Book Review: The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017)

In this magnificent piece of historical sociology, the Austrian Stanford historian, Walter Scheidel, answers the question under what circumstances income and wealth inequality decline. His fascinating answer is that only so-called violent shocks in the form of (1) mass mobilization warfare, (2) political revolution, (3) state failure, and (4) lethal pandemics can effectively reduce inequality (p.6), while peaceful mechanisms like (1) economic growth, (2) democracy and (3) limited land reform have done nothing or little to reduce income inequality (p.9).

The historical basis for the growth of inequality are threefold: (1) surplus extraction from defensible resources (which presupposes a beyond-subsistence economy, i.e. agriculture or industry based, but also includes elements of coercion, debt peonage, extortive taxation, land confiscation, privatization of wealth), (2) transfer of that surplus to one’s descendants, (3) a regime in which private property claims become legitimate. That part of his analysis shall not be so controversial, yet the four violent shocks or “horsemen” (from Albrecht Durer) are more controversial and deserve greater scrutiny.

Before we discuss the political implications of his findings it might be worthwhile explaining why these four horsemen can reduce inequality.

War

War costs a lot of money, destroys a lot of property and elevates the political power of the popular (poor) masses as they serve in the military assembly lines as well as fighting in the war. All of that tends to reduce both the political as well as the economic power of the very rich. War is a time period, when the country has to mobilize substantial resources to carry out the war, which comes at the expense of the private civilian economy. States then raise taxation on the wealthy, as it becomes difficult to raise taxes on the beleaguered middle class and impossible to draw more taxes from the poor. It is possible to also borrow money from rich people, and that can make some rich people even richer, as has been the case with the Rothschild banker family, which made its first fortune in the Napoleonic Wars. But this is quite exceptional.

The destruction of property comes at the expense of those who have the most to lose, i.e. the rich. Especially in the past, most of measurable wealth was not tied up in the stock market (which would tank anyway if companies are invested in the civilian sector as more resources get drafted for the war effort), but in real estate and land, and to the extent that such property can get harmed by bomb raids or enemy invasion will also contribute to the diminution of the wealth of the rich, and thus result in declining wealth inequality.

Finally, the popular masses are drafted into the war, and when they come back, they do expect certain benefits to come their way, whether it be Japanese samurais or Roman legions who received land, or US veterans getting the GI bill after World War II. One could scarcely imagine what would happen to the legitimacy of the government if these warriors would not be given handouts. There is no doubt that such enforced redistribution of wealth can also lower inequality.

Scheidel uses the example of post-war Japan from 1945 as an example for massive changes to the political economy after its humiliating defeat. The emperor Hirohito narrowly escaped punishment and kept the throne, albeit no longer as absolute but as constitutional monarch. But as far as social structures are concerned everything was fair game for the American occupiers. Their rationale was that in order to prevent a fascist military regime from rising up again, the central landholding among a few feudal lords had to end, thus the post-war constitution included a provision to parcel out the land to small farmers.

Any peacetime Japanese government would never have contemplated such an extreme step, but given that the Americans had full control over national policymaking, there was nobody that could hinder them. Ironically, the US would never have contemplated such a land reform in their own country, though they have hiked the taxes on the rich to pay for their own war effort. In addition, the Americans pushed for legislation that would strengthen organized labor, such that Japan developed labor unions, when it hitherto had none. There were also early elements of social legislation. Each of these measures worked to reduce income and wealth inequality, which albeit higher today is still below what can be found in many other industrialized countries.

On the other side, the absence of war and mass mobilization as was the case in Latin America (Centeno 2002) can prevent the build-up of progressive taxation and a strong welfare state. Latin America experienced noticeable decline in inequality only after the 1990s upon the conclusion of various military dictatorships. Though the rise of left-wing governments has played a positive role in reducing inequality, which suggests that democratic development can mitigate inequality.

Revolution

This is an easy one and Scheidel only devotes 44 pages to it. Essentially, communist revolutions are about the eradication of private property, the collectivization of the means of production and the forced leveling of economic resources, which has been the experience in the Soviet Union, China and other communist sphere countries. Scheidel does point to the enormous destruction of livestock that went along with Soviet collectivization of agriculture and much unneeded suffering

State Collapse

If the state collapses, then social organization is hurled back to a less complex and more primitive state. There is less division of labor, less civilization and less cultural output. Such a development hurts the rich more than the poor, because the rich depend on revenue streams that become legitimated via the government. The government has the levers to redistribute income from the popular classes to the rich. Libertarians will now claim that if we had no government, then the rich would no longer be able to derive income via crony capitalism, but would have to work for it. Yet in a more primitive society without provisions for private property, it is not so clear how one could become rich. Most capitalist enterprises require strict provisions for private property, public security (i.e. no war), an educated and healthy workforce, and a public infrastructure, and these resources need to be mobilized by the state.

Scheidel uses the example of Somalia to show that the descent into anarchy after the toppling of the dictator was associated with a reduction in inequality, because there no longer were any corrupt elites who could appropriate national resources for their own benefit. That people had to suffer from a lack of development is another cost that had to be borne by the population, but it seems to be that the poor do not have much to lose regardless under which regime they live in.

Lethal Pandemics

A huge disease, which wipes out a substantial share of the population can reduce inequality in two ways: (1) the death of the old elite creates vacancies that can be filled by survivors resulting in upward social mobility; (2) the death of many more poor people results in a labor shortage, which raises the cost of maintaining serfs or laborers. Many more lords are facing ever fewer serfs. A lord is not a God-given title, but merely reflects the existing power balance in society. To the extent that serfs are fewer in number, they can easily switch their lord, and to keep the serfs on the land the lord had to lower rent or raise payment, each of which reduced the profit of the lord. This process results in less inequality. The key example is the Bubonic Plague in the 1350s, which some say has created the conditions by which the Enlightenment era and the Renaissance began. In any case, inequality was sharply reduced after the Plague and has crept back up again until the war-related upheavals of the 20th century.

While the Malthusian trap has been much maligned among some circles, it contains some validity, as a rising population is associated with more people being crowded in limited space, which then empowers the landlords, who tend to be few in number and can keep a tight leash on the toiling masses, who barely have enough land to sustain themselves. The Qing empire oversaw substantial population increases amid scarce land, such that people did not see any real wage gains even as more and more Chinese trekked overseas (including my ancestors) to escape the crowded conditions at home.

It should be noted that Europe still had regional variation in the relative power of the serfs. Western Europe generally granted more freedom to serfs to move around and find a better place to live, while Eastern Europe used force and suppression to ensure that serfs could not move, and under those circumstances inequality was not reduced.

Implications

So why is inequality increasing today? Scheidel does not offer unique answers in his conclusion except to restate the argument among economists. The most important claim comes from Thomas Piketty, who along with colleagues has been using cross-national tax data to show the extent to which income inequality has been rising over the last 150 years, and in most western countries since the 1970s. The 1940s were an exceptional period immediately after the end of World War II, where the aforementioned social and political forces leveled the income distribution with the creation of a permanent welfare state financed by progressive income taxes.

But the exceptional period has been ending with the rise of neoliberalism, which is essentially about allowing what Piketty considers to be the natural forces of capitalism to take hold and increase inequality. The natural forces of capitalism are summarized in the formula that r>g, where r is the rate of return on capital and g is economic growth. The postwar period is exceptional to the extent that economic growth was larger than the return on capital, which was undergirded by Keynesian investment policy, progressive taxation, labor-friendly policies, the expansion of the welfare state, national capital controls and stringent financial regulation. Neoliberalism is about removing these barriers to capital, thus returning us to the world of r>g.

To some extent, this rather clinical formula obscures the social relationship that Piketty undoubtedly intended to convey. r is controlled by the capital owners, i.e. the rich, while g is a diffuse force, but has the potential to benefit everybody especially in the form of employment creation, rising wages and social benefits. Thus, if r>g then income and wealth inequality are bound to increase.

This is certainly a strike against the liberal dream enunciated by Simon Kuznets, whose Kuznets curve conveys the S-shaped movement from low inequality- low development to high inequality-high development to lowinequality-high development. The first move is explained by the lack of political institutions to address inequality as development takes off. Think of Deng Xiaoping’s “let some get rich first” statement. Specifically, rural people move into the cities and work in factories enabled by greater technological inputs. Labor competition pushes down wages and guarantees higher profits for the owners. The second move follows as democratic capitalism matures and institutionalizes ways in which wealth gets more evenly distributed. This can happen via the welfare state or via the economists’ beloved market forces: more people accumulate human capital via education and can earn overall higher incomes, which compresses the income distribution.

