Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Surely this could only occur in France...


Hat Tip: Crooked Timber

Nasty, Brutal and Short

Writing in the Nation, Henry Farrell reviews Gomorrah, an expose of the Camorra crime syndicate, written by Italian journalist Roberto Saviano.

Roberto Saviano is a marked man. After writing Gomorrah and publicly denouncing the bosses of the Camorra, the organized crime network that dominates the Italian city of Naples and the surrounding region of Campania, Saviano began receiving death threats...Saviano's transgression in writing this savage and extraordinary book wasn't simply to identify the Camorra's bosses and their enablers. It was to break an unstated compact, a web of complicity that entangles politicians, businessmen, Mafiosi, judges and journalists and enriches many who participate. This unstated agreement has survived the corruption scandals of the 1990s, which centered on bribes paid to Italian politicians and destroyed the major political parties of Italy. It insinuates itself throughout Italian politics and business, not so much an active conspiracy as a tacit consensus that you shouldn't rock the boat by pointing at others' indiscretions and shady relationships. After all, someone else might in turn point their finger at you. And if you're honest: well, nobody's entirely honest, and even those who are can be smeared.
The whole thing is fascinating but, for now, two interesting points:

1. The Camorra and Neo-liberalism
Saviano indeed suggests that the Camorra's underlying logic is a kind of capitalism on overdrive. By his account, the clans of the Camorra take the lessons of modern business, the "post-Fordist" economy that provides flexibility without rules, and exploit them to their logical conclusion. The clans compete in a marketplace based on the threat of violence but also provide certain services more cheaply and effectively than law-abiding firms ever could...

In some ways, the Secondigliano clans resemble speculative capitalists--they are ruthless market operators who identify and seek to capitalize on gaps and potential efficiencies that other organizations have overlooked. Saviano describes how they pioneered new forms of drug market organization in southern Italy...

In describing the clan wars and how they were rooted in changes in market organization, Saviano sometimes seems to claim that the Camorra is driven by a simple desire for power and money. Yet Saviano also cuts against this interpretation, describing the ways the Camorra is hostage to its own myths. The kids in the lowest ranks of the Camorra, Saviano explains, don't "dream of being Al Capone but Flavio Briatore [a flamboyant and shady Italian businessman], not gunslingers but entrepreneurs with beautiful models on their arms; they wanted to become successful businessmen." Their bosses, in contrast, fashion a style based on American movies and borrow language from The Godfather. When Cosimo Di Lauro is caught by the police, he doesn't try to escape; instead he ties his hair into a ponytail (like Brandon Lee in The Crow) so as to present a bella figura for the journalists' cameras. The figures of the mobster and the businessman blend into each other; both are attractive not simply because they have money but because they have glamour, power and, most important, respect...

These stories, focused as they are on myths and the desire for victory and respect, are hard to reconcile with Saviano's image of the Camorra as a harbinger of an especially brutal and rationalized form of neoliberalism.
I'm not so sure. Granted this isn't the neo-liberalism of theory, but that doesn't exist anyway. And - violence aside - the Camorra as described don't strike me as being so different from quite a few of the people who I used to work among in finance. Sure there's a 'rational' desire for wealth and something very vaguely akin to market discipline. But there's also irrationality, vanity, striving for status etc. The Camorra sound entirely capitalistic to me. Depressingly so.

2. Hobbes
When the man who betrayed one of the Di Lauros was caught by his former comrades, he was tortured slowly with a spiked bat for hours, before having his ears cut off, his tongue cropped and his eyes gouged out with a screwdriver. He was finally done when his face was beaten in with a hammer and a cross carved on his lips.
Ever wondered what life without a social contract would be like? Hobbes famously thought it would be nasty, brutal and short. And I'd say that the world of organised crime provides good evidence that Hobbes was right. There is no Leviathan to oversea the rules of the game in the underworld - might is right. And might is violent.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

And again - absolute property rights

A little while ago I pointed out that part of the trouble with an absolutist approach to property rights is that it is very hard to justify (actually impossible) if you can't prove that one's current allocation f property is justly acquired.

