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A little editorializing by me….

We need to be careful about overfitting, but one of the major problems with the American relationship to the Middle East is the superficial understanding of its ethnographic framework. For example, I noticed this weekend that there was media mention of an attack upon the Shabak of northern Iraq. CNN describes them as Muslim, 2/3 Shia and 1/3 Sunni. Reuters, which The New York Times republished, states they are mostly Shia. UPI says they are an offshoot of Shia Islam. The AP states that they are Shia Muslims who are ethnic Turkmen (Turkic speakers). Wikipedia says they are a Kurdish people who adhere to a syncretistic religion. The Reuters piece alludes to the suspicion that Sunni Islamic militants are suspected to be involved in this attack, and that they consider Shiites infidels. The framework here is the typical Sunni-Shia conflict…but as the reference to a syncretistic background indicates it is a little more complicated and much more clear at the same time. I have read enough about the history of the Middle East and its ethnography to immediately recall that the Shabak have a religiously ambiguous identity, and this complicated ambiguity explains rather easily why Sunni militants would target them. From Syncretistic Religious Communities in the Near East:

So little is known with certain about the Shabak’s religious beliefs that I will abstrain from a detailed description…The Shabak with whom I spoke were reluctant to talk about their religion, and claimed to be “just Muslims”…The Shabak maintain good relationships with the Yezidis, and make pilgrimages to Yezidi shrines….

An association with the Yezidi is a clue to the affinities of the Shabak. Broadly speak in the Post-Ottoman Middle East you have a religious landscape where Sunni Islam is the normative standard. Set against this you have some clear and distinct pre-Islamic religious groups who are bracketed unequivocally under the term “People of the Book,” Christians, Zoroastrians (yes, I know there is some debate about this middle group) and Jews. But these are not the only two classes. There is an enormous grab-bag of what I will term ‘heterodox’ groups who are not Sunni Muslim or one of the People of the Book. Some of these are straightforward in their taxonomy. Twelver Shia Islam, the dominant strain of Shiism, is clearly heterodox from the Sunni perspective, but also clearly Muslim (unless you are an extreme Salafi). The Mandaeans have emerged from the same Late Antique religious cauldron as Muslims, and so their inclusion as a People of the Book seems to follow the spirit of the category. In contrast the now extinct Sabians of Haran were clearly a pagan Hellenistic sect that exploited the rather vague reference to “Sabians” in the Koran to continue to practice their unique religion in a Muslim dominated world. Today the Druze are a case study in a modern post-Muslim heterodox group. Their historical origin is one which derives from the Ismaili Shia tradition, but they have transcended the bounds of orthodoxy as defined by Sunnis. The Alawites share many resemblances with the Druze, but are closer to the Muslim mainstream in their self-identity, and recently have been espousing a more orthodox Shia self-conception.
One thing you have to understand is that the Islamic, and for the purposes of the core Middle East, Ottoman, order required all religious groups to fall into specific categories. If a religious group was outside of a sanctioned category it might be targeted for persecution and forced conversion. Because the Shia identity is more expansive and open ended than that of the Sunni many heterodox groups take refuge under the umbrella of Shiism even if their connection to the Twelve Shiism dominant in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, is tenuous at best. This is certainly a plausible explanation for the religious identity of groups like the Shabak who seem intent on maintaining a marginal Muslim identity. In contrast a group like the Yezidi has left Islamic identity for all practical purposes, and open themselves up therefore to justifiable persecution from the perspective of orthodox Sunni Muslims. The evasiveness of many heterodox groups in the Middle East, and their tendency toward esoterism, is a function of this long history of state sponsored policing of belief and practice, and the majority trend of enforcing hostility against heretical and apostate groups.

Why does any of this matter? In the comments a few months ago a someone suggested that rather than following a ideological position, like isolationism, we should engage in pragmatic case by case decision making when it comes to foreign affairs. My argument is that very few people actually know enough to engage in informed pragmatism. I’m 99.9% sure for example that I know more about the history and ethnography of the Middle East than the patronizing commenter in question. This ubiquity of unselfconscious ignorance to me explains why the commenter thought that informed pragmatic international intervention was so obviously possible. If everyone around you is rather ignorant you don’t seem that bad. On Twitter I regularly have interlocutors who attempt to argue with me or comment on the Middle East in response to a short Tweet pointing to my clear anti-interventionist sympathies, but it’s often quite obvious that their knowledge is as superficial as the “First Books” designed to prime seven year old children on a particular topic. To give an explicit example someone on Twitter just tried to lecture me on Syria’s long history of pluralism. If someone says this to you you should immediately respond that Millet system is not the sort of pluralism we should be relying upon as surety for a liberal order in the wake of Baathist despotism. My interlocutor did not engage my volley, and I suspect they were not even aware of what the Millet system was.

