The New Atlantis has a nice piece, The Global War Against Baby Girls. It’s relatively heavy on charts and maps, so I recommend it (yes, it has a particular ideological perspective, but that’s really not consequential, as I assume most readers do not favor skewed sex ratios either). There’s nothing too surprising in it (assuming you won’t be surprised by the finding that in many societies there is a correlation between economic development and higher rates of sex selective abortion). But it’s thorough and highlights the complexities of social dynamics well.
Over the past six months we’ve seen the “Libyan revolution” stall and then succeed. There’s no doubt that the late Libyan dictator was a marginally sane megalomaniac. That being said, he’d been on better behavior over the past 10 years, dismantling his nuclear program for example. I can see the logic in wanting to overthrow him though, there’s a lot of built up historical memory in relation to the various terrorist groups he’s funded in Europe, as well as actions like bombing of Pan Am 103. But is anyone really surprised when things like this occur:
It was just a passing reference to marriage in a leader’s soberly delivered speech, but all week it has unsettled women here as well as allies abroad.
In announcing the success of the Libyan revolution and calling for a new, more pious nation, the head of the interim government, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, also seemed to clear the way for unrestricted polygamy in a Muslim country where it has been limited and rare for decades.
It looked like a sizable step backward for women at a moment when much here — institutions, laws, social relations — is still in play after the end of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s 42 years of authoritarian rule.
In his speech, Mr. Abdel-Jalil declared that a Qaddafi-era law that placed restrictions on multiple marriages, which is a tenet of Islamic law, or Shariah, would be done away with. The law, which stated that a first wife had to give permission before others were added, for instance, had kept polygamy rare here.
“This law is contrary to Shariah and must be stopped,” Mr. Abdel-Jalil told the crowd, vowing that the new government would adhere more faithfully to Shariah. The next day he reiterated the point to reporters at a news conference: “Shariah allows polygamy,” he said. Mr. Abdel-Jalil is known for his piety.
This is happening. Pornography found in bin Laden hideout:
The pornography recovered in bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, consists of modern, electronically recorded video and is fairly extensive, according to the officials, who discussed the discovery with Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The officials said they were not yet sure precisely where in the compound the pornography was discovered or who had been viewing it. Specifically, the officials said they did not know if bin Laden himself had acquired or viewed the materials.
Three other U.S. officials familiar with evidence gathered during investigations of other Islamic militants said the discovery of pornography is not uncommon in such cases.
One issue I’ve noticed personally with some conservative Muslims is that their threshold for what is ‘pornographic’ is different from those of typical Westerners. I have an uncle who is a member of Tablighi Jamaat who considers the outfits worn by ballerinas to be pornographic and instances of crass nudity. I do wonder if outbreaks of extreme sexual deviance and psychopathy, such as the notorious Saudi gang rape, might be as much due to the peculiar collapse of what seem clear and distinct categories to us, as much as garden-variety repression. A woman can dress in a sexy and alluring manner in public without being assumed to be a prostitute, but in some societies that’s really not an accepted category. So the occasional porn caches found in the possession of Islamic militants might be part of the constellation of ‘perversion’ which they make little distinctions across. My thinking here is informed by friends in secondary school from religious conservative Christian backgrounds, who also seemed to have an antinomian tendency once they crossed their strict “lines” (this is like my conservative Christian friends who sometimes talked joyfully about murdering people for fun and having same sex relations if there wasn’t a god; it’s all talk, but I think this mindset is illustrative of a “brittle” moral-ethical framework).
In the mid-90s in the wake of The End of History and the Last Man Francis Fukuyama wrote Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity. Trust to some extent has a chicken & egg problem. High trust societies can overcome coordination problems which block social and economic development. A high level of social trust often results in positive spillover effects, which generate economic growth and broad based prosperity, which then boosts the levels of trust even further. In 2008-2009 I suggested that the biggest long term impact of the late great “financial crisis” is that many Americans no longer believe that doing well is an outcome of doing good. More accurately perhaps in many corrupt societies the presumption is that the path to wealth is itself a venal journey where all moral principles must be devoured by the will to power.
I’ve been keeping track of events in the Arab world only from a distance. There’s been a lot of excitement on twitter and Facebook. Since I’m not an unalloyed enthusiast for democracy I’ve not joined in in the exultation. But I’m very concerned at what I perceive are unrealistic assumptions and false correspondences. This is a big issue because the public is very ignorant of world history and geography. For example, I was listening to a radio show where Roger Cohen was a guest. Cohen covers the Middle East, so he is familiar with many of the issues to a much greater depth than is feasible for the “Average Joe.” In response to a caller who was an ethnic Egyptian American and a Coptic Christian who was concerned about possible persecution of religious minorities Cohen pointed to Turkey, which is ruled by Islamists, and has “many” Christians. His tone was of dismissal and frustration. And that was that.
