Quotulatiousness

December 7, 2015

QotD: The problem of Belgium

Filed under: Europe, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Judging by emerging reports, it almost looks as though the big new international-relations problem highlighted by the latest massacre might end up being the failure of the Belgian state. Some of the perpetrators seem to have fled toward the terrorist-riddled Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, which has sprouted a long sequence of killers involved with everything from the 2004 Madrid attacks to the failed August Amsterdam-Paris train attack that was stopped by American passengers. The Belgian authorities are contrite about the helplessness of their police and security apparatus in a zone that is a giant magnet for Europe’s Muslim creeps and ne’er-do-wells.

This raises further existential questions, and it is not as though they are new, about an ethnically divided country fabricated by 19th-century great powers mostly for geopolitical purposes. Foreign-policy amateurs are fond of saying, with some justice, that most of the world’s problems come from borders badly drawn by Europeans in out-of-the-way places. Belgium’s worsening habit of exhaling spores of Muslim terror on to its neighbours may actually put it on that list, unless its problem is solved pretty quickly.

Colby Cosh, “After Paris, are we sure the map that needs changing is in the Middle East?”, National Post, 2015-11-17.

December 6, 2015

Does Canada have a “hero complex”?

Filed under: Cancon, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At Spiked, Irene Ogrizek looks at Canada’s view on the Syrian refugee crisis:

The Syrian refugee crisis is testing the limits of public compassion. As Sweden and Germany struggle with overwhelmed infrastructures, some states in the US have simply said no to refugees. For those Americans, memories of 9/11 were revived by the Paris attacks, and a collective sense of hunkering down and sitting out the finger-pointing asserted itself. In Canada, our new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, promised to bring 25,000 refugees over before Christmas. He has since taken the advice of his advisers and come up with a more reasonable timeframe. Canada will accept 10,000 before Christmas and 15,000 in the two months following.

As a nation of immigrants, there is reflexive awareness around the issue of immigration in Canada. It evokes deep feelings of patriotism and provides an opportunity for collective and individual heroism. Even a cursory look at our mainstream media reveals the pressure to be heroic. ‘As a nation, we must step up to the plate’ and ‘Canadians are compassionate and sponsor refugee families’, are common refrains. As the refugee crisis has unfolded, this desire to be heroic has manifested itself in an attempt to conquer perceived public fears of terrorism – and migration’s alleged role in spreading it.

However, in this, our politicians and media outlets are being disingenuous. It isn’t terrorism per se that frightens Canadians, but the domestic loss of freedom that so often follows terrorist attacks — a freedom, as evidenced in our laissez-faire attitude to law enforcement, that Canadians cherish. No offence to Brits or Americans, but Canadians don’t want to live under constant surveillance or become vigilant, gun-toting citizens. We really do prefer our boring status quo.

So why is the template of heroism so important? Mythologist and author Joseph Campbell says the hero’s adventure is ‘one he is ready for’ and that the ‘landscape and the condition of the environment will match his readiness’. But what happens if there are no opportunities to prove oneself, especially in a country as sedate as Canada? The late New York Times columnist David Carr said of his drug-addicted young self: ‘Tucked in safe suburban redoubts, kids who had it soft like me manufactured peril. When there is no edge, we make our own.’ There is a similar edge to this explosion of pro-refugee altruism in Canada — and, just like Carr’s experience, it has its roots in intoxication.

December 3, 2015

Bombing probably won’t change anything in Syria

Filed under: Middle East, Military, Politics — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Charles Stross looks at the role of Turkey in the fight against ISIS (that is, Turkey’s actions within the theatre of war, not strictly speaking, actions against ISIS):

