Friday, January 13, 2012

The Failure of the Century's Grand Experiments

If there is one obvious condition associated with the last century, it is the lack of government humility. Among the century’s leadership there was the self confident belief that “good ideas” will trump tradition, customs, history, even instinct. There were scarcely limits to political ingenuity. Here was the triumph of positivism, the assumption that rationality can subdue emotion. The engineers were in history’s driver’s seat and the lights appeared to be synchronized in green. Somewhere along the way things went wrong and the lights turned crimson.

For public policy sophisticates, the imperfections in the free market suggested a reliance on planned capitalism. Former President Clinton embodied this view when he said “we can pick the winners in the economy and encourage them with appropriate incentives.” Erstwhile President George W. Bush referred to his domestic policy as “compassionate conservatism,” a belief predicated on government acting as a charity. And President Obama outdid his predecessors by actually inserting government as a partial owner of private enterprises, e.g. AIG, General Motors.

Each of these presidents was persuaded that government intervention was necessary to address market failures. But the most significant failure of all was not recognizing the debilitating influence of active government. For example, the notion that home ownership should be extended as a way to ensure social stability led to decisions by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that perverted the real estate market across the globe. Instead of relying on standard collateral estimates as a home buying prerequisite, banking rules were suspended. After all, the government could guarantee losses and the valuation of housing inexorably rises…until it doesn’t and the government cannot absorb the enormous debt. Now the failure is clear, but instead of taking responsibility for a misguided policy, the pols point accusatory fingers at Wall Street brokers who were given “make rich” arrangements through government securitization. In a curious revision of history, the market became the culprit and government officials the saviors.

At the end of World War II European planners argued that continental stability can be achieved through integration. The model was the United States of America, a nation cobbled together through a unifying Constitution and transactions designed to bring order to the new nation. Western Europe had to overcome centuries of independent national evolution, language barriers and idiosyncratic policy perspectives. These impediments did not deter the continental dreamers. Their catalyst for the union was a common currency, the euro.

While recommendations about fiscal policy abounded and rules (the Maastricht Accord) were advertised, observance occurred in the breach. Cradle to grave security was guaranteed and governments were elected on the premise that unproductive labor can be bailed out and supported through debt instruments and inflation. However in 2011 the dream became a nightmare as Greece became the first of several European nations to display the ugly side of insolvency. Not only do the banks require refinancing, but sovereign debt threatens to destabilize several major nations, i.e. Italy, Portugal, Spain.

The unraveling of the euro is a plausible outcome and integration probably has less of a chance of success than a return to what I would call “deharmonization,” the breakup into individual states. The Euroskeptics of the last fifty years realized something the planners overlooked: arrogance cannot overcome nationalism, especially when the will of the public is overlooked.

Last and most tellingly is the view that democracy can be imposed without regard to the institutional infrastructure needed to sustain it. Voting is a slim reed on which to keep democracy afloat, albeit a necessary condition. Democracy requires individual rights, minority rights, private property guarantees, the rule of law, etc. The expression of the citizenry – while desirable – is often fickle and mercurial. It must be placed in a framework of guarantees. When the Arab street released the shackles of dictatorship, many analysts assumed the results would be flourishing democracies. At the moment these high hopes are being converted into Islamist codes of shariah that defy the framework for democracy. Ataturk may have been successful in imposing a form of democracy on Turkey, but this case appears to be the exception. Talk of democracy does not yield democratic infrastructure, as China among others indicates.

Clearly democratic institutions are more likely to instill stability than tyranny, but free elections can result in unfree conditions. While generalizations about Arab nations are foolhearty since Morocco, to cite one example, is very different from adjacent Algeria; I believe it is fair to say that for many the Arab Spring is emerging as the Arab Winter.

What these three illustrations have in common is an abiding faith in planning, notwithstanding history’s agnosticism about this subject. The planners believe they know more than the citizens they represent; they are more insightful than the “invisible hand” and they can use the power of their prodigious intelligence to overcome the traditions passed on through centuries. These grotesque failures prove a different point: hubris will inevitably lead to defeat. The grand schemes of the twentieth and twenty-first century have ended up on the rocky shoals of despair. False prophets are ultimately unmasked and what we observe at the moment isn’t a pretty picture.

But the beat goes on as yet another generation of dreamers schemes to reshape the world without regard to human impulses. It is as if the lessons of the past are to be ignored. Alas, that is the one matter I am confident will reoccur.


What's the matter? Half a million children aged under 15 in Britain are unhappy

Over 64 pages, it sets out to provide a detailed analysis of what makes children in modern Britain happy. Yet the traditional family unit is given such little importance in the report by the Children’s Society that the word ‘marriage’ does not merit even a single mention.

