Freedom of speech and fundamentalism

A fictional exchange of ideas about a touchy subject
You get it or you don't

You get it or you don’t

So, this freedom of speech thing is pretty complicated, don’t you think?

Yep, it is.

But as barbaric as the Charlie Hebdo attacks were, you don’t think the reaction in the West was a little hypocritical?

Yes. Perhaps the people on the street were being honest but certainly not the politicians. That (staged) picture of all of them walking together in support of the marches in Paris was a good photo op but a bunch of them have shoddy records in supporting freedom of speech in their own countries.

And even the ones who are democratic, tend to be allied to governments that are disgustingly repressive. Is there a major Western nation that does not make it national policy to kiss ass with the Saudis? The US and the UK are the most egregious example, but even Hollande was quick to fly to Riyadh when King Abdullah died.

And they seem to have no shame about it, which is the worst. It’s this in-your-face discarding of the very things they so passionately seem to defend that is the most insulting. And nobody seems to challenge them about it either, which is the worst part. All of this is done with the excuse of national security coming into play.

But now, back to the freedom of speech part, can we at least agree on a definition of what we should be permitted to say and we can’t? Because let’s be honest, some of those cartoons were blatantly insulting. Not just to Muslims but probably to most people of Arab descent, even if they were not religious.

Yes but they were equal opportunity offenders. They didn’t spare Jews, Catholics, anyone. And what we saw were some of the more outrageous covers, but the fact of the matter is that their primary targets were French politicians, not religions. Right-wing politicians to be precise. If we can’t ridicule a religious belief, why do we tolerate political insults? Discrimination on political grounds is as valid from an international legal perspective as religious grounds.

That would be the end of satire as we know it.

Indeed, which is why we agree that religion should be fair play too. And certainly we can agree that nobody, under any circumstance, should ever be killed for something he/she believes in. Continue reading

2014: The year it sucked to be a right-wing economist

Still think inequality is a good thing in the post-Piketty world?
Comment ça se dit, "slap in the face"?

Comment ça se dit, “slap in the face”?

Are you believer in the free market fundamentalist school of economic theory? If you are, then 2014 must have been a crap year. The main reason was the publication in English on what has now turned to be one of the seminal works of economics of our generation: Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Let’s understand the magnitude of this. A French economist, yes French, wrote a 700-page monolith of a tome in one of the most mind-numbingly boring subjects known to humankind and turned it into a New York Times bestseller. Presumably many of the thousands of people who bought Piketty’s book probably have never bought, much less read, an economics book in their lifetime. Maybe they didn’t even read it from start to finish (this blogger must confess, he has neither bought it nor read it) but, hey, it’s the thought that counts.

L’enfant terrible of economics

I cannot emphasize enough the he’s French bit. If there’s any country whose economic intelligentsia has been vilified by the Ivy League-bred doges of the economics profession, it is France. Yes, there’s a handful of world-renowned French economists like former IMF chief economist Oliver Blanchard and this year’s Nobel Laureate Jean Tirole, but for the most part these have comfortably fit into the “system”, and only challenged it at the margins, if at all. Certainty none of them has launched the kind of broadside that Piketty did in Capital, a book which uncovers free market capitalism’s ugly face: that of a system which naturally gravitates towards the accumulation of wealth by the owners of capital. Rather than see the two most recent periods of massive rises in global inequality (the so-called “guilded ages” before the 1929 and 2008 crashes) as oddities, Piketty has painted them as the baseline: the social-democratic golden age in the post-WW2 decades is in fact, a one-off, in which the trauma of war forced Western governments to redistribute wealth to a degree that had never been done before or since. Continue reading

The greatest aviation duels in history

Forget Top Gun, here's the best combat rivalries from World War I to today
Spitfire versus Messerschmitt in the skies above Britain

Spitfire versus Messerschmitt in the skies above Britain

Aviation has captured the imagination of humanity since the Wright brothers took to the skies for the first time in 1903. But like every other great human invention, it would not take long before some military use would be found for it. When World War I began in 1914 most air forces consisted of a few scouts, but by the time it ended in 1918 the air arsenals of the great powers would be composed of thousands of fighters and bombers. World War II would see air power reach its full maturity; the war would see the first battle waged entirely in the skies (the Battle of Britain), thousand-bomber raids over Europe, the first jets, and most ominously, the dropping of an atomic bomb by an aircraft. Air technology expanded by leaps and bounds during the Cold War as each of the two superpowers strove to achieve a technological edge over its rival. By the end of the 20th Century, air technology would finally make it possible for a war to be won by air power alone, as shown by the 1991 Gulf War in which a US-led air armada laid waste to Saddam Hussein’s vaunted armies, which had once been considered the fourth most powerful in the world.