Turkey was, prior to 1918 and the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the hegemonic imperial power in the middle east, in the form of the Ottoman Empire. Syria was as much a part of Turkey’s “sphere of influence” as the Eastern Ukraine was of Russia’s — incidentally, another zone where the post-1918 settlement is going up in gunsmoke and it’s raining airliners. More to the point, geopolitically Turkey is in a weird position. It was roped into NATO in the wake of the second world war as part of the USA’s policy of encirclement of the USSR—but Turkey’s national aspirations are intrinsically at odds with some of its NATO partners, spiking on occasion to the level of warfare. Let us not forget that Turkey was also the imperial hegemon that ruled Greece and the Balkans. And today Turkey controls a vital regional resource — the tributary rivers that flow into the Euphrates, the main supply of irrigation of water into Syria and northern Iraq. Turkey has been damming the Euphrates and restricting the water flow to Raqqa province, violating international water sharing conventions. Syrian anger over the Güney Doğu Anadolu project was a major reason why the Assad government began providing material support to the PKK insurgency in Turkey. In turn, Turkish control over the Euphrates headwaters is a potent weapon against the Kurdish independence movement.

I’m an outsider and not adequately informed on this area. However, it looks (from here) as if the Turkish centralizing obsession with suppressing the PKK has led to the destabilization of Syria and northern Iraq. Syria’s government encouraging a push towards water-intensive agriculture coincided with the most intense drought on record in Syria, from 2007 to 2010, then ran into the generalized political discord of the Arab Spring: the Ba’ath government badly mishandled the demographic/economic situation during the 00’s and it would be a mistake to lay the blame for the Syrian civil war entirely on Turkey. However, cutting the river water supply to a drought-stricken region in the middle of a period of popular discontent didn’t help.

Today, 4 years after the war began, Syria is a shattered mess. It’s noteworthy that Da’esh controls areas where the water supply has been most badly affected, crippling agriculture, the main support of the poor, mostly conservative Sunni locals. Add in lots of former Iraqi army officers (pushed into fighting by the de-Ba’athication policies imposed by the US occupation and then the anti-Sunni policies of the subsequent Shi’ite government in Baghdad) and a seasoning of Wahhabite fanatics, and you have the recipe for Da’esh to get started, take root, and hold territory.

November 18, 2015

The Trudeau legacy

Filed under: Cancon, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At Gods of the Copybook Headings, Richard Anderson isn’t impressed with the PM, who he refers to as “our selfie Prime Minister”, and contrasts him with his father:

Canada is a bubble nation. We have so long been at peace, so long been rich and free, that much of the world beyond our borders is akin to another planet. The working assumption of the Canadian Left — Justin very much included — is that Islamist terrorism is the product of some grave misunderstanding. If only we were to constructively engage with those who oppose us peace would be at hand. All we need is a chance for dialogue and our graduate school acquired “conflict resolution skills” would restore humanity and decency. This is among the gravest misconceptions of our age.

Trudeau the Elder considered both the FLQ and the PQ threats to Canada’s survival. Yet his response to each was radically different. Terrorism was beyond the bounds of legitimate democratic discourse. Force must be met with force. He explained this with great care in his speech justifying the invocation of the War Measures Act. It shows a statesman — however deeply flawed in other areas of public policy — fighting to sustain a democratic government against violent usurpation. The speech is also a stark and sobering contrast to his son’s juvenile pronouncements.

Yet PET took a very different approach in dealing with democratic separatism. The PQ — however obnoxious and cynical — was a legitimate democratic force. When the Pequistes formed their first majority government in 1976 the response from Ottawa was to argue, cajole and bribe. The usual instruments of a democratic state. It would have been thought absurd and utterly unCanadian to have dispatched federal troops to arrest Rene Levesque and his cadre of petty ethnic nationalists.

Pierre Trudeau could only occasionally distinguish between bad and outright evil. He could crush the FLQ and then saunter off to Cuba to play sing-a-long with a mass murdering tyrant. Though at least at that point in history Fidel Castro was hardly a threat to world peace. Trudeau’s 1976 trip was a morally repugnant though not a dangerous act.

Islamist fanatics are very much a threat to the peace of France, Canada and the world. In his first test as an international leader Justin has shown a dangerous inability to differentiate between bad and evil. Since Canada is a smaller player in a big world that might not matter very much in the short-term. Yet sooner or later this evil will come to Canada and the man charged with our defence has shown himself to be pathetically inadequate to the challenge.

November 16, 2015

Accepting the truth in the wake of the Paris attacks

Filed under: Europe, France, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Douglas Murray on the slow, unwilling movement toward accepting the true reasons for anti-Western violence like the Paris terror attacks:

The West’s movement towards the truth is remarkably slow. We drag ourselves towards it painfully, inch by inch, after each bloody Islamist assault.

