Saturday, 31 December 2011

Beware of Corporate Psychopaths




Outlook Over the years I've met my fair share of monsters – rogue individuals, for the most part. But as regulation in the UK and the US has loosened its restraints, the monsters have proliferated.

In a paper recently published in the Journal of Business Ethics entitled "The Corporate Psychopaths: Theory of the Global Financial Crisis", Clive R Boddy identifies these people as psychopaths.

"They are," he says, "simply the 1 per cent of people who have no conscience or empathy." And he argues: "Psychopaths, rising to key senior positions within modern financial corporations, where they are able to influence the moral climate of the whole organisation and yield considerable power, have largely caused the [banking] crisis'.

And Mr Boddy is not alone. In Jon Ronson's widely acclaimed book The Psychopath Test, Professor Robert Hare told the author: "I should have spent some time inside the Stock Exchange as well. Serial killer psychopaths ruin families. Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies."

Cut to a pleasantly warm evening in Bahrain. My companion, a senior UK investment banker and I, are discussing the most successful banking types we know and what makes them tick. I argue that they often conform to the characteristics displayed by social psychopaths. To my surprise, my friend agrees.

He then makes an astonishing confession: "At one major investment bank for which I worked, we used psychometric testing to recruit social psychopaths because their characteristics exactly suited them to senior corporate finance roles."

Here was one of the biggest investment banks in the world seeking psychopaths as recruits.
Mr Ronson spoke to scores of psychologists about their understanding of the damage that psychopaths could do to society. None of those psychologists could have imagined, I'm sure, the existence of a bank that used the science of spotting them as a recruiting mechanism.

I've never met Dick Fuld, the former CEO of Lehman Brothers and the architect of its downfall, but I've seen him on video and it's terrifying. He snarled to Lehman staff that he wanted to "rip out their [his competitors] hearts and eat them before they died". So how did someone like Mr Fuld get to the top of Lehman? You don't need to see the video to conclude he was weird; you could take a little more time and read a 2,200-page report by Anton Valukas, the Chicago-based lawyer hired by a US court to investigate Lehman's failure. Mr Valukas revealed systemic chicanery within the bank; he described management failures and a destructive, internal culture of reckless risk-taking worthy of any psychopath.

So why wasn't Mr Fuld spotted and stopped? I've concluded it's the good old question of nature and nurture but with a new interpretation. As I see it, in its search for never-ending growth, the financial services sector has actively sought out monsters with natures like Mr Fuld and nurtured them with bonuses and praise.

We all understand that sometimes businesses have to be cut back to ensure their survival, and where those cuts should fall is as relevant to a company as it is, today, to the UK economy; should it bear down upon the rich or the poor?

Making those cuts doesn't make psychopaths of the cutters, but the financial sector's lack of remorse for the pain it encourages people to inflict is purely psychopathic. Surely the action of cutting should be a matter for sorrow and regret? People's lives are damaged, even destroyed. However, that's not how the financial sector sees it.

Take Sir Fred Goodwin of RBS, for example. Before he racked up a corporate loss of £24.1bn, the highest in UK history, he was idolised by the City. In recognition of his work in ruthlessly cutting costs at Clydesdale Bank he got the nickname "Fred the Shred", and he played that for all it was worth. He was later described as "a corporate Attila", a title of which any psychopath would be proud.

Mr Ronson reports: "Justice departments and parole boards all over the world have accepted Hare's contention that psychopaths are quite simply incurable and everyone should concentrate their energies instead on learning how to root them out."

But, far from being rooted out, they are still in place and often in positions of even greater power.
As Mr Boddy warns: "The very same corporate psychopaths, who probably caused the crisis by their self-seeking greed and avarice, are now advising governments on how to get out of the crisis. Further, if the corporate psychopaths theory of the global financial crisis is correct, then we are now far from the end of the crisis. Indeed, it is only the end of the beginning."

I became familiar with psychopaths early in life. They were the hard men who terrorised south-east London when I was growing up. People like "Mad" Frankie Fraser and the Richardson brothers. They were what we used to call "red haze" men, and they were frightening because they attacked with neither fear, mercy nor remorse.

Regarding Messrs Hare, Ronson, Boddy and others, I've realised that some psychopaths "forge careers in corporations. The group is called Corporate Psychopaths". They are polished and plausible, but that doesn't make them any less dangerous.

In attempting to understand the complexities of what went wrong in the years leading to 2008, I've developed a rule: "In an unregulated world, the least-principled people rise to the top." And there are none who are less principled than corporate psychopaths.

Brian Basham is a veteran City PR man, entrepreneur and journalist

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Just because you're an atheist doesn't make you rational

Once you make it your primary aim to refute the existence of God, you miss what's really fundamental
Having followed the latest debate about religion, I'd say the conclusion is obvious that the only thing as disturbing as the religious is the modern atheist. I'd noticed this before, after I was slightly critical of Richard Dawkins and received piles of fuming replies, that made me think that what his followers would like is to scientifically create an eternity in laboratory conditions so that they could burn me there for all of it.
It's not the rationality that's alarming, it's the smugness. Instead of trying to understand religion, if the modern atheist met a peasant in a village in Namibia, he'd shriek: "Of course, GOD didn't create light, it's a mixture of waves and particles you idiot, it's OBVIOUS."

The connection between the religious and the modern atheist was illustrated after the death of Christopher Hitchens, when it was reported that "tributes were led by Tony Blair". I know you can't dictate who leads your tributes, and it's probable that when Blair's press office suggested that he made one to someone who'd passed on, he said: "Oh, which dictator I used to go on holiday with has died NOW?"

But the commendation was partly Hitchens's fault. Because the difference between the modern atheist and the Enlightenment thinkers who fought the church in the 18th century is that back then they didn't make opposition to religion itself their driving ideology. They opposed the lack of democracy justified by the idea that a king was God's envoy on earth, and they wished for a rational understanding of the solar system, rather than one based on an order ordained by God that matched the view that everyone in society was born into a fixed status.

But once you make it your primary aim to refute the existence of God, you can miss what's really fundamental. For example, the ex-canon of St Paul's, presumably a believer unless he managed to fudge the issue in the interview, was on the radio this week expressing why he resigned in support of the protesters outside his old cathedral. He spoke with inspiring compassion, but was interrupted by an atheist who declared the Christian project is doomed because we're scientifically programmed to look after ourselves at the expense of anyone else. So the only humane rational scientific thought to have was "GO Christian, GO, Big up for the Jesus posse."

Similarly, Hitchens appears to have become obsessed with defying religion, so made himself one of the most enthusiastic supporters for a war he saw as being against the craziness of Islam. But the war wasn't about God or Allah, it was about more earthly matters, which the people conducting that war understood. And, as that war became predictably disastrous, they were grateful for whatever support they could find. And so a man dedicated to disproving GOD was praised in his death by the soppiest, sickliest, most, irrational, hypocritical Christian of them all.

So the only thing I know for certain is that I would become a Christian, if I could just get round the fact that there is no GOD.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Umpiring errors are part of the game

By Michael Jeh 11 hours, 8 minutes ago in Michael Jeh

 
Everyone, including Hussey, knew the rules of engagement before that match started © AFP


Here we go again - another Border Gavaskar Trophy on the line and it starts to get "tasty" after just one day. The Internet era merely serves to heighten the tensions because unlike the old-fashioned 'Letters to the Editor' which were usually written with more eloquence and vetted by editors, online blogs are much more raw and unfettered in both passion and vitriol. It's a classic Beauty and the Beast situation where we get to see what people are really thinking, protected by anonymity and distance, unhindered by rules about grammar and spelling, unafraid to vent opinions that range from sincere passion to patriotic fervour gone mad. I've seen some of that already this morning with reference to the DRS controversy. Some of it has been entertaining and illuminative whilst some of it has been just plain idiotic. That's the world wide web for you.

From what I've read this morning, it seems to me that some bloggers have just lost their sense of balance and perspective, blinded by their bias for or against the two countries involved. Here's my attempt to bring some common-sense and logic back to the debate, arguing from a neutral position of indifference as to who wins but with a strong desire to see the Indian and Australians fans not rip each other to pieces with emotive arguments that go beyond mere cricketing matters. Many incidents over the last few years have unnecessarily damaged relations between us, starting with the infamous Sydney Test when Harbajhan Singh and Andrew Symonds clashed and extending off the field to more serious incidents involving student bashings and loose talk on both sides of the Indian Ocean.

Let's start with the silly comments being bandied regarding the DRS not being used because it allows the Indians to cheat. It's not the ICC who are necessarily to blame, neither are the Indian cricketers themselves culpable. It was a decision agreed to at board level. Regardless of whether the BCCI has too much power or not, a topic for another debate altogether, the cricketers themselves are simply playing by the rules that were agreed before the series began. It's not like the Indian players suddenly introduced the playing condition when Michael Hussey walked out to bat. Everyone, including Hussey, knew the rules of engagement before that match started.

Umpires make mistakes. That happens. Disappointed as Hussey may have been, surely he is not suggesting that he has never benefited from similar decisions going in his favour, either as individual or as a team. The accidental fact that it was a first-ball duck when his career is on the line shouldn't change anything. I'm not even sure if Hussey is complaining too much, apart from that initial show of frustration for which a man of his calibre and disciplinary record can surely be forgiven. It's the irrational fools with short memories who are quick to start labelling the opposition players as cheats who are the real cheats in my opinion.

Short memories? Anyone remember when these teams last met during the New Year’s Test? Symonds smashed the cover off the ball and chose to stand his ground. He was simply playing by the rules and any Indian fan who called him a cheat should be similarly embarrassed today. Symonds' innings defined the course of that Test match but the bottom line is that he was simply playing by the rules of the day. He was no more or less of a cheat than anybody was yesterday (unless Symonds himself is one of those mystery bloggers hiding behind a ridiculous pseudonym, venting irrational spleen to fuel tension).

What about the Peter Siddle no-ball incident today when he castled Rahul Dravid? The replay reprieved Dravid, just like it did for Michael Clarke at the Gabba a few weeks ago. Dravid didn't ask for the replay - the umpire called for it himself because he was unsure, just like he did for Clarke who went on to score a big hundred. Both teams were aware that the umpires had this option available to them. It's not like Marais Erasmus made it up on the spot just to try and favour India. The only person at fault was Siddle for not keeping his foot behind the line.

