Saturday, September 22, 2012

Conservatism without religion

Political and social conservatism is normally associated with (traditional) religious belief, and conservatism without religion can be seen, with some justification, as a slightly anomalous position.

Irving Kristol called it 'thin gruel'. This is one way of looking at it: merely as a watered-down version of conservatism.

But removing, say, Christian beliefs from Western conservatism involves (I suggest) more than just a weakening or watering down. It involves deeper changes - and choices.

For example, does one stay with Christian morality or wipe the slate clean and develop a different morality entirely?

Many non-religious conservatives have looked back to the Greco-Roman world for inspiration, to a time when Western culture was flourishing and had not yet succumbed to Christian doctrines, rituals and ways of thinking. Morally, it was a very different world.

The moral assumptions of the post-Christian world are however, more often than not, Christian assumptions, as the general population in Western countries has arguably internalized large chunks of Christian ethics.

Furthermore, so-called progressive thought is arguably a secular version of one particular aspect of Christian morality. The whole Marxist and broader left-wing tradition is based squarely on certain Christian moral ideals, and could be seen simply to represent an attempt to apply Biblical notions of justice and equality in the here and now - or at least the near future - rather than banking on a supernatural savior.

I think the relatively recent shift of the mainstream churches to the political left can be explained in a similar way. They have in effect ceased believing in a compensatory spiritual realm.

So there is radical and radical. There is standard, left-wing political radicalism which seeks to overthrow the 'unjust' status quo and replace it with a new world order based on (Biblical notions of) justice and equality.

And then there is the deeper radicalism of conservatives who have not only rejected Christian beliefs but Christian morality as well.

But, because most of them have such good manners, and so will refrain from saying what they really think, it will remain largely hidden from view.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Pivoting towards Asia

Historically, Russia has looked west to Europe, but economic realities are prompting a new focus on Asia. In a recent piece in the Financial Times, David Pilling quotes Russian president Vladimir Putin talking at the APEC summit in Vladivostok: "The global economic landscape is changing literally as we speak." Well, not quite that fast, perhaps, but fast enough.

As Pilling points out, diplomatic links between Moscow and Beijing are strengthening and Russian trade with China is already running at significantly higher levels than its trade with Germany and at much higher levels than its trade with the U.S. ($80 billion as against $50 billion and $36 billion).

And Russian trade with China, South Korea and Japan is set to increase rapidly. An oil pipeline terminating in the far-eastern port of Kozmino (near Japan) is nearing completion.

Russia will also be a crucial source of gas, timber and grains. According to Mr Putin, Russia is planning to double or treble its export of grains to Asia.

Over the past year or two the U.S. has made a show of asserting its presence in the Asia-Pacific region, but so far this has been more rhetorical than substantive and seemingly focused more on military and strategic factors than on economics or trade. Though U.S. trade with Asia has obviously increased, there has been much unproductive talk about various possible future multilateral 'architectures'.

Meanwhile other countries in the region and beyond are doing more, more quickly. For example, New Zealand already has a bilateral free trade agreement with China.

Even tiny Samoa made a substantive (and symbolic) shift in its geo-political orientation. Last December they jumped the International Date Line so as to be closer to Australasian and Asian time zones. The switch reverses a decision made 120 years ago to move to the east of the date line in order to be more closely coordinated with the U.S. and Europe.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

As Obama speaks

Here are a few random thoughts on the upcoming U.S. presidential election and the economic situation.

Mitt Romney seems to be holding his own in the polls, and his campaign seems to have some momentum. He has shown himself to be steadier and more astute than John McCain four years ago (for example, in his choice of a vice presidential running mate). Also, I have heard a lot about younger voters losing enthusiasm for the President and being less likely to vote than older voters are.

And then there are the one million or so undecided voters in swing states whom commentators believe will determine the election outcome. I would not be surprised if all Romney has to do to win most of them over is to continue to look like a competent economic manager in an economic environment which increasingly looks like it desperately needs just that. (A couple of days ago it was announced that U.S. manufacturing contracted for a third straight month in August.)