In France, Britain, Germany, America and nearly every other country in the world it remains government policy to say that any and all attacks carried out in the name of Mohammed have ‘nothing to do with Islam’. It was said by George W. Bush after 9/11, Tony Blair after 7/7 and Tony Abbott after the Sydney attack last month. It is what David Cameron said after two British extremists cut off the head of Drummer Lee Rigby in London, when ‘Jihadi John’ cut off the head of aid worker Alan Henning in the ‘Islamic State’ and when Islamic extremists attacked a Kenyan mall, separated the Muslims from the Christians and shot the latter in the head. It was what President François Hollande said after the massacre of journalists and Jews in Paris in January. And it is all that most politicians will be able to come out with again after the latest atrocities in Paris.

All these leaders are wrong. In private, they and their senior advisers often concede that they are telling a lie. The most sympathetic explanation is that they are telling a ‘noble lie’, provoked by a fear that we — the general public — are a lynch mob in waiting. ‘Noble’ or not, this lie is a mistake. First, because the general public do not rely on politicians for their information and can perfectly well read articles and books about Islam for themselves. Secondly, because the lie helps no one understand the threat we face. Thirdly, because it takes any heat off Muslims to deal with the bad traditions in their own religion. And fourthly, because unless mainstream politicians address these matters then one day perhaps the public will overtake their politicians to a truly alarming extent.

If politicians are so worried about this secondary ‘backlash’ problem then they would do well to remind us not to blame the jihadists’ actions on our peaceful compatriots and then deal with the primary problem — radical Islam — in order that no secondary, reactionary problem will ever grow.

Yet today our political class fuels both cause and nascent effect. Because the truth is there for all to see. To claim that people who punish people by killing them for blaspheming Islam while shouting ‘Allah is greatest’ has ‘nothing to do with Islam’ is madness. Because the violence of the Islamists is, truthfully, only to do with Islam: the worst version of Islam, certainly, but Islam nonetheless.

Theodore Dalrymple expresses a bit of sympathy for the politicians who must say something in the wake of atrocities:

One has to pity — a little — politicians obliged to react publicly to events such as those on November 13 in Paris. They can’t pass over them in silence: but what can they say that does not sound banal, hollow and obvious? They can only get it wrong, not right.

That does not excuse inexactitude and evasion, however. French president François Hollande called the attacks cowardly, but if there was one thing the attackers were not (alas, if only they had been), it was cowardly. They were evil, their ideas were deeply stupid, and they were brutal: but a man who knows that he is going to die in committing an act, no matter how atrocious, is not a coward. With the accuracy of a drone, the president honed in on the one vice that the attackers did not manifest. This establishes that bravery is not by itself a virtue, that in order for it to be a virtue it has to be exercised in pursuit of a worthwhile goal. To quote an eminent countryman of the president, Pascal: Travaillons, donc, à bien penser: voilà le principe de la morale. Let us labor, then, to think clearly: that is the principle of morality.

President Obama was not much better. He made reference in his statement to “the values we all share.” Either he was using the word “we” in some coded fashion, in spite of having just referred to the whole of humanity, or he failed to notice that the attacks were the direct consequence of the obvious fact that we — that is to say the whole of humanity — do not share the same values. If we shared the same values, politics would be reduced to arguments about administration.

November 14, 2015

QotD: Which religious group should organize your hypothetical rescue from terrorists?

Filed under: Humour, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Suppose you were kidnapped by terrorists, and you needed someone to organize a rescue. Would you prefer the task be delegated to the Unitarians, or the Mormons?

This question isn’t about whether you think an individual Unitarian or Mormon would make a better person to rush in Rambo-style and get you out of there. It’s about whether you would prefer the Unitarian Church or the Mormon Church to coordinate your rescue.

I would go with the Mormons. The Mormons seem effective in all sorts of ways. They’re effective evangelists. They’re effect[ive] fundraisers. They’re effective at keeping the average believer following their commandments. They would figure out a plan, implement it, and come in guns-blazing.

