Are religious people reliable allies on the environment?

Evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson gave Case Western Reserve University’s annual Distinguished Lecture on March 3, 2009 in Severance Hall, the magnificent building where the equally magnificent Cleveland Orchestra plays, was packed for the occasion. It seemed to underscore the community’s support for, at least interest in, the theory of evolution.
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The colonial experience-8: The rise of nationalist feeling

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While colonial powers needed to create an educated, elite class to act as surrogates for them and help them rule the country, providing access to that education created its own problems. While some in the educated elite were happy to play the role of junior partner to the colonialists and enjoy the rewards, others became, as a result of this western education, more aware of the political currents that were sweeping the world as a result of the Russian and Chinese revolutions, and the rise of anti-colonialist nationalistic sentiment following World War II.

These people returned from their education abroad to organize trade unions, form political parties, and agitate for independence. Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam returned from France to lead that country’s liberation struggle against the French. English-educated Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi led similar struggles in India, and Sri Lanka had its own counterparts. All these leaders tended to have socialist leanings, having visions of creating a society that was just and egalitarian and non-racial.

But as we have sadly seen, the centrifugal forces that were unleashed by the divide-and-rule policies in the colonies based on long-standing inter-tribal suspicions were too strong to be overcome and almost all countries succumbed to ethnic clashes following independence. Those leaders in the fight for independence who were non-racial were often swept aside by pandering politicians only too eager to use ethnicity as a wedge to inflame passions and ride to power on racial issues. As a result, India has seen terrible Hindu-Muslim-Sikh violence, Sri Lanka has similar conflicts between Sinhala and Tamil people, and the ethnic violence in African countries are too many and well-known to list.

As a result of these problems exacerbated by the colonial powers, many countries descended into authoritarian rule with ruthless dictators, the worst examples being Mobutu Sese Seko in what was then called Zaire and is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo, Idi Amin in Uganda, and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. These tragic post-independence developments enabled colonial powers like the British to smugly claim that they were the ones who kept the peace between the warring groups, and that thus their presence was beneficial, when in reality, they were the ones who helped fan the existing tensions and suspicions into flames. While the post-independence political leaders of those countries share a huge amount of blame for the degeneration of their countries, the colonists also have blood on their hands.

One bright spot in Africa was Tanzania under its founding president Julius Nyrere. An interesting intermediate case in Asia is Singapore, where an authoritarian leader Lee Kuan Yew kept a tight lid on ethnic divisions and successfully led a program of modernization and industrialization that has made that small country a world leader in commerce and resulted in Singapore having one of the highest standards of living in the world.

So coming back to Jared’s original question about how it could be that he, the only non-Indian in a class that dealt with British colonialism in India, could see the negative aspects of it, it comes down to the depth of one’s understanding of the political history of the colonized countries. Attitudes amongst the people of the former colonies towards the colonial experience depends on, I think, the politics and background of the family from which the person comes.

Most of the students who come to the US are probably like me, the products of a relatively small, urban, English-educated elite, and thus come from the group favored by the colonial powers. There is absolutely no doubt that having the benefit of an English education has opened our minds to a world of knowledge and enabled us to go abroad and experience much more than we would have otherwise. Knowledge of the English language and its associated literature has enabled us to more easily absorb western culture and science, which are both dominant in the world today. There is no question that this particular legacy of the colonial experience has been good for us personally.

Making broad generalizations, those who left the colonial country because of the turmoil that followed independence, tend to think of the pre-independence colonial times as one of peace and prosperity, at least for the urban elite to which they belonged. This is especially likely in the case of ethnic and religious minorities who bore the brunt of the post-independence backlash by the marginalized majority against those whom they perceived as unfair beneficiaries of colonial largesse.

Against that group are those who grew up in households or communities that were more politically aware at a deeper level. I have said that my grandfather’s view of British colonial rule was positive, although he knew that they considered brown-skinned people like him as ultimately inferior. They were sufficiently nice to him and rewarding of his services that overall he thought they treated him well, and that he fared better than he would have at the hands of the majority community.