Australian supporters are entitled to be disappointed with the Hussey dismissal yesterday but if you hail from a cricketing culture that has always played by the code where batsmen do not walk and leave all decisions to the umpires, surely you have to accept that you take the rough with the smooth. How does yesterday's chain of events make the Indians cheats? Does that also make the Aussies cheats when they nick one and don't walk?

I find it particularly amusing when Australian fans complain about genuine umpiring mistakes. As far back as I can recall, from junior cricket ranks upwards, our kids have been brought up on the notion that you only walk when your car has broken down. Leave all decisions to the umpires and if it's your lucky day, that's cricket. That system is fraught with hypocrisy because I've seen many batsmen scream like stuck pigs when they get a bad one, I've seen many fielding teams happily accept decisions when they acknowledge amongst themselves in the team huddle that the umpire clearly got it wrong and most amusingly, I've seen fielders who give the batsman an absolute gobful for not walking when he nicks it! If that's not hypocrisy, what is? Surely a system that is built around living with the umpire's verdict is inherently in danger of choking on its own words if they abuse batsmen for not walking when he gets away with one? Under these rules, the only ones who are cheats are the ones who want the rules to work both ways. And they accuse the BCCI of opportunism?

Everyone's so busy accusing each other of dastardly deeds that they forget that it was a genuine mistake by the umpires. That happens. It works both ways. I read some ridiculous comments overnight that seemed to insinuate that the Indians opted against using DRS because it would allow them (the Indians) to get away with cheating. Where's the logic in that comment? That logic only holds true if the BCCI can somehow exert enough influence to infiltrate the game with crooked umpires. If that's the accusation, it is a very serious one indeed and completely destroys the fabric of the game. It's also a gross insult to the umpiring fraternity who clearly make mistakes on the field (as do the players) but would be appalled to think that the some cricket fans actually believe this is so. Any serious cricket follower who has watched the actual on-field umpiring incidents could not possibly think that there is a corrupt system in place that favours India more than other teams. It's just plain ridiculous.

The long-term solutions lie in getting the respective governing bodies to agree on a system that is acceptable to all stakeholders, cricketers, fans, umpires and cricket boards alike. There's a much bigger debate to be had as to whether the technology is reliable enough to be used universally and whether the BCCI should be allowed veto rights based on their power alone. That's a political debate though and one that doesn't really figure in some of the blog comments from all fans who seem hell-bent on accusing each other of racist bias.
What's new about a system that is controlled by the most powerful? We live in a world that runs entirely along those principles where the major industrial nations write the rules and everyone is forced to play by those rules. Those who choose to play by different rules get bombed into submission. One man's terrorist is another man's liberator. The debate about whether the BCCI has too much power or not is a worthy cause to contribute to but it has nothing whatsoever to do with whether players or umpires are cheats. All parties agreed to the system before the first ball was bowled. Just because yesterday's decisions may have come at the start of Ed Cowan's career and the end of Hussey's doesn't make it an act of foul play. By the end of the summer, I am sure the Indian batsmen too will cop some poor decisions so let's hope we don't see a repeat of the sanctimonious hand-wringing and ugly accusations against the umpires or the team who dare to appeal for a nick. Even if it involves Sachin Tendulkar. If he doesn't want to risk a poor decision, tell him not to make a mistake then! Clearly that's what we expect of umpires these days.

So to those vitriolic and irrational bloggers out there who seem to thrive on cowardly insults across a forum where daft nicknames hide their true identity, try not to confuse on-field decisions with agreements made by cricket boards and the ICC. Those are systemic decisions that are as much about politics and power as it is about what is best for the game. I'm certainly not one of those who believes that any governing body, BCCI and Cricket Australia included, necessarily act in the best interests of the game. They act in the best interests of themselves. But let's divorce the players and umpires from some of the grubby individuals who skulk in the corridors of power. Some men are still honourable. Some men still make mistakes. They make honourable mistakes. That's not cheating.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Why should I love this country?


The New Chauvinism

 By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 9th August 2005


Out of the bombings a national consensus has emerged: what we need in Britain is a renewed sense of patriotism. The rightwing papers have been making their usual noises about old maids and warm beer, but in the past 10 days they’ve been joined by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian, Tristram Hunt in the New Statesman, the New Statesman itself and just about everyone who has opened his mouth on the subject of terrorism and national identity. Emboldened by this consensus, the Sun now insists that anyone who isn’t loyal to this country should leave it.(1) The way things are going, it can’t be long before I’m deported.

The argument runs as follows: patriotic people don’t turn on each other. If there are codes of citizenship and a general belief in Britain’s virtues, acts of domestic terrorism are unlikely to happen. As Jonathan Freedland points out, the United States, in which “loyalty is instilled constantly” has never “had a brush with home-grown Islamist terrorism”.(2)

This may be true (though there have been plenty of attacks by non-Muslim terrorists in the US). But while patriotism might make citizens less inclined to attack each other, it makes the state more inclined to attack other countries, for it knows it is likely to command the support of its people. If patriotism were not such a powerful force in the US, could Bush have invaded Iraq?

To argue that national allegiance reduces human suffering, you must assert that acts of domestic terrorism cause more grievous harm than all the territorial and colonial wars, ethnic cleansing and holocausts pursued in the name of national interest. To believe this, you need be not just a patriot, but a chauvinist.

Freedland and Hunt and the leader writers of the New Statesman, of course, are nothing of the kind. Hunt argues that Britishness should be about “values rather than institutions”: Britain has “a superb record of political liberalism and intellectual inquiry, giving us a public sphere open to ideas, religions and philosophy from across the world”.(3) This is true, but these values are not peculiar to Britain, and it is hard to see why we have to become patriots in order to invoke them. Britain also has an appalling record of imperialism and pig-headed jingoism, and when you wave the flag, no one can be sure which record you are celebrating. If you want to defend liberalism, then defend it, but why conflate your love for certain values with love for a certain country?

And what, exactly, would a liberal patriotism look like? When confronted with a conflict between the interests of your country and those of another, patriotism, by definition, demands that you should choose those of your own. Internationalism, by contrast, means choosing the option which delivers most good or least harm to people, regardless of where they live. It tells us that someone living in Kinshasa is of no less worth than someone living in Kensington, and that a policy which favours the interests of 100 British people at the expense of 101 Congolese is one we should not pursue. Patriotism, if it means anything, tells us we should favour the interests of the 100 British people. How do you reconcile this choice with liberalism? How, for that matter, do you distinguish it from racism?

This is the point at which every right-thinking person in Britain scrambles for his Orwell. Did not the sage assert that “patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism”,(4) and complain that “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality”?(5) He did. But he wrote this during the Second World War. There was no question that we had a duty to fight Hitler and, in so doing, to take sides. And the sides were organised along national lines. If you failed to support Britain, you were assisting the enemy. But today the people trying to kill us are British citizens. They are divided from most of those who live here by ideology, not nationality. To the extent that it was the invasion of Iraq that motivated the terrorists, and to the extent that it was patriotism that made Britain’s participation in the invasion possible, it was patriotism that got us into this mess.

The allegiance which most enthusiasts ask us to demonstrate is a selective one. The rightwing press, owned by the grandson of a Nazi sympathiser, a pair of tax exiles and an Australian with American citizenship, is fiercely nationalistic when defending our institutions from Europe, but seeks to surrender the lot of us to the US. It loves the Cotswolds and hates Wales. It loves gaunt, aristocratic women and second homes, and hates oiks, gypsies, council estates and caravan parks.

Two weeks ago, the Telegraph published a list of “ten core values of the British identity” whose adoption, it argued, would help to prevent another terrorist attack.(6) These were not values we might choose to embrace, but “non-negotiable components of our identity”. Among them were “the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament” (“the Lords, the Commons and the monarch constitute the supreme authority in the land”), “private property”, “the family”, “history” (“British children inherit … a stupendous series of national achievements”) and “the English-speaking world” (“the atrocities of September 11, 2001, were not simply an attack on a foreign nation; they were an attack on the anglosphere”). These non-negotiable demands are not so different to those of the terrorists. Instead of an eternal caliphate, an eternal monarchy. Instead of an Islamic vision of history, a Etonian one. Instead of the Ummah, the anglosphere.

If there is one thing that could make me hate this country, it is the Telegraph and its “non-negotiable components”. If there is one thing that could make me hate America, it was the sight of the crowds at the Republican convention standing up and shouting “USA, USA “, while Zell Miller informed them that “nothing makes this Marine madder than someone calling American troops occupiers rather than liberators.”(7) As usual, we are being asked to do the job of the terrorists, by making this country ugly on their behalf.

I don’t hate Britain, and I am not ashamed of my nationality, but I have no idea why I should love this country more than any other. There are some things I like about it and some things I don’t, and the same goes for everywhere else I’ve visited. To become a patriot is to lie to yourself, to tell yourself that whatever good you might perceive abroad, your own country is, on balance, better than the others. It is impossible to reconcile this with either the evidence of your own eyes or a belief in the equality of humankind. Patriotism of the kind Orwell demanded in 1940 is necessary only to confront the patriotism of other people: the Second World War, which demanded that the British close ranks, could not have happened if Hitler hadn’t exploited the national allegiance of the Germans. The world will be a happier and safer place when we stop putting our own countries first.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Conflict - the path to Growth and Renewal

by Pritish Nandy

Call it conflict. Call it confrontation. Or call it simply the dialectic of growth. Whatever you call it, clashes take the world ahead. We may talk endlessly about peace and stability, how crucial continuity is. But what brings about change and opens up new ideas, new markets, new opportunities is always conflict. It breaks the status quo, creates the momentum for change. In the process, the world transforms.

Yes, every time a person, a brand or an institution comes under threat, the world changes. It forces us to think afresh. The classic example is when Pepsi challenged Coke, we all recognised for the first time the amazing elasticity of demand for a fizzy drink. Or when Penthouse challenged Playboy and converted what was till then a niche business into one of the world’s biggest industries. To take a recent example, when Anil and Mukesh fought, it appeared self defeating and long dirges were written about the demise of the great Ambani empire. Two years later, we found just the opposite had happened. The conflict had quadrupled their collective wealth. Similarly, if there is one thing that can resuscitate our moribund politics, it is Anna’s aggressive campaign that has woken up a lazy, corrupt Government to its responsibilities. As indeed it has woken up an equally lazy, corrupt Opposition to its opportunities. 

