Thursday, December 28, 2006

Muslims & Democracy

Some people actually make a living partly by debating whether or not Muslims are congenitally incapable of democracy. OK - not congenitally, exactly, but due to their religion - which is very similar to, though not quite the same as, a congenital defect. Religion is more like a parasite that grows on an sexually-transmitted disease called 'children'.


Although some (usually, United Statesians) consider mentioning this historical fact a faux pas or taboo, the land making up the present United States was appropriated violently by Christian European settlers from its discoverers. The religious heritage the Europeans brought with them was in accordance with their method of land acquisition, as the Old Testament of the Bible is replete with stories of divinely-sanctioned violence, engaged in to acquire land. In fact, the Christian conquerors drew upon their religious heritage down to the last gory detail, namely, killing women and children (for one of many examples, Deuteronomy 2:34).

There is another part of European-Americans' religious heritage, however, that does not in any way comport with their present economic structure and its legal underpinning: capitalism. The Christian Bible is filled with disparaging references to the rich (Mat 19:23-24, Mar 10:25, Luk 1:53, 6:24, Jam 2:6, etc. – and a capitalism without capitalists is unworkable); the early Christian church practiced a primitive communism and a biblical verse predated Marx's "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" (Act 22:44-45); and a vivid story in the Acts of the Apostles demonstrates the very low regard God has for Christians who desire to own private property (Act 5:1-10). Yet this heritage has not impeded the Christian West from adopting capitalist democracy any more so than it was convinced the U.S. to beat its swords into plowshares (Isa 2:4) rather than the exact opposite (to the tune of half a trillion dollars per year, no less). Neither was the Old Testament obligation to provide schooling to all male children taken seriously until the 19th century in the U.S.

Some argue today that Muslims are incapable of liberal democracy on account of their Muslim faith. It is true that the Quran is rife with divine commands of intolerance and violence (Surah 2:191 of many examples), as is Arab history (and the Bible). Yet as I hope my examples from the Bible show, a society's religion, though diametrically opposed to its government, laws, and economy, can exist therewith in perfect harmony. As many scholars have noted, capitalist democracy would not be the first seemingly unnatural adoption by Muslim elites throughout history: Arab conquest, for one, was marked by borrowing legal structures from other civilizations; in recent history, Marxism was adopted within many Muslim societies.

To paraphrase a Muslim feminist whose name I cannot remember: if by the stroke of a pen, an imam can issue a fatwa allowing banks to collect interest in contradiction of the Quran and tradition, what keeps him from loosing women from their traditional subordination? Indeed, what keeps him from changing just about everything?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Responses to 'Perspectives'

The next day, a few defenders of 20 million dollar bonuses and erstwhile students of neoclassical economics in college wrote:

"Let's talk facts...

People only care about equality when it it not their butt (or assets pun intended) on the line. Fact." - WALLSTREET

"[I]t may be modified neo-classical stuff, but if [a] poor young African could only take a trip around Asia and look at the rapidly expanding middle class and see a lot of billionares sitting on the top of the pile, even in places like China, what do you think he might say? How's this sound; "Hey man, bugger that African politician stuff, now I want to be a billionare, give my country a good dose of that neo stuff Petrus [a.k.a. Josephus] was talking about?" - From LRJones4

My response:

The economic systems of Japan, China, Korea, etc., are as accurately described as "modified neo-classical" as Islam is described as "modified Buddhism." Yes, when government bureaucracy directs the economy from above, or alongside, its players, you no longer are following the precepts of "modified" neo-classical economics, unless by "modified" you mean "damn near the exact opposite."

And to continue the point of "fact," it is only when one's assets are on the line that one no longer cares about equality. Which, if we were talking, say, about redistributing half of the world's wealth from the hands of the richest to the rest, would leave some 6.4 billion of us caring about equality.

Funny the ire the suggestion for a more progressive tax system draws - in the country whose tax system is one of the developed world's most regressive, no less. (Not to mention on the message board of a left-of-center website.) To those with a historical memory, it might call to mind the reaction of conservatives to FDR's economic reforms. Goes to show that screaming about the sky's immanent collapse never goes out of style, regardless of the fact that it didn't budge under FDR, and is not likely to fall under a similarly more progressive tax system. In fact, the US economy has never been so healthy as it was under 80% top-tier income tax rates, very strong unions, higher corporate tax rates, and reams of government regulation - in the 1950s.

But that is besides the point, isn't it? After all, if historical experience does not correspond to the elaborate equations and graphs put out by the finest economists in academia, then all the worse for historical experience, eh?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Perspectives on wealth

Read this article (Fat Cats 2007), and see some of the comments - a lot of people who took economics in college wrote in with their faux-contrarian criticisms of this article recommending wealth redistribution. As in, "while wealth redistribution may seem like a good idea - it's a feel-good idea - it goes against the non-intuitive truths of the non-ideological, purely scientific discipline of economics." (Capitalist/democratic government redistribution of wealth also goes against the non-ideological, purely scientific discipline of Marxism.)

What we see here is a conflict between the sense of fairness and moral outrage that were the prerequisites for the evolution of altruism and cooperative behavior in the human animal (read up on your evolutionary psychology), and neoclassical economics, which informs many bright people who have responded acerbically to this article.

The former aspect of human thought leads some to think that the work of Wall Street investment bankers - many long hours, stressful work conditions juxtaposed with lavish lifestyles outside of work - should not be compensated at a rate millions of times more than the work of, say, a factory worker in a free-trade zone in the Philippines - which features many long hours and stressful work conditions, hand in hand with an impoverished, equally stressful lifestyle outside of work. The latter aspect of human thought, restricted to those who have imbibed the teachings of the dying school of neoclassical economics, finds fairness in any outcome arrived at freely through market interactions. This is a peculiar definition of fairness, anathema to those who do not subscribe to neoliberal ideology; it basically equates justice with the following of certain rules, in this case the rules of an unregulated marketplace.

Thankfully, neoclassical economic theory is crumbling, partly as neoliberal economic policies have been discredited through the experience of their real-world application. However, as the Planck principle would have it, new ideas do not gain predominance by winning over the adherents of older ideas; rather, the adherents of older ideas die out, and younger people with new ideas take their place.

Economic outcomes like these, of the present world order, where an American male can make $100 million in a year for working on a computer and talking, and an African male can make a few hundred a year performing backbreaking labor in a diamond mine, will not forever be viewed as fair. Viewed through the odd prism of neoclassical economics, they are; thankfully, humans are continually improving their optics.