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A Final Note on a Softer Economic Policy

In General Principles on January 29, 2010 at 1:26 pm

There is a famous joke about the tendency of economists to consider their chosen field akin to the natural sciences: a physicist, a chemist, and an economist are stuck on a desert island.  A can of beans washes up on the beach.  The physicist devises a mechanism using twigs and rocks to attempt to force open the can, but after several hours with no results, during which the economist sits and smugly smiles, the physicist gives up.  The chemist attempts to extract some sort of substance from plants on the island to melt the can.  The economist continues sitting and smiling arrogantly as the chemist also fails in his efforts.  “What?” the physicist and chemist say, “do you have a better plan?”  The economist stands and walks proudly towards the can on the beach: “Let’s assume we have a can-opener.”

This joke is often told by economists to economists at economic conventions or by economics professors to economics students during economics class, which was where I first heard the joke.  Yet the same economists who make this joke forget their own lack of hard science credentials when they make predictions; and non-economists seem to forget the incorrectness of the last prediction when they hear the next prediction.  In times of trouble, the poor track record of economists at predicting the future is never called into question, and political leaders often blindly surrender national sovereignty to “experts.”

I undoubtedly believe that central economic planners are capable of coordinating and herding hundreds of millions of people to some greater economic purpose by simply printing money and increasing government spending, but I also believe that the negative consequences of these policies usually outweigh their beneficial effects.

As Joe points out in his article, an active central bank policy did indeed cause the Great Depression.  F.A. Hayek, Keynes, and Milton Friedman all acknowledge this.  Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Friedman suggest the tight money policies of the central bank which caused the Great Depression be met in kind with a loose money policy, which caused (and “cured”) several recent financial crises.  Hayek, on the other hand, suggests the loose money policies of the central bank which caused the bubble economy of the roaring 20s to explode in the Great Depression be met in kind with the abolition of the central bank, and the exultation of the market’s self-rule.

Keynes suggests the Great Depression was caused by “sticky wages”, that is, wages not responding properly to the greater changes of 1929 and putting the economy even further out of equilibrium.  The solution is to increase the supply of money and/or increase government spending to create an artificial plug in the economy and restore equilibrium.  

People who support Keynes or Friedman tend, for obvious reasons, to become government economic planners.  Ben Bernanke is right that the Fed will never cause the Great Depression again.  It will err way way in the opposite direction, time and time again, by keeping the interest rate artificially low, encouraging Americans to take on massive amounts of debt, and financing the government takeover of corporations instead of allowing the failures of lemons like Chrysler and Citibank.  Gradually, government spending “plugs” in the economy will become the economy.  This is all an alternative to allowing the market to function in its role as a signaler of prices, and was the crux of Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom”. 

Another thinker, Vladimir Lenin, saw a chronically inflationary economy as the nemesis of capitalism: by destroying the value of money, a government could effectively destroy the bourgeoisie, replacing them with a distasteful class of speculators that would get rich on the public dole and incite the proletariat.   

The people shouting “socialism, socialism” at President Obama are wrong.  So are the people shouting “Laissez Faire, Laissez Faire”.  We have neither capitalism nor socialism.  We have some sick, hybrid system where there is capitalism for the gains and socialism for the losses.  Such a system creates a permanent underclass massively in debt both by its own decisions and its government’s dangling of an inflationary cheeseburger in front of the economic treadmill. 

The choice is a tradeoff.  We can continue to finance false growth with huge mal-investments such as Fannie Mae based on the calculations of a bunch of stuffy suits with Princeton degrees, or we can allow people access to crucial information stored in prices so they can make their own decisions which are best for them, and don’t necessarily involve the maximization of net worth.  

I am no ideologue, and I am not suggesting that it is prudent to completely abandon the Federal Reserve policy of expanding the money supply, merely that further intervention is unwarranted at this point.  My article was intended to highlight the pros and cons of a policy encouraging long-term artificial inflation versus a liberal policy acknowledging the futility of central planners to manipulate society into an economic utopia.  My main contention was that deflation is modest and we should use this opportunity to switch to a consumption-tax based system to encourage the savings – not more debt – that are necessary for real – not false – growth, just in case Ben Bernanke and Milton Friedman are in fact not infallible.

Steering markets may be justifiable sometimes, such as, for instance, to correct an externality; but, as always, the law of unintended consequences prevails: a loose money policy encourages millions of people to borrow money they shouldn’t for businesses or purposes that will fail; this creates more aggregate problems.  We rode the high crest of a false boom for far too long, and now we must create another false boom to prevent the perils of the bust.  In a free society, to organically determine which businesses succeed and which fail is the province of the bust; it is not the province of central planners playing whack-a-mole with taxpayer dollars. 

The makers of this video subtly compare Keynesian ideas to alcoholism or drug addiction.  I feel the metaphor is apt: cocaine may increase productive efficiency, but the inevitable down can only be cured by more cocaine, which creates an inevitably even worse down in the future.  An economy which relies on cocktails of uppers and downers to function is destined for long-term problems.

I believe the Modern Synthesis of Friedman and Keynes, which attempts to stuff all of human behavior into a box called the business cycle, is a lot like alchemy, and by that I mean that alchemy eventually became chemistry after hundreds of years of rigorous application of the scientific method, empiricism, and general dissent to the hard core.  F.A. Hayek’s theory, like the atom of Democritus, is the foreseeable endgame, and sleeps, waiting to be rediscovered and refined by a less arrogant future generation.


Stick the Landing: the State of the Union

In Specific Facts on January 28, 2010 at 7:18 pm

With the left disheartened by the Mass-acre last week and health care reform’s freshly dismal prospects, the right energized by the apparent success of their intransigence and the need to rally the country amidst difficult circumstance, President Obama was like a gymnast needing to perfectly execute a maneuver of highest degree of difficulty at last night’s State of the Union.  No one’s surprise, he nailed it.  He rallied weak kneed Democrats with a reminder that they were elected to get things done, not “run for the hills.”  He leaned into the Republicans by staking out a variety of center-right positions including nuclear power, off-shore drilling, deficit reduction and small-business tax breaks while chiding them for privledging politics over leadership.  Most importantly, he reminded Americans again and again of the mess he inherited and the steps he had done to fix things.

The State of the Union proved one thing conclusively: Barack Obama’s charisma remains unmatched in current politics.  He was charming, funny, convincing, self-effacing and owned the speech going away.  He cleared the black cloud of the special Massachusetts election with the joke: “After last week its clear I’m not doing health care reform because its good politics.” The left wanted him to tell the House to pass the Senate Health Care bill, but maybe he did.  He littered the speech with references to bills the House has already passed that the Senate hasn’t: financial reform, cap and trade and a jobs bill.  If the clear message of the speech was jobs, jobs, jobs, the hidden message was “The House rocks, get your act together Senate.”