So, if conflict is the catalyst for change, why do we constantly enshrine the importance of harmony, reconciliation, freedom from strife? Every spiritual guru talks about it. So do political leaders. Even businessmen claim that stability is the only way for the world to progress and prosper. If stability goes, we are warned, the markets would collapse. So would the world. Actually, the contrary is true. Even though it appear to be bloody and unseemly, conflict is good for business, politics and, often, even human rights. The status quo invariably represents exploitation, corruption, the perpetuation of wrong. It also represents the lack of free thought. If we did not have enough conflicts, the world would rot.

Great religions grew from conflict. Every emerging sect and sub sect may have drawn blood during its birth and baptism but eventually they grew the size of the following and gave these faiths their cutting edge, to see them through difficult times. So, even as religions denounce violence, the truth is that it is violence that enlarged their domain. The benign perish, unsung. The gentle leader remains enshrined in our hearts but no longer relevant in a world we have created for ourselves where only strife moves us ahead. If Osama did not exist, we would have had to create him. (And some say we did.)

Godse kept Gandhi alive by assassinating him. Or else, we would have forgotten him even in his lifetime. Like the world forgot Mikhail Gorbachev. Violence, anger, bloodshed are the highpoints we celebrate as history. Our wars are what define us as nations, as the map of the world is being constantly redrawn. Empires are shrinking. New nations are being born.

New instruments of conflict keep being discovered. These are the new change agents. So when Sibal protests against social networking sites he is doing exactly what every Government wants to do: Preserve the status quo. For in the status quo lies their only hope of clinging onto power. That is why every re-election campaign starts with the promise of stability. It is the perpetuation of the myth that what exists is perfect. What could follow may be dangerous. 

But the modern world exists because it flirts with danger. Conflict creates markets. Conflict brings us change. Conflict opens up new opportunities, redefines existing social structures, gives hope to the underprivileged, the trampled upon. It teaches us the importance of constant change. Sun Tzu is the philosopher of our times. He teaches us that we must not run away from conflict but win it artfully and use it to change our lives.

The Tomsk court is not wrong. The Bhagawad Gita teaches us exactly this, and more. It teaches us that it is our moral duty to fight every war and win it instead of whimpering about peace and stability, right and wrong. In that sense, it is indeed extremist literature for our extremist times. It is that rare manual for survival in the age of bloody, bare knuckled fights. To ban it would be stupid. To learn from it would be apt.

Good Minus God



The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.

I was heartened to learn recently that atheists are no longer the most reviled group in the United States: according to the political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, we’ve been overtaken by the Tea Party.  But even as I was high-fiving my fellow apostates (“We’re number two!  We’re number two!”), I was wondering anew: why do so many people dislike atheists?
Atheism does not entail that anything goes. Quite the opposite.
I gather that many people believe that atheism implies nihilism — that rejecting God means rejecting morality.  A person who denies God, they reason, must be, if not actively evil, at least indifferent to considerations of right and wrong.  After all, doesn’t the dictionary list “wicked” as a synonym for “godless?”  And isn’t it true, as Dostoevsky said, that “if God is dead, everything is permitted”?
Well, actually — no, it’s not.  (And for the record, Dostoevsky never said it was.)   Atheism does not entail that anything goes.

Admittedly, some atheists are nihilists.  (Unfortunately, they’re the ones who get the most press.)  But such atheists’ repudiation of morality stems more from an antecedent cynicism about ethics than from any philosophical view about the divine.  According to these nihilistic atheists, “morality” is just part of a fairy tale we tell each other in order to keep our innate, bestial selfishness (mostly) under control.  Belief in objective “oughts” and “ought nots,” they say, must fall away once we realize that there is no universal enforcer to dish out rewards and punishments in the afterlife.  We’re left with pure self-interest, more or less enlightened.

This is a Hobbesian view: in the state of nature “[t]he notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have no place.  Where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law, no injustice.”  But no atheist has to agree with this account of morality, and lots of us do not.  We “moralistic atheists” do not see right and wrong as artifacts of a divine protection racket.  Rather, we find moral value to be immanent in the natural world, arising from the vulnerabilities of sentient beings and from the capacities of rational beings to recognize and to respond to those vulnerabilities and capacities in others.
 
Leif Parsons

This view of the basis of morality is hardly incompatible with religious belief.  Indeed, anyone who believes that God made human beings in His image believes something like this — that there is a moral dimension of things, and that it is in our ability to apprehend it that we resemble the divine.  Accordingly, many theists, like many atheists, believe that moral value is inherent in morally valuable things.  Things don’t become morally valuable because God prefers them; God prefers them because they are morally valuable. At least this is what I was taught as a girl, growing up Catholic: that we could see that God was good because of the things He commands us to do.  If helping the poor were not a good thing on its own, it wouldn’t be much to God’s credit that He makes charity a duty.

It may surprise some people to learn that theists ever take this position, but it shouldn’t.  This position is not only consistent with belief in God, it is, I contend, a more pious position than its opposite.  It is only if morality is independent of God that we can make moral sense out of religious worship.  It is only if morality is independent of God that any person can have a moral basis for adhering to God’s commands.
Let me explain why.  First let’s take a cold hard look at the consequences of pinning morality to the existence of God.  Consider the following moral judgments — judgments that seem to me to be obviously true:
•            It is wrong to drive people from their homes or to kill them because you want their land.
•            It is wrong to enslave people.
•            It is wrong to torture prisoners of war.
•            Anyone who witnesses genocide, or enslavement, or torture, is morally required
to try to stop it.

To say that morality depends on the existence of God is to say that none of these specific moral judgments is true unless God exists.  That seems to me to be a remarkable claim.  If God turned out not to exist — then slavery would be O.K.?  There’d be nothing wrong with torture?  The pain of another human being would mean nothing?

Think now about our personal relations — how we love our parents, our children, our life partners, our friends.  To say that the moral worth of these individuals depends on the existence of God is to say that these people are, in themselves, worth nothing — that the concern we feel for their well being has no more ethical significance than the concern some people feel for their boats or their cars.  It is to say that the historical connections we value, the traits of character and personality that we love — all count for nothing in themselves.  Other people warrant our concern only because they are valued by someone else — in this case, God.  (Imagine telling a child: “You are not inherently lovable.  I love you only because I love your father, and it is my duty to love anything he loves.”)

What could make anyone think such things?  Ironically, I think the answer is: the same picture of morality that lies behind atheistic nihilism.  It’s the view that the only kind of “obligation” there could possibly be is the kind that is disciplined by promise of reward or threat of punishment.  Such a view cannot find or comprehend any value inherent in the nature of things, value that could warrant particular attitudes and behavior on the part of anyone who can apprehend it.  For someone who thinks that another being’s pain is not in itself a reason to give aid, or that the welfare of a loved one is not on its own enough to justify sacrifice, it is only the Divine Sovereign that stands between us and — as Hobbes put it — the war of “all against all.”

This will seem a harsh judgment on the many theists who subscribe to what is called Divine Command Theory — the view that what is morally good is constituted by what God commands.  Defenders of D.C.T. will say that their theory explains a variety of things about morality that non-theistic accounts of moral value cannot, and that it should be preferred for that reason.  For example, they will say that atheists cannot explain the objectivity of morality — how there could be moral truths that are independent of any human being’s attitudes, will or knowledge, and how moral truths could hold universally.  It is true that D.C.T. would explain these things.  If God exists, then He exists independently of human beings and their attitudes, and so His commands do, too.  If we didn’t invent God, then we didn’t invent His commands, and hence didn’t invent morality.  We can be ignorant of God’s will, and hence mistaken about what is morally good.  Because God is omnipresent, His commands apply to all people at all times and in all places.
Whatever the gods love — bingo! — that’s pious. But what if they change their minds?
That’s all fine.  It would follow from D.C.T. that moral facts are objective.  The problem is that it wouldn’t follow that they are moral.  Commands issued by a tyrant would have all the same features.  For D.C.T. to explain morality, it must also explain what makes God good.

The problem I’m pointing to is an ancient one, discussed by Plato.  In his dialogue “Euthyphro,” the eponymous character tries to explain his conception of piety to Socrates: “the pious acts,” Euthyphro says, are those which are loved by the gods.”  But Socrates finds this definition ambiguous, and asks Euthyphro: “are the pious acts pious because they are loved by the gods, or are the pious acts loved by the gods because they are pious?”

What’s the difference?  Well, if the first reading is correct, then it’s the gods’ loving those particular acts that makes them count as pious acts, that grounds their piousness.   “Pious,” on this alternative, is just shorthand for “something the gods love.”  Whatever the gods happen to love — bingo! — that’s pious.  If the gods change their preferences on a whim — and they did, if Homer knew his stuff — then the things that are pious change right along with them.  In contrast, on the second reading, pious acts are presumed to have a distinctive, substantive property in common, a property in virtue of which the gods love them, a property that explains why the gods love them.

Translated into contemporary terms, the question Socrates is asking is this: are morally good actions morally good simply in virtue of God’s favoring them?  Or does God favor them because they are — independently of His favoring them — morally good?  D.C.T. picks the first option; it says that it’s the mere fact that God favors them that makes morally good things morally good.

Theories that endorse the second option — let’s call any such theory a “Divine Independence Theory” (D.I.T.) — contend, on the contrary, that the goodness of an action is a feature that is independent of, and antecedent to God’s willing it.  God could have commanded either this action or its opposite, but in fact, He commands only the good one.

Both D.C.T. and D.I.T. entail a perfect correspondence between the class of actions God commands and the class of actions that are good (or rather, they do so on the assumption that God is perfectly benevolent).  The two theories differ, however, on what accounts for this congruence.  D.C.T. says that it is God’s command that explains why the good acts are “good” — it becomes true merely by definition that God commands “good” actions.  “Goodness,” on this view, becomes an empty honorific, with no independent content.  To say that God chooses the good is like saying that the Prime Meridian is at zero degrees longitude, or that in baseball, three strikes makes an out.  D.I.T., on the other hand, says that it is a substantive property of the acts — their goodness — that explains why God commanded them. Indeed, it says that God’s goodness consists in His choosing all and only the good.  D.I.T. presumes that we have an independent grasp of moral goodness, and that it is because of that that we can properly appreciate the goodness of God.