The Kuznets curve has been soundly refuted, because Piketty notes that Kuznets made his pronouncements on inequality in the 1950s, precisely the moment when inequality in the most developed world had been lowered via changes in regulatory policy. The erroneous assumption is that the 1950s form the end of history. Secondly, Kuznets data analysis was overly focused on Latin America as opposed to other parts of the world, thus reducing the validity of his findings across different contexts. (For the cited literature on criticisms of the Kuznets curve read Wikipedia).

With respect to education, reducing inequality via the provision of more education is the economists’ pipe dream, which the historian Scheidel does not miss out on pointing out. “[T]he strong rise in top incomes is particularly hard to explain with reference to education.” Moreover if education were so important and people are not getting enough of it, we should have an under-educated population. Instead, there is “a growing mismatch in the United States between education and employment in that workers are increasingly overqualified for the work they do” (p.413). Yet education is the panacea that some economists and many politicians tout as if it would make a dent in inequality. As if education would right the wrong-headed ship of lower corporate and top income taxes, labor deregulation, automation and outsourcing of work, lower economic growth and quantitative easing for the banks.

The reason why education is touted as a solution to inequality is that such promotion transfers the responsibility of reducing inequality from the state to the individual, which is more strongly the case in the Anglican countries that addressed deindustrialization of the labor force with rising college attendance and student debt, while countries like Germany or Sweden still stick to the collectivization of education investments in the young generation. But education also does not require larger scale state interventions to mitigate the scale of inequality and retains the myth that meritocracy only breeds success as opposed to plain inheritance and the exploitation of the laboring class.

Returning back to Scheidel: does he have a credible case for the Four Horsemen? I think he has and the implications of that are rather disturbing. Bourgeois reformers will insist, however, that democratic elections and more economic development will ultimately mitigate inequality. But there is no strong evidence for this claim. The major point of neoliberalism, a term that is admittedly overused by its critics and not acknowledged by its supporters (e.g. Dunn 2016), is that it does not matter really which political party is in power as there is only one game in town, which has been especially depressing for the center-left, social democratic parties, who drew clientele from the beneficiaries of the expansive welfare state and the working class. They pass the same neoliberal policies that exacerbate inequality, each time with the reference to some outside force like globalization, technology or international competition that is tying their hands. Why would we want to tax the rich, who have their wealth in tax-shelter islands when they can escape us so easily (aside from the fact that these small island nations can easily be forced to submit tax records to other countries)?

In the very developed world, further economic growth becomes more and more difficult. China is still the world’s most dynamic economy, which can still accommodate many workers with substantial wage gains, yet the accelerated pace and pressure to complete the foreign infrastructure projects (One Belt, One Road) to export capital abroad, the diminishing returns on domestic infrastructure projects, the build-up of debt in local and provincial governments, as well as mounting political crackdowns on internal opposition shows that even China will have to recognize limits to its growth model. In the US, a growth that is made possible by the automation of work ensures that productivity gains are absorbed by Silicon Valley and its distant cousin on Wall Street (think of non-American equivalents in other parts of the world).

In developed countries the major concern is no longer how to generate additional economic growth, but how to find ways to redistribute these gains more broadly (while for instance countries in Africa need substantial economic growth simply because their populations are growing so rapidly). Our tech overlords, including Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, think that there will have to be a basic income, and we cannot dismiss their views as naive. Countless hours of productive labor have been shifted onto the social media platform, which generates billions and billions of dollars in real revenues for the social media platform without returning any material compensation for the users. We get to have social validation via likes and comments on the stupid cat videos we post, and that would suffice to motivate us to continue posting on the site, yet it does not mitigate the injustice of having one platform monopolize our time and monetize our action for their own benefit.

Tesla’s self-driving cars are not only targeting the driving industry (taxi, bus, rail, truck), but also the manufacturing of cars, which is the most robot intensive industry. The potential benefit of cheaper cars may be more than offset by the lack of employment creation in other sectors of the economy.

One area that is fabulously proliferating are the contract-based temp jobs, which are made feasible by the online marketplace (Uber, Airbnb, Mechanical Turk etc.). Given that there are so many workers looking for employment and that it is so easy to find some kind of work online, wages are kept continuously low, and politicians still feel little pressure to expand protective legislation on these online workers. Even if they found it worthwhile to improve the protection for these workers, in the absence of some major revolution I doubt that inequality can be tackled.

And that raises the final question: If we are to believe Scheidel in that we need a catastrophic event to sharply reduce inequality, should we hope for a war or pandemic to break out, for a genuine political revolution to happen (not of the Bernie Sanders type) to overthrow and reinvent the institutions of the state? Scheidel wisely does not answer this question, and he reserves his conclusion section to discuss commonsense middle of the road economic policy (e.g. progressive taxation, expansion of the welfare state). He does acknowledge, however, that “[r]eforms at the margins are unlikely to have a significant effect on current trends in the distribution of market income and wealth” (p.436). He then goes on to also refute the notion that we can have mass mobilization warfare, as advanced technology, especially nuclear weapons, deter mutually assured destruction, and the proliferating use of drones in warfare make personnel mobilization less desirable. But without mass mobilization there is no reason for leaders to involve their population and level the wealth distribution.

He also thinks that revolutions are unlikely to happen and state collapse is restricted to sub-Saharan Africa and some countries in the Middle East (e.g. Syria). Pandemics will only affect the less developed nations as the more developed nations will quickly work to isolate disease. In each case (no war, no disease, no revolution, no state failure), our life can remain relatively unperturbed by violent shocks, yet we are bound to see more headlines of increasing income and wealth inequality. I remember reading the first Oxfam study a few years ago, when 400 individuals own as much as half the world population, and now we are down to 8 people. There no longer is any shock effect with these numbers, but we know that wealth is getting more concentrated. The poorest people may not necessarily be getting worse off, but the wealthy are just making most of the gains, and there just aren’t any global institutions that can halt this trend.

It is this psychological pessimism and not the empirical accuracy which forms the greatest weakness in Scheidel’s work. I have previously reviewed works by Wolfgang Streeck (2014; 2017) and Claus Offe (2015), each of them brilliant welfare state/ capitalism/ political economy scholars in their own right. What the Germanic writers (Scheidel is Austrian) all seem to have in common is their Hegelian vision of the totality and the structuralist vision in their analyses. The captivating part about reading Karl Marx Capital was not the many British factory reports that he quoted, which demonstrated the plight of the working class toiling in the factories in the mid 19th century, but the exposition of the logic of the capitalist system as a whole.

While Scheidel’s scope of work is not nearly as ambitious as that of the other German theorists, he does attempt to answer big questions pertaining to inquiry in historical sociology and historically-grounded political economy. But as a Germanic structuralist, the activist reader feels like he/she has no agency and cannot do much to mitigate inequality. Even the moderate policy prescriptions that Scheidel advocates for may be considered tinkering around the margins. Inequality cannot be resolved easily, but the irony is that such condition justifies the advocacy of socialism, because there is no need for socialism in a very egalitarian society.

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Nigeria: A Country Profile

The media reports that Nigeria’s economy suffers from weak economic development, growing at 2.5% in 2017 instead of the 6% that it averaged until 2014, after which the global economic slowdown dragged down growth in Nigeria as well (FT 2017). The lack of diversity of exports (95% oil, mostly crude oil, while it has to import 187,400 barrels of refined petroleum a day, CIA Factbook), associated fall in oil prices, corruption, mismanagement of public resources, lack of infrastructure (out of 193,200 km roads only 28,980 km are paved), ineffective judicial system, insecure private property, lack of public investments, infectious diseases (HIV/AIDS most prominently, but also hepatitis, typhoid, malaria etc.), low literacy rate (59.6%), inadequate sanitation and drinking water facility, low life expectancy (53.4 years), a rapidly expanding population (2.4% in 2017; 186 million people in 2016, expected to grow to 392 million in 2050; already largest population in Africa, far ahead of 102 million in Ethiopia) all make economic development rather difficult. What follows is a country profile, which may be relevant for contemporary analysis. The review shows that Nigeria’s colonial history, regional economic inequality, inequality in vegetation, climate and natural resources, a rapidly increasing population, the weak and corrupt political institutions all play a role in preventing or slowing down national development.

