No true war is bad?

On Facebook, my frined Timothy Scriven pointed to an opinion piece by classics professor Ian Morris headlined In the long run, wars make us safer and richer It’s pushing a book with the clickbaity title War! What is it Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots.”. Timothy correctly guessed that I wouldn’t like it.

Based on the headline, I was expecting a claim along the lines “wars stimulate technological progress” which I refuted (to my own satisfaction at any rate) in Economics in Two Lessons”. But the argument is much stranger than this. The claim is that war, despite its brutality created big states, like the Roman empire, which then delivered peace and prosperity.

For the classical world at 100 CE or so, the era on which Morris is an expert, that argument seemed pretty convincing. As the famous Life of Brian sketch suggests, Roman rule delivered a lot of benefits to its conquered provinces.

The next 1900 years or so present a bit of a problem, though. There have been countless wars in that time, and no trend towards bigger states. On the contrary two or three dozen states (depending on how you count them) now occupy the territory of the former Roman Empire.

You could cut the number down a bit by treating the European Union as a new empire, but then you have an even bigger problem. The EU was not formed through war, but through a determination to avoid it. Whatever you think about the EU in other respects, this goal has been achieved.

Morris avoids the problem by a “no true Scotsman” argument. He admits in passing that the 1000 years of war following the high point of Rome had the effect of breaking down larger, safer societies into smaller, more dangerous ones, but returns with relief to the era of true wars, in which big states always win. That story works, roughly, until 1914, when the empires he admires destroyed themselves, killing millions in the process.

After that, the argument descends into Pinker-style nonsense. While repeating the usual stats about the decline in violent deaths, Morris mentions in passing that a nuclear war could cause billions of deaths. He doesn’t consider the obvious anthropic fallacy problem – if such a war had happened, there would not be any op-eds in the Washington Post discussing the implications for life expectancy.

I haven’t read the book, and don’t intend to. If someone can’t present a 700 word summary of their argument without looking silly, they shouldn’t write opinion pieces. But, for what its worth, FB friends who have read it agree that it’s not very good.

Passports (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

I was looking over this post from 2016, on the consequences of a relatively successful Brexit

I’m finding it hard to see that anything will happen to justify the massive effort involved. The Poles and other EU citizens whose presence was the biggest single justification for Brexit won’t go away. On the contrary, it seems pretty clear that all EU citizens will get permanent residence, even those who arrived after the Brexit vote. Even with a hard Brexit, the benefits of consistency with EU regulations will be overwhelming. The terms of any trade deal with non-EU countries won’t be any better than the existing EU deals and probably worse. Even symbolically, what’s going to happen? Typically, national independence is marked by a ceremony where the flag of the imperial power is lowered, and the new national flag is raised. But, from what I can tell, the EU flag is hardly ever flown in the UK as it is. The same for national currency, passport, official languages and all the other symbolic representations of nationhood. So, after a successful Brexit, Britain will be a little poorer and more isolated than before, but otherwise largely unchanged. Will that count as success in the eyes of those who voted to Leave. I don’t know.

Most of that still looks about right. But as commenters at the time pointed out, I was wrong about passports. One of the big things Leavers disliked about the EU was the replacement of the blue British passport with EU burgundy. It turns out that the colour change wasn’t compulsory, and the reintroduced blue passports will be printed in France, but at least that is a symbolic win for the Brexiteers.

On the other hand, how does this fit with the oft-repeated claim that Leave voters were “left behind” “stayers”? To be nostalgic for blue passports, you would presumably need to have undertaken a fair bit of international travel before 1988, when they were replaced. That experience, combined with the assumption that Britain is far superior to the EU, sounds like the profile of a stereotypical well-off, middle-aged or older, Tory voter. And, as far as I can tell, it was this category that provided the core support for Leave. That’s consistent with Trumpist voting most places in the English speaking world.

