lankan people was to suppress as much as possible local language and custom and have them adopt western ways. So successful were they that this attitude persisted long after the British formally left. Missionary schools taught by foreign priests and nuns continued to exist after we gained independence, and punishing students for not speaking English was also common in some Sri Lankan missionary schools.

Even during my own education, long after independence in a school set up by Anglican missionaries, the chaplains and some of the teachers were English, but they were generally progressive people who genuinely seemed to have the interests of the Sri Lankans at heart. (At least they seemed so to me when I was a schoolboy. It could have been the case that they were simply good actors. But I doubt it. To be really effective as a missionary, you have to be a true believer, convinced that you are truly serving god by converting the locals. While such people are misguided, they are usually incapable of willful deceit.)

By preaching Christianity with its idea that what happens in this world is not important, that what really counts is the health of your soul and that your reward is in heaven, they promoted a message of acquiescence to colonial rule and thus sought to blunt the appeal of those who argued for revolting against the occupiers. That dynamic has always been there, with religion undermining the message that redressing injustice and exploitation in this world is an important goal and that people should unite to overthrow their oppressors whether they be their own people or foreign rulers.

We saw that same thing happen with the slaves in the US. Their adoption of Christianity probably resulted in greater acceptance and endurance of their suffering under the slave owners. The slaves were encouraged to seek consolation by looking forward to their rewards in heaven and not seek justice on Earth, thus blunting the efforts of those who argued that they had a right to a good life here and now and that slavery was an abomination.

I have written before about how Christianity has been systematically used as a cover for political and economic exploitation. Religion has been a wonderful ally to those seeking to maintain the status quo.

It is not an accident that religious missionaries were among the first groups of people to follow colonial conquerors and received the full patronage and protection of the colonial rulers. The famous African quote "When the missionaries came to our country they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘let us pray’ and we closed our eyes to pray. At the end of the prayer, they had the land and we had the Bible" captures accurately how religion served the interests of the colonial powers.

Next in the series: The economic transformation created by the colonists.

POST SCRIPT: I don't get Twitter

Although I signed up for a Twitter account a long time ago to see what it was all about, I have never used it. But I get messages that people have signed up to follow my "tweets", as the messages (limited to 140 characters) are called. I completely share Tom Tomorrow's bafflement as to why anyone would want to follow me, or anyone else for that matter, on Twitter.

Jon Stewart doesn't understand the appeal of these new networking crazes either.


March 12, 2009

Are Facebook and MySpace killing religion?

There was welcome news in a recent survey (sent to me by Bill, a reader of this blog) that found that the number of people professing themselves to be Christians in America has declined while the numbers of nonbelievers has risen significantly.

According to the ARIS survey, compared to results in 1990, "The percentage of Americans claiming no religion, which jumped from 8.2 in 1990 to 14.2 in 2001, has now increased to 15 percent…"Many people thought our 2001 finding was an anomaly," [survey co-author Ariela] Keysar said. "We now know it wasn't. The 'Nones' are the only group to have grown in every state of the Union.""

Furthermore, "Only 1.6 percent of Americans call themselves atheist or agnostic. But based on stated beliefs, 12 percent are atheist (no God) or agnostic (unsure), while 12 percent more are deistic (believe in a higher power but not a personal God). The number of outright atheists has nearly doubled since 2001, from 900 thousand to 1.6 million. Twenty-seven percent of Americans do not expect a religious funeral at their death."

This confirms what I have said many times in the past, that many people are effectively and functionally atheists, even though they may shy away from explicitly adopting the label. I am pretty confident that even this survey is underestimating the number of nonbelievers due to the reluctance of people admit to it.

Correspondingly "The percentage of Christians in America, which declined in the 1990s from 86.2 percent to 76.7 percent, has now edged down to 76 percent."

The good news is that the main result of the survey that the number of nonbelievers has risen significantly has been widely reported in the media. USA Today, in a long article with charts and graphs, said that "this category [nonbelievers] now outranks every other major U.S. religious group except Catholics and Baptists. In a nation that has long been mostly Christian, "the challenge to Christianity … does not come from other religions but from a rejection of all forms of organized religion," the report concludes." The Washington Post also made the increased numbers of nonreligious people its lede.

Such media reports will, I think, further encourage those who already harbor secret feelings that the tenets of religion make no sense to become more open about expressing their doubts.

