Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Great Moments in Globalization, Part n of a Series

I’m eating leftovers from the Thai restaurant just up the hill, and washing it down with French tea with a tipple of Russian vodka poured in. I’m sitting down to do some writing on laptop that was designed and built in Japan, using open-source software that was designed and coded by volunteers all over the world. To soundtrack my writing, I’ll be listening to a band from Spain who are named after a town in England, on my headphones that were designed in Germany and assembled in China.

Poor Grammar is a Dangerous Thing

Bad grammar convicts Ambassador of war crimes.

The quote from the article:

The officials, Pierre-Richard Prosper, a former United States ambassador at large for war crimes [Ed.—you can’t make this shit up], and Michael Shanklin, a former Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Mogadishu, are both serving as advisers to the Somali government, according to people involved in the project. Both Mr. Prosper and Mr. Shanklin are apparently being paid by the United Arab Emirates.

From Mssr. Prosper’s wikipedia page:

Pierre-Richard Prosper (born 1963 in Denver, Colorado, USA) is an American lawyer, prosecutor and former government official. He served as the second United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005.

Sometimes hyphens make all the difference.

The SotU, summarized.

A large part of it, anyway.

Damon Root, over at Reason’s LiveBlog of the SotU, wins this one, I think:

Instead of corporate welfare for yesterday’s firms, corporate welfare for tomorrow’s.

EDIT: Root will actually be splitting the prize with Brian Doherty for this gem of a summary:

Smoked Salmon, drilling a 2,000 foot hole to our future.

We Believe This to Be Neither a First Nor a Last

Magic Blue Smoke believes Rejectamentalist Manifesto’s beliefs regarding the government’s habit of “believing” to be well-founded and believe we agree with RM’s belief that government beliefs should be held in suspicion.


The Economics of Culture

One of the unfortunate truths about economic development, is that it’s not just about the measurable, tangible parts of a national condition. A big part of economic development also comes down to culture. Writing in the January issue of Foreign Affairs, Óscar Arias makes the case that there are traits found in Latin American culture that inhibit growth and development in the region.

From the article (sub required):

Nearly two centuries after the countries of Latin America gained their independence from Spain and Portugal, not one of them is truly developed. Where have they gone wrong? Why have countries in other regions, once far behind, managed to achieve relatively quickly results that Latin American countries have aspired to for so long?

Many in the region respond to such questions with conspiracy theories or self-pitying excuses. They blame the Spanish empire, for making off with the region’s riches in the past, or the American empire, which supposedly continues to bleed it dry today. They say that international financial institutions have schemed to hold the region back, that globalization was deliberately designed to keep it in the shadows. In short, they place the blame for underdevelopment anywhere but on Latin America itself.

Arias goes on to identify four cultural traits which, he claims, are currently holding Latin American nations back from economic development: “resistance to change, absence of confidence, fragile democratic norms, and a soft spot for militarism.”

I’ve always been interested by the ways fuzzy things like culture impact issues of national development and success. I’ve long thought that America’s greatest economic asset (and a large part of the reason why we are currently responsible for about a quarter of the world’s GDP) is a culture of innovation and embracing social change. (This, by the way, is one thing that we share with Japan who has, for years, been one of the strongest economies in Asia. This might be coincidence, but I like to think it’s correlation. Japan, after all, is a culture obsessed with newness, innovation, and the future. For more on that, see this great essay on Japan by William Gibson.)

If there is a strong correlation between economic strength and cultural neophilia, then Arias’ comments about Latin America’s perpetual resistance to change seem like not only a credible critique, but a pretty damning one.

From the FA article:

Latin Americans glorify their past so ceaselessly that they make it almost impossible to advocate change. Instead of a culture of improvement, they have promoted a culture of preservation of the status quo. Constant, patient reform … is unsatisfying; the region accepts what exists, while occasionally pining for dramatic revolutions that promise abundant treasures one one insurrection away.

This quote also dovetails nicely with Arias’ comments on the regions persistent militarism. But what interested me was that this showed not only a disregard for progress, but also a simultaneous impatience with it. Not only do Latin American cultures look to the past rather than the future, they are also, according to Arias, impatient when the future they’re ignoring takes too long to arrive.

Contrast this with modern America or with the Japan as described by Gibson in the article linked above; people in both countries expect that things will change and improve over time and enthusiastically embrace such changes (no matter how gradual.)

We’ve now reached the point in the post where I make a massive and entirely unsupported leap. I’ve given two examples where having a future-oriented culture coincides with prosperity and one example where having a past-oriented culture coincides with stagnation. This is enough to hint at, though not establish, correlation.

But I genuinely believe that there’s a causative relationship at play. In fact, I think that some level of neophilia in a culture is a huge benefit to economic growth, since it inclines people to embrace new technologies, ideologies, and lifestyles. This encourages diversity in the economy, which in turn spurs competition, which leads to greater adoption of better ways of living. This drives efficiency and innovation, and hence growth.

Now, of course, I would love to be able to prove that. But other than simply identifying which countries I think have some measure of neophilia, versus those that are (for lack of a better terms) neophobic, and then plotting their GDPs, I wouldn’t know how to go about it. As such, I’ll follow in the proud tradition of math and CS books everywhere and leave the proof as an exercise to the reader.

Of course there are other interesting explanations for this correlation, should it exist. One is that economic progress, in fact, causes neophilia. Perhaps seeing the fruits of economic growth leads people to wonder what else the future might hold for a developing nation and, as such, fosters amongst its populace a more forward-looking culture. This could explain, for instance, the 1950s obsession with science fiction and futurism. A post-war nation in the middle of the economic boom, which was seeing incredible scientific and technological developments and was in the middle of one of the biggest standard-of-living increases in its history, might naturally look to the future with wonderment and desire.

Similarly, perhaps the relationship between forward-looking culture and economic progress is in some sense reciprocal. Maybe neophilia and economic progress share at least one sufficient condition (e.g. strong individual liberty).

Maybe the correlation is purely incidental based on cultural imitation. I.e., those nations that are currently best-off are neophilic. They trade with a variety of other nations, and this trade brings about increasing prosperity for this trade partners. In addition, this trade ALSO helps spread cultural traits, including neophilia. This would mean that neophilia is, in some sense, a noise artifact cause by trade with wealthy countries that just happen to be neophilic.

One last thought on this occurs to me. If one grants as true that cultures exist on a spectrum in terms of their levels of neophilia, then there might be a global analog to Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations curve1. Some technology (e.g. the cellphone or, per Patri Friedman, the technology of Liberal Democracy) gets invented in one nation and is early-adopted by wealthy, future-oriented countries. It then diffuses to wealthy, but future-neutral countries, then eventually to poorer and neophobic nations adopt it last.

Of course this is all just speculation, and exceedingly hard to prove. Still, I am fairly certain that the relationship between cultural neophilia and economic prosperity is not only real, but causative. As it stands, there seems strong evidence that, at least in the case of Latin America, suspicion of the new has helped lead not to stability and security as come wish to suggest it would, but rather to poverty and conflict.

^1 For more on this topic, see Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations. Then, if it’s any good, let me know because I’ve been meaning for years to read it, but haven’t ever gotten around to it.^

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.