Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Two Books Calling for a Populist Revolt, Left and Right

George Packer has read two populist calls for revolt, one from the Tea Party right and the other from the socialist left, and the result is a sad meditation on our political failures. Packer is very gloomy about the state of America and has spent much of his time lately interviewing the victims of our economic and social turmoil. From former steel mill workers in Ohio to foreclosed homeowners in Florida, he has heard and told the stories of America's downwardly mobile, downcast, and downtrodden. So he was ready to listen to the arguments of Charles Murray and Chris Hedges that America needs radical political change.

But he was not impressed. He notes that both authors see our problems in much the same way:
Both are appalled by the collusion between the federal government and corporations. Both describe the legal system as essentially lawless. Neither has any faith that electoral politics, the three branches of government or the Constitution itself can make a difference. Neither fits with any sizable faction of either of the two parties. Both despise elites. Both are willing, even eager, to see Americans break the law, in nonviolent ways, to force change.
But they disagree about much else:
Of course, Murray and Hedges are not after the same thing. We live in a truly and, for now, insuperably divided country — divided even by its populisms. Neither writer would have any patience for the assumptions or values of the other, and in fact it’s hard to imagine anyone with Murray’s views bothering to read Hedges’ book, or vice versa, since both are written explicitly for the like-minded.
According to Packer, the leftist Hedges has virtually nothing to offer in the way of a plan:
“We live in a revolutionary moment,” ­Hedges, the author of American Fascists and other books, asserts in his first sentence. This doesn’t seem remotely true to me, but I would have listened to an argument (why, how, by whom, to reorder politics and economics on what principles, dealing with the inevitable problems in what way). Hedges doesn’t have an argument. What he has is a tremendous amount of rhetoric, flecked with literary asides on Melville and Fitzgerald, and reverential portraits of rebels, from Subcomandante Marcos to the defrocked lawyer Lynne Stewart.
Charles Murray used to have a plan of sorts, arguing for capitalism restrained only by religious principles, with a minimal or "Madisonian" government. But according to Packer he has moved on from that idea:
Murray himself no longer wants to see deep cuts in taxes and income transfers. The collapse of the American working class has pushed him away from the harsh, Scrooge-like thinking of Losing Ground and The Bell Curve to the more complex analysis of his most recent book, Coming Apart.
Which I think is great, but if libertarians no longer think laissez faire economics will solve our problems, what do they think? Instead of his wicked (I think) but at least understandable policies, Murray now has a scheme to restrain the Federal government by massive civil disobedience:
The purpose of By the People is to propose a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. Across the country, fed-up Americans will stop complying with regulations that are indisputably ridiculous, while moneyed Madisonians will establish “defense funds” to pay their legal fees and publicize their cases if the government goes after them. The idea is to embarrass the federal government into backing off, maybe getting the Federal Register back to 1950s levels.
Gee, great, that will fix everything. I'm with Packer:
Perhaps because I’m one of Murray’s “tolerant” liberals rather than a “totalitarian” progressive, his examples of arbitrary rule-making struck me as undeniably absurd. But I’m not part of his target audience, so he never bothers to argue why the explosion of regulations is in itself the root cause of our democratic decay. What about financial deregulation, or the Supreme Court’s equation of money with speech, or the fantastic growth in income at the top? In Murray’s America, the only thing wrong with corporate power is that it has to lobby a bloated government. (His nostalgia for the 1880s might as well include the robber barons, who paid for legislatures the old-fashioned way.) I have a feeling that this reckless call for heavily financed, widespread lawbreaking will have its takers — you’ll soon be reading about Madison Funds — with imitators and consequences that Murray himself might not like. But if the revival of American democracy depends on the Koch brothers paying the legal bills of hundreds of thousands of scofflaws in Oklahoma and upstate New York until the government becomes unable to function, then Murray and I must have diagnosed the problem differently.
Quite right.