As for the jobs, well the White House sounds pretty populist these days.  The quote from that septuagenarian in Massachusetts about stopping the handouts and send everyone back to work clearly struck a chord with the administration.  The filet of the speech was about financial reform, the choices he made during the crisis, and creating new jobs which Obama said was his top priority in 2010.  If unemployment stays above 10% then no matter what, the Democrats are screwed in the midterms.  Obama took several stabs at blaming the whole economic mess on Bush, but in a bad economy incumbents lose and the Democrats are feeling awfully incumbent right now.  Tackling financial reform might offer a popular program if job gains fail to materialize, but noting that 2 million jobs were created by the stimulus is an easy fact to remember.

Obama all but dared the the Republicans to participate in government.  On health care reform, which the Republicans curiously stood up and cheered for, he noted that “if anyone has a better approach… tell me.”  He noted that he has cut taxes for everyone and then set up a fiscal panel to tackle the deficit from the spending side.  That is the “starve the beast” conservatives have been waiting for, but coming from the mouth of a “leftist” must make their heads spin.  I don’t believe any Republican will actively engage with Obama’s process, but the offer felt sincere anyway.

Much of the speech was a hodge-podge of promises including a new law on educational loans that limits repayment to 10% of income and gauarantees the loan will be forgiven in 20 years, or 10 with a career in the public service.  The promise to work to allow gays into the military by the end of the year might help to placate his critics on the left, though the cold reception of the Joint Chiefs indicated that it will not be an easy accomplishment.  His fiery denouncement of the recent Supreme Court decision to allow unlimited corporate financing in elections while staring down at the court surrounded by cheering legislators was an inspired moment.

His close was even better:

But remember this — I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I could do it alone. Democracy in a nation of 300 million people can be noisy and messy and complicated. And when you try to do big things and make big changes, it stirs passions and controversy. That’s just how it is.

Those of us in public office can respond to this reality by playing it safe and avoid telling hard truths and pointing fingers. We can do what’s necessary to keep our poll numbers high and get through the next election instead of doing what’s best for the next generation.

But I also know this: If people had made that decision 50 years ago or 100 years ago or 200 years ago, we wouldn’t be here tonight. The only reason we are here is because generations of Americans were unafraid to do what was hard, to do what was needed even when success was uncertain, to do what it took to keep the dream of this nation alive for their children and their grandchildren.

That is a rousing call to forward progress, even for a Congress that seems clinically dysfunctional.  Many left-wing analysts have taken the tact of “we knew he could do a good speech, now he has to get something done.”  Congress is such a morass that if nothing came of the speech it would surprise no one, but at least for a night it seemed that anything was possible.

A New Plan for Afghanistan

In Specific Facts on January 28, 2010 at 9:49 am

our newest allies?Today, world leaders, including Hamid Karzai, are meeting in London to shape a plan for reintegrating the Taliban into Afghan society.  Al-Jazeera reports that a $1 billion fund for luring Taliban fighters away is being gathered from contributions from Japan, the U.S. and the U.K.  The tactic hopes reintegrate that milder elements of the Taliban in Afghan society with the promise of new jobs focusing on infrastructure and rural development.  This is an important step that the Inductive has advocated in the past.  

Rather than an indication on failure from the Afghan Surge, the new plan could serve as a turning point in the war effort.  Incorporating economic development and cooperation with certain elements of the Taliban should be viewed as the logical next step of the renewed focus on counterinsurgency.  After the recent Afghan elections, it became clear that Karzai’s corrupt government would have a tough time trying to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.  The incorruptible Taliban established some amount of legitimacy for their rival government in Afghanistan’s rural and tribal areas.

Nevertheless, NATO has stuck with Karzai, who despite his shady reelection will remain the figurehead of future NATO endeavors in Afghanistan.  Before this new strategy was considered, the war effort appeared in gridlock, with the Kabul government unable to impose its social contract on the rural tribes.  A new plan focusing on infrastructure and cooperation with rural respresentatives of the Taliban offers a degree of federalism, self-rule, and economic development in exchange for the legitimacy of the Karzai government.  It is a win-win situation for all parties but the more extreme members of the Taliban.  

Going forward, it’s important that the new plan be seen not as a bribe, but a justified incorporation of Afghanistan citizens into the expanded state.  Afghanistan politics during war are often fluid, which defections common as the outcome becomes apparent.  Allowing rural Afghans, who frequently owe allegiance to tribes rather than national movements, to participate in reconstruction makes the job easier for U.S. troops and greatly assists efforts at nation building.  Simply putting the country on the dole will not create institutional support, only zombies reanimated by foreign largess.  This balancing act will require considerable efforts from all parties: the Kabul government must appear legitimate and be willing to delegate authority to the provinces; NATO must fully endorse the plan and deliver on its promises of immunity to Taliban defectors while remaining vigilant to the possibility of double-agents; and Taliban defectors must make clear commitments to the Kabul based government. 

Such a strategy will doubtlessly prompt a reaction from the Taliban leadership including reprisals against defectors, though losing regional strength might only force them to retrench in strongholds.  Ensuring the safety of those who change sides will be tricky, but improving the security situation is an important hallmark of the success of a counter-insurgency campaign.  The incremental progress towards a safe and independent Afghanistan that might be ten or more years away has been strengthen by this new strategy.  The Taliban rank-and-file do not deserve punishment for September 11th and working with them does not make us less secure.  Seperating the sharks from the minnows allows NATO to focus on both bringing terrorists and destabilizing actors to justice, making the region and the world safer. 

Our Old, Misunderstood Friend: Inflation

In Specific Facts on January 26, 2010 at 5:00 am

Recently, Chris Carr wrote an article advocating allowing natural deflation instead of using expansive monetary policy from central banks to artificially maintain persistent inflation.  I disagree with several aspects of Mr. Carr’s analysis, including some of the data. For example he misrepresents the level of deflation in the economy since the financial crisis by only examining September of 2009 and ignoring that this deflation exists despite a huge monetary stimulus.  Most fundamentally, however, I believe that he dramatically underestimates how dangerous deflation can be, as even tiny amounts of deflation can increase trade deficits and consumption and leave the indebted particularly vulnerable.  Mr. Carr’s proposal for less centralized money might apply to countries, like China, needing to boost domestic demand in the face of massive budget and trade surpluses, but it would amount to economic suicide for the United States which has record budget and trade deficits and far too much consumption in the economy.