The Unitarians would be a disaster. First someone would interrupt the discussion to ask whether it’s fair to use the word “terrorists”, or whether we should use the less judgmental “militant”. Several people would note that until investigating the situation more clearly, they can’t even be sure the terrorists aren’t in the right in this case. In fact, what is “right” anyway? An attempt to shut down this discussion to focus more on the object-level problem would be met with cries of “censorship!”.

If anyone did come up with a plan, a hundred different pedants would try to display their intelligence by nitpicking meaningless details. Eventually some people would say that it’s an outrage that no one’s even considering whether the bullets being used are recyclable, and decide to split off and mount their own, ecologically-friendly rescue attempt. In the end, four different schismatic rescue attempts would run into each other, mistake each other for the enemy, and annhilate themselves while the actual terrorists never even hear about it.

(if it were Reform Jews, the story would be broadly similar, but with twenty different rescue attempts, and I say this fondly, as someone who attended a liberal synagogue for ten years)

One relevant difference between Mormons and Unitarians seems to be a cultural one. It’s not quite that the Mormons value conformity and the Unitarians value indivduality – that’s not exactly wrong, but it’s letting progressives bend language to their will, the same way as calling the two sides of the abortion debate “pro-freedom” and “anti-woman” or whatever they do nowadays. It’s more like a Mormon norm that the proper goal of a discussion is agreement, and a Unitarian norm that the proper goal of a discussion is disagreement.

There’s a saying I’ve heard in a lot of groups, which is something along the lines of “diversity is what unites us”. This is nice and memorable, but there are other groups where unity is what unites them, and they seem to be more, well, united.

Scott Alexander, “Reactionary Philosophy In An Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell”, Slate Star Codex, 2013-03-03.

November 6, 2015

Turkish politics, post-election

Filed under: Europe, Middle East, Politics, Religion — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Austin Bay looks at Turkey’s domestic political situation following the re-election of Recep Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party:

The threat to Turkish democratic institutions is a man notoriously jealous of Ataturk, current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The snap election gave Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party, AKP, overwhelming control of parliament (316 of 550 seats). The AKP had controlled parliament since 2002, but in the June 7 election it lost its one-party majority. Political haggling among opposition parties, including Ataturk’s Republican Peoples Party, the CHP, failed to produce a coalition government; a new election was necessary.

However, in the intervening month’s domestic terrorist incidents, the fitful war with the Islamic State in the Levant and Syria’s violent chaos dominated Turkish politics.

Erdoğan portrayed himself as the only leader capable of addressing Turkey’s deteriorating security situation. Domestic security certainly diminished; why it did stirs angry accusations. Erdoğan’s political opponents maintain that he used the violence to solidify political support. His more vicious critics accuse him of intentionally permitting violence. For example, they argue his government could have prevented the Oct. 10 terror bombing of a peace march in Ankara, now attributed to ISIL. Over 100 people were murdered in that attack.

Is it an over the top conspiracy theory-type accusation? Possibly. Erdoğan himself, however, believes over the top conspiracy theories, and he uses conspiratorial doubt and fear as political tools. His record for jailing journalists and intimidating political opponents associated with his alleged conspiracies is fact, not theory. The election didn’t assuage his fears — it ignited another surge of arrests. On Nov. 3, police arrested scores of people associated with Erdoğan critic and Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. At one time Gulen supported Erdoğan and the moderate Islamist AKP. However, Gulen broke with Erdoğan over credible charges of corruption within Erdoğan’s governing circle.

Daniel Pipes isn’t convinced that the terror stampeded voters in Erdoğan’s direction (especially Kurdish voters), and he suspects fraud in the election results:

Like other observers of Turkish politics, I was stunned on November 1 when the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP) was reported to have increased its share of the national vote since the last round of elections in June 2015 by 9 percent and its share of parliamentary seats by 11 percent.

The polls had consistently shown the four major parties winning about the same number of seats as in June. This made intuitive sense; they represent mutually hostile outlooks (Islamist, leftist, Kurdish, nationalist), making substantial movement between them in under five months highly unlikely. That about one in nine voters switched parties defies reason.