Liberals have plans for ameliorating our immediate problems to some extent, but one reason they can't get traction is that so many of the people who want reform see things in catastrophic terms. The enthusiasm that carried Obama to his convincing victory in 2008 had petered out after less than two years, with millions of his supporters sad or angry that he had not magically transformed the country, and millions of others turned off by the measures he did attempt. Conservative realists face the same problem; no matter how hard they fight against liberal plans, their core voters suspect that they are a bunch of sell-outs. Ted Cruz is one of many right-wing firebrands who regularly insist that without radical change we will “lose our freedom” and the country will “go off a cliff.”

America has two political debates. In the one being waged in Washington, we fight about whether the top tax rate will be 37.5 or 35 percent, what procedures a Bronze health plan has to cover, and how many military advisers to send to Iraq. Out in much of the country, though, the argument is something radically different. Out of the limelight, people are discussing what sort of drastic change is needed to save the nation from a massively corrupt system. These folks do not want to hear about compromise, about tinkering with the system -- they want big changes now. But as Packer says, they lack any notion of the “why, how, by whom, to reorder politics and economics on what principles, dealing with the inevitable problems in what way.”

I am not as gloomy about America as  Packer, Hedges or Murray, but I also feel their frustration. It may simply be that in our vast nation, with our gigantic economy and huge government, tinkering is all that any realist would attempt, even knowing that things as they are leave millions of people out in the cold. I don't foresee any big changes in our situation, just more muddling along. Things could certainly be a lot worse.

The Inlaws

By Bongiovanni Vaccaro, nineteenth-century Italian sculptor.

Justice Breyer argues that the Death Penalty is Unconstutitional

In his dissent in Glossip v. Gross, Justice Stephen Breyer argued that the death penalty violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Some excerpts:
In 1976, the Court thought that the constitutional in­firmities in the death penalty could be healed; the Court in effect delegated significant responsibility to the States to develop procedures that would protect against those con­stitutional problems. Almost 40 years of studies, surveys, and experience strongly indicate, however, that this effort has failed. Today’s administration of the death penalty involves three fundamental constitutional defects: (1) serious unreliability, (2) arbitrariness in application, and (3) unconscionably long delays that undermine the death penalty’s penological purpose. Perhaps as a result, (4) most places within the United States have abandoned its use.

* * *
Researchers have found convincing evidence that, in the past three decades, innocent people have been executed. . . . The evidence that the death penalty has been wrongly imposed (whether or not it was carried out), is striking. As of 2002, this Court used the word "disturb­ing" to describe the number of instances in which individ­uals had been sentenced to death but later exonerated. At that time, there was evidence of approximately 60 exonerations in capital cases….Since 2002, the number of exonerations in capital cases has risen to 115…Last year, in 2014, six death row inmates were exonerated based on actual innocence. All had been imprisoned for more than 30 years (and one for almost 40 years) at the time of their exonerations. . . . Researchers estimate that about 4% of those sentenced to death are actually innocent.
Because of the high rate of errors in capital trials, Breyer argues, the system must provide for very extensive reviews, which regularly take decades, which largely undermines the deterrent effect (if any) of the death penalty:
And that fact creates a dilemma: A death penalty sys­tem that seeks procedural fairness and reliability brings with it delays that severely aggravate the cruelty of capi­tal punishment and significantly undermine the rationale for imposing a sentence of death in the first place...(one of the primary causes of the delay is the States’ “failure to apply constitutionally sufficient procedures at the time of initial [conviction or] sentenc­ing"). But a death penalty system that minimizes delays would undermine the legal system’s efforts to secure relia­bility and procedural fairness.

In this world, or at least in this Nation, we can have a death penalty that at least arguably serves legitimate penological purposes or we can have a procedural system that at least arguably seeks reliability and fairness in the death penalty’s application. We cannot have both. And that simple fact, demonstrated convincingly over the past 40 years, strongly supports the claim that the death pen­alty violates the Eighth Amendment.
* * *
[T]he crimes at issue in capital cases are typically horren­dous murders, and thus accompanied by intense community pressure on police, prosecutors, and jurors to secure a conviction. This pressure creates a greater likelihood of convicting the wrong person.
* * *
Thus, whether one looks at research indicating that irrelevant or improper factors—such as race, gender, local geography, and resources—do significantly determine who receives the death penalty, or whether one looks at re­search indicating that proper factors—such as "egregious­ness"—do not determine who receives the death penalty, the legal conclusion must be the same: The research strongly suggests that the death penalty is imposed arbitrarily. . . .

