Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Why Western Intervention in Syria is a Farce

As I write this it appears that the US, UK, and France, with the support of the Turkish government and the Arab League, are finalizing plans to strike at the Baathist government in Syria in what they claim is retaliation for that government using chemical weapons, which is prohibited under a Geneva Accord reached in 1925. of course, this action will be taken prior to any findings by the UN inspectors in Syria currently, and without UN Security Council approval, so the overall legality of the action is questionable at best under the existing international legal regime.

As the title implies, I am not a fan of what is coming, because I believe that it is being done for the wrong reasons, and without an honest assessment of what is happening in Syria. The picture painted in the Western press is that what is happening in Syria is a popular revolt horribly suppressed by the government. This is correct, as far as the evidence shows. The Western media goes on to claim that it is only because of Iranians, Russian, and Hezbullah support that the regime is still around and these terrible actors are stopping the Syrian people from being free. That is nonsense. It is correct that those allies of the Assad regime have provided it with invaluable support, but it would also be accurate to state that without the monetary and logistical support of the Gulf States and Turkey and foreign Islamist the rebellion would have been defeated by the much better armed regime already. The rebellion against Assad is popular, but not universally supported. Significant sections of the Syrian population do not trust the rebels or their aims, and are fighting to retain the brutal Assad regime in what they see as a move towards communal survival. This is why what we have is a brutal civil war.

From the start it has been clear, due to the statements of Western powers, that the West wanted Assad gone, because he is an ally of Iran. Our desire to see his criminal regime gone is based solely on his relative stance vis a vi the West. The failure to castigate the current military regime in Egypt after  killing hundreds shows that just simply brutally suppressing political opponents is not what we use as a criteria for criticism. The West has been disingenuous then about wanting peace in Syria - peace is a secondary aim, coming after regime change. Unfortunately, the indigenous rebels have proven themselves incapable of coming together and forming a possible government in waiting, and have allowed foreign Al Qaeda Islamist to become the most effective units against the regime. This has helped the Assad government win support amongst the Western electorates, if not amongst the leaders. I say this because the voters in the West have come not to trust the rebels and generally do not support taking the steps necessary to carry out regime change and bring a rebel victory via Western arms. This has hampered the ability of Western government (assuming the desire is there) to openly support the rebels.

So what about this coming intervention? We are left with the West claiming that it is acting to preserve international norms and sending the message that using chemical weapons is unacceptable, all while acting against the existing international legal system and without waiting for parties seen as impartial making evidenciary rulings.It must act as a vigilante, we are told, because otherwise other people might use these terrible weapons. That we learned today that the US and the West stood by and actively helped Iraq gas the Iranians isn't really helping the message. In the end, this strike in Syria is about preserving a "credibility" the West doesn't have to begin with. The attacks won't be enough to end the civil war, because the Western governments know they lack the support to undertake such actions, but they will make a peaceful resolution harder in the short term by giving all sides less reasons to agree to join peace talks. The truth is that it might be too late for Syria, and the country might need to be partitioned, but we aren't at that stage yet, and I fear lots more people will have to die before  we get there.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

What is Capitalism all about?

Capitalism is an ideology that a lot of people speak about constantly, whether in support or in opposition. Yet I feel that the definition generally given to it is rather lacking; an amorphous one that happens to include "the free market" and private ownership and other terms that don't in fact have to be connected to that system.

Personally, I think we can clarify the whole situation by going back to the root word: Capital. Now, Capital does not only include money but all means of production: tools and machines are capital, land can be capital, animals and their labor can be capital (we exclude humans from this bit usually). In whatever form it comes, Capitalism can be simply seen as an ideology based on the maximization of Capital. This is why "the free market" gets included: the theoretical free market is the most efficient way to distribute resources. By increasing efficiency and cutting waste, we can maximize the use and creation of Capital, and thus the "free market" becomes part of the Capitalist system. Private property is central to the system as a means of creating incentives for individuals to work towards the maximization of Capital, which is why that idea is part of the overall ideology.

Trying to maximize the wealth and productive capability of the economy: making as much stuff as possible and constant economic growth are what an never ending drive to maximize Capital calls for. In a Capitalist system, economic growth as a virtue is a given and anything that might limit that is seen as a negative. It is easy for some to call this nothing more than greed and question whether there is any moral support for this system in the first place. There certainly is a moral heart to the system, and that is banishing scarcity. The truth is that poverty is neither edifying nor inherently moral. Being poor is terrible, and the deprivation can do terrible things to people's soul. There is nothing immoral about trying to create enough for everyone to be materially comfortable, and that is what Capitalism aims to accomplish. The aim of Capitalism then is to free all men from poverty. There is a catch though.