Polling results between the June and November 2015 Turkish elections

Polling results between the June and November 2015 Turkish elections

The AKP’s huge increase gave it back the parliamentary majority it had lost in the June 2015 elections, promising President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a semi-legal path to the dictatorial powers he aspires to.

But, to me, the results stink of fraud. It defies reason, for example, that the AKP’s war on Kurds would prompt about a quarter of Turkey’s Kurds to abandon the pro-Kurdish party and switch their votes to the AKP.

October 22, 2015

Justifying the murder of random Israelis

Filed under: Middle East, Politics, Religion — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Brendan O’Neill says that the left has managed to plumb the very bottom of morality:

It’s been clear for years that the left has been losing the moral plot. But I never thought I would see it apologise for, even defend, the stabbing to death of Jews. The silver lining for the left is that it’s impossible for it to sink any lower. This is as low as it gets.

The response in the West to the spate of foul murders by car, knife and meat cleaver in Israel has been almost as shocking as the killings themselves. Many have stayed silent, a global version of “bystander culture”, where people look awkwardly at the ground as someone is battered in front of them. The Western media is currently a shameless shuffling bystander to murders in Israel.

Others have asked, “Well, what do Israelis expect?” The crashing of cars into rabbis waiting for a bus and the hacking at Israeli citizens doing their weekly shop is treated as a normal response by Palestinians to their woes.

When the Guardian glorifies these killings as a “knife intifada”, and radical writers describe them as a natural kickback against Palestinians’ “ongoing humiliation”, they’re really saying Israeli citizens deserve to be murdered.

It’s understandable. It makes sense. These offerers of chin-stroking explanations for why a rabbi just had to be rammed with a car actually dehumanise both Israelis and Palestinians. They treat Israelis as collectively guilty for what their government does, meaning the old woman on a bus is a legitimate target.

And with their handwringing over “Palestinian despair”, with one writer claiming Palestinians are lashing out with knives because it’s “the only option left to them”, they infantilise Palestinians, reducing them to robotic knife-wielders who aren’t responsible for what they do. They heap contempt on both sides, demonising Israeli citizens and pitying Palestinians so much that they end up seeing them as mentally deficient, with no choice but to hack at the nearest Jew.

October 16, 2015

The rules of war, US edition

Filed under: Law, Media, Military, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Tom Kratman read through the latest edition of the US government’s Law of War Manual, so you (probably) won’t have to:

I thought I was free of one thousand plus page books of the driest prose imaginable when I finished law school. Sadly, no such luck; the Department of Defense released, back in mid-June, its Law of War Manual, which is eleven hundred and seventy-six pages of painfully sere verbiage. Go ahead and divide the number of pages by the number of days since about 15 June, 2015. Yeah, that dry.

But, dry or not, it’s not that bad. Nothing that induces the legal LibLePRs (Liberals, Leftists, Progressives, and Reds) of ICOTESCAS (the International Community Of The Ever So Caring And Sensitive) to denounce it as something that “reads like it was written by Hitler’s Ministry of War,” could be all that bad.

[…]

The left’s grasp of law of war is tenuous at best, often mistaken and frequently fraudulent. For example, one of their usual charges, also much heard during the campaign in Iraq and especially at Fallujah, was that incendiary weapons are banned, per the Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons (Protocol III). The fraud there is that incendiary weapons are not banned there or anywhere. Their use under some circumstances is restricted or banned, but the weapons themselves, and their use for other purposes or other circumstances is perfectly legal.

That’s just one example of the fraud the left has perpetrated with regard to the manual. There are numerous others, too numerous to list here. I will limit my comment, therefore, to the observation that attacking a legitimate military target in proximity to a civilian or civilians is not quite the same thing as carte blanche to attacks civilians, qua civilians, generally. ICOTESCAS seems to harbor some confusion about this or to pretend to confusion to cover their fraud.

One aspect, in particular, that has the left up in arms about the manual is in its treatment of journalists. I suppose in their ideal world, camera teams from Al Jazeera should be able to do reconnaissance for groups of guerillas and terrorists, scot free. Too, one suspects, in the ideal lefty world, the presence of a journalist, even if he happens to be carrying ammunition for the other side, should protect all combatants around the “journalist,” lest the journalist’s expensive coif be mussed.