The charity insists it is the quality of the relationships within a family, rather than its structure, which has the biggest impact on a child’s well-being. But last night family campaigners expressed dismay that the importance of marriage could be so casually dismissed by an organisation with close links to the Church.

The report – called Good Childhood – studied 6,000 youngsters aged eight to 15 to provide a snapshot of modern childhood and suggest how their life prospects could be improved.

Worryingly, it concluded that at any one time one in every 11 – equating to half a million across the country – were unhappy with their lives.

The research, endorsed by the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu, one of the charity’s presidents, states the roots of happiness lie in stability and calm at home.

But it also said material possessions have a significant impact, with iPods, designer trainers, satellite TV and ‘the right clothes’ regarded as vital elements of a child’s well-being.

The findings run counter to its previous studies. Three years ago the Children’s Society published a report in which it said children do best when brought up by two parents with a long-term commitment to each other, and warned that co-habiting relationships were more likely to break up and damage children.

Yesterday’s report, however, said it was not important that children lived with their birth parents. It declared: ‘It is not the structure, but the relationships within a family that children care about. Loving relationships between a child and their family are ten times more powerful than family structure in increasing well-being.

‘Our research shows that the quality of children’s relationships with their families is far more important than the particular structure of the family that they live in.’ But it continued: ‘Stability is important. Children who experience a change in family members they are living with are twice as likely to experience low well-being.

'The quality if children's relationships with their families is far more important than the particular structure of the family they live in'

‘In general, children living with both birth parents in the same house have higher levels of well-being than children living in other family arrangements. However this is not necessarily comparing like with like.

‘Children not living with both birth parents are also much more likely to have experienced recent family change, which is also an important factor associated with levels of well-being.’

The report also found material factors were of deep importance. ‘Children in families who have experienced a reduction in income are more likely to have low well-being,’ it said.

‘Children who do not have clothes to “fit in” with peers are more than three times as likely to be unhappy with their appearance. Around a third say they often worry about the way they look.’

The society produced an ‘index of material well-being’ to measure ‘items and experiences which children feel are important for them to have a “normal” childhood’. The list included designer trainers and cable or satellite TV at home.

Launching the report yesterday, Dr Sentamu said: ‘We should see this report not as simply an interesting piece of research but an urgent clarion call to action. Can we move beyond narrow measures of human success such as health and financial security to ask harder questions about personal fulfilment or what is known as subjective well-being – in other words people’s contentment with their life as a whole?’

But there was criticism from campaigners for family life. Norman Wells, of the Family Education Trust, said: ‘It is disturbing that a report published by a charity dedicated to encouraging policies that promote the welfare of children should have nothing to say about the positive and protective value of marriage.

‘There is a mountain of evidence that demonstrates that children living with their own married parents tend to have fewer emotional and behavioural problems, enjoy better health, do better academically, and have lower levels of stress, depression and anxiety.

‘Since subjective well-being is notoriously difficult to define and even harder to measure, there is no basis for asserting on the basis of a study of this nature that family structure has little or no effect on a child’s well-being.’

Researcher and author Jill Kirby said: ‘The best guardian of stability for children is having two married parents. The Children’s Society is ignoring that in favour of a materialistic disposable society.’


Egyptian Christian Media Mogul Put on Trial for ‘Insulting Islam’ With Cartoon of Bearded Mickey Mouse, Burqa-Clad Minnie‏

You may recall that back in June of 2011, The Blaze reported on a prominent Christian Egyptian media mogul who elicited widespread outrage by Islamists over tweeting cartoon images of Mickey and Minnie Mouse clad in Islamic-garb. In the tweet, Minnie donned a burqa while Mickey sported a traditional Islamic beard.

Now, that man faces trial on a charge of insulting Islam, lawyers said Monday, based on his relaying the cartoons on his Twitter account.

The case dates back to June, when Naguib Sawiris posted a cartoon showing a bearded Mickey Mouse and veiled Minnie. He made a public apology after Islamists complained, but his action set off a boycott of his telecom company and other outlets. He said it was supposed to be a joke and apologized, but lawyer Mamdouh Ismail filed a formal complaint against him.

After investigation, the prosecution set the trial for Jan. 14. Sawiris was not available for comment.

The case is linked to developments in Egypt after the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak last February. Sawiris and Ismail belong to competing political parties, and sectarian violence between Christians and Islamists has been on the upswing. In Egypt’s parliamentary elections, Islamist parties have won a large majority, leaving liberals far behind.

Sawiris co-founded a liberal party, and Ismail heads a party representing ultraconservative Salafi Muslims.

The case has added to fears among many that ultraconservative Islamists may use their new found powers to try to stifle freedom of expression.

Ismail countered that, saying he took legal action against Sawiris because he wants the law to be respected by all, even a famous businessman and politician, in the post-Mubarak era. “The revolution came about because we all are seeking the rule of law without any exceptions,” he said. The charge is punishable by up to one year in prison.