Unfortunately, the mix of values and system necessary for the maximization of Capital create problems inherent in the system itself, as Karl Marx saw. A system of private ownership concentrates productive power in the hands of a few, and leaves many with only one recourse for obtaining the societal credit to get their share of the new bounty, which is wage work. Yet as we said the whole point of Capitalism is to maximize Capital. If a Capitalist can replace human labor with Capital profitably, they will. That is the logic of the system. This frees people from the need to work, but in the Capitalist system work is the only thing most members can do to have access to their basic needs. The Capitalist system is working hard to free all humans of the need to work, but once this is achieved only the owners of Capital will have the legal right to the bounty.

This insight of Marx has been ignored due to the failure of the Leninist and Maoist experiments, but I think many of his concepts will in the end prove correct. It is not a bad thing to attempt to rid man of scarcity and poverty, as Capitalism aims to do, but in doing so the basic rules of social interaction between us big hairless social apes break down/ This problem is one that our children and their children will likely have to deal with sooner rather than later, and I question whether we are really ready to make the necessary leap when the time comes.

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Critique of the Social Sciences from the Inside

I had the opportunity to study political science at the University of Chicago, which is one of the birthplaces of the discipline. There my love for the social science was strengthened. While I did not share Paul Krugman's ambition to be the new Hari Seldon after reading the Foundation series, I was raised to care about politics and the interactions between human beings fascinate me.

This deep interest in the social sciences is at the core of my disappointment in general with the way these disciplines are taught, particularly economics. Having attached the word "science" has had all sort of negative consequences. That concept has been linked so heavily to the physical sciences, particularly chemistry and physics, that social scientists seem to be left ashamed at the fact that they generally can't speak with the same authority on the subject of how human interactions will work out that chemists can use when describing the interaction between two chemicals. And social scientists can't make predictions like the physical scientists can. These assumed shortcomings have led social scientists to attempt to make their disciplines as much as they can like the social sciences, including putting a heavy emphasis on mathematical models.

I am not saying here that its wrong for social scientists to make mathematical models. They can be immensely useful and powerful, but their usefulness in the social sciences, at least to this day, is limited by the reality that mathematics is the language of logic, while human actions are usually driven not by logic but emotion. The myth of Homo Economicus is a prime example. This way of conceptualizing humans does in fact have some usefulness, but only in certain limited contexts. People can behave like rational, self-interested actors, but generally only when interacting with strangers in a moment of mutual exchange. This might seem like it applies to all economic actions, but the operative word is stranger. If two individuals interacting are not strangers but in fact share some bond, then rational self-interests will not dominate the outcome of the exchange. People will bring in a host of others considerations into play, including maintaining the image they wish to project for the other participant. I consider the counterargument that such a relationship and the desires it causes can be subsumed into the subjective self-interest of the actors to be a cop-out. If 'rational' is reduced merely to what individuals can rationalize, not what in fact can be deduced logically, then it really loses all hope of having any relation to an empirical observation. People can rationalize killing another human being because of the color of the shirt they wore. It is likely possible to postulate a whole set of assumptions under which this would become a logical action, but those assumptions are clearly not universally shared. If everyone does not agree that 1=1, then trying to figure something out with mathematics becomes no different that trying to figure out something through a conversation in a spoken language.

To be scientists, social scientists must whenever possible, stick to an empirical view of their subjects, which are human beings. Human beings are large bipedal social apes that can communicate abstractions through language. That last bit allows them to manipulate the material world in ways that other apes (or animals) can't. Being social means that their place in the hierarchy is crucial to their overall success and thus relative status is a critical matter to these apes. Being large mammals means they can traverse large spaces but need lots of resources. They can consume varied diets and their tool making ability has allowed them to inhabit a large number of biomes. The job of the social scientists is to try to figure out the underlying patterns of their interactions, something that is impossible if we continue to avoid speaking about humans like what they are, instead of trying to make them into something they are not. Since the social scientists themselves are human, this tendency to elevate our species above its station is quite common, but it must be resisted, because otherwise we are ignoring the empirical evidence in front of our eyes, which is supposed to be the basis of all scientific inquiry.

If social scientists ever hope to be more like the physical scientists, then we need to stop ignoring the reality of what human beings are, instead of trying to create models based on what we already think human beings should be. Thankfully movements like behavioral economics are starting to travel that path, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

An Introduction from our Author

This blog is meant to be an outlet for the author's various ideas about the world. Thoughts on politics and policy, history and economics will dominate, but they won't be the only subjects discussed. The blog will always try to be informative and/or interesting, though satisfaction is not guaranteed; after all, I am in no control of the readership this blog will attract, if any.

So I hope those that wander in enjoy what they read or at least are left to think. And thanks for being here in the first place.