Movers and stayers

A lot of discussion of immigration is framed around the distinction between movers and stayers. Until recently, most of what I’ve seen has framed “stayers” as those who see their economic interests as being threatened by competition from immigrants. To protect themselves, they want to restrict immigration, even if the consequence is to restrict the opportunities for “movers” from their own country. The harm to these “movers-out” is just collateral damage

But lately I’ve been seeing a different account, in which it’s the departure of the movers-out that is causing problems by reducing the supply of workers to provide services to, and pay taxes to support, the stayers (particularly, the old). In economic terms, the obvious solution would be to replace the movers-out with movers-in, but they are of the wrong religion, skin colour and so on, and are therefore rejected. That exacerbates visible economic decline, particularly in terms of the level of economic activity, even when income per person holds up or is sustained by transfer payments. This in turn produces support for Trumpism and its variants.

This story comes up most clearly in relation to Eastern Europe (most notably Hungary) following accession to the EU, but I think it’s applicable to many rural areas in richer countries.

The feelings of the stayers in this story are understandable. They liked things better as they were, and resent changes. But they are hard to defend in moral terms, since keeping things as they were requires massively constraining the rights of others to work, marry and live in the way they wish to.

On this account, there’s also a lot of self-selection going on here. Staying, and demanding that others do so, is a conservative and authoritarian choice, so the stayers will tend to be those in a given population who fit this description. This comes back to the question of why rural voters support conservative parties, even when those parties serve the interests of the urban rich. I’ve seen (but can’t now find) a very old discussion of this point in relation to France, where it’s been relevant ever since 1789. In the US context, it’s being rediscovered right now.

A new two-party system?

Recent elections (notably including those for the European Parliament) have shown the evolution of what I’ve called a three-party system, replacing the alternation between soft and hard versions of neoliberalism dominant since the 1980s. The three parties in this analysis are the (a) remaining elements of the neoliberal consensus, (b) Trumpists[1], and (c) leftists, defined as broadly as possible to encompass greens, feminist, social democrats, old-style US liberals, as well as those who would consciously embrace the label “Left”.

When I wrote in 2016, the biggest loser from this process seemed to be the kind of soft neoliberalism exemplified by Blair, and many of the European social democratic parties. But that was before Trump and Brexit.

The striking development of the past few years has been the capitulation of the mainstream rightwing parties to various forms of Trumpism. That’s most obvious with the US Republicans. And, while some advocates of Brexit may still hope for a free-market utopia, its pretty clear now that this is unlikely to happen. The continuing desire to get Brexit done at all costs is all about culture wars, with Leavers cast as the British people and Remainers as out of touch elites. The same pattern is evident in Australia, where free market policies have been abandoned in favour of culture wars, to the extent that the government is seriously considering building coal-fired power stations, just to make a point.

I’m not well enough attuned to the nuances of European politics to discuss developments at the national level. In aggregate, though, it seems clear not only that the mainstream conservatives are losing ground electorally, but that they are moving towards Trumpism.

This suggests that the current three-party system might rapidly resolve itself into a new two-party system: Trumpists against everyone else, with the remnants of the old neoliberal duopoly being forced to take sides. This is already happening to some extent.

In this context, it was striking to read a piece in the Washington Post, of all places, slamming the “economically conservative, socially liberal” centrism of Howard Schultz, and pointing out that

Centrism,” in other words, has become a byword for the politics of the business elite. Defined left to right, on an x-axis, it may approximate the center of the political spectrum. But on a y-axis that represents socioeconomic status, it sits at the very top.

It’s hard to say where centrists will end up. On the one hand, they mostly benefit from the regressive tax policies and weak regulation that Trumpists have carried over from hard neoliberalism. On the other hand, the Trumpists have abandoned free markets for crony capitalism, typically favoring well-connected national insiders, exemplified by the US First Family. That poses problems for global corporations and fans of globalized capitalism like Tom Friedman, who still yearn for the halcyon days of the 1990s.

As ought to be obvious, I’m still working this out, so I’ll leave it to commenters from here.

fn1. I previously called this group “tribalists”, which was problematic. The Key characteristic is the identity politics of a formerly unchallenged dominant group facing the real or perceived prospect of becoming a politically weak minority, as with white Christians in the US. As Trump and others have shown, this kind of politics leads naturally to support for demagogic dictators and would-be dictators.