D.C.T. is arguably even more radical and bizarre than the Hobbesian nihilism I discussed earlier.  On the nihilistic view, there is no pretense that a sovereign’s power would generate moral obligation — the view is rather that “morality” is an illusion.  But D.C.T. insists both that there is such a thing as moral goodness, and that it is defined by what God commands. This makes for really appalling consequences, from an intuitive, moral point of view.  D.C.T. entails that anything at all could be “good” or “right” or “wrong.”  If God were to command you to eat your children, then it would be “right” to eat your children.  The consequences are also appalling from a religious point of view.  If all “moral” means is “commanded by God,” then we cannot have what we would otherwise have thought of as moral reasons for obeying Him.  We might have prudential reasons for doing so, self-interested reasons for doing so.  God is extremely powerful, and so can make us suffer if we disobey Him, but the same can be said of tyrants, and we have no moral obligation (speaking now in ordinary terms) to obey tyrants.  (We might even have a moral obligation to disobey tyrants.)  The same goes for worshipping God.  We might find it in our interest to flatter or placate such a powerful person, but there could be no way in which God was deserving of praise or tribute.

This is the sense in which I think that it is a more pious position to hold that morality is independent of the existence of God. If the term “good” is not just an empty epithet that we attach to the Creator, who or whatever that turns out to be, then it must be that the facts about what is good are independent of the other facts about God.  If “good” is to have normative force, it must be something that we can understand independently of what is commanded by a powerful omnipresent being.

So what about atheism?  What I think all this means is that the capacity to be moved by the moral dimension of things has nothing to do with one’s theological beliefs.  The most reliable allies in any moral struggle will be those who respond to the ethically significant aspects of life, whether or not they conceive these things in religious terms.  You do not lose morality by giving up God; neither do you necessarily find it by finding Him.
I want to close by conceding that there are things one loses in giving up God, and they are not insignificant.  Most importantly, you lose the guarantee of redemption.  Suppose that you do something morally terrible, something for which you cannot make amends, something, perhaps, for which no human being could ever be expected to forgive you.  I imagine that the promise made by many religions, that God will forgive you if you are truly sorry, is a thought would that bring enormous comfort and relief.  You cannot have that if you are an atheist.  In consequence, you must live your life, and make your choices with the knowledge that every choice you make contributes, in one way or another, to the only value your life can have.

Some people think that if atheism were true, human choices would be insignificant.  I think just the opposite — they would become surpassingly important.


Louise M. Antony teaches philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She writes on a variety of philosophical topics, including knowledge gender, the mind and, most recently, the philosophy of religion. She is the editor of the 2007 book “Philosophers Without Gods,” a collection of essays by atheist philosophers.

Europe's gutless collapse


By Reuven Brenner

The US and European financial crises have this in common: too much credit was advanced at too low prices to households in the United States and to governments in Europe. In the US, the recipients did not have either the collateral or the prospect of revenues to pay back creditors. In Europe, the governments, with their present institutions, cannot create enough taxed wealth to pay back the debt with their current institutions, taxes and regulations.

In both cases, the recipients of the loans either lied through their teeth or deluded themselves (and delusions can be powerful when they serve one's interests). In the case of mortgage recipients in the US, few did any due diligence about their future ability to pay or about the mortgage-backed bonds.

In Europe, the move toward the European Community and the euro started with lies (or delusions of German rescues). Recall that the Italians called 1987 the year of il sorpasso, since suddenly 18% was added to their gross domestic product (GDP). The politicians claimed that this number reflected part of their undeclared, unmeasured incomes.

Why 18%? Because this was the number that allowed Italy to conform to the European Community requirement of debt/GDP ratios. The European bureaucrats were aware of much undeclared incomes in Greece too. Eventually they sued the Greek government for the false national statistics.

The result? To this day in both countries some 30% of incomes are undeclared in a variety of imaginative ways, often hidden by these countries' intricate customs, traditions and systems of patronage.

The national governments will not have an easy time changing such deeply rooted arrangements. Too many complex taxes, too many regulations, and too much corruption "on the top" resulted in ingrained perceptions that governments are wasting the money and that the courts are unreliable, rationalizing the culture of tax evasion. Why should hard-working people pay taxes when politicians and the rich get away with murder?

As it is in private life, start relationships with lies and they are unlikely to last or to end well. No trust, no finance; diminished trust, finance at a higher price. It is not rocket science.

But if all this was known, why were lenders willing to advance massive amounts of loans to these irresponsible, unaccountable entities?

Whereas in the US the case can be made that it took some time until it dawned on some that things were going awry, in Europe's case the issues surrounding Italy and Greece were well known. It was no secret that the continent was divided into "junk countries" and others where the tribe - the German one - could be called on for sacrifices and fulfilling duties, as was the case after the reunification.

Who made the mistakes that led to offering the loans to these profligate entities, aggravating mispricing of credit around the world and failing to correct the errors?

After all, the rationale for capital markets is simple: when all parties are held accountable, they correct mispricing faster than any other institutions that supply capital. There are only two other main entities that supply capital in every society: families and governments. The first is unlikely to correct mistaken allocation faster because of emotions. The second is unlikely to correct mistakes faster than arms-length financial intermediaries because a wide variety of political considerations get in the way.

So what went wrong in the presumably accountable financial institutions? Improper fiscal, regulatory and monetary policies. When combined with political considerations, however, none were considered "mistakes" by large segments of academics, central bankers, and politicians.

China illustrates in an extreme way the main difficulty with the finding solutions, but it is not dissimilar to what now confronts Europe too.

Most people agree that communism, as once practiced in the Soviet Union and China, was a colossal mistake. Tens of millions of people were killed, generations were made miserable, and talents and resources became severely mismatched. How do you correct for such mistakes? What is the path from totalitarian societies to more open ones backed by rule of law and equality?

There are no unique answers. There are no theories, no models, since the countries do not have either the legal precedents or the personnel to create, interpret and enforce them. Governments may emulate a successful country, but that too can take a generation or two.

China bet on a strategy of keeping the monopoly of the communist party, but allowing part of its population to integrate with the West. To achieve this integration, they pegged their currency to the US dollar, thus allowing dollar prices to guide the drastic restructuring. What was the alternative? Since accounting, balance sheets, prices, costs under communism were all fiction, the new government needed an anchor, and dollar prices served as such anchor.

Since wages in China were much lower than in the US, employment and exports expanded quickly. The country rapidly accumulated trillions of dollar assets. The Fed's low interest rate policy from 2004 and on distorted China's massive flow of trade to the US and its purchasing of Treasuries.

One could make the point that if the Chinese Communist Party opened up its domestic financial markets more rapidly, dispersing power and allowing entrepreneurship to thrive, the financing of the housing bubble could have been significantly mitigated, if not avoided, even with the pegged currency. Was the US able to use its negotiating powers at the time to force China to open its domestic markets more quickly? I believe so - though this option wasn't pursued.

The main point though of the above example is not to regret some foregone opportunity but to show that there are no models describing either how exactly countries should correct their political mistakes or how other countries should react while countries go through such transitions. There are no roadmaps and general theories for successful transformation: using negotiating power matters.

The European crisis
The financing of profligate, unaccountable governments, sanctioned by rating agencies and the Bank of International Settlement in Basel as being "riskless", brought us to the present situation. The solution for the eurozone required a drastic change in domestic policies cajoled by the European Union. After all, the EU knew all along about the extensive black and grey markets and the intricate patronage. Solutions were known too: simplified taxes, simplified regulations, more accountable governments.

Note that these solutions have very little to do with financial markets. They are a matter of political leadership. The political and financial institutions of China, Italy, Greece, and so forth shaped intricate institutions and habits and will not be altered because some economist or politician disapproves of it or devises some new technical models. Changing these is a matter of political leadership.

Unfortunately, such leadership is today nowhere in sight. If it does not emerge, bankruptcy, a distant second best, will bring about the changes. It is a distant second best because it could involve an extremely disorganized process, whose political outcome is unpredictable. What could then be done now while we wait for the Club Med countries to put their houses in order?

Since the European banks are at the center of the present crises, the best solution would be to emulate what happened in the US banking system in the 1990s. Namely, let them raise money by selling their loan book.

Banks would be much smaller. Ownership of non-investment grade loans would be much more dispersed. If the US banks could diminish their ownership of such loans from 80% in 1994 of their assets to 20% by 2009 (the balance distributed in a variety of collateralized loan obligations), there is no particular reason why Europe cannot achieve the same in much shorter time.

No need to implement a myriad of regulations. Disgorging debts from the zombie banks would also mitigate the much discussed "too large" or "too interconnected" to fail issue. Pension funds, insurance companies, and sovereign funds could offer the capital for such purchases.

But this takes guts, which are lacking in both Europe and the US. Yet again, I sound like Machiavelli waiting for his prince who never came.

Let's hope that he will emerge in 2012.

Reuven Brenner holds the Repap Chair at McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management. The article draws on his books Labyrinths of Prosperity and Force of Finance.

Monday, 19 December 2011

'Freedom' an instrument of oppression

This bastardised libertarianism makes 'freedom' an instrument of oppression

It's the disguise used by those who wish to exploit without restraint, denying the need for the state to protect the 99%
pudles2012
Illustration by Daniel Pudles

Freedom: who could object? Yet this word is now used to justify a thousand forms of exploitation. Throughout the rightwing press and blogosphere, among thinktanks and governments, the word excuses every assault on the lives of the poor, every form of inequality and intrusion to which the 1% subject us. How did libertarianism, once a noble impulse, become synonymous with injustice?

In the name of freedom – freedom from regulation – the banks were permitted to wreck the economy. In the name of freedom, taxes for the super-rich are cut. In the name of freedom, companies lobby to drop the minimum wage and raise working hours. In the same cause, US insurers lobby Congress to thwart effective public healthcare; the government rips up our planning laws; big business trashes the biosphere. This is the freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor.

Rightwing libertarianism recognises few legitimate constraints on the power to act, regardless of the impact on the lives of others. In the UK it is forcefully promoted by groups like the TaxPayers' Alliance, the Adam Smith Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs, and Policy Exchange. Their concept of freedom looks to me like nothing but a justification for greed.