Political History

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Source: Sites.Google; the spread of Bantu civilization in central and southern Africa

Nigeria (and current-day Cameroon) is the origin of Bantu civilization, which spread over much of central and southern Africa in migratory waves since 2,000 BCE. Other major African populations include the Pygmy and the Khoisan. The Bantus reached the Great Lakes of East Africa in 1000 BCE and South Africa by 300 AD. The distinguishing feature of the Bantus was not only their language, but also their herding and farming practice, which came to displace previous Neolithic hunting and foraging people. The Bantus also interacted with Arab people, whose influence still exists with Arabic loan-words in today’s Swahili language.

Nigeria is formed from many kingdoms and tribal states. The oldest known civilization is the Nok civilization in Northern Nigeria (500 BC to 200 AD), which currently is mostly dry and arid land, which suggests a different climate in the past. The next kingdom was that of the NRI of the Igbo people, which ruled from the 10th century until it surrendered sovereignty to Britain in 1911. The Yoruba people had the kingdoms of Ife and Oye in southwestern Nigeria, which rule from the 12th to 14th centuries. Edo’s Benin Empire controlled southwestern Nigeria from 15th to 19th centuries. At the beginning of the 19th century, a jihad that was led by Usman dan Fodio created the Fulani Empire, or Sokoto Caliphate.

The consolidation of empires also facilitated trade with other cities, especially in North Africa. The 16th century saw the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors land on the shores of Nigeria to carry out the Atlantic slave trade. This slave trade would not have been possible without the active cooperation of the Oyo Empire in the southwest of Nigeria, the Aro Confederacy in the southeast and the Sokoto Caliphate in the north. The British ultimately were responsible for ending slavery due to economic considerations (no longer as profitable with the disappearance of the US as part of the British colony Jamaica and Barbados slave-fueled sugar production declined; the industrial revolution increased demand for free labor) as well as moral condemnation from the public. The British subsequently stopped ships on ports that were loaded up with slaves, and transported these slaves to Freetown instead. In 1851, the British bombarded Lagos to replace the ruler with someone that was friendlier to the British, which began the formal colonization of the British via the moving inland from the coast. British colonial claims were confirmed by the other European powers during the 1885 Berlin Conference. In 1901, Nigeria was formally included as British protectorate in the British Empire.

Nigeria was merged over the course of the 19th century under British Colonial rule. An important pattern that emerged, however, was that Nigeria contained a division between Northern and Southern Protectorates as well as Lagos Colony. People in the south were on the coast and as such had enjoyed interactions with the west, much more so than the inland people in the north. For instance, some southern elite families sent their children to attend British universities. In terms of contemporary economic development, it is the southern, coastal provinces that are more developed than the north.

As opposed to direct rule (more common in French colonies), the British favored indirect rule using traditional chiefdoms as ally. Such indirect rule also consolidated the religious cleavage in Nigeria, as the British validated the pre-existing Islamic culture, while the more western-oriented southern provinces had many people convert to Christianity. Post WWII, an exhausted Britain withdrew while Nigerian nationalism forced the hands of the British. Along with many other African states, Nigeria became an independent country in 1960.

But independence meant civil war, which raged from 1967 to 1970. This was due to internal disunity, and is reminiscent to the disunity in India after the British departure in 1947, which resulted in the split between India (Hindu), Pakistan and what later became Bangladesh (both Muslim). Wherever the colonial masters ruled, they kept the peace via divide and conquer strategies and, if necessary, the brute force of the British military. But British departure implied a power vacuum, as it is not clear which faction shall take the reins of the central government. Had there been no colonial power, there would have been no amalgamation of multiple tribes in the same national entity. But the existence of Nigeria and other post-colonial states could not be wished away, and the local elites had every interest to become national elites to milk as much national resources for their own benefit. Though to be fair, in Nigeria rulers have come from different tribes, and even when a northerner ruled the presidency, it has not enriched the north or allowed it to catch up economically with the richer south (which suggests that corruption at the top is more important than tribalism in affecting social outcomes).

In Nigeria, three major factions had emerged: the Nigerian People’s Congress (northern Islamists, Hausa), the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (Christian, Igbo, southeast), and the Action Group (Yoruba, southwest). When a referendum resulted in the split of territory to Cameroon, the northern faction now became larger and stronger than the south. The resulting political tensions and perceived corruption induced Igbo (south) soldiers led by Emmanuel Ifeajuna and Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu to carry out a coup d’état, which killed the prime minister and the premier of the northern and western regions. A counter-coup in 1966 organized by Northern military officers overthrew the first military dictatorship. Igbos in the north faced persecution and fled to the east of the country, which then declared independence under the name Republic of Biafra. Nigeria then declared war on Biafra to reverse the secession. The Civil War had resulted in many deaths following warfare, disease and starvation. The British and Soviet Union backed Nigeria, while France backed Biafra. Biafra was ultimately defeated and national unity preserved.

The oil boom of the 1970s, corresponding to the oil price hikes in developed countries, and the discovery of massive oil reserves (earliest in the 1950s) made Nigeria an oil-dependent economy. The massive scale of corruption among government leaders (estimated to be 400 billion USD from 1960 to 2012) ensured that the standard of living of the population failed to improve, businesses could not succeed and public infrastructure was neglected. The failure of development subsequently consolidated the role of the federal government to distribute oil revenues generated by sale of oil abroad. Irresponsible government policy, declining oil prices as well as a permissive international loan environment created mounting international debt by the 1980s, which resulted in the IMF stipulating a Structural Adjustment program (SAP). Some economists claim that SAP has merely weakened the purchasing power of the domestic currency, thus lowering the domestic standard of living, while the encouragement of new bank creation has proliferated speculation instead of production and development. The lack of development means that the country cannot generate surplus revenues with which to reduce the budget deficit and debt. But the nation’s leaders don’t accept SAP because it could improve their economy, but rather to embezzle IMF loans and allow the country to further deteriorate (Ogbimi n.d.). The vast majority of Nigerian survey respondents had opposed the SAP policies of the mid-1980s (Nwagbara 2011). Only in 2006 did the country pay off its debt.

Since the Civil War there had been a short period of democratic governance (1979-1983), while the rest of the period was marked by military dictatorships. A democratic election, such as the one in 1979, generated discontent among military leaders, who would then come to overthrow this government and install the chief general as president. Examples of such military dictators include Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha. Democracy was not consolidated until 1999, after which the quality of the institutions improved, yet elections were still unfair. The first fair elections happened in 2011 with the election of Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian from the Ijaw ethnic group. Region, ethnicity and religion are salient to the extent that Christians live in the south, being subdivided into various tribes, while the north is Islamic, which includes the application of sharia law. The 2015 election was won by Muhammadu Buhari (northern Muslim from the Fulani tribe, the largest in Nigeria), who had ruled the country in the 1980s after a military coup (and was himself overthrown only 2 years later), but has since become a believer in democracy. To the extent, that democratic consolidation is rather recent and the political leadership consists of many former military generals, we cannot claim that Nigeria’s democratic institutions are stable.

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Source: Wikipedia; Nigeria’s 2011 presidential election results, green-shaded areas are votes for Goodluck Jonathan and red-shaded areas are votes for Muhammadu Buhari

 

Ethnic Groups

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Source: Nairaland Forum: Ethnicity and tribes in Nigeria, the most numerous are the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and the Igbo.

The three largest ethnicities are the Hausa, Igbo and the Yoruba, but there are over 500 ethnic groups, which means that Nigeria is a multinational state, which is kept together by the colonial language: English. The most flourishing economy is in the south-west in Yorubaland, which contains the former capital city Lagos.

 

Religion

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Source: Economist; Boko Haram carries out most of its attacks close to the border to Chad in the Northeast

A further cleavage emerges from religion. The northern half of the country is Muslim and the southern half is Christian. Among non-animist religions, Christianity and Islam are the most influential in Africa, whereby the cleavage runs from the Islamic north and the east Africa to Christian southern portion of western Africa, central and South Africa. The northeast had suffered from sectarian violence via Boko Haram, which has killed thousands of people and injured many others. In 2014, 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped in the Chibok kidnapping, and in April 2016, Fulani herdsmen murdered 500 individuals from the Christian village of Agatu. Among the various tribes, there are tendencies as well, because the Hausa ethnic group is 95% Muslim and 5% Christian, while the Igbos and Ijaws in the south and east are 98% Christian and 2% practicing traditional religions. Yoruba have a large Anglican population, while Igboland is mostly Roman Catholic and Edoss are Pentecostals. Most Nigerian Muslims are Sunnis.