I recently thought of a pretty good example to illustrate this:

Someone steals your car. Two days later you find it and go to repossess it, but the thief says 'it's mine now; my property and I have a right to it'. Are you then in the wrong to take the car back? Of course not. How about if it was two weeks later or two years? No you'd still be in the right. The thief can't ever show that they legitimately possess the car and because of this they can't claim any entitlement to it.

Similarly, it is simply not possible to show that current distributions of property are the end product of legitimate processes. And, because of this, it is not possible to make any sort of absolute (deontological) claim to property rights. There's lots of good arguments for property rights, but they are consequentialist ones and, by their very nature, leave space for conditions and qualification.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Shame on Us...

This is a very very good essay.

Conservative Fixation Disorder

Oh Dear.

The Conservapedia was set up as an alternative to the irredeemably liberal Wikipedia. Over at Crooked Timber Keiran Healy points us to some web stats for the conservative open edit encyclopedia.

Seems like someone's got a fixation issue.

[Update: reading the comments below Kieran's post it seems quite possible, but not certain, that the high page views are a result of someone 'gaming' the site. Still, that doesn't explain how all the articles got there in the first place].

The Existence Dilemma


I've always thought that one of the best arguments for the existence of god runs as follows:

"Nothing comes of nothing. How could the universe come into existence if something wasn't there to create it? There has to be something bigger than existence or existence itself couldn't exist."

To me this is a pretty convincing argument for some form of deity.

But there's a counter argument that runs like:

"If nothing comes from nothing then who created our creator? Your paradox is just as true for her/him/it as it is for us."

Which is rather hard to come back from.

And, ultimately, the debate just ends up being ontologically disturbing. If you believe that nothing springs from nothing then our existence seems impossible.

Yet here we are - existing.

Which all goes to show two things:

1. Somehow, something can spring from nothing


2. That there are some problems too great for reason alone...

or at least the reasoning of this amateur philosopher.


Two splendid articles from Ben 'Bad Science' Goldacre on Homeopathy.

Key points:

1. In meta-analyses of genuine double blind trials homeopathy is not shown to be any more effective than placebos.
2. Homeopathy is in some cases still helpful - either via the placebo effect or, as was the case during a 19th Century Cholera outbreak in London, simply because it is less harmful than some of the other treatments on offer.
3. However, homeopaths' assaults on allopathic medicine are harmful of their own accord: there's evidence to show that homeopaths often advise against taking regular medication, which can be very harmful, particularly when the advice relates to things like Malaria prophylactics.

My own experience with homeopathy was that:

1. It - in all proability - did not help my arthritis.
2. The homeopath, and she is alone in this degree of certainty out of all the medical professions I have seen, claimed straight-up that she would cure me.
3. The homeopath advised me not to take Sulphasalazine. No real harm here, but it was a drug which did, end the end, help me for a short while. It also didn't do me any harm.
4. The same homeopath did, by all accounts, rid a friend's sister of her migraines.

As an aside - it really is a mistake to say something is 'just the placebo effect'. The placebo effect can have some remarkable results. Something, which leads into all sorts of fascinating discussions about the relationship between the mind and the body.

As I said to my GP recently about my most recent course of treatment, and the improvement it has ushered in: "well it might be the placebo effect, but please don't convince me of this".

Hari on Chavez

A bookmark for the most part: Johann Hari offers a good take on Hugo Chavez.

John Quiggin and the Death Penalty

Over at Crooked Timber John Quiggin makes the key point regarding claims of more death penalty less crime: it's an oft' repeated claim, but the data simply ain't there to show any death penalty deterrence effect.

As an aside, the key question of course is not only whether the death penalty deters crime but whether it does more cost-effectively then any other strategy that you could adopt.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Iron Law of the Comments Boxes - Number 27

Iron Law of the Comments Boxes - Number 27

In the same way that large piles of faeces attract blowflies,

any internet discussion that may plausibly be diverted onto

the subject of race and intelligence will attract Steve Sailor.