Chris notes that “some regard the Great Depression as an example of a deflationary spiral, but the concept is largely confined to theory and remains controversial.”  However, deflation is widely credited as the primary factor exacerbating a recession into the Great Depression.  At Milton Friedman’s 90th birthday party, Ben Bernanke, who before heading the Federal Reserve taught economics at Princeton economist and was a leading expert on the Great Depression, remarked: “We [the Fed] caused the Great Depression. We’re sorry. But thanks to you we’ll never do it again.” He was referencing the Fed’s policy of tight money, or high interest rates, accompanied by Herbert Hoover passing a tax increase to balance the budget in the face of a large recession.  Taxes take money out of the economy and paying debt, rather than providing services, reduces the money in circulation.  In combination with the high interest rates this made money “expensive” and prompted double digit deflation.  The rate of deflation exceeding the interest rate creates a liquidity trap, as banks hoard money since any loan will generate an implicit loss over the gains accrued by doing nothing.  The money held in savings usually turns over four times in the economy, creating most of the money supply and fueling the economy.  Thus, even small changes in the money banks lend out can stall or shrink the economy.  In order for the Federal Reserve to be sufficiently stimulative in those conditions, it would have to have a negative interest rate, paying people to borrow money – which it is forbidden from doing for obvious reasons.  The current financial crisis was caused when banks realized that massive deflation in the housing markets might leave them insolvent and they scrambled to find capital.  This process looked backwards, since banks were not hoarding capital to make profits but the underlying principal was the same: deflation makes money more valuable so banks stop lending and the economy slows down, often drastically.

The alternative to allowing rampant deflation is an expansionary monetary and fiscal policy.  In this scenario, the government runs a deficit to finance spending on job creation, borrowing the money from the Federal Reserve which pays them in newly printed money.  This expands the money supply, and replaces lost private spending in the economy with government spending.  This is exactly what happened last year with the stimulus and the banking guarantees paid for with printed money and accompanied by extremely low interest rates.  Yet, even with the additional money there was persistent deflation for 8 months, ending with two months of modest inflation around the holidays in November and December of 2009 – not coincidentally the first time unemployment decreased during this crisis.  2009 averaged .4% deflation, the first annual deflation since 1955.  That the huge fiscal and monetary stimulus, including printing $1.2 trillion to inject liquidity into the financial markets, was insufficient to prevent deflation demonstrates that the deflation in the larger economy must be very large and without this policy there might have been catastrophe.

Chris’s defense of deflation because, unlike inflation, it never leads “hyper-deflation” is distractingly besides the point.  Hyper-deflation would either mean that actual goods no longer have any value – meaning that the fundamental problem of scarcity in the economy was solved – or that the much of the supply of money had cease to exist – imagine the Federal Reserve literally burning the vast majority of the currency in circulation.  The only scenario I could imagine that would lead to hyper-deflation would be a return to the gold standard, which would entail taking trillions of dollars out of the economy to reduce the money supply to a level commiserate with the gold in Fort Knox.  Aside from Nazis worried about the Jewish control of the Federal Reserve, that economic policy lacks advocates since it would be medicine far worse than any disease.  Hyper-deflation does not have to exist for deflation to pose a threat to the economy; even moderate amounts of currency deflation can cause major damage in the real economy, while moderate inflation has some benefits.  The economy struggles to adjust to deflation because contracts, whether with workers or creditors, are difficult to renegotiate and profits shrink with prices.  During deflationary conditions, workers resist pay cuts even though real wages have risen and, much worse, debt becomes onerous as the rate of deflation has to be added to the interest rate.  The result of deflation, then, quickly becomes massive unemployment as the only means of cutting payroll comes from layoffs.  Inflation meanwhile, makes workers less expensive and prices higher, leading to greater employment.  A belief that inflation and unemployment were fundamentally and inversely related, through a relationship called the Phillips curve, was economic dogma until  stagflation proved that they could coexist.  That the special conditions of the 1970s, high commodity prices, high taxes and low growth,  demonstrated that high unemployment and high inflation were not mutually exclusive does not disprove that inflation usually reduces unemployment.  With unemployment over 10% and underemployment at nearly 20% a return to mild inflation would be a boon to the economy.

The U.S. is especially poorly equipped to deal with deflation now since it is overly reliant on consumption, has a huge trade deficit and massive debt.  Deflation’s effect on trade is contentious.  On one hand, lower prices means the market is less attractive which should create disincentives for imports.  However, since deflation means money is worth more, price deflation often accompanies currency deflation so the exchange rates often offset diminished domestic prices.  Thus, foreign producers might find the market more profitable than domestic companies increasing the trade deficit.  The relationship between debt and deflation is far more certain: carrying debt in deflationary conditions is far more onerous than usual.  That situation has occurred for many home-owners recently: they owe far more on their houses then the property is worth.  The difficulty stems from the lack of effective institutions for renegotiating debt that has appreciated above the agreed upon terms, failing that many debtors simply default on their obligations further damaging the larger economy.  All else equal, consumption is subsidized by deflation.   Though in reality, many consumers are hurt by higher unemployment and economic unease often makes people cautious and prone to increased saving.  The  U.S. economy is far too dependent on consumption, at 70% of GDP; has staggering amounts of public and private debt, including horrifying projections over the next decade; and a persistent trade deficit amounting to 5% of GDP; given these factors it is especially unsuited for deflation.

My argument should not be misconstrued as a blanket support for inflation, just as I’m sure Chris does not support universal deflation.  Currency stability is an unequivocally positive thing and only should be tampered with in times of crisis.  My point is that inflation is almost always preferable to deflation and that especially for our current crisis, allowing deflation would be a tragic mistake.  When this crisis abates, careful monetary policy will be necessary to ensure that rampant inflation does not occur.  One method of preventing inflation is mentioned in Chris’s article, the Value Added Tax.  The VAT is one of my favorite policies and in effect creates artificial inflation.  By raising prices, the VAT offers a discount on saving – including paying down debt which is indistinguishable from savings from a macro-economic standpoint since debt is negative savings.  The VAT would also shrink the trade deficit, since it is usually refunded at the border subsidizing exports and taxing imports.  Plus a 20% VAT would raise around a trillion dollars to shore up the sagging federal budget.  Deficit, debt, trade-defficit and consumption reducing is a lot to like.  Instituting it now, when prices are down would make it easier for consumers to adjust and phasing it in over several years would allow consumption patterns to shift gradually.  In the meantime, continued fiscal and monetary stimulus may be necessary if deflation returns like a bad holiday present.

Osama bin Laden is Conan and America is NBC

In Specific Facts on January 25, 2010 at 2:23 pm

The upcoming trial of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed should be used to redefine the War on Terror as being about bringing the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice.

The Washington Post recently reported that al Qaeda Grand Poohbah, Osama bin Laden, has endorsed the failed Christmas Day attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound jet:

“The message delivered to you through the plane of the heroic warrior Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a confirmation of the previous messages sent by the heroes of the Sept. 11,” he said of the Nigerian suspect in the Dec. 25 botched attack.

“If our messages had been able to reach you through words we wouldn’t have been delivering them through planes.”

