Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Why Should the Tunisian Revolution Matter So Much?

It may have been overshadowed by the current events in North Africa and the Middle East of late, but the situation in Tunisia is very interesting from both a structural and a human rights perspective. A lot of the events in the region have been in part precipitated by the revolution, and it is a starting point for what could be a reworking of the politics of the region.

To give a run down of what has happened so far, Tunisia is a nation that has been presided over by (ex) autocratic president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali since 1987 (There have been reports of Ben Ali's death, however, these stories carry with them an element of verisimilitude). His rule was the familiar story of the autocrats rise to power, rising through the ranks of government and always being known as a hard man with no time for human rights and such.

He chose many unethical methods to control the people, including (but not restricted to): imprisonment and torture; suppression of dissident media; reported phishing of citizens in an attempt to monitor what was being said on social networks; using the police as an iron fist with which to rule.

This led to greater and greater civil unrest, which came not just from the lack of political freedom but also from the distribution of wealth (the economy is still proving problematic, but that's one of the side effects of such a dramatic change).

After over two decades of such a situation, the fomenting of the people reached a peak, and the events of last December began to unfold. These events were precipitated by unfortunately tragic circumstances. I think it's worth taking a moment to consider the short life of Mohamed Bouazizi, considering that the Middle East would be very different right now if it weren't for him.

Bouazizi lived in a town named Sidi Bouzid, which had high rates of corruption and low rates of employment. He did not come from a wealthy background and had to work from the age of 10 to support his family. He had been working as a street vendor for a number of years, and had been greatly harassed by police for not having a license.

When a policewoman confiscated his wares (and gave him both verbal and physical abuse), so important were they to his livelihood, he went to the local municipality to complain and ask for his property back, threatening self-immolation if they would not see him. After refusal from the authorities to be seen or have his goods back, he returned to set himself on fire in anger at what the authorities had done to him, later dying in hospital.

There have been analogies made with the Czech student protester Jan Palach, who burned himself in political protest in 1968, however, the most salient observation to make would be that Palach's protest was one made in political revolution, whereas Bouazizi's was born of frustration with oppression directly. They may have similar causes, but the important difference is the intent.

This is also one of the major aspects of this revolution, in that due to the suppression of discussion within the country, organised dissent was very difficult to uphold. There were elements, such as the Pirate Party speaking out against freedom of speech restrictions and media blackouts, the rapper El General spoke out about it, there were also opposition parties in existence: the largest opposition party, Mouvement des Démocrates Socialistes (MDS); Parti de l'Unité Populaire, among others, both in parliament and banned by Ben Ali.

There was however little cohesion between these groups prior to the revolution, due to Ben Ali's methods of marginalising dissent. This meant that when Bouazizi committed his public act of self-immolation, it lead to widespread rioting, rather than acts of revolution.

The rioting eventually led to Mr Ben Ali stepping down as President in December, and eventually to the incumbent government, the RCD being removed at the end of January this year. The current government is encountering issues, due to the continuing sense of unrest which is the aftermath of any revolution, the date of new elections under intense discussion at the moment.

This has, as we have see, been a true peoples revolution, it was born of anger and indignation, and sparked by anger and indignation. Now, why is this so important? Essentially, this show of righteousness and popular justice has spread (through various media) throughout the Middle East, and a number of other countries have followed suit. This shows the power of popular political action, and the effect it can have; the people do have a voice, and if they are to use it, it will be heard. It also shows that you cannot hold power over people that do not wish to have it held over them, and that a democratic approach is not only necessary but innate in the minds of the people.

This revolution highlights the fact that human rights atrocities and restrictions on freedom do not just occur in war torn and poor countries, it can be relatively civilised and wealthy nations. Our preconceptions on what constitutes a corrupt or oppressed state should be widened and the support of the developed world should go to these people to ensure that we do not have the classic case of revolution followed by corruption followed by revolution etc (for more on this see my earlier post on Madagascar: here) given the right help from the west (unlike it's previous kind of support discussed in this very good discussion of the nature of the struggle) this can be managed.

If a sense of democracy and freedom of speech are built into this new structure, then it is possible we may see a dramatic change in the region, and if this can serve as an example to how a nation which has been through such turmoil should be rebuilt, then maybe we can see growth and stability in other senses. One of the main issues with Tunisia for much of the time since it gained independence has been the economy. The likelihood is that if the freedom and fairness is in place, then a free and fair economy can be built, and the resources and sources of income can lead to fairly distributed economic growth in the nation. This again would serve as a model for nations with similar issues.