So why have we been been so slow to challenge this concept of liberty? I believe that one of the reasons is as follows. The great political conflict of our age – between neocons and the millionaires and corporations they support on one side, and social justice campaigners and environmentalists on the other – has been mischaracterised as a clash between negative and positive freedoms. These freedoms were most clearly defined by Isaiah Berlin in his essay of 1958, Two Concepts of Liberty. It is a work of beauty: reading it is like listening to a gloriously crafted piece of music. I will try not to mangle it too badly.

Put briefly and crudely, negative freedom is the freedom to be or to act without interference from other people. Positive freedom is freedom from inhibition: it's the power gained by transcending social or psychological constraints. Berlin explained how positive freedom had been abused by tyrannies, particularly by the Soviet Union. It portrayed its brutal governance as the empowerment of the people, who could achieve a higher freedom by subordinating themselves to a collective single will.

Rightwing libertarians claim that greens and social justice campaigners are closet communists trying to resurrect Soviet conceptions of positive freedom. In reality, the battle mostly consists of a clash between negative freedoms.

As Berlin noted: "No man's activity is so completely private as never to obstruct the lives of others in any way. 'Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows'." So, he argued, some people's freedom must sometimes be curtailed "to secure the freedom of others". In other words, your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. The negative freedom not to have our noses punched is the freedom that green and social justice campaigns, exemplified by the Occupy movement, exist to defend.

Berlin also shows that freedom can intrude on other values, such as justice, equality or human happiness. "If the liberty of myself or my class or nation depends on the misery of a number of other human beings, the system which promotes this is unjust and immoral." It follows that the state should impose legal restraints on freedoms that interfere with other people's freedoms – or on freedoms which conflict with justice and humanity.

These conflicts of negative freedom were summarised in one of the greatest poems of the 19th century, which could be seen as the founding document of British environmentalism. In The Fallen Elm, John Clare describes the felling of the tree he loved, presumably by his landlord, that grew beside his home. "Self-interest saw thee stand in freedom's ways / So thy old shadow must a tyrant be. / Thou'st heard the knave, abusing those in power, / Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free."

The landlord was exercising his freedom to cut the tree down. In doing so, he was intruding on Clare's freedom to delight in the tree, whose existence enhanced his life. The landlord justifies this destruction by characterising the tree as an impediment to freedom – his freedom, which he conflates with the general liberty of humankind. Without the involvement of the state (which today might take the form of a tree preservation order) the powerful man could trample the pleasures of the powerless man. Clare then compares the felling of the tree with further intrusions on his liberty. "Such was thy ruin, music-making elm; / The right of freedom was to injure thine: / As thou wert served, so would they overwhelm / In freedom's name the little that is mine."

But rightwing libertarians do not recognise this conflict. They speak, like Clare's landlord, as if the same freedom affects everybody in the same way. They assert their freedom to pollute, exploit, even – among the gun nuts – to kill, as if these were fundamental human rights. They characterise any attempt to restrain them as tyranny. They refuse to see that there is a clash between the freedom of the pike and the freedom of the minnow.

Last week, on an internet radio channel called The Fifth Column, I debated climate change with Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas, one of the rightwing libertarian groups that rose from the ashes of the Revolutionary Communist party. Fox is a feared interrogator on the BBC show The Moral Maze. Yet when I asked her a simple question – "do you accept that some people's freedoms intrude upon other people's freedoms?" – I saw an ideology shatter like a windscreen. I used the example of a Romanian lead-smelting plant I had visited in 2000, whose freedom to pollute is shortening the lives of its neighbours. Surely the plant should be regulated in order to enhance the negative freedoms – freedom from pollution, freedom from poisoning – of its neighbours? She tried several times to answer it, but nothing coherent emerged which would not send her crashing through the mirror of her philosophy.

Modern libertarianism is the disguise adopted by those who wish to exploit without restraint. It pretends that only the state intrudes on our liberties. It ignores the role of banks, corporations and the rich in making us less free. It denies the need for the state to curb them in order to protect the freedoms of weaker people. This bastardised, one-eyed philosophy is a con trick, whose promoters attempt to wrongfoot justice by pitching it against liberty. By this means they have turned "freedom" into an instrument of oppression.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

No Walmart, Please


By Justice Rajindar Sachar (retd)
17 December, 2011
The Tribune, India

Govt’s claim is questionable

If the combined Opposition had sat down for weeks to find an issue to embarrass the UPA government and make it a laughing stock before the whole country, they could not have thought of a better issue than the free gift presented to it initially by the government by insisting that it had decided irrevocably to allow the entry of multi-brand retail super stores like Walmart and then within a few days, with a whimper, withdrawing the proposal.

As it is, even initially this decision defied logic in view of the Punjab and UP elections and known strong views against it of the BJP and the Left. Many states had all the time opposed the entry of Walmart which would affect the lives of millions in the country.

Retail business in India is estimated to be of the order of $ 400 billion, but the share of the corporate sector is only 5 per cent. There are 50 million retailers in India, including hawkers and pavement sellers. This comes to one retailer serving eight Indians. In China, it is one for 100 Chinese. Food is 63 per cent of the retail trade, according to information given by FICCI.

The claim by the government that Walmart intrusion will not result in the closure of small retailers is a deliberate mis-statement. A study done by IOWA State University, US, has shown that in the first decade after Walmart arrived in IOWA the state lost 555 grocery stores, 298 hardware stores, 293 building supply stores, 161 variety stores, 158 women apparels stores and 153 shoe stores, 116 drug stores and 111 men and boys apparels stores. Why would it be different in India with a lesser capacity for resilience by small traders.

The fact is that during 15 years of Walmart entering the market, 31 super market chains sought bankruptcy. Of the 1.6 million employees of Walmart, only 1.2 per cent make a living above the poverty level. The Bureau of Labour Statistics, US, is on record with its conclusion that Walmart’s prices are not lower.

In Thailand, supermarkets led to a 14 per cent reduction in the share of ‘mom and pop’ stores within four years of FDI permission. In India, 33-60 per cent of the traditional fruit and vegetable retailers reported a 15-30 per cent decline in footfalls, a 10-30 per cent fall in sales and a 20-30 per cent decline in incomes across Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Chandigarh, the largest impact being in Bangalore, which is one of the most supermarket-penetrated cities in India.

The average size of the Walmart stores in the US is about 10,800 sq feet employing only 225 people. In that view, is not the government’s claim of an increase in employment unbelievable? The government’s attempt is to soften the blow by emphasising that Walmart is being allowed only 51 per cent in investment up to $100 million. Prima facie, the argument may seem attractive. But is the Walmart management so stupid that when its present turnover of retail is $ 400 billion it would settle for such a small gain? No, obviously, Walmart is proceeding on the maxim of the camel being allowed to put its head inside a tent and the occupant finding thereafter that he is being driven out of it by the camel occupying the whole of the tent space. One may substitute Walmart for the camel to understand the danger to our millions of retailers.

The tongue-in-cheek argument by the government that allowing Walmart to set up its business in India would lead to a fall in prices and an increase in employment is unproven. A 2004 report of a committee of the US House of Representatives concluded that “Walmart’s success has meant downward pressures on wages and benefits, rampant violations of basic workers’ rights and threats to the standard of living in communities across the country.” By what logic does the government say that in India the effect will be the opposite? The only explanation could be that it is a deliberate mis-statement to help multinationals.

Similar anti-consumer effects have happened by the working of another supermarket enterprise, Tesco of Britain.

A study carried out by Sunday Times shows that Tesco has almost total control of the food market of 108 of Britain’s coastal areas — 7.4 per cent of the country. The super stores like Walmart and Tesco have a compulsion to move out of England and the US because their markets are saturated. These companies are looking for countries with a larger population and low supermarket presence, according to David Hogues, Professor of Agri-Business at the Centre for Food Chain Research at Imperial College, London. They have got nowhere else to go and their home markets are already full. Similarly, a professor of Michigan State University has pointed out that retail revolution causes serious risks for developing country farmers who traditionally supply to the local street market.

In Thailand, Tesco controls more than half the Thai market. Though Tesco, when it moved into Thailand, promised to employ local people but it is openly being accused of indulging in unfair trading practices. The claim that these supermarket dealers will buy local products is belied because in a case filed against Tesco in July 2002 the court found it charging slotting fees to carry manufacturers’ products, charging entry fee of suppliers. In Bangkok, grocery stores’ sales declined by more than half since Tesco opened a store only four years ago.

In Malaysia, seeing the damage done by Tesco since January 2004, a freeze on the building of any new supermarket was imposed in three major cities and this when Tesco had only gone to Malaysia in 2002.
It is worth noting that 92 per cent of everything Walmart sells comes from Chinese-owned companies. The Indian market is already flooded with Chinese goods which are capturing the market with cheap offers, and traders are already crying foul because of the deplorable labour practices adopted by China. Can, in all fairness, the Indian government still persist in keeping the retail market open to foreign enterprises and thus endangering the earnings and occupations of millions of our countrymen and women?

The writer is a former Chief Justice of the High Court of Delhi

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Why pretend we know everything? It's time to embrace uncertainty


It is certainty that we need to worry about, as extreme ideologies prosper in these uncertain times
David Cameron at the EU summit
Who knows if David Cameron's refusal to sign the EU treaty is a good thing or not. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

I don't know what I am talking about. And, quite frankly, you should be relieved that I know that I don't know. The world is full of people proclaiming about stuff they don't know much about. My trade depends on it. Pundits, politicians and economists, too, all depend on some kind of bladder-busting meta-analysis to keep us quiet. In fact, they are just winging it.

Too many nights I have watched economists on television being treated with undeserved reverence. "Economics is largely a made-up pseudo-science!" I want to scream. After all, it has been almost entirely useless in predicting the mess we are in. Indeed, by coming up with grotesque calculations whereby rich people's investments were effectively risk-free and financed by the jobs and homes of the poor, many economists were cheerleaders pre-crisis.

This is not another anti-bank rant. It is now self-evident that banks did some bad stuff, but the diplomatic immunity they were granted was not merely political. Anyone who makes out that they know what they are doing and can turn a fast buck and believes, yes really believes, in something – anything, themselves even – is facilitated by society. And, yes, this is usually backed up by a narrative of questionable facts.