No Deal Boris

Last time I looked at the Brexit trainwreck, I predicted that May would seek an extension from the EU (which she did) but assumed they would want a concrete commitment to finality, through a referendum (which they didn’t). I ended with the observation

To be clear, “No Deal” doesn’t really mean that. A literal no deal would see Britain reduced to food rationing in a matter of weeks, air travel cancelled immediately and so on. In reality, “No Deal” means a series of emergency deals, cobbled together in circumstances where the EU faces significant but manageable economic costs, while the UK faces catastrophe.

Now May is on the way out, and it appears she will replaced by Boris Johnson, the British politician most hated by the EU. There’s no prospect that he will be able to negotiate a deal, even if he wants to. So, unless he is overridden as May was, a No Deal Brexit is on the cards.

But, contrary to what I wrote above, I think there’s now every prospect of something approaching a literal no deal. Johnson will certainly not be keen to make the kinds of accommodations needed for a manageable No Deal Brexit.

From the EU’s point of view, a few weeks of total chaos, followed by an abject surrender from Johnson, looks a lot more appealing than the same scenario applied to the earnest, if incompetent, Theresa May.

As the not so old English curse (attributed, as is normal in such cases, to ancient Chinese wisdom) has it, “may you live in interesting times”. Johnson is certainly interesting, and is a curse the English have brought on themselves.

Prematurely right about the global right

I pitched this article about the emergence of a global rightwing movement to the NY Times back in 2015, but the argument wasn’t obvious, and I let it slide. Now I wish I’d tried a little harder to place it.

The proposed nuclear agreement with Iran has seen the Republican party line up with Israeli prime minister Netanhayu to denounce the deal negotiated by the Obama Administration. In itself, this is unsurprising. Bipartisanship in foreign policy, epitomized by the phrase ‘politics stops at the water’s edge’ has been on the wane for years, and is now virtually dead. The GOP celebrated Netanyahu’s recent election victory as a win over the Obama Administration, while the Administration made it clear they would have welcomed the opposite outcome just as warmly.


The alignment between the Republican Party in the US and Netanhayu’s Likud in Israel is an instance of something more significant: a globalization of partisan politics in which political alliances transcend national boundaries. Throughout the English-speaking world, and increasingly beyond it, politics is realigning along the fault line of the US partisan divide.
Until recently, in most Western countries, attitudes to the United States reflected political positions inherited from the Cold War. Conservative parties were strongly supportive of the US government and the US alliance, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats held office. Those on the radical left were equally strongly opposed to the United States and all its actions, and were indifferent to the nuances of US domestic politics. Centre-left parties contained a wide range of views, and sought to thread a middle path: pro-American but seeking a greater degree of independence.


This position had changed radically by 2007, when conservative Australian Prime Minister John Howard stated that Al Qaeda would welcome an election victory for the Democrats, and for Barack Obama in particular, a remark exploited by the Bush White House. Howard’s conservative successor Tony Abbott followed suit, describing the Obama Administration as ‘the most left-of-center government in at least half a century’ in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.


A similar alignment has emerged between the GOP Conservative Harper government in Canada. The most notable example is the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline, which has become a signature issue both for Harper and for Congressional Republicans.


In the UK, Prime Minister Cameron has maintained the traditional position of a ‘special relationship’ with the US, regardless of partisan alignments. However, the Eurosceptic right, represented by the rapidly growing UK Independence Party and by dissident Tories like former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, has formed an alliance with the conservative wing of the GOP. Farage’s attacks on Obama earned him an invitation to the 2015 CPAC conference; the invitation of a foreign politician to such a domestic event is notable in itself.


These attacks on Obama by conservative political leaders are mild compared to those to be found in the conservative media in almost all English-speaking countries. A typical example is a 2010 article by the political editor of the UK Daily Telegraph, Alex Singleton, announcing the end of the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US. Singleton announced that since the American people ‘chose to elect an idiot who seems hell bent on insulting their allies’, he would henceforth boycott the United States. His remarks were widely circulated in US conservative circles.


On the left, the same pattern is found in reverse, most notably on the Internet and particularly on social media such as Twitter and YouTube. Reflecting their relatively young and educated audience, these media have a pronounced liberal lean.