Directing his statements at President Barack Obama – “from Osama to Obama,” he said – bin Laden added: “America will never dream of security unless we will have it in reality in Palestine.”

While bin Laden would seemingly make a perfect Bond villain, this is a non-story.  Links between the Pakistan-Afghanistan al Qaeda and copycat groups in Iraq, North Africa, and the Arabian peninsula are tenuous at best.  While bin Laden claims the underpants bomber was retaliation for American support for Israel, just four weeks ago, Yemen al Qaeda claimed Abdulmutallab was a response to U.S. intelligence support for the Yemeni regime’s own attacks on Yemen al Qaeda strongholds.  Bin Laden’s most recent recording, like so many before, is an attempt to capitalize on the media spotlight as a recruitment platform. 

Time and time again we’ve played directly into his hand.  Terrorist cells rely on deception, misdirection, and malleability to function properly.  The immense power of the U.S. army is rendered moot when we don’t know where or who our enemy is.  To avoid situations where a bunch of guys look and some others stand around with guns in case something happens, it’s necessary to associate criminals with nation states, something the U.S. did explicitly when it declared war on Afghanistan’s Taliban government (which was guilty of allowing al Qaeda to operate within its borders) and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq (which was unaware of the 9/11 plot, but rushed to express support after the fact).  If the goal was the destruction of those regimes, we have succeeded admirably in Iraq, and are having a tough time of it in Afghanistan, but who knows how many future bin Ladens we’ve created in the process?

The concept of nation states is something unfamiliar to most residents of what we call Afghanistan, a region far more rooted and clannish than an America of wanderers and the mixed-blood descendents of immigrants.  These people see only invading forces spread throughout the Middle East from the Arabian peninsula to Afghanistan.  The only commonality of the places they occupy is Islam.  Only five men had full knowledge of the 9/11 attacks before they happened, and only nineteen participated.  Waging war indiscriminately against arbitrarily defined nation states with the most tenuous of tenuous links to 9/11 makes it look like we’re waging war against Islam, which gives bin Laden’s populist rhetoric a receptive audience. 

It’s clear that bin Laden is the endgame, but the longer we spend in Iraq and Afghanistan, the more we sacrifice in order to win; in the meantime, there are several things we can do to hedge against inevitable blowback at larger scales than that in response to our Cold War policies (9/11).  The first thing we can do is clarify our objectives: in Iraq, we should have no further hostilities and try to shore-up our image as best as we can after destroying the place; in Afghanistan, we should shift the focus to finding bin Laden and work with elements of the Taliban if we have to or do so through Pakistan.  We should finally rebuild on ground zero; the recent announcement that the recession may delay construction until 2030 should be met with disgust – we should use stimulus money if we have to – looking pathetic is even worse for our image than looking beligerent. 

Finally, we should emphasize how big the capture and impending trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed really is.  Most Americans consider KSM to be a lieutenant of bin Laden.  In actuality, KSM was the architect of 9/11, and only ran it by bin Laden afterwards.  Bin Laden used it as a recruitment opportunity.  The trial of KSM, as yet unannounced, could serve as a justifyable pretext for a policy about-face.  America and the world has grown tired of objectiveless warfare and increased security everywhere.  Unless we change our image quickly from aggressor back to victim, it will never stop.   

Book Review: David Loyn – In Afghanistan

In Uncategorized on January 23, 2010 at 2:43 pm

In a new reoccurring feature, The Inductive will review relevant policy books.

David Loyn’s In Afghanistan: Two Hundred Years of British, Russian and American Occupation tells the story of history forgotten and repeated.  Afghanistan has never been important in and of itself, but it touches so many important things, geographically, strategically, politically and religiously, that the great powers sought to possess it and had to pay again and again to learn that it will not be ruled.  Peppered with references to current battles in its descriptions of the violence of antiquity and the permanent violence that we continue.  I felt overwhelmed by the sense that our current war there was not even the culmination of history, but its pathetic continuation as a lesson forever unlearned.  

The British, who are now fighting their fourth war in Afghanistan, spent the nineteenth century trying to use Afghanistan as a strategic buffer between the crown jewel of their empire, India, and the looming threat of Russia.  They found it much easier to conquer Afghanistan than to keep it.  Their first war, bookended by the brilliance of their campaign to take the country and the panicked rout of their eventual retreat, was to install a hand picked king the British found more to their liking than the grand Khan, Dost Mohammed.  Presaging “Mission Accomplished” by nearly two centuries, Lieutenant Colonel William Dennie remarked “The war may now be considered at an end, the King being once again on the throne” when the once deposed Shah Shuja was forcibly reinstated in 1839.  By January of 1842, amid escalating violence and logistical difficulties, the British garrison at Kabul agreed to withdraw from the country.  Despite a guarantee of safe passage, only a single Briton, Dr. William Brydon, out of 16,000 survived a retreat that disintegrated into panic and massacre.  The British re-invaded the country and razed Kabul in retaliation, but had learned tragically to leave immediately afterwards.  Shah Shuja spent the rest of his days on the British dole in India and Dost Mohammed died still king of Afghanistan in 1863. 

By the late 1870’s the generation possessing bitter memories of the Afghan campaign had been replaced by a new one with a fresh sense of British infallibility and a belief in the pressing necessity of the Russian threat.  The “forward campaign” was back in vogue and so they invaded again.  After two years of hard fighting the British secured a treaty giving them to control Aghan foreign policy in return for domestic sovereignty and an annual fee.  With that in hand the British were able to negotiate the Durrand Line in 1893, extending the border of British India all the way to the Hindu Kush – a mountain range that literally means “Killer of Hindus – and ensuring British control of the Khyber Pass.  The new border effectively carved a line through the middle of Pashtunistan, simply because the geography was seen as the most strategically important.  With a formal buffer established between British India and Russia, the British thought they could finally rest.

Instead, the British, using a policy called “Butcher and Bolt,” had to fight endlessly on the frontier against the Pashtun tribes.  There was constant turmoil, often exacerbated by what were known at the time as “Hindustani fanatics” – precursors of modern fundamentalist Islamic terrorists.  This constant unrest culminated in the third Afghan War, this time fomented by European rivals.  Germany became the first Western country to try to exploit fundamentalist Islam by spreading rumors that the Kaiser had converted to Islam during World War I and convincing their Turkish allies to call for jihad against the British.  The war weary British managed to repel an invasion of India by Afghanistan, but lost nearly twice as many men in the process, despite using airplane bombers for the first time in Asian warfare.  Further, the religious tenor of the war increased the tribal unrest.  Until the end of the British Raj in 1947, they would have to contend with unruly tribes and conflict complicated by the free movement across the Durand line.  Over a century of conflict the British had found Afghanistan to be untamable, uncivilized and extremely susceptible to the passion of Mullahs.