So what could be the source of this decline in religiosity? Here's my theory: Facebook. Not only Facebook but other social networking sites like MySpace that are exploding on the internet. All these sites are filling a niche that once used to be largely the preserve of churches, which was a place to meet like-minded people. If you moved to a new location, joining a religious group was often the best way to get to know others like you. A Sri Lankan friend of mine used to live in a small town in central Ohio. The people were friendly but almost the first question that was posed to her was to ask her what church she belonged to. When she said she was a Buddhist, they were a little nonplussed. But with the internet, it becomes far easier to find affinity groups and so the utility of churches as a meeting place and networking center has declined.

This does not mean that religion will go away. Most people will still feel the need for something transcendental in their lives, especially the need for rituals to mark landmarks like birth, coming of age, marriage/commitment, and death. I suspect that churches and priests will end up largely serving those sporadic needs, with regular weekly religious services becoming sparsely attended by aging populations.

ARIS survey co-author Barry Kosmin, director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. says that today, "religion has become more like a fashion statement, not a deep personal commitment for many."

Over time, the US is likely to become like the Scandinavian countries. The people there belong to churches (mostly Lutheran) but do not think of the church as the place to ask the big existential questions of life, meaning, and death. They are not even much bothered by those questions at all. The church is seen as simply a place that conducts ceremonies.

And contrary to American ideas that a country without religion would be a depraved one, this article by Peter Steinfels, in the February 27, 2009 issue of the New York Times (thanks to reader Chris) says, "It is also well known that in various rankings of nations by life expectancy, child welfare, literacy, schooling, economic equality, standard of living and competitiveness, Denmark and Sweden stand in the first tier."

Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist and author of a book on religion in Denmark and Sweden called Society Without God (New York University Press, 2008), says that he found "a society — a markedly irreligious society — that was, above all, moral, stable, humane and deeply good."

The people were not anti-religion probably because in those countries religion is not the powerful negative force that it is in the US. There is no sense in being hostile to something that is largely irrelevant. But the secular nature of their religion is clearly evident.

The many nonbelievers [Zuckerman] interviewed, both informally and in structured, taped and transcribed sessions, were anything but antireligious, for example. They typically balked at the label "atheist." An overwhelming majority had in fact been baptized, and many had been confirmed or married in church.

Though they denied most of the traditional teachings of Christianity, they called themselves Christians, and most were content to remain in the Danish National Church or the Church of Sweden, the traditional national branches of Lutheranism.

At the same time, they were "often disinclined or hesitant to talk with me about religion," Mr. Zuckerman reported, "and even once they agreed to do so, they usually had very little to say on the matter."

This indifference or obliviousness to religious matters was sometimes subtly enforced. "In Denmark," a pastor told Mr. Zuckerman, "the word 'God' is one of the most embarrassing words you can say. You would rather go naked through the city than talk about God."

One man recounted the shock he felt when a colleague, after a few drinks, confessed to believing in God. "I hope you don't feel I'm a bad person," the colleague pleaded.

Social conformity or not, Mr. Zuckerman was deeply impressed with the matter-of-fact way in which many of his interviewees spoke of death, without fear or anxiety, and their notable lack of existential searching for any ultimate meaning of life.

This is the way America is going. The churches will still be there. The priests and rabbis and imams will still be there. But god, whose only purpose is to allay fears of death by fostering the delusion of a life after this one, will have largely disappeared.

POST SCRIPT: What if god disappeared?

Thanks to Machines Like Us.

March 11, 2009

The colonial experience-2: The (mostly) bad

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While many of the things introduced by the British had beneficial features, almost every one had its own negatives, apart from the introduction of universal suffrage. The reason was that each of these things was not created exclusively for the benefit and advancement of the local population but to increase the ability of the colonial powers to control the population and exploit the country's natural resources for the benefit of England, especially a climate that was ideally suited for the growing of food and spices. Any benefits that did accrue to the locals were incidental.

For example, although the new road and rail networks provided greater mobility for the population, that was not their primary intent. Instead they were designed to facilitate the transport of the products of the new cash crop plantations to the coastal ports for export. One can see even now how the winding rail lines through the central hill areas follow the path of the plantations. These systems, along with the telephone and telegraph systems, also enabled easier access to, and thus greater control of, the entire country to the small band of British colonial officers based in the urban centers, enabling them to keep tabs on what was going on.