Despite the destructive nature of air power, it has nevertheless been romanticized throughout the years as evidenced by the glamorous image of the fighter pilot. So much that the US Navy set up recruitment booths outside movie theaters following the success of Top Gun back in 1984! But Tom Cruise’s heroics on the silver screen pales in comparison to reality. So without further ado, here are the 10 most legendary true air combat rivalries in history. Continue reading

The madness of Black Friday

It's not an Americanism. It's the inequality, stupid
UK or US? Can't tell the difference

Could be either side of the Atlantic

There are few things as ‘Merican than apple pie… and the mayhem known as Black Friday. On this day, which just happens to be the day after families are reunited for a homely turkey dinner during the celebration known as Thanksgiving, we see the spirit of kindness and sharing break down into an orgiastic shopping fury for the bargain of the year. Time after time we see the videos showing a complete breakdown of society as soon as the doors to Walmart and Best Buy open at the stroke of midnight, in what could easily be filmed as a sequence for The Walking Dead or some other zombie apocalypse movie. Decent Americans hang their head in shame at the sight of this insanity being showcased to the rest of the world, while foreigners look with a sense of smug relief: hey, we may not be a global superpower, but at least we’re not that pathetic!

Well, except Britain.

Replace Walmart with Tesco or ASDA, replace the name of any mid-western hick town for any chavy London suburb and you pretty much have an exact replica of the US’s singularly most awful cultural peculiarity. Don’t believe me? Just watch this. There were screams. There was tussling. There were fistfights. There were arrests. If there was a final exam for aspiring to US statehood, Britain passed it last week with flying colors (err, colours). Continue reading

Behold the new (private) utopias

How London's real estate farce is destroying communities

It is hardly a secret that I dislike modernism. My main reason is primarily aesthetic: I despise the look of concrete and abhor modernism’s brutal soul-less ness compared to the elegance of the “period” styles that preceded it. Bland functionality may have worked for modern cutlery and furniture, but I have found few people who prefer the concrete monstrosities built in the 60s and 70s over the gorgeous beaux arts or art deco masterpieces that that still tower majestically over great cities such as Paris, New York or London. Architecture is, after all, art for public spaces and eyesores have no intrinsic value other than to blight the beauty of our cities like oil spills do on our oceans.

Living the dream. Or are you?

Living the dream. Or are you?

However, there is another aspect about modernism that disturbs me and that is its utopianism. As a left-winger, I should in theory like the fact that these tower blocks were built with a more egalitarian society in mind and to better the lives of the poor and destitute who had to previously live in terraced slums. There was grand ambition in these designs, of walkways in the skies and communal playgrounds and access to thoroughfares in this new car age. Unfortunately, reality had a different future planned. Most of these social-democratic wonderlands ended up far from jobs and services and over time turned into crime-ridden hell-holes. The cold concrete exteriors also did not stand the test of time, leading to massive tower blocks looking dirty and dated just years after they sprung up. Looking at modernism with the benefit of hindsight, the utopia clearly failed.

Sadly, countries like Britain have had no answer for public housing in the post-modernist world. As Thatcherism closed the door on publicly-funded home-building, the task of filling the country’s housing needs for a growing population has fallen squarely on the private sector and they have not wasted a single second in finding ways to profit enormously. Taking their cue from the Docklands redevelopment that took place in the 1980s and 90s, these private builders have begun crafting a new type of utopia. A utopia of beige-bricked and waveform-roof developments, where half a million sterling gets you a 50 m2 two-bedroom if you’re lucky (only one room which is actually livable for anyone beyond midget-size). Of creaky stairs and non-soundproofed walls hidden behind colorfully tiled balconies. Where the winds blow the air of self-importance of the aspirational middle classes who after years of work have finally managed to have a foothold on the property ladder in one of the dozens of new developments, nay, “communities” that are quickly becoming London’s new private paradises. Continue reading

A foreigner’s view on Scottish independence

Not that anyone in Scotland should give a damn about it...

I’m not British so in theory there is no reason why I should be bothering giving an opinion on whether a foreign country splits into two or not. To my benefit, I am completely unbiased and ambivalent about the matter, not least because my own country (Mexico) thankfully does not have a simmering secessionist movement. On one hand, I sympathize with the desire of many Scots to see their country independent; they are, after all a distinct ethnicity and some of them (particularly the Glaswegian sort) speak in a language that at least to these Mexican ears sounds completely unlike English. On the other hand, I truly wonder whether the differences between Scots and Englishmen are truly irreconcilable, and that separation is the only solution to this 300 year Union which, to be fair, has mostly worked out quite well for both sides: England has benefited enormously from Scottish ingenuity and industriousness while Scotland has profited from its attachment to a former imperial power, which to this day remains one of the world’s largest, richest and most sophisticated economies.