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Source: Wikipedia; northern states in Nigeria practice Sharia law (green), the southern provinces are Christian

Sharia law is in effect in most provinces of northern Nigeria, which contains the Muslim population. Its penal code involves harsh sentences like amputation, lashing, stoning or long prison terms for offenses like alcohol consumption, homosexuality, infidelity and theft. Tribal religions facilitate other cruel practices such as branding children as witches resulting in their abandonment and abuse on the streets.

 

Topography, Geography, Climate

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Source: Abacityblog; Nigeria’s topography: noteworthy is the Niger river basin, which provides much of the fertile soil at the center of the country; the south faces the ocean and has had more contact with the west and seafaring nations, while the north is drier and landlocked; the densest population concentration is to be found along the coast

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Source: Wikipedia; The Niger River Basin: the cradle of West African civilization

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Source: Climatestotravel; precipitation map of Nigeria: the south is the wettest, while the northeast is the driest area

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Source: Researchgate; vegetation map: the very southern end of the country is wet and contains swamps and rain forests, while the center contains the drier savanna and the very northeast contains the driest sahel savanna

After having examined the social cleavages in Nigeria, it is also useful to consider its geography, which similarly involves a north-south division: The south is marked by the tropical rainforest with extensive rainfall. At the very south one can find a “salt water swamp”, to the north of it a “fresh water swamp” and to the north of that the rainforest. The Niger and Benue river valleys, which cut right across most of the country forms the basis of West African civilization, as the river supplies the crucial water for planting crops and supporting the vastly expansive population in Nigeria. The region between the far north and far south is the savannah, which contains more limited rainfall. The Sahel region in the very north has very little rain and contains some elements of the Sahara Desert. Among the driest section in the country is the northeast, which also has the most active Boko Haram forces that plot terrorist attacks across the country.

 

Population

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Source: Wikipedia; Population density in Nigeria

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Source: BBC; Nigeria is set to become the third biggest country in terms of population and unlike India and China is not expected to shrink by the end of the century, though population projections have to be taken with a grain of salt

Another factor to consider in Nigeria is the swelling population. Most people live in the major cities including Lagos, Abram-bra and Kano. The population is supposed to increase from 186 million in 2015 to 392 million in 2050 and perhaps even as much as more than 750 million by 2100, though one should be careful about population projections that go this far ahead, as the assumptions become less certain. If the current fertility rate is 5.6 in Nigeria in 2015, it is safe to assume to have a similar value in 2016, but not so much in 2100. The overall population trends are influenced by the mortality, birth and net migration rate. Evidently, the mortality rate is declining and the fertility rate stays high, though somewhat decreasing now. But this decrease in the fertility rate will only work to reduce population growth over the long term, while over the short term the large base of young men and women (especially women) ensures a steady growth of population.

Why is this population growth trend salient aside from the fact that Nigeria is already the most populous country? One may use the Malthusian trap claim, which posits that population growth outstrips food supply, resulting in mass starvation. Climate change is certainly putting pressure on the availability of fertile land, especially in countries like Nigeria. But in the present day, it is feasible to use food imports to make up for any gap in food supply. Indeed, the second largest Nigerian import it wheat accounting for 2.76% of all import expenditures. Thus, starvation is not the immediate sorrow, but the poor provision of a growing population certainly is. For people with aspiration it would be wise to move to Lagos, where much of the dynamic economic enterprises are, but it already has 21 million inhabitants, which make it among the biggest metropolis in the world with the attendant problems of infrastructure provision. And the movement toward urbanization is rather slow, as 78% of the people still engage in farming and out of the farming population only 15% are engaged in commercial farming, 35% in subsistence farming and the remaining half in a mixture of the two (NOI Polls 2016). Another route to escape the crowdedness of unwisely used resources (given rampant graft and corruption in the official sector) is to migrate abroad, producing a net emigration of 300,000 people, hardly enough to make a substantial dent in overall population figures. Nigeria does not have to fear mass immigration anytime soon.

Some people might say for ideological reasons that a growing population should be considered an asset. It is certainly true that the most advanced industrialized countries would do anything to increase the birth rate in their country, but such a thing cannot be legislated, especially because the fall in the birth rate has to do with social changes that are inextricably linked with modernity. The two most important ones are the rise in the overall standard of living, which increase the educational expectations and investments of parents, and the rising independent status of women, which makes them less interested in child-rearing and more in self-fulfillment. These are hardly social advances that any government would want to reverse. But these economic gains for the population and for women are hardly available in Nigeria. And what matters for a country’s success is not merely the large population, but also the effectiveness of the central administration to provide functioning services and infrastructure. India and China have about equivalent population but the latter has lifted six times more people out of poverty than the former, so when human resources and overall economic conditions are still too basic, there just aren’t enough economic opportunities to take care of such a huge population, let alone produce the required social progress to reduce the birth level.

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Source: Slideplayer: Urbanization in Nigeria is a contemporary process

Africa is the least urbanized continent, but has increased its share of urbanization over time. In West Africa urbanization has increased from 30 to 44% from 1990 to 2014, while in Nigeria it increased from 30 to 47%. Similar figures for 2014 in Europe are 73%, 80% in Latin America and 81% in North America (United Nations 2014). The gradual urbanization of Nigeria could mean improved access to services, but the overall weak qualities of political and social institutions could also imply continued squalor in the city, which would give credence to political extremism. To evaluate where Nigeria stands in development questions, I examine its economic output.

 

Nigeria’s Economy

Picture12

Source: Researchgate

Nigeria’s employment profile indicates that the country is still very rural and agricultural, but there is a marked trend of declining employment in agriculture, which suggests that there is economic transformation favoring the service sector. The country also employs fewer manufacturing workers. This might not mean deindustrialization necessarily as many western countries employ fewer workers but more machinery, which maintains the high value-added in manufacturing output. Yet, Nigeria’s manufacturing contribution as share of GDP had peaked as early as 1982 after which there was deindustrialization. Given that almost the entire exports are crude petroleum, and many imports are machinery, we can assume that Nigeria isn’t producing a lot of manufacturing goods by itself. A few industries like beverages, textiles, cement and tobacco still remain, and they are concentrated in Lagos, Kano and Kaduna (Proshareng n.d. ).

Picture13

Source: FAO; Infrastructure provision in Nigeria is rather poor

The country’s overall infrastructure is still poorly set up with express roads still being rather short, making the connections among the cities difficult. It stands to reason that the conflict potential and the diversity of languages and cultural traditions are reinforced by weak transport infrastructure.

Picture14

Source: Wikipedia: Map of economic activity

Industries, as in many other countries, are concentrated in some areas, such as tin mines at the center and coalmines in the southeast. With regard to agriculture, the north contains peanut and cotton farms, while the south produces cocoa and palm oil.

Picture15

Source: FAO

The economic divide between north and south is evident in the agricultural crop production, which tends to be concentrated in the south of the country.

Picture16

Source: Eternian.Wordpress; Oil field map: all of the oil fields are in the south coast

Since oil makes up 95% of all exports, it is paramount to analyze where the oil fields are. All the oil fields are in the south coast, which also produces a bad environment and health problems because of the damage from oil spills. Should the country ever break apart, the northern provinces could be even worse off than they are now. One reason for the insufficient economic development in Nigeria is the overreliance on oil exports, which don’t help them at times of low oil prices.

Picture17

Source: Economist

The scale of industrial production has a bearing on the overall economic output in various regions. Even though the entire country is poor by developed country standards, the southern provinces along the cost are relatively the wealthiest, and this especially applies to Lagos ($4,333 in 2014). The northern, landlocked areas remain rather poor. The North is also the hotbed of Boko Haram’s terror attacks. Money does not count for everything, and in this case misguided religious ideology plays a role too, but there is a correlation between the GDP of poor areas and the frequency of terror attacks. There are some fiscal transfers from the south to the north to mitigate social discontent, yet corruption also prevents funds from going through. In the mean time, Boko Haram attacks slow down production in an already struggling region, resulting in food prices to increase (Caulderwood 2014).

 

Education and Health

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Source: BBC

Regional economic inequality is also reflected in important social indicators like vaccination, which is more thorough in the more developed south than the north.

Picture19

Source: Wikipedia

Another indicator for social progress is the female literacy rate, which is the highest in the south and west, somewhat lower at the center and the east and the lowest in the northern areas.

 

Conclusion

I conclude that Nigeria’s colonial history, regional economic inequality, inequality in vegetation, climate and natural resources, a rapidly increasing population, the weak and corrupt political institutions all play a role in preventing or slowing down national development, as well as aiding the cause of terrorists.