When it comes to foreign policy people seem to think that the superficial pap they read in The New York Times can be the basis of informed comment. We’ve been through this before during the lead up to the Iraq War. Back then when I was blogging I deferred to people making strong and bold claims under the assumption they knew something I didn’t. They didn’t, and most of the people offering me their worthless opinions today do not. People know just enough to engage in sophistry so as to confuse and convince the choir, and bluster among the ignorant. Since most people are ignorant and are going to remain so, this blustering normally yields dividends. But don’t try to pull that on me please. (I immediately ban commenters who do so here, and generally block people on Twitter that attempt to do so)

An informed response is not going to work against war-hawks like Eliot Cohen, because I’m rather sure they aren’t promoting their cheerleading for war based on information in the first place. Similarly, many liberal internationalists are no more well informed about the details on the ground. Rather, they have normative frameworks of global law and human rights in mind (neocons focus on American exceptionalism and unipolarity). As a rule of thumb arguments predicated on factual information always strike me as arrogant posturing meant to intimidate, rather than sincere attempts to model a situation. It may be that a genuine model of these sorts of complex dynamics is impossible. And therefore we fallback on normative grounded heuristics.

Where does this leave us? Shrill accusations. Billions and perhaps trillions of dollars are on the line. Thousands to hundreds of thousands of lives hang in the balance. It is natural then that people will resort to extreme rhetoric. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Isolationists are to a great extent naive. The world is a brutal place. But I also believe at this point that the hawks are ultimately a danger to the republic, and have confused their globalist interests and overclass egos with the interests of the people, both American and non-American.

• Category: Science • Tags: International Affairs, Middle East 
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The New Atlantis has a nice piece, The Global War Against Baby Girls. It’s relatively heavy on charts and maps, so I recommend it (yes, it has a particular ideological perspective, but that’s really not consequential, as I assume most readers do not favor skewed sex ratios either). There’s nothing too surprising in it (assuming you won’t be surprised by the finding that in many societies there is a correlation between economic development and higher rates of sex selective abortion). But it’s thorough and highlights the complexities of social dynamics well.

The author notes that Gary Becker and Judge Richard Posner hypothesized that a sex imbalance should lead to an increase in the status and value of women. This is a classic expectation that systems go back to equilibrium, and dovetails well with what we know from biology, where sex ratios tend to cycle in a meta-stable manner around balance in many species. But the empirical reality is a little more murky. Instead of a rise in the “status” of women there have been regions of China where women are further commoditized, and turned into an item for purchase and sale. This is probably not what Becker and Posner had in mind, though it might follow the letter of their prediction if not the spirit. Additionally, social systems are complex enough that they may take a tortuous and circuitous route back toward equilibrium.

I will also add two points, one minor, and one not as minor. The author suggests that Vietnam is not a Confucian society, but a Buddhist one. This is somewhat misleading. Though not nearly as Confucian as Korea, Vietnamese high culture did mimic aspects of Chinese state ideology to some extent, including introducing a Confucian scholar-administrative element. Vietnam is arguably more Sinic than Japan, having been under Chinese rule, and being directly tributary, for much of its history. A bigger point is that sex imbalance ratios are a matter of class and globalization. As hundreds of millions of lower class Chinese men reach maturity without the means to enter into a monogamous relationship with Chinese women, they will do what marginalized South Korean men have been doing: look to Southeast Asia. This means that Southeast Asian men without means will themselves be lacking in partners. A similar phenomenon has occurred in India, where women from eastern states have migrated to Punjab to marry men who can not find partners in the local region. One can not understand the sex imbalance story without considering its entailment: the great migration of tens of millions of women from poor societies to the the lower rungs of wealthier societies.

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, International Affairs, Sex Ratio 
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Over the past six months we’ve seen the “Libyan revolution” stall and then succeed. There’s no doubt that the late Libyan dictator was a marginally sane megalomaniac. That being said, he’d been on better behavior over the past 10 years, dismantling his nuclear program for example. I can see the logic in wanting to overthrow him though, there’s a lot of built up historical memory in relation to the various terrorist groups he’s funded in Europe, as well as actions like bombing of Pan Am 103. But is anyone really surprised when things like this occur:

It was just a passing reference to marriage in a leader’s soberly delivered speech, but all week it has unsettled women here as well as allies abroad.

In announcing the success of the Libyan revolution and calling for a new, more pious nation, the head of the interim government, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, also seemed to clear the way for unrestricted polygamy in a Muslim country where it has been limited and rare for decades.

It looked like a sizable step backward for women at a moment when much here — institutions, laws, social relations — is still in play after the end of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s 42 years of authoritarian rule.

In his speech, Mr. Abdel-Jalil declared that a Qaddafi-era law that placed restrictions on multiple marriages, which is a tenet of Islamic law, or Shariah, would be done away with. The law, which stated that a first wife had to give permission before others were added, for instance, had kept polygamy rare here.