My father, on the other hand, lived during the time of transition to post-colonial rule, with almost exactly half his life growing up in a British colony and the second half in an independent state. So he grew up with all the privileges of being English educated but at a time when anti-imperialist sentiment was strong and nationalist fervor was high, especially in the universities and amongst what used to be referred to as the intelligentsia. He belonged to both and his political leanings were influenced by that experience. So he did understand the negative aspects of colonial rule while at the same time being a beneficiary of it.

The next generation, mine, is entirely post-colonial and where we stand in relation to our colonial past is also mixed. The more politically aware can see both the long-term benefits as well as the damage that colonialism has done, and we are ambivalent towards it. Others who do not go into it as deeply may have a rather one-sided view depending on their own personal situation and how colonialism affected their own lives. Those who come from families that benefited, the urban English educated class, see it as mostly a good thing while the rest may see it as largely negative.

This series had its genesis the attempt to explain to Jared why it was that the Indian students in his colonialism class seemed to have a positive view of that experience. I suspect that most émigrés are those from the English-educated urban classes, since they are the ones who have access to the means for going abroad and they, I suspect, are the ones who dominated Jared’s class. So this post ends my long-winded answer to his question.

POST SCRIPT: Interesting talk today

Jeff Hawkins will be speaking today (Tuesday, March 31, 2009 from 4:30-5:30) on the topic On Intelligence: What Intelligent Machines Can Learn From the Human Neocortex.
Hawkins is co-founder of two computer companies, Palm and Handspring, and is the architect of many computing products such as the PalmPilot and Treo smartphone, and the author of the book On Intelligence (2004).

The talk will be given in the Wolstein Auditorium on Cornell Road on the campus of Case Western Reserve University. For more details, see here.

Road rants

It is time for another edition of Road Rants where, after going on a road trip where I have time to think of these things, I note the driving practices I see that annoy me and make suggestions for improvement. The previous rants were here, here, and here.

Turning on lights

On the highway several times I came across a sign saying that there was construction ahead and to turn on the headlights. In each case there were about six or seven cars ahead of me, not one of whom bothered to turn on their lights. On the other hand, when there was a sign saying that we were about to enter a tunnel and to turn on the lights, everyone did so, though some only after entering the tunnel.
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The colonial experience-7: Majority-Minority divisions

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

One of the most depressing features of so many countries that gained independence in the post-colonial age that began with the end of World War II is the inter-ethnic tensions, discrimination, and violence that often occurred.

It must be made clear that tensions between the different ethnic communities were not created by the colonists out of nothing. It is not the case that the different ethnic groups had been living in a harmonious paradise before the arrival of the colonists. The tribal instincts and in-group/out-group thinking that are the bane of existence and the cause of so much violence and hatred all over the world existed long before the appearance of the modern nation state. What the colonial powers did was to take those existing suspicions and animosities and use them as important elements in their divide and rule strategy, thus perpetuating and aggravating them.

The British have a history of using a minority community’s latent suspicions of the majority to woo them as allies against the majority, thus preventing any unified action against the British. They did this in ways large and small. One way they did this in Sri Lanka was to give excessive patronage rewards to the minority Tamil community. For example, the minority Tamil community was far more welcoming concerning the opening of missionary schools and churches, and as a result they ended up learning English in greater numbers and occupying the elite professions and the higher ranks of the administrative and commercial sectors in numbers that far exceeded their proportion in the population.

This had a two-fold benefit for the British. It created a spiral of behavior in which the minority communities felt more grateful to the British and tended to look to them as their protectors from the majority community and to be more ingratiating towards them, and it shifted the resentment of the majority community away from the British and towards the minority, thinking of them as somehow conniving with the British to obtain greater rewards at their expense. As a result of these and similar policies in other colonial countries, the minority communities were the ones most fearful of what would happen to them at the hands of the majority once the colonial power left. After a country gained independence, the lid came off the simmering conflict and often escalated into open-warfare. The roots of the twenty-five year long civil war that has gone on in Sri Lanka, and the insurrection that took place against the government in the 1970s and 1980s, can all be traced to these policies of the British.

Similarly, the Belgians in collusion with the Roman Catholic Church deliberately set about magnifying the extremely minor distinctions between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and favoring the minority Tutsis, thus setting in motion the train of events that led to the horrendous genocide of 1994 in which over 800,000 mostly Tutsis were killed in the space of a few months at the hands of their Hutu neighbors.

