Wednesday, July 27, 2011


That the Oslo-Utøya killings were a heinous, monstrous act is beyond question. However, the sheer scale of shock cannot be separated from the fact that they occurred in Norway.

Idyllic, secure and wealthy, Norway is not without reason a model nation for the rest of the world. Certainly, it has felt by far felt the safest place that I have ever lived. And, as has been repeated many times over the last few days, it is also composed of a small population (4.9 million). All these factors have surely had some impact in magnifying the shock felt by the country and the rest of the world.

According to revised figures, Breivik's actions have resulted in the deaths of 76 people. That more than doubles the number of homicides that Norway typically expects in any given year. Over the five-year period 2004-2008, official statistics show that an average of only 33 people were murdered in the country per annum.

In comparison, South Africa averaged an astonishing 18,635 annual homicides over roughly the same period.  In other words, the daily murder figure in SA is one and a half times the Norwegian yearly figure. Another way of looking at it, is that Breivik's tally of 76 lives is lost every 34 hours in SA.

Granted, South Africa has a much bigger population (49.3 million). However, even adjusted for population differences, the difference remains fairly staggering. The murder ratio per 100,000 people in SA is approximately 38, versus a mere 0.7 in Norway. In other words, someone is 50+ times more likely to be the victim of a homicide attack in South Africa than Norway.[*]

And then there are natural afflictions. At this very moment, the Horn of Africa is battling the worst drought in 60 years. Exact figures are hard to determine, but UNICEF estimates that nearly 500,000 children in the region are suffering from life-threatening, severe acute malnutrition. It is believed that as many as 10 million people stand to be affected by the drought (although not all will face life-and-death circumstances). While I maintain that there are strict limitations to adaptation in a world characterised by increased climate extremes, economic development and freedom -- as well as robust political institutions -- are the fundamental pillars towards unchaining human suffering from natural disasters.

This should go without saying, but in no way do I wish to underplay the impact of Friday's events. Further, and while it may still be too early to make sweeping statements, my sense is that the Norwegian people have done themselves eternal credit in the immediate wake of this tragedy. Almost every interview, camera shot or news editorial has depicted a nation coming to grips with devastation in a unified dignity. Norway has only reinforced its qualities as a model for inspiration.

However, these figures do serve to illustrate the stark differences by which we continue to measure life and death in wealthy countries versus the rest of the world. Economic development may be the most humane -- and humanising -- pursuit ever undertaken.

[*] And now... having written the above, I'm struck by an immediate sense of patriotic regret. I don't wish to convey the sense that South Africa is a dangerous hell-hole. It certainly isn't. The disparity between the two countries has as much to do with Norway's exceptionally peaceful environment, as the fact that certain areas in South Africa are beset by crime. SA has its problems, but still offers wonderful lifestyle opportunities for those fortunate to enjoy them. I hope to return after my studies are completed and truly believe that it is a must-see for anyone wishing to do some travelling... And very safe provided you don't take unnecessary risks.

Monday, July 25, 2011

More on Norway, liberty and labels

UPDATE: Two very good additional posts by Daniel and Gene Callahan. In particular, will Breivik's quoting of Mises and Hayek be cause for reflection among libertarians, and encourage a toning down of the self-righteous attitude of exceptionalism (and a tendency towards "'sic simper tyrannis" rhetoric)?

As most of you know, I have called Norway home for the better part of two years. While I have been on exchange for the last six months, I shall also be returning there shortly to start my PhD. I have offered previous thoughts on the country's approach to liberty and mixed-market economy elsewhere. For example:
[The commentator above] more or less nails it: 
'Recall that the phrase "economic liberty" means different things to different people.'
As a foreigner that has now lived in the Nordics for close on two years, this is the crucial distinction that I keep trying to point out to dogmatic, US-style libertarians. (Actually, there have been a number of interesting articles on this precise matter... See, for instance, here and here.)
From my experiences, Scandinavians place a premium on equality and fairness alongside prosperity. They appreciate the benefits offered by social security (and, by and large, trust their politicians to make sensible decisions). As one example, the State education loan funds in these nations put an excellent tertiary education in reach of virtually every student. This ensures that they preserve a critical mass of human capital that helps maintain the countries’ international competitiveness, say nothing of rewarding student meritocracy regardless of the social standing of their parents. 
Now, I certainly don’t agree with everything that I have experienced here (e.g. the ridiculous state monopoly on selling wine and spirits), and would be cautious for suggesting how replicable their system is given the small size and homogeneity of their economies. However, I will say that their mixed-economy structure works for them, if nothing else, for the simple reason that everyone buys into it.  
An example that was particularly striking to me: You can freely view the full salary and tax contributions of each and every Norwegian citizen (your neighbour, priest, date for next Friday night… even members of the Royal family) on public websites (e.g. here). You can only imagine the cries of “privacy invasion!” if you tried to implement that kind of system in other parts of the world and yet it is consistent with the Nordic view of how a transparent and fair society should be run.
Freedom in terms of "outcomes" is one thing, but it is the premises themselves that form the crucial distinction here.
I have been meaning to write something on the sheer frivolous of trying to pin down the "Scandinavian Model" according to the usual dichotomies that we've grown accustomed to in the Anglo-Saxon west -- capitalism vs socialism -- for a while on this blog. However, in the absence of such extended comments, I suppose that the above quote succinctly summarises my thoughts. The mixed-market economy is exactly that. Those who seek only to find absolute redeeming features of any particular ideology lose the essence of Scandinavia's successful economic and social balance in the process. But then again, what do I know?...