“This law is contrary to Shariah and must be stopped,” Mr. Abdel-Jalil told the crowd, vowing that the new government would adhere more faithfully to Shariah. The next day he reiterated the point to reporters at a news conference: “Shariah allows polygamy,” he said. Mr. Abdel-Jalil is known for his piety.

The Libyan nation is a pretty religious one. Even the women who oppose polygamy out of straightforward self-interest admit its religious validity: ‘Rehab Zehany, 20, who said Mr. Abdel-Jalil was merely following the dictates of the Koran, added, when asked if she would accept her husband taking a second wife: “Of course not! I would kill him!”’ As I’ve asserted many times: attitudes considered extreme or benighted in the West are relatively widespread in much of the Islamic world. When you democratically empower people who have these attitudes, you’re going to get some sloppy regress back to positions that in the West might be considered backward. Some Americans do garnish their arguments about public policy with references to the Bible, but they’re in a minority. Not so in many of these Middle Eastern Muslim nations.

Consider Tunisia, where relatively milquetoast Islamists just came to power. Tunisia Liberals See a Vote for Change, Not Religion:

The message to Islamists, he added, was: “ ‘We are for Islam to be the religion of the state, but you must be very cautious. We are not going to give up our fight for civil freedoms.’ I am profoundly convinced that we can promote human rights and women’s rights, etc., without fighting against Islamists.”

Observe that self-described liberals in Tunisia want Islam to be the religion of the state! Having a state religion isn’t necessarily incompatible with democratic liberalism (e.g., Norway). But in general in most societies which are democratically liberal the secularists are not proponents of an established state religion. I am moderately optimistic that Tunisia can make a transition toward a pluralistic democracy, because it doesn’t seem that the religious conservatives are the overwhelming majority, and so could not impose their vision without major backlash and possible revolt from the more liberal segment of society. This may not be the case in far less developed nations, such as Egypt.

As far as Libya goes, it might be best to avert our eyes. Liberal internationalists and neoconservatives don’t seem to have learned anything from the past 10 years of American foreign policy intervention in their hearts. They see only the immediate justice that they can mete out before their face, and don’t think about medium to long term consequences. They saw the revolution in Libya as a clean abstraction. But the past 6 months have seen something of a ‘race war’, as anti-Qaddafi forces turn against black Libyans and Sub-Saharan Africans who were favored by the old regime. The future may see the rise of a conservative illiberal democracy. That’s not the end of the world by any means, but people should have had their eyes open to the range of possibilities beforehand.

• Category: Science • Tags: International Affairs, Libya 
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This is happening. Pornography found in bin Laden hideout:

The pornography recovered in bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, consists of modern, electronically recorded video and is fairly extensive, according to the officials, who discussed the discovery with Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The officials said they were not yet sure precisely where in the compound the pornography was discovered or who had been viewing it. Specifically, the officials said they did not know if bin Laden himself had acquired or viewed the materials.

Three other U.S. officials familiar with evidence gathered during investigations of other Islamic militants said the discovery of pornography is not uncommon in such cases.

One issue I’ve noticed personally with some conservative Muslims is that their threshold for what is ‘pornographic’ is different from those of typical Westerners. I have an uncle who is a member of Tablighi Jamaat who considers the outfits worn by ballerinas to be pornographic and instances of crass nudity. I do wonder if outbreaks of extreme sexual deviance and psychopathy, such as the notorious Saudi gang rape, might be as much due to the peculiar collapse of what seem clear and distinct categories to us, as much as garden-variety repression. A woman can dress in a sexy and alluring manner in public without being assumed to be a prostitute, but in some societies that’s really not an accepted category. So the occasional porn caches found in the possession of Islamic militants might be part of the constellation of ‘perversion’ which they make little distinctions across. My thinking here is informed by friends in secondary school from religious conservative Christian backgrounds, who also seemed to have an antinomian tendency once they crossed their strict “lines” (this is like my conservative Christian friends who sometimes talked joyfully about murdering people for fun and having same sex relations if there wasn’t a god; it’s all talk, but I think this mindset is illustrative of a “brittle” moral-ethical framework).

Of course there is a high likelihood that the porn had some sort of encrypted message. But that begs the question: couldn’t they find something else besides porn? I wonder if there was double motive….

Finally, I thought of this SNL sketch about Bin Laden:

• Category: Science • Tags: International Affairs, Osama bin Laden 
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In the mid-90s in the wake of The End of History and the Last Man Francis Fukuyama wrote Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity. Trust to some extent has a chicken & egg problem. High trust societies can overcome coordination problems which block social and economic development. A high level of social trust often results in positive spillover effects, which generate economic growth and broad based prosperity, which then boosts the levels of trust even further. In 2008-2009 I suggested that the biggest long term impact of the late great “financial crisis” is that many Americans no longer believe that doing well is an outcome of doing good. More accurately perhaps in many corrupt societies the presumption is that the path to wealth is itself a venal journey where all moral principles must be devoured by the will to power.