Sadly, for that set of values and outlooks, in the real world, once the soldiers realize that some “journalists” are helping the enemy, those journalists are going to be killed as quickly and conveniently as possible, as they should be. Aim true, boys, aim true.

The rules, as outlined in the manual, for journalists are actually pretty reasonable. To paraphrase:

  1. If you are a journalist and among the enemy, your presence will not protect them. Their presence will endanger you and the closer you are to them the more you will be in danger. We will neither aim expressly for you if we know where and who you are, nor avoid targeting places you might be, if we don’t know who and where you are, nor avoid targeting places where you are, if we know or suspect the enemy is there, too. You knew it was a risk when you undertook the profession.
  2. If you take part in hostilities, to include by providing reconnaissance or by spying, you will have lost your immunities as a civilian, but not gained the privilege of a combatant. We can kill you.
  3. If you act as a spy and we catch you, we can try you as a spy, give you a judge and jury who may not much care for you or your profession, then stand you against a wall and shoot you.

October 14, 2015

Toyota’s ISIS problem

Filed under: Japan, Middle East, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

In The Diplomat, Franz-Stefan Gady looks at the problem for Toyota because their vehicles have become the favourites of ISIS and other terrorist groups:

The United States has launched an investigation to determine how the terror group ISIS was able to acquire a large number of Toyota pickup trucks and SUVs ABC News reported this week.

Japanese car manufacturer Toyota, the world’s second-largest auto maker, has pledged full cooperation with U.S. authorities and is “supporting” the inquiry led by the Terror Financing division of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

“We briefed Treasury on Toyota’s supply chains in the Middle East and the procedures that Toyota has in place to protect supply chain integrity,” according to a D.C.-based spokesperson of Toyota. However, “it is impossible for Toyota to completely control indirect or illegal channels through which our vehicles could be misappropriated,” he added.

According to Toyota sales data, the number of Hilux and Land Cruisers sold tripled from 6,000 in Iraq in 2011 to 18,000 sold in 2013. However, sales dropped to 13,000 in 2014.

Toyota Hilux pickup trucks – a lightweight virtually indestructible vehicle – have been prominently featured in various ISIS propaganda videos and played an important role in ISIS’ conquests of large stretches of Iraqi territory last summer by acting as a force multiplier.

Armed with a .50 caliber machine gun the Hilux truck’s maneuverability provided insurgents quickly with close-range fire support during their attacks. Back in 2010, the counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen referred to the Hilux as “a modern version of light cavalry. They move weapons into positions to fire, and can also shift people around very quickly, with a quick dismount.”

Full disclosure: I’m currently driving a ten-year-old Toyota pickup truck (a Tacoma, which I think is the North American version of the Hilux). My next vehicle is likely to be another Toyota pickup truck. They may not be technically indestructible, but I’ve been very impressed with the performance and durability of my particular vehicle.

September 14, 2015

Cash is still king … and we’d be insane to abolish it

Filed under: Business, Economics, France, Liberty — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In the Telegraph last month, Matthew Lynn made the case against eliminating cash:

Trying to get a plumber in France? In the rather unlikely event that you can actually find one who isn’t still on his grandes vacances, gone above his permitted 35 hours a week, or indeed long since relocated himself to South Kensington, then you’ll also have to make sure that you can pay by cheque or bank transfer.

From today, France is banning the use of cash for transactions worth more than €1,000, or slightly more than £700. On one level, that is about combating crime and terrorism. But on another, it is also part of a growing movement among academics and now governments to gradually ban the use of cash completely. It is inefficient, oils the underground economy, and makes it harder for central banks to manage the economy, or so runs the argument.

Much like gold, it is a “barbarous relic”, as some publications loftily dismiss it. The trouble is, cash is also incredibly efficient. And it is a crucial part of a free society. There is no convincing case for abolition.

When it comes to creeping state control, it is no surprise to find the French out in front. In the wake of this year’s attack on the Charlie Hebdo office, the government has clamped down on the use of cash. The maximum permitted transaction has been reduced from €3,000 to €1,000, and any cash withdrawal of more than €10,000 will be automatically flagged up to the police (tourists have a higher limit, but even that is being reduced to €10,000 – just in case you are planning on ordering some very expensive wine on your next trip to Paris).