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India and China: A Conflict Defused, A Special Relationship

We cannot know for sure whether India and China have finally ended their conflict over the fragile land border in Doklam/ Donglang. The most recent announcement on the 28th of August is that the border dispute between China and Bhutan, with the latter being backed up by India, had been resolved and the Chinese and Indian troops on the border would be withdrawn. How did this conflict begin?

On June 16, 2017 Chinese troops began to build a road southward in Doklam, a territory both claimed by Bhutan and China. Bhutan saw this move as a provocation and requested Indian support to halt the road building. 2 days later 270 Indian troops with weapons and bulldozers entered Doklam, thus halting Chinese roadbuilding efforts.

China says that Doklam belongs to China because the 1890 Convention of Calcutta between China and Britain states that Mount Gipmochi is the tri-junction point between Bhutan, India and China, thus China would be entitled to occupy Doklam, which was to the northeast of Mount Gipmochi, including Zompelri ridge. Bhutan, however, insists that the tri-junction point is further up north at Batang La, which is where the actual locus of political and territorial control is prior to the present border conflict. China had built a road from Sinchela into the Doka La (Doklam) pass in 2005, which had not created diplomatic row even as it was built on disputed territory. But a further planned southward extension this year had sparked the conflict.

Doklam1

Source: Wikipedia

Because of the history of disputed territories, Bhutan had signed a treaty with India, handing over military and diplomatic affairs to the more powerful neighbor to the south, as the Chinese made large claims on Bhutan’s territory. Multiple rounds of diplomatic talks from 1984 onward tried to resolve outstanding boundary issues, and there were agreements in 1988 and 1998 to the effect of mandating each side to pursue peaceful means to resolve border disputes.

India did not claim Doklam, but supports Bhutan’s territorial claims. On June 29, Bhutan protested to the Chinese government about the road construction. Subsequently, the Chinese foreign ministry insisted on the 1890 Convention of Calcutta and published a map to buttress the claim of China and asserting that Indian troops were violating Chinese sovereignty by stepping into Doklam.

Doklam2.png

Source: Wikipedia

A day later, the Indian foreign ministry released the statement that China was violating the 2012 understanding of the governments to not change the status quo of territorial control. The next weeks throughout the summer saw repeated verbal exchanges between the Indian and Chinese administrations, though most of the commentary came from China, and can be read on the respective Wikipedia article (“2017 China India Border Standoff”) for reference. Only on August 28, was the dispute finally resolved. China and India both agreed to withdraw their troops to the territory of control prior to the road-building effort and China ceased its plan to build the road. It certainly was not worth it to risk a war over this piece of land.

A further investigation of the history of bilateral relations between India and China reveals  that this is not the first time that the two countries had clashed. They are two behemoths by population size and are separated by the Himalayas, the tallest mountain range in the world. It is not surprising, therefore, that two very different civilizations had emerged on each side of the Himalayas with different language, culture and even skin tone. For more details on the history of bilateral relations, I recommend the Wikipedia article on China-India relations. After having three major border clashes (1962, 1967, 1987), both sides still dispute Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh.

Doklam3.png

Source: Wikipedia, University of Texas Library

But despite these political, natural and cultural barriers, there are still historically strong links between the two countries. An interesting quote cements this long-term history of bilateral relations:

India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border.

— Hu Shih, quoted in Consolation of Mind (2004). by H. K. Suhas, p. 111

What this quote implies is the spread of Buddhism, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, alchemy, music, incense clock, chess from India to China. Trade relations began to appear from the 2nd century BCE onward within the context of the Silk Road. Thus it is fair to say that Chinese civilization had benefited substantially from Indian influence. The older and more mature civilization was in India, though it is all the more ironic that currently it is China’s economic development and human development that proceeds at a faster pace than in India, where political institutions are less effective and fragmentation is larger. This is evident in the language diversity, which exist on both sides of the Himalayas, but the Chinese central government had been more successful in promoting a national dialect. The one-child policy in China also proves the ability of its central administration to dictate population policy in a way that is not feasible in India.

Another point of mutual contact was migration. There are currently over 15,000 Indian nationals in China, though some would say it is as much as 48,000. Many are students, traders and professionals in MNCs, Indian companies and banks. Many Indians had also moved to Macao and Hong Kong due to their colonial past and the use of the English and Portuguese language in these areas. (English recruited Indian laborers to Hong Kong.)

But the flow in the other direction is also quite substantial, at least historically. There are an estimated 4,000 Chinese Indians in 2014 (ethnic Chinese with Indian nationality) and 5-7,000 Chinese expatriates. But in the past there were over 20,000. The first recorded Chinese settler in India was Tong Achew, a trader in the 1780s. He brought along with him a few Chinese workers to build a sugar factory south of Calcutta in Achipur. When he died soon thereafter the workers had moved to Calcutta to find jobs there in what was then already a British colony (since 1772). Amazingly, some Chinese still go to Achipur to pay homage to Achew at his grave (see here). Another recorded Chinese in Calcutta was Yang Tai Chow, who had arrived in 1778.

According to Ellen Oxfeld’s (1993) study of the Hakka Chinese in Calcutta, there were three primary groups of Chinese, who had left to migrate to Calcutta: the Hubeinese dentists, the Cantonese carpenters and the Hakka tannery owners. Thus, there was a division of labor in the Calcutta economy. My family is among the Hakka tannery owners. Leather production was an interesting industry, because even though it was in high demand, the upper-case Hindus refused to lead these companies (too dirty, not respectable enough), while lower caste Indians could work there, but not lead the companies, so the profit-oriented Chinese became the tannery owners.

There might still be photos of my uncle somewhere wearing a soiled white shirt after having worked the raw hide. Before tanning, the hide is unhaired, degreased, desalted (removing any remaining flesh and fat) and soaked in water for up to two days. Tanning uses tannin, an acidic chemical compound, which is needed to make the leather durable and stretched. The problem emerges when the chemicals are dumped into the groundwater, which then affects all of the water supply in the region as the dirty and carcinogenic chemicals are distributed via the river.

Doklam4

Source: Business-Humanrights; More photos can be found in Guardian (2014)

Environmental concerns resulted in the Calcutta government declaring leather tanneries to be illegal in the current vicinity and they had to pack up and move to a new location further away. As I hear from family stories, my uncle had been forced to move his tannery to the new location and was not compensated for it, though a report indicates that the “state government is providing financial incentives to tanneries that are relocating and …will start production at Calcutta Leather Complex. The incentives include capital investment subsidy, employment generation subsidy, remission of stamp-duty and registration fees” (WBIDC 2010). As of 2014, residents continued to complain about the air and water pollution caused by the tanneries (Das and Das 2014). More than one billion gallons of raw sewage and industrial effluent enter the river Ganges everyday. With 500 tanneries, Calcutta handles about a quarter of the nation’s tanning and more than half of the country’s leather export, and thus continues to be an important local employer and generator of economic value.

Doklam5.jpg

Source: New Yorker

Another group of Chinese were convicts from the Straits settlements (Malaysia and Singapore), who were sent to the prison in Madras. The British colonial masters had done something similar to their own criminal convicts, who were sent to Australia. Among the Chinese convicts in Madras, there were reported cases of prisoner escapes/ Those who were released from jail continued to live in India, became farmers and settled in the Nilgiri Mountains where they married Tamil women, as there were no Chinese women along with them, thus producing mixed Chinese-Tamil offspring. Another group involved Chinese migrants to Assam, which is physically the closest to China. The Chinese men again took Indian women as wives and produced offspring, which could hardly be deemed Chinese, when the government rounded them up after the Sino-Indian War of 1962.

Political upheaval in China (Opium Wars, Sino-Japanese War and Boxer Rebellion) and largely unlimited immigration ensured a continued stream of Chinese immigrants. But the 1962 Sino-Indian War ended the tolerant policy. The Indian government had passed the Defence of India Act after the war, which resulted in the apprehension and detention of people suspected of “hostile origin”, i.e. ethnic Chinese. 10,000 Chinese were detained and imprisoned in Rajasthan province, far away from their homes in Calcutta and other parts of India. The government had suspected these Chinese were spies for the enemy, even though there never was due process or evidence for these allegations. In 1964, many internees were deported, breaking up many families. Others were released in 1965 as costs for imprisonment mounted even as the Chinese were forced to find ways to feed themselves. The last internees were released in 1967. The Chinese were still considered enemies and had their movement restricted. They had to report to police stations once a month and had to apply for special travel permits until the mid-1990s. In 1998, the Indian government finally granted naturalized Indian citizenship to the ethnic Chinese.