In the 20th century era of mass media, the world paid attention to political developments in the United States, but the reverse was not true, except where the issues could be framed in terms of pro-US and anti-US forces. By contrast, the flow of political information in social media goes both ways, and is framed in terms of partisan alignments, with a left-liberal view predominating. For example, video clips of Australian politicians have regularly gone viral in the United States, in recent years. Centre-left politicians, such as former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard are nearly always presented favorably, while conservatives like Tony Abbott are targets of derision.


Like other forms of globalization, the rise of global political partisanship is driven in part by technological developments such as the Internet and by the growth of international travel. Equally important, however, is the fact that debates about key political issues such as climate change and equal marriage largely transcend national boundaries. Even on issues of war and peace, traditionally the core business of international politics, the picture is similar. Alliances are now so fluid and temporary that the big divide is not between one side and another, as in the Cold War, but between believers and doubters regarding the use of military power.


For the moment, this globalised partisanship is confined to a politically active minority. Voters in general still think in local or national terms, and are unsympathetic or actively hostile to the idea that foreigners might influence their political choices. But just as with the emergence of polarisation on party lines over recent decades it is quite possible to imagine that this will change.


Voting is largely about choosing candidates who represent “people like me”. Increasingly, this is coming to mean people with similar views and lifestyles, wherever they may live, rather than fellow-citizens on the opposite side of the political and cultural divide. This may be seen from opinion polling showing a sharply rising proportion of political partisans who would be upset if a child married someone of the opposite persuasion. By contrast, only a small proportion of Americans would be upset if a family member married a foreigner.


It remains to be seen how the new era of globalized politics will develop. The partisan divide emerging over Netanyahu clearest instance so far, but it is unlikely to be the last.


http://edition.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/02/11/obama.comment/index.html?eref=onion
http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/australia%E2%80%99s-next-prime-minister-interview-tony-abbott
http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/barack-obama-adding-to-terrorism-crisis-says-john-howard/story-fn59niix-1227064608946.
http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/12/17/canada-washington-republicans-stephen-harper_n_6338868.html

http://dailycaller.com/2014/09/05/ukip-leader-nigel-farage-obama-lowered-americas-standing-in-the-world/

http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/features/2015-03-05/at-cpac-nigel-farage-gets-a-reality-check

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/alexsingleton/100029555/why-barack-obama-has-made-me-boycott-america/
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/28/opinion/how-did-politics-get-so-personal.html
http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2014/06/13/pew_report_on_political_polarization_americans_will_accept_a_variety_of.html
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWY_s8yIRfo
http://www.mamamia.com.au/rogue/john-oliver-tony-abbott-video/

Islam is part of Western civilisation

As the arguments about Western civilisation roll on, I’m struck by the assumption, seemingly shared by both sides of this debate, that the Islam and the Islamic world aren’t part of “Western civilization”.

Islam is an Abrahamic religion, standing in essentially the same relationship to Christianity as Christianity does to Judaism. That is, Islam claims to be the completion of the prophetic mission of Christianity, just as Christianity claims to represent the fulfilment of the promise of the Messiah to the Jews. In each case, the older religion rejects this claim [1].

These disputes have occasioned persecution and bloodshed right down to the present day, between and within the religions. On the other hand, all of these religions have promoted learning and encouraged acts of charity. However you weigh up the achievements, follies and crimes of Western civilisation, it is absurd to deny that all three of its major religions have shared in these things.

Ever since Muhammad claimed power as an armed prophet in the 8th century, Islamic states and rulers have been part of the European struggle for control of the Mediterranean and the countries around it. In this context, Muslims appear sometimes as the targets of crusades or the instigators of jihad (the two words have essentially the same meaning), and sometimes in alliance with (further distant) Protestants, such as Elizabeth I, against Catholics.

A striking effect of the exclusion of Islam is that courses on “Western Civilisation” reproduce the discredited notion of a “Dark Age” between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. This period coincides almost exactly with the Islamic Golden Age, which carried the torch of Western civilisation for hundreds of years, giving us algebra, universities and much more.

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