The Moorish Wanderer

My 2012

Posted in Wandering Thoughts by Zouhair ABH on January 1, 2012

How I would like to spend my New Year’s Eve in Vienna…

Some other time (or life) perhaps…

2011 – what a turnout! It is as though providence allied itself with the random walk of history to provide me with a host of opportunities, meeting interesting people from all walks of life, and important individuals as well, whose encounter would have been near impossible otherwise. Every time I met one of these famous and powerful individuals, I felt awkward and humbled. But every-time I had the most lively conservation ever, truly exciting indeed.

I have to make some resolutions for 2012 apparently. An obvious one that keeps coming back every year is to read more books. Every year passes and I feel like I didn’t read enough; that there is always one more interesting book, one more appealing author or subject I haven’t touched upon yet, one additional reference a friend advises as a must read. That inextinguishable hunger to read is fed with books, for my pleasure, and I hope for my readers’ as well. Ayn RandKarl Popper,  Robert P. Warren and Bruce Bueno De Mesquita are at the very top of my list – for as long as my personal finances and space in my room can allow for.

Pay more attention to the rigorous proofs in the economic models I study. This one is a bit nerdy, but it relates somehow to the content of this blog; The last time I had to go back on basic proofs dates back to prep school; this year, the fully fledged research student that I am still finds it odd to build step by step a given model in economic theory, state its assumptions, verify them and then proceed. Brushing up my mathematics and statistics was a bit of a process, and now that things have settled down a bit, I can carry on with the real stuff: rigorous proofs for economic models. I am thinking of writing on non-parametric estimates of business cycles – my tutor says it is very new (and controversial) and has a promising potential for further research.

Some articles on my blog look erratic with hindsight: I mean, the results still hold, but they look to me now as though I was not clear enough, as though I was only giving the big picture – on income distribution and business cycles for instance, a better understanding of the tools I proposed to use could have produced a clearer, more precise explanation of my argument. I hope 2012 will be more inspiring in my quest for the rigorous modus operandi I claim to argue my opinions.

Be more ‘technocratic’: I feel the “Makhzen” label is going to stick (and stink) a lot more with that resolution; the thing is, there are now plenty of dissidents around, some who even take to the streets every Sunday. The way I see it, there are enough voices touching upon the soft side of dissent.

I would like to present the reader with alternative opinions; I cannot tire from repeating it: change has a lot more chances to occur within institutions, and whether we like it or not, from Annahj to AWI, all dissenting political powers have accepted the basic rules set by incumbent institutions. The rebuttals served within an established institutional framework, with verifiable references and a documented body of evidence not only imposes on the regime the standard procedure of established opposition, but benefits as a political education – learning the ropes of government policy from outside so as not to repeat past mistakes when the wheel turns; I firmly believe that if and when a progressive, liberal-radical political force seizes power through free and fair elections, understanding the nuts and bolts of government policy will be a lot more useful than regular attendance of Feb20 demonstrations.

I believe friends like Larbi have chosen their course on good faith, and I applaud their commitment; I suppose our views differ fundamentally on only one thing – the time horizon for genuine reforms.

Blog in Arabic and/or French more often: perhaps the most difficult thing for me is to recognize both my weakness in producing substantial writings in Arabic, as well as my increasing disillusionment with French culture and miscellanea. Blogging in Arabic would only prove one thing; it would be my Bona Fide that I am no elitist, that blogging in English is not snub – but a useful exercise I undertook 3 years ago to improve my chances at the GRE. I reject the claim that Arabic culture has some kind of superiority in making Moroccan culture, and it remains, in my opinion, a foreign language just like French.

As for French language, I feel their domestic politics have turned France into a nasty, institutionally xenophobic and unable to renew itself. I must confess my disillusionment. Still and all, one must try to express their opinions in different languages – since I am free of any obligation to speak for any particular community, I can do as I please.

As for the usual, I hope I will retain my regular posting with the same level of passion and involvement with the issues I care about. I only hope I can get the readers, regular or newcomers, interested enough to retain their attention for just one more post.

The Radical Manifesto

Posted in The Open Society Project, Tiny bit of Politics by Zouhair ABH on March 22, 2011

Political organizations (political parties, trade-unions and the monarchy alike) have focused too long on political symbolism rather than policy agenda. This is partly true because the political institutions in Morocco have not got past the ambiguous distribution of powers, or the perpetual re-assuring rituals that confirm the supremacy of one institution over the others. Very few put together ideas of actually improving public welfare. And if they did so, it has been done so a long time ago, and these policies need to be either profoundly reviewed, or simply cast aside.