As a practical matter I understand and accepted the need to dampen the shocks of the impending financial doom in the wake of the 2008 crisis. But my attitude toward American capital has changed irrevocably. I know others who have experienced the same emotional flip. But it isn’t just a specific lack of trust. I feel personally much more open to conspiracy theories and have a general skepticism of all institutions and authorities. My model of how the world works is that we live by Hobbes in practice and give a nod to Locke on paper. There are no rights, no justice, only “you eat what you kill.” What is best in life? Never be prey, always be the predator! No one is watching.

All this went through my mind as I read this account of the marginality of the Irish working class, After Bust in Ireland, Ordinary People Make Do With Less:

Carless, Mr. Condra spends an hour on the bus each way to and from his job in Dublin; when he sees a politician in a shiny black sedan through the window, he fights back his gall. He has not bought a pair of jeans in a year, and Mrs. Condra has taken the pragmatic step of wearing her flat wedding shoes around the house.

Nearly everyone they know is underwater on their mortgage; one neighbor expects to be foreclosed on in two weeks. And last month, eight homes in their otherwise quiet working-class neighborhood were burgled.

Mrs. Condra agrees that Ireland has to make good on its debts. “But they’re debts from the banks that we didn’t even know we had,” she said. “And the people least able to afford it are paying for everything.”

The prey are for the compost heap. The predators live to hunt another day. I hope one day to be amused by my morbid pessimism!

Image Credit: Steve Jurvetson

• Category: Science • Tags: International Affairs 
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I’ve been keeping track of events in the Arab world only from a distance. There’s been a lot of excitement on twitter and Facebook. Since I’m not an unalloyed enthusiast for democracy I’ve not joined in in the exultation. But I’m very concerned at what I perceive are unrealistic assumptions and false correspondences. This is a big issue because the public is very ignorant of world history and geography. For example, I was listening to a radio show where Roger Cohen was a guest. Cohen covers the Middle East, so he is familiar with many of the issues to a much greater depth than is feasible for the “Average Joe.” In response to a caller who was an ethnic Egyptian American and a Coptic Christian who was concerned about possible persecution of religious minorities Cohen pointed to Turkey, which is ruled by Islamists, and has “many” Christians. His tone was of dismissal and frustration. And that was that.

Let’s look more closely. About 5-10% of Egyptians are Christian, with most estimates being closer to 10 than 5. In contrast, the non-Muslim minority in Turkey numbers at most a few percent, with ~1% often given as a “round number.” This low fraction of non-Muslims in modern Turkey is a product of 20th century events. First, the genocide against Armenians cleared out eastern Anatolia. Second, the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s resulted in each nation removing most of its religious minorities. Of the religious minorities which remain in Turkey, they have been subject to sporadic attacks from radicals (often Turkish nationalists, not Islamists). But from a cultural-historical perspective one of the most revealing issues has been the long-running strangulation of the institution of the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church by the Turkish republic.

But that’s not the big issue. Rather, it may be that Turkey is a particularly tolerant society in the Muslim Middle East when it comes to religious freedom, and so not a good model for what might play out in Egypt (and has played out in Iraq). This matters because people regularly speak of “secular Egyptians,” “secular Turks,” “Turkish Islamists,” and “Egyptian Islamists,” as if there’s a common currency in the modifiers. That is, a secular Egyptian is equivalent to a secular Turk, and Islamists in Egypt are equivalent to Islamists in Turkey (who have been in power via democratic means for much of the past 10 years). Let’s look at the Pew Global Attitudes report, which I’ve referenced before. In particular, three questions which are clear and specific. Should adulterers be stoned? Should robbers be whipped, or their hands amputated? Should apostates from Islam be subject to the death penalty?

On the x-axis you see the proportion who accept that adulterers should be stoned. On the y-axis you see the responses to amputation and apostasy. The red points are the proportion who agree with the death penalty for apostates, and the navy points those who believe in whipping or amputation for robbers.

As you can see, there’s a strong correlation between attitudes on these questions. The correlation is 0.97, 0.97, and 0.92, on the national level. So these three questions seem to be tapping on a “are you willing to get medieval!” sentiment in these societies. Compare Turkey to Egypt. They’re in totally different regions of the scatter plot. There is simply no comparison between these societies on these issues, despite both being Muslim and Middle Eastern.

