Monday, March 30, 2009

On the deligitimization and denial of suffering

It's not every day that one sees what appears to be the same news story being told three times in the same day. Especially when it's not about the same events.

Three I ran into today are of particular note.

The first (Haaretz) talked about how the Israeli Defense Force closed their inquiry into soldier's accounts of wrongdoings in Gaza in the most recent conflict, Operation Cast Lead. Reports of vandalism, wanton destruction, and murder published by the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz were dismissed as hearsay and the army decided to close down all inquiries into the soldier's claims.

The second (also Haaretz) desribes how a Palestinian youth orchestra which recently played a concert for Holocaust survivours was disbanded. Calling the Holocaust a "political issue", the conductor who led the witting musicians to play for the survivours was sacked. Adnan Hidni from the Jenin Camp explains: "The Holocaust happened, but we are facing a similar massacre by the Jews themselves... We lost our land, and we were forced to flee and we've lived in refugee camps for the past 50 years."

Finally, the third article coms from the New York Times. Arab leaders at the Arab League summit at Doha, Qatar, stood behind Omar al-Bashir, recently endicted by the Interational Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
While the ICC is recognized only by Jordan, Djibouti and the Comoros among the Arab states, their defense of al-Bashir was nonetheless clear. According to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, “As for their weak pretexts about fabricated crimes committed by Sudan, we can discuss it with them after they bring those who committed the atrocities and massacres in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq to the court implicated for the same crimes, but ones that are not fabricated, but rather proven with documents and incidents."

Now why did it just feel like I've read the same article thrice?

In each context there are very different reasons for denying or negating the importance of what would normally be considered horrendous acts. In the case of the first article, the IDF has a vested interest in maintining their reputation and not getting bogged down in going after soldiers who were either acting completely as they were expected to. As I have remarked earlier, the war in Gaza is not premised on going easy on Hamas (or the Gazans, their actual or potential supporters). In striking fear (some would say terror) into their hearts Israel hoped to re-establish their dominance through deterrence. Denying the use of what would otherwise be perceived as unnecessary, cruel, illegal, and immoral force is a PR move reinforcing their claim that the IDF has the "most moral army in the world."

(What this article didn't have, but, might as well have had, was a quote by some high-level general saying "when the Palestinians/rest-of-the world decide(s) to investigate the crimes of Hamas, we'll investigate the crimes of our soldiers").

The second and third article are more clear in their statements: "our suffering (or the suffering of our friends) is more important than yours, and we refuse to legitimize the suffering of others that may, in any way, harms us and benefits you."

Do claim that the Holocaust is a "political issue" is as ridiculous as it is true. Its veracity is beyond refute, though the historical and continued importance of the Holocaust in the founding myth of Israel is critical. To admit the suffering of the Jewish people would supposedly harm the Palestinian perspective that the Jews are the agressors and delegitimize the notion that Palestinians have justified in fighting against such agressors.

With respect to the Arab summit, no leader wants to admit that his friend and ally is responsible for horrendous wrong-doings, especially when his own state is equally guilty, though perhaps not to the same degree. Syria's (alleged) role in Rafik Hariri's assassination, not to mention the majority of the Arab world's record on human rights, is cause enough for being worried that the ICC doesn't get a foot in their backyard, not to mention the PR they'll get from sheltering a fellow Arab leader. However, Assad put it most succinctly when demanding that Western power be taken to task for their dodgy dealings before the horros of Darfur are considered.

Again and again and again the truth (or, in the IDF case, the investigation into the truth) of actual human suffering and the dismal truths of the world are ignored, politicized, and dimissed as less significant than those perpetuated against the denier. That suffering is a fact, yet becomes political, and that people all-too-easily pull the "let ye who has not sinned..." card is frustrating, sickening, and fully counter productive to any sort of peaceful reconciliation, though I doubt the IDF, Palestinians, or Arab League really cares about peace, which involves comprimises all parties are unwill to make or political capital ready to be lost. The world occasionally fumes when Turkey refuses to recognize to the Armenian genocide, Japan its WWII acts, Russia the starvation of Ukranine, etc. and these are all events that happened over generations years ago.

If it is our nature to refuse to admit our wrongs to our enemies, except when either defeated or when they are all dead, I see little hope for anything resembling a full peace, except that which comes by the sword. To put politics before the facts, while perhaps useful, is shameful nonetheless and betrays any hope of that vapours dream, honest politics.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Financial Crisis and the 'Real' Crisis

Spoiler: This entire post is a lead-up to have you read this debate over on The Economist.

Economists usually abstract from money to study the 'real' economy - the production and consumption of goods and services. Money is a tool, a lubricant. In the long run, money (how much is printed, etc) shouldn't really matter as long as it's not so mis-managed as to take the economy down.