The majority is always wrong; the minority is rarely right. 
- Henrik Ibsen


Daniel Kuehn and Gary Gunnels are among those commenting on the Norway shootings, attempting to draw out the blurred lines between political ideology and individual psychology. In particular, what labels should we apply to Anders Behring Breivik? (He appears to see himself as a righteous crusader of liberty and Christian conservatism.)

The twisted mind of our present subject notwithstanding, I am pretty uncomfortable with the tendency to simply categorise individuals by the labels that they self-apply. Breivik's quoting of John Stuart Mill no more renders him a disciple of liberty than having a Che Guevara t-shirt makes you a socialist revolutionary.

If self-proclaimed labels leave me uneasy, then I'm definitely sceptical of the tendency to bend major events and characters to our preferred worldview. I was struck by a thought yesterday when chatting to a friend, who holds strict libertarian views of the anarcho-capitalist variety. He mentioned his surprise -- following revelations of Breivik's identity -- that the attacks were not in retaliation to Norway's involvement in Afghanistan and Libya. However, had the killings indeed been motivated by Norway's NATO activities, I've little doubt that we would have seen the likes of Lew Rockwell dot com trumpeting this as horrific evidence of the uncontrollable fallout of aggressive foreign policy.[*] But, if we were being entirely consistent, wouldn't you now have to argue on that lax immigration policy and social integration should be rethought? After all, they too can now be argued as bringing about terrible backlashes of their own. Well, apparently not.

It is convenient to place people in boxes. This applies as much to others as it does ourselves. When those privileged typologies don't gel with the narrative before us, I wonder which is easier to discard or rearrange...

[*] Just to be clear, my opinion is the possibility of a backlash -- terrorist or otherwise -- provides entirely justifiable (utilitarian?) grounds to generally oppose military interventions in other countries. The operative word being "generally", as there may be equally inescapable reasons to enter into war in particular circumstances.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Quote of the day - Terrorism

"You don't protect civilization by dismantling its civilizing achievements." 

- Tom Arnold, former member of the British Parliament.

Friday, July 22, 2011


Man oh man...

Apart from the immediate concerns for the injured and dead, I dread some of the reverberations from the bomb attack in Oslo. Thankfully, it appears that my many friends in in the city are all okay. Some personal relief amidst the broader social tragedy.

It's obviously very early days and no precise suspect(s) at the moment -- even though the signs over the last year point towards some Islamic extremist group. I hope that these actions by the few don't lead to heightened xenophobia and fewer civil liberties for the many. However, I fear the big loser over the coming months (and possibly years) will be social integration and immigration reform.

UPDATE: Wow. I wrote this before knowing about the senseless massacre on Utøya island. The  tragedy has now been magnified in infamous scale and the main presupposition turned on its heads. It now appears that a lone (ethnic) Norwegian madman was acting on an unfathomable and incendiary hatred. The bomb blast in Oslo now seems to me to have been a terrible diversion of sorts; it does seem to have been timed to minimise the loss of human life... Before the targeted bloodbath that followed.

Hard to know what to say in times like these, but my thoughts go out to the country and especially all those that have lost loved ones.

Reconciling capitalism and environmentalism

Alternative subject line: Saving environmentalism from the environmentalists

My attention has been brought to a new book by the British environmentalist and author, Mark Lynas, called The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans.