What is valued is certainty. What is devalued in such a world is uncertainty. Those who aren't sure are weak. Poor. Faithless. Uncertainty is often worrying and feminised. Real men know real things. So they have been lining up to tell us that David Cameron's refusal to sign the EU treaty is the best thing ever to have happened, or the worst thing ever to have happened, when, actually, no one is quite sure. Reconciling a belief in the democratic process with the recognition that the euro is still in big trouble and Greece may well go anyway, means it is impossible to line up clearly in the Eurosceptic versus Europhile shadow boxing. It is up in the air.
As this year has been a news tsunami, it would be far more interesting to acknowledge what we did not know rather than what we did. Most experts did not predict the riots, the Arab spring, the extent of the economic meltdown. I recall meeting a learned professor in Tel Aviv three years ago who explained that Iran not Egypt was now the centre of the Arab world and everything would start there. Like many others, I thought recession would produce some kind of resistance but had no idea how that would manifest itself. As for the financial crisis, our lack of foresight is mind-boggling.

But in public, and especially in politics, an admission of uncertainty is seen as problematic. At a dinner I attended a few years ago, a young politician was asked a question to which he had no answer. He said: "I don't know about that; I will go away and find out." It was Ed Miliband as it happens, and I was impressed. But the guys I was with crowed: "We got him there!" This relentless reduction of politics to point-scoring, this public-school obsession with certainty, is a turn-off. Look where it leads. Not so long ago, George W Bush said that if America "shows uncertainty and weakness in this decade, the world will drift towards tragedy. This will not happen on my watch." Apart from war, this "certainty" helped to produce the debt crisis.

It is certainty that we need to worry about, as extreme ideologies prosper in these uncertain times. Yet there have always been ways of thinking that properly refute certainty. The school of "weak thought" coming out of Italy via Gianni Vattimo follows a clear line from Nietzsche onwards that pushes against finality, and urges us to understand historical circumstance. "There are no facts, only interpretations and this too is an interpretation," Vattimo has said.

The work of Nassim Taleb also confronts us with the idea that the economic models used by the banks were based on the idea of stability. The ecology of the banking system could not predict risk properly at all (although Taleb did, actually). Then we have a genius such as Zygmunt Bauman, who has long been telling us that we live in "liquid modernity", that individuals can no longer plan careers and progress in linear, certain ways. Yes, it is like the weather: changeable.

Of course those who most understand the value of uncertainty are scientists themselves. As the delightful Jon Butterworth wrote this week, science has nothing to fear from uncertainty. The sexy little Higgs Boson particle, which may have flashed up in the data in Cern (I imagine it as a burlesque sort of particle) has meant we have listened to physicists telling us very excitedly about how much we just don't know.

This has been wonderful. The opposite of political discourse: to hear clever people talking about the limits of their own knowledge. How weighed down is public life with its emphasis on certainty. How dumbed down is belief. The big divides are not between different beliefs, but the differing degree of certitude in which those beliefs are held.

No one knows. No one has the answers. Uncertainty is where we are. It is to be embraced. Christopher Hitchens, when asked which word he had most overused, said he was shocked to find on rereading his work that it was "perhaps".

I love that. Perhaps, right now, is the best word. I'm sure of that. Perhaps.

Politicians are Dire!

Western politicians are dire, but we mustn't despise government

Our leaderships, in thrall to big business, are failing in so many places all at the same time. But we can't give up on them
david cameron
David Cameron was quite right to reject an economic treaty wasn't even written yet, much less scrutinised. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

The year 2011 will be remembered as the year of failed summits. Governments proved themselves time and again to be failures at addressing the growing crises engulfing the world, whether the eurozone debacle, climate change, or budget politics in the US and Europe. Next year is likely to be worse, as electoral politics will further impede decision-making in the US, France and several other countries.

Why should governance be so poor in so many places at the same time? There are several factors at play. Globalisation has undermined the manufacturing base of most of the high-income economies, costing millions of jobs and leading to stagnant or falling living standards for a large part of the workforce, especially those with basic skills and modest education attainment. The US has lost around 8-9 million manufacturing jobs since the peak in that sector in 1979, just as China was joining the world economy. Meanwhile, the soaring economies of Asia have pushed up world food and oil prices, further squeezing real incomes in Europe and the US.

Yet in the face of high unemployment, growing inequality and looming budget deficits, most governments are paralysed, in thrall to powerful interests. Wall Street, the City of London, the Frankfurt banks and other corporate lobbies hold politics in their grip, and block effective change. Top income tax rates are kept low; banks remain undercapitalised and under-regulated; and urgently needed public investments for education, job skills and upgraded infrastructure are being slashed in response to budgetary pressures.

The politicians are also in way over their heads. They are typically negotiators and public relations specialists, not experts on the policies needed to resolve the world economy's crises. The special interest groups write the scripts, but these scripts prove impossible to stage. Every European summit in the past two years has not only failed politically, but also technically. The policy prescriptions put forward by Germany's Chancellor Merkel are poorly prepared and designed, and impossible to implement. The euro is being killed not only by politics but also by incompetence.

The actual process of governing has descended to soundbites. In the US the Obama administration has failed to produce a major policy document on any area of key policy concern: the budget, taxation, energy, climate, financial regulation, healthcare or poverty. Policies and legislation are decided in the backrooms dominated by lobbyists and negotiators. Politics is by horse-trading among interest groups – not by reason, expertise and democratic deliberation.

The European Union processes are now equally bizarre. The entire union of 27 countries awaits the word of one member, Germany, whose policy logic in turn reflects a mix of post-traumatic stress, coalition politics, powerful yet crippled banks, and amateur politicians. The European commission seems to play little or no role. Major new treaties of constitutional importance are launched by Germany days before a summit, with no reasoned discussion or professional analysis. David Cameron was absolutely right not to be cowed into signing up to an economic treaty that isn't even written yet, much less professionally scrutinised.

A few countries, notably the northern European social democracies, are keeping their heads above water, at least for now. They are stable because income inequality and poverty are kept low by active government policies. Transfer payments to the poor and the social safety net are robust. Tax collections are ample and budgets are in balance or surplus. Even these countries flirted with financial deregulation in the 1990s, paid a heavy price and then got their banking sectors back under control. Tough financial regulation has served them well during the past decade.

So what can we learn from the few success stories? First, societies function properly only when they are judged by their citizens to be reasonably fair. Northern Europe has built its policies on a framework of equality and inclusion. In the US, the idea of fairness has been almost absent from political vocabulary for three decades. The Occupy Wall Street movement, thankfully, has brought it back to life. Most of Europe is somewhere between the fairness of northern Europe's social democracies and the glaring inequities of the US. Yet in much of western Europe there has been a clear shift away from solidarity, towards harsher policies that shield the rich from their responsibilities to the rest of society.

Second, economic success requires increased public investments in education, infrastructure, energy, job skills and more. Simplistic budget cutting will destroy governments rather than fix them. Higher taxes on top incomes and wealth must be part of any sound fiscal strategy. Yet till today, Washington politicians of both parties have been recklessly and thoughtlessly squandering American prosperity by prioritising tax breaks for the rich.

Third, more expert policymaking is needed. The eurozone crisis, for example, requires urgent attention to Europe's decapitalised banks. Yet German politicians, driven by ideology and local politics, have been fixated on fiscal problems while allowing the banking crisis to fester and worsen. The US crisis is fundamentally about the under-taxation of the rich, yet the policy focus remains on budget cutting. In both Europe and the US, political debates consistently miss the mark by short-changing serious diagnostics and policy design.

Our temptation in the face of rampant government failures is to despise government, and even to cheer its demise. How can we avoid that feeling when we watch politicians preening on the TV screen? Yet we desperately need to make the US and European governments work again – not for the politicians' sake, but for ours. Unless we restore skill, fairness, and vibrancy to our democratic institutions, the unrest on the streets is bound to grow.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Population decline is the elephant in the world's living room

The fifth horseman of the apocalypse
By Spengler

(The essay below appears as a preface to my book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too). [1]

Population decline is the elephant in the world's living room. As a matter of arithmetic, we know that the social life of most developed countries will break down within two generations. Two out of three Italians and three of four Japanese will be elderly dependents by 2050. [1] If present fertility rates hold, the number of Germans will fall by 98% over the next two centuries. No pension and health care system can support such an inverted population pyramid. Nor is the problem limited to the industrial nations. Fertility is falling at even faster rates - indeed, at rates never before registered anywhere - in the Muslim world. The world's population will fall by as much as a fifth between the middle and the end of the 21st century, by far the worst decline in human history.

The world faces a danger more terrible than the worst Green imaginings. The European environmentalist who wants to shrink the world's population to reduce carbon emissions will spend her declining years in misery, for there will not be enough Europeans alive a generation from now to pay for her pension and medical care. [2] For the first time in world history, the birth rate of the whole developed world is well below replacement, and a significant part of it has passed the demographic point of no return.

But Islamic society is even more fragile. As Muslim fertility shrinks at a rate demographers have never seen before, it is converging on Europe's catastrophically low fertility as if in time-lapse photography. The average 30-year-old Iranian woman comes from a family of six children, but she will bear only one or two children during her lifetime. Turkey and Algeria are just behind Iran on the way down, and most of the other Muslim countries are catching up quickly. By the middle of this century, the belt of Muslim countries from Morocco to Iran will become as gray as depopulating Europe. The Islamic world will have the same proportion of dependent elderly as the industrial countries - but one-tenth the productivity. A time bomb that cannot be defused is ticking in the Muslim world.

Imminent population collapse makes radical Islam more dangerous, not less so. For in their despair, radical Muslims who can already taste the ruin of their culture believe that they have nothing to lose.

Political science is at a loss in the face of demographic decline and its consequences. The wasting away of nations is an insoluble conundrum for modern political theory, which is based on the principle of rational self-interest. At the threshold of extinction, the political scientists' clever models break down. We "do not negotiate with terrorists". But a bank robber holding hostages is a terrorist of sorts, and the police negotiate with such miscreants as a matter of course. And what if the bank robber knows he will die of an incurable disease in a matter of weeks? That changes the negotiation. The simple truth - call it Spengler's Universal Law #1 - A man, or a nation, at the brink of death does not have a "rational self-interest".

Conventional geopolitical theory, which is dominated by material factors such as territory, natural resources, and command of technology, does not address how peoples will behave under existential threat. Geopolitical models fail to resemble the real world in which we live, where the crucial issue is the willingness or unwillingness of a people inhabiting a given territory to bring a new generation into the world.