This is one of those times. The financial sector (money) has stopped provisioning credit to producers, gumming up the works.

Government's response to a crisis such as this one has to address two distinct problems. The first is the recovery of the financial sector to its regular role of intermediary, and the second is the revival of the 'real' economy.

The plan Geithner has just announced is meant to accomplish this, by encouraging financiers to buy high-risk assets. These 'toxic' assets are, it is hoped, vastly undervalued because of all the uncertainty attached to them. Getting them purchased and digested by new investors will presumably allow the financial sector to clean up and get credit flowing again. Krugman and DeLong disagree on how successful the proposed plan will work, as opposed to temporary nationalisation for example. Debate on this issue is technical, based on how undervalued assets are, how incentives will be aligned after government intervention.

The second question, about the real economy, pits pro-stimulus Neo-Keynesians against hands-off Monetarists. This debate is more meaty and inevitably falls to ideology. It's not immediately clear to me why a question such as this one that seems technical in nature is so deeply aligned along the ideological spectrum, but there you have it. On this issue DeLong and Krugman are in agreement.

For all of us still unsure of who to believe, and to what degree, a recent debate at The Economist is worth reading. Brad DeLong defends the (political) status-quo of government spending as stimulus, while Luigi Zingales (from the University of Chicago) pushes for a free market approach.

Start by reading the opening statements (navigating the conversation is a bit confusing).

DeLong defending Geithner's plan

To everyone despairing with the Administration's response to the financial crisis, DeLong to the rescue. DeLong, who my favourite undergrad econ prof encouraged us to read, is a reasonable and intelligent economist, though definitely left-leaning. His Purpose right now I'd say is to serve as a counterpoint to Krugman who is throwing all liberals into despair.

Q: What is the Geithner Plan?
A: The Geithner Plan is a trillion-dollar operation by which the U.S. acts as the world's largest hedge fund investor, committing its money to funds to buy up risky and distressed but probably fundamentally undervalued assets and, as patient capital, holding them either until maturity or until markets recover so that risk discounts are normal and it can sell them off--in either case at an immense profit.

Feel better now?

Update: Woops, just noticed Krugman himself linked to DeLong's Q&A.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Tyler Cowen and Peter Singer on Poverty

This conversation gets wacky but I support the idea of doubting our moral intuitions. (If you view the video on the site, you can have it play back at 1.4x speed.)

The discussion of the effectiveness of aid is something many of us struggle with. A great part of the conversation is the question of the relative benefit of being a generous giver with a low income or an (ungenerous) successful businessperson in the cellphone industry. I currently TA a course on economic development, and in my tutorials try to encourage my students to re-think what seems obvious about development. (Mostly the bits that 'feel good'.) The fact that NGOs and aid have played almost no part in lifting countries out of poverty, for example, is hard for most to accept.

Some highlights of the discussion:
  • You see a child drowning in a pond, but saving her means ruining your expensive shoes. If it is unethical to do nothing, then isn't it unethical not to do something about preventable deaths of poor children worldwide?
  • Peter Singer proposes that anyone below the 90th percentile donates at least 1% of income to charity (more for the upper 10%), and makes their adherence to this public (on a website). 
  • Immigration from poor to rich countries, Cowen argues, is the most effective poverty-reduction program we know of.
  • Singer supports: Oxfam America, Givewell (site is down?), Kiva.
  • Cowen supports "no-overhead giving" - if visiting a poor country, get some names of poor people you meet and send them money from home via Western Union. Instead of choosing what the poor need (a well, better roads) let them spend it according to their needs. 
  • It's better for society to be successful in a business that affects the poor (such as mobile phones) and donate nothing, than to donate a large portion of a small salary. 
  • That being said, there is value in admonishing the rich to give. (Once you have succeeded in business, nothing is stopping you from also donating large sums.)
  • Genetic modification is creepy (this is not their point, it's mine).
  • Two major drawbacks of utilitarian moral theory: it leads to highly demanding consequences that people reject; and unlike following a simple set of moral rules, you have to be informed about what effect your actions will take. (Giving to charity requires you to make some effort ensuring your money is well spent and useful.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Watchmen - The Full-Length Motion Review

I did it.

I watched Watchmen.

And not the day, or even the week it came out. I waited. I let things take their course. I wait past the hype, the hope, the anger, the disappointment, and then the silence. I waited until all the predictable bullshit had run its course and then I saw it.

And I liked what I saw.

