Sunday, January 30, 2011

Easy but important reading: "Founding Myths" by Ray Raphael

Who was Sam Adams? According to Ray Raphael, "Sam" Adams is only a myth, loosely based on a man named Samuel Adams who was one of many activists involved in organizing resistance to British rule in Boston. Raphael traces the development of this myth, including the origins of the name "Sam", and how Adams came to be credited with masterminding the resistance to British rule. Throughout, he evaluates the ideological basis of the myth, and how it contrasts with the reality of Massachusetts politics at the time.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in American history, the American Revolution, or political revolutions in general. The book is interesting for a couple of reasons, yet still an easier read than most history books. Raphael revisits several familiar stories from the American Revolution, but uniquely emphasizes the role of "regular people", which is often overlooked in mainstream histories that focus on the men who held high offices in the government. Aside from providing a different perspective on the Revolution, Raphael uses these stories as case studies to illustrate how history is written -- or perhaps, how myths are made. For each of these stories, Raphael starts off by describing the oft-repeated myth, and then describing how it is wrong, why he believes that it is wrong, and how other historians got it wrong in the first place.

While the scholarship is impressive, this is not a dry academic work; as the subtitle makes clear, Raphael has an ideological agenda. He clearly states that he is interested in emphasizing the hyper-democracy of the revolutionary era, and tearing down the elitist stories concocted by later writers. While I happen to sympathize with his ideological aims, I often feel that his ideological assertions are heavy handed and that he is being unfair to the people that he disagrees with. While this could get irritating, I don't think that it detracts from the serious scholarship.

Despite being a serious book, it is still easy to read. In part this is due to Raphael's writing style, but moreso to the structure of the book. Each chapter discusses a different "myth", so it is easy to put it down for a week, and then resume with the next chapter. Also, most Americans are familiar with the basic stories, and should not have any trouble remembering the context for the issues being discussed.

My only qualification to recommending this book is that this is not an introduction to American history or the Revolutionary war. It assumes that the reader is familiar with the basic geography and politics of the Revolutionary era.

"Anarchy" in Cairo

Reports from Cairo indicate that state authority has collapsed, except for a military presence at a few strategic locations (reports NPR). The police have fled, prisons have emptied, and shops have been looted. Citizens are forming neighborhood defense squads. Apparently, this prevents people from protesting, but it seems that the protests have served their purpose (eliminating the Mubarak government) and the revolution has entered into a second stage.

Sunday is a business day in Egypt, but shops are largely closed in Cairo. The NPR reporter suggested that this is mainly due to security concerns. However, another thought occurred to me: do they have a currency anymore? I'd like to know what has happened to the Egyptian currency. A government-issued currency typically becomes worthless when that government is on the verge of collapse. However, I've seen little indication that that the Egyptian protesters are pushing for the type of revolution that would nullify the currency -- many of them seem to simply want Mubarak to leave.

So this period of "anarchy" is unlikely to last long, since the Egyptian people probably are not anarchists. As with many revolutions, this one may quickly degenerate into a civil war among various statist factions, each seeking to dominate the entire society.

  • Rising food prices (i.e. inflation of a sort) may have been the trigger for these protests.
  • As of Friday, the Egyptian pound was falling on international exchanges, as were other currencies in the Middle East. Likewise, the credit rating of the Egyptian state had been downgraded. Egyptian banks are closed due to the protests (by government order, I believe).
  • Fun Facts from Wikipedia: this all started on "National Police Day".

John Robb at Global Guerrillas reports rumors of police being involved in the looting, and speculates about the use of looting as a counter-insurgency strategy. Tip to Reason.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Networked justice

In the 18th century, Thomas Paine argued that the structure of an agrarian society demanded a particular notion of justice relating to the use of land -- what he called "Agrarian Justice". His basic idea was that for us to live as free persons, we must have a set of rights that allows us to survive as a full participant in the economic system of our society. I'm thinking that it is time for us to reconsider our list of basic rights, due to our increasing reliance on networked computer systems. Perhaps this would be called "networked justice".

The basic problem is that most Americans rely on markets for almost everything -- even our most basic and immediate needs. We don't grow our own food, or even stock more than we would eat in a week; instead, we make regular trips to the grocery store. But we don't even make direct payments to the grocer anymore; instead, we rely on a bank to debit our account and credit the grocer's account. This reliance on intermediaries for all of our commercial transactions creates a serious danger arising from the risk of being cut off. As our institutions become increasingly dispersed, and we exchange money with people all over the planet, we become increasingly reliant on other people's computer networks, such as those owned by banks.

As we have seen with the recent Wikileaks drama, the risk of being cut off is real. Accounts can be shut down on the flimsiest pretense, even without formal criminal charges. This type of attack on a person would have been impossible a few decades ago, since it is essentially equivalent to convincing everyone in a community to refuse to sell anything to a person. In today's cashless society, this boycott can be enforced with the cooperation of only a handful of companies.

It isn't only limited to bank accounts. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation has repeatedly warned, we are even more vulnerable to similar attacks on our ability to communicate. We increasingly rely on internet service providers or hosting services to communicate with our far-flung associates, yet all of this can be cut off on the basis of nothing more than suspicion of copyright infringement.

I can see three ways out of this. None of them is totally satisfying, so all three probably deserve some attention. One option is legal reform, which would protect service providers from pressure to cut off services from clients in the absence of a criminal conviction, or at least an indictment. The second is to establish alternative institutions, where services are provided by a distributed network of our peers. The goal here is to create electronic cash-like systems for commerce, and word-of-mouth like systems for communication. Many dedicated activists are working to build systems that provide basic social services on a mutual-aid model, but there remain substantial technical and organizational hurdles, not to mention the fact that they are competing with the state-subsidized establishment. The last option is live lifestyles that are less sensitive to the disruption of services. This can only take us so far before the economic costs become too large, but Americans are complacently disinterested in economic self-sufficiency. That is, we are disinterested until we lose our jobs or are struck by a natural disaster which cuts off services -- by which point it is too late.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Investment law, Facebook, and Goldman Sachs

What would you think of a government that:
  1. Reserved certain investment opportunities for a select class of citizens, and
  2. Prohibited the investment banks involved in the deals from talking to newspapers about such deals?
Would it be any worse if these special investment opportunities were explicitly restricted to wealthy citizens? Would you wonder why the rich get richer while the middle class fades away? Is the restriction on talking to reporters a violation of press freedom, and is it meant to keep the general populace ignorant of these special privileges granted to an elite few?

Well, as everyone is finally learning, this is exactly the situation in the USA. The recent buzz about the Goldman-Sachs/Facebook deal, and its retraction, has put this law on the front page of newspapers across the countries. Of course, the oddity of this situation will be explained away with paternalistic comments about protecting "average investors" from risky investments. Who knows what's really going through the heads of the people who established and enforce this law... I don't have the time to figure it out. But it is odd.