Population decline, the decisive issue of the 21st century, will cause violent upheavals in the world order. Countries facing fertility dearth, such as Iran, are responding with aggression. Nations confronting their own mortality may choose to go down in a blaze of glory. Conflicts may be prolonged beyond the point at which there is any rational hope of achieving strategic aims - until all who wish to fight to the death have taken the opportunity to do so.
Analysis of national interests cannot explain why some nations go to war without hope of winning, or why other nations will not fight even to defend their vital interests. It cannot explain the historical fact that peoples fight harder, accepting a higher level of sacrifice in blood and treasure, when all hope of victory is past. Conventional geopolitical analysis cannot explain the causes of population collapse either, any more than its consequences - for example, under what circumstances strategic reverses (notably the two world wars of the past century) may crush the aspirations of the losers and result in apathy and demographic death.

Why do individuals, groups, and nations act irrationally, often at the risk of self-destruction? Part of the problem lies in our definition of rationality. Under normal circumstances we think it irrational for a middle-aged man to cash in his insurance policy and spend money as fast as possible. But if the person in question has a terminal illness and no heirs, we think it quite reasonable to spend it all quickly, like Otto Kringelein in Grand Hotel or his updated equivalent, Queen Latifah's character in The Last Holiday. And if we know that we shall presently die of rabies, what is to prevent us from biting everyone we dislike? Countries sometimes suffer the equivalent of terminal illness. What seems suicidal to Americans may appear rational to an existentially challenged people confronting its imminent mortality.

Self-immolation of endangered peoples is sadly common. Stone-age cultures often disintegrate upon contact with the outside world. Their culture breaks down, and suicides skyrocket. An Australian researcher writes about "suicide contagion or cluster deaths - the phenomenon of indigenous people, particularly men from the same community taking their own lives at an alarming rate". [3] Canada's Aboriginal Health Foundation reports, "The overall suicide rate among First Nation communities is about twice that of the total Canadian population; the rate among Inuit is still higher - 6 to 11 times higher than the general population." [4] Suicide is epidemic among Amazon tribes. The London Telegraph reported on November 19, 2000,
The largest tribe of Amazonian Indians, the 27,000-strong Guarani, are being devastated by a wave of suicides among their children, triggered by their coming into contact with the modern world. Once unheard of among Amazonian Indians, suicide is ravaging the Guarani, who live in the southwest of Brazil, an area that now has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. More than 280 Guarani have taken their own lives in the past 10 years, including 26 children under the age of 14 who have poisoned or hanged themselves. Alcoholism has become widespread, as has the desire to own radios, television sets and denim jeans, bringing an awareness of their poverty. Community structures and family unity have broken down and sacred rituals come to a halt.
Of the more than 6,000 languages now spoken on the planet, two become extinct each week, and by most estimates half will fall silent by the end of the century. [5] A United Nations report claims that nine-tenths of the languages now spoken will become extinct in the next hundred years. [6] Most endangered languages have a very small number of speakers. Perhaps a thousand distinct languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea, many by tribes of only a few hundred members. Several are disappearing tribal languages spoken in the Amazon rainforest, the Andes Mountains, or the Siberian taiga. Eighteen languages have only one surviving speaker. It is painful to imagine how the world must look to these individuals. They are orphaned in eternity, wiped clean of memory, their existence reduced to the exigency of the moment.

But are these dying remnants of primitive societies really so different from the rest of us? Mortality stalks most of the peoples of the world - not this year or next, but within the horizon of human reckoning. A good deal of the world seems to have lost the taste for life. Fertility has fallen so far in parts of the industrial world that languages such as Ukrainian and Estonian will be endangered within a century and German, Japanese, and Italian within two. The repudiation of life among advanced countries living in prosperity and peace has no historical precedent, except perhaps in the anomie of Greece in its post-Alexandrian decline and Rome during the first centuries of the Common Era. But Greece fell to Rome, and Rome to the barbarians. In the past, nations that foresaw their own demise fell to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: War, Plague, Famine, and Death. Riding point for the old quartet in today's more civilized world is a Fifth Horseman: loss of faith. Today's cultures are dying of apathy, not by the swords of their enemies.

The Arab suicide bomber is the spiritual cousin of the despondent aboriginal of the Amazon rain forest. And European apathy is the opposite side of the coin of Islamic extremism. Both apathetic Europeans and radical Muslims have lost their connection to the past and their confidence in the future. There is not a great deal of daylight between European resignation to cultural extinction at the hundred-year horizon, and the Islamist boast, "You love life, and we love death." Which brings us to Spengler's Universal Law #2: When the nations of the world see their demise not as a distant prospect over the horizon, but as a foreseeable outcome, they perish of despair. Like the terminally ill patient cashing in his insurance money, a culture that anticipates its own extinction has a different standard of rationality than does conventional political science.

Game theorists have tried to make political strategy into a quantitative discipline. Players with a long-term interest think differently than players with a short-term interest. A swindler who has no expectation of encountering his victim again will take what he can and run; a merchant who wants repeat customers will act honestly as a matter of self-interest. By the same token, the game theorists contends, nations learn that it is in their interest to act as responsible members of the world community, for the long-run advantages of good behavior outweigh the passing benefits of predation.

But what if there isn't any long run - not, at least, for some of the "players" in the "game"? The trouble with applying game theory to the problem of existential war is that the players may not expect to be there for the nth iteration of the game. Entire peoples sometimes find themselves faced with probable extinction, so that no peaceful solution appears to be a solution for them.

Situations of this sort have arisen frequently in history, but never as frequently as today, when so many of the world's cultures are not expected to survive the next two centuries. A people facing cultural extinction may well choose war, if war offers even a slim chance of survival. That is just how radical Islamists view the predicament of traditional Muslim society in the face of modernity. The Islamists fear that if they fail, their religion and culture will disappear into the maelstrom of the modern world. Many of them rather would die fighting. 

Paradoxically it is possible for wars of annihilation to stem from rational choice, for the range of choices always must be bounded by the supposition that the chooser will continue to exist. Existential criteria, that is, trump the ordinary calculus of success and failure. If one or more of the parties knows that peace implies the end of its existence, it has no motive to return to peace. That is how the radical Islamists of Hamas view the future of Muslim society. A wealthy and successful Jewish state next to a poor and dysfunctional Palestinian state may imply the end of the moral authority of Islam, and some Palestinians would rather fight to the death than embrace such an outcome. Rather than consign their children to the Western milieu of personal freedom and sexual license, radical Muslims will fight to the death.

But why are Muslims - and Europeans, and Japanese - living under a societal death sentence? Why are populations collapsing in the modern world? Demographers have identified several different factors associated with population decline: urbanization, education and literacy, the modernization of traditional societies. Children in traditional society had an economic value, as agricultural labor and as providers for elderly parents; urbanization and pension systems turned children into a cost rather than a source of income. And female literacy is a powerful predictor of population decline among the world's countries. Mainly poor and illiterate women in Mali and Niger bear eight children in a lifetime, while literate and affluent women in the industrial world bear one or two.

But what determines whether it is one child or two? Children also have a spiritual value. That is why the degree of religious faith explains a great deal of the variation in population growth rates among the countries of the world. The industrial world's lowest fertility rates are encountered among the nations of Eastern Europe where atheism was the official ideology for generations. The highest fertility rates are found in countries with a high degree of religious faith, namely the United States and Israel. And demographers have identified religion as a crucial factor in the differences among populations within countries. When faith goes, fertility vanishes, too. The death-spiral of birth rates in most of the industrial world has forced demographers to think in terms of faith. Dozens of new studies document the link between religious belief and fertility.

But why do some religions seem to provide better protection against the sterilizing effects of modernity than others? The fastest demographic decline ever registered in recorded history is taking place today in Muslim countries; demographic winter is descending fastest in the fifth of the world where religion most appears to dominate. And even more puzzling: why does one religion (Christianity) seem to inoculate a people against demographic decline in one place (America) but not in another (Europe)? In many parts of the world, what once looked like an indestructible rock of faith has melted in the hot light of modernity. In others, modernity has only added compost for the growth of faith. Apparently some kinds of faith will survive in the modern world, and others will fail.

Strategic analysts and politicians are poorly equipped to understand these new and disturbing circumstances, with their overarching implications for political strategy and economics. To make sense of the world today we must do better than secular political science, which pigeon-holes faith as one more belief-structure among the other belief-structures in its collection of specimens.

Our political science is uniquely ill-equipped to make sense of a global crisis whose ultimate cause is spiritual. But was not always so. From the advent of Christianity to the seventeenth-century Enlightenment, the West saw politics through the lens of faith. St Augustine's fifth-century treatise The City of God looked through the state to the underlying civil society, and understood that civil society as a congregation - a body bound together by common loves, as opposed to Cicero's state founded only on common interests. (In the concluding chapter, we will consider Augustine's view as a lodestar for an American foreign policy that realistically addresses the threats created by the imminent demographic collapse of nations.)

We might call Augustine's view "theopolitics." A millennium later, Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes changed the subject, to the individual's desire for power, wealth, and personal survival. Hobbes, the 17th-century grandfather of modern political science, introduced a radically truncated anthropology, centered on the individual's struggle for survival. The state, he argued, was a compact among individuals who survival prospects were poor in a "state of nature"; thus they ceded their individual rights to a sovereign in return for protection. A century later Montesquieu added differences in climate, terrain, and resources to the mix. The modern view of atomized man motivated only by the pursuit of material advantage is loosely known as "geopolitics".

What prompted this revolution in political thinking that has left modern political theory without the tools to understand the causes and implications of the current demographic collapse? Undoubtedly, the terrible religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries poisoned the idea of faith-based politics. Europe fought dynastic and political wars under the false flag of religion until the Thirty Years' War of 1618-1648 destroyed almost half the population of Central Europe. The Peace of Westphalia that ended this fearful war forever buried the political model that Christendom had advanced since Augustine: a universal Christian empire that would keep the peace and limit the arbitrary power of kings. Things are not as simple as they seem in the standard account of the violence that soured the West on theopolitics. For - as we shall see - the nation-states that opposed universal empire were founded on a contending kind of faith, a fanatical form of national self-worship whose internal logic was not played out until world war and genocide in the 20th century, and the collapse of faith and fertility in the 21st. But when Thomas Hobbes published his great book Leviathan three years after the end of the Thirty Years' War, it seemed credible that "the papacy is no other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof".