5% of Turks agree with the death plenty for leaving Islam (converting to another religion from Islam, or leaving it, is legal in Turkey, though there is still some social pressure against it). 84% of Egyptians accept the death penalty for apostates. About 30-40% of Turks has been voting for the Islamist party in Turkey over the past 10 years. If you allocate all 5% who agree with the death penalty for Muslim apostates to the Islamists, and take the low bound figure of 30% who are voting for Islamists, at most 1/6th of Turkish Islamists agree with the death penalty for leaving Islam.

Now let’s compare that to Egypt. What proportion of Egyptians consider themselves “secular”? Because of the lack of real elections we can only infer. 38% of Turks agree with the contention that Islam’s role in politics is positive according to Pew Global Attitudes. That’s pretty much in line with how much of the vote the AKP, the Turkish Islamists, win. In contrast, 85% of Egyptians view Islam’s role in politics as positive. Because the Muslim Brotherhood is the primary opposition channel in Egyptian society, de jure proscribed, but de facto tolerated, much of the 85% may not be Islamists as such. While the split in terms of favorable views of Hamas is straight down the middle in Egypt, in Turkey 10% favor Hamas, 70% oppose, and the balance have no opinion. Again, allocating all the pro-Hamas sentiment to Turkish Islamists, and taking the low bound 30% value (which I think is reasonable, as not everyone voting for the Islamist party is an Islamist in Turkey), a far lower proportion of Turkish Islamists have favorable views of Hamas than Egyptians as a whole.

The overall point I’m trying to make here is that it is very misleading for commentators to make an analogy between Turkish Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood. The two may both be Islamists, but that is just a term, whose utility and connotations are strongly locally contingent. Barack Obama and Pat Robertson are both Christians, but that means very different things. Additionally, I would suggest that to be secular in Egypt may correlate with greater illiberalism toward deviance from the putative religious orthodoxy than to be an Islamist in Turkey! This article in The New York Times points to the complexity, In One Slice of a New Egypt, Few Are Focusing on Religion:

Egypt is deeply devout, and imposing labels often does more to confuse than illuminate. Amal Salih, who joined the protests against her parents’ wishes, dons an orange scarf over her head but calls herself secular. “Egypt is religious, regrettably,” she said. Mr. Mitwalli wears a beard but calls himself liberal, “within the confines of religion.” A driver, Osama Ramadan, despises the Muslim Brotherhood but has jury-rigged his car to blare a prayer when he turns on the ignition.

We can dig deeper to ascertain exactly how religious Egyptians say they are.

The figure to the left is from the World Values Survey. It was asked in the mid-to-late 2000s. I have shown you both percentages and counts. No one in the Egyptian sample admitted to being an atheist (this is not uncommon in Muslim countries). If you’re curious, over 10% of the Egyptian sample had a university degree, and they had the same proportion who identified as a “religious person” as those without any formal education. In contrast, the 10% of Turks who had a university degree in the sample were far less religious than those without a formal education, 60% vs. 96%.

What is the point of these comparisons? There’s a lot of stress and worry about the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States. Some of this is because of their specific historical associations with Hamas, as well as the history of Islamist radicalism in Egypt (Al-Qaeda is in large part an institutional outgrowth of Egyptian radical movements). But the fixation on the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood misses the bigger picture that secular and Islamist mean very different things in different Muslim nations. The narrative seems to be that political religious movements are problematic because they introduce the cancer of illiberalism into a pristine social environment. But that is just not so. Rather, the nature of religious political movements is to a large extent reflective of trends in the broader society, and is subject to restraints imposed by ostensibly secular citizens. The Turkish Islamists have marketed themselves as Muslim versions of European Christian Democrats. Though this is somewhat of a stretch (the Islamists have introduced illiberal laws here and there), that is because of the greater illiberalism and conservatism of Turkish society vis-a-vis European nations. Consider Turkish attitudes toward evolution:

– 7% agree that evolution is certainly true
– 15% agree that it is probably true
– 7% agree that it is probably false
– 54% agree that it could not be possibly true
– 25% have never though of the issue before

There’s no necessary connection between liberal social attitudes and acceptance of evolution, but the correlation seems rather robust within and across societies. Turks are much more accepting of evolution than any Muslim nation without a history of Communism, but, they are more Creationist than any Western nation (including the USA).

Where does this leave us? Democratic nations have different characteristics. For much of Japan’s modern history it has been dominated by one political party. It has been a de facto one party state. In contrast, Italy has been subject to fractious shifts between multitudinous coalitions. After the fall of Communism the Czech Republic has transformed itself into a conventional liberal democracy, as it was before World War II, while Russia has morphed into a hybrid authoritarian-democratic state (similar to Iran or Venezuela). We can expect a democratic Egypt to be different from a democratic Tunisia, at least over the short term, because of broad socio-cultural differences. And the gap between Turkey, a non-Arab Muslim nation with a foot in Europe, and Egypt, is even greater. Because of the general ignorance of the American public commentators have been leaning on analogies to communicate the potential arc of possibilities. I believe that many of the analogies are misleading, and entail a deeper understanding of the terms and relations embedded within those analogies than actually exists. Additionally, I also believe that some commentators have been caught up in the democratic fever, and consciously have skewed their analogies in a particular direction. I can not believe that Roger Cohen is not aware of the difficult situation of religious minorities in Turkey. But the American audience caught between a bipolar perception of secular liberal democrats and the totalitarian Taliban may not be able to comprehend the nuance within the Turkish case, and so Cohen elided essential features.