Also, while the police and army consisting of Sri Lankans brought about greater security for people, they could, and were often used to suppress opposition, especially as the independence movement started to grow in strength.

The goal of any colonial power is very simple and unambiguous: to exploit the resources of the conquered country for the benefit of the ruling classes in the conquering country. The ultimate mechanism for achieving this is also simple: raw power. But power only takes you so far for so long. To achieve long-term dominance one needs to win the allegiance, or at least the acquiescence, of significant sectors of the local population. So while the foundation of achieving the political and economic goals of the colonialists lay with brute force (they had the guns after all), the task of winning the hearts and minds of the people to feel positive about their subjugation by their foreign rulers fell largely, though not exclusively, to the missionaries.

By setting up schools and churches, these people sought to create an important class of people: those who were of the local population but who identified more with the interests of the colonial power. They did this by giving benefits such as land and titles and leadership positions in legislative and administrative bodies to those who were willing to use them to advance British interests. Over time, this group became identified as being 'national' leaders, even though they spoke English, wore western dress, lived a western lifestyle, and had little in common with the people they supposedly represented.

This is not to say that all the colonialists were cynical exploiters. Many of them, especially at the middle and lower levels, probably were genuinely interested in the welfare of the 'natives' (as we were so quaintly called) and sought to improve their lives by bringing modernity to what they perceived as backward people. This is probably more true of those missionaries and educators (and often the same person played both roles) who built churches and schools with the goals of saving the heathen from hell and replacing their pagan beliefs with what they saw as belief in the one true god. I have little doubt that most of these people sincerely thought that teaching children English and making them adopt western ways of life in terms of clothing, speech, and lifestyles was a good thing.

It is not unlike what happened with Native American children in the US who were forcibly removed from their families on the reservations and sent to distant boarding schools where they were systematically stripped of all their traditional cultural connections and forced to adopt the majority white culture. In those schools, children were, for among other things, forced to cut off their long hair and were punished if they were caught speaking in their own languages and not in English.

Many of the people who implemented what we now condemn as a woefully wrong-headed and cruel policy did so out of the best of intentions, thinking that the only way to save the Indians from what they saw as the wasteland of life on the reservation was to have them adopt the ways of white people. The Olympic gold medal-winning athlete Jim Thorpe is probably the best known of all of them. He attended Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, which had as its founding principle: "Kill the Indian and save the man."

But while bribes and coercion can result in some people being willing to serve the interests of their colonial masters, to achieve the best results you need to have local people who think that the ways of the colonial powers are truly better and that by advancing those interests, they are also advancing the interests of the local people. You need to win the hearts and minds of a significant group of the local population.

This is where the missionaries came in, as I will discuss in the next post in this series.

POST SCRIPT: How not to win hearts and minds

A US soldier excoriates Iraqi police recruits. (Very strong language advisory.) I wonder how the interpreter deals with the constant stream of profanity. Does he gloss over it? Censor? Literally translate? Translate idiomatically?

March 10, 2009

The power of the internet

The internet has had one major positive effect and that is that it has reduced the power of the establishment media to control the public discourse. It used to be the case that once you had achieved a position of authority in the media, you could say pretty much what you wanted and, as long as it conformed to the desired narrative of the pro-war/pro-business one party system, you could not be challenged. This enabled the discussion on important topics to be limited to within a very narrow spectrum of views, so that whatever view prevailed within that spectrum, the underlying status quo remained untouched.

It used to be the case that those informed people who read something in the paper or heard on the news that they knew was wrong had very few options, other than (say) writing a letter to the editor, which the paper had the option of refusing and which had only a marginal effect anyway.

Take for example this anecdote from Noam Chomsky's book Understanding Power (2002) about a column George Will wrote in 1982 (thanks to Jonathan Schwarz).

[A] few years ago George Will wrote a column in Newsweek called "Mideast Truth and Falsehood," about how peace activists are lying about the Middle East, everything they say is a lie. And in the article, there was one statement that had a vague relation to fact: he said that Sadat had refused to deal with Israel until 1977. So I wrote them a letter, the kind of letter you write to Newsweek—you know, four lines—in which I said, "Will has one statement of fact, it's false; Sadat made a peace offer in 1971, and Israel and the United States turned it down." Well, a couple days later I got a call from a research editor who checks facts for the Newsweek "Letters" column. She said: "We're kind of interested in your letter, where did you get those facts?" So I told her, "Well, they're published in Newsweek, on February 8, 1971"—which is true, because it was a big proposal, it just happened to go down the memory hole in the United States because it was the wrong story. So she looked it up and called me back, and said, "Yeah, you're right, we found it there; okay, we'll run your letter." An hour later she called again and said, "Gee, I'm sorry, but we can't run the letter." I said, "What's the problem?" She said, "Well, the editor mentioned it to Will and he's having a tantrum; they decided they can't run it." Well, okay.

