Thursday, June 28, 2007

Meaning (2)

I had a history teacher in middle school who would rub his thumb to his index finger and say it with an all-knowing grin on his face - "it's all about the money." He prided himself for being so enlightened despite being a history teacher - you know you can get bogged down in so many beside-the-point details when you teach history. You might get carried away talking about battles and castles and tents and rivalries and power and the eccentric traits of the leader and revenge and honour and pride and love. My history teacher had a thing for horses and Turks' horsemenship, for example. But he didn't let any of it blur his sight and blind his judgement. He knew that the reason for all wars was money.

That's nothing original. Why do the Westerners intervene in Iraq of all places? Are we supposed to believe they are so idealistic? It's the same story all over again - the elites mobilize the masses for purely economic reasons, personal ambitions and grudges. They use idealistic motives, heroic stories and well-substantiated fear to add some meaning to the story. Otherwise, how could young people be convinced to put their lives at stake?

As more people die, the fog of irrationality and myth thickens, it becomes all the more difficult to admit to mistakes. How can one explain - were all those lives lost and taken simply because of poor judgment, poor foresight? Was it just senseless war?

Then the variables shift, your foreign presence tips the balances and it is no longer reasonable to go out of a place you weren't supposed to go into in the first place. The stalemate becomes the new status quo. People who invested their lives in it cannot bring themselves to accept anything short of victory. You can't close down a factory that continues to run losses, because the sunk costs are already too large. The wrestler who loses always wants another round.

As time goes by, the war takes on a meaning of itself, one that is independent of the initial motives and goals. The lives and time lost give it a new meaning. That is when it becomes so difficult to give up and walk away.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

the best song ever:
Love Will Come Through

If I told you a secret
You won't tell a soul
Will you hold it and keep it alive

Cause it's burning a hole
And I can't get to sleep
And I can't live alone in this lie

So look up
Take it away
Don't look da-da-da- down the mountain

If the world isn't turning
Your heart won't return
Anyone, anything, anyhow

So take me don't leave me
Take me don't leave me
Baby, love will come through it's just waiting for you

Well I stand at the crossroads
Of highroads and lowroads
And I got a feeling it's right

If it's real what I'm feeling
There's no makebelieving
The sound of the wings of the flight
of a dove

Take it away
Don't look da-da-da down the mountain

If the world isn't turning
Your heart won't return
anyone anything anyhow...

So take me don't leave me
Take me don't leave me
Baby, love will come through it's just waiting for you

So look up
Take it away
Don't look da-da-da- down
If the world isn't turning
Your heart won't return anyone anything anyhow...

So take me don't leave me
Take me don't leave me
Baby, love will come through it's just waiting for you
Love will come through
Love will come through
Love will come through


Monday, June 18, 2007

“...İstanbul’un kargacık burgacık sokaklarından, Berlin’deki gibi ıhlamurlu, Paris’teki gibi yıldız biçiminde ve Petersburg’daki gibi köprülü bulvarlar açabilmek için, bütün ömrünce akşamları emekli paşalarımızın Batılılar gibi tasmalarla gezdireceği köpeklerini sıçtırabilecekleri modern kaldırımlar düşledikten sonra, hayallerinin hiçbirini gerçekleştiremeden ölüp mezarı kaybolan hayalperestlerin... mankenlerini gördüler.... ‘Kahve Manzaraları’ arasında, başları omuzlarının arasında kaybolan işsizleri, dama ya da tavla oynarken yaşadıkları yüzyılı ve kendi kimliklerini mutlulukla unutabilen talihlileri, ellerinde çay bardaklarını tutarken ve ucuz sigaraları içerken kaybettikleri varoluş nedenlerini hatırlamaya çalışır gibi sonsuzdaki bir noktaya bakan, kendi iç düşüncelerine çekilen ya da oraya da çekilemedikleri için oyun kağıtlarını, zarları ya da birbirlerini hırpalayan vatandaşları gördüler...

...Çıplak ampullerin ışığı altındaki mankenler, kimi zaman Galip’e, unutulmuş bir otobüs durağında hiçbir zaman gelmeyecek bir otobüsü beklerken üzerleri yüzyılların toz ve çamuruyla kaplanan sabırlı vatandaşları, kimi zaman, İstanbul sokaklarında yürürken duyduğu bir yanılsamayı, bütün mutsuzların birbirleriyle kardeş olduğu duygusunu hatırlatıyordu.” Orhan Pamuk, Kara Kitap, sf. 186, 187.