One powerful attraction of the Hobbesian revolution in political thinking was the power it promised to intellectuals. If politics reduces to the individual and his material concerns, then it is possible to manipulate the individual through the alternation of his material circumstances. A clever elite could fix all the problems of the world. Immanuel Kant boasted in 1793 that he could write a constitution for a race of devils, "if only they be rational." Europe ignored him and proceeded to destroy itself in the Napoleonic Wars and the two world wars of the past century. Today, as in Kant's time, the great frustration in world affairs is the refusal of some players to act rationally. Something was gained, but much more was lost, in the 17th-century Hobbesian revolution in political thought. To view human beings as creatures concerned solely with power, wealth, and security is an impoverished anthropology. The missing tools - the ones Machiavelli and Hobbes removed from the toolbox - are exactly the ones we need to understand and cope with the dangers inherent in the wholesale collapse of cultures that faces us today.

Secularism in all its forms fails to address the most fundamental human need. Sociologist Eric Kaufmann, who himself bewails the fecundity of the religious and the infertility of the secular, puts it this way: "The weakest link in the secular account of human nature is that it fails to account for people's powerful desire to seek immortality for themselves and their loved ones." Traditional society had to confront infant mortality as well as death by hunger, disease, and war. That shouldn't be too troubling, however: "We may not be able to duck death completely, but it becomes so infrequent that we can easily forget about it."

Has death really become infrequent? Call it Spengler's Universal Law #3: Contrary to what you may have heard from the sociologists, the human mortality rate is still 100%.

We can stick our fingers in our ears and chant "I can't hear you!" only so long in the face of mortality. Religion offers the individual the means to transcend mortality, to survive the fragility of a mortal existence. Homo religiosus confronts death in order to triumph over it. But the world's major religions are distinguished by the different ways in which they confront mortality. We cannot make sense of the role of religion in demographic, economic, and political developments - and of the different roles of different religions in different places and times - without understanding the existential experience of the religious individual. It is challenging to recount this experience to a secular analyst; it is somewhat like describing being in love to someone who never has been in love. One doesn't have to be religious to understand religion, but it helps.

But without understanding humankind's confrontation of his own morality in religion, political science is confined to analysis on the basis of the survival instinct - which suddenly seems to be failing whole peoples - and rational self-interest - at a time when nations and peoples are not behaving in a conspicuously rational manner.

At the conclusion of a previous irruption of irrationality - the First World War - a young German soldier at a remote post in Macedonia jotted down his thoughts on army postcards in the final months of the First World War. A small, bespectacled man with a thin mustache, he had been groomed to be one of the mandarins of the German academy, a philosopher whose function was to reinforce the country's confidence in its culture. Just before the war began he had returned to Judaism, after a near conversion to Christianity. As the casualty lists rose in inverse proportion to the hope of victory, the consolations of philosophy seemed hollow. Philosophers, he wrote, were like small children who clapped their hands over their ears and shouted "I can't hear you!" before the fear of death. "From death - from the fear of death - comes all of our knowledge of the All," the soldier began. It was not the individual's fear of death that fascinated the young soldier, but the way entire nations respond to the fear of their collective death. He wrote:
Just as every individual must reckon with his eventual death, the peoples of the world foresee their eventual extinction, be it however distant in time. Indeed, the love of the peoples for their own nationhood is sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death. Love is only surpassing sweet when it is directed towards a mortal object, and the secret of this ultimate sweetness only is defined by the bitterness of death. Thus the peoples of the world foresee a time when their land with its rivers and mountains still lies under heaven as it does today, but other people dwell there; when their language is entombed in books, and their laws and customers have lost their living power.
The soldier was Franz Rosenzweig, and the postcards would become his great book The Star of Redemption. Awareness of death defines the human condition, so that human beings cannot bear their own mortality without the hope of immortality. And our sense of immortality is social. The culture of a community is what unites the dead with those yet to be born.

The death of a culture is an uncanny event, for it erases not only the future but also the past, that is, the hopes and fears, the sweat and sacrifice of countless generations whose lives no longer can be remembered, for no living being will sing their songs or tell their stories.

The first surviving work of written literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh written perhaps 3,700 years ago, recounts the Sumerian king's quest for immortality. After a journey beset by hardship and peril, Gilgamesh is told: "The life that you are seeking you will never find. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping."

In the pre-Christian world, Rosenzweig points out, the peoples of the world anticipated their eventual extinction. Every nation's love of itself is pregnant with the presentiment of death, for each tribe knows that its time on earth is limited. Some fight to the death. Others cease to breed. Some do both.

Christianity first taught them the Jewish promise of eternal life. To talk of "man's search for meaning" trivializes the problem. What humankind requires is meaning that transcends death. This need explains a great deal of human behavior that otherwise might seem irrational. One does not have to be religious to grasp this fundamental fact of the human condition, but religion helps, because faith makes explicit the human need to transcend morality. Secular rationalists have difficulty identifying with the motives of existentially challenged peoples - not so much because they lack faith, but because they entertain faith in rationality itself, and believe with the enthusiasm of the convert in the ability of reason to explain all of human experience.

But not only the religious need the hope of immortality. The most atheistic communist hopes that his memory will live on in the heart of a grateful proletariat. Even if we do not believe that our soul will have a place in heaven or that we shall be resurrected in the flesh, we nonetheless believe that something of ourselves will remain, in the form of progeny, memories, or consequences of actions, and that this something will persist as long as people who are like us continue to inhabit the Earth. Humanity perseveres in the consolation that some immortal part of us transcends our death. Sadly, our hope for immortality in the form of remembrance is a fragile and often a vain one. Immortality of this sort depends upon the survival of people who are like us - that is, upon the continuity of our culture. If you truly believe in a supernatural afterlife, to be sure, nothing can really disappoint you. But there is no consolation in being the last Mohican.

And that's because of Spengler's Universal Law #4: The history of the world is the history of humankind's search for immortality. When nations go willingly into that dark night, what should we conclude about human nature?

Human beings may not be the only animals who are sentient of death. (Elephants evidently grieve for their dead, and dogs mourn their dead masters.) But we are the only animals whose sense of continuity depends on culture as much as it does upon genes. Unlike men and women, healthy animals universally show an instinct for self-preservation and the propagation of their species. We do not observe cats deciding not to have kittens the better to pursue their careers as mousers.

I do not mean to suggest that humans beings of different cultures belong to different species. On the contrary, the child of a Kalahari Bushman will thrive if raised in the family of a Glaswegian ship's engineer. (As Jared Diamond, the author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, observes it is easier to be stupid in a modern welfare state than in a hunter-gatherer tribe in New Guinea.)

But culture performs a role among human beings similar to the role species plays for animals. An adult Bushman would never fully adapt to industrial society, any more than a Glaswegian ship's engineer would last a fortnight in the Kalahari. Insofar as an animal can be said to experience an impulse toward the future beyond his own life, that impulse is fulfilled by the propagation of the species. But individual human existence looks forward to the continuation of the culture that nurtures, sustains, and transmits our contribution to future generations. Culture is the stuff out of which we weave the hope of immortality - not merely through genetic transmission but through inter-generational communication.

In the absence of religious faith, if our culture dies, our hope of transcending mere physical existence dies with it. Individuals trapped in a dying culture live in a twilight world. They embrace death through infertility, concupiscence, and war. A dog will crawl into a hole to die. The members of sick cultures do not do anything quite so dramatic, but they cease to have children, dull their senses with alcohol and drugs, become despondent, and too frequently do away with themselves. Or they may make war on the perceived source of their humiliation.

The truth is - to invoke Spengler's Universal Law #5 - Humankind cannot bear mortality without the hope of immortality. When men and women lose the sacred, they lose the desire to live. Despairing of immortality, we stand astonished before the one fact we know with certainty - that someday we must die. This is as true of modern homo sapiens sapiens as it was of our remotest ancestors. Even Neanderthal burial sites have been unearthed with grave gifts. "Man does not live by bread alone," Moses said on the east bank of the Jordan River. The affluent peoples of the world have all the bread they need, but have lost the appetite for life.

Americans are ill-equipped to empathize with the existential fears of other nations. America is the great exception to the demographic collapse sweeping the modern world. As an immigrant nation we regenerate ourselves. We bear no baggage from a tragic past. The glue that holds us together is a common concept of justice and opportunity. The United States is what John Courtney Murray called "a propositional nation". In our benevolence and optimism we assume that all peoples are like us, forgetting that we are or descend from people who chose to abandon the tragic fate of their own nations at the further shore and selected themselves into the American nation. But we have learned that our capacity to influence events in the rest of the world, even in the absence of a competing superpower, is limited, and that the dissipation of our resources can be deadly for us. Our strategic thinking suffers from a failure to take into account the existential problems of other nations. We think in the narrow categories of geopolitics, but we need to study theopolitics - the powerful impact of religious beliefs and aspirations on world events. Even we exceptional Americans must come to grips with the collapse of faith and fertility - especially in the rapidly and dangerously declining Muslim world - in order to prevail in a world in which tragic outcomes are more common than happy endings.

Notes
1. These ratios are based on the Elderly Dependency Ratio calculated by the model of the United Nations World Population Prospects 2010 revision, assuming constant fertility. The model is available at http://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/unpp/panel_indicators.htm 2. Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed blames exhaustion of resource and environmental damage. The extinct people of Easter Island and the pre-Columbian Mayans chopped down too many trees, Diamond observes, and thus he argues that environmental damage is the greatest threat to our civilization. (Never mind that America has expanded its forests by 20 million acres during the past quarter century: disaster stories of this sort resonate with a public fed on media reports of global warming and apocalyptic disaster movies.) Easter Island, though, is something of a rarity in world history. The cultures about which we know the most - and from which our own civilization descends - failed from a different cause. Classical Greece and Rome died for the same reason that Western Europe, Japan, and other parts of the modern world are dying today: they lost their motivation to bring children into the world. The infertile Greeks were conquered by Rome’s army and the inexhaustible manpower of the farms of the Italian peninsula; as the Romans later grew childless, they were overrun by a small force of barbarian invaders.