Mind you, in 1982, Chomsky was already a very eminent and well-known figure, both as a linguist and political analyst who was, outside the United States, one of the most famous and admired intellectuals. It will probably surprise many Americans that in the rest of the world Noam Chomsky is a household name in intellectual circles whose writings are regularly published in mainstream newspapers and magazines. And yet even that was not enough clout to enable him correct a direct falsehood by Will. That was the end of that.

Now fast-forward to 2009. Zachary Roth at Talking Points Memo tells the story in which the still-deceptive Will writes a column on February 15 in which he denies global warming, and as evidence says "According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979."

The Arctic Climate Research Center immediately issued a contradiction on its website, saying:

We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.

It is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts.

This denial was picked up by bloggers who gave the ACRC statement wide publicity. Many bloggers wrote to the editor of the WP asking for a retraction. Will and the editor of the WP editorial page, the awful Fred Hiatt, went into their traditional mode of operation when their narrative is contradicted, which is to either stonewall and ignore the critics, or stick to their guns and act as if they are immune from error and that no one should dare challenge their oracular wisdom. After all, that policy worked so well back in 1982 when even the efforts of people like Chomsky to point out their errors could be thwarted.

But the world has changed. The blogs kept hammering at the story, and the WP and Will got blasted with thousands of people writing to the paper and their website and to their new ombudsman demanding that the paper issue a correction. The paper's ombudsman Andrew Alexander initially replied saying that he had questioned the editorial page editors about this and they had said they had checked the facts in Will's column and were satisfied that they were valid. But this bland self-serving assertion drew an even greater negative response.

The ombudsman then investigated the matter personally and wrote a column on March 1, 2009 in which he tried to find reasons to excuse their famous columnist but had to conclude that Will and the WP editors had at best been very sloppy in their checking of the facts. He said, "Opinion columnists are free to choose whatever facts bolster their arguments. But they aren't free to distort them."

Will this new experience of prompt and widespread public reaction make people like Will more cautious about making ungrounded assertions? Unlikely. People like Will have got so used to being venerated as sages that he will find it hard to change his attitude that what he says cannot be challenged. But the editors who are responsible for vetting his writings might now exercise more diligence and that is a good thing.

Welcome to the world of the internet, George Will and Fred Hiatt. You cannot get away with distortions that easily anymore.

POST SCRIPT: Great card trick by Ricky Jay

I love magic tricks. They are the best evidence against the claims of charlatans who say they have paranormal powers. (Thanks to Crooks and Liars.)


March 09, 2009

The colonial experience-1: The (mostly) good

In a comment on my earlier post on portrayals of the developing world in western culture, Jared raised a really interesting point about his odd experience of taking a class on "British Colonialism in India" and finding that, while he was the only non-Indian student, he was also the only one who seemed to think that the practices of the British colonialists were not altogether benign.

He was rightly surprised that although we now tend to look on colonialism as a bad thing, the descendents of the very people who were colonized, the ones most likely to have been aware of, and even scarred by, the negatives of it seemed to take a much more positive view of it. He wondered why this was so, and the next series of posts gives my long-winded answer to his question.

The relationship of colonized people with the colonial powers is a complex one and I will try to sketch out some general themes. In the process, I will draw heavily on my own and Sri Lanka's experience with colonialism, because it is what I know best and also because I think it shares broad similarities with many other British colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.

Sri Lanka was colonized continuously from about 1500 CE by a back-to-back succession of colonial powers, first the Portugese, then the Dutch, and finally the British, each staying for about 150 years. I was born after we finally obtained independence from the British in 1948 so I have always lived in an independent country. But my grandfather was born in Sri Lanka when it was a British colony, went to Burma as a youth, and actually worked there for the British army, evacuating to Sri Lanka only during World War II when the Japanese overran that country. As a result, my father grew up in a British military 'cantonment' there, as the British bases were called, coming for the first time to Sri Lanka when he was an undergraduate, and living there ever since.

