Monday, November 26, 2012

On David Goldman, demographics and the fate of nations

David P. Goldman's book How Civilizations Die was mentioned in a recent comment on this site. If you (like me) haven't read it, you might be interested in this rather confronting (and revealing) interview which Goldman did with Jamie Glazov at Frontpage.

Goldman emphasizes the crucial importance (as he sees it) of national birthrates as indicators of the health and future viability of cultures. His interpretations focus particularly on religious ideas.

Here are a few notes and preliminary thoughts on what he is saying.

He sees Islam as being in a downward spiral, and as failing to come to terms with modernity. Birthrates in Islamic countries with high levels of literacy are more or less equivalent to European birthrates. He mentions Iran, Algeria, Tunisia and Turkey. (With respect to Turkey, however, he notes that the Kurdish population is increasing.)

On radical Islam: 'Never in history have so many people committed suicide in order to kill large numbers of innocent people.'

Goldman appears to have an unrealistically sanguine view of America's strategic and military prospects. (This may be in part – but only in part – explained by the fact that, at the time the interview was conducted, it seemed likely that a Republican would be in the White House in 2013.)

'Americans often forget how exceptional we are,' he declares. 'Our founding premise is that God gave inalienable rights to every individual. The notion of a covenant in which every individual derives rights from God such that no earthly power can take them away begins at Mount Sinai. In Islam, it is absurd to suggest that God might limit his own power by a permanent grant of rights to every individual. The arbitrary, capricious and absolutely transcendent god of Islam would not condescend to a covenant with humankind. The institutions of representative democracy are a hollow shell without its covenantal premise.'

He draws an interesting contrast here between the God of Judaism and Christianity and the God of Islam. But this passage also brings out the fact that Goldman clearly bases his political philosophy on religious beliefs (which rules it out as a model from my point of view).

I agree with him that rational self-interest is not enough to explain human behavior, but Goldman overreaches when he attempts to condemn the tradition of thought initiated by Thomas Hobbes on the grounds that it is 'materialistic'. What he calls materialism may or may not be sufficient to motivate populations to behave well, but it certainly does not preclude the development of plausible theories of human behavior which take account of irrational elements.

Put simply, Goldman fails to appreciate the obvious fact that you can be a physicalist and still recognize the irrational drivers of human behavior.

I am also uneasy about the way he divides the world up into cultural and ethnic groupings. Sure, such groupings are significant, but people are increasingly identifying with multiple and overlapping groups, most of which are not defined in terms of ethnicity or traditional culture, religious or otherwise.

Goldman states: 'We live in a world in which most of the industrial nations find themselves in a demographic death spiral, a Great Extinction of the nations unlike anything we have seen since the 7th century... Why do some nations find the spiritual resources to embrace life, while others chant, 'We love death'? ... Franz Rozenzweig's sociology of religion ... provides a better framework for understanding these problems than the political rationalism of Leo Strauss.'

I don't know about that. Rosenzweig was essentially a religious thinker. He was a secular Jew who, following a mystical experience, embraced Orthodox Judaism, and I would be very surprised if his sociology of religion did not bear the marks of his passionate religious convictions (which would not condemn it, but would certainly limit its interest for those not sharing such convictions).

Whatever the merits or otherwise of the intellectual sources on which he draws, however, it seems pretty clear that Goldman's vision for America is utterly unrealistic.

The United States may have looked like the 'undisputed world hyperpower' for a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a purely military sense, it may still be just that.

But U.S. government indebtedness and the shift in the balance of global wealth from West to East means that, as Goldman recognizes, rising powers like China will be playing an increasingly important role in international affairs.

Does he really think China would respond meekly to a more aggressive and militaristic stance on the part of a debtor nation?

Friday, November 23, 2012

The inflation road

So what does the re-election of Barack Obama mean in the broader scheme of things? I was impressed by a short, economic-historical analysis Matthew Stevenson did for Reuters focusing on the fatal flaw of the progressive agenda: its economic foundation (or lack thereof).

Stevenson alludes to the long-standing struggle between those committed to a stable currency and inflationists, a struggle which has been at the heart of many presidential contests.