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One of the major problems with natural scientists when they “project” into the future they often do not take into account the power of innovation to change the fundamental parameters of the game. I believe this was part of the issue at the heart of the famous Simon-Ehrlich wager. Though Julian Simon was untutored in many aspects of natural science, he did comprehend the recent economic history of the world, which has seen a break with the shackles of the iron laws of Malthus. Those laws have been operative for all of human history until the mid-19th century, when Britain started to become the first nation which was a clear exception to the pattern (some may argue that the Dutch pre-figured the English case, but this seems to be debatable).

There are two major changes which Thomas Malthus and his contemporaries (including economists such as David Ricardo) could not anticipate. First, that the rate of innovation in the 19th and 20th centuries would simply surpass anything that the world had seen before. In The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization Bryan Ward-Perkins reports that the pollutants which are the byproducts of industrial activity did not reach Roman levels in Britain until the 18th century! I am not naive enough to be such a partisan of the “ancients” as to suggest that Europe did not reach Roman levels of civilization in the generality until the 1700s. But, up until the Industrial Revolution occurred in Britain there were aspects of European civilization which had not yet climbed back up to the Roman scale of grandeur or virtuosity. For example, it seems that it was only in 1800 that London attained the size of the city of ancient Classical Rome (which had fallen in its nadir in the 7th century to a population of 50,000).

The second major parameter is more subtle, and perhaps even more surprising, than innovation. It’s the demographic transition. Even with higher growth rates, if population rises to “catch” up with the bigger economic “pie,” then per capita wealth remains the same. What began in the advanced nations of Western Europe in the 19th century was that the urban middle classes began to reduce their fertility, while at the same time economic productivity continued to increase. The growing pie would was not matched by concomitant population increase. Ergo, greater per capita wealth.

Believe it or not, the world is going through a demographic transition, life expectancy is increasing, as has per capita income (PPP). This is due to continued economic growth, and, a decrease in the rate of population growth. At least in the aggregate.

But different conditions hold in different locales. Below is a comparison of per capita income (PPP) for a few selected nations, as well as their population growth rates:

Saudi Arabia is a famously reactionary society. Slavery was officially banned in 1962, in part due to international pressure (this was not an issue when Saudi Arabia was an obscure backwater, but its rise to a commodity powerhouse entailed an integration into the world system, and so abolition). We don’t even need to go into its religious authoritarianism and sexual apartheid. The critical point though is that in many ways the influx of petro-dollars also means that Saudi Arabia is a very modern and affluent society which has also subsidized extremely retrograde practices. And yet look at the pattern of petroleum driven affluence: it exhibits not only the cyclical swings subject to commodity prices, but, the massive gains in wealth in the 1970s led to a huge baby explosion. Fertility crashed only after the nosedive of oil prices in the 1980s. This is was a classic pre-modern pattern, where greater wealth was swallowed up by greater population growth. In contrast to Saudi “windfall” wealth, South Korea, and to a lesser extent Turkey, have followed a more conventional path of investing of in human capital. All saw a gradual consistent decrease in fertility concomitant with gradually increasing per capita wealth.

Today at a total fertility rate of ~3.0, Saudi Arabia is converging to the world average. But the legacy of the 1970s oil-fueled population explosion remains, a huge demographic bulge which grew up hearing about the stories of the glorious affluent 1970s through their childhood in the 1980s and 1990s. Because of Chinese demand I suspect that we won’t see the shift in favor of consumers that we saw in the 1980s and 1990s. But, neither will we ever see a domination of the oil markets by a single cartel like OPEC, there are too many suppliers now. Aside from the partial-exception of Sub-Saharan Africa Paul Ehrlich’s geopolitical prognostications in The Population Bomb have turned out to be false. But in the case of petro-states like Saudi Arabia his simplistic model may actually hold over the medium-term (i.e., within the next generation). Unlike genuinely advanced nations the Saudis are not doing anything innovative to produce wealth. In other words, changing the equation which constrains their ultimate potential. Rather, they’re simply tapping into their natural resource bank more efficiently. At some point in the future this capital will be expended. The consequences for the House of Saud may then be catastrophic, though I suspect they have “back up” homes across Europe and Swiss bank accounts to tide them over in case they need to flee.