 Much of the rest of the twentieth century in Afghanistan was quiet, as Zahir Shah ruled peacefully for 40 years.  He was deposed while abroad in Rome in 1973 and his replacement, Daoud, tried to quickly modernize the country.  The modernization decreed from Kabul, including a massive expansion of women’s rights, was opposed by conservative, rural Afghanistan.  The tribes rallied again to fight against a new invader from the West, this one ideological rather than military.  Daoud was eventually executed in 1978 by a military coup that put a Communist, Nur Taraki, in charge of the country.  Taraki tried to further modernize Afghanistan, this time along Soviet lines with massive land reforms and the execution of rebellious Mullahs.  Taraki was subsequently suffocated with a pillow and replaced by the Deputy Prime Minister, Hafizullah Amin.  However, a persistent rumor that Amin had loyalties to the CIA was pretense enough for the Soviets to invade in 1979 and kill Amin, replacing him with Babrak Karmal.  The new ruler had little legitimacy as the fourth head of state in 6 years after 40 unbroken years of peace.  

The Soviet war was complicated by huge amounts of weapons and aid given to the “Mujahadeen” fighters by British and American intelligence agencies dispersed through Pakistan’s shadowy intelligence services.  Representative Charlie Wilson from Texas loved women, liquor and anyone killing Communists.  By the end of the war he managed to send so much aid to Afghanistan that 2/3 of the CIA’s budget consisted of funds for Afghanistan.  Muslims the world over rallied to the cause of Afganistan, attracting fresh bodies for Saudi financed Pakistani Madrassas that provided guns and bombs from the West.  The Russians faced against a guerrilla foe that never took ground, attacking and disappearing into the rugged terrain.  Consequently, the Russians had to fight for the same ground over and over.  With the introduction of donated U.S. “Stinger” missiles, the only effective weapon in the Russian arsenal, attack helicopters, was neutralized.  However, the withdrawal of the Russians after ten years of guerrilla warfare and 120,000 casualties left Afghanistan a festering wound.  The loose coalition of warlords from around the country who “won” could not manage to unseat Karbal for two more years and their eventual victory only led to new factionalism and violence.  Afghanistan reached its lowest ebb as the West turned it back on it after importing fanatics, warlords, guns and heavy weaponry to juice up the instability.  The country reverted to a prehistoric barbarism with rampant murder, rape and extortion.

Into this gap stepped a bitter medicine: uncompromisingly, brutally moral Taliban.  Loyn’s picture of the Taliban as misunderstood is surely the most controversial aspect of the book.  That life under the Taliban was a marked improvement for most Afghanis understates the case.  Not only did they bring stability, but in a manner of speaking they brought political liberalization.  This is the bargain described by Thomas Hobbes in The Leviathan: it is better to live with a despot than in a state of nature where life is “nasty, brutish and short.”  The Taliban’s treatment of women, in particular, has galvanized Western outrage, but even here the picture is less clear than we believe.  The wearing of the burka and the sequestering of females from public were already universal features of rural Afghan life and considered necessary precautions.  Afghanistan is a ungoverned violent land of rapacious men.  The danger posed by these men isn’t theoretical.  The “she was asking for it” defense has become rightfully discredited in the West, but protecting your women from any scrutiny might make more sense in a war torn, lawless country.  After Loyn describes a pitched, urban tank battle between two warlords over ownership of a particularly pretty boy, shielding women from public view seems positively pragmatic – even if the measures frequently go overboard.  This does not excuse the excesses of the Taliban, their imposition of sharia law in urban areas and in the Shia north were unjustified, but the picture is more complicated than immediately apparent.

The Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, is described as completely disinterested in anything beyond securing a safe, Islamic Afghanistan.  Omar succeeded through a blitzkrieg offensive across the country leaving commanders who did not join him hanging from the barrels of tanks.  The Taliban were incorruptible, if barbaric in their methods, and Loyn praises their impossible feat of uniting and pacifying most of Afghanistan.  The honesty of the Taliban allowed them to secure funds from trucking companies seeking passage on a highway from Pakistan to Iran-  another tragedy of Afghanistan as its two most valuable industries are opium and a shortcut.  Loyn goes as far as to explain that the Taliban’s most egregious act, the decision to allow Osama Bin Ladin to live in Afghanistan, is attributable to the Pashtun code of guaranteeing the safety of guests.  They supposedly asked Bin Ladin to leave and to cease provocations with the West, but were prevented from doing more than that by this code.  Nevertheless, after 9/11 they would have to pay for the consequences of this support and were toppled immediately.  The West did not take a single casualty in taking Afghanistan through a relentless bombing campaign and supporting the native rebellion Northern Alliance.

The final chapter of the book centers on harrowing parallels and lessons that can be learned from recent Afghan history.  The success of our initial invasion should not have surprised us, holding Afghanistan has always been the difficult part.  The imposition of Hamid Karzai, a dapper and Western educated expatriot, echoed the lesson of Shah Shuja: any leader who seems dependent on the West for support will struggle for legitimacy.  The Taliban explicitly followed this theme with posters asking: “Do you want to be a son of Shah Shuja or Dost Mohammed?”  The British Raj assumed that with an Afghan on the throne the tribes would support him, we assumed that democracy was self-fulfilling.  Instead Karzai proved corrupt, playing into the Taliban’s strongest selling point.  We ignored the strength of their brand, because we saw them as barbaric, but they had a well deserved reputation for honesty.  When Kabul failed to provide fair governance the Taliban stepped in and settled disputes.  ‘The Karzai government banned Western attempts to encourage Taliban defections, going as far as asking for the removal of two diplomats who attempted to contact the Taliban.  In a country with a dearth of social infrastructure and recent regime change, co-opting middle management and power brokers into the state can spur legitimacy.  The similar de-Ba’athification of Iraq was a debacle that continues to this day, but in Afghanistan, where loyalties are often fluid and defections decisive to the fate of campaigns, this policy was simply absurd.

The Durrand line that Britain created and we exploited against the Russians became a thorn in our side, supposedly even allowing Osama Bin Ladin to escape to Pakistan where he might live to this day.  Obama’s expansion of the CIA program in Pakistan has mitigated this, though only through a dangerous breach of sovereignty.  Moreover, the strategic shift to a full embrace of counter-insurgency under David Patraeus and Stanley Machrystal is unprecedented in two centuries: a foreign occupation that seeks to make the lives of average Afghans better.  Against the backdrop of two centuries of Western failure and three decades of war, stateless instability and religious extremism the task seems impossible, however noble.  Yet, reading the book made the Afghan people seem so remarkable in their customs, adaptability and resilience I hope they finally find peace.