I don’t have a particularly structured idea of how to proceed with this piece so I’ll just dish out some of my thoughts on the matter at random.

Passport checks at Hadrian's Wall?

Passport checks at Hadrian’s Wall?

The economic argument is pure fearmongering. The No campaign is fundamentally based on the economic arguments and these in turn, are based on fear. Fear that a newly independent Scotland will collapse like a deck of cards amid all the unanswered questions over its economic viability. What currency will it adopt? Will it turn into a fiscal disaster? How ill oil revenues be shared? How many companies will end up relocating? These are not questions to be taken lightly. But although Scotland’s economic problems are real, they are not at all insurmountable. Certainly the economic argument has not stopped any other recently independent country from taking the plunge, despite most of these countries having a fraction of the government efficiency and institutional strength that Scotland would boast. I mean seriously, if East Timor and Kosovo can pull it off, it is absolutely ludicrous to think that Scotland can’t, especially considering that this is a country with no shortage of capable economists, bureaucrats and thinkers. These people invented modern economics, for fuck’s sake. Continue reading

The Internet is for whining

Behold the new breed of professional whiners ruining common sense

I have come to the conclusion that the internet is for three things: porn, cat videos, and whining. The first two are not the subject of this piece though. It’s not hard to see how whining has turned to the cybersport of choice: since dawn of the World Wide Web, whiners have been able to expand their audience beyond mere family and friends (assuming they have any of the latter left), in the process assuming a self-importance that transcends normal human egotistical limits. Now, there are various types of whiners, from the semi-literate morons which turn any YouTube video into the inevitable anti-US/pro-US political troll-fest to the more educated ones, some of which actually write for major publications. These generally take the form of condescending, holier-than-thou liberals/leftists, making mountains out of molehills out of any perceived offense or indignity (disclaimer, I’m a liberal/lefty myself). Recently, they’ve been on a roll.

The Ice Bucket whiners

Do not disturb (sensibilities)

Do not disturb (sensibilities)

Until the past month or so, a lot of people had never heard of ALS. It is an awful disease, not just for the way it turns a healthy body into a muscle-less pulp of skin and bone in a matter of just a few years, but for the fact that it is incurable, untreatable, and unpreventable. It is a randomized death sentence for all but a minuscule and statistically insignificant few (astrophysicist Stephen Hawking being the most famous case). That has not stopped a legion of internet whiners from finding reasons to gripe about the Ice Bucket Challenge. That it’s slacktivism. That it wastes water. That ALS is rare and there are other diseases that kill many more people. That we must prioritize our charity to the most needed.

Ok, first argument to be debunked: that it wastes water. Well yes, it does. You’re pouring a bucket of water that could probably be more useful to a starving, thirsty African family. Problem is, you’re not in Africa, and pouring or not pouring that water is therefore irrelevant to that African family’s well-being. Are you actually going to export it to another continent so that they don’t starve? Of course not. Wasting a bucket of water will not make people on other continents less thirsty because there’s no way of sending them that water. In other words, water is a resource that has very limited transportation potential because you need so much of it that it’s logistically impossible (or prohibitively expensive). It’s a regional resource, not a global one. Continue reading

Israel’s denial of history

Why the Middle East's longest conflict won't be resolved anytime soon

“Everyone has their Jews. For the Israelis they are the Palestinians.”

– Primo Levi (author and Auschwitz survivor)

History seems to have been forgotten in the rubble of the latest Gaza assault

History (and common sense) seems to have been forgotten in the rubble of the latest Gaza assault

It’s been a while since social media exploded with such fury as I have witnessed over the past month regarding the outbreak of conflict in Gaza. Perhaps what has been new (to me at least) has been the vitriolic response by the pro-Israel crowd, which in the past has appeared more muted and drowned out by the voices of Palestinian supporters. For as long as I can remember, the Palestinian cause has been one of the calling cards of the left, be it because leftists typically gravitate towards the underdogs but also because Israel has been able to count on the unconditional support of the US: the perennial enemy of the Chomsky-worshipping, capitalism-hating crowd. Turning the old adage around, the friend of my enemy is also my enemy.

