Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Feminism, re-elections, and religion

In April the ex-leader of the communist party in Sweden, together with a few friends, declared that they had started what was probably going to become a feminist party. What the women in this “feminist initiative” have in common is that they all have leftist, if not downright socialist political views. Relative to the general public, the feminists in a given country sit quite a bit further to the left politically. This means that only a few feminists n the world have actually gotten a seat in government. In Sweden, however, the communist party has cooperated with the government and gained significantly in power in the last decade. The fact that the Swedish government has cooperated with communists not only in budget negotiations, but also defence is another matter that will be dealt with later.

What is interesting about the situation in Sweden is that the feminists, through the communist party, has been able to affect the general policy. The effect that this power has had is quite interesting, because there is none. This in itself is what the feminist party about to form is about: changing nothing. The reason is as simple as it is cynical: in any political system, people that get elected on one issue alone will seek to maintain status quo, because if they actually solved the issue, they would find themselves out of a job.

In the case of Swedish feminism this has essentially been proven by the very people who are now seeking to be elected. The argument that they present is that “things aren’t changing” or “things aren’t changing fast enough”. What they are actually saying, however, is “in the ten years that we had the power to change things, no change took place”. Such an argument is typical for politics, not just in democratically defunct Sweden. Hearing politicians of all sizes and colors seeking re-election because “there is still so much to do” or “we haven’t even begun to make the changes we want to make” is almost as sad as seeing them actually get re-elected.

What politicians should do is to learn from the masters of power: religious leaders. Staying in power, despite any incompetence in actually achieving ones goals, lies in changing the goals themselves. For a religious leader this is a very simple task: if the goals are achieved, they can simply declare that God has spoken to them and set up new goals. If the past goals haven’t been reached, you simple declare that God is pleased with the progress, and has decided to reward the people with new goals.

The problem for feminists is that they have chosen a finite path – after a certain level of equality has been reached, there is nothing more to do. This is why feminists who come to power will inevitably want to change things just slow enough for them to be able to retire before they became obsolete. Since setting the pace is very difficult, most of them will choose no make sure that there are no changes at all. In contrast to the feminists, the environmentalists have chosen a much smarter area. As soon as an environmental disaster is avoided, it is simply a matter of choosing another when declaring the end of the world.

All that’s left now is for all the one-issue-people, who only care about equality, rabbits, or abortion etc, is to choose what kind of representative they want: one that doesn’t actually want to change anything, or one that actually does, but is harder to get rid of once they’ve worn out their welcome.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Busy, Busy, Busy

Although there doesn't seem to be that many reading this blog - at least not if one looks at the number of responses - I feel I should apologize for the lack of content since February. The reason is that I've been quite busy writing my master thesis, hopefully I will have more time when the summer vacation starts. As always, the easiest way to keep up to date is to use RSS-feeds, the link (Site Feed) is below the archive to the right, i.e., your other left.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Social Welfare in Sweden

Currently there is a big debate on the exploitations of the Swedish welfare systems. For those who don’t know about the social welfare system in Sweden I will simply say that it is very, very generous. In fact it is so generous that a study recently showed that 90 % of women actually loose money by working compared to being on sick-leave.

The problem, that most politicians don’t seem to be aware of, is that you will always have injustices. There are two kinds; injustice to individuals, and injustice to society. An example of the former is when an innocent person is sent to jail. An example of injustice to society is when a guilty person is set free. These are usually referred to as “false positive” and “false negative”.

The problem with this situation is that the only way to reduce both kinds of errors is to make better decisions. Any attempt to reduce only one of the injustices automatically increases the other kind. What has happened in Sweden is that we have gone to such lengths at making sure that all individuals that deserve welfare also get it that the injustice to society is really quite huge. Different figures have been mentioned in the debate, but somewhere between 0.5 and 5 % of the budget seem likely. However, since there is a serious lack of control, nobody really knows.

To make the problem even bigger, there has been a big taboo against talking about this cheating of the welfare system. This taboo has arisen because “the ruling party” in Sweden, the Social Democrats, have as a policy to present themselves as the most humane of the serious political parties. Therefore they can’t get away with lowering the benefits and getting tougher on the cheaters without loosing votes. Since they have been in power 64 of the past 73 years, they have also built a huge voter base among the governmentally employed and those enjoying social welfare benefits. This is why they have proposed higher taxes in the country that already has the highest taxes in the western world, instead of dealing with the problem.

The major problem for the Social Democrats isn’t just loosing votes; it is accepting the truth about people. You can never expect people to do more or less than what is rational – if it’s rational to cheat the welfare system, people will. If one refuses to realise this, and accept that one has to design policy accordingly everyone loses. Since society is quite a bit less personal, and it’s harder to get jobs, people are more inclined to exploit the systems than they were just a few decades ago. However, since the Social Democrats have always based policy on some notion of the goodness of man, accepting reality is harder that for any other political party (here I don’t include the environmental fascists and the communists, despite the fact that they got 4.6 and 8.3 percent respectively in the last election).