Rights lawyer Gamal Eid said the contempt of religion law, in place even before Mubarak came to power, has been used against scholars and activists whose comments about Islam angered conservatives. He warned that the wording of the law is vague, and it can become a tool in the hands of prosecutors to punish opponents and appease authorities. “Contempt of religion is a very vague term, and the prosecution has taken the radical interpretation,” he said, “raising questions of whether this is a legal or a political matter.”

Last week, a Coptic Christian student was arrested and referred to trial for posting a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad on Facebook. That triggered two days of violence in southern Egypt.

Muslims generally oppose any depiction of the prophet, even favorable ones, for fear it could lead to idolatry. This drawing showed four women asking for the prophet’s hand in marriage.


And now a word for our sponsor

Ezra Klein

Advertising has helped stock the storehouse of human knowledge

For much of the 19th century, newspapers were financed by political parties. It was a transparent, transactional relationship: the newspaper would officially partner with a political party, and in return it received direct infusions of cash, customers and even news.

The cash would come from the party's budget, the customers from the party's base and the news from the party's politicians. In return, the party had total control over what the newspaper did and didn't publish.

Yet by the end of the 20th century, there were hardly any party-affiliated newspapers left. Many people assume it was a triumph of journalistic ethics over partisan politics. But in a paper published in the November 2011 edition of the American Political Science Review, Maria Petrova suggests that the real story is less inspiring.

"Newspapers' independence was positively related to the local profitability of advertising," she writes. "In the areas with faster-growing advertising markets, newspapers were more likely to be independent. The effect of advertising worked both through the entry of new newspapers and through changes in the affiliation of existing newspapers."

In other words, the news found a more lucrative patron than political parties: advertisers. This business model, though, required a different news model. "If the profitability of advertising is high, then it is costly for media outlets to distort their news coverage in the direction desired by a subsidising group," Petrova writes. "Any deviation from the coverage that maximises audience means the loss of audience and the loss of corresponding advertising revenues."

That was, in many ways, a good thing. The "objective" newspaper was certainly preferable to the propaganda outlets that preceded it. But objectivity wasn't just about the news. It was also about keeping audiences large and advertisers happy. It was part of a business strategy. That meant it could often induce a kind of studied inoffensiveness, an unwillingness to speak truths that audiences didn't want to hear. Still, the post-advertising newspapers were trustworthy, independent sources of information. Before moving to the advertising model, they weren't.

The news is not the only form of mass information that appears free while actually supporting itself through advertising. One of the most mind-bending facts of our information culture is that almost every major medium of information supports itself by advertising.

Radio? Advertisers. Magazines? Advertisers. Television? Advertisers. Google? Advertisers. Facebook? Advertisers. Twitter? Advertisers. Perhaps the only major exceptions to this rule are books, which are supported by sales, and Wikipedia, which is supported largely through donations.

From an economic standpoint, most information is simply a vehicle for advertising. We see the advertising as a distraction. But so far as the media company's bottom line goes, the advertising is the point. Without the advertising, the information wouldn't exist. So the history of information is the history of platforms that could support advertising.

That doesn't make advertising evil, or platforms that rely on it untrustworthy. In important ways, advertisers are the ideal sponsors for information. There are many of them, so no individual advertiser wields total power. They are, themselves, trying to convey information that consumers often find useful. And their interests are sufficiently narrow that it's rare for the information they're sponsoring to truly pose a problem for them - Myer, for instance, has few opinions on defence policy.

They blend into the background so well that we can occasionally forget that they are there. Technology optimists like to say that "information wants to be free". Perhaps the truer way to put it is that consumers want information to be free. And advertising makes it look free. But being free and looking free are not the same thing. In fact, they can be even more different than being free and being expensive, because at least in that comparison, the difference is obvious.

This is truer on the internet than it ever was in newspapers or on television. At least with newspapers and television, the advertising was directly in front of you, and your interaction with it was straightforward. In the case of newspapers and, later, cable television, you were paying something - you knew the information wasn't free.

Online, you not only are exposed to advertisements, but the data on what you search, where you go and what you do are fed to advertisers so they can better target their appeals. You're often paying nothing for the experience, at work or in a cafe. As the information appears ever more free, the hidden costs are growing correspondingly greater.

The point of this column is not to warn against the dangers of advertising. It's that our informational commons is, for the most part, built atop a latticework of advertising platforms. In that way, it's possible that no single industry has done as much to advance the storehouse of accessible human knowledge in the 20th century as advertisers. They didn't do it because they are philanthropists, and they didn't do it because they love information. But they did it nevertheless.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN (Note that EYE ON BRITAIN has regular posts on the reality of socialized medicine). My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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