One sees this pattern repeated in almost all the former colonies. In fact, it is hard to find a post-colonial country that has not had such problems. Especially in Africa, the colonial powers often created countries that had not existed as single entities before. But rather than drawing boundaries that separated nations according to traditional ethnic boundaries and thus ensuring relatively homogeneous populations, they would draw lines that divided ethnic communities and forced them into political unions with other communities with whom they had traditional animosities. As a result, we have so many brutal ethnic conflicts going on in so many countries. This was a heinous crime committed by colonial powers that is impossible to excuse.

But the British in Sri Lanka also created divisions in other seemingly minor ways. For example, the social clubs that people join and spend evenings with their friends and families are an English institution. They created such clubs in Sri Lanka too, and which had sports teams that competed with each other, and some of these clubs had explicitly ethnic affiliations with names that reflected them: Sinhalese Sports Club, Tamil Union, the Moors (Muslims) Sports Club, and the Burgher Recreation Club (the Burghers were those people whose ancestry included some Portugese, Dutch, or British). The British had their own exclusive clubs, open to whites only.

It seems incredible to me now that Sri Lankans should have tolerated such blatantly ethnicity-based social clubs for so long, even after independence, and taken them for granted. Although the clubs now have memberships that are open to all ethnicities, the very names are offensive. But they still exist and indicate that abhorrence to tribal sentiment and allegiance is not anywhere near as widespread and as strong as it should be.

POST SCRIPT: Americans are willing to pay more in taxes to improve infrastructure

It has long been treated as an article of faith that Americans hate raising taxes for whatever reason. But Republican pollster Frank Luntz finds that this is not true.

Consider this: A near unanimous 94% of Americans are concerned about our nation’s infrastructure. And this concern cuts across all regions of the country and across urban, suburban and rural communities.

Fully 84% of the public wants more money spent by the federal government — and 83% wants more spent by state governments — to improve America’s infrastructure. And here’s the kicker: 81% of Americans are personally prepared to pay 1% more in taxes for the cause. It’s not uncommon for people to say they’d pay more to get more, but when you ask them to respond to a specific amount, support evaporates. (That 74% of normally stingy Republicans are on board for the tax increase is, to me, the most significant finding in the survey.)

The Nigerian 419 scam goes meta

Is there anyone by now who has not heard of the ‘Nigerian 419’ scam or been approached by the people behind it? Hardly a week goes by that I do not receive several of these things in my email (sometimes several in one day). Word must have spread in the confidence trickster world that I look like a real sucker because I used to get these solicitations long before they became well-known as a fraud. Even before the internet I used to regularly get actual letters. But despite their notoriety, even now it appears that there are still people falling for it. In the US alone, it is estimated that about $200 million is conned per year.
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The colonial experience-6: Divide and rule

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While the colonies were a prime source of revenue for England, they also served as places to send young English men who were seen as black sheep in their well-connected families or as places where the less well-connected could make their fortunes. But the British could never hope, by sheer force of numbers and soldiers, to keep their far-flung empire under their control for a long time. Even the strong and well-organized Roman empire collapsed under this kind of logistical strain, and we see the same thing happening right now with the US trying to maintain its global dominance militarily. It is causing immense stress on its budgets and threatening to bankrupt the country.
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Pope Benedict challenges all superstitions other than his own

In a previous post, I said that when religions compete with others for adherents, they do not resort to evidence because no religion can produce any. Hence they have to resort to emotional appeals, scaring people that if they don’t believe in their god, awful things will happen to them, but if they believe, they will be rewarded in the next life or the afterlife, in the form of heaven or other goodies.

So basically, it is a competition that tests which religion has the best combination of fear and bribes to achieve its goal of increasing market share. Christianity, for example, has had a good run by scaring the daylights out of people with awful visions of hell and what happens on judgment day to people who have not accepted Jesus, and then promising a quickie salvation from that awful fate if only they say the magic words “I accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior.”
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The colonial experience-5: Creating loyal surrogates

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The British, in my opinion, were much smarter colonial powers than (say) the French or the Belgians. The Belgians were arguably the worst, as can be seen in what they did to the Congo under Emperor Leopold. As is the usual pattern, the colonialists used religion as a pacification tool. “[Leopold] claimed he was doing it to protect the “natives” from Arab slavers, and to open the heart of Africa to Christian missionaries, and Western capitalists.” [Read more…]

The real AIG fraud

There is one thing that I have learned about politics: when the political ruling class is in a big lather about something and screaming loudly for retribution and action, that means the real action is taking place elsewhere, in secret, and that all the fuss is to distract attention from the real scandal. This rule of thumb has never failed me, although sometimes it takes a while to find out what the true story is.