My grandfather admired the British very much, despite their outright and often overt racism towards the so-called darkies. Although he knew that because of his skin color he could never rise above a certain level, he was nevertheless grateful to the British for what he considered fair treatment within that limited framework. My father, however, was not an admirer of the British, and I even less so, and my family's responses reflects the ambiguity of reactions to the colonial occupation.

There is no question that the British in particular speeded up the pace of modernization in Sri Lanka and its incorporation into the global economy. The British built a network of roads and railways and telephone and telegraph and postal systems that, for the first time, linked the entire country in an efficient communication system. They created an extensive administrative system, modeled on the British Civil Service, that brought order and accountability. They set up a legal system and police and other security forces to maintain order. They created first coffee and then tea and rubber plantations that became (and still are) the main export cash crops, along with coconut and spices. They built hospitals and brought modern science and medicine to the country, displacing from dominance (but not eliminating) the traditional ayurvedic medical practitioners, who used various herbal methods. They built churches and converted many to Christianity. They built schools and introduced the English language.

Most importantly, they introduced the idea of democracy by creating legislative bodies at all levels of government from local to national, and introduced elections as a means of selecting people's representatives. While the decisions of these bodies were ultimately subordinate to the British governor, they did allow for self-rule in certain areas. The principle of universal adult suffrage (i.e., the right of all women and men of adult age to vote) was adopted in Sri Lanka in 1931, the first country by a wide margin outside of Europe and North America to do so, and remarkably early considering that women in the US only got the right to vote in 1920, England in 1928, and supposedly enlightened France only granted that right in 1944, Italy in 1945, and Belgium in 1948.

Were these actions by the British good things? Most of the time, undoubtedly so. But apart from the introduction of universal suffrage, almost every one had its own negatives.

Next in the series: The (mostly) bad

POST SCRIPT: Lambasting the anti-government zealots

One tactic that people who oppose measures to improve the lives of all people (like a single payer health care system would do) is to sneer at the very idea that government can do some things better than the private sector.

Bill Maher shows how to respond to them in his New Rules segment on his show Real Time.

March 06, 2009

The need for a government-run single payer health care system

I have said before that while I voted and supported Obama against McCain, he is firmly committed to following the policies of the pro-war/pro-business elites that govern this country. No politician can get elected to high office otherwise.

Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than his attitude to single-payer health care. I have written extensively about this in the past and it is clear that a system like that of France provides the most cost effective means of providing high-quality health care to everyone without the incredibly expensive, burdensome, and bureaucratic system that we have in the US.

But although Obama talked a lot about providing access to health care to everyone, when he called a summit to be held yesterday (March 5, 2009) to discuss this serious problem and said that he wanted wide-ranging views on how to solve it, he deliberately excluded those who wanted the single payer system as part of the discussion. His key people on health care reform are those with ties to the parasitic health insurance industry. Hillary Clinton did the same thing with her earlier ill-fated efforts to reform the health care system.

Politicians and the health insurance industry like to call for 'universal' health insurance as long as all it requires is that the government mandate that everyone have private health insurance, because that would hugely increase their profits. This is why it is important for people to realize that 'universal' health care and 'government-run single payer' health care systems are not the same thing. The latter is far, far, better.

Obama initially did not want not even allow the views single payer advocates to be heard, even though one of the most senior members of his own party, Congressman John Conyers, has proposed House Bill 676 to establish just such a system. This is because almost the entire government is beholden to the health-drug-hospital lobbies and they are all fearful that when more people realize how much better a government-run single payer system is, they will demand it.

But the supporters of single-payer flooded the government with protests about this exclusion and at the very last minute, an invitation was extended to advocates of single payer. They invited Conyers and Dr. Oliver Fein, who is president of Physicians for a National Health Program, whose mission is to obtain a single payer system. As their site points out:

The U.S. spends twice as much as other industrialized nations on health care, $7,129 per capita. Yet our system performs poorly in comparison and still leaves 47 million without health coverage and millions more inadequately covered.

This is because private insurance bureaucracy and paperwork consume one-third (31 percent) of every health care dollar. Streamlining payment through a single nonprofit payer would save more than $350 billion per year, enough to provide comprehensive, high-quality coverage for all Americans.