Japanese Commercial of the Week

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on January 22, 2010 at 5:14 pm


ESL Economics

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on January 22, 2010 at 3:04 pm

symbol of the Chinese economic menaceI teach English to Japanese students in my spare time.  I had a student today who wanted to talk about the Lehman shock, the sub-prime loan crisis, and China.  The student was of the high-intermediate variety and ignorant of economic terms, so the resulting explanation was in simple (oversimplified?) language.

The student asked me about the difference between savings and investment.  I told her savings basically means doing nothing with your money.  Investing is buying something that will make you money in the future: a car can be considered an investment, and even a “savings” account is actually an investment.  Saving is basically a waste, but it’s necessary to save a little in case investments turn sour. 

We modeled a typical Japanese family’s use of a thousand dollars and a typical American family’s use of a thousand dollars.  The Japanese family spent 400, saved 400, and invested 200.  The American family spent 700, saved zero, and invested 300.  The strengths of the Japanese model were that it was safe but wasteful, whereas the American model produced high growth, but was more dangerous than the Japanese one. 

My student had trouble understanding the concept of a mortgage.  I explained it to her through an example.  If a house I want to buy costs $100,000 and my annual savings are $10,000, I can either wait ten years and buy the house, or I can take out a mortgage, which means I make a down payment of, for example $30,000 and then pay 1% of the remaining balance everymonth until my remaining balance plus interest are paid off.  This way, I can live in my house after only three years instead of ten.  Whichever bank sells me my mortgage plan actually owns the house, so if I can’t make my monthly payments, the bank takes my house. 

Due to central bank policy which encouraged perpetually rising real estate values, it became in the interest of less-scrupulous banks to lend to people who could not make monthly payments.  Too much of this is essentially what caused the subprime bubble, which burst and left millions of people without their homes and massively in debt.  My student thought it was strange that Americans didn’t just save until they could buy a house.  I tried to explain the unscrupulous element to my student and had to consult a Japanese dictionary.  It turns out the word for “scam” in Japanese is the same as the word used for picking up women.

The next topic was China, of which the Japanese are deathly afraid.  My student asked me if China was number one, to which I replied that China is fourth behind the E.U., U.S., and Japan, but high growth rates have convinced a lot of people that China will be the world’s largest economy in the long run.  But the entire construct of nations is really irrelevant to economics in a globalized world.  In two or three generations, even if current growth rates continue, average income will still be far below U.S., European, and Japanese levels. 

I compared current Chinese growth rates and Japanese fear of a Chinese takeover to the Japanese bubble economy of the 1980s, when the learned men of the Occident predicted a Japanese takeover of the world economy.  But my student shrewdly replied that even now, the wealthy of China outnumber the wealthy of Japan, which has a population one tenth the size.  When Japanese tourists traveled to Southeast Asia ten years ago, they heard shouts of “Konnichiwa!” from aggressive Laotian vendors.  Now they hear “Nihao!”

We started comparing the populations of various regions.  China has about 1,300 million, India has about 1,200, the E.U. 500, America 300, and Japan 130.  But China is much more diverse than Japan.  The country is polyglot, like Europe, and full of minority regional groups: not just Han.  Japan, on the other hand, is like the U.K: linguistically homogenous, and population-wise Japan:China::U.K.:Europe.  The U.K.’s not all that bad, is it?  Just because the Czech Republic is wealthy doesn’t make Britain poor.

We moved on to a discussion of the dreaded zero-sum worldview, which generally correlates with fear of China: basically, the idea that China’s gain of twenty means a loss of ten for the U.S. and a loss of ten for Japan.  In actuality, China’s gain of twenty probably means a gain of ten for the U.S. and a gain of ten for Japan.  In other words: with free trade, everybody gets better off, but China does it faster.  Any humanitarian should be okay with that. 

But this can only really occur if incompetent leaders don’t try to prop up failing domestic businesses with bailouts and faux-tariffs that inadvertently trigger a trade war… 

The Cove and the Self-Righteousness of Activists

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on January 21, 2010 at 1:00 pm

The Cove, a 2009 documentary directed by former National Geographic photographer Louis Psihoyos, boasts an enviable collection of awards and critical acclaim.  The film won audience awards at Sundance, Hot Docs, Silver Docs, Sydney, and Maui, Golden Space Needle in Seattle, Best Feature Documentary in Galway, Best Theatrical and Best in Festival at Blue Ocean, Truly Moving Picture at Heartland, Best Feature Film and Best Storytelling in Nantucket, Winner at Newport Beach, Jury Award in Traverse City, and was selected Best Documentary by the National Board of Review, L.A. Film Critics, and New York Film Critics Online.  The Cove has a 95% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 82 on Metacritic.  It has been shortlisted for a Best Documentary nomination for the 2010 Academy Awards.  In the words of Metacritic, that is “universal acclaim.”

The film’s subject is dolphin hunting in Japan: a group of American activists sneak into a private cove used by local fishermen to trap migrating dolphins and film the subsequent slaughter. Yes—that’s right—the Japanese hunt and murder/death/kill cute little baby genius dolphins like Darwin from Seaquest.  While South Park devoted an entire episode to ripping the documentary, Michelle Orange of Movie Line puts it best:

How much of this (The Cove) should we believe? As a piece of propaganda, The Cove is brilliant; as a story of ingenuity and triumph over what seems like senseless brutality, it is exceptionally well-told; but as a conscientious overview of a complex and deeply fraught, layered issue, it invokes the same phrase as even the most well-intentioned, impassioned activist docs: Buyer beware. 

Japanese consumption of whale and dolphin meat and Japan’s general spurning of International Whaling Commission resolutions are extremely complex issues that should be examined soberly.  Unfortunately, the activists in The Cove—like many of the louder, more self-righteous environmentalists—skip the part where they take time to consider the multifaceted, layered issue and rush blindly in convinced the world is comprised of evil, greedy men for them to battle.  Even more unfortunately, this attitude turns off many naturally skeptical people (the support of which the environmental movement sorely needs) from real and important causes.

From the Japanese perspective, whales and dolphins are not particularly special.  There is a significant body of scientific evidence to support the Japanese position: while cetaceans do have large, complex brains, much of their neurons are devoted to the maintenance of large bodies and energy-intensive sonar lobes.  Much of dolphins’s charm is attributable to their “smile”—an accident of evolution—and the fact that they live in the ocean: limited encounters with human beings (who historically have killed most animals they came across) has made dolphins noticeably social and docile.   

In certain parts of Japan, dolphins are food, just as cows are food in America but not in India.  Imagine if a group of devout Hindus snuck into a Chicago Jurgis Rudkus-style slaughterhouse and pieced together a documentary about how Americans were a bunch of savages for murdering holy cows, complete with graphic shots of cows’s heads being cut off, spliced Michael Moore style with out-of-context footage of slaughterhouse workers laughing, complete with a Samuel Barber soundtrack.  When the ensuing mob crowds the slaughterhouse and attempts to shut down business, the humble meatpackers would surely be perplexed.