[…]

In reality, cash is far too valuable to be given up lightly. In truth, the benefits of abolition are largely oversold. While terrorists and criminals may well use cash to buy weapons, or deal in drugs, it is very hard to believe that they would not find some other way of financing their operations if it was abolished. Are there really any cases of potential jihadists being foiled because they couldn’t find two utility bills (less than three months old, of course) in a false name to open an account? The web is full of false payment systems and anonymous names.

Nor is clamping down on the black economy such a big deal. Admittedly these things are hard to measure, but according to research by the London School of Economics, the black economy only accounts for 10pc of British GDP, which is the fourth lowest in the EU. Many of the people working in it are below the tax threshold anyway, and certainly below the VAT threshold. So the tax collected even if you clamped down completely is unlikely to amount to more than 1pc of GDP. As for negative interest rates, do we really want those? Or have we concluded that central bankers are doing more harm than good with their attempts to manipulate the economy?

September 10, 2015

Making it easy for governments to monitor texts, emails, and other messages

Filed under: Law, Liberty, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Megan McArdle explains that while it’s quite understandable why governments want to maintain their technological ability to read private, personal communications … but that’s not sufficient justification to just give in and allow them the full access they claim that they “need”:

Imagine, if you will, a law that said all doors had to be left unlocked so that the police could get in whenever they needed to. Or at the very least, a law mandating that the government have a master key.

That’s essentially what some in the government want for your technology. As companies like Apple and Google have embraced stronger encryption, they’re making it harder for the government to do the kind of easy instant collection that companies were forced into as the government chased terrorists after 9/11.

And how could you oppose that government access? After all, the government keeps us safe from criminals. Do you really want to make it easier for criminals to evade the law?

The analogy with your home doors suggests the flaw in this thinking: The U.S. government is not the only entity capable of using a master key. Criminals can use them too. If you create an easy way to bypass security, criminals — or other governments — are going to start looking for ways to reproduce the keys.

[…]

Law enforcement is going to pursue strategies that maximize the ability to catch criminals or terrorists. These are noble goals. But we have to take care that in the pursuit of these goals, the population they’re trying to protect is not forgotten. Every time we open more doors for our own government, we’re inviting other unwelcome guests to join them inside.

I don’t really blame law enforcement for pushing as hard as possible; rare is the organization in history that has said, “You know, the world would be a better place if I had less power to do my job.” But that makes it more imperative that the rest of us keep an eye on what they’re doing, and force the law to account for tradeoffs, rather than the single-minded pursuit of one goal.

August 29, 2015

The bad news about good news

Filed under: Economics, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At Strategy Page, an explanation for why most people think the world is going to hell, despite the facts pointing in all kinds of positive and hopeful directions:

One of the ironies of the post-Cold War world is that most people get the impression that things are getting worse and worse while for the majority of people on the planet life is getting better. Worldwide poverty and death rates are plummeting while income and reported (via opinion surveys) satisfaction are way up. Many major diseases (like tetanus and polio) have nearly been eliminated and malaria, the disease that has killed more people than any other throughout history, is in decline because of medical advances. War related deaths have been declining since World War II ended in 1945 and that decline continued after the Cold War eliminated most communist governments in 1991. Why do most people think otherwise? You can blame the mass media and their most effective marketing tool; FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt).

Mass media first appeared in the mid-19th century with the development of the steam press, which made cheap-enough-to-reach-a-mass-audience newspapers possible. Editors quickly learned that FUD sells best. Politicians, rebels, and even advertisers found that FUD was a very effective tool to grab attention and change attitudes. Put another way, excitement sells, and the best way to excite readers is to scare them.

Modern terrorism, based on using murderous mass attacks on the public to trigger a flurry of media coverage, came out of this. The 19th century anarchists, followed by the Bolsheviks (communists), several fascist movements (like the Nazis), and many others, all used this media proclivity to jump on terrorist acts in order to scare readers into buying more newspapers, or supporting some extremist cause or another. The terrorists got the publicity and attention they wanted, which sometimes led to acquiring political power as well.

