To the manner born

Robert Kagan writes an obituary on his blog in the Washington Post for Irving Kristol, who passed away recently. But it's the comments which some of the Post's readers have submitted which are really interesting. Here's a sampling of their expressions of bereavement:

  • Irving Kristol did two things for which he can never be forgiven: 1. He founded the American Enterprise Institute, from whence everything that is putrid about Washington emanates. Its influence on America has been malign.(That it was/is Dick Cheney's favorite place to give his speeches says enough.) 2. He fathered Bill Kristol, who -- along with Robert Kagan -- co-founded PNAC, the cabal of neo-con crazies and Zionists who polluted the Pentagon and the Bush White House with their plans, drawn up in the late 1990s, for the invasion of Iraq (and Iran). ...
  • It's time for zionists like you Kagan to be measured for a rope....
  • For deacades Mr. Kristol and his son have done more to stratify, fragmant and damage this country than anyone except "Old Nick" himself, Milton Friedman. ...
  • May Irving Kristol rot in Hell ...
  • The passing of Irving Kristol is a very glorious occasion. I can't wait to take a dump in this scumbag's grave.

When Ted Kennedy passed away recently, I disabled comments to prevent anyone from heaping abuse on the recently dead. Although I am irredeemably an uncouth armpit-scratching, nose-picking, gum-chewing reactionary, I had the residual instinct to remember some basic manners. But now I see how provincial that was, and stand in wonder at how my political betters intuitively the raise the level of the debate as they would raise the seat of a commode. It's a teaching moment. What fineness of feeling! What exquisite turn of phrase! And all in a Washington newspaper, too.

The vitriol makes one wonder on what common ground the left and right can still meet. In a recent speech, Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested that intemperate language was driving the country toward extremism and violence. So is the answer better decorum, as exemplified for example, by the left? Is "hate speech" causing extremism or is something else going on?

A study of civil wars by two Oxford economists, Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler suggested that really intractable arguments are rooted in a competition for resources. The other talk -- about 'grievances', 'history', 'slights', etc -- was less important than the brass tacks. In other words, in most cases conflicts were over power and resources. The abstract of their study reads:

Of the 27 major armed conflicts that occurred in 1999, all but two took place within national boundaries. As an impediment to development, internal rebellion especially hurts the world's poorest countries. What motivates civil wars? Greed or grievance?

Collier and Hoeffler compare two contrasting motivations for rebellion: greed and grievance. Most rebellions are ostensibly in pursuit of a cause, supported by a narrative of grievance. But since grievance assuagement through rebellion is a public good that a government will not supply, economists predict such rebellions would be rare. Empirically, many rebellions appear to be linked to the capture of resources (such as diamonds in Angola and Sierra Leone, drugs in Colombia, and timber in Cambodia). Collier and Hoeffler set up a simple rational choice model of greed-rebellion and contrast its predictions with those of a simple grievance model.

Some countries return to conflict repeatedly. Are they conflict-prone or is there a feedback effect whereby conflict generates grievance, which in turn generates further conflict? The authors show why such a feedback effect might be present in both greed-motivated and grievance rebellions. The authors' results contrast with conventional beliefs about the causes of conflict. A stylized version of conventional beliefs would be that grievance begets conflict, which begets grievance, which begets further conflict. With such a model, the only point at which to intervene is to reduce the level of objective grievance.

Collier and Hoeffler's model suggests that what actually happens is that opportunities for predation (controlling primary commodity exports) cause conflict and the grievances this generates induce dias-poras to finance further conflict. The point of policy intervention here is to reduce the absolute and relative attraction of primary commodity predation and to reduce the ability of diasporas to fund rebel movements.

This raises the possibility that, despite Nancy Pelosi's fears, the real cause of increasing animosity isn't heightened rhetoric: on the contrary, the heightened rhetoric may itself be the result an intensified competition for power. It's a symptom and not the cause. My guess is that the effect of concentrating wealth and power in government hands has created a prize which is distorting civil relations, like some singularity which is warping the space around it and pulling everything into its maw. When the pot of gold is indivisibly concentrated in one place, a winner-take-all game ensues, or as Collier and Hoeffler put it, "a simple rational choice model of greed-rebellion" is enforced. The trash-talk follows.


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