Much of Western Civilization’s image of dolphins as superbeings originates in the work of John C. Lilly , a 1960s counterculture physician convinced that LSD was a magical drug capable of enhancing consciousness.  Lilly, who described himself as a psychonaut, used to drop acid and swim with dolphins then write “research papers” on the ensuing awesome spiritual journeys and the wisdom bequeathed by the noble cetaceans.  It should come as no shock that most of the rest of the world does not have the same mystical perspective of dolphins as Westerners. 

Hayden whatever gets arrested by the evil Japanese.This is not to say that the comparison of dolphins with cows is fair.  Cows are bred specifically for consumption: they wouldn’t even be alive if there were not human demand for their milk and their meat.  If cows went extinct, it might even be good for the environment.  Dolphins, on the other hand, are part of the natural ecosystem.  Hunting them at large scales interferes with the natural ecological order and inevitably brings about unanticipated consequences. 

Nor do the dubious origins of research into dolphin intelligence imply that dolphins are not intelligent.  There are plenty of comprehensive studies on the abilities of dolphins and whales to communicate and recognize patterns—enough for the world outside of Japan to conclude that for the time being, there should be a moratorium on killing them.  However, it is important to note here that the IWC only covers large cetaceans and the ban on whaling is for ecological—not humanitarian—reasons.  There are no arguments based in international law to indict the Japanese. 

Brendan O’Neill of Spiked goes so far as to describe the film as racist:

The Japanese are depicted as suppressed and unquestioning: we’re shown speeded-up footage of hordes of Japanese people walking through garishly-lit, buzzing city centres, their travels to work or home crudely reduced to pointless, super-fast marching through the streets, and we’re told that there’s a saying in Japan that ‘if a nail is sticking up, pound it down’ – in other words, Japanese culture is stultifyingly automaton. Where old racist America depicted the Japanese as rats, contemporary countercultural America depicts them as members of a rat race. The Taiji fishermen – sorry, the hook-wielding crazy killers of beautiful dolphins – come off the worst. The film dehumanises them to an alarming degree.

While I sympathize with O’Neill’s premise, I disagree with him on several points.  The filmmakers interview many people in Tokyo, all of whom are unaware of the dolphin-slaughter.  Ric O’Barry, the activist hero of The Cove, remarks in response: “how can an activity be traditional if no one knows about it?”  As a counterpoint, consider that no one in America knew about helicopter wolf-hunting until Sarah Palin ran for Vice President.  Cajun food is undoubtedly an American tradition—one of the oldest—but ask people in Chicago if they know how to cook it or even what the ingredients are, and you’ll get a lot of blank stares as well.  

Tokyo is a busy city where young people go to pursue successful careers and social climb.  Very few people in Tokyo would be aware of a small group of fishermen in a small village hundreds of kilometers away hunting an animal without any cultural mystique in Japan.  The contention that public ignorance and lack of outrage implies some government coverup doesn’t make the filmmakers racists so much as it makes them morons cum manipulative assholes.  Furthermore, Japanese civilization is populous and diverse.  The idea that something traditional in one part of Japan must be traditional throughout the country betrays a lack of imagination on the part of the filmmakers. 

However, although it is unrelated to the central thrust of the documentary, I do think the filmmakers have a point in this regard: Japanese culture is undoubtedly suppressed and unquestioning, although this is a relatively recent development.  The Japanese school system is nationally standardized and largely based on that of the Second Reich (we know where that lack of instruction in critical thinking and skepticism led).  All students must wear the same clothes, eat the same lunch, and do the same work, regardless of individual ability or interest.  Many elementary schools even manage a logbook of what the child did outside of school time, including with whom the child played.  Schools assign students friends and often sever organic friendships if they think they are unproductive.  

Social engineering in Japan realized the goal of creating obedient, hard-working factory workers and paper-pushers to fuel the economy long ago.  To criticize this creativity-sapping ideal of uniformity is not racist, nor is it necessarily a product of chauvinistic American countercultural thinking; but it is a moral imperative for anyone who cares about the future of Japan.

Nevertheless, The Cove‘s analysis of the issue-at-hand—Japanese consumption of dolphin meat—misses the mark entirely.  The typical Japanese response to Western efforts to stop whale and dolphin killing relies on asserting whaling and cetacean consumption as an indispensable part of Japanese culture.  The Cove postulates that consumption of cetaceans is, in fact, not a part of Japanese culture, but rather the effect of recent government propaganda.  The truth is that the Japanese have been eating whale and dolphin meat for hundreds of years, and it is undoubtedly a part of their culture, but so what?  

Whaling was a huge part of American culture, too—as anyone who’s been to New Bedford or Nantucket or read the great masterpiece of American Literature, Moby Dick, knows.  Slavery was also a huge part of American culture for a very long time.  Decapitating Chinese prisoners with samurai swords and suicide-bombing was part of Japanese culture before and during World War II, but the Japanese don’t do that anymore, and Americans do not have slaves.

This is because societies change their practices as they become more civilized.  Whaling was originally banned in the United States because we hunted whales to near extinction.  In 1986, western countries convinced the IWC to ban the practice worldwide, in no small part due to a public zeitgeist which acknowledged that cetaceans may possess not insignificant intelligence.  The idea that something cannot be stopped because it is a part of one’s culture is laughable (and perhaps the inevitable product of a school system that ignores the development of critical thinking skills).

The Japanese response to the IWC ban was to halt “commercial whaling”, but begin publically financing the slaughter of whales for “scientific research” such as weighing and measuring the length and width of dead whales.  Since the whales are already dead for scientific reasons, their meat is sold to the highest bidder or donated to the school system, to prevent waste.  Whale is regularly available to eat in Japan despite international bans on commercial whaling.  I’ve eaten it.  It’s not very good.  And before the ban whale was the cheapest “fish” available.

The more conservative elements of the older generation often lament the increased price of whale meat due to international bans and the limits of the Japanese government’s ability to defy them and still keep face.  Their solution has been to indoctrinate youth via mandatory whale school lunches.  In Japan, all students must eat the same thing for lunch.  This may sound ridiculous to Americans who have not experienced military training or fraternity hazing, but ordering people to do illogical, pointless things is a proven method of effective social engineering.  Thus, Japanese schoolchildren are forced to eat whale and then told it’s a part of their culture.  This way, the myth is perpetuated.  

More importantly, donating whale meat to the school system in exchange for subsidies allows fishermen to keep their jobs, and conveniently circumvents the “commercial” part of the IWC’s ban on commercial whaling.  The absurd waste of the Japanese government’s subsidizing the killing of whales to feed children food they don’t want to eat demonstrates the vacuousness of Japan’s argument.  