I. Political distribution of power: We cannot go on like this. It is a blatant contradiction with basic democratic proceedings to have a monarchy that concentrates all kinds of legitimacy. As it is, hegemonic political power stifles dissent not by repression, but by denying any conceivable mechanism that would allow this opposition to accede to power. As Mohamed Sassi put it most elegantly, the only viable compromise between a hereditary monarchy and a real democracy is a parliamentary kingdom.

I understand there are (few, but they exist nonetheless) Moroccans that would prefer a Republican instead of Monarchical regime. Such political opinion in a genuine democracy not only has to be respected (and as such, any piece of legislation that outlaws it should be aborted) but constitutional proceedings have to recognize it as a potential outcome.

There was an earlier discussion on why I would oppose the scheduled new constitution. The primary criticism, i.e. the appointment process, can be addressed by introducing a constitutional protocol that describes precisely why and how major constitutional amendment can be set. Obviously, the ultimate source of legitimacy resides within the people of Morocco (as Article 2 of the present constitution theoretically recognizes) and they should be the ones asked to put forward their representatives to meet, debate and then –only then- agree on the ‘national consensus’ that would be the underlying spirit of any major constitutional amendment.

We need to accept that idea of a Constitutional Convention is not a Pandora box. Under conditions of diversity, convention representatives are all set on an equal footing: political parties, unions, human rights charities, civil society, representatives of civil service (including the military and security apparatus), Islamic scholars, intellectuals and academics. There is no need to be coy, or cautious, or even sceptic on the outcome of such a motley convention: “Loin de m’appauvrir ta différence m’enrichit” as St Exupéry once stated. The process of constitutional reform or change does need a national census, to be sure, but a consensus that is freely discussed and in perpetually put to the question in a never-ending debate. If anything, the worn-out view that we should stick to the ‘consensus’ (broadly speaking, an imposed taboo on he Sahara, Religion and the Monarchy) is the main roadblock to the kind of change Feb20th or anyone angling for a new start are calling for. Dissent does not destroy democracy, and it strengthens it further if present opposition has a potential to become future government.

II. The Social project: the Open Society; Living in a strict Islamic society is a nightmare for non-Muslims. Living in an open society is merely an annoyance for the true believer. Political diversity calls necessarily for social diversity too. The Umma myth has long since crumbled (with the Pan-Arabism Nasserism, as well as the Islamic Internationale. The Moroccan nations (the plural is not a typo, believe me) do have a strong Islamic identity, but this has turned more into a set of rituals (that merged Islamic beliefs and ancient pageantry the Arab conquerors failed to weed out and had to live with).

Harry Popper and The Open Society

Image by bowbrick via Flickr

The open society is indeed a complex thing to define. It is however easier to define what it can avert: it prevents difference to be interpreted as dissent. It allows understanding in order to avoid fear. It prevents the “One Nation” rhetoric from turning into a moral dictatorship. Even though the professed collective set of values or norms does not allow for, shall we say un-Islamic behaviour, diversity (the very essence of an open society) does not allow for individuals, or any institution to stifle other individuals (or other institutions) that do not fall into that collective value/norm.

Individual and Collective freedoms are paramount to whatever majority belief, especially to that fallacious argument of Social Cohesion. Perceived deviant behaviour cannot be eternally repressed: prostitution, drug consumption, alcohol consumption and homosexuality are as ancient deviant practises as more approved patterns of behaviours. State apparatus is much more efficient when it is not tasked with morality enforcing (like Death Penalty). The Radical side needs its ‘Great Society’ project: “The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all” bit. On social issues, that means a breakaway from tribal solidarity and submission to the common norms, the emancipation of individuals from the very fetters that stifle their humanity.