The studies bear out my own view, reached after consid­ering thousands of death penalty cases and last-minute petitions over the course of more than 20 years. I see discrepancies for which I can find no rational explanations... Why does one defendant who committed a single-victim murder receive the death pen­alty (due to aggravators of a prior felony conviction and an after-the-fact robbery), while another defendant does not, despite having kidnapped, raped, and murdered a young mother while leaving her infant baby to die at the scene of the crime...Why does one defendant who committed a single-victim murder receive the death penalty (due to aggravators of a prior felony conviction and acting recklessly with a gun), while another defendant does not, despite having committed a "triple murder" by killing a young man and his pregnant wife?... For that matter, why does one defendant who participated in a single-victim murder-for-hire scheme (plus an after-the­ fact robbery) receive the death penalty, while another defendant does not, despite having stabbed his wife 60 times and killed his 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son while they slept?... In each instance, the sentences compared were imposed in the same State at about the same time. . . .

The imposition and implementation of the death penalty seems capricious, random, indeed, arbitrary. From a defendant’s perspective, to receive that sentence, and certainly to find it implemented, is the equivalent of being struck by lightning. How then can we reconcile the death penalty with the demands of a Constitution that first and foremost insists upon a rule of law?

The Most Numerous Vertebrate

Marine biologists have decided that the most numerous vertebrate is the bristlemouth (genus Cyclodone), a small fish that lives in the middle ocean depths worldwide. There are trillions of them, possibly quadrillions, as many as 12 per square meter of ocean. Since they live far down in the dark, we know very little about them; indeed it has taken until quite recently for biologists to figure out how common they are worldwide. Mainly they live in the mesopelagic zone, between 100 and 1000 meters down, but they are found as deep as 5,000 meters (3 miles).

Still so much to learn about the world.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Cotton Subsidies and the Drought

Why does California have a severe water shortage despite the billions that have been spent on collecting, storing and moving water? Crop subsidies. Much of California's water is used to raise crops that need a lot of water, such as cotton. Really cotton shouldn't be grown in the U.S. at all, and the only reason it is is that the government pays out massive subsidies to cotton growers:
Getting plants to grow in the Sonoran Desert is made possible by importing billions of gallons of water each year. Cotton is one of the thirstiest crops in existence, and each acre cultivated here demands six times as much water as lettuce, 60 percent more than wheat. That precious liquid is pulled from a nearby federal reservoir, siphoned from beleaguered underground aquifers and pumped in from the Colorado River hundreds of miles away. …

Over the last 20 years, Arizona’s farmers have collected more than $1.1 billion in cotton subsidies, nine times more than the amount paid out for the next highest subsidized crop. In California, where cotton also gets more support than most other crops, farmers received more than $3 billion in cotton aid.

…If Arizona’s cotton farmers switched to wheat but didn’t fallow a single field, it would save some 207,000 acre-feet of water — enough to supply as many as 1.4 million people for a year.
The hold that cotton and sugar farmers have over the U.S. government has been one of the most puzzling and ridiculous features of our democracy for as long as I have been following politics. And yet despite innumerable calls for reform and myriad calls to rein in Federal spending, the farce goes on.

Have a Nice Week

Just a few of the issues roiling the world right now:
  • The Chinese stock market is plunging;
  • The Greek public is going to vote on whether to leave the Euro, which might lead to massive financial uncertainty across Europe; 
  • U.S. and Iranian negotiators have been unable to reach a final deal in the nuclear talks;
  • Puerto Rico has pretty much declared bankruptcy.

So Boring

The most disturbing line from a review of the new Amy Winehouse biopic:
In the film, she is shown on the night of her big Grammy win in 2008, during a sober period, celebrating with friends and family in London. Ms. Winehouse’s takeaway: “This is so boring without drugs.”