Some are looking to Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke for a solution, but his policies are increasingly being questioned. Many economists and bankers are talking about a fundamental structural shift having occurred in the U.S. economy.

At the recent Jackson Hole meeting, James Bullard (St Louis Fed president) suggested that the sluggish recovery and persistent unemployment stem not so much from cyclical weaknesses as from longer-term structural factors. Other Fed district bank presidents - and many economists - agree, doubting the wisdom of further easing action on the part of the Federal Reserve.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas recently published a paper by the former chief economist at the Bank of International Settlements, William White, which warns of the unintended consequences of ultra easy monetary policy. White sees the economy as a complex adaptive system which cannot be readily modelled. He believes that cheap credit leads to malinvestment and has a pernicious effect on the financial sector, essentially corrupting markets.*

Governments and the financial sector will resist tightening but the current easy money environment is not sustainable. The long-term risks include hyperinflation and deflation.

On the fiscal front, President Obama has, as I understand it, no long-term plan for dealing with the national debt. (Under his proposals, the debt would stabilize and then start to rise again after ten years.) It's clear, at least, that the Republicans take the debt issue more seriously than the Obama team.

The national debt constitutes a threat to America's long-term economic future and geo-political standing, and the problem seems all the more intractable given the alarming degree of political polarization (and social fragmentation?).

I am not an American so I can't speak with any authority on this - and I hesitate to speak at all on these matters - but it certainly seems that the country is seriously divided, and President Obama has been contributing to this with his class-oriented rhetoric. (I find this mildly shocking, actually, coming from the head of state of an advanced country.)

As I write this, President Obama is giving his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. I am not tuned in but will check news reports before posting, just to make sure nothing unexpected happened or was said. Suspect that many in the audience will be cheering like mad but secretly wondering how it all could have gone so badly wrong.

* Dallas Fed president, Richard Fisher, who has openly supported White's views, is a former Democratic Senate candidate and worked for the Clinton administration. (He has an interesting background. Born in L.A. to an Australian father and a South African mother (of Norwegian descent), he grew up mainly in Mexico and struggled financially before completing degrees at Harvard, Oxford and Stanford.)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Slip sliding away

A cousin whose basic views on just about everything that is important are diametrically opposed to mine has been visiting. We get on alright despite our differences; or seem to. (I put it down to my natural tact and charm, but I suspect he puts it down to his saintly forbearance.)

He was a left-wing student radical, something of a leader. Certainly he had devoted followers, and maybe he still does. Despite having mellowed somewhat and worked for years within the burgeoning bureaucracy of the health system, his fundamental convictions and motivating forces remain quite consistent with the convictions and motivations of his younger self.

His latest cause is 'natural death'. Which immediately makes me want to champion the medical specialists who are deemed to be causing unnecessary pain and suffering to their terminally-ill patients by their reluctance to admit defeat. The argument goes that they - aided and abetted by the system built around them - screen out the reality of death (which exposes the ultimate failure of all their efforts and so wounds their professional vanity). Or something like that.

I don't buy the demonization of specialist doctors nor radical critiques of technologized medicine. If physicians and surgeons don't like to tell their patients they are finished, I suspect it is generally out of natural kindness rather than vanity. Sometimes we have to play little games of deception and self-deception to get by. That's okay by me.

Of course it's inappropriate to go to excessive lengths to keep the moribund alive, but I have more faith in the commonsense and judgement of medical professionals than in bureaucrats and activists with ideological and/or religious agendas.

My cursory research on the natural death movement indicates that it is driven by people with such agendas. They want us all to see death as a good and natural part of life.

It may be natural but it's not good. At best it's a nothing.

Don't think about death. I'm with Spinoza on this one. There are better things to think about and talk about, whether one is in rude health - or teetering on the brink (as we all are, in a way, all the time).