Oh, and Brad Delong has a great post putting to rest race and intelligence arguments.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Songs Remain the Same

Meanwhile, the house journal of the US political establishment, The New Republic, enthuses over Led Zeppelin. While disagreeing with TNR is something all caring people should try and do at least once a week I can't find too much to disagree with. Heck, I was utterly enjoying Good Times Bad Times driving home from the Wairarapa yesterday - almost 20 years after a music savvy friend of mine put me onto the tune.

I've got a few quibbles of course: it's true that Led Zeppelin did the world favour by not becoming a bloated touring band playing covers of themselves like the Rolling Stones did, but it's nonsense to argue that the Led Zep are in someway more timeless than Jagger et al. (certainly more so than Deep Purple but that's not exactly an achievement).

Also, any honest fawning over Led Zeppelin ought to at least make note of the fact that the band was responsible for some of the worst lyrics of all time. "It was in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair"? Please.

Still I guess it is indicative of how good the songs are: you find yourself singing along fully aware that you are mouthing utter nonesense mascarading as bad poetry. That's pretty good.

My very own*, very succinct, definition of social capital

A society's social capital is the sum total of all the unselfish acts* that it's members perform.

* At least I haven't read it anywhere, but I haven't read that much on the topic.
** I'm not sure yet whether this includes acts of enlightened self interest or only altruism.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Problem and Solution: the UN in a world of conflict

I'm going to be too busy to post much over the next few weeks so I thought, in order to keep the blog ticking over, I would re-post a few things I've written elsewhere.

The following post is from the DevNet Forum. If you wish to comment on it, do me a favour and do so over there.


In a recent review of two books on the United Nations journalist and academic Samantha Power relays the following anecdote which reveals much about relationship between the world’s most powerful nation and the world’s main body of global governance.

The new year marks the end of two turbulent terms at the United Nations: that of Kofi Annan, who served 10 years as secretary general, and that of John R. Bolton, who lasted just 17 months as the U.S. ambassador there. When Bolton was asked about a December 2006 farewell dinner that President Bush held for Annan, the departing American diplomat sniped, "Nobody sang 'Kumbaya.'"...When told of Bolton's remark, Annan laughed and said, "Does he know how to sing it?"

That Bolton could say such a thing about the head of the organisation he was ambassador to isn’t entirely surprising. Bolton has a reputation for being abrasive and even before his appointment as ambassador his public utterances about the UN suggested that he was not, perhaps, the organisation’s biggest fan. (Echoing Margaret Thatcher’s thoughts about society he once claimed that: “[t]here is no such thing as the United Nations. There is only the international community, which can only be led by the only remaining superpower, which is the United States”. On another occasion he said, “[i]f the UN Secretariat building in New York lost ten storeys, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”)

Similarly, the fact that the Bush administration could appoint an apparent unbeliever as its representative to the United Nations in 2005 came as no surprise to anyone who had observed the relationship between the multilateral body and the unilateral president in the years since Bush took office. The ultimate bust up being, of course, over the Iraq war.

Perhaps more than anything else it was the invasion of Iraq that politicised debates about the United Nations. To many opponents of the invasion, by attacking a country without UN sanction, the United States and its allies were setting a dangerous precedent and tearing up the ‘rulebook of international affairs’ (whether such a ‘rulebook’ ever actually existed is another question altogether). While, to many of the invasion’s supporters, the mere fact that the organisation would dare stand in the way of such a noble and necessary endeavour was a source of rage. In reality, the UN Security Council’s refusal to endorse the invasion posed scant hurdle to the world’s sole super power; yet supporters of the war dredged up a long list of ‘UN failures’ from the Balkans to Rwanda which they claimed illustrated the organisation’s venality and ineffectiveness. And showed why the United States was justified in bypassing it in its march to war.