Not surprisingly, most Chinese had left and see no future for themselves in India. Oxfeld noted in her research that a large number of Indian Chinese had moved to Toronto, Canada, and this is the location where 80% of my known relatives live. There are very few relatives left in India, some have gone to Taiwan, Australia, Austria, Sweden and the US, but most have gone to Canada, which has the most permissive immigration laws. Often it is sufficient to have one person in the family immigrate, who can then sponsor all the other relatives to migrate as well.

Despite the long history of bilateral conflict among the two most populous countries in the world, India and China also had an extensive history of exchange of ideas, beliefs, practices, material goods and people. The relative weight of both countries will continue to force both countries to cooperate with each other and prevent mutual conflicts. The price of failure is high. The fate and well-being of the remaining Chinese in India and the many Indians in China will also depend on the political calculations of the governments on each side.

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The Austrian Electoral Map

With the ascendancy of Sebastian Kurz to chairman of the Austrian People’s Party (OVP) the political calculation in the Alpine Republic shifted in favor of the OVP, which had languished in the polls in the third place behind the SPO and the FPO. One would think that the perennial cost of being the junior partner in the coalition government is to be relegated to a remote place in the polls, but why does Kurz make such a big difference in the polls, now pushing down the FPO, which became big with the frustration over the lack of alternatives in the grand coalition.

Austrian_Opinion_Polling,_30_Day_Moving_Average,_2013-2017

The first observation would be that appointing a new party chairman generally will result in a bump in the polls. In May 2016, Werner Faymann, SPO chancellor, stepped down and was replaced by Christian Kern, and this resulted in the SPO bump in the polls and set back the OVP further. It was clear that the OVP chairman and vice chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner could not lead the party himself into the elections, so he wisely stepped down in May 2017. He was then replaced by Sebastian Kurz, the 30 year old foreign minister, the youngest party chairman so far.

If he does not make any major mistakes, he will end up with about a third of the electorate support and become the next chancellor. The most likely coalition partner is the FPO, while the SPO might return back into the opposition. Back in 2000, when the OVP entered a coalition government with the Haider-led FPO it resulted in political sanctions against Austria, but today right wing parties are more powerful than in the past, even in the other European countries, such that sanctions are unlikely this time.

But what is the secret behind Kurz’ popularity? It surely can’t simply be his youth and his vigor, though he is selling himself as a new leader with new powers to control the party list and appoint many people, who have never run for the OVP ticket, thus standing for innovation, which many voters might support. It also can’t be his political promises, which on most issues are quite conventional, such as the intention to reduce spending on administrative staff, tax cuts for the wealthy and big companies and reductions in social spending. In fact, these promises are quite unpopular in Austria and would provoke much resistance and protest if he were to carry out these promises.

No, Kurz’ success story comes from his pandering to the right-wing, which partly explains the decline of electoral support for the FPO. When Kern became chancellor, the added SPO support came mostly from the NEOs and the Greens, which tend to be more liberal and left-wing on policies, but the FPO remained quite stable, but with Kurz as OVP chairman, the FPO is losing electoral support to the OVP. Pandering to the right-wing primarily means that Kurz sells himself as a more respectable bourgeois version of an anti-immigrant, anti-refugee leader, thus mobilizing a significant share of the domestic voter base, who blame their economic uncertainty on immigrants.

Kurz had a very promising political career, having dropped out of his legal studies at university and concentrating on politics. He was the chairman of the JVP, the youth wing of the OVP, relatively the least influential of all the associations that make up the OVP. But this position had allowed him to get elected to the Viennese municipal council in 2010. A year later, the federal government had negotiated the creation of the integration state secretary in the hope that a new ministry could help immigrants adjust to new life in Austria, which was urgently necessary as the foreign born population hit 15% and integration of immigrants became an ever-bigger concern in a country that was used to much less migration and most of it from culturally close countries like those from the former Habsburg empire.

In this new role, Kurz discovered that by being rhetorically tough on immigrants, placing high standards such as the fast acquisition of German skills or the attraction of high-skill immigrants, he could become a popular politician, while at the same time being able to funnel votes from the FPO to the OVP. The FPO had become the biggest party in the polls, so it was urgently necessary to do something about the “foreigner problem”, and it would best be dealt with by adopting some of the language of the right-wing FPO. Kurz would never go overboard, and emphasize the possibility of integration, but the larger burden would be on the immigrants, which would be in line with what many FPO voters wanted.

But as long as someone else led the party, the OVP could not attract any more voters. The 2013 election saw another grand coalition government and created a vacancy in the foreign ministry, which was handed over to Kurz, who became the youngest foreign minister in the world at age 27. Austria is a lightweight in foreign affairs, so it wasn’t a particularly influential post, but Kurz was able to keep a high profile in domestic politics as integration minister as well, where he continued to take a sharper tone against immigrants, some of whom apparently refused to integrate into Austrian society.

The real game changer was the refugee wave into Europe, which became the most intense in 2015, where 90,000 refugees entered Austria. In most years, Austria accepted about 10,000 refugees, which was still more than most other countries of comparable size, but was still quite manageable. But that year, the Syrian refugees in the camps of Turkey and Lebanon saw their chance to stream across to Greece and the Balkan route to enter central Europe, the most desirable destinations. While the refugee crisis was the straw that break chancellor Faymann’s back (even his own party comrades booed him out during the May 1 parade), Kurz could ensure his continued popularity by arguing in favor of closing the Balkan route, which would stop the Syrian refugee wave. In addition to Syrian refugees, there were many Somalis, Pakistanis and Afghans as well, who saw the opportunity to get to Europe too. As there were so many countries that could send their surplus populations abroad, the absorption capacity of Austria was exceeded, and something needed to be done to end the flow of refugees.

The Austrian people saw in Kurz someone, who could talk sense. Without being a neo-Nazi he would confirm the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee and chauvinist impulses of the Austrian people, which became more urgent after what many perceived to be the mishandling of the refugee crisis, where many political leaders had become too permissive after opening the land borders.

Some countries that are in outlying regions like Greece or Italy are in the unenviable position to have to receive hundreds of thousands of refugees by boat, and it would be unacceptable to let the refugees drown in the Mediterranean. But Kurz also advocated the position to increase funds to strengthen the outlying EU borders to prevent a further flow of refugees. Refugees in Turkey shall also receive direct financial assistance to deter them from moving onto Europe.

Over the long term there is no reason to believe that the refugee wave will stop. There are three very undesirable developments to which no politician in the world has an effective response: (1) war, convulsion, retaliation, violence in the Islamic Middle East, (2) climate change, which makes much of the Middle East and Africa even less desirable to live in (e.g. droughts destroy food crops and make drinking water scarce), (3) continued population growth especially in sub-Saharan Africa, putting pressure on the food supply and encouraging further out-migration. It is entirely laughable for any politician to claim to solve these problems.

But in the mean time, Kurz is able to capitalize on the security needs of the Austrian population and steals crucial voters from the hitherto strongest party, the right-wing FPO. If the electoral map does not change fundamentally due to a mistake on either side, Kurz will definitely become chancellor. (The Silberstein affair in the SPO certainly did not help their electoral fortune. Silberstein was an SPO campaign advisor, who was imprisoned by Israeli authorities for graft and corruption charges. He was subsequently fired by the SPO, but the scandal still sticks around the party.)

People are willing to listen to a fresh voice, but with the exception of the anti-immigrant, security rhetoric I doubt that Kurz is a strong, innovative leader. His speeches are not very captivating, and his TV interview performances don’t distinguish him from other politicians, who are used to give evasive answers to avoid the strict scrutiny of the journalists.

The innovation in the political spectrum in the next election is that Team Stronach is getting dissolved, as their leader Robert Lugar switches side to join his former party FPO. These are protest voters that get dispersed to other parties or stop voting altogether. The Greens have switched their party chair. Eva Glawischnig resigned and was replaced by Ingrid Felipe as party chair and Ulrike Lunacek as leading candidate. Felipe is the deputy governor of the province of Tyrol and Lunacek has been vice president of the EU parliament. As such she is not well known within Austria, and lacks the charisma to appeal to a larger voter base. On the contrary, they are losing voters to a former Green parliamentarian, Peter Pilz, who founded his own party. The Greens have to blame themselves as they wanted to force Pilz into retirement after over 30 years of serving in the Austrian parliament. Pilz still wanted to serve in office, leading his Eurofighter investigative commission to point out graft and corruption in Austrian politics, so he founded his own party to run in the next elections.