Let’s look more closely. About 5-10% of Egyptians are Christian, with most estimates being closer to 10 than 5. In contrast, the non-Muslim minority in Turkey numbers at most a few percent, with ~1% often given as a “round number.” This low fraction of non-Muslims in modern Turkey is a product of 20th century events. First, the genocide against Armenians cleared out eastern Anatolia. Second, the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s resulted in each nation removing most of its religious minorities. Of the religious minorities which remain in Turkey, they have been subject to sporadic attacks from radicals (often Turkish nationalists, not Islamists). But from a cultural-historical perspective one of the most revealing issues has been the long-running strangulation of the institution of the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church by the Turkish republic.
But that’s not the big issue. Rather, it may be that Turkey is a particularly tolerant society in the Muslim Middle East when it comes to religious freedom, and so not a good model for what might play out in Egypt (and has played out in Iraq). This matters because people regularly speak of “secular Egyptians,” “secular Turks,” “Turkish Islamists,” and “Egyptian Islamists,” as if there’s a common currency in the modifiers. That is, a secular Egyptian is equivalent to a secular Turk, and Islamists in Egypt are equivalent to Islamists in Turkey (who have been in power via democratic means for much of the past 10 years). Let’s look at the Pew Global Attitudes report, which I’ve referenced before. In particular, three questions which are clear and specific. Should adulterers be stoned? Should robbers be whipped, or their hands amputated? Should apostates from Islam be subject to the death penalty?
One of the major problems with natural scientists when they “project” into the future they often do not take into account the power of innovation to change the fundamental parameters of the game. I believe this was part of the issue at the heart of the famous Simon-Ehrlich wager. Though Julian Simon was untutored in many aspects of natural science, he did comprehend the recent economic history of the world, which has seen a break with the shackles of the iron laws of Malthus. Those laws have been operative for all of human history until the mid-19th century, when Britain started to become the first nation which was a clear exception to the pattern (some may argue that the Dutch pre-figured the English case, but this seems to be debatable).
There are two major changes which Thomas Malthus and his contemporaries (including economists such as David Ricardo) could not anticipate. First, that the rate of innovation in the 19th and 20th centuries would simply surpass anything that the world had seen before. In The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization Bryan Ward-Perkins reports that the pollutants which are the byproducts of industrial activity did not reach Roman levels in Britain until the 18th century! I am not naive enough to be such a partisan of the “ancients” as to suggest that Europe did not reach Roman levels of civilization in the generality until the 1700s. But, up until the Industrial Revolution occurred in Britain there were aspects of European civilization which had not yet climbed back up to the Roman scale of grandeur or virtuosity. For example, it seems that it was only in 1800 that London attained the size of the city of ancient Classical Rome (which had fallen in its nadir in the 7th century to a population of 50,000).
The second major parameter is more subtle, and perhaps even more surprising, than innovation. It’s the demographic transition. Even with higher growth rates, if population rises to “catch” up with the bigger economic “pie,” then per capita wealth remains the same. What began in the advanced nations of Western Europe in the 19th century was that the urban middle classes began to reduce their fertility, while at the same time economic productivity continued to increase. The growing pie would was not matched by concomitant population increase. Ergo, greater per capita wealth.
Believe it or not, the world is going through a demographic transition, life expectancy is increasing, as has per capita income (PPP). This is due to continued economic growth, and, a decrease in the rate of population growth. At least in the aggregate.
But different conditions hold in different locales. Below is a comparison of per capita income (PPP) for a few selected nations, as well as their population growth rates:
After three decades of spectacular growth, China passed Japan in the second quarter to become the world’s second-largest economy behind the United States, according to government figures released early Monday.
The milestone, though anticipated for some time, is the most striking evidence yet that China’s ascendance is for real and that the rest of the world will have to reckon with a new economic superpower.
The recognition came early Monday, when Tokyo said that Japan’s economy was valued at about $1.28 trillion in the second quarter, slightly below China’s $1.33 trillion. Japan’s economy grew 0.4 percent in the quarter, Tokyo said, substantially less than forecast. That weakness suggests that China’s economy will race past Japan’s for the full year.
Lots of prose. Here’s another way to explore relationships, via Google Data Explorer.