As arguments for the invasion of Iraq these claims struck me as either disingenuous or besides the point at the time; however, underneath all the sound and fury I think that there is really interesting question waiting to be discussed. This is not the simplistic is “the UN good or bad?” – but rather, and this the question that Samantha Power focuses on in her review, the question of whether the UN is better than, worse, or simply the sum total of, its parts. In this argument, supporters of the organisation argue that it does its best, constrained not by organisation staff or structure but rather by fickle member states acting too often in their own self-interest. The UN failed, they argue, in Rwanda not because of anything to do with the UN but rather through French intransigence and the timidity of president Clinton who, nose bloodied in Somalia, did not want more American troops dying in Africa. Likewise, it failed in the former Yugoslavia because Western Nations were unwilling to commit sufficient resources to peacekeeping. In short, defenders argue, the United Nations does its best – and it has had successes to accompany its failures – in a world of real politic and rogue states. This, by the sounds of Power’s review is the tone of the book ‘The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN In the Era of American World Power’ by James Traub.

On the other side of the fence are people like Adam LeBor who – in his book ‘Complicity With Evil: The United Nations in the Age Of Modern Genocide’ – argues (if Power’s characterisation is correct) that the UN does have power of its own and, too often, has squandered it.

Power’s review is excellent, mediating carefully between the two different sides

The trouble with leaning exclusively on either Traub's or LeBor's approach is that the distinctions between the United Nations as a building and the United Nations as an actor are blurry: The United Nations is, of course, both things at once. Although Traub acknowledges this, he sometimes gives U.N. civil servants the very free pass they give themselves, portraying Annan, for example, as "unfairly blamed for failures not of his own doing." In fact, U.N. officials can deserve blame. They raise false hopes of protection that they -- but not the civilians under their watch -- know they will not be able to keep. They self-censor for fear of getting too far out in front of the member states. In so doing, they hoard information to which only they have access and miss important opportunities to affect the domestic political debates that will ultimately shape the will of the major powers. Instead of taking personal responsibility, many U.N. officials engage in what LeBor rightly condemns as "buck passing." They also too frequently become what the U.N. critic David Rieff has called "cultists of the small victory," losing sight of the burning forest while scurrying around in search of the seed to plant a single tree.

But LeBor neglects to mention that U.N. officials who condemn aggression, corruption or atrocities without the consent of powerful governments do not survive in the U.N. system. Annan himself nearly lost his job. As Traub documents, the Republican campaign to string up the secretary general for his role in the oil-for-food scandal grew virulent only after Annan made the obvious point that, lacking Security Council authorization, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was "illegal." To gauge the relative responsibility of the organization, it might be helpful for U.N. bashers to ask, "But for Kofi Annan or the presence of U.N. peacekeepers, would the response of the countries on the Security Council have been any different in Bosnia, Rwanda or Darfur?" The answer, sadly, is no. (Although it's not credited in LeBor's account, Annan's office has spoken out more about Darfur than almost any government.) And by homing in almost exclusively on the United Nations, as LeBor has done, rather than pinpointing the responsibility of the countries with the armies, the financial leverage and the diplomatic clout to stop these horrors, his book could have the effect -- perhaps unintended -- of absolving those best positioned to make a difference. Governments that claim to be dismayed that the "United Nations" has not halted the rampaging Janjaweed militiamen in Sudan should look less at the world body and more in the mirror.

And it seems sensible to me (I’d add to Power’s discussion the simple point made by Conor Foley here that, on top of everything else, working in conflict situations often leaves the UN with choices only between different bad alternatives). But I’m not expert on the UN so I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Great Southern Land

And I've just returned from a few days in Australia. Several quick thoughts:

1. If you're ever inclined to believe that Australia is a cultural wasteland have a listen to ABC radio - it's a very impressive station.

2. Gosh Australia is different from New Zealand. Culturally, I think it's every bit as different as the United Kingdom is. I really don't find much in common between NZ and Aus. (note this isn't a criticism of Australia). It's also so, so different geographically. I can't get over how old and empty the land feels compared to New Zealand. And the beauty that comes with this is really quite something.

3. Drought. Big time.

Projectile Dysfunctional Disorder

Thanks to Tim, I just read this post on the Greens blog. Very funny looking graphs and fairly convincing evidence that Treasury and the Reserve Bank might want to pay more attention to peak oil folks when they undertake their inflation next forecast.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Thursday, November 01, 2007