Imagine yourself to be in the mythical Land of Beyond where you need minions to do a dirty job that men with honour would refuse to do. A classic trick in this situation is to pick people despised by the rest of society who are thus dependent on protection and will simply do what is asked for.
The Chinese emperors hit upon this truth when they started to surround themselves with eunuchs, despised by the rest of Chinese society and thus fiercely loyal to their protector, the Emperor. The roman emperors, similarly, made a habit of surrounding themselves with freed slaved who were despised by other Romans, as well as by a dedicated palace guard (the Praetorians) who were the only militia allowed in the vicinity of Rome.
The European colonialists too used this basic ‘dirty dozen’ technique when it came to keeping a large population in check with minimal own presence, particularly in Africa, by elevating some small despised group (ethnic or religious minorities) as the preferred club from whom the senior administrators came. This small favoured group would get personal benefits (riches and influence) but in return they would do whatever the colonizers wanted.
To see the relevance of this for university cuts in the Land of Beyond, you first need to step back a level and imagine yourself to be the Vice Chancellor of a second-rate university that brings in, say, a billion ‘Beyond’ dollars a year out of which some 300 million is money you dont really need to generate that 1 billion. It is ‘potential profit’ if you like. Continue reading →
Looking at the newspapers you’d think Catholicism is having a hard time with philandering priests and cover-ups of their doings being found out on a weekly basis. Dutch and German newspapers kept track for a while of the regional frequencies of new cases of sexual misconduct allegations. You might think Catholicism is getting its long-awaited come-uppance. Nothing is further from the truth however: Catholicism is in rude health.
There are now around 1.3 billion adherents making Catholicism the largest religion on the planet and the largest branch on the tree of Christianity that appears to hold about 2.1 billion adherents. Its strongholds in Latin America and Southern Africa are looking rock-solid, and conversion rates in the new centres of Asia (China, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc.) are looking very healthy indeed. The Christian World Database hence proudly announced Christianity was the world’s fastest growing religion in 2006 and in terms of numbers, Catholicism is by far the biggest and probably fastest growing of the Christian faiths.
What is interesting about Catholicism is that it seems to have lost its footing in its traditional stronghold, Southern and Western Europe. The area where all the popes came from, where all the old cathedrals are, where nearly all the alternative branches of Christianity originated, is now more secular than ever. Europe now has to import monks from Latin America and Africa to fill up its most prestigious and old monasteries (such as the one in Poblet, Spain). Things are so bad for Catholicism in Europe that in April 2009, the Archbishop of Vienna proclaimed that “The time of Christianity in Europe is coming to an end”. It is of course partially this retreat of the power of the Catholic church that allows all the skeletons to emerge from the cupboard. It is striking how few scandals come to the surface in places like Brazil and Nigeria compared to the almost massive ‘coming out’ currently seen in Europe.
Last Thursday I posed the question of how often the water you drink has been pissed by a vertebrate already. If the number is very small, then those who baulk at drinking recycled water have more cause to complain than if the number is very high.
As some commentators to that post pointed out, in reality we are all drinking water that includes some recycled piss: every dam from which we drink has ducks, lizards, and all sorts of animals pissing and shitting in it, so it is already a bit of a myth to think one can drink water that has not been recently mixed with piss. Still, as another comment revealed, many think the idea of copying Singapore and drinking water that is officially recycled sewage is deemed ‘gross’. So the question how often water has been piss in the past still matters for the ‘yuk factor’.
The answer comes from a very simple formula, which requires a few guesstimates as inputs:
Piss ratio = (total water pissed)/(total water) = (total vertebrate biomass ever lived* piss rate)/ (total water) = (average biomass vertebrates * piss rate per year * years of vertebrates) / (total water)
As in part one of this series, I’m thinking about an idea that seems very possible, extremely interesting and well accepted, but which has little going for it in terms of observed evidence.
The idea today is societal collapse. The premise is simple. Human societies are very complex entities which rely on innumerable interdependencies between people, resources, institutions etc. The resulting structure is subsequently both strong and fragile; like an archway it will stand forever, except if a single stone is removed, whereupon the whole thing will fall instantaneously. Following this collapse people fall into a world solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Precipitating events can be the loss of a resource, the severing of links or population loss through conflict or disease, or exogenous shocks.
I should stress that I am not talking about declines, or gradual change due to long term processes. That’s not the interesting part of this idea. This is about collapse, where a complex system can be brought down rapidly by a few factors and can only be succeeded by something that is not recognisably the same. Continue reading →
Is the real genius of economics our ability to see things that are impossible to objectively measure? The examples I have in mind are incentives, market failures, groups, power, and corruption. Below, I will point out just how impossible these things are to objectively measure but how easy we as participating humans can spot them. I will argue that it is our ability to ‘see’ these things that is the real cause of the success of economics, not our superior connection to hard data.
Incentives. Economists go on and on about incentives and how changes have to be ‘incentive compatible’. Yet incentives come in many shapes in sizes, both monetary and non-monetary. In the economists’ worldview, men and women have different incentives inside the home. Ministers and their constituents have different incentives. Firms and clients have different incentives. Yet, how on earth would you actually measure an incentive? It is damned hard to do. How would you for instance measure the incentives of a minister whose official duty is to do the right thing for Australia? How would you objectively say what the incentive is for a bank manager whose mission statement is one of ‘oneness with the world’? Neither their mission statement nor their list of official duties tells you much about their actual incentives for it is not those that determine whether they will get re-elected or promoted. In order to even start to measure incentives, a statistician would thus have to ignore most of what could be objectively measured as somehow not quite true. Yet, as a human being, incentives are almost childishly easy to observe. We ‘know’ that the baker and the butcher care for their own well-being. We ‘know’ the manager wants to solidify his power and get more sales. We ‘see’ the minister who wants re-election and does his cabinet team’s bidding. We ‘know’ young men by and large want sex. Etc. These incentives are sometimes uncomfortable to note, but very simple to observe. Why are they so simple to observe? Because we can use our introspection to guess the actual wishes of other people: other people are just like us and hence a little bit of honesty about ourselves allows us to immediately see what incentives others have in particular situations. We merely need to ask ourselves what we would find important in someone else’s position. Easy for us as individuals, virtually impossible for the statistician.