Radio appeared in the 1930s and this made it even easier to reach literate as well as illiterate populations. Combining radio and FUD allowed communism and fascism to spread far and fast in the 1930s. The sad fact is that this situation is not unknown among journalists. Many of them have been complaining about it for over a century. No one has been able to come up with a solution. Good news doesn’t sell. And the pursuit of scary headlines that do has created a race to the bottom.

It’s probably rational for mass media outlets to concentrate on the vivid, shocking bad news … because it grabs the attention and sells more newspapers and encourages more people to watch video reports. Good news? Well, it’s nice to hear, but it’s neither urgent nor compelling (except cat videos on YouTube, of course). You might like to hear it, but it’s not urgent and compelling … you can catch up on that anytime. A flood? An earthquake? A breaking story about a hostage situation? You’ll pay attention whether you want to or not. And that sells newspapers and gets ad revenue for networks.

August 15, 2015

Impersonal forces acting on passive innocents

Filed under: Britain, Media, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

We’ve seen plenty of examples of this kind of “reporting”, where the presentation of the case absolves the actors in advance of any motive or action … they’re always implicit victims of circumstances beyond their control. Theodore Dalrymple points to a recent example:

Sometimes the employment of a single word in common use gives away an entire worldview. There was just such a usage in the headline of a story in the Guardian newspaper late last month: “How the ‘Pompey Lads’ fell into the hands of Isis.”

Pompey is the colloquial name for Portsmouth, the naval town on the south coast of England, and the “lads” of the headline were five young men of Bangladeshi origin who grew up there and later joined Isis in Syria. The article describes how the last of the five has now been killed, three others having been killed before him and one, who returned to Britain, having been sentenced to a four-year prison sentence (in effect two years, with remission for good behavior). The use of the word “lads” is intended to imply to the newspaper’s readers that there was nothing special or different about these five young men, nothing that distinguished them from the other young men of Portsmouth. Its use was a manifestation of wishful or even magical thinking, as if reality itself could be altered in a desired way by the mere employment of language.

But the word that implied a whole worldview was “fell.” According to the headline, the young men “fell” into the hands of Isis as an apple falls passively to the ground by gravitational force. The word suggests that it could have happened to anybody, this going to Syria via Turkey to join a movement that delights in decapitation and other such activities in the name of a religion — their religion. Joining Isis is like multiple sclerosis; it’s something that just happens to people.

The word “fell” denies agency to the young men, as if they had no choice in the matter. They were victims of circumstance by virtue of their membership of a minority, for minorities are by definition victims without agency.

July 20, 2015

Making a terrorist

Filed under: Europe, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Tam at View From The Porch linked to this discussion of how domestic terrorists don’t match the media’s default profile:

Of course, there’s an easy way to make it harder for Da’esh to “recruit Americans,” and that’s to zero out immigration from nations where the common values are inimical to American values. But there are problems with that. Many of the people seeking to immigrate from Da’esh territory to the USA are fleeing that terror and seeking security — and freedom. They have a very high potential to be very solid, freedom-loving Americans. The problem we have seen in the USA (and to a greater extent in some European countries like Sweden and France) is not so much the immigrants, but their children who, exposed to academia that hates the new homeland, regresses to an imagined “golden age” religious extremism.

The conventional wisdom on the left and in the press (but we repeat ourselves) that terrorists are made by poverty and oppression is, frankly, silly. Like the communist terrorists of the 1970s, the mohammedan terrorists of today are a product of wealthy-kid ennui and self-loathing. Well-known terrorist cases range from solidly middle-class (Tsarnaevs) to professional class (Ayman al-Zawahiri) to stankin’ wealthy (bin Laden); it is rare to find one without some university education. Certainly part of the problem is that the moral component of a university education today includes an unhealthy dose and burden of contempt and blame for the host society. That’s beyond the scope of what this report, centered as it is on the nuts and bolts of what ISIS is and how it means to attack our homeland, covers; but if it is not addressed there is another terrorist cause on the far side of this one, and so on endlessly like a land of rolling hills.

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