I am a bit uneasy about taking sides myself. As I will explain below, the conflict is fundamentally religious in nature and being an antitheist (that’s one step above atheism btw), both sides are equally “wrong” to me in the grander scheme of things. I also find it hard not to feel considerable sympathy and admiration for a nation (Israel) surrounded by mortal enemies that decided to build a liberal democratic state, educate its people, become a technological powerhouse, and achieve a level of prosperity that puts it well within developed nation status. In those same 70 years, Israel’s Arab neighbors have remained as monarchies, dictatorships or unstable factionalism-ridden democracies, squandered their resources on inept militaries and corrupt regimes and in the most extreme of cases (Syria) have made a total mess of their existence. A cynical (and ignorant) leftist will say that Israel did this thanks to US support which is partly true, but during the Cold War the Arabs received an equal amount of Soviet aid and did little to show for it. Israel has made the desert bloom; the Arabs have made it bleed.

Despite this, ultimately I am disgusted by the way that the pro-Israel crowd has ignored history to support an absolutely appalling and unjustified military operation in Gaza. My Facebook feed has seen a non-stop flow of disinformation that appears far more fitting for a Stalinist propaganda machine that from educated people that should have the common sense of knowing when their government has crossed a line. After all, when practically the entire Israeli (and Jewish abroad) population supports an unprovoked war with the death toll consisting mostly to innocent civilians, you get a feeling that some tiny bit of humanity has been lost to modern Israeli society, all the more sad considering they know better than any other people on earth what it is to be the oppressed.

So here goes my attempt at debunking some of the “arguments” (I say this very loosely because the bar has been set quite low by both sides) of the pro-Israel crowd, in the hopes that they can see the responsibility that their leaders have had in creating this mess, and that blindly supporting their military actions will not make Israel safer in the long run. Continue reading

Freedom from dogmas

Economics needs to throw some ideas into the dustbin of history
Time to read a different textbook

Time to read a different textbook

I have already ranted before about how I feel the meaning of democracy has been lost in the modern era but I feel even more needs to get off my chest. For the past three decades we have lived in a world that has essentially bastardized the idea that government is “for the people” and that it involves the “rule of the many”. Much of it has to do with the economization of politics; in other words, policies that result in economically efficient outcomes or that promote freedom of choice are necessarily those that deepen democracy. Even at the height of the financial crisis in 2008, George W. Bush summarized this belief best: “If you seek economic growth, if you seek opportunity, if you seek social justice and human dignity, the free market system is the way to go.” How deep this belief was ingrained in mainstream thought that one of his advisers and also one of the most cited economists of our day, Gregory Mankiw, echoed these sentiments almost to the letter: “Free markets remain the best way to promote growth, create good jobs, and ensure rising living standards”.

For those of us who fortunately did not get brainwashed by free market fundamentalism, the unraveling of the Reagan-Thatcher consensus after the 2008-09 crisis has become an intellectual vindication served on a silver platter. Unfortunately, despite the overwhelming evidence that macroeconomic policymaking since the 1980s has been counterproductive to growth, we’re still far away from obtaining a consensus in believing that it has also fundamentally destroyed the way that democratic societies function. Why? Because too much of the population and too much of academia still believes in certain nonsense dogmas that have been passed on through generations of teachers and students, mentors and apprentices. Like a religion, there is an overwhelming sense of guilt at abandoning these dogmas; not least because in a society that frowns upon error (especially in academia), admitting you’ve been wrong all along is a one-way ticket to professional disgrace. Continue reading

More theories on Flight 370

Could the plane have been heading towards Christmas Island?
Planes don't just disappear

Planes don’t just disappear

The has probably not been a more harrowing mystery behind a fallen airliner than that of Malaysia Air Flight 370. In a previous post, I wrote my initial theory: that the plane had suffered some catastrophic structural failure and went down, rather than the farfetched terrorist theories that had been raised by the media. However, the evidence since then seems to point almost undeniably towards some form of foul play, possibly a hijacking or some other sinister motives that the pilots may have taken with them to their grave.

In recent days a very well thought out theory by Chris Goodfellow, a real life pilot, has made the rounds, alleging that the plane suffered a fire emergency which resulted in the crew switching off many of the electrical systems and proceeding to the nearest large runway they could find: Palau Langkawii, an island off the north-west coast of Malaysia with an international airport. This island just so happens to have been exactly on the flight path that the plane took once it veered off to a different direction at which point, according to Goodfellow, the pilots and the passengers died of asphyxiation while the plane cruised on autopilot until it ran out of fuel. I like the argument, and it is certainly a superior scenario to those brought forth by the conspiracy theorists and the alarmist media. Unfortunately it suffers from various flaws, the first and most obvious being that the plane did not simply travel west: at some point after crossing the peninsula, it veered north west and then gave its last satellite ping somewhere along two possible arcs, neither of which cross the area where it would have crashed if Goodfellow’s theory were to be correct. Continue reading