In the polls, Pilz takes about 5% of voters, while the Greens are down to 7% from over 10% they had in the last election. There is a liberal-left voter base in Austria, but it is no more than 35-40% of the voter base, which leaves a comfortable majority for OVP, FPO. It is also so splintered as SPO and Green tend toward social- economic equality, while Neos are more classical liberal. Pilz is sympathetic to the Green position except on security and immigration, where he is also sympathetic to the right-wing.

In any case, the fragmented left creates a situation, where only three parties are likely to have a shot at government: SPO, OVP, FPO, whereby FPO is the kingmaker in the two combinations with either the SPO or OVP. The SPO has greater internal resistance against a coalition with the FPO, though there are party wings such as in Burgenland that have an active governing coalition with the FPO. Vienna’s SPO opposes the coalition with the FPO, but SPO party chair and chancellor Kern is somewhere in the middle and finds preserving political power more important than blind adherence to principle. In any case, OVP-FPO coalition is made more likely by the similarity on security issues as well as economic policy, while the SPO welfare state agenda is likely opposed by the other parties.

There is still a chance that SPO and OVP will continue the grand coalition, but given that the OVP will likely have more votes, the OVP will regain the chancellorship. But it would be rather weird. The political impasse is that since 2006, the country has had three elections and each time emerged another grand coalition government. It would, however, be discredited. The irony is that any other party in power would mean the same-old system, which suggests that major issues like demographic aging, lower economic growth, higher unemployment, more precarious employment and rising immigrant population are trends that no government can genuinely solve. Durchwusteln (muddle through) is what the Austrians can do best.

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North Korean Woes and the US

It is not so much that Kim Jong-un and his North Korean regime stand at the precipice of deploying their nuclear weapons that cause heightened anxiety among people all over the world, but the fact that the US has the brain of a toddler in the highest political office. Donald Trump’s rash impulsiveness had catapulted him into political office, as his supporters were thinking that he would finally deliver on political changes that the spin-doctored rival candidates would not even dare to think about.

But in foreign policy such rash impulsiveness could be enormously dangerous, as when Trump responded to the nuclear test in North Korea by promising “fire and fury” to rain down on the paranoid regime in Pyongyang. This was in response to Kim’s announcement to want to strike US territory at Guam, where the US has a military base.

Luckily the conflict could be contained, primarily thanks to China’s intervention. China being the only reliable ally left for North Korea has declared that if North Korea were to strike the US first, and the US retaliated, China would not intervene to help North Korea as it did during the hot phase of the Korean War in the 1950s. Only if the US struck first would China respond with intervention. In that case, World War III would rain down on us and we could be wiped off the face of the earth.

Kim, as crazy as he might appear, could read the signs and called off the threats of confrontation. The reason why North Korea had now dissipated from the headlines is because we have had a new string of terrorist attacks in Europe, then the racist attacker in Charlottesville, Virginia, and all of a sudden our news focus shifted to Trump supporting white supremacists, a concerning yet unsurprising trend by itself.

But where are we really going with North Korea? Is there a possibility that we could get into another war with this country? Trump recently rolled out his Afghanistan strategy, which is basically an increase in US troop size, thus tying the country further down in the Middle Eastern morass. There is no political stability in Afghanistan whatsoever, as the Islamic State and various Taliban groups continue to control large parts of the country, thus nullifying any efforts of so-called “liberation” by the US since 2001. Afghanistan could mean that attention is diverted from North Korea.

But given the mental instability of Kim as well as Trump, as exemplified by their duel of words, we might be back onto war path, which is rather concerning to say the least. For Collins (2017) the solution lies in integrating North Korea into the western consumption model, which would require western investments in the country as well as flooding it with cheap mass consumer goods. Some people would say that capitalism requires wars, but the opposite is just as true, namely that greater economic integration makes wars much less palatable, for businesspeople relying on commerce need peace. The mass consumer goods could dilute the heightened tension by transforming the politically brainwashed masses (Kim family over all!) into economically brainwashed masses (the I-Phone 8 will finally make me happy!). The continued political and economic isolation of North Korea, however, create the Stockholm syndrome, whereby the masses get whipped up by the leader, who promises strength and unity against the foreign hostility.

China is by no means a politically liberal regime, but the economic opening has resulted in a rise in overall living standards as well as an overarching lack of appetite for warfare. Among a certain segment of the Chinese population there is a great desire to learn English and study in the US or another western university. For these individuals, a military conflict with the US is undesired. But given that there are barely any North Koreans living abroad (if we count out the defectors that live in South Korea or China), there is no such emotional barrier to supporting a war-hungry leader to fight the US.

In any case, this economic integration strategy of North Korea would probably take some time to realize, but the very short term requires a return to the negotiating table, and that would require some minimal trust among the top leaders in the US and North Korea. One would wonder how different the world would be if there would be more capable people running foreign relations in both countries. We all remember the photo where Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon encountered each other to begin bilateral relations between China and the US, but the real impetus behind the Sino-US relations was the work of Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai. We need such capable people in the current period.

Left: Premier Zhou Enlai with National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. Right: Chairman Mao Zedong encounters President Richard Nixon.

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Pillars of Sexual Attraction

We have all encountered physically attractive people and it is much easier to pay attention to these people than other kinds of individuals that lack such attractive features. In this post, I identify the pillars of sexual attraction, which I think is applicable for both genders.

Look in the eyes: 

The attractive person will look into one’s eyes at great intensity and without many interruptions and breaks. There is some gender distinction as women tend to look at other people’s eyes longer regardless of whether there is any emotional attraction, while for the men an eye lockdown is usually a serious indicator of interest.

Smile:

The simplest non-verbal action is a smile, as it ensures that the person receiving the smile gets positive attention. A smile can come in a variety of ways and can sometimes be fake when it only engages movement around the lips, but a natural smile will engage the eyes as well as the mouth.

Proximity:

Physical closeness indicates trust in that person, and we would only want to be close to a person if we are really interested in that person.

Touch: 

An occasional touch also indicates interest. Among couples during the early phases of a relationship the touches become more frequent and involve more intimate body regions. Aside from sex, kiss forms a natural form of indication of attraction. A less intrusive form is the holding of hands.

Enthusiasm:

Enthusiasm is an emotion, which may be communicated in word or non-verbally (smile, touch). It can only be transmitted during a face-to-face encounter.

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How Brain Cancer Saved the Lives of Millions of Americans

At this point the US political system has become so absurd and so much dominated by oligarchic politics that only fortune’s strike on a Republican senator, John McCain, led to the demise of the disastrous health care bill brought before the Senate. I am not celebrating McCain’s brain disease and personally wish him the best in his recovery efforts, but do find it ironic that he became the crucial vote to avert the Republican health care bill. Was his brain cancer making him have the sympathy for the more than 20 million Americans that were immediately going to have their insurance coverage terminated (and their lives endangered) upon passage of the Republican health care bill after realizing that he got great insurance coverage from the government to have his brain cancer treated? We cannot know for sure, because we lack the counterfactual of how McCain would have voted without illness.

We should first discuss what the Republican bill (American Health Care Act or AHCA) contains. From what we know of the bill that passed the House, it forms a repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which contains several important pillars. (1) Repeal of the individual mandate, which removes fines on individuals not obtaining health insurance, which could destabilize the existing insurance markets, where many loss-making insurers had already decided to withdraw leaving individuals purchasing their plans on the exchange not able to obtain any insurance. (2) Insurance companies are still prohibited from charging customers more for pre-existing conditions but only if insurance had not “lapsed” for more than 30 days in a year. (3) Eliminate income-based subsidies and replace them with the far less generous age based insurance subsidies ($2000 for young people and $4000 for older people, considering that medical bills are way higher than that). (4) Repeal all taxes associated with the ACA, including tax surcharges on high-income earners amounting to nearly 600 billion dollars in tax savings (i.e. redistribution of income back to the upper 1% of earners). (5) Introduce state waivers, i.e. allow states to repeal any provision of the ACA as they see fit. (6) Convert Medicaid into a block-grant program. Thus, instead of guaranteeing a certain percentage of a state’s Medicaid costs to be funded by the federal government, the federal government would instead pay a fixed amount proportionate to the number of residents to the state’s Medicaid program, which would result in substantial cost savings for the federal government. But this also means either substantial cost burdens for states or for Medicaid recipients, who are left holding the bag after allocated Medicaid funds run out.