Marriage and Names

One of the many bits of unresolved flotsam left from the patriarchal era is the question of names. There was an amusing incident last year in my office when a recently married female colleague complained that her husband had put her under a lot of pressure to take his name, which she didn't really want to do. I said, "I told my wife that it was entirely up to her what name to use and was accused of indifference and not loving her enough." A male colleague added, "I had the same experience." (So guys, there is no right answer to this question; be prepared for that.) This female colleague ended up taking her husband's name legally but is trying to keep her maiden name professionally, one of the many coping strategies spawned by the unresolved issue.

Anyway the Times recently printed the graph above, which shows that despite all the battles over feminism and the like the percentage of married women keeping their maiden names really hasn't changed very much. I found this surprising; I would have thought the number would be much higher than 22 percent. This is probably because there are major class and educational differences, with "higher income urban women" much more like to keep their birth names; about half the brides who have appeared in the Times style section have done so. Surely female academics are similar.

But among regular Americans, taking the husband's name is still the norm. Rather than lingering patriarchy, I see this as a matter of just not knowing what else to do. If you plan to have children, you have to face the question of what to call them, and I see the appeal of  wanting the whole household to share one name -- we are the Bedells, which is nice. Hyphenating is a one-generation solution. Smith and Jones can name their daughter Heather Smith-Jones, but what happens when she marries Bob Gretsky-Lamarr?

So I don't have any recommendation, just my usual hope that people will do what works for them and not judge each other about it.

While I am on the subject, I have to say that I am also a little puzzled by the continued prominence of weddings in the dreams of young women. I always imagined that women who were planning careers for themselves (or fretting about not having one) would have less thought to spare for their weddings, but if anything weddings seem to be getting ever bigger and more elaborate. Explanations?

Today's Place to Daydream about: Porto, Portugal

For some reason I have lately encountered tales of Porto in three different places, and this sign from the internet gods inspired me to look up Portugal's second-largest city and imagine traveling there. After all, says one travel writer, Porto
has all the history, charm and sophistication of Lisbon without the crowds, congestion and price-gouging taxi drivers.
Porto is in Portugal's north, on the Douro River. It is an old place, dating to pre-Roman times and an important provincial capital under the late empire.

During the years of fighting between Christians and Muslims, the Douro River marked the frontier for nearly two centuries and the town nearly died. But in the 11th century the frontier moved toward the south and the place boomed again. Above, Porto Cathedral largely completed in the 13th century.

In the later middle ages the city became the center of the great trade in the wine of the Douro Valley, known as Port. Its relations with England were especially strong; it was at Porto in 1387 that King John I married Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt, cementing an alliance between the Portuguese and English crowns. (Older English books often called the place Oporto, and once I realized that I understood why it was not more prominent in my historical understanding; the references I had seen to the place were split between the two forms.) Above, the astonishing Baroque interior of Igreha de Santa Clara, all gold-painted wood.

Porto's architecture is best known for the dazzling use of blue tiles, a style that developed in the eighteenth century.

The Igreja de Santo Ildefonso is an eighteenth-century church in Porto, Portugal, situated near Batalha Square. Completed in 1739.

The main train station, completed just before World War I, has famous tiled scenes depicting Portuguese history.

People love the vibrancy of the city's core, with its mix of architectural styles, rich food scene and active night life.

Looks like a very fine place to be.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Rock Art of Africa at the British Museum

The British Museum has put online a huge database of rock art from Africa, with around 25,000 images. You can search or peruse the images here. Above is an image from Libya' Acacus Mountains dated to the Round Head period, thought to be around 10,000 to 8,000 years ago.

Famous "Fighting Cats" carving from Libya.

Human figures from Niola Doa, Chad.

Cattle from Jebel Uweinat, Sudan.

Bull from Libya.

Chariot from Libya, dated to the Horse Period, 3,000 to 2,000 years ago.

Collection of images in Libya's Acacus Mountains.