In this instance, clearly '[t]he victors were the forces of cheap money. William Jennings Bryan would be proud - as would bimetallists and Weimar Republicans.'

'Inflation won because it is the panacea for all that ails the body politic: a short-term cure-all that promises economic growth, the possibility of paying off national and international debts, new-found prosperity for the middle classes and liquidity for the impoverished, who otherwise would be voting in the streets with rocks and burning tires.

'... Cheap money defers many liabilities. Real wages for industrial workers have declined since the 1970s. True unemployment – including those too discouraged to look further and others working part-time for unlivable wages – is closer to 22 percent than the official figure of 7.9 percent. The national debt, $16.3 trillion, exceeds the gross national product. With unfunded entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Social Security, the government is eventually on the hook for a further $46 trillion, which it would rather not pay with pieces of eight.

'The hard-money men have not been able to win many elections since the 19th century, arguing as they do for reductions in the monetary supply; an asset-backed currency (preferably with gold) and policies that lead to deflation...

'The magic of inflation, before it turns everything to dust, is that it papers over a number of financial problems. The United States government is now able to run monumental trade and budget deficits, fight multiple foreign wars, vote tax cuts, extend unfunded pension and healthcare benefits to citizens over age 65 and spend money with Medici-like munificence on myriad federal programs by printing money or borrowing in national and international capital markets.

'Were the dollar unacceptable as a reserve currency in investor portfolios here and abroad, these financial sleights of hand would have ended long ago. Imagine the consequences if the Chinese demanded gold, diamonds or barrels of oil as collateral for their U.S. dollar bond investments. Already, the dollar is badly depreciated against many currencies ...'

Stevenson suggests that the official inflation figures grossly understate actual inflation and cites 'four-year college tuition at $200,000, one-bedroom New York appartments for $1 million, gasoline at $3.46 a gallon and carts of groceries that routinely cost at least $250.'

Inflation 'allows the political classes to maintain the illusion of power and authority. Without the ability to print and circulate paper money to balance the books ... U.S. presidents would be riding Greyhound on their appointed rounds, not the magic carpet of Air Force One.'

Furthermore, inflation allows politicians to create 'a veneer of fairness' but 'it is a direct tax on the savings of American citizens, especially those of the middle classes who lack hedges against its effects ...'

'[T]he economic carnival will end when the dollar is no longer acceptable as a reserve currency, first in international markets and later domestically.'

The only reason the Chinese hold debts denominated in dollars, Stevenson notes, 'is because it helps them maintain the artificially low exchange rate of the renmimbi.'

'Whether or not the United States goes over the fiscal cliff, it will remain unified as a nation of debtors for whom the goal is always to repay their loans with debased currency.'

Matthew Stevenson has a nice turn of phrase and a good sense of history. I agree with the general thrust of what he says even if a few of his assertions are problematic. There is no doubt in my mind that the massive U.S. national debt is eventually going to bring the country down, but exactly how and when is just not predictable. (To his credit, Stevenson leaves the timetable open.)

Had Romney prevailed, I would have watched and waited and wondered whether, after all and against the odds, America could come back.

But it's gone now, headed for inevitable, irrevocable decline. It was probably too late to start to turn things around anyway. But that we will never know for sure.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Young anarchists

You've seen it before, I'm sure, many times. Very respectable parents telling enquiring journalists that their child would never have been involved in that kind of (illegal) activity.

The latest focus of attention is on fringe politics. 'Oh, Imogen would never get involved with anything violent.'

Well, Imogen would actually, especially if she gets carried away by the sense that the established order is racist and sexist and rotten to the core and hell-bent on destroying the environment and precipitating climate chaos in pursuit of profit and the maintenance of hegemonic power.

She has no religious scruples (what are they?); no sense of love for or identification with Western civilization (dead white males, etc.); nothing in fact to hold her back.

Take Felicity Ann Ryder. She is apparently hiding out somewhere in Mexico after the arrest of her presumed boyfriend Mario Antonio López Hernández who seriously injured himself when his improvised explosive device went off prematurely on a Mexico City street in June.

Her mother Jenny has told the press that it was 'beyond comprehension to think that our daughter would have had any involvement with violence... We as her parents, and her family, have the utmost respect for her beliefs, her commitment to social justice which we know is very close to her heart.'