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With all the geopolitical tumult and news I was a bit curious to see what The World Values Survey could tell us about public opinion in Egypt and Tunisia. Unfortunately, Tunisia hasn’t been in any of their surveys, though Egypt has. So I thought it might be interesting to compare the USA, Sweden, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq, for wave 5, which occurred in the mid-2000s. The main thing I took away from the exercise is to reflect that Americans are a more equivocal people than I had expected. Many of the questions have a 1 to 10 scale, and I’m providing the most extreme answers. So the low fractions for Americans for some questions point to a relative moderation on some topics…which is kind of weird when you are asking whether “People choosing their leaders is an essential characteristic of democracy.” Since that’s the definition of democracy broadly construed anything below a 10 out of 10 seems strange to me.

(Control + should increase font-size if it is too small)

USA Sweden Turkey Egypt Iraq
Religion “very important” 47 9 75 95 96
Politics “very important” 11 16 13 9 37
Family life “very important” 95 92 99 98 96
Most people can be trusted 39 68 5 19 41
Satisfied with life (10 out of 10) 7 12 21 11 3
Great deal of control of life (10 out of 10) 17 16 24 14 9
Men have more right to job than women 7 2 53 89 84
Trust family completely 73 94 95 96
Approve of woman as single parent 52 49 9 2
University more important for boy than girl 1 0 7 26 25
Government ownership of business should be increased (10 out of 10) 1 2 12 25 22
Hard work brings better life (10 out of 10) 19 8 21 52
Great deal of confidence in armed forces 35 4 67 34
Great deal of confidence in police 17 13 36
Great deal of confidence in government 5 3 28 31
Very good for political system to have strong leader 7 4 23 8 11
Very good to have democratic system 45 76 57 79 55
Complete agree, too much science, not enough faith 12 4 20 14
Religious authorities interpreting laws is an essential characteristic of democracy 2 0 11 48 19
People choosing their leaders is an essential characteristic of democracy 56 79 48 79 58
Protecting civil liberties is an essential characteristic of democracy 44 66 44 57 47
Women having sames rights as men is an essential characteristic of democracy 57 84 57 51 27
Cheating on taxes always justifiable 2 1 0 1
Accepting bribe always justifiable 1 0 0 0 1
Homosexuality always justifiable 15 61 1
Abortion always justifiable 7 37 2 1
Divorce always justifiable 12 47 5 9 1
Don’t trust at all people of other religion 5 3 30 22
Don’t trust at all people of other nationality 5 2 29 40
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China Passes Japan as Second-Largest Economy:

After three decades of spectacular growth, China passed Japan in the second quarter to become the world’s second-largest economy behind the United States, according to government figures released early Monday.

The milestone, though anticipated for some time, is the most striking evidence yet that China’s ascendance is for real and that the rest of the world will have to reckon with a new economic superpower.

The recognition came early Monday, when Tokyo said that Japan’s economy was valued at about $1.28 trillion in the second quarter, slightly below China’s $1.33 trillion. Japan’s economy grew 0.4 percent in the quarter, Tokyo said, substantially less than forecast. That weakness suggests that China’s economy will race past Japan’s for the full year.

Lots of prose. Here’s another way to explore relationships, via Google Data Explorer.

• Category: Science • Tags: China, International Affairs 
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Has been freed.

• Category: Science • Tags: International Affairs 
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Over the past few days I’ve heard some coverage of the horrible earthquake in China, and the anguish of the parents whose children were lost as schools collapsed. I was struck when one reporter noted that for many of the parents this was their only child…. That got me thinking about the implications of the one child policy, which is now approaching its 30th year. Most of you who read this weblog know that I think that the Bare Branches argument is a serious one; in short, that the sex imbalance within China due to son-preference will result in social instability. But what about the fact that for so many older Chinese they have only one child to support them in the future? Obviously the greying of the Chinese population is something to keep in mind when we postulate the path of the power of the People’s Republic; China’s active workforce will start to shrink in the near future, while its dependent class will increase in proportion. But in terms of the irratonal bellicosity which is par for the course for ascendent powers attempting to stake out a place in the sun…I wonder how eager the Chinese will be to send their sons abroad if so many of them are their only sons? Does anyone know of any social science correlating levels of international conflict with TFR? There are obviously angles to analyze this problem theoretically via social evolution, assuming that each offspring is one iteration in a “game”….

