Archives for December 2009

Freedom, Welfare, and the Future

The welfare state, or what we conceive of as such today, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Although pre-modern states did perform some pro-welfare functions such as regulating prices and wages, maintaining workhouses for the poor and even a limited form of targeted social support[1], this spending was framed not in terms of the state’s fulfillment of defined obligations to its citizens, but as “wholly-discretionary state charity”. The state’s only incentive to do this, admittedly a powerful one, was to buy off revolt and preserve community cohesion; otherwise, these extremely hierarchical societies harbored no ethical concerns about empowering the individual or ensuring equality of opportunity. This meant that the prime means of social support remained one’s family and clan, friends, and local community institutions like the Church. The modern definition of a welfare state, such as the one provided by Robert Goodin – 1) it a) “intervenes in a market economy b) to meet certain of people’s basic needs c) through relatively direct means” and 2) is “a system of compulsory, collective, and largely non-discretionary welfare provision”[2] – has its early antecedents in Bismarck’s social insurance reforms (1889), the genesis of Swedish socialism in the 1930’s, and the US introduction of social security measures in the New Deal to mitigate the effects of the Great Depression.

Drawing on Goodin’s work, let us clarify the definition of the democratic welfare state. First, welfare states are explicitly market-based (ranging the gamut from America’s relative laissez-faire to Belarus’ “market socialism”) – according to Marshall, it “did not reject the capitalist market economy, but held that there were some elements in a civilized life which ranked above it and must be achieved by curbing or suppressing the market”[3]. Second, it does not (necessarily) aim for radical economic or social transformations; its goals are more modest – “the characteristically welfare statist approach is to opt for readjusting final distributions [primarily to relieve those in the most distress through direct provision of basic needs like food, shelter, etc], rather than altering the pattern of property rights in productive resources that gave rise to undesirable distributions in the first place”[4]. Third, welfare is enshrined in law and viewed as a universal civil right for those deserving of it, in contrast to private charities and the “public charity” embodied in the English Poor Laws (their aid being viewed as gifts and humiliating to have to accept).

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Translation: Russia’s Sex Traditions

Sean recently suggested Russianists study the history of smell in Russia. I have an even better idea: a history of sex in Russia, or rather my translation of the tabloid article Сексуальные традиции на Руси (Russian Sexual Traditions). It’s historically and culturally inaccurate in more than a few places, but will hopefully make for a light relief from Sublime Oblivion‘s usual repertoire of the meaning of life and (alleged) “academic rationalizations of murder” – and perhaps even provoke a serious discussion of sexuality in history.


Hollywood’s rules of sex, the amatory emancipation of Western Europe, and yes the exotic Kama Sutra – these are a few samples of the love life which today’s Russian couples cautiously carry off to bed.

At one time, in a nation with new-found freedom, and including – sexual freedom, all we heard was: Indian Kama Sutra, French love, Swedish family… Is it really the case that Russia never had any sexual traditions of its own?

But it did! Every people has traditions, including sexual ones. Yet on the one hand, in the East there was great respect for written sources, hence we got the ancient Indian tracts on intimacy in their virgin form; on the other hand, since Western advertising is so much better than in Russia, many of us imagine that we are doing nothing more in bed than copying the Europeans.

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Interview @ Siberian Light

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10 Myths about Russia’s Demography

This post tries to debunk some popular, but misguided, views on demographic trends in today’s Russia. These consist of the perception that Russia is in a demographic “death spiral” that dooms it to national decline (BidenEberstadt, NIC, CIA, Stratfor, etc). Some extreme pessimists even predict that ethnic Russians – ravaged by AIDS, infertility and alcoholism – will die out as an ethnicity, displaced by Islamist hordes and Chinese settlers (Steyn, Collard).

The Myth of Russia’s Demographic Apocalypse

Think again. While it is true that Russia’s current demographic situation is nothing to write home about, most of the demographic trends that matter are highly positive – and there is compelling evidence that Russia can still return to a healthy, longterm pattern of sustainable population replacement.


MYTH: Russia is losing 750,000 of its population per year and will become depopulated within decades.

REALITY: In 1992, for the first time since the Great Patriotic War, deaths exceeded births in Russia, forming the so-called “Russian Cross”. Since then the population fell from 149mn to 142mn souls. However, the rate of depopulation has slowed massively in recent years.

As of 2008, there were 362,000 more deaths than births in Russia, down from 847,000 in 2005.  Furthermore, adding in migration would give a total population loss of just 105,000 people in 2008, equivalent to -0.07% of the population, which is a massive improvement from the 721,000 fall in 2005. The situation continued improving in 2009, despite the economic crisis, with Russia seeing positive natural increase in August and September for the first time in 15 years.

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Documentary Review: Lessons from Byzantium

I finally watched the film Гибель Империи. Византийский урок (Death of an Empire: the Byzantine Lesson), narrated by Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, the father-confessor of Vladimir Putin. This film takes a stylized interpretation of the decline and fall of the Byzantine Empire – the root cause of which is attributed to mystical factors such as loss of faith in indigenous traditions, the state, and God – and implicitly (and at the end explicitly) draws lessons for modern-day Russia about the dangers of corruption, poshlost, and denigration of national traditions in favor of indiscriminate copying of foreign ways.