Typical doting parents. (In denial?)

Felicity Ann Ryder, a politics and history graduate and a 'talented linguist', is described by friends as 'quiet and quite serious', 'not someone who drew attention to herself'. She is interested in animal liberation and environmental protest, and is said to have worked (as what is not clear) in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

After the arrest of López, Ryder posted a statement on a Mexican anarchist website thanking 'everyone who has worried about me and my situation [and] those who have shown solidarity with Mario and I.'

Ryder, López and their revolutionary friends probably genuinely believe that the old power structures and those who benefit from them are in fact soon to be swept aside and replaced by a new, just and glorious social order.

Don't count on it.

I would counsel young anarchists (old ones are too far gone) to do a bit of reading on the fate and effectiveness of earlier anarchist movements; to note the parallels between their ideas and groupish ways, and religious ideas and structures; and consider the possibility that the ideals to which they aspire are ultimately unrealizable on any significant scale.

Sure, what you are doing feels good and right (and just a little bit exciting). But it is based on myth and fantasy.

In the end, you are fooling yourselves. And doing harm rather than good. Society is more complex than you think, and fragile in ways you do not understand.

Yours is a comic-book view of the world, of good and bad, of black and white. And your sense of solidarity is as fatally restricted and limited as your understanding of history and the human condition.

We are all – all of us – just stumbling around in the dark until death takes us. Base your sense of solidarity on that.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Journalistic triumphalism

I don't normally do emotional rants, but I want to express my disgust and disdain for the self-righteous smugness and conformism of the mainstream media and, most recently, for the utterly unprofessional gloating and rejoicing on the part of some television journalists in the wake of the re-election of Barack Obama as US President.

I am not claiming that media bias played a significant role in the American presidential election. The extent of the opinion-forming power of the press is an empirical question which I haven't looked into. My guess is that journalists and commentators are less influential than they would like to think, and deeper forces are at work. [But more on this another time.]

With respect to the coverage of the US election, some public broadcasters in Europe and elsewhere were even worse, I suspect, than mainstream American media (which at least is American and so has a stake in the outcome).

To keep up my French, I watch news on France 2. They continually highlight progressive causes, and their coverage of the election was boringly predictable. (The predictability is a plus, however, from the pedagogical point of view, as my understanding of spoken French is not as good as it could be.)

But a Scottish-accented 'senior reporter' working for Australia's hard-left, publicly-funded SBS took my prize for naked bias and patent unprofessionalism. He went so far as to proclaim - as a (foreign) reporter, remember, not a commentator - that the Republican Party's continued dominance of the House of Representatives was not only bad for the Democratic Party but bad for America.

I looked him up on Wikipedia. Brian Thomson. Born and raised Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Majored in politics and history at Newcastle University, where he was Deputy President of the Newcastle University Union Society. Deputy, note. But he was the winner of the 2011 United Nations Association of Australia Peace Award. (God save us from Peace Prize winners.) I don't know that I've ever seen a reporter who appears to take himself quite as seriously as this character does.

In many ways, I regret the demise of pen, paper and print as communication media, but I console myself that changes in the media landscape - the shift away from print and, in particular, the fragmentation of the audience for the electronic media - mean that the current crop of smug, know-nothing, campaigning journalists face a very uncertain professional future.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The inimitable Dr Merkel

Data released late last week revealed that the eurozone's manufacturing sector contracted for the 15th straight month in October. Output fell. New orders declined.

The Telegraph (UK) quotes Chris Williamson (chief economist at Markit): 'The ongoing weakness of the periphery is being combined with [a] hollowing out of the previously strong core of France and Germany.'

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has told a meeting of her Christian Democratic party in Sternberg that the eurozone would take years to recover. She said that new investment from outside Europe was crucial, but such investment would not materialize unless European governments demonstrated rigor and fiscal discipline.

The time had come for 'a bit of strictness,' she said, according to the Telegraph report.

Yes, a little bit of strictness.

But it gets worse. The Deutsche Welle English language website account of the Sternberg meeting has her saying: 'We have to hold our breath for five years or more.'

I doubt, however, that Dr Merkel sounds quite so funny in German (or indeed when translated into Greek or Spanish).