This instinct immediately kicked in when all the ballyhoo began about the $165 million in bonuses being paid to some AIG executives. This is just 0.1% of the money paid out (so far) to AIG and when I saw all the politicians getting into fits of righteous indignation, holding Congressional hearings, calling these executives all kinds of names, demanding the bonus money back, and threatening to use subpoenas and punitive laws to do so, I felt at once that it was all a smokescreen although I did not know what the smoke was covering. But I knew that soon enough, more knowledgeable people would reveal the truth, even though it would not get major coverage in the mainstream media, because the latter is a necessary part of the smoke-generating machine, and dutifully play their role by giving extensive coverage to all the grandstanding, while not investigating the real news.

Some new articles reveal what is actually going on. To understand what they say, you need to know that the term ‘counterparties’ refers to those firms that owned assets of dubious value that AIG had ‘insured’ against loss from their face value. (Note: I have explained before that this was not technically insurance, which is a highly regulated industry, but was essentially an unregulated scheme of private bets.) The taxpayer bailout money to AIG was used to pay off those obligations. But despite using public money and despite the government now owning nearly 80% of its shares, AIG had the nerve to refuse to reveal to the public the names of the companies that it had paid out money to and for what, leading to suspicions that, rather than protecting taxpayer interests, they had deliberately overvalued those assets in order to bail those companies out from their bad decisions. They finally revealed at least the names on Sunday night, a time when companies and governments release bad news hoping the public is not paying attention.

After months of stonewalling, government-controlled American International Group (AIG) finally revealed the names of the counterparties that were funneled $108 billion in taxpayer funds. The largest recipients of AIG bailout funds were European banks, Wall Street firms and, to a lesser degree, municipal governments.

The fundamental concern is that favored firms may have been overpaid for assets using a large chunk of AIG’s $170 billion bailout package. Though it is now known who the counterparties are, AIG refused to itemize what exactly it is each of them brought to the table. As a result, it’s impossible to know if some firms got better deals than others, or if taxpayers got a raw deal all together.

Eliot Spitzer explains in Slate what is going on:

Everybody is rushing to condemn AIG’s bonuses, but this simple scandal is obscuring the real disgrace at the insurance giant: Why are AIG’s counterparties getting paid back in full, to the tune of tens of billions of taxpayer dollars?

For the answer to this question, we need to go back to the very first decision to bail out AIG, made, we are told, by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, then-New York Fed official Timothy Geithner, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke last fall. Post-Lehman’s collapse, they feared a systemic failure could be triggered by AIG’s inability to pay the counterparties to all the sophisticated instruments AIG had sold. And who were AIG’s trading partners? No shock here: Goldman, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, UBS, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Barclays, and on it goes. So now we know for sure what we already surmised: The AIG bailout has been a way to hide an enormous second round of cash to the same group that had received TARP money already. (my italics)

The appearance that this was all an inside job is overwhelming. AIG was nothing more than a conduit for huge capital flows to the same old suspects, with no reason or explanation.

Spitzer then goes on to ask some very pertinent questions about all the cozy insider dealing between AIG, Goldman Sachs, Paulson, Geithner (who has replaced Paulson as Treasury Secretary), and Benanke. He says that those questions should be asked under oath.

Economist Michael Hudson sheds more light on the deal:

Here’s the problem with all the hoopla over the $135 million in AIG bonuses: This sum is only less than 0.1 per cent – one thousandth – of the $183 BILLION that the U.S. Treasury gave to AIG as a “pass-through” to its counterparties. This sum, over a thousand times the magnitude of the bonuses on which public attention is conveniently being focused by Wall Street promoters, did not stay with AIG. For over six months, the public media and Congressmen have been trying to find out just where this money DID go. Bloomberg brought a lawsuit to find out. Only to be met with a wall of silence.