Rhinoceros from Ait Ouazik, Morocco.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Sculptures of the Sebasteion at Aphrodisias

The Sebasteion at Aphrodisias is one of the most remarkable modern discoveries from the ancient world. Excavated in 1979-81, it produced an astonishing array of ancient sculpture. (Nero crowned by his mother Agrippina)

"Sebasteion" is Greek for "Temple of Augustus." The Sebasteion was dedicated both to the Julio-Claudian emperors and to Aphrodite, their ancestress. Its construction stretched over two generations, from ca. A.D. 20 to 60, from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero. Most of the cost was born by two leading local families. Aphrodisias was one of the first towns in Asia Minor to embrace Roman rule, and they benefited from this through privileges and imperial largesse. The Sebasteion was the local elite's way of acknowledging their patrons.

You can see from the plan that one of the temple's main features was a processional way flanked by two porticoes, each three stories high.

The complex was about 300 feet (90 m) long, and the entire way was lined with two levels of sculptured reliefs.

This would have required 190 sculptured panels, of which 70 were recovered during the excavations. The panels depict a mishmash of classical myth with mythified deeds of the Julio-Caludians; above, Caludius conquers Britain.

What you see at the site is all casts; the original sculptures have been moved to the nearby museum, where they are displayed in a great hall. Which must be a bit overwhelming, especially if you arrive with a tour and only have half an hour, but still. How amazing.

The web site at New York University, the base of chief excavator Kenan Erim, says:
The reliefs of the two buildings had very different programs and used different designers and executing workshops. And, although there was no overriding unified program, the subjects of the reliefs are divided into distinct themes and categories of subjects according to the four registers made by the two levels in each building.

Of the reliefs from the North Building, which collapsed earlier and was cleared while the South Building was still in use, much less survives; but enough is preserved to reconstruct its broad program. The upper storey had imperial and allegorical subjects, while the lower storey carried a series of conquered peoples and places of the Roman empire, each treated as a single statuesque female personification standing on an inscribed base. The inscriptions record peoples from Spain in the furthest west to the Arabs and Judeans in the east. There were fifty such figures, and their designs were no doubt borrowed directly from a monument in Rome.
The South Building was never substantially cleared after its final collapse, and more than sixty of its reliefs survive. The upper‘ storey reliefs juxtaposed traditional Greek gods with Roman imperial scenes and figures of victory. The Roman emperors from Augustus to Nero are treated in a strikingly elevated, Hellenistic manner, designed to present them as part of a new enlarged Olympian pantheon -- an idea captured in the phrase of one of the inscriptions which dedicated the building "to the Olympian god-emperors" ( tois theois Sebastois Olympiois ). Several of these reliefs highlight the conquests of Claudius and the young Nero.

The lower storey reliefs featured a remarkable series of forty-five Greek mythological scenes. Many were arranged in broad groupings of familiar scenes of favorite figures, such as Herakles and Dionysos, but there was no single sequential mythological program. Towards the east end, however, as one approached the Temple, there was a greater concentration of sacrifice scenes and of Rome-related myths, such as those featuring Anchises and Aeneas. And here the design made explicit what is implied in the whole complex, the close connection between Greek myth-history in the lower level and the godlike Augustan regime in the upper storey. In spite of the wide range of styles and levels of execution between individual reliefs, it was perhaps this juxtaposition of Greek and Roman, of myth and history, moulded visually by style and iconography into a single continuum, that was the most striking effect of the complex viewed as a whole.
Astonishing. The three reliefs above, from top to bottom: Emperor and People of Rome, an Emperor Erecting a Trophy of Victory, and the Rape of Leda.

Nero Conquers Armenia.

Bellerophon with Pegasus.

The Sibyl of Cumae.

And that's just the main panels; the whole of the complex was decorated with columns, reliefs and so on, including all of these masks. What a remarkable place. And what a world the Roman Empire was.

A Future Without Rules

The Supreme Court's gay marriage verdict has Ross Douthat ruminating on the relationship between the rise of gay marriage and the decline of the old-fashioned straight version:
But in one of the ironies in which the arc of history specializes, while the conservative case for same-sex marriage triumphed in politics, the liberationist case against marriage’s centrality to human flourishing was winning in the wider culture.

You would not know this from Kennedy’s opinion, which is relentlessly upbeat about how “new insights have strengthened, not weakened” marriage, bringing “new dimensions of freedom” to society.

But the central “new dimension of freedom” being claimed by straight America is a freedom from marriage — from the institution as traditionally understood, and from wedlock and family, period. . . .