That illustrates why, as I said before, it is extremely important that the people who voted for Obama not cut him any slack at all and keep up the pressure on him, because the lobbies that dominate the government work 24/7 to keep the pressure on the politicians they buy so that they follow their dictates. Obama is no exception, however much his most ardent supporters might think he is different.

This success in gaining entry to the summit does not mean that single-payer is going to win out soon. The for-profit health care lobbies that make fortunes out of the sickness and misery of people have too much at stake and are still too powerful to be vanquished that easily. They are vampires, preying on people's fears in order to preserve their profits, and it will take a lot to drive a stake through their hearts. What kind of mentality pays bonuses to employees if they can cancel the policies of sick people, and thus save the company money? And yet, in the for-profit health care system we have now, such a cruel policy is good business practice.

The present system has become so appalling that now even a majority of doctors want a single payer system, because they themselves are finding the current system dehumanizing, deprofessionalizing, and a bureaucratic nightmare.

The latest sign is a poll published recently in the Annals of Internal Medicine showing that 59 percent of U.S. doctors support a "single payer" plan that essentially eliminates the central role of private insurers. Most industrial societies -- including nations as diverse as Taiwan, France, and Canada -- have adopted universal health systems that provide health care to all citizens and permit them free choice of their doctors and hospitals. These plans are typically funded by a mix of general tax revenues and payroll taxes, and essential health-care is administered by nonprofit government agencies rather than private insurers.

There will be no real improvement in the health care system until the private, for-profit health insurance industries are removed from it. But the health insurance lobby is powerful and has huge access to the halls of government and the media. It will take a huge groundswell of popular sentiment to overcome it.

POST SCRIPT: How other countries did it

The US is the only major country without a government-run single-payer health system. Supporters of the present system self-servingly argue that switching over would cause huge disruptions and chaos. This article in the New Yorker describes how the single payer system was introduced in other industrialized countries, with minimal fuss and to great satisfaction.

The French health-care system has among the highest public-satisfaction levels of any major Western country; and, compared with Americans, the French have a higher life expectancy, lower infant mortality, more physicians, and lower costs. In 2000, the World Health Organization ranked it the best health-care system in the world. (The United States was ranked thirty-seventh.)

March 05, 2009

Why I am not a good judge of novels

I serve on a committee to select the common book reading for Case Western Reserve University. This is a book that is sent out to all the new incoming students each year in the summer prior to their admission and forms the basis for some programs during their first year on campus. In 2008, for example, the book selected was The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, in honor of 2009 being the Year of Darwin, since it is the anniversary of the 200th year of his birth and the 150th year of the publication of On the Origin of Species. (Shameless plug: I have a book GOD v. DARWIN: The War between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom coming out later this year to also commemorate the event.)

In the seven years that this program has been held, two of the selected books were memoirs, two were biographies, and the other three were books about brain-damaged people, the working poor in America, and what it takes to be a great chef.

Despite the diversity of topics, it is notable that not a single novel has been selected so far. While many novels have been nominated and some have made it to the final short list, they have never been chosen. Although I would like to have a novel added to the list, I have not been able to wholeheartedly support any of the nominees and I am beginning to think that my problem is that I am not a good judge of novels, although I enjoy reading them.

With non-fiction, and especially advocacy books, the author's purpose is obvious and what constitutes good writing is also fairly unambiguous. The author is trying, or should be trying, to make his or her case as clearly as possible. So I can judge a non-fiction book on whether it was easily apparent to me what the author was trying to say and whether they said it as clearly and as entertainingly as possible. In non-fiction, while a good writing style definitely helps, there is usually little merit to burying the main point in metaphor and imagery. The reader is not expected to dig deeper than the content requires, to struggle to find out what the hidden meaning is.

Bu with fiction, I run into problems. In addition to the surface story of the book, there is also a subtext, where the author may be trying to convey something deeper. And this is where they sometimes lose me.

I am much more comfortable with the novelists of an earlier era, like Dickens or Tolstoy. Their novels had a clear surface story that could read and enjoyed merely at that level. The novels had deeper levels of meaning but these were not hard to discern. In many of his books, Dickens was trying to lay bare the appalling conditions under which children of his time suffered, and Tolstoy was making many points about the nature of personal and political relationships

But with more modern writers like William Faulkner, for example, even the surface story is hard to figure out. The story switches without warning between multiple narrators and out of chronological order, leaving the reader to often wonder, during the first reading, what the hell is going on. The novel is constructed like a jig saw puzzle in which the author gives the pieces to the reader to piece together to see the picture.