How We Are

In the Black Book, Orhan Pamuk describes an underground city populated by mannequins. These are the mannequins of ordinary Turkish people in the middle of their ordinary, daily activities, like playing backgammon in a coffee house or waiting for a bus that will never come, demonstrating gestures and characteristics particular to Turks. There is always the melancholy, the sadness of being ordinary, backward, poor. There's nothing glamorous and light about being a Turk.

Actually one never knows how one really is, and one might think one is something else. But one is nevertheless how one is, and one always remains so. Only a careful outsider can understand how pitiable one really is.

Today I went to How We Are: Photographing Britain exhibition in Tate Britain. I realized how pitiable Britain is despite it being Britain. Industrial revolution, two wars, the decline of industry in the 70's and 80's, and everyone who lost out. There is much that is ordinary, tacky and ugly. Orphans, veterans, miners, marines, jobless, punks, black, young girls, party scenes, office scenes, emptied slums.

Most of the people whose photos I saw are long gone. But there are many more of them outside, struggling to find some peace and meaning in this not-so-special world. People in London are not happy.

"Information and calculation about a collective good is often itself a collective good. Consider a typical member of a large organisation who is deciding how much time to devote to studying the policies or leadership of the organization. The more time the member devotes to this matter, the greater the likelihood that his or her voting and advocacy will favor effective policies and leadership for the organization. This typical member will, however, get only a small share of the gain from the more effective policies and leadership: in the aggregate, the other members will get almost all the gains, so that the individual member does not have an incentive to devote nearly as much time to fact-finding and thinking about the organization as would be in the group interest. Each of the members of the group would be better off if they all could be coerced into spending more time finding out how to vote to make the organisation best further their interest. This is dramatically evident in the case of the typical voter in a national election in a large country. The gain to such a voter from studying issues and candidates until it is clear what vote is truly in his or her interest is given by the difference in the value to the individual of the "right" election outcome as compared with the "wrong" outcome, multiplied by the probability a change in the individual's vote will alter the outcome of the election. Since the probability that a typical voter will change the outcome of the election is vanishingly small, the typical citizen is usually "rationally ignorant" about public affairs. Often, information about public affairs is so interesting or entertaining that it pays to acquire it for there reasons alone - this appears to be the single most important source of exceptions to the generalization that typical citizens are rationally ignorant about public affairs.

Individuals in a few special vocations can receive considerable rewards in private goods if they acquire exceptional knowledge of public goods. Politicians, lobbyists, journalists, and social scientists, for example, may earn more money, power, or prestige from knowledge of this or that public business. Occasionally, exceptional knowledge of public policy can generate exceptional profits in stock exchanges or other markets. Withal, the typical citizen will find that his or her income and life chances will not be improved by zealous study of public affairs, or even of any single collective good." Marcur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations, Chapter 2

Rational Ignorance

In Border I wrote, "you try to convince a world that doesn't care that your story has a point to it." In Thailand and Turkey, I explained the importance of education in a democracy, and the role of media in providing that information. But I know that these things are important to me because I invested in them, and I do expect a private benefit from them. It's unrealistic and naive of me to expect others to get excited about what I care.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Bell Jar

I've been wanting to put down a few quotes from Sylvia Plath's the Bell Jar for a while... I read it long, long ago (six years?) but I still remember it sometimes, because she describes a certain mood better than I can. And that mood keeps coming back to me since high school, a mood that distorts my view of things for the worse and inhibits me from just doing.

I stole these from here and here.

[W]herever I sat - on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok - I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air. ~Chapter 15

How did I know that someday - at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere - the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn't descend again? ~Chapter 20

...I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet. ~Chapter 7

"So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state."

"...I wondered why I couldn't go the whole way doing what I should any more. This made me sad and tired. Then I wondered why I couldn't go the whole way doing what I shouldn't...and this made me even sadder and more tired."