Since the ’90s, approval of divorce, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock childbearing have climbed steadily, and the belief that children are “very important” to marriage has collapsed. Kennedy’s ruling argues that the right to marry is essential, in part, because the institution “safeguards children and families.” But the changing cultural attitudes that justify his jurisprudence increasingly treat this safeguard as inessential, a potentially nice but hardly necessary thing.

And the same is true of marriage itself. America is not quite so “advanced” as certain European societies, but our marriage rate is at historic lows, with the millennial generation, the vanguard of support for same-sex marriage, leading the retreat. Millennials may agree with Kennedy’s ruling, but they’re making his view of marriage as “a keystone of the nation’s social order” look antique. In their views and (lack of) vows, they’re taking a more relaxed perspective, in which wedlock is malleable and optional, one way among many to love, live, rear kids — or not.

In this sense, the gay rights movement has won twice over. Its conservative wing won the right to normalcy for gay couples, while rapid cultural change has made the definition of normalcy less binding than the gay left once feared.
Despite the scorn thrown in this direction by liberals, this argument is not silly. Not because the rise of gay marriage is causing the decline of straight marriage, but because both are expressions of a deeper change in society, from a world in which most people do what they parents did, and organize their lives as their neighbors do, to one in which we are much more free to make our own arrangements and pick our own paths. As Douthat says, and as I have said here many times, there is not much evidence that this rise in freedom is making people happier.

To me, though, conservative arguments about the loss of "family values" are whistling in the wind. Medieval society is gone, and it wasn't just the sexual revolution that killed it. These changes go back to the 18th century, to the rise of a new economy based on mastering rapidly changing technologies and the Enlightenment's rejection of religious authority. The invention of modern democracy and the rejection of aristocratic privilege were very much part of this movement; if you read what defenders of aristocracy said during the American and French Revolutions you will see that many of them had the same fears as Douthat, that change would undermine family life and lead to a chaotic world of children running wild and ending up as criminals.

Douthat ignores one of the main realities that kept marriage "strong" in the 19th and 20th centuries, the gender discrimination that kept women from being able to make a living. Look back to the 1970s and you see, again, that the people who opposed "women's lib" had the same fears: that these changes would undermine family life and social order.

The old order of Europe did work pretty well. It helped those societies flourish and helped many people find meaningful lives. But it was rooted in principles that I cannot accept, from the divine right of kings to the glorification of war to the insistence that women's minds were too weak for leadership. To me that was all of a piece. How could we bring it back even if we wanted to?

As much as I worry about a future in which people have to find their way without the guidance of firm traditions, I think we have to go forward. The admiration people like Justice Kennedy and myself feel toward marriage would not apply to the patriarchal, semi-mandatory kind; for us it is valuable precisely because it is freely chosen, precisely because it is equal, precisely because it can be dissolved when it fails.

That is, I believe, the paradigm we must work toward. We must strive to build a world in which freedom works; in which people's choices lead to a good world because we present them with good options. Maybe this is not even possible, but to me it is the only political cause worth fighting for.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Gay Marriage is the Law

Justice Kennedy:
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.
It remains to be seen if this will lead to the debate gradually dying away, or if this will become an ongoing, festering political sore like abortion.

My sense is that most people will get used to gay marriage, and that within a decade opposition will be a fringe cause. We'll see.

Meanwhile, here is Justice Kennedy's explanation of how the Constitution has come to guarantee rights not imagined by its authors:
The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.

Three Crescent Moons

Cassini photograph showing three of Saturn's moons, Titan (the big one), Mimas (center bottom) and Rhea (upper left).

Corruption in Old Tunisia

Recent reports about the corruption of the old regime in Tunisia, under President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, reveal some of the issues that drove the Arab Spring revolts. The protesters were convinced that their governments were not only authoritarian but also stealing from them, and new reports on the Ben Ali regime show that they were not wrong:
A new research paper by World Bank economists released Thursday shows that companies owned by relatives and close allies of Mr. Ben Ali defrauded the state of $1 billion to $2.6 billion over a seven-year period by avoiding import tariffs. Researchers investigated the dealings of 206 companies between 2002 and 2009.