Could this a turning point in the politics of revolution? It's too early to tell yet, but what is certain is that given the right support, these people will have the means to build a better future. We can only hope that the rest of the world takes notice and does their duty.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

The Alternative Vote

Ok, so this blog has been pretty dead for the last year and a half, but that's what a physics degree (amongst other things) does to your time for political and socio-economic observation....

Anyway. I received some of the usual media one gets at these precipitous times the other day, and it was all about the alternative vote (AV), and it cast a very unfair (i.e. almost entirely inaccurate) view on the comparison between the AV and the first past the post (FPtP) systems.

The basic idea of the leaflet was that it is possible for a party given the highest number of votes (or highest preference with AV) to fail to get in. Yes; this can be true, that I'll give them. But if you take the two models being used and actually compare them you'll find that it's a lot easier to occur in the current format of FPtP, as say for example you have 10 constituencies and 2 parties, party A and party B. Party A wins 100% of the votes in 4 of the 10 constituencies, and party B wins 51% of the vote in 6 (unrealistic I know, but it exemplifies the point..). Now, if every constituency has exactly 100 voters, party A has won 694 votes, whereas party B has won only 306 votes, so in this (again purely hypothetical) scenario, the party with less than a third of the vote has one power.

AV in contrast is a preferential system, which means that you can completely state your opinion on who you would like to lead the country. As I'm told it isn't particularly appropriate to do mathematical analysis in a blog on politics and economics, I'll leave it up to the reader as to whether they investigate this, but it is worth mentioning that the Oxford mathematician Charles Dodson (also known by the pseudonym Lewis Carroll) did some work on the Condorcet methods (so named as they were put together by the Marquis de Condorcet) and verified that a preferential voting system gives a far more meaningful result.

Thus far I've only really spoken about voting systems in a mathematical way, and it would be an incomplete thought to take such a specified approach. In a more holistic sense, it's not just about how representative the result of the vote is, it's about whether the approach is appropriate and fair. There's been a lot of talk about the idea that a preferential voting system gives you more than one vote. This is quite obviously not true, take the standard voter tactic of tactical voting, if you live in a constituency in which there are (as is commonplace) two greatly favoured parties or candidates. Those who would normally vote for a minority party will instead vote for the next best of the majority parties, which is essentially putting in a vote that you believe will be counted. It's essentially cutting out the elimination of minority parties in a round system. So qualitatively and quantitatively, it's better than FPtP.

With regards to the effects of the voting system on political parties, some people argue that it will create a pandering to the general voter, but this is an inherent problem in democracy, and why is this such a bad thing if it's done properly? Okay, there are certain aspects with which a specific and often divisive stance must be taken, but these are aspects where only one stance may be taken. For example, it would be impossible to take both a free marketist and a Keynsian approach to economics at the same time, so you need some partisan leaning at least. Add to this the fact that as you can select a preferential order, this is likely to both get rid of the more extremist parties and also to create more room for parties catering a more varied set of ideals. So in my heuristic take on the matter, AV is the only reasonable option.

By the way, I positively welcome any reasonable objection and anyone else's opinion on these matters, I'd like to hear others thoughts on this.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

I have diagrams, and I'm not afraid to use them.....


Not that I belive in the control of the state of the life of the individual or anything, but I've had somewhat of a thought.....

I was down my local the other day, talking to a guy who happened to be a roofer, who had the complaint that there was a high risk of theft in an area he had been working in. It had been a theft of some very valuable tools, and the amount that was stolen cost a great deal with regards to a labour cost. This got me thinking about the market for stolen goods.

Let us assume that the market for stolen goods follows the standard rules of microeconomics (a fair assumption as assumptions go I think). We have a consumer and a producer, i.e. the thief, and the people buying stolen goods. We can therefore construct a simple model for the market shown to the left.

Now, if we both increase the sentence for those buying stolen goods by a large amount, and ensure that everyone is aware of the increase, we can create a disincentive to buy stolen goods (a shift to the left of the demand curve), I mean, you're less likely to buy a stolen tv for £50 if it's going to cost you 10 years in prison (average loss of earnings=20k p.a. *10, -living costs, + reduction in earnings due to criminal record, I think we can safely assume that the loss is over £50k) as the saving to be made on the tv would have to be tens of thousands of pounds (although this is making several assumptions, I would probably need a criminologist to help me on this one.......). We can presume that people are sensible enough not to risk a couple of hundred quid saving on a loss of far more than that, so going back to our marketisation of theft, we can see a shift to the left in the demand curve(below).

