"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Black Swans in Turkey and Syria

We are all focused on the debate in Congress over lifting the debt ceiling.   The whole thing seems like Kabuki theater to me... a dance of weirdly costumed and weirdly behaving people that supposedly has great meaning, but which seems to an outside, objective viewer to be a purposeless, symbolic, ritualized sham.   We have a $3.8 trillion dollar budget.  It is scheduled, through the miracle of baseline budgeting, to go up by roughly 7% a year, or $250-300 billion every year.   If we cut a whole trillion dollars over ten years, with very little of it "front-loaded," we haven't really cut much of anything, have we?   But the markets will be mollified for a time anyway, and the Senators and Congressman can all pretend as if they've done something meaningful.  

Meanwhile, the world goes on with unpredictable events that could be cataclysmic in consequence -- Black Swans, to use the current vernacular.*   Here are two:

News that the top echelon of Turkey’s military offered their joint resignations is not much of a surprise, given ongoing politicized trials against particular officers, and the general acceptance that a secular military is at odds with an increasingly Islamicized government. But there will be lots of long-term ramifications. Turkey, as an historical window on the West, has been praised as about the only Middle East Islamic nation that accepted democracy without foreign imposition, and is often referenced as proof that there is nothing antithetical between constitutional government and a resurgent Islamism.

But with such departures of secular officers, the message grows more complicated and may be that if a high-ranking military official is Islamist, the way to advancement is assured; while the old secular path leads nowhere. Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah seem to be more the eventual models, in which the military becomes a protector of Islam and ensures that the armed forces serve rather than prevent the insidious religious take-over of social institutions.

We're not spending a lot of "news" time noticing these events, but I suspect that in the long-term they're more important than whether Congress does the inevitable and votes to raise our debt limit one more time.   (This is not to say that the long-term inability of the American government to control its profligate spending isn't of enormous consequence, only that this particular instance of raising the debt limit isn't the huge deal it's made out to be.)

* The term comes most prominently from the recent book The Black Swan:  The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.   The Regular Guy just started it, and will report at some point.   One of his most interesting points is how, since no one knows what's really going on, reading the newspaper is a waste of time, because we always spend time noticing the unimportant items, and never notice the huge things that are happening.  

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