The findings represent one example of the cronyism that typified Mr. Ben Ali’s 23 years in power and that was one of the main drivers behind the uprising that overthrew him in 2011. Protesters vented their anger against Mr. Ben Ali’s family, and in particular his wife, Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser, and her businessmen brothers who had rapidly amassed great wealth. . . .

The World Bank detailed how the system worked in a first report on corruption under Mr. Ben Ali last year titled “All in the Family.” Firms owned by Mr. Ben Ali and his family dominated the telecommunications and air transportation industries, as well as real estate and other sectors of transportation, and were extremely lucrative, the report found.

By controlling the regulatory system of licensing and investment, the presidential family maintained a virtual monopoly in the sectors they chose, preventing competitors from entering the market and outperforming others in every aspect: employment, market share, profits and growth. Of the firms owned by the family that were confiscated, 220 accounted for 21 percent of all net private-sector profits in Tunisia, the report said.
So you can see why people were angry, and why they wanted to blame their poverty on the regime.

But on the other hand the removal of Ben Ali has not led to better economic times for most of the people; quite the contrary. The stability Ben Ali created, and his salesmanship with foreign investors, were very valuable, and their loss has had repercussions for all the citizens. I hope that in ten years Tunisia will have emerged from its slump and become a beacon of democracy and prosperity in the Arab world, but there is still a good chance that it will instead slide back down into civil war and terrorism.

Was corruption the problem? I have long been wondering how bad a thing graft really is, because sometimes it seems to me that it can be made to work very well. My instinct of course is to think that corrupt greed is always a force for evil, but because that is what I want to believe I have my doubts as to whether it can really be true. After all very few societies have met the standards of contemporary Denmark, and yet life goes on. In the 1865 to 1900 period the United States was very corrupt, more so than ever before or since, but it also enjoyed astonishing economic growth. Maybe things would have been even better without the Goulds and the Rockefellers siphoning off millions to their private accounts, but maybe corruption sometimes eased the way for modernization that would otherwise have been hard to achieve. (Could the railroads have been built without corruption?) Rapid industrialization has very often been accompanied by massive corruption and the accumulation of ill-gotten fortunes, from Britain in 1800 to China in 1995.

The history of the Arab Spring introduces another variable, whether corruption can contribute to stability. I would certainly never want to defend the regimes of Ben Ali, Mubarak, and so on, but on the other hand they at least kept the people fed and the lid on chaos. Maybe if they had been less corrupt they would have done even better, and the economies of their nations would have prospered; but on the other hand maybe keeping the wealth concentrated in favorite groups like the generals and the judges helped them keep control. Corruption involved stealing from many people, but among the beneficiaries were certain favored groups of the poor -- dictators and their wives had favorite charities to which businessmen who wanted their favor donated lavishly. Cheap bread for the poor was a feature of all those regimes.

I want to believe in democracy and fairness, but it may be that they can work only in prosperous, united countries. Recent events show that democracy can be dangerous, exacerbating tensions between different ethnic, regional, and class groups, to the point of civil war. I believe that more economic democracy would help the poor and the middle class in America, because our system is strong enough to survive any turmoil it would cause. But my insights into my own society do not necessarily translate readily into other places where very different people are living very different lives.

And yet -- are there no limits to greed? Why do people like Ben Ali and Rockefeller refuse to be happy with great wealth and power and insist on grinding on beyond the limits of what anyone could possibly use? Why keep piling billions upon billions instead of settling down with the first billion and starting to work on your reputation and place in history?

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Kernosovsky Stela

Sandstone statue from Kernosovsky in Ukraine, dating to around 2500 to 3000 BCE. A product of the Yamnaya Culture, that is, the probable proto-Indo-Europeans.

This was discovered by schoolchildren in 1973. It is 4 feet (1.2 m) tall and weighs 1700 pounds (950 kg).

Ukrainian archaeologists identify this as a god, but in western Europe they think Bronze Age stelae are more likely to represent semi-divine heroes, which we know were very important in the slightly later religion of the early Iron Age.