I guess that I should really be saving any praise until I read it myself, but -- from everything that I've heard about it so far -- I sense that I'll be finding myself in deep agreement with many of the themes that it touches upon. Here are two review from The Economist and The Guardian. To give you an idea, an excerpt from the former:
[There is a] somewhat inconsistent relationship that a lot of environmentalists have with science. When it comes to the hazards posed to the climate by greenhouse gases they see science as an ally scarcely to be questioned. But when it comes to the hazards posed by radiation from nuclear-power plants or by genes engineered into crops, greens often give equally compelling science a lot less credence—as, until recently, did Mr Lynas. 
A few years ago, though, seized by the magnitude of the threat of global warming, he started to look at nuclear power afresh, and decided it wasn’t so bad: without it there would be a couple of billion tonnes more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. His openness of mind spread: online comments responding to an article he wrote made him realise, to his shame, that though he had read many scientific papers on global warming he had never read any on genetically modified crops. Now he sees biotechnology-based intensive farming as crucial to keeping farms from overrunning forests. And how, he asks, can opponents to the damage done by industrially produced nitrogen-based fertilisers object to the genetic engineering that might let crops produce their own fertilisers as blamelessly as clover does?
Hmmm... Now where have I heard that kind of stuff before? Here's yours truly back in April:
There is a tremendous inconsistency in the way that people[...] approach the respective issues of climate change and GM food.[...] Being concerned about the environment and human health doesn't mean that you can have it both ways, choosing to invoke scientific evidence when and where it is congenial to your position. Those of us who think that climate change is a real issue deserving meaningful action rightly point towards the peer-reviewed science as a first stop for informing our opinions. We would do well to do the same for other contentious issues, such as genetically modified food.
Good boy, Stickman! <Rolls over. Eats biscuit. Barks.>

In a similar vein, an earlier article from The Guardian provides something of a prelude to Lynas's book, asking some important questions along the way. Here's the blurb:
Has the green movement lost its way? 
Anti-nuclear, anti-capitalist, anti-flying: the green movement may have alienated more people than it has won over, and there are now calls for a new kind of environmentalism.
Rather than quoting liberally from the article, I'll simply recommend reading the whole thing.  It's short and, to pique your interest, I'll only highlight the following money quote: "I want an environmental movement that is happy with capitalism[...] and is rigorous about the way it treats science." Going through the above article(s), I hope you'll recognise some of the issues that I've discussed previously on this blog, such as scientific consistency (c.f. GM foods), full and objective cost accounting, as well as the role of market mechanisms and economic valuation in improving environmental outcomes. However, it is the notion that there is some kind of ideological incompatibility between environmentalism and capitalism that bothers me most. How did we arrive at a place where these two goals are somehow viewed as mutually exclusive? Why does having environmental interests somehow imply that you must be a technological atavist, intent on repealing all our material advances and dragging society back to the Stone Age?[*]

Unfortunately, it's late and I'm too tired to solve the world's problems now. (Otherwise...) But I wanted to highlight some of these issues again. Reconciling economic growth and environmental stewardship isn't always straight forward. I know some very smart and open-minded people that will baulk at Lynas's assertion that nuclear is a pretty benign technology in the scheme of things, or even that it is something of a necessary evil to avoid climate chaos... But at least these opinions are formed on the basis of careful analysis rather than knee-jerk reactions.

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Economic progress can -- and should -- be good for the environment too. The environmental movement would be better off for embracing this fact, and by co-opting the characteristics that make markets work so well elsewhere in the economy.

[*] Yes, unfortunately, there's no denying that there are groups out there that loosely fit that description... And I wish more greens would come around to the fact there are tough compromises to be made... And that the explosion in living standards since the industrial revolution is on the whole a pretty awesome thing... And that nostalgia isn't what it used to be. At the same time, the rabid opposition to certain environmental causes or regulation (cf. the carbon tax furore in Australia) betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what these interventions are meant to achieve. Moving towards fully internalised costs is something to be celebrated, as it helps us make better economic decisions in our day-to-day lives.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Cover Thursdays - Stripped Down edition

Coming attcha live from the beautiful Lake District in Cumbria, where I am soon to be attending a wedding, here's a little something to whet your appetite before I resume proper posting. It's just gone midnight, so we're technically good to go for an overdue Cover Thursdays.

Our first number might be prefaced by me saying that I've never really held any high hopes of someone successfully covering a Sigur Rós song. However, this little gem may just have done the trick: We Are Scientists take on "Hoppípolla". I won't make promises on the correctness of their Icelandic pronunciation, but those harmonies and falsettos are bang on. Very good work, indeed.