Even to understand Faulkner's short story A Rose for Miss Emily, after reading it I had to create a spreadsheet in which I inserted all major events mentioned in the text and used the allusions and historical references to try and order them so that I could at least decipher the chronological sequence of events as a prelude to making sense of the story. While that was kind of fun once I got into it, somewhat like solving the murder mysteries that I was addicted to in my youth, it is not something I want to routinely do when reading fiction.

I get the sense that Faulkner deliberately wrote in an obscure fashion for its own sake, simply to make the books difficult to understand. Consider The Sound and the Fury, which has multiple narrators and every narrator refers by name to a particular key character. The story makes no sense until one finds out at the very end that two different characters of different genders had that same name. There seemed to be no reason for the author doing this other than to confuse the reader. I found Faulkner infuriating because of this and he makes me resentful for having to work so hard just to understand even the surface story.

I have also tried several times and given up on reading James Joyce. I feel that Joyce, like Faulkner, deliberately obscures the message.

A novel should not require footnotes, or the reading of another book explaining it, or attending a college class, to explain its surface meaning. I definitely do value the scholarly insight that literary critics provide about deeper meanings but feel that the surface level should not need it.

I have heard it suggested that the reason English professors and literary critics like difficult authors like Faulkner or Joyce is because then readers need these same experts to explain to them what the novel is about. That may be too cynical. I am sure these books are the works of genius they are claimed to be. It is just that I don't want to work that hard to understand them. I think that I am just too low-brow to appreciate these works.

One can encounter the same surface-deep meanings problem with films. The difference with films is the time invested. Films too can have many layers of meaning with the surface one being obscure, but can get away with this because watching a film only takes a couple of hours and people are willing to invest the time to watch it again if the surface story intrigues them. For example Mulholland Drive or Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind can, on the first viewing, leave the viewer baffled as to what is going on but if the surface story is told in an entertaining way, the viewer is willing to take the time and effort to try and figure things out, and to see it again with even greater pleasure. But there are very few novels that I will re-read.

POST SCRIPT: What happened with AIG

The US treasury has been pouring money into AIG (American International Group), the company taken over last year as part of government efforts to stop the downward spiral of the financial sector.

In September of last year I explained the major role that AIG played in the collapse of the housing market and the resulting spread of financial disaster. Now Joe Nocera (New York Times, February 27, 2009) explains in more detail the whole sordid story.

March 04, 2009

Paul Newman, 1925-2008

I want to pay a long overdue tribute to Paul Newman, who was one of the truly great actors of our time. Although his good looks and acting talent alone could have secured his place purely as a romantic leading man, what made him special was the roles he chose, taking people who were flawed in some way, people whose moral compass did not quite point true north, and making them sympathetic.

He also did not seem full of himself, shying away from the celebrity culture that films spawn. Despite his success and fame, he did not seem (at least publicly) to suffer from excessive ego and was self-deprecating, always a good trait to have. He delighted in telling the story of how he once spoke to a group of school children and one of them raised his hand and said, "So what did you do before you went into the salad dressing business?"

Paul Newman's films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting have given me hours of pleasure.

I cannot really pick a top favorite but surely Cool Hand Luke, which inserted into popular culture the line "What we got here is a failure to communicate", must rank high on anyone's list.

Here are two other back-to-back scenes from that film, featuring that other great character actor George Kennedy.

Although Newman's politics was progressive (he was very proud of making it into Richard Nixon's 'enemies list'), his films were not overtly political. But that did not mean that they did not have political meaning, since they often dealt with an individual fighting the odds, finding deep reservoirs of inner strength, and not giving up.

Newman aged gracefully. As one observer put it, he did not seem to get older, just purer. Here is a scene from a later 1982 film The Verdict that is apropos for today's political climate.

Paul Newman grew up in the suburb of Cleveland called Shaker Heights where I now live and went to the same high school as that my daughters attended. That is the full extent of my links to him but his death brings with it the kind of sadness that follows the loss of an old and good friend.

I spent some wonderful times with him.

POST SCRIPT: Spotting a hidden religious agenda

In this 28 February 2009 New Scientist article, Amanda Gefter lists the cues by which you can identify people who are pursuing a religious agenda while seeming to talk about science.