One could (rightly) quibble at the film’s ahistoricity, selective coverage, and slanted rhetoric. It is questionable that the West’s plundering of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade was what spurred the development of European capitalism, and so is the assertion that the fundamental cause of Byzantium’s final defeat to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 was due to its recognition of papal supremacy. The arguments eschew rigorous analysis, instead relying on “mystical” explanations based on “life and death biological growth analogies of life and death and vaguely defined concepts of “vigor” and “decadence””, which are unscientific, albeit aesthetic (and hence persuasive). So it is justifiable for the academic historian or the “Western chauvinist” to dismiss the film out of hand.

However, that is to miss the point, which is that the film is political, following in the Russian Orthodox Church’s long tradition of legitimizing the Russian state. It is also a reflection of the feelings of the current Kremlin elites and a majority of the Russian population.

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Cliodynamics: Mathematizing History

One of the most interesting emerging sciences today, in my opinion, is cliodynamics. Their practitioners attempt to come to with mathematical models of history to explain “big history” – things like the rise of empires, social discontent, civil wars, and state collapse. To the casual observer history may appear to be chaotic and fathomless, devoid of any overreaching pattern or logic, and consequently the future is even more so (because “the past is all we have”).

This state of affairs, however, is slowly ebbing away. Of course, from the earliest times, civilizational theorists like Ibn Khaldun, Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee dreamed of rationalizing history, and their efforts were expounded upon by thinkers like Nikolai Kondratiev, Fernand Braudel, Joseph Schumpeter, and Heinz von Foerster. However, it is only with the newest crop of pioneers like Andrei Korotayev, Sergey Nefedov, and Peter Turchin that a true, rigorous mathematized history is coming into being – a discipline recently christened cliodynamics.

As an introduction to this fascinating area of research, I will summarize, review, and run an active commentary on one of the most comprehensive and theoretical books on cliodynamics: Introduction to Social Macrodynamics by Korotayev et al (it’s quite rare, as there’s only a single copy of it in the entire UC library system). The key insight is that world demographic / economic history can be modeled to a high degree of accuracy by just three basic trends: hyperbolic / exponential, cyclical, and stochastic.

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Book Review: Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs, and Steel

While trawling through my computer archives, I stumbled across this book review of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” from five years ago. Overall, it’s a great book, better than his follow-up “Collapse”, which is also interesting – especially in the psychological aspects of “collapse”, like creeping normalcy and “landscape amnesia” – but far from the best in the genre (that would be Tainter).

Diamond, Jared – Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997)
Category: world systems, history, anthropology; Rating: 5/5
Summary: Guns, Germs, and Steel (wiki)

Having finished reading this book in November 2004, I came away impressed by its success in compressing 13,000 years of human history into a lucid and compelling explanation of why the rate of socio-economic development varied so significantly on different continents, without resorting to culturalist or racialist arguments. Jared Diamond succeeds spectacularly at proving why Eurasia had become by 1500 AD (the dawn of “Europe’s assault on the world”) the world’s most technologically advanced continent, far ahead of sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas and Australasia. In the final chapter, he extends the analysis to question why, within Eurasia, it was Europe that decisively overtook apparently better-endowed competitors (primarily China) within the next four hundred years and proceeded to “remake the world in its own image”.

The underlying thesis in this work is that the environment is the primary shaper of human societies – hence the title of Chapter 2, “A Natural Experiment of History”. Connected with Diamond’s general aim of transforming human history into a scientific discipline, it explains how the Austronesians who populated the Polynesian islands, despite sharing common ancestors in Fujian, China, went on to produce remarkably different societies – agricultural and hunter-gatherer, technologically adept and primitive, oligarchic and egalitarian.

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The Deeper Meaning of Climategate

As someone who has stuck his neck out for the imminent reality of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) in both his real and online life, it would be fitting for me to comment on the Climatic Research Unit e-mail hacking incident (and as per usual, what was originally meant as a “comment” has blossomed into a long post). Anyhow, at least to me, the Climategate sage illustrates three things.

  1. Part of the “hockey stick” hypothesis – that pre-20th century global temperatures were essentially horizontal – is seriously challenged, perhaps sunk. However, contrary to denier rhetoric, the emails do not discredit AGW theory itself, nor do they lessen the magnitude of our current predicament, nor do they contain any hint of an overarching global conspiracy to enslave us under a green socialist NWO.
  2. Some academics form mafia-like cliques to promote themselves. Having many relatives and acquaintances who work in academia and have, at times, suffered from these cliques, these “revelations” are nothing new to me. Science stopped being purely about science ever since it evolved beyond the preserve of moneyed men with time to kill.
  3. It sheds far less light on the theory of AGW per se, than on some unsavory researchers and the AGW deniers (or “climate skeptics”) themselves. In particular, the ferocity with which the latter have latched on to the stolen emails as “proof” that AGW is a giant scam only testifies to their own paranoid desperation, but one that is disturbingly successful at swaying the public opinion. To the casual observer, this is further evidence for the intractability of our Limits to Growth dilemma; even “social capital”, i.e. the public’s tolerance for necessary but painful decisions, is growing short.

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