Thus, we see a reduction in demand, for stolen goods, and hence, a reduction in both price, and thus quantity supplied, and due to the nature of this form of policy, we are looking at quantity. If we then take a look at the actual price of the goods which have been stolen, we have a reduction in demand for the stolen good, as people who would buy it as a stolen good, generally don;t want to pay full price for it, plus, the people who bought it in the first place would not have to buy/claim on insurance, another one of the same. This would of course reduce demand and therefore price, so we get reduced crime, and lower prices for luxury goods, what more could anyone (except the producer of the good) want?

Friday, 9 October 2009

More on CO2 Emissions

Well, it looks like the Chinese are going to follow the rest of the industrialised world's example, if todays news of General Motors selling the ecologist's nightmare brand, the "Hummer" to the Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery company. Oh joy, an economy that has proved, if not quite recession proof, pretty damn strong in the face of a global collapse (of course, it didn't exactly need to rely on credit with the levels of growth reported), but also proved that it is quickly expanding on it's CO2 emissions.........

Of course there is the fact that China will hopefully be tying the rate of expansion of carbon emissions to the rate of GDP growth, which is a definite positive, and is a step in the right direction. The main issue I have, is that unless current developed nations either a) collapse economically, or b) manage to somehow reduce their emission levels to pre-industrial levels, we're soon going to have a few more developed nations. If we look at it this way, say you had (for the sake of argument) 10 developed nations, and two more developing nations underwent high enough levels of growth to warrant becoming developed nations. Now assume we are need to reduce CO2 output by 20% before the development of these two countries. Now, to keep emissions at the same level, emissions would have to go down in the first 10 by 20%. So now we are back in the same position we were in, but we have more people to get on board, and there will be a higher level of diplomacy and bureaucracy as well as a need for a total decrease of 40% in CO2 as a percentage of the original level.

So what we're looking at is a much larger decrease in emissions than in the original scenario. Now, carbon reduction generally (not always, but mostly) means a reduction in GDP, as it will often come from things like fuel taxes, carbon taxes, cap and trade (*expresses disgust*), and myriad other disincentives to production. Reducing absolute carbon emissions leaves a country with an opportunity cost, and if the a nation does not want to suffer a loss in growth rate more than improve international relations, and more importantly, improve the future of the planet, it may well take a lackadaisical approach to environmental issues.

So basically, there needs to be a lot more effort put into the G8 talks etc, and we need some serious targets put in place and met, as it will only get worse.

Monday, 5 October 2009

The IMF's (revised) Growth Projections 2010

The International Monetary Fund has revised it's projections for the GDP growth of various nations recently (as I am sure you can tell from the blog's title); the results being rather good, on paper at least...

The figures are as follows('09/'10):- US (-2.7/1.5); Japan (-5.4/1.7); Canada (-2.5/2.1); UK (-4.4/0.9); Germany (-5.3/0.3); France (-2.4/0.9); Italy (-5.1/0.2); Spain (-3.8/-0.7). Asia is expected to have the highest level of growth, with Singapore in poll position at a massive 4.1% growth forecast in 2010, and total global expansion predicted at 3.1%.

The developing world has taken much less of a hit than the developed world, and (as has been discussed at length many many times recently) this could mean that the very nature of our economic systems could be threatened, but Adam Smith himself noticed many of the problems inherent in the systems we use.

But, and here is what we must remember every time GDP figures are released, growth figures only give us an overall picture of the economy in question, and there are many other things to consider. Sure, GDP is a fairly good measure of the expansion and contraction of a country's wealth, but it neglects factors such as which industries are growing at what rate, what is happening with regards to the current account, and so on and so forth. So although we can say that the UK and France are likely to grow the most next year, this is ignoring sustainability etc. so don't read too much into these numbers.

That's all for now folks, until next time...........

Thursday, 30 July 2009

People I think we should all look up to....no.1

I would like to take a moment to write a piece on a person who has inspired me a great deal, and I think more people should know what an incredible person she is!