March 02, 2009

When religious people and atheists talk

Within the last few years I have observed and been involved in discussions with people representing various religious denominations. I have noticed that when people of different faiths meet and the topic of religion comes up, one of two scenarios unfold.

One the one hand, you may have the holding-hands-and-singing-kumbaya phenomenon. This ecumenical approach seeks to find commonalities in religions and to emphasize the things that all religions share, such as that in every major religion one can find some version of the Golden Rule, to act towards others as one would want them to act towards you, and so on. This group of people tends to suppress those things in their religious texts that highlight differences with, or preach intolerance of, other religions.

The other is the "My religion is better than yours" or "My religion is right, yours is wrong" approach, taken by those seeking to either convert the other person or by people pursuing a political agenda. Such people are so convinced of the rightness of their own religion that they are often completely ignorant of even the most basic tenets of other faiths, having just a caricatured view of only those parts that they think puts the other in a bad light. So, for example, the anti-Muslim bigots in America can often quote those parts of the Koran that seem to call for violent action against infidels while ignoring those parts that are more tolerant.

But while it is understandable why the former group has decided for political reasons not to compare the relative merits of their respective religions, what is interesting is that even in the latter case, they do not try to argue, on the basis of evidence, why one religion might be superior to another. One can see why. After all, how can you rationally argue that Judaism (to pick a religion at random) is better than Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or whatever? What possible data could you produce? They rarely use evidence because introducing the notion of evidence immediately shows the weakness of their own religion. Would it make any sense for a Christian and a Muslim and a Jew to argue about the merits of the evidence for Jesus rising from the dead compared with that for Mohammed to ride on a winged horse or for Joshua stopping the sun in its tracks? To do so risks making all of them skeptics because it would become immediately apparent that the claims of each religion are all absurd and unsupported.

Instead, the appeal for religious allegiance is almost always based on emotional or moral grounds, that one religion provides greater emotional satisfaction or rewards (material and spiritual) than the other or conforms more closely with current societal values. For example, it is hard to see a majority of Americans embracing orthodox Islam or Judaism, irrespective of the theological merits of those religions, simply because of their absurd and unconscionable restrictions on the role of women. Most women will simply not go along.

When religions try to convert people to another faith, it is almost always on the basis of some sort of emotional appeal. Fundamentalist Christian evangelists have a two-pronged strategy to making converts: first scare the daylights out of people by declaring them to be sinners destined for the fires of everlasting hell, and then promise them an escape from such torments if they accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior.

This is why it must be disconcerting for a religious person to have such discussions with an atheist. Atheists believe that god does not exist not because the idea of nonexistence is appealing or satisfies some emotional need, but simply because the idea of believing in something for which there is zero evidence strikes them as an absurd thing to do. To convince an atheist, you need to provide evidence for god, and this mode of persuasion is foreign to religious believers.

To bring the discussion back to a form they are familiar with, religious people try to assert that atheism is also a 'belief'. They try to argue that since atheists cannot prove that god does not exist, then assuming so must make it a belief. This tactic puts them back into a more familiar discussion mode, since it is arguing for one belief versus another, and the argument can then be made on the basis of emotional appeals, by asking which belief is more satisfying.

This is, of course, a false argument. Believing in the nonexistence of an entity because of the lack of any evidence for it is not equivalent to believing in the existence of an entity despite the lack of evidence for it. The former is a rational belief while the latter is irrational.

This is not to say that emotions do not play any role. Human beings are emotional animals. But for anyone with a logical or scientific attitude towards life, holding rational beliefs is far more emotionally satisfying than clinging on to irrational ones.

The crucial difference in the emotional responses is this: Religious people believe in irrational things because it makes them feel good. Atheists feel good because they believe in rational things.

POST SCRIPT: Extra fluffy toilet paper, eco-destroyer

This article points out how America's passion for the softest possible toilet paper is harming the environment because producing it requires destroying vast amounts of virgin forests to get that extra fluffiness. It causes "more environmental devastation than the country's love of gas-guzzling cars, fast food or McMansions".

Thanks to very aggressive promotion and marketing by companies like Kimberley-Clark, Americans are convinced that only the softest will do and so 98% of the toilet rolls sold in America are made from virgin forests, while in Europe and Latin America 40% is made from recycled products.

Our local Heinen's supermarket has been stocking toilet paper and paper towels made from recycled paper for some time. I can report that they are perfectly acceptable.