Until finally, on Sunday night, March 15, the government finally released the details. They were indeed highly embarrassing. The largest recipient turned out to be just what earlier financial reports had rumored: Paulson’s own firm, Goldman Sachs, headed the list. It was owed $13 billion in counterparty claims. Here’s the picture that’s emerging. Last September, Treasury Secretary Paulson, from Goldman Sachs, drew up a terse 3-page memo outlining his bailout proposal. The plan specified that whatever he and other Treasury officials did (thus including his subordinates, also from Goldman Sachs), could not be challenged legally or undone, much less prosecuted. This condition enraged Congress, which rejected the bailout in its first incarnation.

It now looks as if Paulson had good reason to put in a fatal legal clause blocking any clawback of funds given by the Treasury to AIG’s counterparties. This is where public outrage should be focused.

Instead, the leading Congressional shepherds of the bailout legislation – along with Obama, who came out in his final, Friday night presidential debate with McCain strongly in favor of the bailout in Paulson’s awful “short” version – have been highlighting the AIG executives receiving bonuses, not the company’s counterparties.

[What do] Sen. Schumer, Rep. Frank, Pres. Obama and other Wall Street sponsors gain from this public outcry? For starters, it depicts them as hard taskmasters of the banking and financial sector, not its lobbyists scurrying to execute one giveaway after another. So the AIG kerfuffle has muddied the water about where their political loyalties really lie. It enables them to strike a misleading pose – and hence to pose as “honest brokers” next time they dishonestly give away the next few trillion dollars to their major sponsors and campaign contributors.

The uproar about AIG bonuses has effectively distracted attention from the AIG counterparties who received the $183 billion in Treasury giveaways. The “final” sum to be given to its counterparties has been rumored to be $250 billion, do Sen. Schumer, Rep. Frank and Pres. Obama still have a lot more work to do for Wall Street in the coming year or so.

To succeed in this work – while mitigating the public outrage already rising against the bad bailouts – they need to strike precisely the pose that they’re striking now. It is an exercise in deception.

The moral should be: The larger the crocodile tears shed over giving bonuses to AIG individuals (who seem to be largely on the healthy, bona fide insurance side of AIG’s business, not its hedge-fund Ponzi-scheme racket), the more they will distract public attention from the $180 billion giveaway, and the better they can position themselves to give away yet more government money (Treasury bonds and Federal Reserve deposits) to their favorite financial charities.

The money can be recovered. And that’s just what Mr. Schumer, Mr. Frank and others don’t want to see the public discussing. That’s why they’ve diverted attention onto this trivia. It’s the time-honored way to get people not to talk about the big picture and what’s really important.

Barack Obama, Barney Frank, Charles Schumer, and other leaders of both parties are busy grandstanding about the bonuses to hide the fact that they are complete shills for the finance industry and that they have colluded in the outrageous giveaway of huge sums of taxpayer money to the big financial firms, using AIG as the conduit. It is basically a money laundering scheme, to hide the real beneficiaries, the big financial interests that both parties serve.

Our pro-business, one-party government at work, serving the needs of the people they really care about.

POST SCRIPT: Monkey business

Researchers find that some monkeys seem to teach their young children how to floss their teeth. This is remarkable because the ability to consciously teach others how to use tools properly is thought to be a capability that only the human species possesses.

In the name of Galt, go!

Yesterday, I wrote about the predictable opposition of the low-tax/no-tax zealots to the implementation of the sunset clause that will at the end of 2010 revert the tax rates to its 2000 values.

The most bizarre feature of this opposition has been those who are threatening to ‘go Galt’. Apparently they are taking their cue from John Galt, the hero of the Ayn Rand 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, who inspired all the allegedly talented people, the leaders of business and arts and inventors and scientists, to show their disgust with the government burdening them with regulations and ‘taking’ their money in taxes for society’s benefit, by abandoning their prosperous careers and going on strike, even withdrawing to a remote enclave in Colorado called Galt’s Gulch. By withholding their talents from society, they caused society to crumble, teaching it the harsh lesson that the very gifted and talented must be left unfettered and tax-free so that their ambition is not shackled and their genius can flourish and thus society as a whole benefits.
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