Aung San Suu Kyi is, as I am sure many of you are aware, the leader of the opposition in Burma, and when I say leader of the opposition, she should be the Prime Minister elect. Her father was Aung San, a great figure in the movement for Burma's freedom post ww2. Burma (or the Union of Myanmar as it is officially known) since 1962 has been under the rule of a military junta, who have kept out democracy, international aid, and freedom of speech. This is one of those situations I find equally fascinating and terrifying, in which there is the perpetuation of corrupt governance, almost like a vicious circle, as can be exemplified by the history of the Madagascan government. It differs significantly from Madagascan politics though, as it is one government perpetuating its own rule, as opposed to one corrupt leader being deposed by another.


Ms. Suu Kyi has spent roughly 11 of last 19 years as a political prisoner, incarcerated by the government, and as I am sure you have all heard, has just been sentenced to another 18 months (happily for the junta, this would mean her not being allowed to campaign for the next election, which will be the most democratic(!) election in Burma, what a coincidence!!!!). The pretext for this sentence is that, while under house arrest, she was visited by a man who swam across the lake by her house to visit her, though uninvited. This allegedly breaks the terms of her house arrest (because of course, it is every innocent prisoners duty to remotely control the will of anyone attempting to contact them...) and so lead to a lengthy trial, in which the Burmese government did say the result might come as a shock to the rest of the world (because the rest of the world was surprised at that result..) but the end result was of course no surprise to anyone, least of all the Junta.

But anyway, I'd like to take this opportunity to give tribute to her effort and sacrifice in the name of the people of Burma rather than give any criticism.

As I said earlier, the military rule in Burma began with a military coup in 1962, by the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) (the fact that I got the link from www.absoluteastronomy.com does entertain me...) under their leader Ne Win, who kept the populace under control using torture, political imprisonment, and many other similar human rights infringements. While the BSPP were in power, they instigated a very isolationist set of social and economic policies, under the title of the "Burmese Way to Socialism" and in rather a futile attempt to somewhat remove the element of interdependence from their economy, Ne Win and his government managed to completely obliterate the Burmese economy (for a good view on the extent of the damage see here) and take all that was left!

This left Burma in a state of complete and utter disrepair, so naturally, the Burmese people reached melting point, and took to the streets, on the 8th of Aug 1988, or 8-8-88, demanding and elected civilian government. In line with their human rights record (or lack therof) the BSPP responded by killing thousands of innocent civilians. After this horrific episode, the people were obviously angered. With the levels of violence seen in Rangoon at this time, many thousands of students and democracy advocates fled to border regions, which were under ethnic control, and began to form smaller political parties. These smaller groups soon formed a larger group, naming itself the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB).

For a period, while the BSPP were in power, Ms. Suu Kyi was abroad, but came back to Burma, due to her mother becoming ill. While she remained in Burma, her and a number of members of the NCUB got together and as a result formed the National League for Democracy (NLD) which became very popular very quickly. Due to this group, Ne Win took control of the army again, and staged another coup. This time, he set up the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) (later renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in '97) promising that free and fair elections would be held as soon as the country had returned to "peace and tranquility". Aung Saan Suu Kyi, as leader of the NLD was put under house arrest in 1989, about a year before the election, and was released again in about 1995.

These elections were held, and were in fact free and fair, so fair in fact, that the NLD won 80% of the votes, and the SLORC backed National Unity Party (NUP) won only ten constituencies, out of about 485. As the elections had been free and fair, the junta had to do the only thing it could do, it claimed that the election was not a parliamentary election, but an election to vote in a council of representatives to create a new constitution, thus remaining in full power. The junta then went on to draft it's own constitution (see my last blog for my thoughts on this here) which would essentially mean that the military would be intrinsic in the running of any latter day government, and thus it was rejected. Suu Kyi meanwhile, was, as I mentioned earlier, released from house arrest in 1995, but then put back under between 2001-02, released then her supporters were attacked by the Union Solidarity and Development Association a year later, and thus put back under arrest.

In her time under various restrictions, Suu Kyi has:

Won a Nobel Peace Prize

Won the Congressional Gold Medal (at a House of Representatives vote of 400-0 no less!)

Won the Thorolf Rafto Memorial Prize

Won the Sakharov Prize


And not to mention about 17 others, including the freedom of Dublin and Glasgow cities, which is fairly ironic I suppose.........

Aung San Suu Kyi remains a hero in mine, and many other peoples eyes, and while she is now 64 (time for many peoples retirement..) she remains loyal to her people and to her cause, and she has fought for what she believes in more most of us will ever do. I wish her well, and I am glad there are people like that, shows how brave and strong people can be.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Constitutional Democracy

As Zimbabwe takes another step towards a fairer (i.e. non-opressive) society, by introducing a constitution, I thought it would be worth investigating the idea of a constitution, and analysing some of the problems it brings up.