Friday, June 08, 2007

My middle school English teacher Ms. Johnson (I'm totally not kidding!) gave us the print-outs of this song in class and made us write the lyrics by hand. she was a little crazy.

desperado, why don't you come to your senses?
you been out ridin' fences for so long now.
oh, you're a hard one,
i know that you got your reasons,
these things that are pleasin' you can hurt you somehow.
don't you draw the queen of diamonds, boy,
she'll beat you if she's able,
you know the queen of hearts is always your best bet.
now it seems to me some fine things have been laid upon your table,
but you only want the ones that you can't get.

desperado, oh, you ain't gettin' no younger,
your pain and your hunger, they're drivin' you home.
and freedom, oh, freedom, well, that's just some people talkin',
your prison is walkin' through this world all alone.

don't your feet get cold in the winter time?
the sky won't snow and the sun won't shine,
it's hard to tell the nighttime from the day.
you're losin' all your highs and lows,
ain't it funny how the feelin' goes away?

desperado, why don't you come to your senses?
come down from your fences, open the gate.
it may be rainin', but there's a rainbow above you,
you better let somebody love you,
you better let somebody love you,
you better let somebody love you,
before it's too late.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Credibility-Commitment Problem

This is in fact the first thing that was exciting enough to talk about here! That's why I'm breaking my promise not to post anything until the end of the exams. Quite fittingly, this is exactly the problem I will talk about, the inability of people to keep their promises!

The inability of an actor to credibly commit to a long-term decision, goal or promise arises from the mismatch of short-term and long-term interests, i.e. the time inconsistency problem. (I will draw upon the works of Majone and Rodrik here.) The actor knows what's best for him/her in the long-run and makes a promise. But such a situation arises now that the actor feels compelled to deviate from the optimal long-term strategy. The other actors in the interaction expect this, and the prevailing outcome is suboptimal. The inability of an actors to generate trust on others hurts them before everone else.

The first example Rodrik gives is a democratic country's attitude towards a dictator abroad. The democratic country disapproves of the undemocratic regime and the dictator's illegitimate actions and promises to impose sanctions on the dictator. However, when the possibility of his own people toppling him becomes a reality, the Westerners agree to provide him exile to prevent a civil war. This does not exactly have the effect of discouraging the dictator from being a dictator!

Another example is a government striving to get a multinational company invest in its territory. It provides various incentives to lure the company, but the company isn't sure whether those incentives will be reversed after it undertakes the costly investment. If the government cannot find a way to convince the company, it may well lose a big opportunity that will create much output and employment.

Then there is monetary policy. The government knows that it should stick to a low-inflation policy. (We are assuming there is no independent central bank.) However, a recession (and/or large government debt) makes it very attractive to create surprise inflation. That way, the government will be able to boost output and employment by diminishing real costs. Moreover, it will be able to reduce the real value of its debt. The other players know this and adjust their expectations. Because they expect higher inflation, they bargain for higher wages. In the end the economy ends up having a higher inflation rate than it could have had the government been able to credibly commit to price stability (for a given unemployment level.)

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that elected officials stay in office only for a limited time. The long-term gains of sticking to a policy are after the next election, while the short-term gains from deviation are here and now (the shorter the time horizon in the game, the greater the incentives to cheat.) Moreover, newly elected governments can always renege on their predecessors' promises.

Governments have to come up with ways to tie their own hands. Delegation of powers to an independent, unelected agency with different interests may be the solution. This is the reason behind the creation of independent central banks. Governments give the responsibility of monetary policy to an independent body that doesn't have to care about the next election, but faces great reputational costs from deviating from its optimal long-run policy. However, a national central bank can still be persuaded to respond to a deep recession or unsustainable government debt. Therefore, joining a fixed-exchange rate regime or the Eurozone is an even more credible commitment device. By giving up control over their monetary policies countries attach a new cost to surprise inflation. When they can no longer devalue their currency, higher inflation directly translates into a loss of competitiveness in the world market.

Delegation of powers is not limited to monetary policy. Member states in the EU delegated powers of agenda-setting and law enforcement to the European Commission, which brings them to the European Court of Justice if they violate the Competition Policy. If they didn't tie their own hands this way, it would be politically impossible for them to cut state aid. But then their own exporters would also suffer from state aid abroad.

The credibility-commitment problem, of course, affects our daily lives as well. The grand example is how people never show up for study groups! And I'm sure we all heard of the ham-egg sandwich.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

I won't post anything here until June 15 at the earliest.

... but I'll just say one thing:
you see the real character (or lack thereof) of a person:
a) when they are drunk
b) when you travel with them
c) during exams time