III. Economic renewal: Economists in Morocco (those with serious understanding of economics, that is) do their best to disabuse the public: Morocco has slipped into a rent-seeking economy. Its structure does not seek change and renewal. From top to bottom, the trend is in favour of ‘safe endowment’: public service for the unemployed, private monopolies and unproductive investment for the well-off. Numbers are not in favour of Moroccan economics: though we are sustaining good levels of economic growth, benefits of expansion are still concentrated among a core of few privileged (some 10% most affluent that capture 40% of Morocco’s disposable income)

Scheduled state intervention may not be construed as symptomatic illustration of ‘Tax and Spend’ stereotype. It can be easily proved that public finances are under funded (meaning, that new sources of receipts have not been considered yet). Consumption taxes, food and commodity subsidies and Income taxes are not commensurably shared by the community, and as such, profit largely to the more affluent. For all the changes and reforms that need to be introduced, as well as the forward-looking investments that are needed to push our potential further, state finances (expenses and receipts alike) are to be radically altered: out of MAD 219 Billion, only 12.5% is devoted to Public investment, and double this amount (24,8%) goes to pay wages. In addition, real executive power bypasses ministries and departments, which creates an addition burden on the taxpayer. And yet, there is a need to double the budget for reforms and projects public authorities need to undertake: there is a need for funding downsizing and improving the civil service recruitment, provision for legislation and coercive actions against private monopolies (the proposal of temporary nationalization of SNI-ONA and its subsidiaries for instance) and the implementation of social investments such as the introduction of the universal benefits program.

These expenses are necessary to improve our exports (which destroy value rather than create it) and our terms of trade. We also need these undertakings to catch up a long-lost 1 point GDP growth over the last 20 years (which would have placed our GDP per Capita on par with that of Tunisia’s) And finally, these investments are more than needed to expand our GDP potential and move from a catching-up process to a productive and innovative venture.

[More to come on that open society bit. The idea of a Moroccan diverse society and consciously admitting so might bring some benefits]

Wandering Thoughts, Vol.9

Posted in Ancient Times, Happy Times, Flash News, Read & Heard, The Wanderer, Wandering Thoughts by Zouhair ABH on March 9, 2011

Enjoy the little things. Perhaps I am turning into a crap Buddha. I could never enjoy the little things. There’s always that sense of urgency, that even at that very moment I am typing this post, there’s a feeling of time waste. Like there is something more urgent to do, more important (like my MSc thesis, for instance, or taking out the garbage). It actually depends on what one defines as ‘little things’: books are not ‘little things’. Reading is a serious activity, however trivial the book is. These menacing pages plough seeds of compunction, hanging like vocal reproaches: ‘why wouldn’t you finish up the book?’

Karl Popper in 1990.

Karl Popper (1902-1994) Image via Wikipedia

Oh, I am reading ‘From Russia With Love’; With all due respect to Sean Connery’s talent and Harry Saltzman’s artistic craftsmanship, the movie is not up to scratch. Just to set the record straight: up to the Pierce Brosnan period, James Bond movies were artistic jewels. But right now, the novels –at least the one I am reading now- are way more engaging, more exciting. I’m also re-reading Karl Popper -I read a book of his in French at first,  and in English now- it seems my concentration span has shrunk since the days I read it first. Ah, happy days, prep school days…

There is no specific subject in the wandering thoughts series. Perhaps it is just a pretext not to post on something serious (or as I like to re-write such sentences, to look like I am posting on something serious). Something superficial, like Dita Von Teese: I keep bringing up the subject, but that is so because of the numerous visits from Burlesque-related keywords (every time I tag a post with her name, total visits increase by some dozen Google search results). Ego has to be satisfied from time to time, and for a blogger to stand up, take up the microphone and spill their political guts, it either takes a lot of balls, or an ego so huge the Internet is not enough to satisfy.

On the other hand, in an institutional framework that excludes everyone that does not belong to the Master Race, or the offspring of a local notable, and/or did not graduate from a Grande Ecole (all right, I may fall into that category, but that’s not the point), or affect an indefectible support for the official line. After all these draconian filters have been applied, the field is wide empty, with either the product of con-sanguine mating, or the by-product of local baronetcies that are actually groomed for leadership. The aspiring Rastignac like me have only their anger to voice and their bitterness to nurse. On top of that, the field is mined. Talk about Moroccan meritocracy (actually, I heard that lousy line from someone).

‘The Wanderer is bitter about something’, one might think. Damn straight, and it might explain why I would be supporting constitutional reforms or indeed opening up power to outsiders and mavericks, and at the same time ousting some patronyms from power.