The first and most obvious problem with a constitution is the level of detail in which it is written. The classic example of this is in the U.S. Constitution, in which the second amendment has been much disputed over whether "the right to bear arms" means that private citizens should be allowed guns, or whether the amendment is talking about military service. There is also the other end of the scale, at which the point made is too specific. This means that a badly written constitution can cause massive legal loopholes, caused by oversight at the time of writing or misinterpretation. The constitution can usually be changed at a later date, due to omissions or anachronisms, but this usually requires a significant majority, and requires a great deal of debate, see the U.S. constitutional amendment system.

Secondly, adding to the part about anachronisms, it is written by a set of people at a certain time, and is designed to fit their ideas and circumstances, thus, when a governing body, or the disposition of a nation changes, it makes it difficult to change certain laws, as the constitution must be changed to accomodate; it to illustrate this, you will find a list of proposed amendments to the U.S. constitution here. For an interesting little game that well demonstrates the magnitude of the effect a constitution has on a countries traits, look here.

To take these ideas to situation in Zimbabwe, there are going to be a lot of issues over the substance of of the document (that is of course unless the two parties are in league with one another...) with Mugabe in favour of basing the new constitution on the Kariba Draft (I don't recommend reading it, here's one of the articles I found useful) which is a proposed constitution, based on the Constitutional Commision's '99 proposal. The fact that the document the Kariba Draft was based on was turned down by a 55% majority has not hindered Mugabe's enthusiasm. Tsvangirai on the other hand wants to consult the people on what they want from their own constitution, which is how these things should be done, and yet, this neglects the fact that you can't consult everybody, and you can't make everybody happy, so this can only really be a political gesture of goodwill, as opposed to actually consulting everyone in all situations (if you look at the polling results region by region in the referendum on the 99 constitution, you can see the spread of results, from a mean of around 75% against in Bulawayo province, to about 70-75% for in Mashonaland Central province), short of inviting the entire country to ratify each section as it is written!

Coming back to the Kariba draft, it is important to note that it is not only based on the previous draft which was turned down, but this draft was turned down by referendum for not removing enough power from Mugabe, and the Kariba Draft actually increases his powers! No wonder he's keen to use it as a basis! Under the Kariba Draft, Mugabe can: adjourn and dissolve parliament; pick and choose VPs, Ministers and deputy ministers and assign functions to them; appoint "other" officials; appoint an deal with diplomats; make decisions on treaties; call referendums; and deploy Zimbabwean armed forces to other countries. Now that is quite a lot of power for one man to have, especially someone with his record.

This is an excellent example of the problems that can occur when a constitution is drawn up, as they are often written at times like this, when there has been a lot of political turbulence, meaning that the electorate can agree with proposals that they may later want to change. Now, as I said earlier, it is not impossible to make an amendment to the constitution, only very difficult, however, it does mean getting a majority in the electorate, which can be problematic if not everyone is well informed, and what's more, the constitution can be wielded by those who want to exploit the loopholes, or even, as above, be used to give more control to those in power (see Burma).

It has been rather negative up to this point, and I would like to take a minute and analyse the positives, as there are upsides to constitutions. Firstly, a constitution (generally) has to be ratified by those it affects, and so although as I said on Zimbabwe, often, not everyone agrees, in most cases, this is not feasible, but you can create laws such that the government acts in everyones best interest (as far as is possible) and this is a lot better than an authoritarian government who act purely in their own interests. It gives the government a set of rules; quis custodiet ipsos custodes? The ultimate watchman, as it were, is there to provide rules for everyone, and, in theory, they are by everyone.

So while a good constitution is a positive for those subject to it, this is only true if the conditions are right for the people, as with many other concepts, the idea is a truly positive one: in theory, but in practice, you have to apply many other factors, and this is where things start to go wrong. With the examples above, it can be used to take rights away from those it is supposed to empower, it can restrain the ideas and freedoms due to lack of forethought, and even when put to the people during its contruction, it can never defend the rights, needs, and wants of the entire population. But again, I don't want to end on a sour note, and there have been countries very well run on constitutions that have kept the government acting in the public interest, and we can only hope that this next step towards democracy proper in Zimbabwe will truly be forward.