While all these provisions in the AHCA sound very complex the intention is very simple: (1) cut more than 20 million people with current insurance from the rolls, (2) increase the cost burden on individuals and families to obtain their own insurance coverage and cover their medical expenses even if they can’t afford it, (3) massively slash taxes on the wealthy, whose lifestyle will not change an iota after adding these tax benefits to their cozy bank accounts.

It is no surprise that most American people are opposed to the AHCA, and so are most of the greedy insurance providers, but also doctors and health care providers. Who would thus favor such a draconian social policy reversal? We should not underestimate the role of the Koch brothers and other wealthy donors, who want to repeal every social legislation and transfer these public program funds into the coffers of the billionaire class that cannot care less about rising political instability resulting from their endless greed.

It has become common knowledge that this billionaire class controls virtually the entire political class (except some odd figures like the widely popular Bernie Sanders from Vermont), which includes Democrats and Republicans. But there are some notable partisan differences. The Democrats are an internally split party that want to please the big donors on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Big Pharma and law firms at the same time as they want to win the support of the little guy but without exploding the public budget deficit. How does that become feasible? Via identity politics. Hillary Clinton’s campaign generated the lackluster support among some segments of the urban, middle class voter base by appealing to LGBT, minority and women’s rights. These are certainly worthy causes, but they don’t replace the bread-and-butter issues that Sanders was consistently stronger on than Clinton.

With the Republican agenda, it is hard to discern any sympathy for the little guy. There used to be a time when Republicans would make the effort to involve the little guy, and the Tea Party was such a faint attempt, closely mobilizing diffuse anger against political and economic elites mixed with racial hatred against the first black president. But these days, serious Republican presidential contenders and candidates for Senate and House races have become the employees (or paid shills) of the powerful Koch brother network of donors, as they have to pitch their crazy right-wing ideas in the Koch fundraising events.

Republicans tended to dominate the electoral map since 2010 mainly by evading political arousal and mass mobilization. They did that largely by actively suppressing the vote via voter ID requirements (that do nothing to stop fake voting, but do stop Democratic-leaning poorer and minority constituencies less likely to own government IDs from voting), redrawing the political districts in a way to maximize their number of seats, also known as gerrymandering, and keeping all political details of their agenda behind closed doors with as few hearings and public inquiries as possible. More recently, the Republicans are proposing to defund the Congressional Budget Office, which assesses the economic implications of government policies and pointed out the number of people that would lose health insurance as a result of repealing the ACA. If people don’t know how much they are harmed, how should they complain about it?

It is, therefore, not surprising that there will scarcely be anybody who would want to vote for the Republicans unless, of course, it was for the tradition of always voting Republican. But then Donald Trump came along and changed the game of US politics. Hitherto the establishment Queen Hillary thought that she had a safe passageway to the presidency. It wasn’t so much that Trump had any better ideas than the other Republican candidates. In fact, some of these plans were even worse and made no sense, such as building a wall across the US-Mexican border when the net migration of Mexicans had actually become negative or canceling trade agreements on which the US economy depended. It shall be no surprise that the crazy parts of his agenda had not been carried out, as his fellow plutocrats also opposed these measures.

Trump successfully appealed to the white working class that had been left in the gutter by politicians in both parties. They were sold on Trump because he spoke differently and more “honestly” than other politicians, who spin doctored their oratory on every campaign trail event, while Trump spoke off-the-cuff, incoherently and with repetitive, simple language to the entertainment of the masses, who were intent to vote against the establishment as opposed to the fluffy “hope” and “change” that Obama did not deliver 8 year prior. However, Trump is mostly show with very little political substance. That is also clear in the current health care debate where he angrily tweets against anybody opposing the health care bill even as he does not actually know what is in it. As long as there is a health care bill on his desk he will sign it, no matter how many people it will hurt.

And that makes Trump as nefarious if not more so than the other Republican politicians, who are intent to “deconstruct the administrative state” as per Steve Bannon, Trump’s White House adviser. This is a code word for plundering the state assets to benefit the rich and harm everyone else. With an outwardly respectable politician like Jeb Bush or John Kasich, the political discourse might have revolved more around the policy content, which could actually hinder the passage of the nefarious agenda as people wake up to the negative implications on their lives and resist it. But with the erratic and narcissist Trump the corporate media becomes obsessed with any nonsense that comes out of the president’s mouth, while the Republican donors and their employees called elected representatives in Congress are working overtime to carry out their right-wing agenda behind closed doors.

Methods of public resistance against the Trump administration largely remain ineffective, especially in the absence of another major economic crisis. The last major anti-establishment convulsion happened with the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was a direct response to the outgrowth of many years of neoliberal policy which combines the growth of low-wage and insecure work with rising private debt (home purchase, health care and student loans), growing wealth and income inequality and government transfer policies benefiting the very rich and the financial sector. But it was also made possible by the outrage against the Wall Street bailout and the major financial crisis. It is the apparent improvement in the labor market, which seems to quiet overall dissent, even as people are not much safer economically as the underlying economic challenges persist.

Now, what about the health care bill process? The House had passed the AHCA back in May with the aforementioned provisions. The Republican Senate leadership under Mitch McConnell wanted to copy and paste the House resolution to bring forward a vote. The Republicans have 52 senators to 48 for Democrats, but 2 Republicans, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, oppose the AHCA because they did not want to face the electoral backlash for ripping health insurance from their constituents. All Democrats oppose the AHCA (subsequently called American Health Care Freedom Act), so the vote to get a vote scheduled passed narrowly with 51-50, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the tie-break. But from then on, Republican efforts to pass their bill went downhill. The house bill had been opposed by 7 more Republican senators, which was thus killed with 43-57.

The Republican leadership then brought forward a second “skinny” bill, which would only repeal the individual and employer mandate while defunding Planned Parenthood and allowing states to opt out of ACA provisions. Taxes and subsidies and other provisions in the insurance market would remain in place, but repealing the mandate will undermine the insurance market, because healthy people will opt out of insurance and not bear the burden of paying for the sicker population, the precise point of obtaining insurance. The skinny bill brought some of the Republican senators back to the support side, but Murkowski, Collins and all Democrats would still oppose the skinny bill. But McCain also did not switch sides. In his speech, he pushed for bipartisan cooperation to get a health care bill passed. On his left eye brow, you can see the surgery cut as he is still recovering from an unfolding brain cancer treatment. Whether he would have voted the other way if he were healthy, we cannot say for sure, but on that day the disastrous AHCA was killed 49-51, but the Republicans might still find a way to pass it later.

There is no doubt that the AHCA is disastrous, but so is the ACA. The ACA is merely an improvement to the previous health care system, where patients’ treatment could have their insurance claims denied because they have preexisting conditions. But the key weakness of the ACA is now becoming apparent, especially as the current administration attacks its pillars by signaling that they refuse to subsidize loss-making insurance providers, who take on a sicker population.

Free market fundamentalists argue that we have to introduce more market elements into the health insurance system in order to bring costs down, but these people fail to mention that such a free market produces perverse outcomes. A so-called free market would firstly create unequal access to health care, whereby poor and sick populations would regularly be priced out of the market. Secondly, the inevitable creation of multiple tier insurance pools would segregate healthy and younger populations from sicker and older populations, as the former cluster in low premium, high deductible plans and the latter in high premium, low deductible plans. The lack of healthy people in the latter pool would drive up costs, such that premiums would continue increasing, which pushes even more healthy people out of the sick insurance pool. This death spiral of the insurance pool will push up the uninsured rate, which is known as adverse selection.

The way how you solve this problem is by a single-payer health care system, which would combine the entire population in the same insurance pool, thus allowing the government to charge all people the same proportion of their income to fund the common health care system. Single-payer would also eliminate the inefficient and profit-hungry insurance system, and limit health provider and drug costs through central bargaining of medical prices.

People think that America is incapable of providing common insurance to all people, yet Medicaid and Medicare that has existed for more than 50 years now already provides the government infrastructure upon which any single-payer system would be based. The problem is of a political nature, as most people would benefit from a single-payer system, but are unlikely to all be activists for reform, while the sick might want to be activists but are too few and probably too concerned about their disease to demand political reform. The prime culprits and beneficiaries of the system (insurance, hospitals and pharmaceuticals) have the most resources to influence the system, but don’t want any changes. The only thing that makes me hopeful is the dialectic process, by which as things get worse and problems can no longer be denied, some change will eventually happen.

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