Reforming the Swedish mentality and welfare systems is at the heart of the election in 2006, if a major change doesn’t take place soon a major economic collapse is likely in the following 10-20 years. Given that people will on average behave rationally, the problem never lies with the people when a system is exploited – it lies with the system. This is a fundamental truth that the needs to be realised either by the people, or the Social Democrats. Personally I’m certain that the former is more likely.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Peer-to-peer file-sharing.

Let’s first start with some history and economy that will give the reader an idea of just how absurd some aspects of this issue are.

In the early 20th century, when the gramophone started to become a household item, some artist started to worry that people would stay at home listening instead of going to concerts. They therefore felt that their entire profession might be threatened. As we all know, the exact opposite happened; music, even live such, became more popular than ever, making the artist richer than ever.

Shortly after the gramophone came the radio. The first programs consisted mainly of talk radio mixed with music. When the newly born music industry realised that people could listen to the music for free instead of buying the records they reacted just as the artists had to the gramophone. Together with the artist, they basically proclaimed their own death. Again, as we all know, this did not happen, in fact the exact same thing happened: music became more popular, more records were sold, and everyone made more money.

Some time after radio became popular, the first tape recorders started to appear. To this fearsome new technology, which allowed people to copy their gramophone records and the music on the radio, the music industry reacted in a way I think most readers can predict by now…

Obviously there seems to be a pattern to the history of technology vs. the entertainment industry – technology which invariably has increased the profit of both those industries. Here is a short list of some of the most terrifying technology ever created: the gramophone, the radio, TV, VCR, BetaMax, and CD. Today’s beasts also go by terrifying combinations of letters: mp3, P2P, DivX – cue thunder and lightning, will you please.

For the readers who are still not convinced that the death of the entertainment industry isn’t coming up on us faster than you can cry “wolf”, I’ll explain some very basic economic principles. Economy can be studied from many different perspectives, on a macro level, however, some principles are elevated to tautologies, below I list the two most important.

1. The customer is always right.

We’ve all heard this expression, most people, however, probably haven’t quite realized what it means. First let’s see what is meant by “customer”, this term refers not just to people who buy the product, but also everyone who would like to buy the product at some price. This means that the people who are illegally downloading music and other copyrighted material, are also right. The implication of this is that the companies are providing the right product, because people want it, but the customers aren’t willing to pay for it.

A common misconception about the people, who illegally download music, is that they want free music. There are certainly people who want that, since they couldn’t afford to buy the product at any price – those people, however, wouldn’t be customers even if the internet shut down tomorrow. The vast majority of downloaders, who would be willing to pay, choose not to do so because of price. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that music, as the music industry provides it, simply is too expensive. This also goes for the other industries that are affected by illegal downloading.

2. If there is a demand, there will be a supply.

This is probably the hardest principle for people to accept, personally I believe this comes from the democratic principles that our society is built on – if there is something we don’t like, we have the power to stop it. Obviously this would make the principle harder to accept the more power one has, which most likely is why politicians seem completely incapable of it.

One example of how this rule works is drugs and the “war” against them. Because of this principle, the war against drugs can only be won at home, or through economic incentives to the suppliers. This means that the US will have to either decrease the demand for drugs at home, or pay the farmers of coca not to grow it. The only other alternative thankfully isn’t available to democracies; namely to summarily execute everyone involved in making or distributing drugs.

The relation between this principle and the illegal downloading of copyrighted material lies in the first rule; if there is demand for cheaper music, it will be provided. Just as for the US government, the only solutions available are to affect the popular opinion or to provide economic incentives. The problem for the music industry, and soon the movie industry, is that they’ve pretty much burned their bridges when it comes to getting sympathy for their cause, the reason is of course the heavy-handed way in which they’ve treated their customers. Therefore the only solutions to the problem are to lower the prices, or to provide more value, such as discounts for concert tickets for those who own the artist’s records.

By now I hope it is clear that file-sharing and illegal downloading is little more than an economic reaction to the badly priced products that the entertainment industry and the software industry are selling.

An argument the music industry often brings up is that for every big selling record there are ten badly selling ones. In order to counter this you need to perform market research, something that the internet is perfect for. If, for instance, the music industry wants to improve its profit per album they can create a freely available database of artist where people can register their own bands and upload their own songs, if a certain artist becomes popular they get to make an album.

Above I mention the software industry, being a computer scientist I would like to take this opportunity to criticize the pricing of software. According to rough estimates, something like 70% of the code in software products are reused from the previous generation of the product. This means that for every generation the customers are asked to pay for less. This follows from that the older the code is, the better it will have been tested and therefore requires less maintenance. This is clearly not a sustainable cycle, and should be broken before open source programs become too popular for a change to have the desired effect.