As you all know by now, Watchmen is that super-hyped, super-long, super-hero flick based off of Alan Moore's comics (graphic novels, if you must insist on calling them that) by the same name. The prospect of taking all the twelve comics and condensing them into something you can watch in one go in the theater is no small task, but Zak Snyder did a decent job of adapting a multi-person lead action/drama about has-been a dehumanized (in more than one way) crime fighters and the impending end of the world. On the whole, Zack Snyder 's take on the comic was impressively faithful without being a shot-shot, word-for-word remake. A lot of stuff had to get cut, but he stuck to core, minus a few key scenes which made the comic so cutting, but what can you expect. He kept most of the good lines (again, unfortunately omitting a couple of my favourites) and shots, and his actors, for the most part (especially Rorschach) were pretty solid, although, I had a bit of a time swallowing Dan's ripped figure - this on a guy who used to fight crime 20 years back?

Anyway, the special effects, pretty damn good. The fighting was fine, not as super-hero-comicy as other movies but not too "300", Snyder's last gig. The music was a little off, though. I liked the opening credits, but it was too cheezy: "Hallelujah", "Desolation Row" (the My Checmical Romance version), "All Along the Watchtower", "Ride of the Valkyries", and even "Unforgettable" all were either out of place or just too damn cliche. If I ever see another movie playing "Ride of the Valkyries" in a Vietnam War context and it's not a parody, I'm gonna personally fly a fleet of helicopters into the movie studio responsible. Tarintino or someone who knows how to make music work was sadly needed.

Anyway, the story was great and the ending was done really well, if not a bit annoying regarding the "nothing ever ends" line (you'll know what I'm talking about if you've read the comic), which gets used in the complete opposite context. The weird-as-hell squid gets a wink in the form of S.Q.U.I.D. (look for it), but the meaning's basically the same and the effects nearly identical.

So go ahead, and despite my whining at all this minutia, see Watchmen. It's a good time, and I've known people who've seen it at least twice and haven't read the comic. Can't be that bad.

Oh yeah, if you decide to bring food into the theatre, don't make like my buddy and bring a can of chilli con carne with no spoon. That just doesn't work.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Church for Atheists

This past Sunday I did something that people who know me would find uncharacteristic: I went to church. The reason this might be surprising is that I'm a non-believer. In fact I agree with the New Atheists that the existence of a miracle-performing personal god is a scientific question with a scientific answer, and so far the answer is this: very unlikely.

But the question of the validity of individual religious claims is only one part of the argument, and probably the less important one. More than the truth of religion, the debatable point is its usefulness. This question itself divides into two: is religion good for individuals and is it good for society as a whole.

The answer I’ve settled on recently is, yes, religion is useful, but only the parts that aren’t intrinsic to religion as we know it. I don’t, for example, think that you need to believe in an afterlife and eternal soul in order to get through life without being in constant despair. And I don’t think that there has to be a punishing, watchful god for people to behave morally. There are entire nations of unbelievers in the western world that get by just fine without god.

I do, however, think that when left to our own devices, there is a tendency to become self-absorbed and, over time, isolated. Both intuition and evidence tell us that being charitable and social are far more likely to lead to sustainable happiness than being tightfisted and independent. But, as rational economic actors, each choice we make will often come down on the side of financial caution and personal independence. Religious institutions evolved, in part, as a way of mitigating these natural tendencies to act against our own long term happiness.

Of course this doesn’t take away the problems of religion as preservers of primitive superstition and intolerance. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris seem to think the solution to religion’s problems is to work to end all religion. In their view, religious moderates do more harm than good by “giving cover” to religious fundamentalists.

I disagree. Religious fundamentalists and religious moderates have little or nothing in common. Most religious moderates today would be considered atheists and deists in another time. I doubt, for example, that many liberal Christians or Jews believe that the bible is the literal word of God. They do, however, choose to preserve the institutions of religion for the reasons I already mentioned.

The “solution” to religion isn’t to convince everyone to become atheists, but to moderate it until it no longer resembles the religion of history, but more like Unitarians, who are basically just humanists with a church, or many Reform Jews who have no problem being both secular and Jewish. In essence, as it moderates over time, religion will just become culture, like some Jewish culture, that doesn’t imply dogma but rather tradition and community.

This is, unfortunately, the opposite of what is actually happening in the world – moderates are leaving their religions while the fundamentalists grow in numbers – but I thought I’d do my part by attending a Unitarian church on Sunday. It was an interesting experience. The minister, a Jewish woman who studied at Harvard Divinity School, invited a few members of the Montreal Muslim community to attend. Most of the service was an interview on the tenants of Islam. At one point the minister said: “you mentioned God, but people in this room have a very diverse understanding of the word ‘God.’ What does ‘God’ mean to you?” As an atheist, I very much approved.

There was a decent size crowd in attendance, but maybe 75% had white hair, and I can’t imagine who will be replace them. April and I were the only people of our age group. It’s a little disheartening, but I’m glad I went, and if I can get out of bed on Sunday morning, I’ll probably go again.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A long way down...

Here's a dated but interesting chart. The "current boom," of course, should read "recent bubble." A good explanation for the steep 10 year climb can be found here.