Petit-bourgeois reflex: I am prevented from joining in power; therefore I support any mechanism that allows me to be powerful. Constitutional reforms allow me to get political power, therefore I support them. A very cynical view indeed, but it is rooted in the obvious observation that a lot of key positions are trusted by young heirs, albeit with some prestigious degrees; Ah, there goes the unmasked thrust of an ambitious careerist. Not so simple. As Pareto did say, a society crumbles when the incumbent elite slips into an aggregate of effete, inbred, mafia-like apparatus. And when things do go tumbling down, the non-governmental elite goes away too. And there goes the petit-bourgeois instinct again: loosen up the co-optation mechanisms: marriages for instance. Diversify upper-intermediate echelon, affirmative action for Amazighs and ‘Aroubis. I don’t know, something, anything to keep the rabble -like me- happy and at the same time reach a more peaceful status-quo. [It feels good to voice one’s frustrations, doesn’t it ? Thank you for contributing to my group therapy]

The trouble with what many still fail to recognize as the Makhzen, is that it cannot be reduced to a set of historical institutions, in the western sense (i.e. in the Weberian sense). Makhzen also encompasses less formalized items: tribal loyalties, family ties. It’s a bit like Victorian England: purchased positions, family influence and hermetic elite. But there’s something else to it: a mixture of rigid bureaucracy and the idea of submission that goes with it. Hierarchy is not a matter of technical organization; it evolves into a disciple-master relationship.  So in that sense, Makhzenian ‘way-of-life’ extends to all forms of social organization: families, mainstream political parties, charities, etc. The hierarchy relationship is just a make-believe. This rotten superstructure is the blocking institutional element that prevents the radical changes we need. The trouble is, it looks a bit like a Quixotian struggle: The windmills are there, but they are not there.

So that was the politics two-bits. Keep it wandering.

Twitter is such a wonderful instrument: as you may know, the blogoma lacks formal connections between its distinguished members. I mean in that sense that bloggers, like writers, do not take the trouble to engage in meaningful discussions (I might be missing scores of fruitful blog-epistolary correspondence) so we do our best to compensate on twitter. 140 characters do not help however, to formalize these discussions, which are doomed to remain chit-chat. But a couple of days ago, there was some interesting chit-chat about Economics in Arabic. An interesting suggestion came by to post on economics in French, or better still, in Arabic. I’d love to, but -as far as both languages are concerned- there is a formidable obstacle -among others- that prevents me stepping up and meet the challenge: lack of proper vocabulary.

French language has exhausted very early its vocabulary span to keep-up with the essentially Anglo-saxon scientific production in the economic field. Sometimes, it goes as far as literally using the same words: ‘Averse au Risque‘ for ‘Risk Aversion’, for instance. Native French economists seem to be either poorly educated in English language (an ordeal I had unfortunately to put up with time and again) or with little or no imagination to come up with alternative translations. In terms of scientific production (and I refer here to breakthrough academia) the French academic world is senile if not already dead (did you see the way they treat their PhD Student? And I don’t blame the state-controlled scientific research schemes, I blame the political will to adopt Anglo-saxon procedures with half-measures). plus their clinging to their language as the primary language is just ridiculous.

What about the Arab-speaking/writing academia? What words can be devised to refer to concepts? inflation is معدل التضخم but more sophisticated concepts are difficult to translate, or even to find words that can approximate the meaning. I looked up some vocabulary, and here’s what I’ve found:

Inflation: معدل التضخم
Goods & Services: بضاعة و خدمات
Deficit: عجز
Unemployment: بطالة
GDP: الناتج الوطني الخام
Monetary Creation: معدل طبع النقود
Recovery: إنتعاش
Capital: رأسمال
Labour: اليد العاملة
Import/Export: إستيراد و التصدير
Wage: أجر
Utility Function: نظرية المنفعة
and the killer, privatization: خصخصة

As long as the concepts are often used in media outlets, or belong to the basic notions of economics, there are plenty of words out there. But in hardcore academics, concepts like Risk aversion, liquidity trap, savings glut, etc… are simply missing, not because of lack of words, but because contrary to the more popular concepts, these belong essentially to a rarefied audience. And such as it is, the Arab-speaking research program is unable to come up with new concepts. At best, there might be some clever translation, but there you go.

Now, I haven’t given much thoughts about it, since I am utterly uninterested in the future of Arabic language: I can read and write it, and I enjoy a good reading when I find one,  but I simply cannot feel that fire and brimstone pan-Arab passion and Arab revival. I feel some ideological sympathy towards Gamal Abdel Nasser, but I don’t buy into this ‘great Arab nation’ grandiose project, not to mention the supra-national pet project of any political islamist movement, the much fantasied about Umma.