• Category: Science • Tags: International Affairs 
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Just stumbled onto this article about the exodus of Mandaean community from Iraq, to Sweden. We know that the Christians of Iraq are leaving in droves, but, it is not always appreciated that this is the second great emigration of Iraqi Christians. Early last century the more numerous members of the Church of the East, which was the dominant Christian confession in Mesopotamia since the time of the Sassanid Empire, left their homeland after cooperating with the British and experiencing persecution. The Christian remnant in Iraq was represented by the Chaldean Church (Tariq Aziz is a member), and these are the refugees of today. Of course, the even more antique community of Iraqi Jews were also expelled during the 20th century. In Syria and Lebanon the proportion of Christians has decreased in part because of massive emigration to the West. The ancient Palestinian Christian community is vanishing to triviality.

• Category: Science • Tags: International Affairs 
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A few years ago I pointed out to M. Yglesias that Turkey was more religious than the United States (he emailed me immediately and agreed that that characterization was about right). Less than a year ago I offered that Turkey was a nation with a greater percentage of Creationists than the United States, and so it was not culturally suitable for EU admission. Today M. Yglesias has a post where he suggests that the AKP, the current moderate Islamist party in power in Turkey is basically an analog to the Republican party. There are obviously differences (see Daniel Larison for more exposition), while the AKP has been from its inception (through itself proper or its predecessors) the vehicle for upwardly mobile religious conservatives, the Republican party has been transformed within the past few generations from a party dominated by elite affluent mainline WASPs to one where evangelicals call the shots (notionally at least). Nevertheless, along with Yglesias I tend to think that the rise of groups like the AKP is a good thing, even if they are regressive they accept the democratic principle and so are agents for long term (I mean generations, not years) cultural evolution. The EU agrees. But here is a paradox: I believe that genuine cultural democraticization makes it less plausible that Turkey could be an EU member because at the grassroots it is a far less European nation than its secular elite wants to project.1 And yet the same people who would wink at the idea of dividing North American between Jesusland and the United States of Canada tend to favor admission into the EU of a nation which is still mostly Allahland!

1 – Of course overall the EU been an elite pushed project, and democratic sentiment has tended to give a rubber stamp to something which was already fait accompli. With Turkey though I think this is problematic because the chasm between the alcohol drinking secular elite and Christian missionary throat cutting non-elites is pretty wide.

• Category: Science • Tags: International Affairs 
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Recently I stumbled upon this story, Speeding HIV’s Deadly Spread: Multiple, Concurrent Partners Drive Disease in Southern Africa, via Radio Open Source. The important point is that one of the major variables in the spread of HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa is the nature of sexual networks (it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine that social network theory models this well). From the article:

Researchers increasingly attribute the resilience of HIV in Botswana — and in southern Africa generally — to the high incidence of multiple sexual relationships. Europeans and Americans often have more partners over their lives, studies show, but sub-Saharan Africans average more at the same time.

…Husbands spent months herding cattle while their wives, staying elsewhere, tended crops, Mosojane said. On his return, a husband was not to be quizzed about his activities while he was away. He also was supposed to spend his first night back in an uncle’s house, giving his wife time to send off boyfriends.

Steve Sailer has long been emphasizing the low paternal investment that African males engage in as part of the problem. Without a consistent and reliable single male to supplement her own economic productivity (in much of Africa women were the primary agricultural producers) it seems that it would be rational to “diversify” one’s portfolio. This is obviously not the only issue, the variation in HIV infection rates across the continent which track circumcision rates show that the dense sexual networks facilitate the spread of the virus at different rates depending upon the nature of the “choke points” (so to speak).

Note: The report suggests that circumcision was discouraged by European colonial missionaries in southern Africa. I’m skeptical of this for several reasons. First, during much of the colonial period circumcision was the norm in England, which was the dominant power in this region. Second, colonial influence seemed to be irrelevant in most of east & west Africa, where the rates of the practice follow traditional patterns. There is one group in Kenya that does not practice circumcision (unless, I assume, they are culturally Muslim, such as Barak Obama’s father), the Luo. Is it because they were less colonized than other ethnic groups? I doubt it. Finally, I am to understand that Zulus circumcision specifically ended due to the command of the warlord Shaka. This predated colonization or missionaries. So, I think it is important not to take all the contentions in the article without a grain of salt since the reporter is obviously dependent on sources who will tell him whatever they want (i.e., I think the idea that circumcision was discouraged by whites is probably plausible because of the dominance of Post-Colonial theory which makes Europeans gods who have ultimate power over the direction of all the world’s cultures).

• Category: Science • Tags: International Affairs 
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A few weeks ago we discussed the extent of non-Islamic cultural practices in Iran, in particular, Noruz, the Zoroastrian New Year. In an article about the Kurds and Noruz here is a tidbit of interest:

The holiday is a much bigger deal next door in Iran – ancient Persia is the birthplace of the Zoroastrian religion, and the government practically shuts down for weeks. The Kurds are given fewer days off and hold fewer rituals, but Noruz remains an important holiday, in part because it is used to commemorate one of the founding myths of Kurdish identity.

• Category: Science • Tags: International Affairs, Religion 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"