Second, here's a little something that I heard on the radio whilst driving up from Pembrokshire in Wales (which was also splendid -- thanks for asking). Jasmine Van den Bogaerde won the national talent contest, Open Mic UK in 2008. Since then, and under her stage name of Birdy, she's been making something of a career based on emotive, piano-driven covers... But give the girl a break; she's still only 15. Here she offers her version of "Shelter", originally by The xx:

Hope you enjoy those two. In other news, I should be able to get something more profound (read: lengthier) up in the next couple of days. Or perhaps not. My GF's family have gone wedding befok[*] and have pre- and post-wedding festivities planned each day, before and after the main event on Saturday. I've been bumped up to chief usher after the bride's brother has been forced to pull out because his own wife has just given birth. Shame, timing's a bit unfortunate, but I promise to do my best in his place. With great power, comes great responsibility...

[*] I'm guessing that translates fairly easily from Afrikaans, but I really mean it in the nicest way possible. I'm all up for celebratory atmospheres, and am more trying to convey that I may be busy the next little while... in case my poor posting efforts continues, that is.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Hiatus and Happenings

I've been receiving abuse from various quarters lately for the lack of posting on this site. My apologies, but I'd sworn of any real computer activity for a few weeks after completing my thesis. To be honest, I had been meaning to write some stuff here this week... there's certainly been a few things on the go that seemed worth talking about.

Unfortunately, it turns out that I am very lazy and preferred spending my time on the beach. There's also the not insignificant issue of my supervisor asking me to prepare a shortened version of my dissertation by yesterday. (We'll be submitting a joint paper, largely based on the work that I did for my thesis to some relevant journals; hopefully by the end of this week.) This has been taking up what little patience I have for my laptop screen over the last two days.

Amidst all that, I'm supposed to be packing up my room and all my stuff, as tomorrow the GF and I bid a fond farewell to Lisbon. (I travel pretty light as far as these things go, but even then it's rather disconcerting to see how much rubbish you manage to accumulate over a few months in a foreign city.) We'll be heading off to the UK for a few weeks next, visiting a variety of places... Starting off in west Wales where my aunt and uncle have a(n apparently beautiful) holiday spot, then up to the Lake District where the GF's family is and her brother is getting married, before heading back down to London to visit friends, and finally back to my aunt and uncle's house in Hampshire. Then it's up north again, where I'll be starting my PhD in mid-August!

Before all that, however, we'll be attending this bad boy: Optimus Alive. It seemed a good idea to book tickets to a music festival on the day before our departure at the time, and I'm not going to let pressing logistics get in the way of that feeling now! We've only got day passes (today, July 7), but there are some bands that I'm looking forward to seeing. You can see the line-up here. My plan of attack is something along the lines of: Crocodiles (17h00); Jimmy Eat World (18h30); Bombay Bicycle Club (20h05); Primal Scream (21h15); Iggy and the Stooges (22h45); ending off with the big one, Foo Fighters (00h05).

What do you reckon? Am I optimising here (har har), or could I do better?

[For the record, I'm mostly interested in Primal Scream (reliving the 90s -- yeah!) and Foo Fighters. The rest I'm prepared to juggle around a bit.]

UPDATE: A very good night out. I left a remark on Twitter saying something to the effect of: "Bombay Bicycle Club vying hard to take over from Jimmy Eat World's title as most awkward looking band. Both good live acts though." Felt bad about this a few hours later though, as J.E.W. were on the same flight as us the next morning and seemed pretty cool dudes. (And I'll always have a soft spot for The Sweetness.) In fact, I was sandwiched between them and Primal Scream. Lead singer Bobby Gillespie appeared to be holding up remarkably well after being arguably the most stoned human in all of greater Lisbon only the night before -- no small feat, I can assure you. He and the rest of PS still put in a solid performance, though. (They are effectively touring on a live re-visitation of Screamadelica; surely one of the great albums of the 90s.) In other news, Iggy Pop must donate his body to science. He remains equal measures totally compelling and awful as a performing artist: He still flaunts a six-pack at around 65 years of age, and still can't hold a tune to save his life. Not much changed since the 1970s then... And, last but not least, Dave Grohl possess an incredible set of lungs. He screamed and growled his way through a near three-hour set, along with the rest of the Foo's. I was knackered just being in the crowd, so I can only wonder how they felt. I'm as much an armchair fan as anything else, but -- having now seen them live -- the Foo Fighters deserve their place as the headline act for the festival circuit this season... Say nothing of being, arguably, the biggest rock band in the world right now.