Conclusively, the industries I’ve mentioned in this post should be careful about how they act; the fact that they’ve been able to keep too high prices suggests a lack of competition. While competition might seem threatening, it is ultimately a form of cooperation, without which no one in the market gets the necessary information on whether they need to improve their efficiency or not.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The War in Iraq

There are several ways to view the United States’ and Great Britain’s nearly duolateral war on Iraq. The most commonly reported in European media is that the attack was uncalled for and violated the UN’s peoples’ right. The main question about the war, however, is why it was started. Below I give the five most prominent of the possible reasons.

1. The Bush administration wanted to get their hands on Iraqi oil.

Although this is a view quite widely held by the more anti-American people, it is a highly uninformed and overly cynical view. In order for it to become clear that, more or less literally, fuelling the US economy wasn’t the real reason for the war, one only needs look at the cost of the war. The current deficit, in part created by the war in Iraq, is a serous threat to the US dollar as a reserve currency; The Economist has a great article on this. This means that whatever short-term economic gain American business will experience through the rebuilding of Iraq is miniscule to the risk that the deficit puts the entire economy at. (Another reason for the US deficit are the badly planned tax cuts by Mr. Bush, this will be a subject for a later time, however.)

2. Messrs. Bush and Blair believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

This is a fully viable option, not least because the first UN inspection team found an immense amount of chemical weapons material, and the second inspections found nothing – not even evidence of the destruction of such material. In further defence of an attack based on suspicions of violations of the UN sanctions; the first UN inspectors were figuratively thrown out of the country – something that should have started a war, but NATO was busy in the Balkans at the time, an operation, which by the way, wasn’t supported by the UN either (Russia used its veto right in the security council).

3. The war was started to liberate the people of Iraq.

This, unfortunately, is an unlikely reason to go to war. Cynics would say that the US only liberates people who live in countries of interest, such as Kuwait. Although it is certainly true that NATO could act more often to try and stabilise, e.g., a lot of African countries, soldiers swear an oath to protect their own country, not others. Although this may seem callous, there would most certainly be fewer people willing to serve in the military if they thought they might be sent of and die for something they don’t believe in. The UN has peace-keeping forces for precisely this purpose, although there are way too few of them.

4. Intelligence suggested that Iraq had a connection to Al-Qaeda.

Saddam Hussein did have a connection to terrorists; he supported the families of suicide bombers in Israel. He did, however, not have a reason to cooperate with Al-Qaeda, not least because his government was secular and Al-Qaeda is a devotedly religious organisation. It is also doubtful whether Mr. Bin Laden would have trusted Mr. Hussein with information about Al-Qaeda operatives. Osama Bin Laden was trained by the CIA to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, given such a background in guerrilla warfare, he most likely decided early on to organise his terror network in a similar way. That’s why Al-Qaeda is made up of small cells operating independently around the world, a system that benefit from minimal contact with bigger organisations like the Iraqi or Iranian government.

5. The war is part of a greater plan for the Middle East.

This, in my opinion, is the most important, if not the most probable, motive behind the war. From this standpoint the war may in fact turn out to be a strategic masterpiece. Iraq is situated in the middle of this highly unstable region, it therefore provides an opportunity to project force in the entire region. What most people don’t realise is that Iraq also sits on the most precious commodity in the region; fresh water, in the form of two rivers. This combined with the fact that the Iraqi people is quite secular compared to the other countries in the region, and that they hardly could be worse of than under Saddam’s rule, presents a golden opportunity to spread democracy and American goodwill in the region. Also, during the transitional faze between the fall of Mr. Hussein’s government and the establishing of law and order, terrorists from the entire Middle East would flock to the country in order to attack American soldiers. Although this certainly causes a lot of grief for the families of the soldiers, it does serve to reduce the amount of terrorists that will try to attack civilians in the US and Europe – something that the soldiers actually did sign up for.

There is, however, a problem for Messrs. Bush and Blair with this reason for the war, namely the explanation they gave for going to war (a combination of No. 2 and No. 4). The problem is whether is acceptable to send soldiers into harms way, without telling them why they’re being sent. This is a quite philosophical question, especially since telling the world that you’re going to try and reform the Middle East would be seen as exceptionally arrogant and might cause ill will in the region. Thereby if the troops had been told the truth about why they were sent, that goal may have been made unachievable – making soldiers die for nothing rather than an untruth.

First Post!

Yes! I got first post; I don't think that has ever happened before. Seems cheating isn't overrated after all...

The main topic for this blog is, as can be deducted from the title, is politics. I will especially focus on broad issues, and not get stuck in commenting on every current issue that comes along.
Since I don't have a lot of time right now, I will make my first serious post in the following couple of days. The topic I've decided upon is the war in Iraq, specifically why it may not be such a bad thing as most of my fellow Europeans believe.