Japan should stop whaling because the resources of the seas do not belong to it, the Japanese take more than their fair share of common marine resources, and almost every other nation considers the practice of whaling outmoded and barbaric.  Since the seas and their inhabitants are property common to every nation, Japan should respect international resolutions and cease defying them with pathetic excuses designed to allow for the exchange of subsidies for donations.

When the cultural and scientific research arguments fail, the Japanese delegation at the IWC often spuriously argues that whales and dolphins are depleting world fisheries.  This is the same argument used to justify the slaughter of large carnivores such as wolves, bears, and tigers that has led many of them to become endangered species, if not altogether extinct.  The real agent driving world fisheries to exhaustion is doubtlessly people, and the nation consuming the largest share of fish is Japan.  

global distribution of fish catchThis brings up a good point which the film briefly touched on but would have been better served as the focal point: the world’s fisheries are indeed being rapidly depleted, and the Japanese, and increasingly, their numerous and sushi-loving Chinese neighbors play no small role.  If the Japanese were honestly basing their consumption of whales and dolphins on a desire to save the world’s fisheries, they would stop eating sashimi twice a day. 

A final point of note is that whale and dolphin meat contain unsafe levels of mercury.  The Cove focuses on this to a large degree, and it is a public health issue that is largely ignored in Japan: a nation with a long history of ignoring public health issues.  Many elderly Japanese consume tuna sashimi everyday.  As with chronic smokers, the attitude towards hydrargyria (inorganic mercury poisoning from consuming too much large fish resulting in irreversible peripheral nerve and brain damage) is that, “I’ve been eating tuna everyday for years and I have no problems.  I love tuna.  It’s too late to cut down.”  

Ironically, methyl-mercury has a short half life of about 50 days, and if there are no symptoms of disease, mercury levels can be dramatically reduced in a short time-span.  Furthermore, mercury levels increase via bioaccumulation: thirty years ago, mercury poisoning was not really an issue.  Now, it is starting to become one, and in the future—if there are still any tuna left—they will doubtlessly be far less fit for consumption than they are today.  So, the argument that one has been eating tuna for years with no problems falls apart: the tuna of thirty years ago was a different animal entirely. 

bioaccumulation of mercuryWhile hydrargyria is a serious problem that is likely to become a major public health concern in the future, the filmmakers disingenuously compare it to Minamata Disease, which results in severe birth defects, insanity, sudden blindness, deafness, paralysis, coma, rapid deterioration of the mental faculties, and painful slow death.  Hydrargyria is a result of chronic exposure to trace levels of mercury accumulated in the world’s oceans, whereas Minamata Disease results from sudden exposure to very high levels of mercury.  Minamata Disease originally occurred as a result of the Chisso Corporation dumping large amounts of toxic mercury into Minamata Bay over a period of sixty years dating from 1908, during which the company paid off local fishing lobbies and continued to dump even well after disease broke out.  The Japanese government did nothing to stop it, nor did it begin to compensate victims until 1973.  While Minamata Disease was, and continues to be, a terrible episode in Japanese history, it is not quite at the same level as the Japanese government allowing or promoting the consumption of whale and dolphin meat.  

Nevertheless, dolphin meat does contain five times the international standard for safe consumption.  It is grossly irresponsible and morally repugnant to both encourage its consumption and to force schoolchildren to eat it in the spirit of some strange, stubborn nationalism.  Yet, eating large amounts of whale and dolphin has been characterized as quintessential Japanese culture, and to oppose their consumption is seen, of course, as another form of western cultural imperialism imposed on a nation that has already lost so much to provincial Americanization and is in the midst of a cultural reassertion.  Western activists assuredly face an uphill battle, especially if they plan on continuing to stereotype and insult the Japanese.

The problem is not that killing dolphins and whales is inherently immoral.  The makers of The Cove seem to take this as fact and jump right into a Joseph Campbell-esque good vs. evil narrative.  In the process, the filmmakers unfortunately repulse many thoughtful, potentially sympathetic viewers.  The real problem with Japanese consumption of whale and dolphin meat is that the Japanese are taking more than their fair share of a resource that belongs to everybody despite unanimous censure as well as humanitarian, ecological, and public health concerns.  Their reasons for doing so are poorly articulated and spurious.  The consumption of cetaceans deserves treatment as a serious issue, not as the sensationalistic propaganda for which the environmental movement is sadly notorious.

Priorities, Priorities…

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on January 21, 2010 at 3:34 am

Taro Aso, the W of Japan, is angry.Here’s a good article from the Times, describing the tendency of crotchety older Japanese to blame all the country’s problems on its straightlaced and well-behaved youth.  Although I generally don’t think it’s that simple. 

The writer, Leo Lewis, begins the article by describing a sign advising people not to litter, because littering is apparently immoral.  The sign is next to advertisements for a brothel, gambling facility, and a money laundering service.  The intended effect is to point out the hypocrisy of the Japanese: something as small as littering is immoral, and this needs to be taught to the youth of the nation via loud, in-your-face propaganda.  Meanwhile the big sins of prostitution, gambling, and money laundering through the yakuza are allowed to continue, because the older generation apparently likes those.

Well?  It looks like Lewis has succumbed to the paranoia a life in Japan tends to foster.  And even if his interpretation is fair, I kind of agree with the jijis and babas on this one, in keeping with my general theory on life that you should be able to do whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt another person. Littering places the collective burden of cleanup on society.  Prostitution, on the other hand, is the exchange of a voluntary service for a voluntary fee, but only in countries where it’s officially legal, or de facto legal as in Japan.  Prostitution in the U.S. and Britain is a totally different animal: dangerous precisely because it’s illegal and unregulated.

Gambling should be legal everywhere anyways.  It already is via the internet, and blackjack is regularly played in bars across Japan.  The idea that people shouldn’t be free to lose all their money suggests that other people are too stupid to control themselves, or that they don’t deserve that right. 

Money laundering through the yakuza is probably the grayest item on Lewis’s list, but only if you believe the government is the ultimate moral authority.  The yakuza is what controls, regulates, and keeps safe and profitable Japan’s gambling and prostitution industries!  If there were no yakuza, gambling and prostitution would be really dangerous, and the real Japanese government could not pretend that those things were illegal in Japan in an effort to kiss the asses of western countries.  If the yakuza is not itself a regulatory force which competes with the Japanese government, is it not then a branch of the government?

I agree with Lewis that the older generation in Japan tends to have an entitlement complex and needs to shut up – and that AC shit is creepy. (Here’s a public service announcement reminding mothers not to do stimulants.)  ūüôā  Just the other day, I was riding the train, my cell phone went off because I forgot to put it on vibrate, and an old lady screamed at me to shut-up.  But old people in every country do stuff like that sometimes; far from suggesting a mass-conspiracy as Lewis does, I usually just chalk it up to hemorrhoids and mercury poisoning.